Feasting and fasting

I am writing this as I face laddus, barfis, badam chocolates, and mixture. Oh, the irony.

Denial is good in principle, but is it better than an extra cup of coffee?
Shoba Narayan

October 19, 2014 Updated: October 19, 2014 05:38 PM

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The festive season is in full swing in India. It is a time for celebration, family and pain. People obsess over feasting and fasting. The eternal question that accompanies most happy events, whether they are weddings, parties or holidays, continues to be asked: how to enjoy the array of goodies that tempt the palate at every corner without putting on a few pounds?

It is this conundrum that I’m contemplating as I walk up the hill in Kashmir with a few fellow hikers. We have just finished a fantastic Wazwan, or Kashmiri feast, replete with delicacies: kebabs, a variety of roasted meats and vegetarian dishes for me. I follow a fairly standard routine in such situations. I eat, I replay the wonderful dishes that I had just finished eating in my imagination, following which I dream about the food that is to follow. It is this activity that I’m engaging in when my companion tells me about a concept that is completely alien to my disposition.

I listen, mouth agape, as SS Bijral, a retired inspector general of police in Kashmir, tells me about the “pleasures of denial.” In his red turban, Mr Bijral, 75, cuts a spry, energetic figure as we walk up the hill. The Dal Lake sprawls to one side in the far distance and the dense foliage hugs us on the other. I am doing the walking version of the “stomach-pulled-in” manoeuvre that men do when they pose for a photograph. My mouth is open to avoid huffing and puffing and I am trying not to show the dignified Mr Bijral that I can barely keep up with him.

There are a few benefits of getting old, but for the life of me, I cannot remember them. Losing your memory and becoming acquainted with pain are certainly two of the downsides to ageing. But being older also gives us the opportunity to impart wisdom to the next generation – and it is precisely this that Mr Bijral is doing. Finding pleasure in denial is a nifty concept, and one that he has been following for most of his adult life. The basic idea goes like this: whenever you find something in the food and drink area that is both tempting and avoidable, you have to figure out a way to deny yourself this temptation. As most of us know, temptation lurks in every corner. The dark chocolate that winks at you every time you open the fridge; the fifth cup of fantastic coffee that makes a case for the goodness of caffeine; the aromatic steak that is calling your name; or that street food that reminds you of home.

Each of these are wonderful and completely unnecessary. So, I asked my army companion how he is able to find pleasure in saying no to these delicacies. The trick, he says, is to fast forward into the future. You have to remember what happened the last time you drank that fifth cup of coffee. You have to remember the sleepless night that resulted. Every time you see a piece of luscious red meat, you have to imagine visiting the cardiologist and reading the results of your blood test. “I eat until 75 per cent of my stomach is full, and imagine how light I will feel later as I watch my companions continuing to eat even when they don’t need to,” says Mr Bijral sensibly. Put this way, it is an easy method to follow.

As Bangalore-based wellness expert Sujata Kelkar Shetty says, we eat for a variety of reasons and many of them don’t have anything to do with hunger. Sometimes we eat because we are bored, or because we are lonely, or because we are stressed out and tired, or because we long for those comfortable feelings that the food reminds us of. The trick is to figure out why we are reaching for that tub of ice cream. Is it because the ice cream reminds us of a happy childhood memory? If so, we would be better served by opening up the family album and looking at old photographs while sipping some water?

All of this sounds great but there is only one problem: no matter what we do to it, water will never taste as good as ice cream. Even so, I’m determined to figure out the pleasures of denial during this festive season if only because I don’t want to confront the bathroom scales on January 1, 2015.

Old age

What’s the best way to navigate your way through old age?
Shoba Narayan
October 15, 2014 Updated: October 15, 2014 06:31 PM

My mind has recently been full of sobering thoughts about death, taxes and ageing and the question of how to age gracefully?

The literature on ageing lists many activities that can help us as we get older. Exercise is an obvious one, as is developing a close and nurturing group of friends and family. There is one virtue, however, that is underplayed in many studies about ageing and that is cultivating a passion. This is difficult to do, mostly because we don’t realise its importance until we are too old.

