Motherlode Comments

Subscribes to the rule that comments are often more interesting than the piece itself.

From the NYT website here.

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AChicago
Verified
I’ll say this in the nicest way I can: this constant pressure is wrong. I can’t care if it’s cultural. Sometimes what is cultural is wrong. Just because they are teenage girls they should be subjected to this constant subversive criticism? No. Imagine if some boy was trying to get your daughter to do things she wasn’t comfortable with all the time – would it be okay for her to have to constantly brush him off? Absolutely not.

There is a happy medium between respecting your elders and not being forced to say “no” all the time. If my mother said something so rude and inappropriate to my child as “be a doctor, not a _____,” you better believe I’d be stepping in immediately to back my kid up.

This story makes me sad. I’m not sure why your family is allowed to get away with this sort of thing. Tradition? Start new traditions, like letting your girls be themselves without constant commentary.
Aug. 30, 2013 at 9:11 p.m.RECOMMENDED30
READ ALL 6 REPLIES

AndrewNew York
@Anon, intentions are not always good. Meddling relatives may just want to live out thier unfulfilled dreams vicariously on children with thier whole lives ahead of them.
Aug. 31, 2013 at 8:38 p.m.RECOMMENDED9

MatanginiDubai
@ Andrew, or they just want girls to make a safe choice in a very difficult country. Many middle class people have no idea of the opportunities in the new Indian economy. Also the economy is tanking currently.
Sept. 2, 2013 at 11:29 p.m.

deering24NJ
People too often think that respecting elders means letting them disrespect you.
Sept. 3, 2013 at 6:15 p.m.RECOMMENDED3

sgoundefined
Malala was shot in the head and almost killed by a violent group of men who wanted to deny her the right to be educated; The author’s
daughters, meanwhile, are being verbally admonished by well-meaning relatives who love them on issues such as attire and future professions.

Attempted murder of a girl over education alongside nagging over clothes? I really don’t see the comparison. I think it diminishes Malala’s struggle to equate these situations.

A blog post about violence against women and girls is one important topic; another blog post about Indian girls being pressured to conform to certain cultural traditions (a pressure Indian boys face too – just read/rent The Namesake!) is equally worthy of discussion, but another topic entirely, in my view.
Aug. 30, 2013 at 9:46 p.m.RECOMMENDED15

deering24NJ
It’s all the same sickness–believing girls are too stupid to know their own minds and trying coercion to make them conform. And “admonishments” like that coming from supposedly caring family members do as much to undercut girls’ self-confidence as physical violence.
Sept. 3, 2013 at 6:15 p.m.RECOMMENDED5

MatanginiDubai
Self esteem is strengthened by facing challenges. My daughter in the US attended her first swimming lessons and she was not very good. Of course she is only 5, still I was annoyed to see that the coach wrote in the report card”she is a fantastic swimmer” without even mentioning that she was unable to meet the set goals for the class. She can’t read well yet, so whats the harm in pointing out area for improvement. If you make an unconventional career choice, you better be passionate about it and be prepared to defend yourself and do research on potential career path and have a back up plan or drop the idea if some aunt’s criticism makes you lose confidence.
Sept. 6, 2013 at 9:04 a.m.

Alicearizona
I like your comment that if you can say no (politely) to grandparents you can say no to anyone. I would include parents in that statement also! By the way, I will be attending a family wedding in India later this fall and I will not be wearing a sari. I don’t wear dresses here in the US either. People just have to deal. It’s probably easier for me because I grew up in the US and only speak English so they can just write me off as a weird American.
Aug. 30, 2013 at 10:10 p.m.RECOMMENDED12

MatanginiDubai
So you wear pants to weddings in the US, yup, queer American – but its all good! Try a nehru jacket or a sherwani with trousers, a wedding is a formal occasion after all, my dear.
Sept. 2, 2013 at 11:29 p.m.

SAMain Street USA
The author begins by telling us that her daughters and other girls around the world are pressured to conform and I get the feeling she is not pleased by that. But she allows it go on at home because it’s family?

Family should not get a pass on browbeating kids in the name of culture. Saying “Be a doctor since it’s more respectable than a pastry chef” should have elicited a comment from the parent. The elders should be told to lay off and keep their comments to themselves. Not doing so, tells the girls that you expect them to conform to please the elders or be extremely uncomfortable and frustrated to continually hear how wrong they are doing things.

