An ode to improv comedy

And I got to interview the legend: Keith Johnstone

Improv comedy classes make for a funny family holiday in London

When my brother’s family and I decide to go to London together for two weeks, things threaten to quickly spiral out of control. Like most families, we have little in common in terms of interest. So we make a rule: each member of the entourage will be allowed to choose one activity. Everyone else has to participate, whether they like it or not.

There’s eight of us: my brother’s family and mine; four teenagers and four adults. My niece, 17, chose to visit St Paul’s Cathedral. We struggle up hundreds of steps to the Whispering Gallery, then walk up some more for fantastic views of London from the rotunda on top of the cathedral.

My husband, a political junkie, wants to visit the Houses of Parliament; which, all of us agree, turns out to be a great experience. The audio tour leads us through the House of Lords and the House of Commons. We learn about kings and commoners; pomp and circumstance; and how laws are drawn up.

My brother, an erstwhile sailor, chooses to visit the National Maritime Museum; the rest of us go along for the ride. It’s interesting to observe sailing routes and ships through his eyes. It teaches us about Britain’s maritime ­history, but also reveals an aspect of my brother’s life that none of us knew.

My younger daughter, 14, wants to visit Stratford-upon-­Avon, since her class was studying Shakespeare. As the town is 160 kilometres away from London, it takes a day and results in us quibbling about how long each chosen activity could be.

My nephew, 15, the only boy amid three girls, wants to cap each activity at two hours, so he can get back to his beloved ­videogames. Instead of choosing an activity, he asks for a veto. He wants to reduce the number of activities; stay home, watch cricket on TV and play with his PlayStation 3. His request is ­denied by the adults. He chooses Hyde Park under duress, but says he doesn’t really care if we go or not.

My elder daughter, fresh from a brutal first year in engineering school in the United States, just wants to sleep. Also under duress, she chooses kayaking on the Thames, but we couldn’t fulfil this obligation – it rains on the day we schedule this activity. So we go to Harrods and Topshop, which is fine with the girls.

My sister-in-law wants to visit Wimbledon, where her ­family had lived for some years. It’s fun to take a trip down memory lane, visit their flat, now rented by South Africans, and wander in and out of the shops.

I choose comedy improvisational classes. Like it or not, I decide, we’re going to return from our holiday with the ability to make people laugh; or at least ourselves laugh. We’re going to be a funny family.

When you think of improvisational comedy, two locations come to mind: Chicago, where the famous Second City theatre troupe and teaching programme is based; and London, where Keith Johnstone, the father of improvisation and author of the seminal book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, began his career. Johnstone is still a legend in London, even though he now lives in Canada. Every improv teacher I encounter talks about him and wear lessons from him as a badge of honour. “Keith invented improvisational comedy as we know it,” says Jules Munns, our first teacher.

London is full of institutions offering drop-in classes – from singing to storytelling; dancing to DJing; improvisational comedy to acting lessons. My situation is complicated by the fact that we’re a group; and not all of us are passionate about improv. Dragging the whole gang to lessons all over London is simply unfeasible. I need a teacher who can come to us. To my surprise, I find several institutions that offer private lessons in improvisational comedy. Not all of them fit into my budget and I end up zoning in on two: The Nursery and City Academy.

Munns is the artistic director of The Nursery (, a nurturing environment where all kinds of funky classes, including the Feldenkrais Method, are taught. Its website is worth visiting. It has interesting podcasts and interviews with professionals, including Patti Stiles, another legend in this field.

I cold-email Munns asking if he will take a private class for us. He agrees because he thinks it’s “cool” to teach a large extended family. Munns typically charges £75-100 (Dh428-571) per hour for private lessons, but being his first “family” clients, gives us a discount.

We arrive at The Nursery on a cold, wet London morning. Situated near London Bridge on a busy street, this establishment hosts improvisation classes every week; and drop-in classes three times a week. Anyone with a passing interest in improv can take a class, pretty much at the last minute, if they’re passing through London.

We’re in a medium-size room with chairs. Another class is ­taking place in the next room, ­although most sessions happen at 7pm.

Like most comedians, Munns is preternaturally observant. Within minutes of arrival, he notices my gangly nephew likes to lean against the wall as a way of distracting attention from his height; that the girls don’t make eye contact; that I easily feel cold. We stand in a circle to ostensibly introduce ourselves, except with a twist. We have to point to a person and say our name instead of their name. Simple as it sounds, it’s difficult for the mind to process. After warming us up, Munns introduces us to one of the core ­concepts of improv: the “yes, and…” Along the way, he passes along life lessons and wisdom. Improv is somewhat like Buddhism, he says. You accept things as they come to you and build upon it; rather than rejecting what someone says.

This works in life as well as in corporate settings. When a colleague offers a suggestion, the natural inclination – one that we’re all trained to do through years of schooling where we’re taught to think critically – is to view each suggestion with scepticism. This critical eye can impinge on creativity – unless you’re a Picasso or Mozart. Improv, we discover, is all about silencing the voices in our head that tell us to view each environment with wariness. Instead, we’re forced to jump joyfully into each situation and celebrate it.

We’re paired into random couples. The instruction is simple: we each have to say something. No matter how nonsensical it sounds, the other person has to begin their sentence with: “Yes, and…” And build on it. After a few iterations, we loosen up enough to make up narratives that are silly and fantastic. One goes like this:

“Let us go to the mall today.”

“Yes, and let us buy the entire building.”

“Yes, and let us transport the building to Zimbabwe.”

“Yes, and let us buy some rhinos along the way.”

Munns tells us to “commit” to the statement; to say it with conviction. We try to stay in character, but all of us are laughing along the way. Munns wraps up each exercise by saying “scene” – theatre shorthand for “let’s close the scene”.

