Clubs and dress code

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.

India’s clubs should move with the times and embrace different traditions

Shoba Narayan

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
Shoba Narayan
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

The Confidence Conundrum

still love the line: “confidence is turning thoughts into action.”

The confidence conundrum and what we can do about it
Shoba Narayan

June 17, 2014 Updated: June 17, 2014 18:12:00

One of the things I announce in a public forum, often just for effect, is that my lifelong dream is to be a standup comic. It produces the desired effect. Everybody laughs. If you saw me, you would know why. I don’t look funny, I don’t talk funny. In fact, I am pretty much galactically unfunny. It feels pathetic to admit this, but announcing this desire to be a comic is my funniest line. I am no closer to achieving this dream than I was the first time I actually said those words. I keep telling the world that I want to be a standup comic but I don’t do anything about it.
This paradox has been addressed in a number of recent essays about female self-confidence. One essay in The Atlantic, titled, “The Confidence Gap,” describes research based on social psychology that shows how women consistently undervalue and underrate themselves. Men and boys, on the other hand, consistently think that they are better than they actually are. “Sometimes I feel like a fraud,” is a thought that has crossed the minds of the most powerful and seemingly confident women. What’s with this confidence conundrum, and what can women do about it?
Although, inevitably, studies deal in sweeping generalizations, they often show that many women are more perfectionist than men. They would rather do something perfectly or not do anything at all. Men on the other hand, are willing to blunder through tasks, blithely making mistakes and learning from it. They plunge into activities that are far above their abilities, get criticized for it, get used to the criticism and improve. The criticism makes them resilient: witness the sight of young boys in the playground, calling each other “morons” but improving their game in the process.
Playing sports, it turns out, is a great confidence-builder. Rough-housing and trading insults on the sports field is great preparation for the testosterone filled aggression of Silicon Valley. By dropping out of sports, girls are denying themselves the chance to grow in these areas.
Some psychologists say that focusing on competence rather than self-esteem is a good way to increase confidence. Self-esteem is a nebulous concept, they say. Simply telling a child that she is wonderful will not make her feel good about herself.
Instead, focusing on the tasks that she has accomplished; the effort that she has expended in achieving measurable results is often a better way to bolster teenager self-esteem. The next time you tell your child, “Honey, you are so smart,” stop yourself. Instead, put out a 10,000-piece puzzle, ask them to finish it and then say, “Wow! You worked hard at it and solved it.”
My favourite line comes from Prof Richard Petty, of Ohio State University, who has studied confidence building for decades. “Confidence,” he says, “is the stuff that turns thoughts into actions.”
I think it is a terrific line because it tells me what to do. There is no point in my labouring the point that I want to be a stand-up comic if I don’t do a thing about it.
The trick is to silence the voices in my head – the ones that say that I don’t have a funny bone in my body and will therefore fall flat at this exercise.
The trick is to actually get out and engage; to act; to rush “rashly” into the goal at hand instead of thinking once, then twice, and then succumbing to inertia.
Near my home is a club that offers stand up opportunities for amateurs every Thursday. I think that I need to get out there and attempt comedy. Next week, I aim to do just that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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

Chairs, Sugar, Phone

Thank you, Manish, for this idea.

Modern addictions are holding us all back, but can we live without them?
Shoba Narayan

June 11, 2014 Updated: June 11, 2014 18:40:00

Recently, a friend asked me an interesting question: “Which would be the hardest addiction for humankind to shrug off? Sugar, chairs or mobile devices?”

My instinctive answer was mobile devices, but that may just describe my addiction. As the recently released documentary Fed Up, points out, very few things can rival sugar as a “weapon of mass destruction”, as one review says. The documentary, which has garnered good press, takes a hard-hitting look at how sugar and processed foods have permeated diets globally.

As countries get richer, sugar intake doubles, People eat more processed food and the odds of getting type 2 diabetes increase. Even exercising is not enough to stave this off, according to the documentary. What really needs to happen is a return to the way of eating as practised by our parents and grandparents. To paraphrase author Michael Pollan, we should eat whole foods, mostly vegetables, in small quantities.

Perhaps you eat well already and therefore sugar is not so much part of your doomsday scenario.

But what about where you work? How do you work? If you are like many of the readers of this newspaper, you probably spend long hours in front of a computer. I do. It didn’t occur to me that the chair I was sitting on was the source of my back problems. It took several visits to an orthopaedic surgeon and an acupuncturist for me to realise that I had to change my work patterns; hence my proclamation that the second villain of the modern age is the simple chair.