Why is it okay to write off the elders as “Well, that’s their culture and that is why they expect xyz” but no one tells the elders about the girls, “This is their culture and why they expect xyz…”?
Aug. 30, 2013 at 10:10 p.m.RECOMMENDED24

SusanEastern WA
Verified
I;m sure the author discusses this with her daughters. She even gives examples of this. And this gives lots of openings for talking about the differences in cultures. I just don’t agree that it’s the mom’s place to require that her parents censor themselves. It would probably be considered rude–kids need to learn to deal with unwelcome advice.
Aug. 31, 2013 at 9:49 a.m.RECOMMENDED3

sgoundefined
I think it’s because of some form of “filial piety.” In some societies, you never talk balk to your elders, period. It’s considered the height of disrespect, no matter how wrong their views might be.
Aug. 31, 2013 at 8:38 p.m.RECOMMENDED3

MatanginiDubai
I believe that doing something against the current requires strength. If you can not stick to your passion for pastry making in the face of mild criticism from the extended family, how will you be an entrepreneur (working as a chef in India for a girl from a middle class family makes no sense for economic reasons). All the self esteem building efforts I see in North America does not necessarily create stronger women. Its not for the mother to tell people to lay off, its for the girls to learn to deal with society and make their own path. There are tons of highly successful women in India in many creative fields. A third of the tech people and assistant directors even in Bollywood are women now there are more female directors of in India than Hollywood. These women made their own path.
Sept. 2, 2013 at 8:32 a.m.RECOMMENDED1

GPDC metro
With some of what I’ve read about life in India for women recently (that University of Chicago student who told of being groped and harrssed regularly) I wonder if the elders have a point about dress? Personally I would not have my daughter in this sort of environment.
Aug. 30, 2013 at 11:11 p.m.RECOMMENDED3

jzzy55undefined
Verified
I feel that surely on balance the love and affection your daughters are receiving (not to mention being fully bicultural) far outweigh any negatives, as long as you discuss what it all means privately amongst yourselves so they do not internalize self-criticism and gender-based limitations. Years from now I am sure they will be laughing sentimentally over the coconut oil parties and (not really) skimpy clothing comments. And they will realize that becoming a doctor meant, quire reasonably, a lifetime of social status and job security.

In the early 70s my grandfather tried to cut the little orange Levi’s tag off the rear pocket of my stylish new jeans. He didn’t understand why I would willingly give free advertising to the manufacturer of my clothing. There are intractable differences that divide generations. I see it as a cognitive development opportunity: recognizing how differently people think/feel helps strengthen the ability to look beyond one’s own teenage nose. .
Aug. 30, 2013 at 11:26 p.m.RECOMMENDED17

AndrewNew York
The parents need to be the chld’s advocate in this scenario. It’s inappropriate for the grandparents to be telliing the children how to wear thier hair and clothes. The parents need to step in and let the children adapt to this environment with somebody looking out for them.
Aug. 30, 2013 at 11:41 p.m.RECOMMENDED17
READ ALL 4 REPLIES

JoelBrooklyn
Why is it inappropriate? They are the children’s elders and the children are living in their home. They certainly have a right to voice their opinion in how their grandchildren should be raised. Again, this is a cultural norm. Your version of inappropriate is highly appropriate in many Indian homes and communities and elsewhere around the world.
Aug. 31, 2013 at 8:27 p.m.RECOMMENDED5

AndrewNew York
@Joel, there are over a billion Indians, they do not all have such filial piety; it strikes me as a bit biased to assume such.
Sept. 2, 2013 at 11:23 p.m.RECOMMENDED3

AnonWashington DC
Joel, I didn’t get the impression they were living with the grandparents. I am an American of European descent married to an American of Indian descent & I have to confess I have a Very hard time with this stuff. I will struggle not to overreact when my in laws criticize or try to control my kids. I already bristle with the pressure to eat more food. I would have been so permissive about cultural differences before. Now I couldn’t care less. Nobody is going to push my kids to eat when they say they’re full & certainly not to oil their hair so it’s shinier. I’ll be teaching them to stand up for themselves by modeling standing up for them. Perhaps I’m too America but I place little value in “respecting” your elders when they’re being disrespectful to you. & that’s how I see food pressure & criticizing reasonable clothing & social choices – disrespectful. Whether our kids are 3 or 13, they deserve to have their reasonable choices respected.
Sept. 2, 2013 at 11:23 p.m.RECOMMENDED9

LucreziaThere
Very interesting post. I do hope though you are receptive to the idea of your daughters keeping up their Tamil.
Aug. 31, 2013 at 8:27 p.m.RECOMMENDED4

xy
I think some of the comments here are awfully judgmental.I think you a striking a good balance in operating within your current environment, culture and family structure, and yet work to let your daughters grow their independence. Grand parents will meddle, in all cultures, and they mean well, even though they are often out of step with the times. We just notice it more in your little piece here because if the cultural differences. If you had written an American piece about grand parents telling teenagers not to wear their jeans low enough to show off their underpants, nobody would have started discussing how inapproriate these grand parents are.
Aug. 31, 2013 at 8:34 p.m.RECOMMENDED6

MeeraDanbury, CT
your kids have indian roots but American wings. It is def not going to be easy to balance this but they are learning. I think to clothe them in American clothes while in India is ridiculous but that’s your battle.
As far as grandparents are concerned I think learning to be courteous and assertive is the way to go. You can’t ask your parents to lay off when they ask you certain things because in our culture that is not right but you can choose to disagree.
Being indian is always a challenge. There are these two halves diametrically different and we are forever trying to bring them together. The trick is to learn that they can never fuse but remain disparate and we just learn the tightrope walk. You have narrated this dance eloquently.
Aug. 31, 2013 at 8:34 p.m.RECOMMENDED1

MatanginiDubai
The nerdy American Indian school kids will faint if they saw what their cousins in international schools in India wear! Shorts and tank tops mostly – of course a chauffeur driven car is as essential as make up!
Sept. 2, 2013 at 11:29 p.m.RECOMMENDED1

rankin9774Atlanta
Chicago says “I’ll say this in the nicest way I can: this constant pressure is wrong. I can’t care if it’s cultural. Sometimes what is cultural is wrong.”