We try variations of this exercise. One is that we should speak only questions. Each person’s statement has to be a question; and each response has to be a question as well. Another variation is “yes, but…”, in which each response has to start with that phrase. We learn that questioning each other or doubting each other with a “yes, but…” makes the conversation fall apart within a few minutes. There’s no humour in that model. We end the lesson with improvisational sketches that each pair took part in while the rest watched. After each sketch, Munns offers us encouraging and instructional feedback.

This pattern continues with Kate Smurthwaite, our next teacher. A slim, smiling woman, Smurthwaite is an instructor at City Academy (, which offers a veritable feast of classes besides improv, including singing, dancing, writing and filmmaking, at a variety of locations. It offers short courses, as well as private lessons for groups. Charges vary depending on the instructor and location. Drop-ins are allowed with prior consent.

Smurthwaite is a bit of a celebrity in London, both for her comedy acts and political activism. She was on the panel at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and gives talks on improvisation at senior citizen centres, prisons and ­colleges.

In rapid succession, Smurthwaite runs us through a series of games. We stand in a circle and tell a story. Each person is allowed one word. This is both liberating and constraining, because each of us want the story to progress in a certain way, except the person next to us takes it in a whole new direction. Improvisation, I begin to understand, is all about giving up control. You can’t control the narrative; you have to build it together by staying loose and paying attention.

The more advanced lessons involve theatrical sketches. My favourite is called Interview. Two of us sit on a couch, while the rest act as interviewers. We’re “experts” on crazy, silly things, such as panda football or inkblot paintings. The two experts have to answer questions using the same format of a word per person. Smurthwaite begins proceedings.

“We want to welcome the two professors, who are experts in sunflower genocide, on the show,” she says. “Why do you think sunflowers are used for genocide, as opposed to other flowers?”

Off we go, the two of us sitting on the couch. “Sunflowers… are… flowers… with… yellow… petals… that… are… poisonous.”

A similar game is called Translator. Two people sit on the couch and speak a nonsensical language. Others interview them. The pair are experts on an esoteric subject such as Frankincense architecture or desert art. The expert answers in passionate mumbo-jumbo. The translator gives a spin to the answer. Each of us play a part in building humour: we try to ask crazy questions; the expert uses the limited mumbo-jumbo resources open to them by using their body in a more expressive way – to control the message and get their point across; the translator effectively sabotages the expert’s message by making it their own, translating it into whatever they want. By the end of the afternoon, we’re confident, curious, loose and full of laughter. Smurthwaite and I share a drink after, and she’s generous with her advice about how to attempt stand-up. “Try to pair opposites together,” she says.

When I return to Bangalore, I’m so inspired by the pleasures of improv that I call Keith Johnstone. He has retired to Canada. I find his email on his website ( and write to him. A few emails later, I enjoy a Skype call with the legend. I’m tongue-tied at first; then describe my nascent interest in improv and ask him how I can jump-start it. Is there any advice he can give readers about how to become better at improv?

“Start with the fear,” says Johnstone. “You have to find situations where you are not afraid to go on stage – to warm yourself up. If you are trying to be funny, you will be afraid. You should go on stage not to be funny but to form relationships with the other performers. And, I suppose, the audience. If you walk on stage trying to be your best, you will fail. I think you should walk on stage trying to be average; then you will learn quicker.”

In other words, don’t be a perfectionist; don’t aim for the stars; don’t try to be funny. Instead, be yourself, be average and address your fears.

Patrick Pichette is probably a nice guy but…..

Got an email from a reader with some tough questions. I have my answers for them, but plan to write to him separately.

Begin forwarded message:

Date: March 21, 2015 at 1:13:43 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Regarding – Balance vs Early Retirement
From: Vaibhav Bhosale

Dear Shoba,
Read your article in Mint and frankly loved it. It gives a fresh aroma of freedom. Unclogs the mind blockages. Reminds me that I am not a prisoner of my own device, that I have to draw a line of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to me.
But the real question is – how do you train your mind not to drift itself in whirlpool of life? It is not easy to stop when you want to win and succeed desperately.
How do you achieve a work-life balance on a regular basis? How do you create a belief that the sacrifice you are going to make in favor of life, is not going to cost you a whole lot in the work aspect? It might actually cost you. But then how do you reconcile your mind to not feel like an underachiever or somebody who didn’t actualize his / her talent?
Warm Regards,
Vaibhav Bhosale

Why balance wins over early retirement


A retirement letter masquerading as a wise sermon should hardly make news, let alone cause effusive gushing. Yet, that is what happened with a letter that Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, wrote.​ In it, Pichette announced that he was stepping down from his high-powered job and explained why. In terms of life lessons, there was little that was new, but he put it well.

Pichette opens with him standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his wife. After a few minutes spent staring at the Serengeti, his wife comes up with a proposition: Why not keep travelling, she asks—from Africa to India to Bali to Australia to Antarctica? Pichette says they have to go back to their jobs and board positions; at which point his wife asks when it will be their time. “So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time. The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.”

Pichette comes across as a nice man. He has a lyrical turn of phrase. That, along with the fact that he holds a top job in a revered Silicon Valley company, may be why his resignation letter has the drama it does. Man rockets to the top; then drops off the cliff. That’s the story. The Washington Post praised it as “candid” and “reflective”. The Huffington Post called it “inspiring”. Most people admired his desire to seek balance in his life.

But the point is that Pichette didn’t seek balance. The life he describes is no different from the hard-charging worker bees that he manages: people who work long hours; travel constantly; leave their spouse to do much of the child-rearing; are available on call and email constantly, even when they don’t need to be; and suddenly stand atop an African mountain with a wife who is asking tough questions and discover that the children have flown the coop. To step down at that moment isn’t wisdom or a search for balance. It is exhaustion giving way to spousal priorities. It is a simple resignation letter masquerading as a sermon from the mount.

What should make news are executives who choose balance on every step of the corporate ladder. Leaders who make career compromises for the sake of a gifted or dyslexic child; CFOs who choose to forgo more stock options so that they can be home on weekends; heads of divisions who take annual vacations sans the laptop with their families; law firm partners who forgo an exciting assignment so that their spouse can have a turn at the career wheel; and who don’t need to get on a mountain top to understand work-life balance. Except that those people probably don’t become Google CFOs and get its bully pulpit.

Balance in today’s world is mostly about saying “No”. Pichette stepped off his ostensibly fabulous job when he resigned, which is why he is lauded. For the rest of us, it is a series of small negative shakes of the head. A list of things not to do. Small things, but hard to implement. How addicted are you to your mobile device? How much time do you spend checking your messages and email? I do it constantly. Every study says that this frazzled, constant checking of digital data fries your creativity and drowns your concentration. How do you switch off? Are you doing anything about it? That is balance.

Do you surreptitiously check messages when you are helping your child with homework? Why? How can you stop yourself? Parenting happens during pauses; during boredom. Sometimes it is just being at the right place when your child has a certain question. It is the ability to pick up on cues and know what questions to ask. To do that, you cannot be preoccupied all the time. How are you going to achieve a free, open mind that picks up on cues from people you care about? That is balance.

Pichette says he is dropping out of Google to travel the world with his wife. How about going to the corner store with her? Grand gestures make for good storytelling, but it is the small stuff that makes a marriage. Date night is a Western concept, but the notion of doing something with your spouse is a good idea. People of our parents’ generation didn’t make a conscious effort to do an activity together, but we can.

Balance is about saying no to trips that you don’t really need to take; to come up with alternatives such as teleconferencing. Balance is walking away from an assignment that you really love to help a friend get through his illness. Balance is small, incremental choices in a direction that is fair to all the people you care about; that encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual; that incorporates hobbies, passion and purpose. It is not about standing on a mountain and announcing that you are dropping out. That is drama, not balance.

Balance is to have priorities that go beyond immediate family (spouse and children) and your career. Our Indian system is geared for balance. In order to prioritize away from the suction of a career, you need to have things to prioritize towards: family, friends, duty, obligations, these are the stuff of balance. India is full of that. A family wedding falls on the same day of a product roadshow. Which do you choose? A Silicon Valley CFO probably never used the line: “My second cousin’s wedding is on the day of the launch. We grew up together and I have to attend—for four days.”
India is rigged for a balanced life. We each have elderly relatives that we are sort of responsible for. We don’t necessarily like these aunties and uncles but a cousin calls up from Europe and says that they need to be taken for a blood test. What do you do? Having multiple people and obligations in our lives gives us perspective; prevents us from being consumed by one thing: our career.

If you don’t have college classmates who will nudge you to take a trip every year, how will you know the pleasure of friendship or, for that matter, vacations? If you don’t go to church on a regular basis, or have some sort of spiritual affiliation, how do you pause to think about the big things in life? If you don’t look up from your computer to watch a sunset, how will you get a hobby that will engage you after retirement? If you don’t find pleasure in art, gardening, nature or sport, how will you prepare yourself for the solitude that accompanies old age?
Balancing involves choosing between conflicting priorities. For many, there is no conflict. The priority becomes work. To me, Pichette’s letter isn’t an inspiring take on balance. It is an extended apology for all the small things that he didn’t say “No” to. Because, you see, balance isn’t sequential; it is parallel—and constant.

Shoba Narayan has turned off email on her mobile device and uses Freedom and Self Control to limit time on the Internet. Write to her at

Tiger’s Trail

 So every writer aspires to be a photographer or at least I do.  Here are the photos I took at Kanha and Pench.  You have to be patient and refresh the page many times.

On a tiger trail in India

I’m sitting on the deck outside my tent, which perches high above the Banjaar River in central India. Across the river lies Kanha National Park, which at 1,945 square kilometres is one of India’s largest. White egrets pick their way across the bank searching for fish. A male langur cries from within the jungle to establish territoriality. I smile happily. I have spent countless summers trekking and tenting within national parks in four continents. I love the herbal scents in the air; the swaying rustle of leaves; the gurgle of the river. Most of all, I love the spiffy luxury of my tent, so far removed from digging a hole in the ground and using broad teak leaves as toilet paper.

There are 48 recognised tribes in Madhya Pradesh, including Gonds, Bhils, Bastars, Baigas and Ojhas. They live in pockets all over the state, making beautiful sculptures and foraging for medicinal plants. Banjaar Tola’s spaces are enlivened by whimsical metal sculptures created by the local Bastar tribal people. The brass door handles, hanging hooks and water tumblers have tribal faces etched on them. Bottles containing saffron and turmeric conditioner and body wash have metal cork-like closures ­displaying women with geometric faces and coiled hair. In the middle of my bedroom sits a sculpture of a woman with a telescope turned to the sky. As well she might, because the night sky is glorious, revealing a cross section of the Milky Way and a whole array of constellations. I pick at the lemony salad with home-grown lettuce, bite into ­coriander-and-yogurt infused kebabs and sigh in satisfaction. I haven’t been on my first drive into the jungle. In fact, I’ve barely ­arrived.

The human vision of wildlife is romantic and often forgets how inaccessible wildlife is, and should be. Reaching a national park in any continent requires hours of travel by pretty much every mode of transport. So it is with Kanha National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The word “madhya” literally means centre in Hindi.