Anthropologists say that the human body is made for standing and walking, not sitting. We sit far too much and for far too long. So, how do we incorporate standing and walking into our lives?

Some Silicon Valley executives work using an “air desk,” which is a stand that allows you to type on your laptop while walking or running on a treadmill. Others use standing desks and still others walk while talking on the phone. The late Apple chief executive, Steve Jobs, was famous for his walking meetings, where he would discuss business issues with co­workers while taking a walk.

I have switched to sitting on a large pink ball, and this forces me to stand up every now and then. Your solution might be to get or borrow an uncomfortable chair at your workplace so that you are forced to get up.

The third enemy that I want to target is mobile devices. In this, too, some of us are better than others. I know someone who returns from work, puts his mobile phone in his office briefcase and doesn’t touch it until he gets to work the next morning.

I find that I cannot go 10 minutes without checking my smart phone. I have numerous apps on it, which make me all the more attached to it. Recently, I downloaded an app that tracks the number of steps I take. The problem is that I have to wear the phone on my body in order for it to do that. I’ve ended up wearing a messenger bag all day and placing my phone into that, so that it can track my steps. The target is 10,000 steps a day. I usually get to about 4,000.

While most people talk about being addicted to surfing the web or checking their Twitter feed, I find that I can get off social media networks with relative ease. I usually ask my daughter to change my Facebook password and not tell me the new one. This prevents me from entering the site without having to deactivate my account.

Surprisingly, I’ve found that I don’t miss Facebook – but my mobile phone is a different animal altogether. I check email, messages and news items, read downloaded books and listen to music on it. Cutting that umbilical cord is going to be much harder. Does anybody have any suggestions?

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: A Memoir


An attempt at being funny. I had the hardest thing trying to come up with a quote. I know that someone made a quote, which went something like….”dah dah dah…about” Was it grateful about? Happy about? Complain about? Trying searching for that. I googled Bernard Shaw, always reliably curmudgeon. Unsuccessful. Anyway, here it is.

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I must try harder to be grateful for what I do not have
Shoba Narayan

May 6, 2014 Updated: May 6, 2014 17:57:00

You know what the problem with you is?” said my therapist in his all-knowing voice. “You are not grateful enough.”

Now, I’ve always thought of myself as a grateful sort of girl. The thing is that I don’t have very much to be grateful about.

Consider the main influences in my life: my family. I didn’t choose my parents or the location of my birth. I didn’t choose to be born in a hot, steamy city called Chennai where everyone knew each other’s business and if they didn’t, it was because the person was either dead, injured or worst of all, boring. I didn’t choose to be born with a sibling whose only answer when I discussed job issues, partner problems or even how my intestines seem to be expanding with every passing day was the single line reply: “Shoba, please. Meditate, I beg you.”

Now, my shrink was joining the party by suggesting that I wasn’t grateful enough.

It seemed like a vast conspiracy theory invented by those who are supposedly near and dear to me. It seemed like dodgy ideology, if you asked me – and nobody was. That was the galling part. Here I was, simmering with unspoken anxieties and frustrations and the best that my paid and unpaid loved ones could come up with was that I meditate and be grateful?

When I studied psychology in college, the focus of the field was on mental disease: schizophrenia and depression, mania and paranoia. These were massive, real psychological problems that required hours of therapy and going deep into the psyche. It required the study of Freud, dreams, infantile fantasies and compulsive dysfunctional behaviours. It was a proper science with no proper answers.

How the world has changed. Today, a burgeoning field called positive psychology has become the focus of the field, both among experts and laypeople.

Scholars are studying grit and character and how these will improve grades in school. They are writing books with punchy titles such as Will Power and Flourish. All of them focus on going from good to great. The demons of psychology past, which were held under the umbrella, “abnormal psychology”, are not for practitioners of this field. No, they want to analyse and discover ways of being happier.

They want to figure out how the mind connects to the body and how the two connect to the soul, if possible. They talk about prayer as a way to improve the self, something that was considered heretical by my psychology professors of yore. It is in this context that my therapist brought up gratitude: feeling thankful; counting your blessings. As it turned out, all those pithy proverbs that your grandmother said were true. Gratitude is a powerful tool for well-being, according to recent research on positive psychology.

