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.

How to give

Loved writing this piece

How to give (or how to clear out your closet)

Give gifts, get things done. Shoba Narayan on essential barter


Last night, my 84-year-old father called me at 9:45 PM. The lateness of the call told me that he was mulling over something serious.

“I have reached a momentous decision,” he said. “I have decided to sell my NSS policy, which is worth about six lakhs.”

My father got his National Savings Scheme (NSS) policy from the post office about 20 years ago. I was the beneficiary. He wanted me to accompany him to the post office to “do the needful,” he said.

“Do you have one of your books to spare?” he asked meaningfully.

I nodded with a sigh.

Ten years ago, in a fit of authorly pride, I bought over 100 hardcover copies of my first book, “Monsoon Diary.” I regretted the decision within a year.

I began complaining to my parents– rashly in retrospect– about how these books were taking up space in my tiny storage area. I couldn’t keep extra provisions because boxes of books lined every available space.

My parents—as parents do– came to my rescue. Or so they thought. Every time somebody did them a favor, they decided to hand out one copy of my book as a reward, much like the princesses of yore handed out pearl necklaces; or Paari, a Tamil king giving up his chariot to a creeper that was struggling for a place to climb, so much so that he became known throughout Tamil Nadu as “Paari-Vallal” or “Generous Paari.” Well, my parents were going to be generous book-dispensers.

I first learned about their scheme in Chennai when we visited my father’s old haunt, Mercy Electronics, where he bought everything from a splitter to a slide rule. The proprietor was usually clad in a resplendent red shirt that stretched tightly over his paunch and a matching red cap.

One day, when I accompanied my Dad, the proprietor beamed at me genially. “Your father gave me a copy of your book…ummmm….Moore Market Dairies, isn’t it? I gave it to my granddaughter. She is trying to read English.”

“Moore Market burned down years ago, uncle,” I replied, glaring at my Dad. Why was he giving my book to a man who didn’t want to read?

My dad coughed apologetically. “He helped us so much when the toilet at home overflowed,” he said.

This became a pattern. Some months later, my parents’s ophthalmologist peered at me from behind his magnifying glass and said, “I was very happy to get your book, “Monsoon Wedding,” even though I am not much into cookbooks.”

I started to say that it wasn’t a cookbook and then kept my mouth shut.

“He helped us so much with my cataract removal,” said my dad.

When the local Chettiar store proprietor made an exception and home delivered all their provisions, my parents handed them a copy of my book as thanks.

A few weeks later, I discovered the book with my inscription to “Chettiar,”at Blossom Books, Bangalore’s famous secondhand bookstore.

I decided to put a moratorium on their habit. What was the point of giving away my books to people that didn’t appreciate them, I asked.

My parents point was simple. “Wherever we go, people put us old folks at the bottom of the pyramid. When somebody does us a favor or helps us, how else can we thank them without having them misunderstand it?” asked my dad.

Put that way, my books were doing more than their job. They were helping my parents get things done.

IMG_1639This time, I didn’t protest when my father told me to carry along a copy of my book to the post office. There was a pleasant young woman behind the metal desk. Behind her was a Godrej almirah with a pile of files inside. On the metal desk was a stapler with a string attached so that nobody would swipe it. Two calendars hung on the wall. One contained an image of Gandhi with the caption: “Truth Laboratories: India’s first independent forensic science laboratory.” The other was a calendar from the Nagamma Temple across the street. A man named Doddayya–literally Big Boss– now that’s a name– stood in attendance.

The procedure was actually painless even if it took two hours. The woman walked us through all the forms that we needed to fill and sign. My father had brought his PAN card and other documents in triplicate. Once the procedure was done; once the lady assured us that my dad’s money would be returned to his bank, it was time for the thank you gift.

“My daughter is an author,” my father began. He had told me in advance that he wanted me to do the deed; to offer the book. “Tell her that the book is Saraswati Kataksham: a gift from the goddess of learning,” he said.