Does he/she believe this applies to the American cultural pressure on young girls to dress like hookers-in-training with super tight and super short clothes?

It was “pressure” from my daughter’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, father and myself that helped her to navigate this cultural pressure, to dress like a young lady, and to have fun with her wardrobe within reason.

I’m 100% in favor of strong families guiding their young women, a concept that seems to have gone out of style. Check out Lindsay and Miley for examples of what happens when no one cares about the young women in their families making good choices versus “their own” choices.
Aug. 31, 2013 at 8:34 p.m.RECOMMENDED9

NicoleBoston
This is a little unfair and quite frankly, I don’t like this undercurrent of “slut-shaming.” Girls do not dress that way because no one cares about them. Not necessarily, anyway. There are plenty of girls who dress that way when parents do care or parents are overbearing and strict.

And because a girl dresses a certain way does not give you the right to call her a “hooker in training” – it’s attitudes like that they continue the general disrespect toward girls and women, no matter what choices they make.
Sept. 1, 2013 at 2:40 a.m.RECOMMENDED31

Lynn in DCUm, DC
I agree with the other commenters, it is up to the parents to step in and take the pressure off their children when other relatives meddle and criticize. If no one stepped in when you were young, you should be about changing that dynamic. This is also about helping your daughters learn how to set boundaries. Do you want them laughing off and tolerating emotional and physical boundary violations because to do otherwise is rude? This is what you are teaching them.
Aug. 31, 2013 at 8:38 p.m.RECOMMENDED12

EdTemple Hills, MD
Yes because the American way of raising girls is so much more preferable. You know the culture where girls are given such a free reign that the availability of a morning after pill to girls as young as 11 is seen as a noble virtue.

Those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
Sept. 1, 2013 at 2:40 a.m.RECOMMENDED1

JanakiNY
I think author is pointing out the difficulty of young women learning to assert themselves, without offending well meaning elders/extended family members and also to think for themselves and not follow the dictates of the teen fashion world. That is striking a balance, with respect for tradition/elders and also learning to spread their wings in this global city.

If I remember right, the author herself defied tradition and set out for America, after showing her ability to make a good cup of Madras coffee. Her life is richer with experiences that she would not have had if she had stayed home. And she has continued to stay connected to the extended family. As long as children know that they are loved and have a safe and nurturing home, they will grow up to be all that they can be, God willing.
Sept. 1, 2013 at 9:04 p.m.RECOMMENDED3

MeHere
It takes a village. Grandparents are a part of the village.
Sept. 2, 2013 at 11:23 p.m.RECOMMENDED2

bandersenseattle
why should two girls born IN American have to conform to the customs in india? where are their rights? its’ 2013, not 1903
Sept. 2, 2013 at 11:32 p.m.RECOMMENDED1

Vivekananda NemanaHyderabad, India
Well, they live in India for starters.
Sept. 4, 2013 at 9:06 p.m.

meeny
Is being allowed to go to a night club once a week as a high schooler, without any questions asked, really an unalienable right anywhere in the world? Is there a culture that does not have expectations of what is appropriate attire for a formal religious event?
As an Indian mom with teenaged kids, I am very familiar with these kinds of expectations from “elders”. However, these expectations are not exclusively directed towards girls, in this particular social milieu. If the author had sons who wanted to be pastry chefs or entrepreneurs, they would have received the same advice. If they wanted to wear shorts and a tank top to a wedding, that would have been frowned upon as well. There are girls in India who still face enormous injustice and pressures, but those are not the girls who go to the kind of expensive private schools where the kids party at nightclubs four days a week. In that social circle, I would worry far more about peer pressure and pressure from media (Indian AND western), than I would about well meaning, loving grandparents. These girls seem to be privileged, and have wealthy parents who can provide opportunities in both India and the US. They seem to have a role model in their mom who does not seem to have succumbed to cultural expectations (journalist rather than doctor!). Dealing with well meaning but intrusive family, is likely more educational rather than restricting in their case. To use Malala’s name in such a context is an insult to Malala’s struggles.
Sept. 3, 2013 at 8:08 p.m.RECOMMENDED6

Motherlode piece about girls

I wrote and rewrote this piece because it is a topic that I feel passionate about. Women are consensus seekers by nature and often, these voices paralyze action.