My homework was simple. Every day, at the end of the day, before retiring to bed, I was to list three things that I was grateful for; three things that happened that day if possible. Then, I was to figure out why I was grateful for them.

“I am glad I didn’t eat potato chips today,” I began. As for why I was grateful, I said, “Because they weren’t in the pantry.”

This made me feel a little silly. I felt obliged to be grateful about more substantive things.

“I am grateful that I don’t have a life-threatening disease,” I said. As for why, I said: “At least I think I don’t have a dreaded disease. Who knows what my body is harbouring.”

My therapist shook his head. “Don’t mix up your latent pessimism with this exercise,” he said. “This is all about feeling good.”

But I didn’t feel good. I was – much like Jerome K Jerome who believed that he had every disease except housemaid’s knee – worried about what I had.

“Let’s try again tomorrow,” said my therapist. “And this time, try really hard to be grateful.”

I walked out of his office. Boy, was I grateful that my session was over.

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


The best way to make advice stick? Nag incessantly
Shoba Narayan

April 22, 2014 Updated: April 22, 2014 18:18:00

One of the perks of being a parent is that you get to offer advice to your children. One of the problems of being a parent is that you forget how little advice you took from your own parents. This inherent paradox is being played out in countless living rooms and dens in this, one of the peak seasons for parenting advice.

In many parts of the world, students are applying to go to colleges abroad. The prospect of losing their children to the world produces a great deal of anxiety amongst parents. This is certainly true of me. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, my children make me want to be a better human being. Even better, they lull me into thinking that I am one.

When I nag my children to study hard, stay focused and stop fooling around with the iPad, I can almost believe that I did not indulge in any distractions at their age. Children are great that way. Give them an old-fashioned scolding and you are guaranteed to feel good.

My time is running out though. In a few weeks, my kids will be in the full throes of summer holidays. They will be swimming, cycling and practically teleporting themselves to friends’ homes. I, meanwhile, will chase after them with important life lessons running on auto-loop. Seize the day, I scream. Opportunities are abundant, I extort. Don’t miss the wood for the trees. None of these pithy dictums are particularly relevant, but they make me feel useful.

The self-help section of any library is full of books by people who have figured things out. Why they call it self-help when it is usually other people trying to help you is beyond me. Shouldn’t self-help books be written by the self? A diary or a journal in other words? Instead, we have websites like Lifehacker and 99U devoted entirely to self-improvement. Recently, I read a book called, What I wish I knew when I was 20, written by Tina Seelig, a Stanford University professor. In it, the author lists out insights that would benefit any 20-year-old. Things like “don’t burn your bridges,” and “ask the right questions.” The only problem is that such insights have to be realised after painful failure in order for them to stick.

How do you give advice to your children, and how do you make it stick? It is a dilemma that has been faced by generations of parents, made somehow more poignant by memories of childhoods past; or rather the realisation that you don’t have memories of parental advice given in childhoods past. Except those all-inclusive ones like “Eat your vegetables,” and “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.” Beyond that, it is probably one happy blur, both for you and for me.

My method of making advice stick is to nag – to keep repeating the same phrase over and over again. This has a rather unfortunate side effect. They stop hearing me after a while. However there is one method that works: self-flagellation. When they see me fail and fall down, my children learn the lessons inherent in that failure. It is like me getting the halo effect when I chastise them.

Last week, I discovered a tear in my coat just as I was rushing out to an important meeting. As I ran around the house, muttering and stitching the tear with a needle and thread, as best as I could, my two daughters who were silently witnessing the scene chorused the girl scout motto that I had been trying to drill into them all summer: “Ma, don’t you know: be prepared.”

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

Cricket Widow

The only option for a cricket widow is to play the game
Shoba Narayan

April 13, 2014 Updated: April 13, 2014 16:57:00

I am a cricket widow. I didn’t think I would be one. Indeed, in the early throes of marital harmony, I thought that my husband and I would do every activity together. He would watch my soap operas and I would watch sport. That ended within a month and now neither of us is clear as to who crushed the spousal camaraderie that had been the cornerstone of our marriage – or at least our vision of it.

Now that the cricket season is starting, there are women in many parts of the world with ample time on their hands since their husbands are sitting in front of a television watching uniformed men run, bat, bowl and field.

