Robin Williams

Searching for “Good Will Hunting” to watch. But it’s not on TV. thought there would be a lot of Robin Williams movies but I missed them.
Brene Brown, Robin Williams, Nathan Lane– rock stars all.

To be vulnerable is to be fearless
What made Robin Williams an icon, was his frequent and honest displays of vulnerability
Shoba Narayan

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Even though he was over the top and occasionally overwrought in his movies, we each have our Robin Williams favorites. Whether it was the charismatic professor of Dead Poet’s Society; or the husband who dressed up as a housekeeper in Mrs. Doubtfire; or the suburban Dad leading his family on an RV vacation; Williams outplayed his costars and sucked up oxygen on screen. To each role, he brought great comic timing and voice modulation. But what made him an icon, in my view, was his frequent and honest displays of vulnerability: the trembling lips; the crazed eyes that revealed inner demons we knew not which; the ironic half-smile which said, “You don’t know the half of it (of what goes on in my head).” Williams took not just his inner demons but our vulnerabilities and insecurities as well and portrayed them in full Technicolor. The only other actor who came close was Nathan Lane, his costar in my all-time favorite movie, Birdcage. I know its dialogues by heart. If you haven’t seen it, you must watch it not only for its beautiful South Beach setting and funny storyline; but to watch three actors at the top of their game: Robin Williams, Nathan Lane and Gene Hackman. It is one of the few movies in which Williams plays it down and lets Lane and Hackman vie for screen domination. It is perhaps the reason why I love this movie: frailties on display for all to see; frailties that mirror our own and make us nod in recognition. Not all good actors do this well. Leonardo di Caprio has grown into a magnificent actor but vulnerability is not what he’s about. Neither is Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe or even the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman. To portray vulnerability, you have to be fearless. You have to confront your demons and leave them out to dry; display them for all to see. You have to have enough courage or heartbreak to tie a belt around your neck and hang yourself. RIP Robin Williams.

Vulnerability is a topic that made social psychologist Brene Brown famous. In November 2006, Texas-based Brown sent her husband and children to her in-laws’ house for the weekend. She spread out 11,000 pieces of qualitative data (interviews with people) that she had collected over six years of research all over her house, asking a question to which she had no answer: Why did some people live in a whole-hearted way while others didn’t? Why did some people believe that they were worthy of love while others didn’t? As she sifted through the exhaustive interviews that she had done over years, Brown had an epiphany. It resulted in a TED talk that has over 16 million views so far and is the fourth most watched TED talk of all time. Google her name and you’ll see why.

At her Texas home, Brown made two lists that she called the “bad” list and the “wholehearted” list. Whole-hearted people lived fearlessly. They took risks without fear of rejection. Brown assumed that they lived differently because they came from better circumstances. This, it turned out, was not true. Whole hearted people too had experienced trauma. They came from broken homes and divorced families; faced addiction and other ills. Yet they lived differently. They embraced life rather than shrink from it. Why, asked Brown. The reason had to do with character.

The people in Brown’s ‘bad’ list had certain traits that caused them to live differently. They were perfectionist, judgmental, wore busyness as a status symbol, valued productivity, wanted to prove their superiority, didn’t get emotional and viewed emotion as a bad thing. They were top performers who worried about what other people thought. They liked certainty; they liked to do it all, do it perfectly and make it appear effortless. Recognize yourself? “How can we embrace rest and play if we have tied our self worth to what we produce?” asks Brown. “In order to be whole-hearted you have to allow yourself to be broken hearted.” You have to allow yourself, as Williams did, to be vulnerable. Or you have to die trying.

In the coming weeks, countless students will begin college , here in India or abroad. They will go to JIPMER or IIT; NID or LSR. They will confront students who are brilliant and competitive. They will measure themselves against their peers and come up short. Some students—like recent Fields medal winners, Manjul Bhargava and Maryam Mirzakhani—will be so superior than their peers in intellect that they will do all the academics and do it effortlessly. But what if you are average? What if you are sincere in intent, competent in execution, and kind as a human? Is that enough? How do you measure yourself in this hyper competitive world where all the qualities that Brown listed are valued?