Most adults attempt to live rich and fulfilling lives. Look around at your friends and colleagues. We all have jobs that are sometimes tedious but mostly engaging. We have hobbies. We play golf or tennis. We read a bit before sleeping. We follow a few television shows. We have social networks and we go to restaurants and maintain friendships. What many of us lack is a passion that we can turn to. Work doesn’t count unless it can be parlayed after retirement. If you are an art historian, for instance, you can still be engaged in art studies after retirement.

I know a few people who have this passion for a particular activity.

My brother-in-law in Florida is a physician with a busy private practice. His weekends, however, are devoted to his passion: epigraphy or the study of ancient inscriptions. He collects data on the Indus Valley civilisation and its scripts. He reads reams of literature, talks to scholars from all over the world via Skype, attends conferences and takes online courses. Sometimes an entire weekend will go by without him ever leaving his library.

But what about the rest of us? Perhaps the way to find a solution is to imbue the question with some urgency.

Think about it this way: who is going to hang out with you when you are 80 years old? No matter how affectionate our children are, there comes a point when they are too busy for us, and often, this point comes sooner than we want.

Ageing involves solitude whether you like it or not. Your world shrinks, your friends die and you have to figure out how to keep your mind occupied. Cheery thought, isn’t it?

Sailing through the choppy waters of advanced age involves figuring out an activity that will engage and energise you. Music, for instance, offers great potential for relaxation.

The way to convert this into a passion is to take music appreciation courses.

Similarly, playing chess does not require you to do heavy lifting. It can be played with any child that walks through the door.

If you happen to be spiritually inclined, this is the time to take a deep dive into your religion because, at the end of the day we all have to confront questions about our maker and our role in this world.

Ageing gracefully does not only means slathering on expensive creams and lotions. It can just as easily involve mental somersaults that will leave you refreshed and glad to be alive.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Procrastination

I have learnt how to procrastinate with furious efficiency
Shoba Narayan

October 7, 2014 Updated: October 7, 2014 05:40 PM

It began innocently enough and took a fairly standard trajectory. Prodded by stray comments from the spouse, a sibling, a friend and a parent, I virtuously decided to make yet another effort to improve my life.

As always, I began with grandiose plans that had no chance of being implemented. I would not begin my day by checking email. I would instead hug a child, a spouse, or at least a stuffed animal.

I wouldn’t lie in a somnolent stupor in front of the television, scarfing down potato chips while promising myself that each chip would be the last one. I would ban potato chips from entering my household.

I wouldn’t enter the shower and then realise that every single plastic bottle that littered the shower stall was empty. I would stock each bathroom with a host of fragrant products that would satisfy every human need and then some.

I wouldn’t go to the grocery store for just one (forgotten) ingredient or item at the last minute, just before the guests arrived for dinner and the cake was in danger of collapsing. I would make a running list of grocery needs starting every Monday, tack it to the refrigerator and then shop on Sunday for the week’s needs with furious speed. I would begin by buying several magnets so that I could tack the aforementioned grocery list and every how-to and to-do note on the refrigerator.

And so it went, my messy life.

In desperation, I turned to mobile applications that would help me. “Efficiency apps,” I typed into my computer. Almost like magic, a whole host of websites, apps, and advice columns popped up.

There was one called Self Control that prevented me from mindlessly surfing the internet every time I was stuck for a word.

There was one called iProcrastinate that pretty much described my working process and helped me prevent it.

There were two apps called Pocket and Evernote that allowed me to clip anything I chose from websites for future reference and reading.

That was a vast improvement from my current system, which is to mindlessly scribble quotable quotes and flashes of insight onto the first available piece of paper and then go around the house in a state of permanent irritation, asking: “Has anyone seen that discarded envelope onto which I had written a line from Maya Angelou’s poem? It was a yellow piece of junk mail stating that I had won the lottery and I had written Phenomenal Woman in one corner. Anyone seen it?”

How do you manage the minutiae of your life and keep them from tipping over? Are you a clipper of articles, a list maker, or someone who uses an app like “Clear” or “Wunderlist”, to get things done?

My method has been fairly simple. I prioritise the things I need to keep track of: flashes of genius, irreplaceable insights and the phone number of the store that supplied school uniforms. Everything else just falls through the cracks.

