Wine glasses

How to balance multiple readerships is my challenge.
Wine one week; heritage conservation, the next; and wildlife, the third. How to make wine glasses palatable for the activist so that they don’t dismiss it as frou-frou?
I often think of narrowing down my writing to one topic. Just can’t figure out which one will sustain my interest.

In search of the perfect wine glass

A goblet being gilded at a unit of Baccarat in Nancy, France. Photo: Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/AFP

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Anyone who has stayed in a hostel has a resource-constrained mindset towards food. I don’t care which college you went to. Standing in line and waiting for a finite amount of food does something to your psyche. It makes you think of food, not as a pleasure to be had, but as a resource to be grabbed. It has taken me several decades to get out of this mindset.
I write this as I drink a 2011 Chateau de Fontenille from a wine goblet with a curvy bottom that is shaped like Jennifer Lopez’s—there is no other way to say this—flight path if she were sitting on a boomerang. The wine is golden in colour and goes straight down—like the Congress party. It is available in Bengaluru for about `2,000 and is a blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris, muscadelle and semillon.
The best part of this wine is that the grassy acidity of sauvignon blanc is hidden, or at least balanced, by the other grapes. I have not had a sauvignon blanc that I like in years. Friends have been raving about Charosa’s version but I haven’t tried enough of their wines to agree. I don’t like sauvignon blanc’s herbaceousness. If I want that taste, I’d rather eat ajwain (carom seeds).
The wine is from the lesser-known area of Entre-Deux-Mers, between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers in France. I have a case and enjoy it with the manchego cheese that my friend, Phyllis, brings for me from the Whole Foods Market in New York.
The main point of this passage is not the wine but the fact that I am drinking it from a glass that I love. As a college student, if you had told me that people would pay good money for dishes from Rosenthal, Noritake, Villeroy & Boch, and Versace, I would have sputtered out the hot hostel bondas that were served on greasy, grainy stainless steel plates with a side order of a scowl.
Behavioural economics has shown that the environment in which you eat matters just as much as what you eat. A study conducted by Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab enlisted an actress who would wear a fat suit and dine with fellow students. The study discovered that people do eat more when they are with heavier people. Moral of the story: When you go out to eat, sit with a thin friend.
Does drinking wine from a pretty glass make the wine taste better? I was about to find out.
My wine glasses are in a state of flux. As newly-weds, we bought Baccarat crystal glasses, which got destroyed on one memorable evening when my husband and I threw them at the wall to… check if they would bounce. When the children were little, we bought pewter glasses from Royal Selangor in Malaysia. They look like Roman amphora now, after many washes in the dishwasher. This year I decided to get a whole new set that fulfilled a specific criteria: They had to look good and feel good; and not be so expensive that I would un-friend those friends who broke my wine glasses. That meant removing Bottega del Vino, Schott Zwiesel and Spiegelau from the list; not that they are easy to get in India.
The glasses I bought are by a Thai brand called Lucaris. I bought a set of six at HomeStop for under `4,000. The wine glasses from the “Tokyo Collection” are expansive—not expensive. They are better than Riedel which, in my view, has become an overexposed brand. When you can walk into a Macy’s at Tyson’s Corner Center mall in the Washington, DC area, or at 1MG Road in Bengaluru, and buy Riedel glasses for 50% off, then you know that the brand, which once marketed itself as exclusive, is actually not.
I know wine tumblers are all the rage, but I think they were designed with breakage in mind rather than the beauty of the glass itself. A tumbler doesn’t give me the feeling that I am drinking wine. It’s like drinking filter coffee in a cup. It may serve the purpose but it just ain’t right.
Being south Indian, I’m not as finicky about chai. I know that it perhaps tastes better in a kulhar, but I like drinking my green or masala tea in thin, clinking China cups, with a pretty glass teapot that has an infuser in the middle so that you can see the beautiful tea liquor turn golden. Pour the tea into a glass cup the way the plantation folk do it and you can enjoy your tea in a way that “Nair, single tea,” will never equal.
I have gone from being a utilitarian diner to a finicky one, especially as far as the serving ware is concerned. It had to happen of course. I grew up eating on banana leaves where you had to build dams out of white rice to protect the rasam from running over. There is a charm in that. But there is nothing wrong with the plates that Thomas Keller has designed (I think the Taj group has them in its New Delhi restaurant), pretty linen napkins, sleek cutlery or silverware as the Americans would have it; and wine goblets that curve like a certain part of the anatomy.