In my building in Bangalore, we have formed a “cricket widows’ club”. On the days when there are big matches, we go out together to a nice restaurant for a meal, while our men make whooping noises and thump their fists at the television.

What is it with men and sport? What is it with men and cricket? I can understand the pleasure of playing a game. What beats me is how someone can watch, not for an hour or two, but for several hours at a stretch, forgetting wife and children, at a game that is essentially about cork meeting wood. I know that’s like saying Yehudi Menuhin played on spruce wood, but my dourness springs from the fact that I don’t understand why Indians are cricket crazy. Football, I get. Basketball, I appreciate. Tennis, I can tolerate. But cricket?

There are three things that define India: cricket, food and Bollywood. I can relate to the last two, but I’m flummoxed by the first. I think it is because I am a failed cricket player. As a girl, I was never included in the neighbourhood cricket games that boys played with gusto. They had the typical superior attitude that marks men when it comes to sport. Whenever I entered the ­playground, asking for a chance to bat, they would make me the wicket keeper. Or worse, the commentator.

As a teenage girl, I resented the cricket ball because it took the ­attention of the boys away from ­me. This was the beginning of a lifelong aversion towards the game.

Now that we have two daughters, my husband and I try very hard to raise them without any gender bias. We had hoped that our girls would give my husband company when he watched the sport channels. Even though my eldest daughter plays basketball and football, she somehow is unable to sit down for an hour or two and watch cricket. This is a problem, because I then become the proxy, or rather the patsy, duty-bound to providing company for my sport-obsessed husband.

With IPL fever spreading through the world, my husband and I made a pact. We will tabulate the times that we watch television. For every hour that I watch cricket, he will watch a Food Network show with me. I think that I have the short end of the stick because he actually happens to like watching the Food Network.

So, does anyone have any tips for me? How does a person who doesn’t like to watch cricket sit through two hours of this endless game? I tried surreptitiously texting my friends and catching up with my emails while my husband watched cricket, but he cried foul. In his mind, a trade was a trade only if my eyes were glued to the television the whole time.

Since I cannot win this barter, I have decided to join it, as it were. I’ve started cricket lessons. I’m not kidding. In my building there are a dozen 10-year-olds whose goal in life is to play cricket, if possible on a professional level but at least on a daily basis. I approached them and created a trade of my own. I promised them a ridiculously named and horrible tasting sweet called Sour Punk. For every game we played, I would buy them one Sour Punk. It worked.

This is, perhaps, the trick to learning to love a game: actually playing it. I discovered that for all my scorn, for all my suspicion, for all my derision about how easy cricket was, it in fact wasn’t. It wasn’t easy to apply bat to ball at the right time, with the right pressure and in the right direction. I also learnt the jargon about where the fielders stood and the different types of ball. My ­favourite is the googly.

It has taken a few weeks but now I can sit with my husband and watch the game. I may not (yet) relish it, but I actually understand what’s going on. That’s a first for me.

Shoba Narayan is the author of ­Return to India: A Memoir and Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes

Maternal Mortality Rates

Maternal mortality interests me because it seems preventable and is a problem that is at a confluence of medicine, society and culture. I recommend (highly) the latest State of the World’s mothers report.

If giving birth is natural, why do so many mothers die?
Shoba Narayan

April 1, 2014 Updated: April 1, 2014 17:43:00

A small item in the news caught my eye. It is something I track, and something I worry about. The technical term for it is “maternal mortality”: dying while giving birth.

Tribesmen in Pakistan and villagers in Darfur have expressed concern over rising maternal mortality rates (MMR), according to the news report. A high MMR comes about through a complex set of circumstances and they are not all medical. This is why it interests me. After all, women have been giving birth for centuries, well before hospitals were established. My mother still remembers a time when poor women in her village used to retreat behind shrubs, give birth and then come back with babies.

If birthing is so natural, why do women die doing it? Most of us take our wives, daughters and sisters to the best hospitals that we can afford at that critical stage in their lives. In Bangalore, where I now live, a 50-bed boutique hospital called The Cradle could well be transplanted to Palm Beach, Florida in terms of how it looks and the services it offers. Many of my American expatriate friends choose to give birth there rather than go home.

There is no such choice in rural Pakistan, Darfur or Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. A combination of misinformation, malnutrition and poor sanitation stack the odds against pregnant mothers and their newborn babies. Women deliver babies on hay, often in the filthiest part of the house, beside running sewers and clucking chickens, and using overused kitchen blades in lieu of sanitised medical tools. They are poor and hungry to begin with and often feed others in the family instead of themselves.