August 30, 2013, 11:14 am 10 Comments
For Girls in India, the Pressure to Conform Comes From Family
By SHOBA NARAYAN
I recently watched the remarkable Malala Yousafzai speak at the United Nations to commemorate a day that is named after her. The 16-year-old who was shot by the Taliban, and has since become a celebrated activist for education and women’s rights, said that Malala Day was for “every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights.” She bravely reinterpreted Islam and accused the extremists of being afraid of books, pens and education. “The power of the voice of women frightens them,” she said.

Malala is the same age as my older daughter. While she uses her voice to assert her rights, her use of the word made me think of the many other voices that my daughters and girls all over the world hear, telling them what to wear and how to behave. I have a ringside view of how this plays out with my two daughters, who were born in the United States but now live among our family in India, where the pressure on young girls to conform comes not just from society, but from family. It would be ridiculous to compare it to the limits on Malala and the young women of the Swat Valley, but its root lie in similar expectations.

Seven years ago, my husband and I uprooted our two daughters, Ranju and Malu, from their comfortable lives in Manhattan and moved to India to be closer to our aging parents, and to allow our American-born children to know their Indian heritage.

Today, Ranju is 16 and Malu, 11. They are entrenched in India and surrounded by family. For my daughters, dealing with their grandparents, aunts and uncles regularly is both comforting and demanding. Their grandparents’ notion of what is right is very different from theirs.

It is harder for my teenager, Ranju, who goes to a school that is no different from an American private school. Ranju wears Western clothes that she buys online or during trips abroad: typical teenage wear from Target or Gap. Occasionally, my sari-clad mother will tell her not to wear such “tight and skimpy clothes.” My dad will admonish her for going out to parties “at night.”

“Why can’t you go out with friends during the day?” he will ask. “Why don’t you go to lunch instead of to nightclubs?”

My mother-in-law will offer to massage their hair with coconut oil so that it grows long and lustrous. She will encourage them to speak Tamil, our mother tongue. This is all very nice once in a while, but when the advice, admonitions and loving instructions are constant, it gets wearying. I sympathize with my daughters when both grandmothers and assorted aunts hover around with food, oil, clothes, dos and don’ts, but I also expect them not to be rude to elders.

I would like to say that this dance of voices is an Eastern thing, but I am not sure that it is true. Girls in developing countries face enormous pressure to conform to the norms set by elders in their villages and towns. But I also imagine that a 16-year-old girl in Memphis who lives amid a close-knit extended web of family and friends has a nodding acquaintance with emotional expectations.

My girls are slowly learning to push back without being rude. When my mother-in-law brings in coconut oil the day before a party or event, Ranju will laugh, give her a hug and say, “Tomorrow.” She may joke about its strong smell. Jokes work to defuse and distract, she has found. The affection she gets from grandparents is wonderful and boundless, but it also clouds boundaries of self and personal space.

Occasionally, Ranju comes to me in a bad mood. “Can’t you tell them to lay off?” she asks. That’s when I give her a hug. “Think of it as practice for life,” I say. “If you can say ‘no’ to persistent Indian grandparents, you can say ‘no’ to anyone.”

So Ranju learns to look for the tricky balance between being assertive and courteous. She will tell her 81-year-old grandfather that although he thinks it is weird that she goes out every Saturday night, her school friends actually party four times a week. By asking for one weekend night out, she is actually compromising for the family and not straying off the path. She eats almonds; she oils her hair because they nag her to.

Young Malu wants to be a pastry chef. Ranju wants to be an entrepreneur. Both their ambitions usually get shot down at family weddings.

“Become a doctor,” an uncle will say. “It is more respectable than a pastry chef.”

“Don’t start your own business,” an aunt will tell Ranju. “It’s too risky.”

All these voices mean well, but they mean their version of well. Ranju and Malu are learning to accept the affection while asserting their independence.

It isn’t always easy or graceful. When my girls whine about “being forced” to wear Indian saris for family weddings, I get irritated. I call them drama queens. I have (and I say this sheepishly) used Malala and her cohorts as a tool as well. I talk about girls whose basic rights and choices are dictated by others, and here are my girls making a fuss about wearing a sari. But I do understand that they feel constrained.

They say that it takes a village to raise a child. But for girls, particularly in the East, it is also a matter of silencing voices and swimming against the village tide.

Shoba Narayan is the author of the memoir “Return to India.”

New York Times: Motherlode: Bihar

As a columnist, I don’t get the high of newsrooms very often. But this was one instance where it worked. My editor at the New York Times and I were wrapping up an essay that I had written for their mother load blog. It was about 9 PM last night and we had deemed the piece ready. Then she suddenly sends an email telling me about the Bihar midday meals scheme tragedy and asked if I could write a piece on it within an hour. I did, and then went to watch Scandal! Here it is below.