I am in the market, if you will, for a personal assistant who will keep things in order. Failing that, I have resorted to reading advice columns from scarily efficient people like Martha Stewart – who devil their eggs, glaze their pudding, iron their underwear, and tuck the corners of their bed linen into severe straight lines.

They all begin with one piece of advice – actually two. The first thing to achieve household order is to actually believe it is possible; that a permanent state of chaos and searching for objects is an aberration, not the norm.

The second is to view such an outcome with admiration, not scorn. The latter seems to be my Waterloo. Cleanliness may be next to Godliness but not in my book. I think that if the universe began with chaos, it is good enough for me.

This attitude may make me feel superior to all those busy worker bees who tirelessly file, scrub, segregate and organise, but it doesn’t help in real life. I must emulate them rather than mock their ways.

I must join the bees instead of thinking myself above it all. Who am I – a queen bee? Even queen bees self-destruct without the colony.

As I write this, my desk is pristine; my newspapers are filed in an ornamental fashion, my fridge is full of magnets with important notes. Now if only I could find that piece of paper in which I wrote the time of the doctor’s appointment.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir

Childhood food cravings

Wrote this piece on a transatlantic flight.  I guess having bad airline food helped kindle taste memories.

The best cuisines are those that have the flavours of home

Shoba Narayan

September 14, 2014 Updated: September 14, 2014 04:59 PM

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How many days can you go before you crave the foods of your childhood? I can last a two weeks, tops, and only if I am stuck in the middle of the Australian outback without access to turmeric or some decent curry powder.   

When it comes down to it, most of us are fairly narrow in terms of our food preferences. 

We may have cultivated a taste for sushi and noodles, but scratch the surface and we each have our own versions of shepherd’s pie, cheeseburger and fries or, in my case, rasam and dosa. Some clever restaurateurs try to use this love of traditional foods in the marketing of their dishes.  

A restaurant in England, described hummus as “chickpea mash”. I love hummus, but I wouldn’t eat chickpea mash if you gave me a year’s supply of Crème de la Mer, which, as it happens, is a wrinkle cream and not something that is churned from the sea. The restaurateur, however, told me that it was his most popular dish because the English associated it with bangers and mash.

Food is intimately tied with identity, home, memory and well-being. We may each have acquired global preferences in other parts of our lives, but take food away and you have the skeletal remains of the global sophisticates that we’ve all become. 

There will be variations. Indians who live their entire lives in temperate countries cannot eat the same level of spiciness that their parents did. Indians who grew up in Africa

incorporate local spices into their spice mixes. Indians who spend a lifetime in Scandinavia get used to local dishes but add a dash of lemon pickle to perk things up. But in each case, the essential component

remains underneath the new culinary layers that they’ve added on. 

Some part of it is habit. A north Indian or a Pakistani will finish a meal with a flavourful and fragrant biriani, because he says that rice will rest his stomach after the parade of meats. For a south Indian, it will be curd rice – something to eat at the end of the evening just because it settles your stomach.  

A Japanese chef once told me that after an evening creating the most wonderful dishes for his patrons, he goes home and eats boiled rice. These are the things that we grew up with, the proverbial chicken soup that nourishes our soul, in this life.

When you become an expatriate, you reach back your old country for three culinary things: comfort, essence and personal preferences. Curd rice isn’t particularly flavourful if you eat it for the first time, but it is comfort food for a south Indian.  

Being south Indian myself, I can tell you that I didn’t reach back for all the dishes I grew up with when I lived abroad. I had personal preferences veering towards the north. I loved paneer dishes; I liked their buttery dals instead of our watery ones. I liked milk-based Bengali sweets instead of sugar-based south Indian ones. Beyond the comfort foods and the personal preferences, there is that elusive element of the essence of India, which in my view, are its spices. After a two weeks away from them, I need a spice mix for a fix. It all boils down to that. It is my version of a hot dog, chicken soup, kebab, satay, sushi, or whatever your comfort food might be. I don’t question it. I just need it.