Shoba Narayan drinks Kusmi tea from a translucent teapot. Write to her at

Heritage Conservation

What Mumbai has that Bengaluru doesn’t

There is an anecdote that is the stuff of legend. When queen Victoria took over the administration of India from the British East India Company in the 1860s, she gathered a group of cultural big shots to figure out urban planning and aesthetics. The group came up with a plan. They would give Bombay a Gothic style of architecture; Calcutta, a Colonial style; and Madras, an Indo-Saracenic style. As for Delhi, they would give it to a young architect called Edwin Landseer Lutyens, who was becoming known for his syncretic approach to building. The question then is, what is the Indian style of building; and when we talk about heritage conservation, aren’t we mostly referring to buildings built in the British time?
Should we preserve the British aesthetic that was handed down to us; or should we define an Indian one that is suited to the time and place we live in? The question is in some senses moot (or irrelevant) because the real-estate titans who are defining our skylines are adopting an approach that is more global than local—building glass and steel high-rises that look no different from the ones in Shanghai, New York or London. The buildings that are being constructed in any urban city in India today have largely no character or sense of place and serve a utilitarian purpose of maximizing space and economic returns without any real panache—all of which bolsters the argument for heritage preservation, such as it is. Can there be an Indian model for heritage preservation?
Shikha Jain, director of Dronah (Development and Research Organisation for Nature, Arts and Heritage), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization working in the field of preservation and community design, has described one model that could be useful to many of our Indian cities. In her paper, Jaipur As A Recurring Renaissance, Jain makes a case for viewing city planning as a process rather than a product; marrying current city needs such as solid waste management and parking spaces with existing heritage structures. The rub for Bangaloreans, who are new to this game, is that a number of Indian cities have thought about this and implemented heritage conservation acts, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Panaji. The reason is obvious, even to someone who makes her home and loves the city of Bengaluru, as I do. Bangaloreans aren’t united, passionate, or driven enough to make a case for its heritage structures. That may change with the victory civic activists have had with saving the Balabrooie Guest House. Mumbai, in contrast, has whole clusters of civic activists who are passionate about preserving its buildings and streetscapes.
When I called conservation architect and activist Abha Narain Lambah, she was at a government office, trying to get the paperwork for a heritage project moving. “In Bombay, we realized early on that we could not rely on the government for help,” she said. “We also realized that we had to be more innovative with respect to what constituted heritage. Is it streetscapes? Is it urban clusters?”
When I asked about Mumbai’s successes with heritage conservation, Lambah promptly listed what her fellow citizens had done. Three women took Mumbai’s municipal corporation to court to get custody of the badly maintained Oval Maidan and won. To this day, Ocra, or the Oval Cooperage Residents Association, maintains the premises. Anahita Pundole filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay high court, stating that the visual sanctity of the city was being spoilt by hoardings. She too won. Lambah convinced 70 shopkeepers on Dadabai Naoroji Road to accept redesigned signage that was in keeping with the area’s visual history. The shopkeepers not only agreed, they funded the project. Recently, the residents of Bandra Bandstand reclaimed its seafront. The list goes on.
Mumbai seems to inspire this sort of loyalty and activism among its citizens. Does it say something about the quality of its residents? Is it because Mumbai is a wealthy city?
Heritage conservation is an elitist, high GDP (gross domestic product) activity. This is not to say that the average driver, cobbler, waiter or flower seller does not appreciate the graceful proportions of old buildings. It is that this busy segment of the population either has no access to these spaces or sees no value in them. The Balabrooie Guest House is off limits to most Bangaloreans. I have never entered it. So are many old buildings. How then to get the general public to care? How to get them to protest to save a building or tree? Or is it not important to involve all segments of the population? Is heritage conservation a rich person’s game? More specifically, is it a niche in which women do well? If “his-tory” is written around men, does “her-itage” centre around “her” or women? Okay, I just said that for wordplay.
The truth is that heritage conservation is not a costly exercise. In 2001, the facade of Elphinstone College was restored for `15 lakh, according to Lambah. In the late 1990s, the Kala Ghoda Association restored Horniman Circle for `6 lakh. “It just takes one municipal commissioner with will and a group of dedicated citizens,” says Lambah.
Sounds simple but hard to duplicate in other Indian cities. It takes visionaries like architects K.T. Ravindran and A.G.K. Menon, who can combine urban planning, heritage conservation and development. It takes urbanists like Prasad Shetty and multifaceted personalities such as poet-translator-architect-teacher Mustansir Dalvi to come up with nuanced yet implementable approaches to heritage conservation. It requires collaboration and consensus-building on what constitutes heritage and how to conserve it. So far, in Bengaluru , I cannot think of a single person who has the will, the wiles and the chutzpah to take it forward.