“We would like you to have a copy of my book,” I said, handing it out.

“Thank you very much, Madame,” said the post office lady.

“We live down the road,” said my father. “If you pass by our house, why don’t you drop in? You have our address.”

Was this what my father was doing? Was he inviting strangers to his house simply because they had given him good service? We spent the rest of the time with me lecturing him about how old people were getting their throats slit by strangersand then feeling bad about the whole thing later.

While my dad’s arsenal of choice was books, my Mom preferred clothes. She handed her old saris to the fruit vendor, cobbler, knife-sharpener, garbage-cleaner, gardener, and the lady who sold fresh greens every morning. When she accompanied me to renew my driver’s license, one of the clerks was very kind and helpful to us (which by the way is not so uncommon as people think—the much maligned Indian bureaucracy works and people do go out of their way to help hapless strangers).

On the way back, after renewing my license, my mother asked, “Remember those free pajamas that you used to get in airlines? Why don’t we give them to the man who helped us? He is large and that large size one that is sitting around the house will fit him.”

“Ma, the job is done. The license is renewed. Why would you go all the way to Yeshwanthpura to give a clerk a pair of pyjamas?”

“You never know,” said my mother. “It is best to have a good relationship with everyone.”

This then is the long view of life. I view interactions as transactions. My parents view interactions as relationships. Post office personnel get invited home for festivals; and the man at the RTO gets new night-wear because he complained that his joints were aching in Bangalore’s cold weather. As for me, I have a lot of spare room in my storage closet these days.

Shoba Narayan has stopped complaining about her books occupying space in her house.

Can you smell and taste through cyberspace?

Technology has conquered two of the five senses: sound and sight. What about the other three?

How do you describe a wine in words?
Shoba Narayan suggests we reach into our own heritage: A Chenin blanc could be called “Insipid, like Aunty Maria’s pork vindaloo”

The killer app, at least in the fields of wine, perfume, cheese, or anything that relies on olfactory and gustatory sensations, will have nothing to do with curing male baldness. The killer app for wine and perfume will be the ability to transport scent and taste through cyberspace. If you could click on a wine bottle that is displayed on your computer and smell the aroma of the wine it contains, all the wine descriptions that we struggle to come up with will be rendered useless in an instant.

There are some things that words have trouble conveying. What Arthur Schopenhauer said about “the inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable”, could well apply to the scent and taste of an aged Pinot Noir; complex fragrances, be it from Roja Dove, Byredo or Dior; unpasteurized cheeses; or to come back to Schopenhauer’s quote, the sound of the children’s choir at an old church in Goa at dusk. These are things that have to be experienced in person. When you try to convey the experience to someone who wasn’t there, you grasp unsuccessfully at words.

As a species, we have gotten very good at describing what we see, but even after 100,000 years of practice, we haven’t come up with the proper way to communicate things that we experience through our other senses. Music-streaming apps have simplified the audio part of it. Nowadays, if we want to share with friends abroad the ecstasy of listening to Mukhtiyar Ali’s Sufi music, we simply send them a YouTube, SoundCloud or Spotify link. That hasn’t happened for taste and smell. How do you convey the vibrant masculinity of a Barolo? Even saying this sounds pretentious and sexist.

This, then, is the conundrum for wine lovers: How do you convey the taste of a favourite wine to a friend who lives far away? For now, words, feeble as they are, will have to do. And they aren’t doing their job well at all; witness the finger-pointing and controversy over wine terms.

The problem gets worse because words frame and manipulate the wine-drinking experience, as Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at Stanford University’s graduate school of business in the US, knows very well. Prof. Shiv has conducted numerous studies on how descriptions affect our experience of the wine. In one famous study, he hooked up subjects to an MRI machine and gave them some wine to drink (now that’s a study I would like to participate in). When he told them that the wine was expensive, the pleasure receptors of the brain lit up. The subjects didn’t merely think that they enjoyed the expensive wine more; their bodies and brains behaved as if they did. To quote the paper, “Our results show that increasing the price of a wine increases subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks.” The next time you pour a friend a glass of red wine, tell her that it is a Château Margaux. The simple statement will enhance her pleasure at having it.

