Identity and Culture

One more ode to my favorite garment: the sari.

How a simple, draped cloth defines a national aesthetic
Shoba Narayan

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November 19, 2014 Updated: November 19, 2014 07:07 PM

There are many ways to come at the concept called identity. Aesthetics is one of them. Every culture has a distinct aesthetic. Chinese poetry describes eyebrows like willow leaves; Japanese paintings celebrate women with white skin and rosebud-shaped lips; the Arab world emphasises the beauty of a woman’s eyes; Europeans pay attention to cut and silhouette and how it complements a woman’s body.
India, in contrast, is a culture of drapery, not tailoring. Even though we have fantastic tailors, we love hand-woven textiles. Women of my mother’s generation called it “the purity of the unstitched cloth that has not been sullied by a needle and thread”. Our saris are woven, as are our pashminas and the dupattas that we wear over our tunics.
That is the Indian aesthetic and I think it’s remarkable – because I cannot think of any culture that has this historical link to textiles the way early humans designed them. If you go the Louvre or to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and look at ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian art, you will see humans wearing draped cloth. The men and women wear textiles that are draped just like we Indians drape saris and, for the men, lungis.
Today, the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians have all migrated to tailored clothes. Nobody is wearing a toga on the streets of Rome these days. India is arguably the only civilisation that still has a vibrant culture of drapery, with a living connection to textiles that goes back tens of centuries. Even the Arabian abaya, which comes close in terms of draped cloth, is stitched, unlike the sari.
This is why I try to wear a sari as often as I can. Frankly, I am not very comfortable in it. Not as comfortable as my mother anyway. The women from previous generation could work and sleep in saris. But I love this tactile connection that I have with history, with my heritage and, indeed, the history of all textiles across all civilisations. The sari is a living emblem of the human connection with unstitched cloth.
Anthropologists look at things that are unique and specific to a particular culture. However, few researchers talk about the aesthetics. India is a culture of ornamentation. You can look at Kerala paintings – by Raja Ravi Varma, for example – and get an idea of the Indian fashion sense as it percolates down the centuries.
Take anklets, for example. They are distinctive Indian ornaments that are rarely found in other parts of the world. India has jewellery for pretty much every part of the body: the forehead, ears, nose and even ankles. Anklets jingle as a woman walks. My feminist Indian friends say that it is so the husband can keep tabs on his wife as she walks around the house. I think that the reasons are less about power and more about sensuality. The sweet sound of jingling anklets are a good way to drive out traffic noises. They are also Zen in that the sound of the anklets focus your mind as you walk.
Modern designers fetishise the leg. Shoe designers like Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo know that the arch of the heel is beautiful. They design their stilettos to emphasise this arch. But western designers have forgotten about the ankle and making it beautiful with an anklet. Indians didn’t forget.
In that sense, India is not like Scandinavia with its “less is more aesthetic”; nor it is like Japanese minimalism. We have a “more is more” aesthetic. For global business travellers who work in multiple cultures, there are many ways to understand the people that they interact with. One way is to observe a culture’s aesthetic.

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

Mumbai

Why does Mumbai inspire so much activism, writing, and imagination?

Urbs Primus in Indus: the enduring appeal of Mumbai, India

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Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus railway station in Mumbai. Trains play an important part of daily social life in the Indian city, as do the battered black-and-yellow taxis. Frederic Soltan / Corbis
Primary cause in India’s most enduring city, Mumbai
Shoba Narayan

November 13, 2014 Updated: November 13, 2014 05:24 PM

The best way to enter Mumbai is through its battered black-and-yellow taxis. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen upon a chatty taxi driver who will apprise you of the goings-on in this most populous and wealthiest of Indian cities: the cricketer Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement; the Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan’s third child; the industrialist Mukesh Ambani’s son. India’s edgiest art galleries and theatres are here, as is the second surviving original copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy – under wraps in the Asiatic Library. Mumbai is a city of superlatives that well fits its “Maximum City” moniker, as coined by the author Suketu Mehta. The city has nurtured India’s best-known author, Salman Rushdie; its best orchestra conductor, Zubin Mehta; and the late, great lead singer of Queen – Freddie Mercury, aka Farrokh Balsara, a Parsee boy whose parents were from Mumbai.