This is the second in a two-part series on heritage conservation. Write to her at

Heritage Buildings

Thank you, Deepa Krishnan of Mumbai Magic for pointing me to a great PDF describing heritage conservation in Bombay

Lessons from the Balabrooie brouhaha
On heritage conservation in India
Shoba Narayan
Heritage views No.1: preserve or modernize?

A smart leader allows his people to believe that they have influenced him; and that is what the chief minister (CM) of Karnataka, Siddaramaiah, did a few weeks ago. The brouhaha began with the news that the Balabrooie Guest House, a beautiful 150-year-old government property near the golf course in Bengaluru, was going to be razed to make way for a legislators’ club. Stanley Pinto, a member of the Bangalore Political Action Committee (B.pac), sent out emails protesting this. Eric Savage, an American expat, created a Facebook page called “Siddaramaiah: Save the Historic Balabrooie Guest House”. A petition was sent out. Rabindranath Tagore stayed here, said one email. As did Mahatma Gandhi.
The thought of this bungalow being converted into a club where legislators could have “women doing Mohini dances”, as the Kannada papers called it (in a manner that was sexist, yet perhaps truthful), was unthinkable. Protesters including artist S.G. Vasudev, singers Raghu Dixit and Vasundhara Das, architects Naresh V. Narasimhan and Sathya Prakash Varanashi, and other citizens gathered on a wet Sunday morning. The CM met a small group and assured them that the Balabrooie Guest House would not be touched.
Bengaluru celebrated and took stock.
Perhaps because we are surrounded by so much history, Indians have little patience for it. If you showed pictures of people protesting to save heritage buildings to shopkeepers at New Delhi’s Khan Market, Chennai’s Pondy Bazaar, Kolkata’s Park Street or Bengaluru’s Ulsoor Market, I dare say they would laugh and dismiss the protesters as jobless: “Vere velai illai,” in Tamil lingo. “They have no other work.”
I purposely left out Mumbai because it is different.
Heritage stands in that nebulous space between archaeology and modern buildings. In India, it is those buildings that are old but not old enough to be turned over to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). “Heritage should be viewed as a palimpsest,” said Narasimhan. I nodded knowingly without knowing what the word meant. When I looked it up, it made perfect sense: something reused or altered but still bearing traces of its past. This layering is part of the joy of belonging to an ancient civilization, and this same layering could extend to relatively newer buildings, streetscapes too. That is the point of heritage conservation in India.
For the average citizen activist, the problem is that there is no clear definition of heritage. Does a building become a heritage structure because a famous personality or historical figure stayed there? Because it has beautiful architecture? Or simply because it withstood the ravages of time? A lot of so-called heritage buildings are quite ugly. Should we preserve them merely because they are old? What is cultural heritage? Is heritage fenced off monuments or non-monumental streetscapes? Is it a street or a cluster of buildings?
Going forward, Bengaluru needs to answer questions like these. It also needs a leader—someone like Abha Narain Lambah, a Mumbai-based conservation architect and activist, who has worked for this cause for decades.
Mumbai, or Bombay in heritage conservation terms, is singularly lucky in its citizens; in the passion that the city inspires in its people; in the poetry and prose that it commands; and in the ownership that its residents feel for the city’s boulevards and streets. The cast of characters is varied and aplenty.
There is author Sharada Dwivedi, Mumbai’s biographer. She is the person researchers and conservationists turn to for stories, context and arcane trivia. There is architect Rahul Mehrotra, who collaborated with Dwivedi and is now chair of the urban planning and design department of Harvard’s School of Design in the US. There is the late Shyam Chainani, who put heritage conservation into the vocabulary of municipal governments, not just in Mumbai, but also in Hyderabad, Chennai, and New Delhi. There were civil servants with foresight and willpower, such as Jamshed Kanga and D.T. Joseph, who worked with the list of 145 buildings that the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee submitted to them in 1988 and got the files through the various regulatory bodies by the end of 1994. In April 1995, taking observers by surprise, the newly elected Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party government sanctioned heritage regulation and the heritage list of Greater Bombay. “We had all thought that it was the end of things but in the end, this is what happened,” says Mehrotra.
Like art appreciation, heritage conservation is a learned skill. I still remember the car ride I took with a European professor through the streets of Bengaluru. She looked at a crumbling wall and commented on its beautiful “textures” and “layers”. Where I saw fungus and peeling paint, she saw beauty. How then can this appreciation be transmitted to the public, and why is Bombay so good at it? Next week.