How then to describe wine? Two columnists have come up with solutions and written books in the process. The Wall Street Journal’s Lettie Teague, known for her no-nonsense approach to wine, says you need but five words to describe all wines: acidity, aroma, balance, structure and texture. Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer says something similar but uses seven words: insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance. While I love Teague’s light-hearted columns, her words don’t help me very much. Neither do Kramer’s. They are far too broad to be useful.

// have a few terms that I use to jog my scent and taste memory with respect to wines. Herbaceous (like Indian gooseberry, or amla), jammy (best described by a Tamil phrase, kozha-kozha) and minerally (like drinking water from a copper pot), among others.

But minerally too is a description that has come under attack. In an article published in the Australian Journal Of Grape And Wine Research in June 2013, titled “Exploring Minerality Of Burgundy Chardonnay Wines”, three scientists from the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon, France, studied how “wine experts conceptualize minerality and to explore whether they can judge wine minerality in a consensual way.” They concluded, “Wine experts showed strong disagreement in their minerality judgements…”

So if nobody agrees on anything, what are we to do? Are words superfluous in the wine universe? How can we convey the pleasures of a particular bottle of wine?

One sommelier quoted in Bianca Bosker’s 29 June article in The New Yorker, “Is There A Better Way To Talk About Wine?”, describes a Barolo as tasting like a “male ballet dancer”; a “Baryshnikov in a glass”, as the writer says.

If you open this door, India has oodles of poetic descriptions to fit our wines. The proverbial Elizabeth aunty, whose home-made wines are famous all over Kottayam, could describe a Malbec as having the “balance and spikiness of very good Navara (or, more correctly, Njavara rice”. Debashish babu of Kolkata could describe a particular Cabernet Sauvignon as “flabby—like the Brahmaputra in spate”. Or you could sip a Chenin blanc and say, “Insipid, like Aunty Maria’s pork vindaloo.”

We Indians have tasted wines for over 5,000 years. According to K.T. Achaya’s Indian Food: A Historical Companion, Sita promised to pour 1,000 jars of wine into the river Ganga in the hope of safe passage back when their exile ended. When they returned, Ram gave her maireya, a spiced wine (a ghastly concoction according to me). Their entire city was reeling with drunken orgies. Presumably, a few of the citizens described the wines that they tasted to their neighbours.

We need to reach into our history, heritage and local vocabulary to describe wines in a way that resonates and makes sense to us. Goa, with its prodigious practice in the art of living, would be a good place to start.

This is the second in a two-part series on wine tasting. Shoba Narayan didn’t know that Kinvah, a local wine brand, was named after a festive drink in the Mauryan era. She tweets at @shobanarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Can wine be described well?

Lots of nice wine tastings coming up in Bangalore.  One with Food Lover’s Magazine.

How best can you describe a wine?


KRSMA Estates has invited me to a tasting of their wines next week, and frankly, I am a little nonplussed. Not because I dislike their wines, which I don’t, but because there is this whole brouhaha in wine circles over the esoteric terms and pretentiousness of wine descriptions. You know the kind I mean? Descriptions that attempt to illuminate the wine-drinking experience by stating that one of your favourite Rhône reds tastes like a mixture of tar, wet leather and the inside of a man’s shoes (notice the specificity—not the insides of a woman’s shoes, but the more robust, stinkier version that comes from the male chromosome). And this is supposed to entice you?

Robert M. Parker, the influential American wine critic, is often considered the originator of these long, often meaningless descriptions. He once described a Haut-Brion as having “a sweet nose of creosote, asphalt…” and an array of berries. Having never tasted asphalt, and having no idea what a creosote is, this description is absolutely useless to me.