I visit Mumbai often. It nearly always overwhelms me. The numbers are mind-boggling: 20 million people contributing 6 per cent of India’s GDP, 33 per cent of its income-tax collections, and 60 per cent of its customs-duty collections. Delhi may be India’s capital and seat of power, but the money that makes the Indian economy churn comes from this slim island that has spread its tentacles deep into the Arabian Sea.

In 1996, the city then known as Bombay divested its colonial but beloved name to revert to Mumbai. Locals use both interchangeably. I like the name Bombay, even though I believe that the name change was a necessary step in India’s emergence from the chrysalis of ­colonialism.

“Bombay is incredibly accommodating towards immigrants,” says Abhay Sardesai, the editor of Art India, as he walks me through the art galleries of Colaba. “It allows individuals to drop anchor and flourish on their own terms.”

“Half the Indians on the Forbes billionaires list live in Bombay,” says a dour cab driver named Shinde. I could have predicted what followed. “You’d think they’d want to do something about the garbage.”

Nearly every Mumbaikar I know has a love-hate relationship with the city. They complain about it constantly, but cannot bear to leave. Naresh Fernandes, the author of City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay, is no different. He loathes the housing societies of Malabar Hill that allow only vegetarian residents; bemoans the rising inequality, which he says is so unlike the city of “shared spaces” that he grew up in. But he cannot bear to give up on it. “I have a stake in this city,” he says. “Bombay used to represent a certain egalitarianism, you know. This was the place where you could come and make your fortune.”

From the time it was discovered by Koli fisherfolk who rowed on Arab dhow boats towards Heptanesia or the City of Seven Isles in 1138 and named it after their patron goddess Mumba Devi, Mumbai attracted prospectors, bounty hunters and traders with a nose for opportunity and a stomach for risk. Arab spice traders called one of the islands Al Omani, later corrupted into Old Woman’s Island by the British. The Zoroastrians, or Parsees, originally from Iran, escaped persecution by seeking its shores. When the Englishman Gerald Aungier became Bombay’s governor, he invited Goan Catholics, Bohra Muslims and the Marwari and Sindhi traders to come and grow his city. Mumbai is a city of immigrants – earlier, from foreign shores and, more recently, from other parts of north India. A plaque on the Gateway of India describes its status – both perceived and felt – perfectly: “Urbs Primus in Indus.” The primary city in India.

The city’s geography dictated its history. Its location at the western edge of India, its naturally deep harbour – Bom Bahia, or “beautiful harbour”, as the Portuguese called it – and its narrow width that forced people to live literally on top of each other, have influenced its destiny. The Chinese call this feng shui; the Indians call it vastu shastra. Mumbai’s vastu, its kismet if you will, has to do with maal – goods and their trading, previously textiles; today, pretty much anything money can buy.

There are numerous hotels for tourists to drop anchor into. The Four Seasons, located near the Worli Sea Link, has small rooms but superb service. The flagship hotel of the Taj group – the Taj Mahal Palace – was founded here near the Gateway of India, where the British entered and left India. It was bombed during the 2008 attacks on the city, killing the hotel’s general manager and numerous guests. Today, the renovated hotel welcomes guests once more, albeit after numerous security checks. The Oberoi group, too, has a couple of properties here in Nariman Point, the financial district. Boutique hotels such as Abode, Le Sutra and Bentley also thrive in the hip neighbourhoods of Bandra and Pali Hill.

“Even though the centre of gravity, at least in terms of ­real-estate prices, has moved north, towards Bandra and Khar, south Mumbai still remains vibrant,” says Arvind Sethi, a twice-returned local. South Mumbai is where the ­National Centre for the Performing Arts hosts visiting orchestras; where the Asia Society invites speakers; and where the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival and Literature Live ­occur.

The big change in Mumbai, however, is the flourishing of an “indie culture” in Bandra, Khar and beyond, according to Nayantara Kilachand, the founder of Mumbai Boss, a vibrant website dedicated to local news, views and events. “You’ll find cafes and salons often doubling up as viewing spaces, gigs taking place in offbeat venues and stores that are multipurpose – they’ll host a food market one day and a jazz performance the next,” she says.