July 17, 2013, 2:21 pm 1 Comment
Despite Poisoning Deaths, India’s School Lunch Program Must Go On
By SHOBA NARAYAN
As of this writing, 25 children are reported dead in India after eating lunch tainted with insecticide at a primary school in the eastern state of Bihar. More than two dozen others who ate the food are in hospitals.

The children complained as soon as they put the rice, dal (lentils) and watery potato curry in their mouths. They said that it tasted weird. The school official who listened to their complaints and tasted the food fell sick as well. The food was contaminated with organophosphorous, a poisonous trace element found in insecticides. The Times of India reports that two of the dead are children of the woman, a cook, who prepared the lunch.

If the food tasted odd, why did the children continue to eat it? That is the question that haunts me, even though I know the answer: because they were hungry; because it was probably the only meal they would get that day; because the lunch was what brought them to school; because they were used to eating poor quality food. I live here in India; I see the poverty in which many children live.

The midday meals scheme has been lauded as one of India’s successes. It began in the 1960s in my home state, Tamilnadu, and was institutionalized in the ’80s when it spread all over the country.

It brings countless children to school all over the country and gives them lunch for two or three pennies, quite literally. But it needs to be “rescued” from the bureaucracy that cripples it as much as it helps. Shweta Sharma, a teacher in the nearby state of Jharkand, wrote an impassioned essay in FirstPost, about the impact of the midday meals program on her pupils’ lives. “Like other teachers, I’ve personally seen the Midday Meal Scheme succeed in convincing parents to send their children to school,” she said. “Like other teachers, I’m anguished and angry to read of children dying because of the food they were given as part of that scheme. All concerned governments, departments, administration must wake up — because what has happened threatens the only chance children have.”

Growing up in Tamilnadu, I have personally seen poor families make the economic calculation that pits education against livelihood. Farmers who need their sons to help till their land often send the boys to school just so they can get one square meal a day. Mothers who need the added income from having their daughters work in matchbox factories may still send the girls to school simply to eat. “At least they won’t go hungry,” they tell themselves.

I contribute to Akshaya Patra, a nongovernmental organization that cooks and sends food to 1.3 million children across nine states (though not Bihar, where the poisonings occurred). The name has its origin in Hindu mythology and denotes an inexhaustible vessel of food that can feed a village. Akshaya Patra states that it can feed a child for an entire year for just $15. Other NGOs, like the ISKCON Food Relief Foundation, also provide midday meals to schoolchildren, an urgent need in a country where nearly half of the population under age 5 are underweight and nearly half of the population goes hungry.

While the tragedy in Bihar underscore the flaws in the system, it doesn’t detract from the essential goodness of the scheme. Just as having better toilets brings young women to school, serving them lunch brings children to school in droves.

The sad truth is that the Indian school system is stretched (which one isn’t?). Meals are cooked with little supervision. As Alliya Abbas describes in the Niti Central newspaper, the midday meals scheme is rife with corruption and poor management. Locally, it is generally accepted that the ingredients come from rat-infested government warehouses, or “godowns,” as they are called here. They are transported with little heed for safety or health. And the cooking environment is uncertain. A failing gas supply can result in half-cooked food. There are no checks and balances. Most government schoolteachers would probably say that Bihar was a tragedy waiting to happen.

This tragedy will shine a light on the internal problems and perhaps force improvements. Panels will be set up to study what happened and make recommendations. If the deaths of these children lead to change, it will be small comfort to their families, but it may at least prevent other families from suffering in the same way.

India and its families need the midday meals. More children in school, performing better, is better for us all. But to keep the gains the midday meals have brought to India’s schools, children and parents must be able to trust them. India and its local governments must do what needs to be done to keep our schoolchildren safe.

Shoba Narayan is the author of the memoir “Return to India.”

Motherlode

Motherlode of the NYT is one of my favorite blogs– along with The Atlantic’s “The Sexes.”
After the Paul Tudor Jones fracas, I wrote an essay as a reaction. To my delight, they published it today.
The headline is more extreme than my view, but I don’t write the headlines.
I also realize that by focusing on one thing– nursing– I am alienating parents who adopt, which too wasn’t my intent but goes with the polemic op-ed territory, so I’ll cop to that.
As always, I won’t read the comments– for a while anyway.
Finally, Naina, this is for you!!! Thank you.

June 4, 2013, 4:39 pm 5 Comments
Breast Feeding Killed My Focus on Work. I Don’t Miss It.
By SHOBA NARAYAN

Years ago, when I lived on the Upper West Side, I used to have coffee with a bunch of mothers from my daughter’s school — the Philosophy Day School, “opposite Mayor Bloomberg’s house,” as we used to tell the taxi drivers. We would drop our children off in the morning and walk around the corner to drink mediocre brew and forge connections at Nectar Cafe.

Over weeks and months, we got to know one another. Selena used to work in Spain for the fashion brand Loewe. Charlotte had quit her job as a commodities trader when her third daughter was born. Megan had given up immigration law and worked as a docent part-time. I had graduated from the Columbia Journalism School and worked as a freelancer for… well, anyone who would take me. We were, in other words, the archetypal women whom the billionaire trader Paul Tudor Jones mocked last month in his speech at the University of Virginia: women whose laserlike focus on work was “overwhelmed” by motherhood. We were women with babies to bosoms, reminiscing about the hard-charging past lives we had traded to stay home and raise our children.