This is the first in a two-part series on heritage conservation. Shoba Narayan loves crumbling walls—nowadays. Write to her at

Spirits of India

Cocktails have an intrinsic problem. Unless they are well made/well balanced, they are too sweet for my taste.

Shoba Narayan

Korea has soju; Japan has sake; America has bourbon; Mexico has tequila and mezcal; Germany has schnapps; Scandinavia has aquavit; France has wine; Greece has ouzo; Britain has beer; Portugal has port; Spain has sherry; Turkey has raki; Brazil has cachaça; Peru has pisco; Scotland has Scotch; and India has…what? Chai? Horlicks? At a time when national spirit is high, shouldn’t we consider a signature spirit as well?
The strongest contender in this area is feni, says Vikram Achanta, co-founder of, a beverage education and consultant company. “But feni is still to rise above a state-level curiosity and shed its tag of being a country liquor,” he says.
If Goa, the land of the good life, has not been able to market its tipple, where do mahua, chandrahaas and handiya, the fermented spirit of Jharkhand, stand? And really, it is these local tribal distillations that ought to be our starting point.
In the luxury world, three things are revered above all: revenue, brand identity, and provenance. Indian tribes have been distilling spirits for as long as the Scots have—look where they are with their single malts and look where we are with our local liquors, the names of which even we Indians cannot pronounce.
All is not lost. Things can turn around faster than you can down a gin and tonic which, by the way, was invented in India.
Take tequila, for instance. Fifty years ago, it was a nonsense drink: pungent, unrefined, highly alcoholic. The Mexican government, in its wisdom, decided to throw its weight behind marketing tequila. Enter lime and salt; and a hop, skip and jump to frozen margaritas and tequila shots. Before you knew it, tequila had become a party drink. “Now, tequila has taken the luxury route with 100% agave and boutique producers,” says Yangdup Lama, co-founder of Cocktails & Dreams, a bar and beverage consultancy company in Gurgaon.
Local liqueurs are something that Man Singh, owner of Jaipur’s Narain Niwas Palace and Castle Kanota, knows something about. His family recipe for chandrahaas contains 76 ingredients, including saffron, rose and anise. Rajasthani liqueurs contain herbs, dry fruits and flowers. They taste good and are perfect after a meaty meal of lal maas or safed maas. They haven’t crossed borders though and remain with the home or palace, made in small batches with recipes zealously guarded.
Italy does the same thing with limoncello, except that they market the heck out of it. The fact that a particular limoncello is made using a family recipe is used as a virtue. With the variety of tropical fruits that we have, with our penchant for mixing spices and our heritage for distilling drinks, you would think that at least one of these liqueurs would have made it big.
Part of the reason is that we—country and government—are deeply ambivalent about promoting alcohol. On the one hand, prohibition does not work. Yet, on the other, should we actively encourage drinking? One place to begin would be the North-East and Himalayan states where tribals distil spirits anyway. Just as non-governmental organizations and the government promote small-scale, village-based industries and crafts, says Lama, why not encourage handcrafted spirits in a controlled and refined fashion? Instead, we import and pay premium prices for beer, wine and spirits that are produced in small batches in Europe.
The only area where local players have jumped in is wine. Here too, we are planting imported species of grapevines, be they Sangiovese, Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Our wine industry is basically a copycat business where consultants and grapevines are brought in from abroad. Still, it begs the question: Why isn’t there a KRSMA, Fratelli or Sula type player in the spirits space?
Amrut Distilleries has done great work with its Amrut brand of single malt and there are now me-too players like Paul John and, to some extent, Tilaknagar Distilleries. What we lack are the mavericks and lone rangers who chase a spirit just because; who distil or die as it were.
Desmond Nazareth is a candidate. His 100% agave and 51% margarita mixes are produced in Andhra Pradesh and bottled in Goa under the brand name Desmondji. It is a start even if isn’t original or, for that matter, Indian. Offering greater hope is Desmondji’s orange liqueur that uses Indian sugar cane and Nagpur oranges.
None of these—Indian spirits or liqueurs—are marketing to the luxury market that is waiting to be tapped. Indians have travelled everywhere and tried out artisanal spirits, beers and wines. This consumer confidence can translate to sales of locally distilled quality spirits if there is a player with imagination and staying power. In these compressed time cycles, what took Scotland several centuries and Mexico 50 years to achieve with their national spirits can happen in India in a mere 10 years—witness the burgeoning Indian wine industry.
Or can it?
Bangalore-based drinks consultant Heemanshu Ashar believes that the Indian market is not ready. “Chasing one national drink is a pipe dream,” he says. “If even the chai we drink is prepared differently in different regions, how can we be united by one drink? We are a nation of choices—multiple choices—so let’s rejoice in that.”
Only a Rajput riding across the horizon with his chandrahaas, or a Himalayan distiller carrying his home-made spirit in a flask, can change this scenario. I am hopeful.

Shoba Narayan likes her martini shaken and not stirred. With a side of olives. Write to her at