Some things, however, remain unchanged. The crowded local trains; the entrepreneurial culture; the 5,000 dabbawallahs who deliver about 200,000 hot packed lunches – come mucky monsoon or stifling summer heat – from homes in the suburbs to office workers in the city. Studied by Harvard Business School, feted by Prince Charles who invited them to his second wedding, the dabbawallahs work perfectly in Mumbai, with its narrow, north-south topography, somewhat akin to Manhattan. Delhi, in comparison, is too spread out. “As long as people are hungry and enjoy their mothers’ cooking, we will be in business,” says one wizened dabbawallah named Telekar, who is eating his own lunch on a train after delivering 300 other meals.

“Ma ya biwi bol,” adds his friend with a knowing grin. Say “mother or wife’s cooking” – it’s more politically correct.

“Why aren’t people depressed in a city like Bombay?” muses the New York transplant Asha Ranganathan, who has instructed her driver to meet her at Churchgate station while she took the “Dadar Fast” (the city’s most popular and populous local train) into town one day. “This city is full of stress. But for Mumbaikars, train rides are like group therapy. We Indians don’t hesitate in saying what is wrong with our lives. We don’t say everything’s fine like the Americans when our lives suck. We ride the trains and share our woes.”

I think of this as I enter Chowpatty Beach with Vijaya Pastala, who sells monofloral honey to luxury hotels and boutiques through her company, Under the Mango Tree. A third generation Mumbaikar with a farm in Alibaug, Pastala meets me for a sunset drink at the pricey Dome lounge atop the ­InterContinental hotel. Then we drive to Chowpatty Beach, where families have gathered for “hawa-khana” (to eat the air). Egalitarian Mumbai is very much in evidence on the beach, as well as in the Wankhede Stadium, where I watch a cricket match with Anand Merchant, a dentist who tends to the rich and famous. One of Merchant’s clients has given him US$150 (Dh551) tickets. “I don’t know what to do,” says Merchant about his bounty of box seats. “I mean, should I stop charging him for teeth cleaning?”

I treat Merchant to dinner at the famous Indigo cafe as a thank you. I invite him to visit Bangalore, my hometown. He demurs. Don’t the bars close in Bangalore at 11.30pm or some such ridiculously early hour, he asked? I nod. “Your city is a morgue, yaar,” he says. “Here, I can party all night and go to Zaffran’s at 4am if I am hungry. What would I do in Bangalore?”

Mumbai too is grappling with many of the problems facing global cities today: astronomical affluence surrounded by abject poverty; a bigger divide among the classes; political tensions wrought by immigrants, between “us” and “them”. The famous Dharavi slum is in the throes of “redevelopment”, a defective strategy according to the urbanologist Matias Echanove. “Bombay should develop incrementally with infrastructure ­retrofitting – like Tokyo has for decades. The government should realise that Dharavi is the solution not the problem.”

Mumbai’s saving grace is its practicality. Its people are not given to hyperbole, unless they’re getting paid for it. A typical Mumbai greeting is “Bol” – literally “talk”. Why waste time with niceties? “Yaar” means friend, but is used universally. “Mamu” or uncle is used both in affection and scorn. In spite of all its contradictions – its ­Parsees-only housing colonies and vegetarian buildings – Mumbai is India’s most cosmopolitan city. It balances the illusion of Bollywood with the gritty realities of its slums; it’s India’s most aspirational city, whetting the appetite of countless workers who commute using the celebrated Mumbai trains. Its people are both irreverent and welcoming, embracing newcomers into the collective fold with gruff practicality. Mumbai contains, as Walt Whitman would say, “multitudes”. It is indeed, Urbs Primus in Indus.

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Culture and Globalization

The Question of our Time.

How can we stay rooted in our own culture in a globalised world?
In a globalised world, it’s hard to define our respective culture by what we eat or how we dress up.
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Mike Young / The National

How can we stay rooted in our own culture in a globalised world?
Shoba Narayan

November 10, 2014 Updated: November 10, 2014 06:36 PM

What makes you who you are? Is it genes? Or culture? Is it the environment that you grow up in? If it is environment, what aspect of it influences you the most? Is it family, school, college, friends, teachers? These are the questions that interest me – culture and identity and how they dance with each other within a person and across time.

Why do some cultures transmit their values better than others? How does a culture reinforce identity?

I grew up in a fairly traditional south Indian family. Take a simple sentence like that. What does it mean when I say a “traditional south Indian family?” When I say it, I mean a few things that have to do with family, lifestyle and values.

The milieu that I grew up in involved a close relationship between generations, between grandparents, parents and children, all of whom either live in the same house or met each other often.