Shoba Narayan is the author of -Return to India: a memoir

Pittsburgh

Some American cities are hidden jewels.  Pittsburgh is one.  

Steeling a march in Pittsburgh

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We’re walking through the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. My 12-year-old daughter, Malu, has discovered a dinosaur with cancer. It’s a bone, really, in a glass case, with a tumour that’s 150 million years old. “Wow,” I think. It certainly lends perspective to my anaemic arthritic complaints. What’s the cliché? The only certainties are death and ­taxes? And now, it seems, ­tumours.

The museum, named after Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish steel baron whose mark is left all over this city of 446 bridges, is among the reasons why Pittsburgh was recently named America’s most liveable city by a number of publications, including Forbes magazine and The Economist. The Andy Warhol Museum is another crowd-pleaser. To see Warhol’s paintings drenched in celebrities of the time (Marilyn, Jackie, Elvis) is to understand why he said: “In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” This was prescient in an age before Twitter and Facebook. Warhol, like the authors Gertrude Stein and Rachel Carson, was born here.

My favourite visit is to the Mattress Factory, a museum of contemporary art with room-sized installations (or “environments”) created by artists in residence: Yayoi Kusama’s explosion of polka dots through one room – floor, ceiling and walls – is eye-popping. When we come out, the world seems tame by comparison.

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Autumn is a good time to visit Pittsburgh. The humid summer gives way to brisk, cool air that snowballs, quite literally, into winter. Banners welcome incoming students who populate its concentration of universities and teaching hospitals: Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), one of the country’s finest engineering schools; University of Pittsburgh, with its large research programme; Duquesne, with its famous Tamburitzans, the country’s longest-running multicultural folk dance company; women’s colleges Chatham and Carlow; and, unusually, the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. Pittsburgh is a college town, but one that’s not overwhelmed by them. Its roots go back to working-class America and manufacturing. For a long time, it was called Steel City. Indeed, when Carnegie decided to build a university, he designed long corridors that sloped downwards, to hedge his bets. If the university didn’t take off, he figured, he would convert the building into manufacturing plants with assembly lines. Today, CMU’s orientation includes a walk down long corridors reminiscent of the steel plants that once populated Pittsburgh.

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As an admirer of Carnegie, I’m ­eager to walk in his footsteps. ­Beginning as a telegrapher, he sold his Carnegie Steel company for US$480 million, the equivalent of about $14 billion (Dh51.42bn) in today’s dollars. He spent the last half of his life in philanthropy, ­endowing a slew of museums and institutions in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, the most famous of which is Carnegie Hall, New York. In Pittsburgh, his name adorns the museums of art, natural history and science. “Man does not live by bread alone,” said Carnegie famously. “My aspirations take a higher flight. Mine be it to have contributed to the enlightenment and the joys of the mind, to the things of the spirit, to all that tends to bring into the lives of the toilers of Pittsburgh sweetness and light. I hold this the noblest possible use of wealth.” With these sentiments, Carnegie changed the course of his adopted city from one that was beholden to steel for its economy into one that has risen above it.

Geographically, Pittsburgh is located at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which meet to form the Ohio River. The tri-river convergence happens at Point State Park, marked by a fountain. Indians have long believed that the convergence of rivers happens in sacred places called “prayag” in Sanskrit. The Native Americans perhaps believed the same thing, for the Shawnee and other tribes were drawn to the area centuries ago. Today, a 144-year-old cable car takes visitors up the Monongahela Incline for a stunning view atop Mount Washington. The other cable car with a historic flavour is the Duquesne Incline. Most visitors go up one, walk around Mount Washington for the views, grab a bit to eat and come down the other ­incline.

The beauteous hilly landscape attracted immigrants – Polish, Jewish, German, Italian, African-American and Croatian – all of whom occupy distinct neighbourhoods in the city even today, giving Pittsburgh an attractive ethnic flavour. They came to work in the steel factories, manning assembly lines and manufacturing units.

When the steel industry went bust, Pittsburgh was forced to reinvent itself. It turned to technology, robotics, biomedical engineering and software – Google has a growing presence in the city – to grow.