Getting to Kanha involves flying to Mumbai; then to Nagpur; and then driving five hours into the jungle (if you have time, Bhopal is a beautiful city to visit on the same trip). This long journey forces Type A travellers such as myself into resigned ­acceptance of a slower rhythm; something of a stupor really. By the time I arrive at Banjaar Tola, I am ready for anything, or rather, nothing.

Wildlife tourism reached a luxury tipping point in India nearly 10 years ago when high-end global players such as the Aman group and Africa’s &Beyond entered the country. In 2006, &Beyond partnered with the Taj group of hotels to establish Taj Safaris, a joint venture with jungle lodges in four national parks in Central India: Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna. The lodges are designed by &Beyond and operated by Taj. The service is warm. The beds are firm. The rangers are superbly trained, the staff attentive but not obsequious. The architecture is rustic and in keeping with the forest – choosing wild flowers rather than manicured lawns. The food is Indian but plated well with grilled meats, dals, birianis and curries, all served with your choice of drinks. Rooms are decorated with local tribal objects but are rustic in sensibility. There is no television, no internet, and barely any phone reception. And really, it’s rather silly to sit in a jungle and poke someone on Facebook. The library has both television and a computer with an internet ­connection.

Of the four, Bandhavgarh National Park is touted to have a high density of tigers, which translates into “guaranteed” ­tiger sightings. I choose Kanha and later, Pench – inspired by a BBC documentary, Spy in the Wild, on the tigers of Pench. Narrated by David Attenborough, the superb film uses hidden cameras shaped like tree trunks, that are carried by elephants and placed right beside the tigers, offering unparalleled access into the daily, mating and maternal life of this magnificent animal: Panthera tigris tigris.

Kanha has about 95 tigers in its whole area, but the 300 square kilometres that are open for tourism house barely 10. The 10 four-wheel drives that enter the forest at dawn are chasing these tigers. Of course, we don’t say that. Tiger sightings are rare and cannot be created or conjured up, even by luxury tour operators. Of India’s 27 tiger preserves, I have visited about 15 over the last dozen years. I have seen the tiger in the wild only once: in Ranthambore. I have been to Kanha before and spent days without a tiger sighting. So I don’t dare hope for ­anything. Still, there is no getting away from the elephant in this particular room: we have all come to Kanha to see the tiger.

The forest in Kanha is dense and moist. Dew drips from the tall sal trees. Sunlight filters through. Mist rises from the grasslands, which are coloured white, pink and purple. Sheet spiders create their webs horizontally like sheets at the bottom of trees, waiting in funnel-like homes to catch the unsuspecting insect that falls down. Brilliant yellow orioles fly across trees, glinting like the sun.

As we drive in, we see Kanha’s biggest success story: the barasingha or swamp deer. In 1970, their count dropped to a precipitous 66 animals because of infection, habitat loss and over-killing by ­tigers. Park officials cordoned off grasslands and researched the population decline. Of the 25 species of grass available at Kanha, the swamp deer picks at only seven types. Thirty years of conservation later, the count stands at a respectable 450. “The swamp deer and not the tiger is the true hero of this park because you can see the barasingha only in Kanha and it came back from near extinction,” says my naturalist, Dipu from Kerala.

We don’t see a tiger during my time in Kanha. We do see jackals, jungle fowl and other animals; and really, they ought to be enough. But I can’t help feeling disappointed as I drive to Pench, three hours away. Baghvan Lodge in Pench has wooden huts that are raised a little off the ground. The indoor and outdoor showers are nice, but I preferred the old-fashioned bathtub with brass fittings at Banjaar Tola. The best part of Baghvan’s rooms is the machan, a tree house that comes with every room. In the afternoon, I take my laptop there and read, type and doze. All around are trees filled with birds whose cries and screams remind me of home.

Tigers have been part of India’s ecosystem and lore for centuries. Tiger images are seen on Bronze Age seals. The pharaohs and Romans are said to have imported Indian tigers for gladiatorial sport. Indian maharajas hunted the tigers nearly to extinction. In 1972, then prime minister Indira Gandhi started Project Tiger to protect and preserve the Bengal tiger. The project is viewed as a success. The latest tiger census shows a count of about 1,500 tigers across 27 tiger preserves in India. Today, tourists come to India’s parks mainly to see this top predator that cannot be seen in any other continent. Three subspecies – Javan, Caspian, and Balinese – are already extinct; and only a few hundred of the Siberian and Sumatran sub-species exist. Hence the pressure on the Bengal tiger – to save it and to sight it.

Planning early is essential ­because getting into the park involves getting permission from the forest department. I take a few days to send in my identification card and as a result, am not able to go into Pench on the first morning’s drive. The bookings are full. That happens to be the day of a glorious tiger ­sighting: a tigress and her three cubs. Wolfgang, a German, regales me with photos of the tigress walking, sitting and even pooping. I show him the photos of birds that I took on a walk. I know that sounds lame but the birds were gorgeous.

I spend two days in Pench, following the typical safari lodge routine: forest drives in the morning and the evening with time in the afternoon to nap, read, swim, or in my case, exercise using the “jungle gym” left in the room: a yoga mat, weights and skipping rope, mostly to prepare for the evening’s labours: dinner. With me at the camp are Belgians, Germans, Americans and British tourists. They compare vegetation across continents: the ­Indian jungle scores in the dense foliage area.

Why does man seek the jungle? Most of us go for a change from city life, to see the tiger if possible and return refreshed. Being amid ancient trees is invigorating. Pench contains sal, teak, banyan, frankincense, Indian gooseberry, wood apple and mahua trees, all of which come together to form sacred groves that rejuvenate passers-by. The sounds of a jungle are distinct in what they do not offer: no wailing ambulances or annoying horns; no shouting and cursing drivers; no shrieking brakes. Instead, it’s the flutter of dragonflies, the chatter of parakeets and the barking call of the deer. You see creatures big and small and each of them links you back to your genetic ancestry in a way that textbooks never can. If you are lucky, as I wasn’t even on Day 3, you will see a tiger.