We ate foods that were contained to a region. Our daily meals were south Indian dishes like dosa and idli, mixed with the occasional north Indian dish.

We didn’t eat out very much, and when we did we went to Indian restaurants. We listened to Indian music – Carnatic music, Tamil and Hindi film songs.

We didn’t know too many foreigners and that was normal.

I remember the first few English movies that I saw. They were Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno. The fact that I remember them vividly perhaps means that I didn’t see many Hollywood movies.

We listened to a few western bands – Abba and Boney M — mostly to appear cool to our college friends. Although we tried to wear jeans and T-shirts, we were most comfortable in loose Indian clothes like the salwar kameez.

The fact that this list is so specific to a particular region and time says something about me. My time, the time when I absorbed external influences, was Madras in the 1970s and 1980s.

An Indian growing up in Kolkata or Mumbai, Darjeeling or Ahmednagar would have a different set of specifics; a different set of regional particularities. The food they ate, the clothes they wore, the books they read, the movies they watched – all would be different and specific to that region. But every region with a strong sense of identity operated (and perhaps still operates) within a narrow bandwidth in terms of the food they eat, the clothes they wear and the lifestyle they enjoy.

It seems to me that the more narrow your world is, the tighter your sense of identity. My parents grew up in small towns and their sense of self is very particular.

Today that is no longer possible because we live in a world where information and identity are very porous. There’s a lot of give-and-take.

Today, I wear western clothes as well as Indian clothes.

I bought a lovely scarf in Dubai, which is made by the French fashion house, Hermes; and I wear it in India, paired with a sari. Objects and values flying across cultures; global versus local, reflecting the shifting sands of time.

My question is this: how does one stay rooted and local while living in a global world? I realise that there is no one answer to this question, but what is yours? Is it Islam, or Arab values, or a language, a constitution, a culture?

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

Reduce transactions

I am speaking at The Bangalore Club on November 20th. The title, which I suggested is “Returned to India: now what?”
I am sorta freaking out because I want to make it funny. Debut stand-up act and all that. The below is stuff that I am thinking about as I prepare my material. Yikes.
Oh, and I pay a compliment to my spouse, which I rarely do (in person or in print). Darn it. Not funny enough.

Delegation in domestic matters frees up time for me to waste
Shoba Narayan

November 4, 2014 Updated: November 4, 2014 05:08 PM
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I am deeply suspicious about productivity apps and self-help books that deal with this subject, because I think they miss an important point: being productive focuses on the end-product while relegating the process to the background.
A parallel and somewhat contradictory trend in the world is mindfulness or living in the moment, which argues that no matter what you do, regardless of how simple or boring it is, it is all a way to practice mindfulness.
Connecting these two antithetical dictums in your brain requires a certain sort of mental agility. I ponder this conundrum every day without any sort of resolution because of my circumstances.
I live in Bangalore and work at home. My entire family lives within a couple of kilometres. This combination allows for moments of joy and chaos. There is the closeness of connections with loved ones, but that also means constant interruptions. This has forced me to be flexible and spurred me into seeking ways to increase my productivity.
Living in most developing nations gives you a certain mental flexibility because daily life in, say, India or Pakistan, abounds with contradictions compared to straightforward systems in the West.
Having lived in both India and the US, pretty much in equal measure, I can tell you that the ease of living in America has several advantages but one important disadvantage: it doesn’t force you to be mentally alert at all moments.
In India, on the other hand, even walking on the street requires observation, concentration and alertness because the pavements are uneven and a stray dog could be sleeping where you were just about to set your feet.
My father walks to my house every day and takes the same route. He sees familiar faces: the papaya vendor, the tailor, the barber, and the priest. He’s forced to talk to them while keeping a watchful eye open for the stray cow that wanders nearby. He has to remain mindful to what is around him because of the nature of Indian streets.
Similarly, the nature of Indian homes force continuous transactions throughout the day. The doorbell never stops ringing. When I really think about it, the reasons for the ringing doorbell are beneficial to me. The dry cleaner drops off my laundry, the vegetable vendor delivers fruits and vegetables to my doorstep, the milkman wants his monthly salary and the postman delivers a document.
Still I complain, sometimes sheepishly and with self-awareness but mostly to vent.
This situation epitomises another universal contradiction. In every society where people have domestic helpers, they complain about them.
This was true in New York, where my friends used to complain about their nannies while simultaneously saying that they couldn’t do without them. It was also true in Singapore, where people complained about their efficient housekeepers. It’s equally true in India, where people complain about their cooks and drivers.
The trick then is to figure out a way to ease your daily life while maintaining the joy and spontaneity of it. Recently, my spouse helped me do this, lending credence to the theory that the best help comes from somebody who knows your situation intimately and isn’t afraid to offer constructive criticism.
The solution that my husband suggested was simple. I had to try to reduce the number of transactions in which I was involved. This is easier said than done in my situation, but really it is the only way out of the quagmire in which I find myself mired on a daily basis.
Like most mothers who work from home, my time and space isn’t sacrosanct. My child can and does interrupt with questions about homework and relatives drop in because they know that I’m at home. They expect me to drop everything to entertain them. While my housekeeper can manage most things, she still interrupts me to sign a paper or answer a recipe question.
Short of locking myself into a room and not answering the door or phone, it is difficult for me to get uninterrupted time.
These days, I punt it back. When my child wants me to answer a question, I point her to Khan Academy. When the driver calls to ask which type of bananas he needs to buy, I tell him to decide.
It is these simple and seemingly ludicrous interruptions that had me in a lather. Reducing these kind of transactions has proven to be a great way to free up time. Whether or not I am productive with that time is another matter altogether.