Birds Have included the scenes from my balcony. IMG_4683 A tryst with cacophony and camouflage Pigeons can fly great distances, crows are wacko and many more interesting findings while birdwatching in Bangalore Shoba Narayan Read more at: Do you have a cherished image of yourself that is entirely delusional? I know, which one, right? My cherished image of myself is that I’m a naturalist. Not just any old naturalist: a naturalist-healer if you please. The kind that can not only identify every species of bird, but also walk by a plant and say, “This is a copper pod tree. Crush its seeds, swallow for 10 days, and you will have a cure for your piles.” The fact that I need to hang around people with piles in order to prove my prowess as a naturalist-healer is somewhat pathetic, even for a dream. What is scarier is the distance between my dream image and reality. I once made a fantastic Pesto Genovese— with neem leaves. The taste of it haunts my family still. Plant identification, shall we say, is not my forte. Recently though, I decided to take matters in hand. I decided that I would become an expert on birds. I would start small. I would begin by observing the birds that populated my urban habitat. Once I had learned their names and mating calls, I would learn about birds all over India, and then the entire world. In the blowsy diaphanous fairytale that was my dream, I would end up writing a book called, “Birds of every kind with every mating call in every species in every corner of the earth.” That was the plan anyway.  This attempt brings to fore two contradictory impulses. One theory, which I shall call the habitat theory, suggests that things like bird watching and music are learnt young. People grow up with birds all around and if you haven’t taken the interest or effort to figure them out when you are young, there is little chance that you will as an adult. The opposite theory is based on neuroplasticity–that you can learn anything at any age simply by setting your mind to it. For purposes of my experiment, I chose to believe in the latter. Armed with a pair of binoculars and a bottle of my favorite Indian red, I ventured forth into my balcony–and was promptly overwhelmed, not by the cacophony of noise but by the camouflage. Horns bleated like cows; urban cows with their mouths tied together sounded like rattling scooters; a random bird sounded like the dug-dug-dug of a construction machine which makes holes in road; squirrels screeched like parrots; and dogs wailed like death was coming. Ten minutes of this shit, and I beat a hasty retreat. IMG_4691  The next morning was better, perhaps because I was drinking coffee instead of wine. Right away, I could identify three species of birds: parrots, crows, and Brahmini kites. I ate some chocolate as congratulations and continued looking. It was then that I encountered my first problem. You see, birds don’t wait in one spot for you to identify them. They make these beautiful singing noises from somewhere within a large tree, and you cannot spot them. Heck, you can’t even spot the exact tree inside which they are hiding. How was I going to start? After a few days of sweeping my binoculars back and forth like a flailing ship capsizing mid-sea, I happened upon a Millingtonia tree. Called Chameli in Hindi, it has one key virtue: it is tall and has white flowers as a contrast to the