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Wildlife Taj Safaris

My father knows William Blake’s verses by heart.  Maybe I should memorize it too.

Click here for story in India Today – Travel Plus – Taj Safaris

TIGER, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies          5
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?

Wildlife Tiger Census

Indian forests are wonderful ecosystems. Teak and sal trees shed dew tears in the misty mornings. Babblers bable; Serpentine eagles soar; Rufus treepies shriek; and humans shiver in the morning cold. Jackals come out of the grasslands. Herds of deer graze under trees. Langurs swing from trees, which themselves whisper and sway towards each other. There is Indian gum, gooseberry, Arjuna, pipal, banyan, frankincense and countless other species. Picturesque as they are, these species are no match for that apex predator in terms of viewing pleasure: Panthera tigris

Tiger numbers are up. That is the good news. The latest tiger census reveals that we have 2226 tigers in our wildlife preserves, up from about 1400 in the last census. Among experts, there is a lot of sniping and critique about methodology and accuracy of camera traps. Odisha is miffed that its tiger counts are lower than expected and wants a recount. There are questions about whether shrinking habitats can sustain the rise in tiger population. For amateur wildlife enthusiasts, it is simply enough to know that India’s wildlife efforts are gaining traction and moving in the right direction. Experts such as Ullas Karanth have given detailed interviews in this paper about the various issues surrounding wildlife management. Karanth, like many in the field, is optimistic about India’s prospects. “Tiger conservation has been more successful in India than any other country,” he said. “We are doing it in a moree cost effective manner. But we have no goal. What is the objective for the year 2020? We are spending money, often too much money without any goal.”

That said, this piece is not so much about the how of conservation, but about why we should care?

When talking about nature, wildlife, or the ecosystem, humans often use the paternalistic and patronizing word, “fragile,” to describe it. We see ourselves, as custodians of this planet as well as its most deadly criminals. We conserve and exterminate. We use more resources than any other species and are the planet’s apex predator. This human-centric view is both understandable and wrong. The planet isn’t fragile. Life on earth existed long before humans got here, and will likely continue in spite of us. The engine of evolution will continue in spite of human intervention. This so-called fragile planet, in other words, isn’t waiting with bated breathe for humans to save it. It couldn’t care less.

Humans need wildlife, not because of some misconstrued sense of noblesse oblige, but because nature is central to our existence. The birds, bees and beasts that surround us weave a web that is far more complex than we can fathom; and far more necessary to our wellbeing than we have the knowledge or sense to admit. We need them more than they need us. At the very least, nature and wildlife are what differentiates us as a species.

The tiger exists to show us what is possible and what is not. It is a biological differentiator as well as a milestone in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens, going back millennia. It is also, quite simply, a magnificent beast, inspiring awe and fear. S.H. Prater describes why in the “Book of Indian Animals,” published under the auspices of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) by Oxford University Press. “The characteristics that mark a perfect carnivore—claws especially adapted to strike and hold struggling prey, and teeth especially designed to bite into, cut up and tear flesh are most perfectly developed in the cat.”

This feline grace, strength and agility is reflected in every aspect of the tiger. It has the largest eyes in the Felidae family, able to see acutely at night. Its tracks or ‘spoor’ as they are called, reveal four toes and a pad with no sole. This is because cats are digitigrade: they walk on their toes, giving their bodies a forward thrust that makes them built for speed and stealth. When tigers track their prey, they place their hind legs in the exact same spot as their forelegs. They walk like bipeds as the “Book of Indian Animals,” says.

Project Tiger was Indira Gandhi’s gift to Indian wildlife. Since its inception in 1973, several stalwarts such as Fateh Singh Rathore, Raghu Chundawat, Belinda Wright, Billy Arjan Singh, K. Ullas Karanth, Valmik Thapar, H.S. Panwar, and M.K. Ranjitsinh, among many others, have all worked tirelessly to preserve our ecosystems and wildlife.

The connection between humans and forests is ancient and primal. Trees are where we came from; and returning to these wildlife sanctuaries calms us down and makes us feel alive and connected to our planet and ecosystem. Nature heals in mysterious ways. It gives us solace without saying a word. As Anne Frank said in her dairy, “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside; somewhere where they can be quite alone with the heavens, nature and God.”

Wild animals show us a way of being that is primitive, yet noble. Their way of life is both alien and yet rises above human constructs such as greed and materialism. We in India are lucky to have not just the world’s largest populations of tigers, but also the only surviving population of the Asiatic lion in Gir forest. We have snow leopards in Hemis national park; barasingha deer in Kanha; and two-thirds of the world’s one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga. We need them to show us another approach to living. Our natural world holds the greatest expression of life on earth. As ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin said, our forests hold answers to questions that we have yet to ask. At least till we figure out the questions, we need to hold on to our forests.

Shoba Narayan hopes, wishes, and dreams that she will go to Kaziranga National Forest in 2015.


Was in Masinagudi to run a module on “Storytelling in the corporate context: how to use narrative to enhance your pitch.”

It was for SAP Labs.  Thanks to Sunder Madakshira, Head of Marketing at SAP for the connect.

And thanks to Heemanshu Ashar for connecting me with Sunder.

It is always interesting for me to see how corporate teams work– their highs and lows; their deadlines and stresses; delivery and accountability.

Before the session, I went on a safari ride.  Saw some amazing birds: shrikes, Asian Koel, lots of peacocks, Brahminy starlings; hoopoes….but the highlight was…..a sighting of two Greater Coucals.  It was thrilling!!!

