The big brooming business

An acquaintance of mine, Chantal, called from New York the other day with a request: she needed brooms; lots of them. Could I source them from India? Chantal is a gaunt French-Algerian chain smoker. She says merde (shit) a lot; wears Dior rouge lipstick, and lots of moody grey Chanel eyeshadow. She used to be a hand model but now specializes in department store windows. Her job, she says, is to make mannequins “look like models”.
Over Skype, Chantal explained her idea. She would decorate an entire department store with brooms. She had watched Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Madison Square Garden in New York, US. Her current boyfriend is Gujarati and had told her about the “Clean India” campaign. She had seen photos of Modi cleaning the streets. She didn’t care for the politicians but she wanted those brooms; at least a hundred of them. The mannequins could hold the brooms in various poses.
“Think about it,” said Chantal. “Flying Balenciaga clothes with brooms; Sacai on brooms; Givenchy’s Antigona bag surrounded by a chandelier of brooms; Celine in a forest of brooms; Christian’s nail polish (shoe designer Christian Louboutin) dripping red and purple on brooms. The possibilities are endless.”
I told Chantal that I would see what I could do. I knew a person who could deliver on this demand: Nagamma.
As a young girl, Nagamma had worked for my grandparents in Coimbatore. She was now a septuagenarian and had returned to the family business: broom making. She taught me many of the skills that have made me the woman I am today: stringing together a jasmine garland with a thread made from banana fibre; playing “five stones” and picking up three, four, five and even seven stones with one fist; drawing elaborate kolams or rangoli designs on festive days; and expertly parting hair with fingers and catching running lice.
I caught up with Nagamma at her village near Modakurichi, Tamil Nadu. We squatted under the swaying coconut trees with verdant paddy fields on all sides and engaged in an activity that she had taught me as a child. On one side were dried up coconut leaves. We had to squat on the ground and slit the leaves to pull out the spine. It was an activity that was as meditative as tying jasmine flowers or cleaning a lice-comb with a toothpick. For a while, Nagamma and I sat in companionable silence, ripping the coconut spine from its leaves. We both were chewing betel leaves and it was tough to talk over the red juice that was on the verge of drooling every time I opened my mouth. Finally, I tucked the leaf expertly in a corner of my mouth—another skill that Nagamma had taught me—and proceeded to lay out my proposal. I needed 100 brooms to export to the US, I said.
Nagamma leaned forward confidentially. “Kannu,” she said. The word means “eye” in Tamil but is used not as an “eye for an eye” type threat but an endearment. “Kannu, ever since the Aam Aadmi party, our bijiness has been very good. Every politican wants to wield a broom these days. How can I supply 100 brooms for your friend, Shanta?”
“Chantal,” I corrected absently but that wasn’t really the point.
Nagamma corrected my technique: slit in the middle, not the top, she said. That way I could pull the spine out on both sides. Quickly, she tied a bunch of coconut sticks, or eer-kuchi, as we called it, with a coir rope. A broom was done.
“You’ll get paid in euros, Nagamma,” I said.
She frowned. “Can I buy vethalai (betel leaves) with euros?”
I nodded vigorously. She could buy a barnyard full of betel leaves with euros.
That got her attention. Now I had to lay the problem at her feet. Chantal wanted the brooms to be tied with twine of multiple colours: neon, purple, candy pink, red, and turquoise. “We can’t put Chloé on traditional brooms,” she had said. “We need the brooms to have fashion also.”
Nagamma would have none of it. In the past, she said, they tied brooms with banana fibre. Tying it with coir was itself a compromise that she made for city-dwellers. Neon plastic twine was sacrilege. “In our country, we can eat our brooms, Kannu,” she said. “It comes from earth and it goes back to earth. How can I put all this false colours on the broom?”
I consulted Indologist Rekha Rao, who has written several terrific books on therapeutics in Indian sculptures and how they depict healing mudras and marma points (published by Aryan Books International but hard to find in bookstores). “There are objects that look like our brooms in Indus seals,” said Rao. “In fact, Narendra Modi looks like the male figure of Indus seals. With the same type of beard and facial features.”
Brooms in ancient India were used for saucha, said Rao. Cleaning the external space but also the inner negativities. Rao has analysed the sculptures of Rani Ki Vav in Patan, Gujarat. She said many of the sculptures there held brooms and their uses were somewhat similar to the shamanism that was practised in Tibet and Nepal— where the body was literally swept clean. “We use the chamara for fanning and similarly such brooms were used to sweep the body clean,” said Rao.
Rajiv Sethi, the painter and art curator, once showed me photos of brooms designed and held by tribal women, each of which was hand-tied and decorated in a fashion that was almost Japanese in its minimalism and subtlety.
So I did the only thing possible. I called Chantal and told her that I could provide Harry Potter’s flying brooms in a variety of colours if needed. But the humble Indian jhaadu was non negotiable: take it or leave it. She is still thinking about it.