Google’s office is round the corner from SpringHill Suites, a Marriott hotel where we’re staying. Guests have access to the fitness centre next door. Panera Bread, at the base of the building, provides quick sandwich lunches, and Coffee Tree Roasters, across the street, gives us a morning shot of espresso in an environment that is more distinctive than a Starbucks. Bakery Square, where the hotel is situated, is also where Social, one of Pittsburgh’s popular resto-bars, is located. At 5pm one evening, the place is packed with locals drinking and dining on homestyle chicken and meat dishes.

Pittsburgh has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of bars per capita in the United States. Its restaurants aren’t to be sniffed at either. Some are local legends. Primanti Brothers, a chain of sandwich shops, is a favourite among students for its low-key vibe and large portions. Pamela’s Diner, where Barack Obama enjoyed pancakes during a campaign stop, reminds us of an old-fashioned Jewish diner in New York. The recently reopened Fuel & Fuddle is famous for its hanger steaks, Buffalo wings and pizza. One evening, we enjoy ravioli and salads at Legume, a stylish restaurant with local art and friendly waiters in the Oakland neighbourhood. Over the course of four days, we try homemade ice cream at Dave & Andy’s; Sushi Fuku; Everyday Noodles; and the atmospheric Spice Island Tea House. Ethnic grocery stores – Indian, Mexican, Chinese – abound. Restaurants in Pittsburgh aren’t fancy and, indeed, locals use the word almost as an accusation. People value humility and discretion in this Pennsylvanian city on the brink of the Midwest. Molecular gastronomy, sculptural desserts, drinks as chemistry – all the things that can seem normal in a New York restaurant – are viewed as over the top and pretentious here.

Where Pittsburgh goes to de-stress is at Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, its National Football League team. The city also has the Pirates for Major League Baseball and the Penguins in the National Hockey League. Locals have fierce loyalties towards these teams and tickets for games have long waiting lists. The golf legend Arnold Palmer learnt his game on Pittsburgh’s courses and the three rivers foster a vibrant water community in clement weather, with rowing, kayaking and the annual Three Rivers Regatta.

Equally vibrant is the artistic community. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is among the best in the country (the actor Gabriel Macht, who plays Harvey Specter in the television series Suits, is an alumnus). During the annual Tony Awards for theatre, CMU ran an advert featuring all the illustrious screenwriters, actors and directors who walked the portals of its school. Perhaps because of this connection, hundreds of films, including The Dark Knight Rises, The Avengers, The Fault in Our Stars, Jack Reacher and the upcoming American Pastoral were fully or partially filmed in the city. On tour buses, it’s fun to spot the movie locations, all of which are enthusiastically pointed out by locals.

We assumed that the Phipps Conservatory would be just another botanical garden. What makes it exciting is the toy trains, which children are allowed to touch. Narrow aisles take us through a stunning array of plants, orchids and flowers. The cafe inside has a number of vegetarian options, while we spot academics talking to each other about esoteric subjects as they walk through the conservatory.

For those inclined, Pittsburgh has a number of cultural offerings, including a symphony, dozens of theatres and a thriving jazz and bluegrass music scene. The National Negro Opera Company, the country’s first, was founded in the city. The Benedum theatre, built in 1928, seats about 3,000 people and hosts movies, Broadway shows and music. Across the street is the Proper Brick Oven & Tap Room, serving amazing pizza and locally brewed drinks on tap.

Fancier still is the art deco Heinz Hall, dripping with chandeliers and red carpets. Here too, however, Pittsburgh doesn’t take itself too seriously. Along with the city’s symphony orchestra and George Gershwin’s music, Heinz Hall has hosted Bugs Bunny at the Symphony. Think animated Bugs Bunny goofiness with a live orchestra playing Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro or Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

On our last day in Pittsburgh, we do something that only a Hindu Indian family would do: we go to the Hindu temple to see Lord Balaji, who occupies India’s richest temple atop a hill in Tirupati. After eating tamarind rice at the Balaji temple, we board our flight for the long journey home.