We were loud of laugh and brash of opinion. Sometimes, we marveled at how firebrands like us had ended up as traditional wives and mothers, holding the fort while our husbands traveled. It was our choice, we told ourselves. Most days, we believed it. We were smart, fiercely independent feminists who had compromised for the sake of the greater good: our families, our children. It was temporary, this exile of ours — until the kids grew up a bit; until our spouses traveled less; until we got that dual degree; until we found our calling; until I got my green card.

A funny thing happened on the way to my citizenship. Years passed. None of us “soccer moms” went back to work — a situation I would encounter again and again when I moved to Singapore, and then to India. Women who had met their husbands while earning their M.B.A. at Wharton, women who had graduated at the top of their law school, women who were smarter than their husbands and had made more money while dating, turned it all in to stay home and raise babies. We lost that killer instinct — that ruthlessness Mr. Jones alluded to when he said that mothers would never make good traders.

As a feminist who believes herself to be equal to any man, it is easy for me to take umbrage at Mr. Jones’s remarks. As a mother who enjoyed having babies to bosom, it is difficult for me not to nod in agreement. When you are caught up with a baby — your baby — the world does fall away. Petty competitions do not make sense any more. Trading does seem like small change relative to the rich rewards of motherhood.

I find myself drawn to a small phrase in Mr. Jones’s diatribe that nobody seems to have noticed or remarked on. Forget the female body references that got everyone’s goat. (“As soon as that baby’s lips touched that girl’s bosom, forget it.”) Forgive the finality with which he dismissed women’s futures as traders — “never,” “period.” Focus instead on the relationship that Jones described in poetic terms: “the most beautiful experience, which a man will never share, about the connection between that mother and that baby.” Do you hear the envy in that phrase? Do you hear the longing of a parent who wants to experience that “connection”? I do.

I realize that my happy experience with breast-feeding (I nursed both my daughters for two years) will not apply to everyone. I have friends who hated nursing their children, and I have other friends to whom the notion of having babies, let alone being stuck at home with them, was torture. But I do believe that this connection mothers share with their children gives them intangible, immeasurable fulfillment. I suspect that sensitive men recognize this bond and envy it, that they feel what Viktor Frankl called “the existential vacuum.”

O.K., maybe I am exaggerating. Or maybe I am gloating.

By feeling insulted, we are allowing Mr. Jones and his world to dictate the parameters of the debate. Why not change the paradigm? Why not celebrate the connection that he describes instead of bristling at it?

In our race to keep up with men, we women have forgotten the joys that are given only to us. We should revel in motherhood instead of discounting it. Instead of rapping Mr. Jones on the knuckles, we should smile serenely at the glories that are denied him. Instead of saying, “Sexist son of a dog,” we should say, “Suck on that, baby — no pun intended.”

New York Times

The editor of Room for Debate got in touch and asked me to write this piece

Respect the Sacred, Ignore the Sexism

Shoba Narayan
Shoba Narayan is a columnist and the author of two books: “Monsoon Diary” and “Return to India.
Updated January 8, 2013, 3:42 PM
I am a Hindu. I love my religion’s glorious and imaginative epic stories, in which seers chose the moment they die and goddesses kill the bad guy while riding a tiger. Within my family, I have Hindu role models who teach me how to conduct the pujas (prayers) and celebrate Hindu holidays.
That said, I still have vexing issues with certain aspects of Hinduism. Like most religions, it is patriarchal–something that the feminist in me deeply resents–and its rituals, though beautiful, can be tedious. But at the end of the day, the mantras, chanting, yoga and other Hindu traditions are what I know and cherish…and what I want to share with my children…but in a Hinduism-lite way.

I tell my daughters that religions are products of a certain era; they have outdated rules.

I believe that raising children within the broad precepts of a religion is good for them. Faith grounds them and gives them part of their identity. My hope is that it will help them later in life when life throws monkey-wrenches at them. I hope that chanting the mantras that they learned at home will give them the strength and resilience to deal with difficulties. Studies have shown that faith helps to preserve relationships, and enhance longevity, health and happiness.
Although Hinduism is an easy religion to follow—we don’t have to keep kosher or go on pilgrimages, for example–there are some constraints that continue to make me uncomfortable as the mother of two daughters. Sons have to cremate fathers, for instance, and mantras like the Rudram, a hymn in praise of Lord Shiva, are supposed to be chanted only by men.
Such sexist rules anger me. I combat them through disobedience. And I try not to expose my daughters to them. They don’t know, for example, that they are not supposed to chant the Rudram. They’ve certainly heard women in our community chant it enough times (and me attempt to chant it in bits and pieces). As for sons being in charge of cremating the parents, my daughters, at 16 and 11, are far too young to ponder this. Instead, we have tangential discussions. I tell my daughters that Hinduism–and indeed all religions—are products of a certain era. They all contain rules that are no longer relevant. They need to be reinterpreted to suit the times and our lives.
I want my girls to be strong women capable of anything. I want them to imbibe a faith that gives them strength but is also flexible enough to accommodate their dreams and circumstances. For now, Hinduism will do.