Shoba Narayan knows how to make brooms. Write to her at

Train Diary 4

The last of my beloved train diaries. For now.

Train diary No.4: strangers and friends

There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert
Shoba Narayan

There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert. Every compartment usually has both. There are the silent types who stare unblinkingly as you enter their compartment. There are others who smile and make room; and just when you are thinking of them as good prospects for sharing the night’s dinner, they ask you to exchange their upper berth for your lower one. That is when you look at the strong, silent type and wish you’d followed his example.

Indian train compartments are beautifully designed for the most part. There are hooks from which to hang the odd plastic bag filled with fermenting black bananas that are bursting with what seems like pus. There are electrical plugs to charge your mobile device; metal rods into which you chain your bag or suitcase in case midnight robbers make off with your belongings; and seats that fold out into sleeping berths.

Although we like to pretend otherwise, human beings are deeply attuned to pace and proportion. To go from Bombay to Britain in 8 hours is possible by plane, and we do this all the time. We get off feeling groggy and disoriented and attribute it to melatonin and jet lag. What we don’t talk about is the psyche and its adjustment—or lack thereof– to air travel. It is only when you travel by trains that you notice how their speed and size are suited for human beings: fast but not disorienting; cozy but not cramped, at least in the air-conditioned coaches. The one defect has to do with height: train berths are designed for dwarfs. Sit up and…well, you can’t sit up particularly in the upper berth. You have to scrunch in a foetal position, both when you sit and when you sleep. As a teenager, I scrunched so much that I fell off the top berth. True story. Apparently, I didn’t even wake up. From then on, my mother repeated this exploit as if it were an achievement. “She got 97% in her Unit Tests. And you know, she fell off the top berth and didn’t even wake up,” my Mom would say, flexing her muscles in a way that would give the Phogat sisters a run for their medals.

Sometimes the train stops, as mine does– at 9:15 on a dark night, in a field before Dharmapuri. After a few minutes, I walk to the door. There are a couple of men smoking cigarettes. It seems civilized to blow smoke-rings into the great wide open. In contrast, smoking booths in airports look like cages in a zoo. The smokers inside speak on the phone as they hold their lights, as if the phone conversation makes them look and feel less alone. Here, the two men speak desultorily about why the train has stopped. Something about “shunting,” and an inter-city train crossing ours.

Inky blackness envelops the sky. No homes; no lights save for those from the train, and no dwellings. I climb down the steps—the only woman amidst a few men. My family would have had a fit if they saw me alone in the middle of nowhere, with darkness all around, waiting outside a train with a couple of strangers sharing a fag; beside a train that could take off any minute. The thought is thrilling. The light turns green. We all climb back as the train pulls away. There is something about a running train (or bus) that makes climbing in an adventure. Perhaps it is matching your body to a moving object; Newton’s law of physics and what not.

The train picks up speed. The toddler in the next compartment is fussing. She walks down the corridor, anklets jingling, followed by a smiling, adoring Dad.

“She has a cold,” he explains to us.

We make clicking sympathetic voices. “The only thing that works is Waterbury’s Compound,” he says. He pulls out a tiny Johnny Walker bottle, opens the cap and pours the fluid down his toddler’s mouth. Nobody blinks. Instead, we fan ourselves with Maalai Murasu, Dinamalar, and Kalki, Tamil publications all.

At the next station, the gruff pharmaceutical executive who shares my compartment meets his family. They stand away from the crowd milling at the entrance of the compartment and catch up. I know what they are talking about because I have done this so many times with relatives while growing up. Some uncle or aunt would take the time to bring us food at random stations and we would have a few minutes of conversation. But what can you talk about really amidst the tension of a train that could leave any minute? Mostly you ask questions without waiting for answers? “How is Farida/Charles/Baby aunty? How is your health? Did Ahmed/Unni/Fatty write his exams? When are you coming to Delhi?” Connection through questions, as a way of saying thanks. Indians of yore didn’t say thanks. They viewed it as an insult almost. “You can put your thanks in a parcel and send it to Honolulu,” my Mami used to say loudly when we sputtered thanks, thanks to a convent school education. It was easy to imagine a line of thanks winging their way through the oceans to sunny Honolulu. It is these vignettes of life that make travelling on Indian trains a memorable experience. Minister Sadananda Gowda should capitalize on this collective affection that Indians have for train travel by making some improvements: cleaner toilets and stations that reflect and sell local food specialties would be a start. But first, he has to sort out the mess at home.

Shoba Narayan loves train travel.