Sri Lanka

If there is a takeaway from the below piece, consider this.  Watch Mani Ratnam’s movie, Kannathil Muthamittal (She kissed my cheek).  Read Romesh Gunasekhara’s (spelling?) books.

Sri Lanka: fantasy island

There are some places that seem familiar even though you haven’t actually visited them. Paris is like that for Europeans and Sri Lanka is like that for me. Thanks to myth, movies, politics, geographical proximity, and a shared language, Sri Lanka was part of my mindset while growing up in Chennai in the 80s.

Lanka-puri was the golden land described in the Hindu epic, Ramayana, where the demon Ravana spirited away princess Sita. An army of monkeys built a stone bridge, waged a war, and rescued the princess. Some Hindus, my relatives amongst them, believe that the bridge still exists, submerged under the ocean. I can’t help looking for it from my winged chariot— Flight UL 122—but the water is as gray as a turtle’s back.

There was the Eelam depicted in the phenomenal 2002 Tamil movie, “Kannathil Muthamittal,” in which an Indian couple adopts a girl whose biological mother is a Tamil Tiger: a terrorist group. The family sets out to find the birth mother leading to a climactic scene where the mother chooses between her biological daughter and staying with her secessionist cause.

IMG_3565 IMG_3617 IMG_3555

A lush, tropical island shaped like a teardrop in the sea of time, this is a land of many musical names: Serendib, Taprobane, Ceylon, Eelam, and finally, the official Sri Lanka. Smaller than Tasmania, Sri Lanka is both fertile and prosperous. It’s per capita of $6531 is higher than neighboring India’s $4077. The flash of its gems, blue sapphire and moonstone are as well known as the flush of its teas. Also known are its internal conflicts. For 25 years since Black July 1983, Sri Lanka was caught in a civil war that took an estimated 100,000 lives. Since 2009, the country has been coming back to normalcy and tourism is on the verge of taking off.

Locals are optimistic. “Things have changed in the last five years,” says France-educated diplomat, Saroja Siresena. “While retaining old world values, we have modernized. Compared to Bangkok or Mumbai, our cities are liveable and cosmopolitan. Nobody stares at you if you dress differently.”


I am taking two children– my daughter, 12 and nephew, 13—on a trip to a land that I ‘know’ but have never visited. This is their first visit too; one that is unclouded by history and known only through cricket players like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane, both of whom are partners in the popular Ministry of Crab restaurant. Its celebrity chef, Dharshan Munidasa, plans to open Kaemasutra, serving contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine in July (Kaema means food in Sinhalese). “We all grew up with the war. We didn’t know a different life,” he says when we visit him. “Now that we have peace, I worry less about sending my child to school. I take more risks.”

The trick with travelling with kids is to keep moving. This we do after checking into the aptly named Taj Samudra (meaning sea in Sanskrit), scarfing down the complimentary chocolates and a pasta-lunch.

Colombo, everyone says, is a business city, known for shopping but not much else. The kids have lists from friends back home and are quite chuffed about shopping. I take them to the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple instead. I want them to engage with a clean slate– unpolluted by Sri Lanka’s politics and bloody history, but I am not sure how to engineer it. We hire a hotel car. Our driver, Hussein shows us layers of Sri Lanka’s colonial history: the Dutch hospital; Cargill’s, an English department store, now leased by an Indian bank; Portuguese outcrops and the mosque where he worships along the way. He accompanies us into the temple, pointing out the Buddha’s mudras or hand gestures that depict various moods. He explains the murals on the ceiling. I grin at the serendipity of having a Muslim explaining Buddhism to us Hindus. This, I think, is the magic of Sri Lanka. We stand before an ancient Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) and fold our hands. Finally, we go to the museum inside the temple: a kitschy assortment of watches, swords, combs, jewellery, and seemingly everything that the temple has received as a gift.

We visit a few other religious sites during our stay in Colombo: the Seema Malaka Buddhist temple, designed by acclaimed architect, Geoffrey Bawa; the Dutch-style St. Antony’s church; and the colorful Hindu temple across the street. The children like the Gangaramaya temple best, mostly because there is a lifelike elephant that they can hug, and a Buddha image painted in such a way that the eyes move to stare at you wherever you go. We spend a giddy ten minutes trying to escape Buddha’s eyes but to no avail. The golden Buddha’s eyes resolutely stare at us. We can run but we cannot hide.

Temples should always be alternated with chocolate. We go to Paradise Road café for coffee and a nut-filled chocolate cake. The well-proportioned space used to be Geoffrey Bawa’s office and is now where Colombo’s swish-set comes for sundowners or lunch. I eye the paintings by Sri Lankan artists along the walls; the children read Sumitha Publishers’ illustrated children’s books that retell Sinhalese myths in English. “The Great Flood and the Gourd,” is one title. Opposite is a store called Rithihi, which to my surprise, has a colourful selection of silk saris from all across India. We end the day with a swim at the hotel. Counterintuitive as it seems for a tropical country, Taj Samudra’s heated pool is heavenly and removes all the knots from my shoulders.

Breakfast is the usual sumptuous spread. I choose red string-hoppers with the famous trio of sambal powders: pol sambol which is mostly coconut, seeni sambol made of carmelized onions and katta sambol made of ground red chilies. I douse the fiery powders with a stew made of coconut milk. The children stick to pancakes and eggs. Where’s your sense of adventure, I chide. That was before my eyes start watering.