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Perfectionist children

Of course, the below can be seen as a long-winded excuse from a non-perfectionist. :)

 

Failure is an important stopover on the road to success

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Are children these days becoming perfectionists? Whether it’s playing water polo or learning Spanish, I watch children attempt an activity, quickly calibrate if they will be good at it and then decide whether to continue with it. “I am not good at it,” is an often-given reason for not pursuing a skill, talent or musical instrument.
I read the book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, with dismay and understanding. In it, the authors argue that a combination of self-doubt and a desire for perfectionism often cripple women from achieving their full potential. Perhaps it is nostalgic idealism but the girls of my generation were not this way. We took greater risks with our choices, mostly because the downside was so low. Societies and cultures didn’t focus on “success” so much.
Certainly, we didn’t have as many opportunities or as much attention from the adults in our lives. My parents were around but not necessarily engaged in my life when I grew up. My father was a busy professor and my mother was engaged in the business of life. There was always a stream of relatives who had to be taken care of, visiting grandparents and erratic gas connections that needed to be sorted out.
I remember my parents nagging my brother and me to study or finish our homework, but they certainly weren’t clued-in to the minutiae of my life. We had long summer holidays in which we were pretty much left to our own devices. We were forced to amuse ourselves by catching grasshoppers were playing endless games of Monopoly. It was a boring life when compared to the rich variety of activities and pursuits that my children enjoy but it was also one in which the stakes were low. My parents’ sense of worth wasn’t tied to our achievements as children.
I’ve recently begun to question the level of involvement that I have had in my children’s lives. Would I serve them better by ignoring them or at least detaching myself somewhat from their goals?
Every parent wants to raise children with a few basic characteristics: a strong work ethic, a desire for improvement, the ability to enjoy what life gives you, the resilience to combat and rise from hardships, compassion, altruism, some amount of self-awareness, humility and the courage to pursue a dream. All of this amounts to that nebulous quality that we call self-worth. All parents want to raise children with a strong sense of self-worth. The only problem is that it is tricky to engineer this. Self-worth, like many things in life, has to be gained, not given.
I have tried waterskiing three times in my life. The first time was in Michigan, where a friend who lived on the river a bunch of us summer campers out on his boat and taught us waterskiing. I was abysmal at it. I couldn’t even stand up. The water rushed towards my face as the boat sped up. Breathless and gurgling with frustration, I would try to yank myself up on the skis and fail within three seconds. I would tumble into the water.
My humiliation was made worse by the fact that all my friends seem to pick up this skill for standing up on a moving waterski within a couple of tries. The second time I tried it was in Goa. This time I took a class. The same thing happened. My instructors would yell from the speeding boat while I tried to balance on my haunches and hold the rope tightly. Again, within a couple of seconds, I would let go of the rope and sink into the water.
Recently, on a trip to Sri Lanka, I tried waterskiing again. This time, I was able to stand up. I cannot begin to tell you how joyous it made me feel; and how much it added to my sense of achievement. Best of all, I earned it.
The trick for any parent is to help their child find such experiences – where they fail at first and then, after a struggle, succeed. That, more than anything, leads to self-worth.

From thin to fat

Both my brother and I were painfully thin while growing up, which in Chennai was a bad thing. My Mom gave us strange concoctions to fatten us up– raw eggs with milk was the worst– to no effect.

Now I am finally confronting my slowing metabolism with wonder (I’ve gained weight!) and shock. And finally, I am exercising.