Actually, the credit—or discredit—for wine descriptions does not go to Parker. It goes to Ann C. Noble, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, whose famed department of viticulture and enology offers short wine appreciation courses that are on my bucket list.

It was Noble who came up with an “aroma wheel” to describe the flavours of wine. Ironically, she invented it to streamline things in the wine world; to bring some order into the way wines were described; to give a methodology that would simplify, not complicate things. Look at how that turned out.

Today, there is a reverse trend: wine professionals trying to puncture the opaqueness of wine descriptions. The American Association of Wine Economists has “waged a nearly decade-long crusade against overwrought and unreliable flavor descriptions”, as illustrated in a recent article in The New Yorker by Bianca Bosker titled, “Is There A Better Way To Talk About Wine?” The article quoted several sources, including the Journal Of Wine Economics, which stated that the wine industry was “intrinsically bullshit-prone”. No surprise there as anyone who is caught standing next to a swish-and-sip bore at a party can relate to this.

Some wine descriptions make sense. You drink enough Australian Shiraz and you will learn to identify the thick, viscous, fruity taste that is often described as “jammy” by aficionados. The same grape varietal, when grown in France, does not have this taste, but I have never had the pleasure of drinking an Hermitage Syrah to be absolutely certain of this.

For me, “minerally” wines are easy to identify. They taste pretty much like the water I drink first thing in the morning. A year ago, a well-meaning aunt gifted me a copper lota and told me to drink from it. It would change my life, she said. For the record, it hasn’t. But I continue to drink from copper and brass containers anyway.

My aunt’s recipe for drinking water could give a minerally wine a run for its money. She stores the water in a mud pot, pours it into her copper lota to steep overnight, downs it first thing in the morning in one shot and then proceeds to vomit. I have tried the first part of this experiment, and, I have to admit, the water tastes of copper, mud and some unidentified metal flavour that could be categorized as “minerally”. It tastes, in other words, like the Chablis wines I love.

Some descriptions just don’t make sense to me. What does “flinty” taste like? Do you have to lick a rock to figure out flinty? Some try to be overly helpful by listing a wide range of berries that the wine is supposed to taste like. Having never tasted a linden berry or even a raspberry in its natural, just-picked state, my palate has no clue how to process this information.

Which is why I was glad to see wine guru Jancis Robinson describe the 2005 vintage of Burgundy reds as “surly and tough” early in their lives. Surly, I can relate to. Surly is how we pucker up when we taste some tight reds that have been stored for far too long in state warehouses—although people call that tannic as well.

When I choose a wine, particularly if I want to impress someone, I don’t go by the description. I usually pick one with a long French name—the more syllables the better. Château de la Tour, Château Tertre Roteboeuf, Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Domaine Georges Roumier—winners all, and ones that I aspire to drink after I win the lottery. Château Palmer is highly rated, but it is too easy to pronounce; it could use a few more syllables that cause your tongue to coil itself into asanas. It sounds like an American winery aspiring to be French.

The same applies to Indian vineyards that pretend to be European. York and Reveilo make decent wines, but isn’t it about time they lost the European wannabe nature of their names? The same goes for Fratelli and its highly regarded wines. Why not choose something like Akluj, the town in Maharashtra where the winery is based, which even non-Indians can pronounce easily and which references their terroir in that most French of ways? The Indian wine consumer is evolved enough not to need such pretensions. Particularly when we can come up with authentically Indian names such as Mandala, Grover’s, Deva, or my current favourite, Sula’s Rasa Shiraz—now, that’s a name. Contrast that with Chateau d’Ori, sans provenance or soul. Give me Dindori anyday.

This is the first of a two-part series on wine tasting. Shoba Narayan loves the name Amrut even though she isn’t a single malt buff. She tweets at @shobanarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

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.