On day 2, we hire a tuk-tuk and go to Barefoot Gallery and Café (for me) where I buy a colorful cotton dresses; and A&M cupcakes across the street (for them); to Saskia Fernando Gallery (for me) and to Odel department store where they buy yellow sandals, muffins decorated with Spongebob icing; string necklaces and souvenirs. As the sun climbs, we duck into The National Museum and wander through 5th century Buddha images. The children protest at the sameness of the century-old statues, but are engaged by accounts of prehistoric Sri Lanka beginning with Balagoda Man. Wall plaques neatly describe how Prince Vijaya journeyed through the seas from North India in the 3rd century; married a local princess and founded Sri Lanka as it were. On the way back, we spot a procession of protesting monks, who want the freedom to pursue Buddhist education. So says Hussein, even though I don’t understand why ordained monks who have presumably had a Buddhist education would have that particular demand. Discontent, it seems, simmers under the island’s placid façade. Even though Buddhism is the majority religion, Sri Lankans are warriors by nature, says a veteran journalist who didn’t want to be named. “Look at their names. Simha means lion and Raja means kings.   This is a country with robust warrior-names.”

The next day goes by in a blur. I try to keep it action-packed and fast-paced. We ride tuk-tuks, chatting with the English-speaking locals. We go in and out of temples, “just for you,” as the kids say. We eat rice and curry like the locals. We try out the spare but charming local trains, less crowded than in India. We go to Pettah market and haggle for umbrellas. Soon it is time to go to Bentota, our next stop.

The best way to go from Colombo to Bentota and further down to Galle is by the train, which hugs the ocean all the way. Not having the foresight or knowledge to buy train tickets, we arrive at the Taj’s sister property, Vivanta by Taj by car.

The pleasures of Bentota are more rural. There are turtle hatcheries where Leatherback, Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles are rescued and rehabilitated. Funded by donors, these hatcheries buy turtle eggs from fishermen, hatch them and release them back to sea, where they can mate and hopefully thrive. The children get to carry a 10 kg green turtle, which can live for 300 years, according to owner Amarasena Fernando of the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. In the evening, we join a boisterous game of cricket in the hotel’s grounds, followed by a swim in the sea under the watchful gaze of a lifeguard.

On Day 4, we drive to Galle, stopping at a mask factory and a moonstone mine along the way. The wares may be real but the ethos reek of tourist traps. Our boat ride through the mangroves is better. It costs Rs. 5000 (Sri Lankan Rupees) for two hours on the water. We spot giant squirrels, three monitor lizards swimming after prey and spend half an hour at a fish farm dipping our feet into a tank and enjoying the nip of hundreds of fish. We hold a baby crocodile, sea snake, and tap some river crabs. We walk through cinnamon trees on an island, where an elderly man shows us how to smell and cut fragrant cinnamon bark. It is 2 PM when we reach Galle. I am eager to explore Galle Fort, but the children want none of it. A bribe of limp French Fries at Rampart View Guest House (our driver insists on taking us there perhaps because drivers get free lunch) buys me some time to buy locally crocheted lace on Galle’s streets. It would have been charming were it not for the blazing heat.

The best is saved for our last day. We visit Sri Sunshine Divers, owned by a strapping windsurfing champion, Thusal Gunawardhane, who lavishes praise on current President Mahinda Rajyapaksha (named after Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, who brought Buddhism from India to Sri Lanka). We scream through a banana boat ride; and take waterskiing lessons—much harder than I thought.

After lunching on Sri Lankan wild mango curry and red rice, we leave for the airport. The children discuss high points (waterskiing, turtles, snakes, fish, crocodile) and low points (temples, museums, more temples). “But what about the war that everyone keeps talking about?” asks my 12-year-old daughter. “It’s like this,” replies her cousin. “The Tamils wanted a separate state from the Sinhalese. They kept fighting for years and finally the Sinhalese defeated the Tamils.” Seeing my raised eyebrows, he adds, “I read it in my history book.”

That’s all it is to them young ones: history.


Fact Box:

Etihaad flies everyday from Abu Dhabi to Colombo. Fares range from AED 720 to 830 outbound. AED 745 upwards inbound.

Taj Samudra in Colombo overlooks the beach and has the best no-frills hotel pool on the island. The hotel organizes day-trips to Kandy and the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. Doubles from AED 640 including taxes.

Vivanta by Taj Bentota is halfway between Galle and Colombo, making it a central access point to the Northern part of the island. Doubles from AED 890 including taxes.

Chennai Music and Women

I thought about this a lot, but cannot come up with any solution. Everyone lays it on the women artistes to get together and fight the discrimination, but that’s not going to happen.

A note of dismay over inequality at music and dance festivals in Chennai
Shoba Narayan

January 3, 2015 Updated: January 4, 2015 11:21 AM

Every year, between December 15 and January 15, hundreds of thousands of people across India congregate in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for its Carnatic and Bharatanatyam festivals. More than 300 concert halls in the city host cultural events throughout the month in a tradition that has endured for more than half a century.

But each year, as audiences clad in silk saris and white dhotis arrive, an ugly issue rears its head: the discrimination against female performers by the show organisers and male musicians.

In a recent post on Facebook, Kalpana Mohan, a ­California-based writer, highlighted an incident that happened two years ago at a concert hall in Chennai. A prominent male vocalist kicked up a fuss when he realised he would have to perform alongside a young female violinist. An older, established musician, he refused to take the stage with a junior female artist. The organisers found a male violinist to replace the female artist, leaving her in tears.

After describing the incident in her Facebook post, Mohan ended with an appeal for gender equality: “I do hope December 2014 is the season in Chennai in which artists, young and old, fight back, ask questions, write to local and national newspapers and launch a campaign to fix the cracks, while simultaneously fixing the crackpots who believe that a woman is inferior – when all that matters is prowess, not age or gender. I certainly hope that this is the year that older, established vocalists, both female and male, step up and fight for the sake of their younger female counterparts. I hope that the next time something like this happens, the rest of the performing crew unites in support to protest the injustice.”