I’m going to keep up my fitness regime, even if it kills me
Shoba Narayan

August 12, 2014 Updated: August 12, 2014 05:34 PM
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The women in my kick-boxing class generate a lot of oestrogen. Or is it testosterone that is created when women kick, punch and scream their way to fitness nirvana?
Keeping up with these women takes my breath away – literally. I wheeze and cough as I perform high kicks and low punches. The woman in front of me glances back, as if low fitness levels were contagious. She is wearing a pink leotard, and she goes through the class like a fireball, never letting up, never giving less than 100 per cent.
She is small, packed tightly, treads lithely and punches like Muhammad Ali. Just the fact that I belong to the same species as her makes me proud, even giddy. But maybe that’s just the exercise.
I wonder about her, this pink leotard lady. Perhaps she has a job in marketing and is forced to be nice to clients all day. Perhaps that’s why she punches so fiercely.
She smiles at me sometimes. I don’t smile back. If I do, she’ll become my friend. Then she’ll start giving me advice about how to become fit; and from there it is a short road to “stop eating potatoes”, which I absolutely refuse to do. In fact, I am eating a chip right now, just to prove my point.
For people who, like me, lack discipline, fitness classes are a great motivator. They turn fitness into a group activity rather than a Herculean lone task. Of late, I’ve signed up for them all: zumba, kick-boxing, pilates, circuit training, cross- fit, yoga, you name it. Whether I go to them all is another matter.
When I do go, which is infrequently, I get daunted by the level at which my cohorts are performing. Whoever thinks that India is a country full of unfit, diabetes-prone, cholesterol-laden citizens perpetually on the verge of cardiac arrests ought to go to cross-fit classes.
Fitness is a mild obsession of mine, not because I am fit or I am working towards getting fit in any serious manner but because I am trying to game the system and my body to see if I can optimise fitness and lose the greatest number of kilograms with the least possible effort.
Every device that maximises benefit without extra effort, I will buy. I suck my stomach in during a car ride until I almost asphyxiate. In yoga, it is called uddiyana bandha, and we are supposed to do it during ashtanga yoga exercise. I do it while standing in queues.
Kick-boxing is a recent addition to my fitness cocktail, mostly because it calms me down.
The five women who stand in the front row are the leaders of our kick-boxing class. They stare murderously at their reflections in the mirror as they kick, punch, snarl, side swipe, squat and punch again.
A few rounds of this and my eyes glaze. I wobble like a snake that has just been banged on the head by a snake charmer. They glance at me; their eyes even look concerned. But they don’t stop kicking.
This, then, is what it has come down to. A person could have a cardiac arrest and keel over, right there in the fitness studio, and all those extreme-fitness mavens would just keep on punching.

Short working hours

I honestly don’t think shorter working hours are going to work. People want to work more because they like it.

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All work and no play is no way to spend the rest of your life

Shoba Narayan
August 9, 2014 Updated: August 9, 2014 05:59

How many hours a week do you work on average? For most of us, the problem is not the division between work and home, but the fact that work has now seeped into every part of our lives. We are constantly checking email without differentiating whether it’s work email or pleasure.
Employees and employers are able to stay in touch 24/7, thanks – or perhaps it is more appropriate to say no thanks – to text messages and apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat. The combined effect of this constant infiltration of the work culture into our lives can be overwhelming.
For many of us, it is difficult to switch off, and indeed, we don’t even know how to do it. I certainly am a victim, if you want to call it that. I cannot go one hour without checking my email or my phone, whether it is Sunday or whether I’m on holiday. The whole notion of switching off or taking time off for leisure seems oddly outdated in our continuously connected lives. Along come a couple of billionaires who suggest the opposite. Recently, both Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, and Larry page, the cofounder of Google, have suggested different versions of a shorter workweek. Slim suggests that people work for three days a week with longer daily hours. (In response, heraldscotland.com posted a story headlined: “Fat chance of Slim’s short week working.”) Page suggested shorter working hours as a way of combating unemployment.
Both billionaires linked shorter work-weeks with higher life satisfaction. Is that really true?
Of the two approaches, I think Slim’s is better. With a net worth of $79.1 billion, Slim doesn’t even need to work. His approach suggests that people work longer hours per day –11 hours to be exact – and work for a longer number of years. The current retirement age of 65 is outdated, according to him. I agree. The beauty of working three days a week is that you can actually plan to do different things that physically and geographically remove you from work. You can go for an all-day hike, for example. You can take a camping trip.
Page’s proposal for shorter working hours will not change our lifestyles very much, in my view. It is not that we don’t have leisure time these days. We do. It is just that it is hard to switch off, even late at night when we don’t need to work. Being on again, off again has the benefit of not letting work issues fall through the cracks, but has the huge disadvantage of clogging up our mental space with everything that is only work related. How many of us don’t check work email on the weekend? I would venture to suggest that it is a miniscule proportion. Getting four out of seven days free per week, on the other hand, offers plenty of possibilities. You could volunteer,, or you could sign up for a course.
The larger question has to do with the purpose of work. Do you work to make a living or to create a purposeful life? If you need to work to make a living, many of these philosophical questions aren’t really relevant. If you don’t need to work – at least to the level that you do and the hours that you do – to put bread on the table, the question of a shorter work-week becomes very relevant.
Why are you working? If you are over 50 and reasonably senior in your job, it would be a good time to figure out an anwwer this questions.
In coming decades, the more meaningful issues will not be about work, but will be about leisure and legacy. Building a family and raising good children and grandchildren are issue that have to do with legacy. Both require a time commitment that is linked with leisure. If you are stressed at work, it is unlikely that you will be open to the small signals that your children and family send.
Regardless of whether you choose the Page model or the Slim model, one thing is clear in my head: work less; if possible, find meaningful work; find an activity that will see you through years of leisure; cultivate a group of friends that you can stay in touch with over several decades; and last but not least, figure out your spiritual parameters that will help you stay content and resilient as you grow older.