These women believe that birthing isn’t complicated; they take it for granted as something that their mothers and grandmothers have done, not realising that their health and circumstances are different. Sanitation is an issue. A burgeoning population means that with many mouths to feed, nutrition is always an issue.

So why should we care? And what can be done? One method that the Indian government is spearheading involves Accredited Social Health Activists or Asha workers. These are trained women who belong to the villages where they work. They aren’t doctors; they aren’t even nurses, but they are high-potential front line service providers. They understand local culture and dynamics and are able to translate standard scientific messages in a way that makes sense to local people, according to Muhammad Musa, the CEO of Care India, an NGO. They know what messages will work and what won’t, which is key for behaviour-change communication.

Asha workers liaise between rural women and the government and have undergone training to deliver key messages. The ones in Bihar carry mobile phones to keep track of their clients, and picture booklets that explain nutrition, sanitation and health. One page has a drawing of a nursing mother with a tick beside it to encourage breastfeeding and skin contact. Another shows a pregnant mother with a caption telling women to take the iron tablets that are distributed free by the government. There are messages about vaccination, nutrition and family planning: “Space out your children. Good for family. Good for child.”

Other countries take different approaches. Pakistani health experts have called for religious leaders and elders to come forward and help pregnant women deliver in safe and healthy situations. In Sudan, where MMR escalated by 94 per cent last year, the focus is on malnutrition and improving the health of a woman before she gets pregnant.

As has been stressed by the Save the Children Fund’s State of the World’s Mothers report 2014, helping a pregnant mother deliver a baby is the most natural thing in the world. Governments, NGOs and village elders ought to work together to make it this way.

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

Satya Nadella

Wrote this right after Nadella became CEO. It was published yesterday

Suddenly, all Indians seem to know Microsoft’s new CEO
Shoba Narayan

March 11, 2014 Updated: March 11, 2014 19:33:00

Now that India-born Satya Nadella is the new CEO of Microsoft, the number of Indians who know him, are related to him, have studied with him in school, college or kindergarten or claim kinship in some loose form has skyrocketed.

“He must belong to the Nathella Sampath Chetty jeweller group in Chennai,” said my father, who began his teaching career in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, the state where Nadella is from. “Nadella must be the Anglicised version of Nathella.”

“No jeweller connection, Dad,” I replied. “His father was an IAS officer.”

Reports are rampant on Facebook, Twitter and other social media about Mr Nadella’s character and humility. A former colleague has stated that although Mr Nadella didn’t attend his book launch, he went to great pains and emailed his regrets. Other versions include the family wedding, baby shower and sweet 16 parties. The Indian diaspora is giddy with memories of encounters with this man, who until last year was a virtual unknown. How a CEO post can change a life!

If all else fails, Indians resort to the old faithful: they claim kinship with his family. My parents knew his parents because they were in the Indian Administrative Service together, said someone I know. I studied in the same school where Mr Nadella did, chimed in another. I speak Telugu, his mother tongue, said a third. Well, I am losing hair, just like Mr Nadella, said I. Does that count?

I am not surprised by this need to connect to the man who has risen to the top of one of the world’s iconic companies. Claiming kinship with “one of our own” is a natural human trait, and India, perhaps more than any other country, operates this way. The first thing that my father does when he is introduced to a stranger is figure out a way – either through language, location, family name, career or at the very least gesture and mannerisms – to connect with the other person. This is not in the simple and straightforward “nice to meet you” way that typifies my western-educated friends and generation. Indians of my father’s generation are much more specific yet circuitous, oxymoronic as that sounds.

Take a typical introduction to a perfect stranger. “Oh, you are from Lucknow,” my Dad will say. Mulling thoughtfully, you can hear the wheels turning in his head. “My father’s first cousin’s brother-in-law used to teach at the university there between 1967-70. Perhaps you know him? His name is Venkat Ramalingam.”

This is a connection forged through a link to the past, something that is very real to the people of a nation that is hurtling towards the future. The word that is often used in this context is “antecedents”. When relatives are asked to check up on whether a boy is suitable to be married to a daughter or niece, they are asked to check on his antecedents: where he lived, who he was, with whom he had a relationship and how he lived his life. Ditto for his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, going back seven generations if possible.