New York Times

I found my articles in the New York Times website by searching its archives (since 1851). They also have some feedback to my pieces which were amusing.
You can see the page here

Here are the articles themselves.

India’s Arranged Marriages take a toll

Where the Kitchen is Mostly a Men’s Club: An article about the Food Network TV shows where most of the hosts are men. All my New York chef friends hated it.

Arranged Marriages essay feedback

More marriage feedback

And the article itself: Close to Home: when life’s partner comes pre-chosen.
This article appeared just before I graduated from the Columbia J-school. I believe (even though I don’t know this for a fact) that it influenced my getting of the Pulitzer Travelling Fellowships. My agent had talked to the New York Times Home section editor at that time. I think her name was Barbara Graustark. I remember getting a call at home and the voice at the other end said, “This is Barbara Graustark at the New York Times. I was interested in having you write something for us at the Home section and your agent told me about your arranged marriage. Would you like to write something about it?” I just sat down and took a deep breath.

On Board the Bombay Express: a rolling feast of India.

Food Network Male Chefs rant– a reader reaction

My Professor, Sam Freedman’s article about culture and terrorism. He called me here in Bangalore to interview me on this. I was just happy to talk to him– on any subject he chose.

To Refresh a Palate, or a Sultan’s Kiss: story on paan.

Chef reaction

Online wake

New York Times: On Board the Bombay Express


This piece that I wrote for the New York Times a while ago was included in The Virago Book of Food– just out.

On Board the Bombay Express

On Board the Bombay Express: A Rolling Feast of India
By SHOBA NARAYAN

THE most important thing when traveling by train in India is not whether you have a seat in first class (more comfortable) or second class (more congenial), not whether you have confirmed tickets or even your destination. The most important thing is the size of your neighbor’s tiffin carrier, the Indian lunchbox. If you are lucky, you will be seated near a generous Marwari matron whose way of making your acquaintance is to hand you a hot roti stuffed with potato saag.

I was 14 when this happened to me, and I still remember biting into the soft, ghee-stained roti bread and feeling the explosion of spices in my mouth as I encountered cumin, cilantro, ginger, green chilies, pungent onions and finally — like a sigh — a comfortingly soft potato. It was dawn. The train whistled mournfully as it click-clacked its way through the misty countryside. A cool breeze wafted through the open window and teased the curls behind my ear. Fragrant turmeric-yellow saag dribbled from the corner of my mouth. A perfect symphony for the senses.

It was 1981, and my family and I were taking the Bombay Express from Madras to Bombay (now officially called Chennai and Mumbai) for our annual summer vacation, a trip of about 30 hours. Across from me, my parents, still faint and groggy from the effort of packing and bundling us onto the train, were nodding off. Beside me, my 13-year-old pest of a brother was elbowing for the window seat, which I had no intention of relinquishing. I turned toward the Marwari matron hopefully. She smiled as she opened another container. In a trance, I went to her.

Marwaris are from the desert state of Rajasthan, and Marwari women are known to be fantastic cooks. They are also known to be generous to a fault, which makes them dream companions for a long train journey. Enterprising Gujaratis, on the other hand, were more businesslike, which meant that I had to ingratiate myself to gain access to their divine kadi (sweet-and-sour buttermilk soup). A boisterous Punjabi family was always good for card games interspersed with hearty rajma (spiced kidney beans). Intellectual Bengalis from Calcutta, now called Kolkata, were a challenge. I had to match wits with them before they would share their luscious rosogollas (sweet cheese balls) and sandesh (milk and sugar squares) with me. I didn’t bother with the South Indians, being one myself.

It was this glorious home-cooked food that made the train journeys of my childhood memorable. My uncle in Bangalore was a few hours away by the Lal Bagh (Red Garden) Express; my grandparents were an overnight journey away on the Blue Mountain Express. We got on the train in the evening and later climbed into the sleeper berths. We woke up to the smiling faces of my grandparents, who met the train with flasks of hot coffee and crisp vadas (lentil doughnuts) fried right on the platform.

Unlike these short overnight journeys, the trip from Madras to Bombay was satisfyingly long. The train left Madras at dawn and reached Bombay the following morning. My brother and I had all day and all night in the train to stake out corners, play card games, make friends with the other children, run riot through the compartment, annoy ticket inspectors by singing to the rhythm of the train, and most important, partake of our neighbors’ tiffin carriers.

The tiffin carrier is a simple, yet wonderful Indian invention. Several cylindrical stainless-steel containers are stacked and held together with a metal fastener that serves as a handle. Although the word tiffin means light food, the tiffin carrier can hold anything. The one I took daily to school had two containers — the bottom one for a hearty rice dish and the top one, a vegetable.

