Men’s rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women’s colleges

Inspired by the visit of Sonya Stephens of Mount Holyoke, I began thinking about women’s colleges.

An all-women’s college changed my life
Shoba Narayan

November 29, 2014 Updated: November 29, 2014 05:48 PM

Those involved in higher education – and I say this as the daughter of a college professor – sometimes forget just what an impact they can make on a young student’s life.

Think about it. If you are over 40, you probably don’t remember who you met last week. But you do remember those teachers whose classes you enjoyed and the teachers who shaped your mind, who charted a course that was different from the one that you had planned for yourself. These inspirational faculty, staff and advisers have been given the gift of interacting with young people when they are pretty much a tabula rasa.

Professors sometimes forget about this in their rush to publish papers and write grant applications. Reminding themselves that their jobs allow them to do what many adults aspire to do – influence young minds and leave a legacy– should help teachers get through the drudgery of institutional work: the grading of papers and writing of reports.

I went to Mount Holyoke College, a small liberal arts women’s college in South Hadley, Massachusetts. My college days were a happy mix of curious coincidences that I could not have foreseen or engineered.

A random student, Millie Cruz, who stayed in my dorm, told me about a charismatic sculpture professor. I had never taken an art class before and indeed, the beginners’ sculpture class didn’t fit into my course schedule. But when I phoned Professor Leonard DeLonga, he told me to take whatever class that my schedule allowed. That was how I, who had no clue about art, became an advanced sculpture student at Mount Holyoke.

Good professors nudge students into paths that they may not have foreseen. Good colleges allow their faculty to make such decisions spontaneously. Good colleges go out on a limb for the student, not just with words, but also through actions.

After a year of art classes, I realised that it was my passion. I wanted to switch to becoming an art major, but I was running out of time. I had only a semester left before I finished my courses. The only choice that I – an international student on a student visa – had was to apply to graduate school. There was one problem: I didn’t have enough credits.

This was the second time that Mount Holyoke went out on a limb for me. My professors wrote to the college president and asked for an extension, so that I could stay one more year and make up an art portfolio. College president Elizabeth Kennan agreed with their analysis and gave me a full-tuition scholarship for one more year so that I could make up enough art credits to apply for graduate art school.

I did go on to graduate art school on a scholarship. A life’s path was forged at a world-class undergraduate institution.

Women’s colleges in the United States are coming under increasing pressure to convert to coeducational institutions. They were always a minority. Mount Holyoke was part of the “seven sisters”, a loose consortium of liberal arts colleges that traditionally admitted only women. The others were Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Radcliffe and Barnard. Of the group, Radcliffe has merged with Harvard and Vassar has became coeducational.

Every now and then, the remaining “sisters” open up a discussion about the future of women’s education. It happened even when I was in college. Typically, the students could go either way, but the admissions office would prefer that the college become coeducational, so they can recruit more students. The alumni, however, are the most vocal voice in favour of women’s education.

This, then, is the paradox. I only realised the value of studying at an all-women’s college after I graduated. If you have a young girl in your family who is looking at a college education, particularly in the US, I would urge you to help her consider going to a women’s college as an alternative. It could change her life.

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

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

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

From thin to fat

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

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

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

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