Indians approach relationships in this same circular way too. Before we do business; before we break bread or exchange marriage garlands, we establish kinship. If Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer had used the Indian approach to their search, they would have visited Bukkapuram village in Anantpur District, Andhra Pradesh, where Nadella’s family “hails” from, and talked to the relatives and neighbours. I tease of course. Indian companies are built on meritocracy and resumes, just like everywhere in the world. Our search firms find and place the best in the world.

Scratch the surface, however, and you will find that deep longing for a shared past that can somehow be translated into a connected future. This is why we are thrilled about Microsoft’s new CEO – not because of his new title but because of his old country, because he is somehow related to us.

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

Thanks but no thanks

Most old cultures: Israelis, Russians, Chinese, and certainly Indians are this way. Don’t know enough about Europe’s old cultures to check if they are this way too. When I say West, I mean America. Would be interesting to check if a Polish or old German grandmother says thanks– or not.
How did the word ‘thank you’ evolve?

No need to say thank you, we’ll just even things up later

Shoba Narayan

My mother dislikes it when I thank her. She is a youthful 76-year-old woman with grey hair and an easy smile. She makes friends easily. She likes to travel. She talks to strangers and is known for her empathy and compassion. Her emotional quotient (EQ), the new measure of a person that is often pitted against the traditional IQ, in other words, is very high.
My mother knows exactly what to say and to whom. Except that she doesn’t accept thanks from the ones she loves. She screws up her face into an expression of distaste. She looks insulted.
“What thanks? I don’t need your thanks,” she will reply when I thank her for buying my groceries or taking my children to school.
This curt response used to disconcert me, particularly after I returned from America, where I learnt – through magazines and advertisements – that we ought to accept thanks with grace. “Because you are worth it,” said one ad. Magazine articles routinely exhorted me to accept gratitude because I deserved it; to express gratitude fulsomely, no matter who the recipient or the circumstance. “It’s never too late to say thank you or sorry,” said one poster. Except with my mother.
“Thanks, ma.”
“Get out of here. What are you thanking me for?”
Or versions thereof.
This is the difference between the two countries that I have called home. The West views actions as transactions: someone does something for you and you say thanks. The East, particularly India, views actions as extensions of a relationship. It would be insulting for me to thank my grandmother for massaging coconut oil into my hair because such a statement would dilute the intimacy of the act and the relationship.
More important is that you thank someone who is “not you”, who is outside of you. In India, the closer you get to someone, the more you view them as extensions of yourself. Thanking them would be like thanking yourself. Who does that? Hence my mother’s umbrage when I express gratitude verbally. In her world view, you do things for your loved ones without fuss, without much talk. And they do something right back. So, when I thank my parents, I am making them outsiders.
It is a cultural thing; but it is also a generational thing. Most Indians of the previous generation use the word “thanks” sparingly. Offer a seat to the grandmother on a train and she will smile gratefully for sure. Half an hour later, she will open her snack box and offer you the tastiest morsel. It is her way of acknowledging what you did for her.
“Words are cheap,” says my mother. “Why should a daughter thank a mother for doing the things that a mother does?”
I thought it was just my Mom. Recently, I was in Kanpur, a small town in the Hindi heartland of India. The couple that invited me were extraordinarily kind and generous. They also bristled when I tried to stammer out a thanks at the end of my visit. “What are you saying?” the lady interrupted, snuffing out what they deemed was my “angrez” (English) affectation. As I left, in lieu of thanks, she simply said: “Blessings.”
It has taken me seven years to get used to this. Perhaps it has to do with my personality. By nature, I am a somewhat formal person. I thank everyone for everything – including my husband – because I believe words are an extension of how you feel.
When I feel grateful, I know of no other way to express it than to say thanks. My method is unimaginative, according to the Indian way. It is also empty. Saying thanks is quick and lazy. Indians of my mother’s generation do it much more imaginatively. They keep a long tally of scores and come up with creative ways to settle them.
“You know, Reena took me on that trip to that safari park,” my mother will say. “I should just give her this jungle-patterned jewellery set for her next birthday. I am not going to wear it and it will remind her of that trip we took together.”
I have neither time nor imagination to do this sort of mental tally morphed into imaginative return-gifts. So I take the easy way out.
“Thanks, Ma,” I yell as I drive out of the house.
I laugh over her scolding.

Shoba Narayan is the author of the memoir, Return to India