When The National contacted the violinist who wasn’t allowed to play, she declined to talk about the incident: “I wish to tell you that it does not interest me. I would rather focus on my music,” she said

Oddly enough, nobody in the Chennai music circles blames her for her reluctance to comment, because Carnatic music has traditionally been the bastion of men. In this rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal set-up, female performers don’t want to be seen as troublemakers, especially if they are young, because of the repercussions it could have on their career.

“It is unfortunate and terrible,” says pianist Anil Srinivasan, who works with a variety of performers, male and female. “But the only way forward is for women to band together and boycott all those musicians and percussionists who are saying such things. The audience should also show their support by boycotting concert halls that allow such ­inequality to go unchecked.”


Anita Ratnam, a renowned classical dancer, says: “Senior male performers would rather accompany a junior and emerging male vocalist than sit beside an established and accomplished female singer. It is appalling. Nobody does anything about it, so the abuse continues. Female artists should speak out, not with anger but with confidence.”

Ghatam Karthick, a young percussionist who plays the ghatam (pot), gives some context. “Legendary percussionists such as Umayalpuram Sivaraman, T K Murthy and Palghat Raghu were used to accompanying exclusively male singers,” he says.

“Until the ‘trinity’ of female singers – D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari and M S Subbulakshmi, who won the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour – found success, no male accompanist would work with women,” he says.

Karthick credits female singers and musicians for his big breaks. His first concert at the Madras Music Academy was with the well-known vocalist Charumathi Ramachandran, he went on his first foreign tour with the veena player Veena Gayathri, and says his career soared after he played alongside top female singers such as Sudha Ragunathan and Bombay Jayashri, who was ­nominated for an Academy Award for Pi’s Lullaby in Life of Pi (2013).
“I owe everything to women,” Karthick says matter-of-factly, but agrees that no effort is being made to challenge senior male performers who practise gender discrimination.

“Will we need a Nirbhaya in the music world?” asks the eminent veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh, referring to the 2012 Delhi rape victim whose brutal death drew attention and galvanised support for improved attitudes towards women across India.

Vimala Rangachar

Welcome to the Sanskrit Podcast where the ideas of ancient India meet the modern world.

Vimala Rangachar has been associated with fine arts and performing arts conservation movement of Karnataka for many years. She holds multiple positions of Chairperson of the Craft Council of Karanataka, Founder Member and President of M.E.S Institutions, President of the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography, President of the M.E.W.S Ladies Club, Malleshwaram, Bangalore, heading M.E.S Kalavedi, President of the Seva Sadan Orphanage, Hon. Secretary of the ADA Rangamandira, Committee Member, Gandhi Center for Science and Human Values- Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan.

In this episode, she discusses temple crafts of Karnataka.

Watch it on Youtube here.

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here

Men’s rules

At work, women don’t need to play by the same rules as men

Indian politician and novelist Shashi Tharoor. (David Levenson / Getty Images)
At work, women don’t need to play by the same rules as men
Shoba Narayan

December 8, 2014 Updated: December 8, 2014 09:30 AM

My grandparents had four sons and one daughter: my mother. My grandmother’s favourite son was her eldest. He was always smiling, had a sweet word for everyone and sent my grandmother photos from faraway England with lines of Tamil poetry as captions. Her third son lived in the same town as she did. He was the one she called when she needed to go to the doctor, have a piece of furniture moved, or speak to her tenants about rent increases. He was her SOS and showed up when needed. He was not, however, her favourite. Perhaps this was partly because they dealt with each other too much. Mostly, it had to do with his volatile temperament. “He will do everything but with one shouted angry word, he will spoil the whole effect,” my grandmother would say.

Temperament and competence have often been framed as a dichotomy – in life and work. The nice guys aren’t competent and the screamers climb up the corporate ladder. It is a stretch I know, but political parties too have this dichotomy. The “ethos” of the Congress, as Shashi Tharoor described it during a television interview, versus the efficiency of the current BJP-led government. This dichotomy becomes even more stark when it comes to women. Most people expect women to be nice, not brusque; competent, but caring; tough, but compassionate. How does a woman balance or even acquire all these qualities?

Competence is a given in most top jobs. To climb up the ranks and run a company requires certain characteristics: perfectionism, efficiency, vision, creativity and courage. Women in top roles must have all these qualities. What brings them down however, is temperament, according to the many articles on the subject.

What is the way forward? Do you tell women to be as good, or as bad as any man; to seek equality and justice at all times during their professional career? Or do you tell them to play up the strengths that anthropologist Helen Fisher describes in her book, The natural talents of women and how they are changing the world?

According to Ms Fisher, women have the ability to build consensus, empathise and nurture relationships. Not all women are this way and these qualities aren’t the sole prerogative of women. Still, as stereotypes go, these ones hold water and, I might add, cause problems. We expect women to cooperate so, we find the pushy ones jarring. We expect empathy from women, so we can’t stand the ones that are abrupt.

Many companies – and Google is one of these – insist that their employees undergo gender sensitivity training. Words are flashed rapidly on a computer screen and you have to pick whether they are “male” or “female” qualities. The results are shocking.

One way to approach this thorny issue is tangentially. Instead of playing by the same rules, why not change the rules; change the paradigm? Why not win over the workplace through kindness and courtesy – heretical and silly as that might sound? Again, I know that these traits aren’t exclusive to women, but it is also true that men are far more comfortable being aggressive, even sometimes obnoxious.

So far, we women have assumed that imitation is the only way to enter a man’s world and be like them. Perhaps the time has come for women to stay true to themselves – at home and at work.

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