Of course, the below can be seen as a long-winded excuse from a non-perfectionist. :)
August 19, 2014 Updated: August 19, 2014 05:49 PM
Of course, the below can be seen as a long-winded excuse from a non-perfectionist. :)
August 19, 2014 Updated: August 19, 2014 05:49 PM
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.
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.
I honestly don’t think shorter working hours are going to work. People want to work more because they like it.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to all the advice-givers of this piece.
‘Parting is such sweet sorrow,” said Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. In the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of 18-year-olds from all over the world will make the long trek to join universities in America. They will be basketball players and artists; maths wizards and chess geeks; athletes and musicians. They will be both excited and terrified, for this is the beginning of a new phase of their lives; and one that, arguably, will effect them more than anything they have done before.
A group of us have been in the privileged position of giving advice to a bunch of 18-year-olds who are going off to college. Some of the advice has been interesting and funny: “Colour your hair purple – every-one should do that once in their lives.” Much of it is thoughtful and has to do with regrets: “I wish I had known when I was 18 how much time management and structuring my day would matter.”
Here, then, are a few themes for every college-going student to consider as they embark on their adventure.
Figure out if you want to sample or dig deep. This depends on if you have a passion already. Perhaps you are bent on being an engineer. It is something that you have always wanted to do. The question then is: do you just take courses that further your engineering goals (digging deep) or do you take courses in art history, music and other liberal arts?
We live in a world that rewards specialisation but college seems too early to specialise, particularly at the undergraduate stage.
This is the time of life when you can view the academic offerings as a buffet and sample everything. There is the famous story about Steve Jobs taking calligraphy courses, which seemed to have no earthly use, at least at that time in his life. He sampled.
Try to take courses or activities that make you uncomfortable. If you ask adults what they regret, many of them will say that they regret not taking enough risks when they were young.
In many ways, growth happens when you are uncomfortable. If you don’t think you’re artistically inclined, force yourself to take a course in drawing. Put yourself in the way of discomfort. If you don’t think you have a way with numbers, take a calculus course – the beginners’ one, of course. If you think you cannot dance, take a group dance course.
College is the time when you can make a fool of yourself without too much compunction; when the risk is low. Take advantage of these four years when you are allowed to – indeed, encouraged to – fail.
Prioritise what happens outside the class as much as you do the classroom. Of course you will be busy submitting tests, doing homework and poring over library books for a project. Realise, though, that some of the best friends you will make in your life are the people around you. Nurture these relationships, because they will be the friends you will fall back on in times of crisis.
Join every club that interests you. Increase the surface area of relationships that will enter your life. “Only after you kiss many frogs will you discover the prince,” as a friend said.
Team sports are an underappreciated way to grow. Research suggests that playing a team sport is a great way to cultivate confidence, competence and a number of physical skills. This is particularly true for girls.
Being part of a college team, regardless of whether it is rowing, basketball or lacrosse is a great way to learn those physical and social skills that will see you through for the rest of your life.
Finally, no matter what, have fun. And be safe.
Great headline. The Mecca of cross-country driving vacations is of course, America. Growing up in India, we can go on too many driving trips. Our childhood memories were built around train travel.
A driving vacation in New Zealand taught us that being cooped up in a car for hours at a stretch wasn’t all that bad.
Within the first hour of picking up our rental car in Auckland, New Zealand, both my daughters puked. We were at the beginning of a 10-day vacation in New Zealand. The plan was to drive to Christchurch and then Queenstown before looping back up to Auckland. Except that the car was smelling to high heaven. We stopped off at a grocery store and bought cleaning supplies, wondering if we were doing the right thing by driving so many miles with two active young children. Then came the first surprise. “We’ll help you clean up,” said my elder daughter, Ranju. After steadying ourselves, we decided to take up her offer. And so it began, this bonding trip that took us so far from home.
A driving vacation requires proper planning. We had to make sure that there were tasty snacks and drinks, particularly in those long sections where there was no rest area for miles. We brought along games and listened to audiobooks. What was surprising was how much we discovered about each other. There’s something about a moving vehicle and beautiful scenery that brings out the poet and philosopher in travelers. So it was with our family. Our younger daughter, Malu, had always been interested in geography. The vast expanses of New Zealand gave full play to her imagination. Except with a twist. Rather than asking questions as children do, we discovered that Malu ended up answering questions. She had studied quite a lot about the land and its geology. She could point out specific rocks, and tell us about the age of the continent. For any parent, discovering the depth of your child’s knowledge is a particular pleasure. It often doesn’t happen at home, when one is caught up in the routine of homework and extracurricular activities. It took a country at the tip of the earth and driving for hours at a stretch to bring out the teacher in 10-year-old Malu.