If my school lunchbox with its measly two containers was a Manhattan town house, the Marwari matron’s tiffin carrier was the Empire State Building, with more than a dozen stainless-steel containers. She opened each container at a strategic point in our journey. At dawn, we had the roti and potato saag. At 10 a.m., a snack of crisp kakda wafers speckled with pepper. For lunch, a bounty of stuffed parathas (flatbreads filled with mashed potatoes, spinach, radishes, paneer-cheese and other such goodies).

My mother had brought lunch in a tiffin carrier, too — petal-soft idlis wrapped in banana leaves and slathered with coconut chutney. Idlis are steamed dumplings made from a rice and lentil batter that is allowed to ferment for a day. American idlis are hard and don’t possess a tangy sourdough taste. To eat the authentic spongy idli in all its glory, you have to go to Madras and get invited to someone’s home for breakfast.

My mother always made idlis for train travel because, among their other virtues, they keep well. The Marwari boys scooped hers up with gusto and wolfed them down with gentle, satisfied grunts.

As the sun climbed high in the sky, the train rolled into the arid plains of Andhra Pradesh. I began salivating for mangoes. The moment the train stopped at Renigunta Station, passengers jumped off on an urgent errand. My father and I disdained the train-side hawkers who carried baskets of high-priced, inferior mangoes, and sprinted toward the stalls on either side of the platform. About a dozen different types of mangoes were piled high: custardy Mulgoas, robust sweet-sour Alphonsos, ultrajuicy Banganapallis, parrot-beaked Bangaloras, and finally, the Rasalu, the king of mangoes in terms of sweetness.

A few minutes of intense bargaining followed, fueled by the fact that the train would leave the station at any minute. Just as the whistle blew and the guard waved his green flag, my father and I jumped back on the train carrying armloads of juicy mangoes, which tasted even better for the adrenaline and tension that surrounded their purchase. My brother and I sat at the open door of the train as it rumbled slowly through the Deccan Plateau, slurping mangoes and waving at villagers. I threw the mango seeds into opportune clearings and imagined entire mango orchards rising behind me.

Almost every station in India sells a regional specialty that causes passengers to dart on and off of trains. My parents have awakened me at 3 a.m. just to taste the hot milk at Erode Station in Tamil Nadu. Anyone passing by Nagpur Station is entreated to buy its glorious oranges. Allahabad, home to Hinduism and the river Ganges, is famous for its guavas; Agra, where the Taj Mahal stands, has wonderful pedas (chewy squares of candy made with milk). Shimla, called queen of the hill stations by the British, was known for its apples. Kerala, where my father spent his childhood and still leaves his heart, has the best plantain fritters, fried in coconut oil on the platform.

As if the stations weren’t distraction enough, a steady stream of vendors brought food onto the train. Our midafternoon card games were almost always interrupted by teenage boys in khaki shorts selling coffee. ”Kapi, kapi, kapi,” they would call, pausing to check out who had the best hand of cards. Frequently, the person with the best hand ordered a round of coffee for the group, inadvertently giving away his advantage.

If we were lucky enough to stop at Andhra Pradesh at dinnertime, my parents would buy us aromatic biriyanis. Andhra cooks make the best biriyanis in the world. They combine Basmati rice, succulent meats marinated in a yogurt-mint sauce with ginger, garlic, green chilies and a long list of ground roasted spices. These ingredients are slow-cooked in a vessel with a lid sealed on with dough so that the flavors don’t escape. Being Brahmins and therefore vegetarians, my parents encouraged us to eat vegetable biriyanis. The only times I almost strayed are when I encountered the mouth-watering smell of lamb biriyanis on trains.

Having lived in the United States for 15 years, I made my most recent annual visit to India a few months ago. My father considerately booked us on the Shatabdi (Century) Express from Madras to Bangalore. My parents were thrilled to be showing off the Shatabdi Express. ”It is just like your U.S. airplanes,” my mother exclaimed. Indeed it was. Fully air-conditioned with reclining seats, this super-fast train is frequented by business people and foreigners. It leaves on time and doesn’t make random stops. The sealed windows and air-conditioning keep away heat, dust and stray vendors. As soon as we got on, two plastic-gloved attendants gave us bottled water, newspapers and a hot breakfast served from a trolley. In a scant four hours, we had reached Bangalore.

Yes, the train was clean, punctual and efficient, an entirely new concept for India, which was why my parents loved it. But I didn’t want convenient and efficient. Although I appreciated the air-conditioning, I wanted color, characters and memories. For that, I should have taken my daughter, who accompanied me to India this year, on the Bombay Express. Second class.

Photos: POTLUCK PICNICS — On trains like the one above, in Bombay in 1971, passengers often shared homemade specialties and bought local treats at each stop. Left, an Indian train station in 1967. (Press Information Bureau, Government of India)