Turkey Travelling with Kids

I love cheese. I wish I knew more about them. But to eat a Manchego in Spain or a Brie de Meaux in France, a Stilton in Britain, or Gorgonzola with Barolo in Italy doubles the pleasure. The same goes for Feta in Greece or in my case Turkey. Bread, cheese, wine. Pretty much all you need.

Travelling with kids: Shopping in Turkey turns up fine feta
Shoba Narayan

August 7, 2014 Updated: August 7, 2014 04:52 PM

My daughter and I are in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Her eyes are gleaming. She darts from shop to shop like a butterfly seeking nectar – holding up harem pants; a shimmery hijab that she wants to use as a scarf; some tiny red glasses that are used to serve Turkish coffee but that she wants to use as a candleholder.

“Look at these,” she says, holding up some blue porcelain bowls. “Wouldn’t they be great to serve salad in?”

I just want to get out of the place. I feel claustrophobic and impatient.

Perhaps because my mother loved to shop, I don’t. And perhaps because I don’t like to shop, my daughter loves to. This usually doesn’t matter in daily life. My elder daughter, Ranjini, who’s in high school, goes out with her friends when she wants to shop and she orders things online – I pay the bill. It’s an arrangement that suits us both.

All of that changes when we’re on holiday. A big part of holidaying is shopping. It’s not what you buy as much as the hunt. You find good neighbourhoods that have interesting shops; you ­engage with the shopkeepers, who are usually locals; you figure out things that you like from that particular country and if you can use them back home; and you engage in the song and dance of bargaining, depending on the ­country.

In Germany, for example, you don’t bargain. You just figure out if the dirndl skirt that looks so good in the photograph will work when you wear it back home. In Egypt, Bali or Pakistan, you bargain.

Over the years, my family and I have travelled to malls and souqs in search of the perfect item to take back home. Sometimes, however, a shopping trip results in a memory that’s as potent as the souvenir or the object that you carry back. This is what happens in ­Istanbul.

It’s a little boy with limpid eyes standing beside his father that catches our attention. The father is selling feta cheese at one of the entrances of the Grand Bazaar. As we walk by, the feta sellers call us with entreaties in Turkish. Presumably, they want us to try to buy their cheese. Amid the Turkish is one little voice: “Madam, can I practise my English?”

We stop. It’s the little boy – he must be 6 or 7. He smiles at us. We smile back and walk towards his father, who offers us a cube of feta on a toothpick.

“We already had breakfast,” says Ranjini with a smile.

“Try it,” says the boy. “It is the best feta in all of ­Istanbul.”

That’s a challenge we cannot resist. The little boy is right: it’s the best feta that we’ve eaten in our lives. Perhaps it’s because it’s so soft and fresh; perhaps because it’s soaked in olive oil; or perhaps because it’s served with an angelic smile. Whatever the case, we continue eating a couple of samples and end up buying a tub. In between, the boy and my daughter speak to each other in English. His English is halting but good. He asks about India and what we think about his country. Ranjini asks about his life: where he lives (close by); whether he goes to school (yes); and his grade (second).

It’s an encounter that we will never forget. I can visualise the boy’s face as I write this. As for the feta, my mouth is watering right now.

weekend@thenational.ae