It was a little different with our elder daughter, Ranju, 15. She was a practical sort and helped her father deal with changing automobile oil, filling up gas, and examining the spare tire. Ever the diplomat, she even mediated a quarrel between my husband and I while our younger one slept. We were shocked and mortified to discover that not only had we failed in our resolve never to fight in front of the kids but that our child was mature enough to mediate our petty quarrel and that she was good at it. We had little choice, we told ourselves later. How long could one bottle up simmering resentments while cooped up in a vehicle?
Ten days later, ww returned the car to the rental agency, hoping that it still didn’t smell. We giggled and chuckled amongst ourselves as we stood in line to hand over the papers. We had explored a beautiful land and had wonderful experiences. Best of all, we had gotten to know each other in a way that we wouldn’t have at home. That alone made the vacation worth it.
Ah Barcelona! If you are an architecture or design or sports buff, or a foodie, this is the city to go to.
Travelling with kids: When shopping abroad is a holiday
July 24, 2014 Updated: July 24, 2014 05:31 PM
A few months ago, we were in Barcelona, which, as shopping destinations go, is not my favourite city. I prefer the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, the souqs of Dubai or the bazaars of India. Barcelona offers the pleasures of Zara, H&M and Mango, but not much atmosphere as far as I was concerned.
My daughters, ages 18 and 12, were in heaven. My younger daughter, Malu, like me, can shop but it’s not her favourite thing to do. My elder daughter, Ranjini, on the other hand, finds pleasure in the looking and buying.
On this trip, I was determined to indulge Ranjini. Rather than make her feel guilty about shopping, I would use it as a way to find pleasure in her company. That was the plan anyway. Yet, something unexpected happened.
We entered an H&M store one afternoon. There were three floors of clothes, accessories, jewellery and shoes. Ranjini and I wandered through the aisles picking out sweaters, dresses and business coats for me. I was surprised at how much she knew about colour, proportion, cut and texture.
“That blue doesn’t suit you,” she said. “It makes your face look washed out.”
She sat outside the fitting room as I tried on blazer after dress suit after sweater, and had an appropriate comment for each. She helped me whittle down what seemed like a mountain of choices into a manageable one. Best of all, for the first time, shopping became a pleasurable activity for me.
“You know, you should be like one of those buyers for department stores,” I said. “When did you learn so much about clothes?”
Ranjini laughed. “I just like clothes, Ma,” she said. “It’s not like physics or anything.”
Two hours later, I was kitted out with the best business clothes I had ever owned. And they cost half of what I thought I would pay.
As for my daughter, she bought one skirt. And that too, under duress. It was my turn to feel guilty. “Why don’t you buy yourself something?” I asked.
Ranjini shrugged away my protests. She didn’t like what she saw, she said. “Shopping is not just about buying things, Ma. It’s also about looking and learning about trends. You see what’s new, see what’s in fashion, and figure out if the look will suit you. The pleasure is in the analysis, somewhat like what you do in museums,” she said – my daughter.
Indeed. Suitably chastised, I gazed at her, glowing with pride. I had dismissed shopping as a vain and frivolous exercise. It took an 18-year-old to show me that shopping was also a way of looking.
And so it came to be that over the course of four days, I learnt the tips and tricks of shopping from my daughter. Perhaps if we had been home, I wouldn’t have been so patient. At home, I had context and views on stores and stuff. “You certainly aren’t going to buy clothes from Soch, missy. Not with the annual sale just around the corner.” Or, “Why are you buying these designer clothes when you can get similar clothes at half price from Fab India?” Bereft of this perspective, I wandered around with my daughter. I had no views. I was out of my depth. And that, in retrospect, was the best thing that happened to us in Barcelona.
It is a tough call to balance the gentility of wearing appropriate attire and tradition with moving with the times. I have been thrown out of country clubs in the US and in India for wearing wrong clothes–or rather for going with a man who was wearing wrong clothes. In particular, shorts. It’s probably why I don’t have a country club membership.
July 22, 2014 Updated: July 22, 2014 06:10 PM
When Narendra Modi became India’s prime minister a new sense of national pride swept over the country. But the colonial mindset of old still pervades certain dark corners, specifically private clubs in various cities. All these clubs have a dress code that harks back to when the British ruled the land. They don’t favour Indian attire, particularly for men. Instead, men are forced to wear long trousers and shirts. Those who don’t, aren’t allowed in.
Recently, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association refused entry to a High Court judge because he was wearing a dhoti, a loose sarong-like garment that is perfect for tropical India.
Dhotis, also called veshtis, have largely slipped out of fashion as more and more men turn to Western outfits such as tailored trousers, which they consider more comfortable and professional. The same Indian men wear dhotis at home or for religious ceremonies.
The issue gained heat when Jayalalithaa Jayaram, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, threatened to take away the licences of clubs that denied entry to men who wear Indian outfits. She called it “sartorial despotism” and an insult to local pride. Ms Jayalalithaa has vowed to introduce a new law that will prevent clubs from enforcing their existing dress codes.