green all around. I trained my binoculars at the top of the Millingtonia tree and experienced my first victory in bird watching, which led to my first concept note for my future book: If you are patient, you will notice that birds come to flowers. You don’t need to chase them–figuratively speaking–with your binoculars. IMG_4690 Over the course of several days, things improved. For a non-birdwatcher, or a nouveau birdwatcher like me, who engages in the activity, not necessarily out of intrinsic interest, but because she believes it is good to do so, certain elements are key. Limit the bird watching to 15 minutes every day; but do it every day, preferably in the early morning or at dusk. Try your best to capture an “aha” moment every day; a moment of joy; a point of pleasure. For me, this came when I was training my binoculars at a distant tree as usual and discovered a Kingfisher sitting quietly on a branch. At least, I think it was a Kingfisher because there was some blue in it. This then is the next obstacle in bird watching: how do you know what you are looking at? Books help, but I have found that Wikipedia is my best resource. Type in “Birds of Bangalore” and there is a helpful page dedicated entirely to species that I can see around my garden. It is using this page that identified the birds with the sweetest sounds as bulbuls. They have a little tuft on their head and after listening to them carelessly singing one morning, and racing through the house to find them by looking out through every window, I discovered them on top of the tree with giant red flowers. By typing in “tree with giant red flowers in Bangalore,” I learned that this is the elephant apple tree or Dillenia indica. Mother nature has bestowed beauty on every species, but to birds, she has been exceptionally generous. Watch a bird–any bird–soar in the sky, and I guarantee that you will feel joy, and envy. The freedom that birds seem to experience is uplifting and you wish you could lift yourself up. IMG_4693 Here are some things I learned. Pigeons can fly great distances, and I find them to be the most efficient flyers. They streak through the sky, following the same rhythm, without veering off course, as if they were focused on a goal. Crows are whacko, particularly if they are flying in pairs. I have seen crows fly and then suddenly dip ten feet as if they were funneled downward by a wind current, before lifting themselves up. Parrots fly well, but not for long distances. As for the Brahmini kites, I have not made up my mind if I like them. What will you do when you retire? I have thought a lot about this and come up with certain qualities that retirement activities need to have. Portability is one, particularly for those of us who love to travel. Bird watching fits this paradigm, because no matter where you travel, you will always find birds. If you educate yourself on birds, you can travel the world and remain engaged in your interest. When you get too old or feeble to travel, you can stand in your balcony and look through binoculars. As I have been doing. Shoba Narayan is stalking a pair of Brahmini kites that are roosting on her roof.


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

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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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