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

Flowers

I didn’t set out to link flowers to culture, but there they are.

A simple garland of flowers is a powerful cultural emblem.

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Dutch people stick tulips into vases. Brazilians arrange flowers on little pots that they hang all over white walls. Hawaiians make lei garlands out of flowers and wear them when they dance. Arabs dry flowers and powder them along with herbs for their bakhoor incense. Americans and Europeans arrange flowers elaborately in funky vases. And Indians string flowers so that they can hang that string across doorways or wear it braided into their hair. In one sense, flowers are the ultimate luxury, because they are ephemeral, beautiful and sometimes fragrant.
One of the arguments I have here in India has to do with fashion, luxury and culture. Indians of my generation pretty much wear western clothes and have adopted western ideas of beauty. We all wear lipstick, eyeshadow, sleeveless dresses and high heels – and there’s nothing wrong with that. The sad part, at least in my view, is that this intellectual colonisation by the English has made us forget native ideas of beauty like wearing kajal, or kohl as it has come to be called; wearing a vermilion bindi or dot in the centre of your forehead; wearing homemade attars or perfumes that come from sandalwood and other oils; and wearing flowers in your hair.
Women of my mother’s generation worshipped with flowers, but also used them for adornment. Today, we wear strung jasmine flowers in our hair for weddings and festivals. We take these fragrant white jasmine flowers for granted.
It was only after living in the United States for many years that I started to view these simple flowers through a different lens. Indians hand-tie yellow and orange marigolds, red roses, fragrant white -tuberose and white jasmine into strings and garlands that we use to adorn ourselves. This defines us as a culture.
In New York, everything that is done by hand is a huge deal. My friend Annie makes jewellery and specifically markets it as “handmade”; another friend, Jana, paints on ceramics and sells the bowls and plates as “hand-painted”. Most luxury brands also emphasise the handmade look. “Handcrafted in Italian leather,” they say. “Bespoke tailoring,” they say. What separates handmade from factory made or mass-produced is the distinctive feel of the hand; the imperfections, which are celebrated.
So, I thought, why not celebrate hand-strung jasmine flowers, particularly since they are extremely local? Walk through a bazaar and you will probably see women sitting cross legged on the floor, tying jasmine into long strings with lightning speed. When you wear it in your hair, it is as if you have a handmade object that is ephemeral; that lasts just a day. What greater luxury is there?
Indians are surrounded by handmade objects. Perhaps, as a result, we fail to see the value in them. Living abroad for decades has sensitised me to what we have in India in terms of art, craft and aesthetic
When I returned to India a few years ago, the question on my mind was how to access my country’s culture in a way that felt true to myself. The path I have chosen is through its beautiful aesthetic.
If you come to my home, you will see yellow marigolds floating on brass urulis – round containers from Kerala. You will also find mango and neem leaves hanging across my doorways to ward off insects and attract beneficial energies.
I get a fresh string of jasmine delivered every day and clip it on my ponytail. These flowers allow me to access my history and heritage in a way that feels natural and effortlesss.

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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