Train Diary 2

Train Diary 2: Easy, artless conversations


Train travel has both a created ecosystem and inflection points.  The first inflection point is when you walk down the corridor to your compartment for the first time, wondering who your fellow travellers are.  They are the people who will share your space for the next six or 36 hours.  Their temperament is critical to your well-being.

Mine, on this overnight train journey from Bangalore to Kumbakonam, happens to be a nun, an elderly couple and two men.  Sister Mary teaches biology at a college in Trichy.  She is good looking, with clear brown skin and shiny black eyes.  Her habit reminds me of the sisters who taught at St. Antony’s where I studied.  The couple is travelling to visit their daughter.  She wears a pink cotton sari and jasmine flowers in her braided hair.  No bindi though.  He wears a “bush-shirt” and khaki pants.

Train travel is artless and easygoing.  Nobody is trying to impress anyone, which is what we do in planes.  We dress well, carry nice wheelies, and speak in posh accents so that the stewardesses don’t think we are country bumpkins and skimp on the wine.  My train-mates have no such pretenses. The elderly gent sitting beside me reads Dinamalar, a Tamil paper.  He opens a “Rasi Silks” plastic bag.  It has a few green bananas, which he offers to us.  The bananas are delicious and compete with the “jadi-malli” jasmine that the Aunty-ji is wearing.  Someone offers Brittania biscuits.  An empty bottle of “777 Kashmiri syrup” is used to carry water.  A lady in the next compartment is talking loudly on her mobile phone.  “Fry the onions nicely before you grind them into a chutney, okay?  Don’t forget to put the curds into the frig.  Tomorrow, put out two milk coupons for coffee.”  Is she a mother-in-law instructing a daughter-in-law? Or a mistress talking to a maid? Maybe she is speaking to her husband. Hard to say without putting a face to the words: her tone of voice could apply to all of the above.  The compartment behind me has a mother teaching her baby.  “Thamarai (lotus),” she enunciates.  “Say it.  Tha-ma-rai.  Chollu/Bhol (say it).”  A lilting voice repeats hesitantly, “Tha-ma-rai.”  There is clapping: an entire compartment clapping for a toddler who says her first words.

The train is moving.  I am in Third AC, which means that there are three berths per compartment.  I love the middle berth.  It is high enough for privacy but low enough to peer out of the window.  The moving train makes us relax.  Our luggage is stowed below the seat and we haven’t forgotten anything.  As a child, my father was famous for asking questions like, “Have we locked Teddy (our dog) inside the house?” or “Have you turned off the gas?” after the train started.  It left us in a lurch for the rest of the trip.  We used to visit cousins in Bombay and didn’t travel by AC coach.

I don’t like travelling by AC coaches, even though I almost always do so these days.  I am getting soft, I guess.  The windows are darkened and I cannot see anything outside, which irritates me.  I peer and see my own shadow.  Watching the world go by is the best part of train travel.  Non-AC coaches afford companionship and porousness between the outside and the inside.  Even the windows in Sleeper class are designed so that you can peer out: the metal lattices curve out.  You can pour out water and watch it arch as the train speeds.  You can spit out watermelon seeds and imagine entire orchards rising up in your wake.  You can watch desperate passengers make a spirited run to catch the train as it pulls out.  You can hear the click-clack of the train.  None of this is possible in AC coaches.

I have travelled in unreserved compartments and refuse to do so again if I can help it.  The worst part of unreserved coaches is the latent aggression in everyone.  People don’t travel unreserved by choice.  They either are last minute travellers—for death ceremonies, births or weddings—or cannot afford it.  At every station, you steel yourself for more invaders into your space; and you cannot say no.  They have as much right as you do.  So you puff yourself out like a hostile porcupine, hoping that through glares and elbows, you can put off fellow passengers from occupying the space beside you.  As children, my brother and I would climb up on the berth to avoid the crowds but there was no escape there too.  The funny thing is how little of that discomfort I remember now.  I certainly don’t feel mad or bitter about it, which is good to know about life in general.  S+*^ happens, but you mostly forget it later.

One constant in train travel—then and now—is the bathrooms.  They stink.  I don’t see a solution though, other than fitting them with fragrant diffusers or Odonil packets.  I know people who stop drinking water before overnight train journeys because they refuse to use the, ahem, facilities.  They tell me that I am romanticizing train travel and perhaps I am.

The nun who shares my compartment is fast asleep.  I look for my trusted green hold-all but am left instead with crisp white sheets that my fellow-travellers have spread out into beds.  I hope they have been washed well by the dhobis. I climb on the top berth.  The horn toots in the darkness.  It is as comforting as a grandmother’s story.  My eyes close.

Shoba Narayan still doesn’t know what “shunting” does to trains.

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

Read more at:

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

Read more at:


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