One option would be to get off the treadmill. The other more realistic option, especially if you are 18 and a first-year college student is to face up to your strengths and weaknesses. That requires courage of the kind that came effortlessly to Robin Williams. But for the rest of us who wear the carapace of infallibility as armour, it requires effort and a very specific sort of cultivation.

Shoba Narayan is reading “Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand as a way to make sense of shrugging as a choice.

Musicians and Nakhras

OK, so I am obsessed with Annapurna Devi. And Grigori Perelman, the mathematician who rejected the Fields medal when he was awarded it. Why is the idea of a reclusive genius so seductive?

When musicians give up ‘nakhras’

The singers and dancers who can point us to the stars and give us a glimpse of immortality are frail beings, full of foibles and inconsistencies

Shoba Narayan

16 Sudha Raghunathan

Hindustan Times Carnatic singer Sudha Raghunathan and Hindustani classical singer Ashwini Bhide Deshpande are rock stars in the music world. I have heard Bhide Deshpande a couple of times in Bangalore and her rendition, sans flamboyance or frippery, is impressive. Raghunathan’s voice is her strong suit. Sudha madhurya bhashini (You whose speech is as sweet as nectar), goes a Carnatic composition. Or voice as sweet as nectar, in Raghunathan’s case. These are two musicians at the peak of their performing skills. Yet they leave me cold. Much as I admire their craft, the wholesomeness of their aesthetic rendition does not tug at my heartstrings.

My kind of artiste is a little more emotional; a little more frail and temperamental; full of insecurities and ideologies about what music can and should do. My kind of artiste is not a perfectly “cracked vessel”, like the Korean celadon glazes. Today’s artistes and musicians are this way: just cracked enough to be interesting; with just enough ego to be taken seriously; and professional enough to schedule multiple performances in multiple continents with discipline and rigour. Today’s musicians come with a price tag. A note (dollar, dirham, or rupee) can buy a note or melody. This makes me sad.

It wasn’t always this way; and I will argue that it shouldn’t be this way. There are some things that money cannot buy and artistic temperament ought to be one of them. The gold standard is, of course, the genius, Annapurna Devi—daughter of Ustad Allauddin Khan; sister of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan; and divorced wife of the late sitar player Ravi Shankar. Prodigiously talented, she took a vow that she wouldn’t perform in public to appease her insecure husband and save her marriage. When the marriage fell apart, she became a recluse. I read about Annapurna Devi in a fantastic profile of hers written in 2000 by Aalif Surti in the magazine Man’s World, and reprinted elsewhere. The woman who was depicted in the piece seemed to carry the perfumes of an entire musical era on her frail shoulders.

Genius shouldn’t come easy. The singers and dancers who can point us to the stars and give us a glimpse of immortality are frail beings, full of foibles and inconsistencies. They overcome their torturous angst and connect us to divinity. Such musicians should not just be tolerated or nurtured; they should be celebrated. We have a lovely word for this: nakhras. The musicians of yore were known for their nakhras. Today, we call it “emo”, or “becoming emotional”. And we say it as if it were a bad thing.

The mother lode of good music is emotion: whether it is the spiritual bhakti rasa of M.S. Subbulakshmi or the introspective contemplative rudra veena of Ustad Mohammad Dabir Khan, Tansen’s descendant. Thanks to YouTube, you can listen to them all. With the professionalization of music and the arts; with the coming of agents and event managers, all these qualities, these nakhras, are slowly being beaten out of artistes who try to be all things to all people. What results is tame, practised music that attempts to please the crowd without touching those receptive listeners who are called sahrudaya, or kindred hearts in Indian aesthetic theory.

It used to be that India—a hot-weather, hot-headed country—was famous for its nakhras. Any chance we got, we displayed our moody eccentricity and childish tantrums. We were whimsical children of the spirit, victims of the muse that Paul Gauguin searched for when he fled his fellow Parisians (who are also famous for their nakhras) for the tropical splendour of Tahiti. Now we have been sanitized. We are professional, productive, uniform and unemotional. No more nakhras; not in public; and not if you can help it anyway. What happened to us? Artistes are famous for their nakhras. Something wounds their soul; some disrespect mars their spirit. They refuse to perform.

Throwing a nakhra is different from being a diva. Being a diva has to do with ego. Nakhra is about emotion. In Eric Berne’s psychology theory, he divides the psyche into parent, adult and child. Diva comes from the egotistical “parent” and is full of “what is owed to me” and shoulds. Nakhra comes from the child and is impulsive and erratic. Now, we are all “adults”.

Indian-style nakhras were not just the prerogative of geniuses. The most famous nakhra that I recently heard about happened at a marriage ceremony. An uncle, now in his 80s and shorn of his feistiness in cold New Jersey, walked out of a banana- leaf lunch because the poli (also called obittu) was served to him without the requisite ghee accompaniment. At weddings these days, we line up in front of faux Thai pavilions with plastic blue elephants, and ask for the diet water-chestnut flan. What depths have we fallen to? Bring back the nakhras, I say, musical or otherwise. It makes life interesting.

Shoba Narayan eats her puran-poli with lots of ghee and lots of nakhras. Write to her at

Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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Shelfies: ‘Nuff said. You can recognize the photos on my Instagram feed to the right. Samar Halarnkar has written a humorous piece in Lounge today. Man, humor is hard.

Diary of a shelfie addict

The other day, my husband came to the dining table and said, “Where are the serving spoons?” “In between the frangipani flowers, dearest,” I said. A bunch of children from the
building ran in, exclaiming that they were ravenously hungry. Saturday night is Maggi night in my house and as a result, we become the most popular family in my building. In place of the familiar yellow plastic packet, the children saw an arrangement so alien it stopped them, and the neighbour’s dog, in their tracks. In the centre of my wooden dining table was a giant white bowl, with a mound of black Assam rice on it, stroked and brushed like a sand dune. On top of the rice was a strawberry with a yellow crayon stuck across it. Across the table was I, photographing the scene using my smartphone. I was in search of the perfect shelfie.
I first read about shelfies in the pages of this newspaper. Shelfies are all the rage in the virtual universe of photographs. These are artful arrangements of objects that people photograph and upload on photo-sharing sites like Instagram. Photographers from Paris, New York and even Croatia upload amazingly composed shots of objects on shelves, dining tables, and their bedrooms. I scroll down these still-life arrangements and alternate between rage, cynicism and inspiration. One of the women I follow puts Aesop’s cosmetics, a Dior bag, and Manolo Blahnik shoes next to each other against a pristine white background. In the middle, she sprinkles some violet flowers and a few wads of crumpled paper. Why crumpled paper? What is the equivalent of that in my Indian shelfie? Cow-dung sprinkles? When I moan in this fashion, my children say, “Ma, for you everything is about cows and cow dung.”
One of my recent favourites was a macaroon juxtaposed against a leather-bound notebook, and chocolate shavings in a pristine white bowl. What gave it panache was the driftwood on the side. There wasn’t a necessarily logical reason for these objects to be together on a table. They just looked good. After spending days surfing these photographs, I became obsessed with photographing shelfies myself. I didn’t think it would become an addiction. I thought I was merely photographing objects that were littered around my house. Within a few days, my project took on a life of its own.
Typical evening. My 12-year-old daughter rushes into the house kicking off her shoes and throwing down her school satchel. She has scraped herself and there is blood. What do I do? I whip out my mobile phone.
“Ma, I’m hurt.”
“Wait a minute, darling. The light is just right. Hold on just one second.”
I’m stalking around the fallen school satchel like a predator, trying to capture its folds; adjusting the casually thrown sneaker so that it is perpendicular to the purple school bag. As an afterthought, I bring out a pair of sunglasses and balance them on top of the school books that have been teased to resemble a volcanic mound. I turn them around to show off the logo. If she can show off her Céline and Dior, I can show off the sunglasses I bought from a Texas cowboy hat-wearing vendor on the Brigade Road junction in Bangalore.
Meanwhile, my child is crying, blood is oozing, and there are sandy footsteps all over my just-cleaned floor. I click the schoolbag, books, sunglasses and dirty sneakers composition; finesse the image using a bunch of photo filters that I have downloaded—Afterlight is the one I am partial to—and quickly upload my image on Instagram.
“Ma, I am bleeding.”
“Just put a sock on it, dearest.”
This then is what it has come to. I am able to ignore a hurt, bleeding child just to capture a perfect shot. War photographers were perhaps this way, I rationalize, when I come out of my zombie-like torpor. But I am no war photographer. I am merely a shelfie uploader, who seeks “likes” as if they were oxygen.
Shelfies are the click-and-publish equivalent of the still lifes of yore. Paul Cézanne painted fruit bowls with luscious apples and glistening grapes. We called it art. Today’s photographers click such still lifes and upload them for free, just so they can get 17,123 likes. The pleasure is in the sharing; in the appreciation; in the finding of random objects that will become beautiful photographs.
All this has an unexpected benefit though. My home has never looked more artsy. I fuss with my bookshelf, viewing it from multiple angles, and then put miniature clay pots and a lotus candle on it. There, the composition works. I click and upload. Instantaneously, I get 36 likes—actually three, but I’m hoping for 36. There are some people I follow who have 720,000 followers. They upload their still-life compositions and get 234 comments. My goals are much more modest. I would like a comment, maybe two. Then again, I’m a novice at this.
This morning, white jasmine bloomed in my garden. Rather than admiring it and smelling it like I used to, I picked out four flowers and threw them casually on my dining table. I placed a cup of coffee in the middle. The black coffee contrasted with the white flowers nicely. Still, something was missing, I felt. I stared around the living room and discovered the matrimonial section of a newspaper. I crumpled it and threw it in between the jasmine flowers. “Punjabi widower with five issues wants maternal wife. Caste no bar,” said the crumpled fold. I placed a scissors on the side. After all, advertisements were meant for cutting. The scissors gleamed murderously. Very Agatha Christie, or was it chanelling Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl book?
Light glinted off the dining table. A matrimonial ad, black coffee, a weapon and white jasmine flowers. Now, that was a composition. I clicked the scene and uploaded the photo. As of this writing, there were 11 likes, and most of them were from my family. Actually I have never gotten 11 likes. Maximum 4. 11 just sounded good.

Shoba Narayan is staring above her computer at the cockroach on the wall. Can she use it in a shelfie? she wonders. Write to her at

Kathak Maya Rao

I just loved attending this function.


How Kathak breached the north-south divide

At last week’s book release function of Maya Rao: A Lifetime In Choreography, held at the ITC Windsor, Bangalore, the stars were all in attendance. There was Vimala Rangachar, who headed the Crafts Council of Karnataka, in a rare shimmering Patola sari; Girish Karnad, who spoke about hiring Rao, or Maya Didi as she prefers to be known, to choreograph his film that ended up not getting made. In response, Rao playfully talked about watching Karnad dance while the music was being played. There was the Kannada movie star and politician, Anant Nag, who said amid much laughter that he had never danced in any of his movies but his daughter was a student of Rao’s. Three people read excerpts from the book: author Vikram Sampath, singer Tara Kini, and media professional Sandhya Mendonca. Madhu Nataraj, Rao’s daughter, choreographed the evening with precision and flair. Then there was Maya Rao, 86, resplendent in a red Kanjivaram sari (or was it a Molakalmuru silk picked out by Rangachar?), smiling.
The most touching part for Karnad, he said later while we ate green pea hummus outside, was watching Rao emote and sing a Hindustani sequence that had to do with how to open your ghungat, or veil, in a few short steps. Rao said that it was taught to her by her guru, Shambu Maharaj, and indeed her book opens with a quote by Maharaj in Hindi, “Saale, budhape se nahin bach sakte (Damn, you cannot escape old age).”
It was the sort of evening that was distinctively Bangalore, which stands at a crossroads of north and south in terms of culture and is generous and accepting of both. This is different from Chennai, where I grew up.
In Chennai, and I dare say, in many parts of north India, the music and dance that you listen to and watch are very specific. The milieu I grew up in was suffused with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. It was all we listened to or watched. We knew the idiom, the gestures, and the music. But there was no sense for, or desire to learn, the other Indian art forms that were out there. In that sense, my childhood was very parochial in terms of the arts. I didn’t have a clue about Hindustani music or Kathak, for instance, until very recently.
Not so in Bangalore. Here, people know and accept both streams. It isn’t the Dharwad-Hubli region, which is truly the place in Karnataka where Karnataka sangeetham meets Hindustani sangeet (difference in pronunciation intentional), but Bangalore is Dharwad-lite.


If you ask people why Maya Rao is great, they will tell you one line: She brought Kathak to south India. As her book describes, she was based in New Delhi until former Karnataka chief minister, Ramakrishna Hegde invited her to come and set up a dance school in Bangalore. The school was inaugurated by the great Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay in 1987 and renamed the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography. It is a beautiful building in the heart of Malleswaram.
I have visited it because my daughter is a student of a student of Maya Rao’s. Rao does not know me and would not recognize me from the throngs of other parents who videotape beginner Kathak performances at the ADA Rangamandira in Bangalore, where she usually sits in front and observes the proceedings. But she shows up to watch the six-year-olds dance, and this is the other reason why Maya Rao is viewed as a legend in dance circles—she has trained over 3,000 students. “To us, she is like God,” says Meghna Rao (no relation), who dances in the Stem Dance Kampni, a contemporary dance company founded and run by Madhu Nataraj.


Certain art forms are more connected with a country’s culture than others. To understand Russia, you have to know chess and ballet—the Mariinsky and Bolshoi styles, and names such as Vaslav Nijinsky, Svetlana Zakharova and, of course, Rudolf Nureyev. To appreciate England, you really need to know theatre—Shakespeare of course, but also West End. Fashion is a prism through which you can understand the French; rhythm the in-road into Africa. If you know and understand the tea ceremony and raku ceramics, you will understand the Japanese sensibility. The same applies for Dutch design, Italian opera, which opens up the soul of Italy to outsiders but only if you know the language, German automobiles, Catalan chefs, American start-ups, Chinese scale, and Korean pop. All these reflect an age and a culture.


Dance in my view is the route to India’s soul. It is the most effective way to immerse yourself in Indian culture; a shorthand kto the past. Dancers—whether they belong to the Kathak, Bharatanatyam or Odissi styles—inhabit a sacred space that is suffused with poetry, music, aesthetics, history, religion, and culture. To be a dancer, you need to know music, mudras or hand gestures, stories from the past, the distinctive Indian rhythms, theatre, aesthetics and jewellery, the Indian idea of beauty, our history, religion and therefore culture. At the very least, a young dancer will learn Urdu poetry and an appreciation for the animals, birds and nature that are depicted through gestures and poses.
What Maya Rao is known for is choreography. Once you get to a certain level, most dancers choreograph of course. But Rao was trained in Russia and systematized Kathak in a way that hadn’t been done before. Her institute offers a diploma in choreography. Her book is filled with characters who populated the vibrant artistic space that was India in the 1960s and 1970s: Siddheshwari Devi, Ravi Shankar, Anil Biswas, Inder Razdan, Kuvempu, Habib Tanvir and his wife Monica, Balasaraswati, Keshav Kothari, Rita Ganguly, and the doyenne, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay.

I hadn’t heard of Maya Rao till a few years ago and I don’t know enough Kathak to figure out her place in the pantheon of dance greats. But I feel that anyone who has engaged in the same art form for 86 years and trained legions of students counts for one element of what most of us would call the good life.

Shoba Narayan assumed, till recently, that only Bharatanatyam had abhinaya and Kathak only footwork. Write to her at

Living Will

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

The will to die with dignity


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

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


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

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

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

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


Leap before you think

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

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

Choose Pleasure

Something that I’ve been debating about with very productive friends

Choose pleasure over productivity

There is a virtual explosion of “productivity” lists on the Internet. You know the kind: 10 ways to make your life more productive; nine habits to ditch if you want to squeeze the most from the first hour of the day; 12 mistakes that losers who don’t get things done are making; how to be the top performer at work in 10 days or less; and the final straw, 36 things to do if you want to get away from making to-do lists. I mean, is the irony not lost on these people?
Such lists are proliferating like turtle eggs. Some headlines are straightforward, and follow the military dictum of saying it quickly and concisely: “End email addiction now” or “Throw away that time-wasting device”. Others do it more artfully by suggesting the opposite, as if they know the thoughts in your head: “When your mind says, ‘I can’t’, know that you can” is a typical headline that is best faced after a double shot of caffeine which, as it happens, is good for you according to the latest research.
The problem with such lists and apps is that they treat life as if it were work. The workplace is about productivity. Life is about messiness and being in the moment. Work is about efficiency; life is about experiences and emotions. Work is about incentivizing and motivating yourself to Get Things Done, as author David Allen says. Life is about improvising and coping. Work is about action. Life is about people. Work is about planning. Life is about spontaneity. Work is about compartmentalizing time into conference calls and meetings. Life is about flexible time.
How then to achieve work-life balance? The current approach is through lists, apps and reminders: using the tools of work to tackle the vagaries and pleasures of life. That is wrong, in my view. Sure, you need boundaries to differentiate between work and life. In the past, it used to be through time, 9-5, and place, office and home. Now that everything has merged and we are available and “on” all the time, the trick is not how to be more productive. It is how to live better. As a species, we are working more than ever. We are producing; we are effective; we are ticking things off our to-do lists. What we have become “inefficient” at is life; those moments and hours in between work.
How then do all of us who value productivity integrate it into our lives? One way is to prioritize life the same way that you prioritize work, but using a different methodology. Unlike work, which involves chalking out chunks of time for tasks—brainstorming, memo writing or business plan discussions—prioritizing life requires a different skill set: waiting, alertness, openness, saying Yes, saying No, improvising, being spontaneous.
To capture and savour life, you have to be alert and in the right frame of mind. Do you hear the songbird call for rain? Do you walk out into your balcony and try to spot this bird that seems to be going hoarse? Can you feel the wind on your nape? Is it moist or dry? Can you hear the squirrel scurry up the trees? Where is it? Are you able to see what’s ahead of you or are you preoccupied with your thoughts? That is life.
Life is about waiting. It is about being open and receptive to a child’s question when it happens instead of when you carve out time for it. It is the ability to pause in the middle of a task to see the hurt in a loved one’s eyes. It is about listening to sighs and silences; about inferring their meaning and responding to it. It is about alertness and waiting.
Life is about putting yourself in the way of joy and pleasure. It is about saying Yes when a neighbour calls you for water polo or a hike; saying No when a colleague asks for a conference call (again) at night simply because that is the most convenient time in the UK, US or Germany. It is about rescheduling overflow meetings for a later date and leaving your desk with the same discipline that you use while coming to your desk. It is about unplugging your phone or mobile device for an hour a day, if possible.
Life is about choosing pleasure when possible. About massaging yourself with essential oils or expensive lotion; about refusing to answer your work-mobile phone while you are indulging in quiet time; about figuring out what you love to do and making sure that you do it; about sipping a single malt and reading a book. Or playing golf. Life is about cultivating hobbies that can see you through retirement. About imitating children; about frittering away time in meaningless but absorbing activities.
I have tried productivity. I have read essays and lists with gusto. They gave me a halo effect for some time and made me feel that I could actually implement the suggestions. It took several months and nearly 20,000 such forwards before I realized that I was diligently reading and deleting everything without doing a darn thing. I wasn’t changing a single behaviour or even a thought process. I was merely feeling that I was in the throes of change, thanks to all those lists. It was like continuing to eat ice cream while watching aerobic exercises on TV. You felt fit without doing the work.
Life is more than productivity. I will go further. Productivity is overrated. Choose pleasure. Stop and smell the jasmine, tuberose and Oriental lilies wherever and whenever you feel like it. Stop scheduling everything. Remember, the Lord gave us Sunday for leisure and contemplation, not scheduling. Sometimes, life is not about analysing or achieving. It is about going off the script and off the schedule.

Shoba Narayan is choosing pleasure by slurping on rasmalai as she writes this. Her life-script does not include the weighing scale tomorrow. Write to her at

Yoga and Willpower

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


Can yoga improve your willpower?

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

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

Lunar Calendar

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

The Indian mind and the lunar calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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