The objects of the chief minister’s ire include the Madras Boat Club, Madras Gymkhana Club and the aforementioned Tamil Nadu Cricket Association, all of whom frown upon men entering their premises wearing Indian attire. Women aren’t accorded the same level of indignity. They can sail through wearing a sari or salwar kameez.
I think it is about time that all Indian clubs get out of this colonial mindset that views Western attire as somehow more superior and elegant than Indian clothes. To disbar members who wear Indian clothes from entering club premises reeks of an inferiority complex that should have disappeared when the British left India.
Officials at these clubs have generally clung to the belief that it wasn’t so easy to incorporate Indian attire into the rules that govern their institutions. They said that they would have to bring up the issue at the club’s annual meeting, so that members could vote on the topic. Nonsense, I say. A starched white dhoti that doesn’t hug the legs makes perfect sense for Chennai’s hot climate.
Clubs are private bodies with erratic, nonsensical rules. Augusta Golf Club, for example, did not allow women to enter its premises until two years ago, when the chief sponsor of their events, IBM, was headed by a woman. As a woman who doesn’t belong to any of these establishments, I think they need to be shamed into changing their policies.
But things are changing in India. Nowadays, male CEOs often confidently wear the kurta pyjama to their offices. These clothes are sleek, elegant – and appropriate for India.
There is no reason to wear a wool suit in steamy weather, simply because it is deemed to be more professional.
And what do clothes have to do with efficiency and effectiveness anyway?
Companies in Silicon Valley are renowned for allowing employees to work in shorts and a T-shirt. India’s private clubs don’t need to go quite that far, but at least they can take pride in their country’s national outfits.
Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir
Today was the worst day. I walked around searching for my glasses with them on my head. That does it. I need to start a “meditation project.” Everyday. Ten minutes. At least.
My inability to meditate properly is really stressing me out
July 14, 2014 Updated: July 14, 2014 05:26 PM
In his book, Focus: The Hidden Ingredient of Excellence, author Daniel Goleman talks about the different kinds of attention. The most obvious kind of focus, he says, is concentration where the mind is rooted to a task until a solution is reached. This type of focus is best suited to analytical work.
Creative insights, on the other hand, occur when the mind is loose, open, and aware. There is a reason why psychologists like to put their subjects on the couch. When you are lying down and daydreaming, you reach into your psyche and touch upon aspects that are not normally on the surface. This is the site of insight and intuition.
There are a few ways to trigger the pathways that open intuition, insight and imagination.
The easiest way is to go to sleep. There is a reason why we wake up and discover that the knotty problem that we have been wrestling with has been solved overnight. Another way is to meditate. Meditating, or accepting thoughts as they come and sending them on their way, allows the mind to relax. It expands and opens the brain and primes its receptors to the sort of ideas and insights that leap across boundaries.
I am a failed meditator. I have tried sitting cross-legged and attempted to “watch my thoughts,” as it were. Sadly, they were all over the place. They did not make sense and worst of all they were mundane, tacking the kind of trivia that is traditionally the realm of children and old women: “Should I have acted differently at the party? Did I pay the right amount for those dozen apples or did I overpay?” my mind wandered. “Did I forget to turn the gas off before ducking out of the door?” The idle mind, they say, is a devil’s workshop. My idle mind was a fool’s paradise, focusing on personal issues and unresolved business of the most idiotic nature. Sometimes, I daydreamed of holidays. Mostly, I fell asleep sitting up. Meditation wasn’t helping me with focus. It was helping me combat insomnia.
Meditation is among the hardest things to do, particularly in this world that values action over stillness and doing over being.
I have tried meditating for years and I have failed. I find sitting still terrifying. I feel guilty for not doing anything. It seems like such a waste of time to just sit there.
The problem with such practices is that their benefits are not immediately obvious. You can read the literature. You can fully buy into the Dalai Lama’s assurance that meditation is the path to rewiring your brain. You can listen to Steve jobs talk about opening the channels of intuition and imagination. You can take online courses on mindfulness and focusing attention, all of which are essential for leaders. It still doesn’t make the actual task easy.
I have tried novel approaches. I have pretended to be a Tibetan monk while sitting cross legged and trying to control my thoughts. It made me feel good. It put me in a good mood and gave me a beatific smile. But as for controlling my impulses, the chocolate cravings only grew stronger.
Then I decided that sitting still was not for me. I would do walking meditation – like Steve Jobs who walked while holding meetings because nature triggers positive neural impulses.
The only problem was that nobody wanted to walk with me. I told my husband that I was going to be Joan of Arc and meditate on a horse. His gaze didn’t alter.
In desperation, I have come to you, dear reader.
Here is a challenge: both for you and for me. Let us meditate for 20 minutes every day. Announcing something like this helps sustain action, according to social psychology. So this in a sense, is my last ditch effort to get on the path to mental nirvana. I will keep you posted as to whether it works.
Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir