Wildlife Tiger Census

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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The flight Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai from Dh1,045 return, including taxes.

The hotel The J W Marriott Hotel Mumbai (www.marriott.com) at Juhu Beach offers double rooms from 12,117 Indian rupees (Dh724) per night, including taxes.

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

Turkey Travelling with Kids

I love cheese. I wish I knew more about them. But to eat a Manchego in Spain or a Brie de Meaux in France, a Stilton in Britain, or Gorgonzola with Barolo in Italy doubles the pleasure. The same goes for Feta in Greece or in my case Turkey. Bread, cheese, wine. Pretty much all you need.

Travelling with kids: Shopping in Turkey turns up fine feta
Shoba Narayan

August 7, 2014 Updated: August 7, 2014 04:52 PM

My daughter and I are in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Her eyes are gleaming. She darts from shop to shop like a butterfly seeking nectar – holding up harem pants; a shimmery hijab that she wants to use as a scarf; some tiny red glasses that are used to serve Turkish coffee but that she wants to use as a candleholder.

“Look at these,” she says, holding up some blue porcelain bowls. “Wouldn’t they be great to serve salad in?”

I just want to get out of the place. I feel claustrophobic and impatient.

Perhaps because my mother loved to shop, I don’t. And perhaps because I don’t like to shop, my daughter loves to. This usually doesn’t matter in daily life. My elder daughter, Ranjini, who’s in high school, goes out with her friends when she wants to shop and she orders things online – I pay the bill. It’s an arrangement that suits us both.

All of that changes when we’re on holiday. A big part of holidaying is shopping. It’s not what you buy as much as the hunt. You find good neighbourhoods that have interesting shops; you ­engage with the shopkeepers, who are usually locals; you figure out things that you like from that particular country and if you can use them back home; and you engage in the song and dance of bargaining, depending on the ­country.

In Germany, for example, you don’t bargain. You just figure out if the dirndl skirt that looks so good in the photograph will work when you wear it back home. In Egypt, Bali or Pakistan, you bargain.

Over the years, my family and I have travelled to malls and souqs in search of the perfect item to take back home. Sometimes, however, a shopping trip results in a memory that’s as potent as the souvenir or the object that you carry back. This is what happens in ­Istanbul.

It’s a little boy with limpid eyes standing beside his father that catches our attention. The father is selling feta cheese at one of the entrances of the Grand Bazaar. As we walk by, the feta sellers call us with entreaties in Turkish. Presumably, they want us to try to buy their cheese. Amid the Turkish is one little voice: “Madam, can I practise my English?”

We stop. It’s the little boy – he must be 6 or 7. He smiles at us. We smile back and walk towards his father, who offers us a cube of feta on a toothpick.

“We already had breakfast,” says Ranjini with a smile.

“Try it,” says the boy. “It is the best feta in all of ­Istanbul.”

That’s a challenge we cannot resist. The little boy is right: it’s the best feta that we’ve eaten in our lives. Perhaps it’s because it’s so soft and fresh; perhaps because it’s soaked in olive oil; or perhaps because it’s served with an angelic smile. Whatever the case, we continue eating a couple of samples and end up buying a tub. In between, the boy and my daughter speak to each other in English. His English is halting but good. He asks about India and what we think about his country. Ranjini asks about his life: where he lives (close by); whether he goes to school (yes); and his grade (second).

It’s an encounter that we will never forget. I can visualise the boy’s face as I write this. As for the feta, my mouth is watering right now.

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Travelling with Kids New Zealand

Great headline. The Mecca of cross-country driving vacations is of course, America. Growing up in India, we can go on too many driving trips. Our childhood memories were built around train travel.

Solving being driven to distraction

A driving vacation in New Zealand taught us that being cooped up in a car for hours at a stretch wasn’t all that bad.

Within the first hour of picking up our rental car in Auckland, New Zealand, both my daughters puked. We were at the beginning of a 10-day vacation in New Zealand. The plan was to drive to Christchurch and then Queenstown before looping back up to Auckland. Except that the car was smelling to high heaven. We stopped off at a grocery store and bought cleaning supplies, wondering if we were doing the right thing by driving so many miles with two active young children. Then came the first surprise. “We’ll help you clean up,” said my elder daughter, Ranju. After steadying ourselves, we decided to take up her offer. And so it began, this bonding trip that took us so far from home.

A driving vacation requires proper planning. We had to make sure that there were tasty snacks and drinks, particularly in those long sections where there was no rest area for miles. We brought along games and listened to audiobooks. What was surprising was how much we discovered about each other. There’s something about a moving vehicle and beautiful scenery that brings out the poet and philosopher in travelers. So it was with our family. Our younger daughter, Malu, had always been interested in geography. The vast expanses of New Zealand gave full play to her imagination. Except with a twist. Rather than asking questions as children do, we discovered that Malu ended up answering questions. She had studied quite a lot about the land and its geology. She could point out specific rocks, and tell us about the age of the continent. For any parent, discovering the depth of your child’s knowledge is a particular pleasure. It often doesn’t happen at home, when one is caught up in the routine of homework and extracurricular activities. It took a country at the tip of the earth and driving for hours at a stretch to bring out the teacher in 10-year-old Malu.

It was a little different with our elder daughter, Ranju, 15. She was a practical sort and helped her father deal with changing automobile oil, filling up gas, and examining the spare tire. Ever the diplomat, she even mediated a quarrel between my husband and I while our younger one slept. We were shocked and mortified to discover that not only had we failed in our resolve never to fight in front of the kids but that our child was mature enough to mediate our petty quarrel and that she was good at it. We had little choice, we told ourselves later. How long could one bottle up simmering resentments while cooped up in a vehicle?

Ten days later, ww returned the car to the rental agency, hoping that it still didn’t smell. We giggled and chuckled amongst ourselves as we stood in line to hand over the papers. We had explored a beautiful land and had wonderful experiences. Best of all, we had gotten to know each other in a way that we wouldn’t have at home. That alone made the vacation worth it.

Barcelona Travel

Ah Barcelona! If you are an architecture or design or sports buff, or a foodie, this is the city to go to.

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Travelling with kids: When shopping abroad is a holiday
July 24, 2014 Updated: July 24, 2014 05:31 PM

A few months ago, we were in Barcelona, which, as shopping destinations go, is not my favourite city. I prefer the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul, the souqs of Dubai or the bazaars of India. Barcelona offers the pleasures of Zara, H&M and Mango, but not much atmosphere as far as I was concerned.

My daughters, ages 18 and 12, were in heaven. My younger daughter, Malu, like me, can shop but it’s not her favourite thing to do. My elder daughter, Ranjini, on the other hand, finds pleasure in the looking and buying.

On this trip, I was determined to indulge Ranjini. Rather than make her feel guilty about shopping, I would use it as a way to find pleasure in her company. That was the plan anyway. Yet, something ­unexpected happened.

We entered an H&M store one afternoon. There were three floors of clothes, accessories, jewellery and shoes. Ranjini and I wandered through the aisles picking out sweaters, dresses and business coats for me. I was surprised at how much she knew about colour, proportion, cut and texture.

“That blue doesn’t suit you,” she said. “It makes your face look washed out.”

She sat outside the fitting room as I tried on blazer ­after dress suit after ­sweater, and had an appropriate comment for each. She helped me whittle down what seemed like a mountain of choices into a manageable one. Best of all, for the first time, shopping became a pleasurable activity for me.

“You know, you should be like one of those buyers for department stores,” I said. “When did you learn so much about clothes?”

Ranjini laughed. “I just like clothes, Ma,” she said. “It’s not like physics or anything.”

Two hours later, I was kitted out with the best business clothes I had ever owned. And they cost half of what I thought I would pay.

As for my daughter, she bought one skirt. And that too, under duress. It was my turn to feel guilty. “Why don’t you buy ­yourself something?” I asked.

Ranjini shrugged away my protests. She didn’t like what she saw, she said. “Shopping is not just about buying things, Ma. It’s also about looking and learning about trends. You see what’s new, see what’s in fashion, and figure out if the look will suit you. The pleasure is in the analysis, somewhat like what you do in museums,” she said – my daughter.

Indeed. Suitably chastised, I gazed at her, ­glowing with pride. I had dismissed shopping as a vain and frivolous exercise. It took an 18-year-old to show me that shopping was also a way of looking.

And so it came to be that over the course of four days, I learnt the tips and tricks of shopping from my daughter. Perhaps if we had been home, I wouldn’t have been so patient. At home, I had context and views on stores and stuff. “You certainly aren’t going to buy clothes from Soch, missy. Not with the annual sale just around the corner.” Or, “Why are you buying these designer clothes when you can get similar clothes at half price from Fab India?” Bereft of this perspective, I wandered around with my daughter. I had no views. I was out of my depth. And that, in retrospect, was the best thing that happened to us in Barcelona.

Bangkok Tuk-tuks

My Dad talks about this incident to this day.

Tuk-tuk tricks and Bangkok bartering
Shoba Narayan

May 29, 2014 Updated: May 29, 2014 11:47:00

It begins innocently enough. We’re in Bangkok and my 12-year-old wants to ride on a tuk-tuk. After days of visiting Buddhist temples, she wants something more adventurous. My 80-year-old father, who’s travelling with us, is having none of it.

“Tuk-tuks are dangerous,” he says. “Why take chances in a new country? And that too, on the day of our flight?”

I’m caught between two generations. My instinct is to dismiss my father’s warnings, as I usually do. He’s the worrying kind and goes into overdrive in a new country. What could go wrong with a simple ride in a tuk-tuk?

We hire one right outside our hotel and tell the tuk-tuk driver to show us the sights. The hotel concierge asks the driver to drop us back at the hotel in half an hour. We all get in: my parents, my two daughters and I.

The tuk-tuk takes us deeper and deeper into the narrow by-lanes that surround the Sukhumvit area of Bangkok, where we’re staying. Soon, we’re in a neighbourhood with a dirty canal on one side and automobile-spare-part shops on the other. Touristy, it’s not.

I ask, then order and, finally, entreat our driver to turn back. He acts as if he can’t hear. As we bounce along into the impending darkness, I glance at my father, who has an “I told you so” expression on his worried face.

Finally, the driver pulls into what is obviously a tourist trap. A seedy shop sells Buddha statues, Thai silk jackets, imitation pearls and knick-knacks. The owner stands outside, ostensibly welcoming us. “Please tell your friend to take us back to your hotel?” I say, without preamble.

“Only if you buy something from us, madam,” says the owner. “Otherwise, he no take you back.”

The shop sells poor-quality, overpriced souvenirs. I have exactly four Thai bahts in my purse; and I don’t want to use my credit card at such an obviously seedy place.

My father tries to explain to the owner that we have a plane to catch in a few hours. The tuk-tuk driver pulls into a narrow lane about 100 yards away and parks there, puffing a cigarette. I stand outside the shop, and try to find another taxi or tuk-tuk to take us back, but nothing is in sight.

It was my teenage daughter, Ranju, who comes up with the solution – which had been staring at us in the face. She takes the pink Disney pouch that my 12-year-old, Malu, is wearing around her neck and offers it to the shopkeeper. “For your daughter,” she says with a winsome smile.

The shopkeeper examines the pouch and nods. “What you want in exchange?”

I was just about to say “a ride back to the hotel”, when Ranju interrupts me. She points at an orange scarf in what appears to be Thai silk. The shopkeeper laughs. “Too expensive.” He offers a tiny, embroidered pouch, which my daughter takes with a smile. “Tuk-tuk?” she asks.

The man nods and hails his friend. We ride back to the hotel in fearful silence.

My teenager uses the pouch to carry coins. It’s a testament, she says, to the power of negotiation. I say that it’s a testament to the fact that you should listen to your parents. My father merely says: “I told you so.”

Travelling with kids.

Travelling with kids: History is more fun with new friends
Shoba Narayan

May 22, 2014 Updated: May 22, 2014 15:57:00

My husband asks as we disembark the plane: “Did you know that the Nizam didn’t want to join the Indian Union after India gained ­independence?”

“Yes, and did you know that Hyderabad is called the City of Pearls?” I chime in. “Even though the Nizam used diamonds – not pearls – as paperweights.”

We’re in Hyderabad for a long weekend to attend a friend’s wedding and also to give our children a glimpse of south Indian history.

Hyderabad epitomises many of the strains that make India unique and interesting: pluralistic, welcoming, layered culture and great food. The city is 40 per cent Muslim; both Telugu and Urdu are spoken; and it’s known for its jewellery, textiles, music and ­opulence.

We stay at the Taj Falaknuma, mostly because it was the Nizam’s palace and close to the old city. From the moment that we check in, my husband and I begin feeding the children titbits of interesting history; or so we thought. The girls mostly want to bounce on the beds and jump into the pool.

Our break comes the next morning, when we run into a British family, whose daughters are about the same age as ours. All of a sudden, things change.

The palace historian takes us on a tour and shows us the huge dining room with acoustics so good that the Nizam could hear whispers from across the room. The girls test it by whispering and giggling. We pirouette across the giant ballroom, with its crystal chandeliers, and examine the billiard table, which had a twin in Buckingham Palace. Along the way, the historian talks about the largesse of the Nizams; the way they lived and the grandeur that they were used to. My 12-year-old begins playing “rock, paper, scissors” with the 11-year-old Helen, from ­Wimbledon.

We spend the next day in the Old City, with our new English friends. Our teenager befriends Nora, who, at 16, is a year younger.

They duck in and out of shops, buying sparkly bangles made of lac, crystals, glass and metal. They go into a henna parlour and get “tattoos”, or “mehndi” as Indians call it, on their hands, choosing designs that look like paisley and flowers; swans and peacocks. They chat about school and summer holidays and how parents try to stuff history lessons down their throats while on ­holiday.

We discover that spending time with another family is a great way to get everyone to behave.

When I announce over breakfast that I have reservations for a guided tour at the Salar Jung Museum, my daughters don’t roll their eyes and groan theatrically, as is their wont. Instead, they invite their English friends along, who – to their parents’ surprise – accept with alacrity.

My husband and I want to take the girls to see the tombs of Delhi next. They are suffused with ­history. Only one thing is missing from the history-filled itinerary that I’ve chalked out for us: a family who have children about the age of our own.

weekend@thenational.ae

Summer holidays

As someone who loves swanky hotels, that last bit is going to be hard to follow. Maybe later on that one.

Opinion
Comment
When did travelling overseas stop being an adventure?
Shoba Narayan

March 25, 2014 Updated: March 25, 2014 18:45:00

The holiday season is approaching in India. Many of my friends are making travel plans for trips to all corners of the globe. It is incredible how easy it now is to book tickets, rooms, cars and plays on the other side of the world. It is a far cry from times gone by when arranging travel was a far more difficult operation.

When I was young, one of the things that used to amuse and irritate me was the amount of preparation that my grandparents did before embarking on a trip. This had nothing to do with packing or planning. It happened much before that. They would look at omens, good days and bad, and what seemed like an increasingly complicated set of superstitious reasons before even getting to the stage of buying tickets. For example, Hindu custom dictates that it is not good to embark on a journey on the eighth and ninth days of the waxing moon. It suggests that you cannot travel south on certain days of the calendar. My grandfather took all these into consideration when planning a trip. It was a nightmare for those of us entrusted with buying his tickets. We would have to sit at the ticket counter and go back-and-forth many times until he got the flight timing, time of day and direction of the flight, completely correct.

Travel is something that most of us now take for granted. It is something that we do as a matter of course – a functional, utilitarian activity that is part of modern life. Even travelling with children is made easy through websites populated with photographs of the sites you will see and the sounds you will hear.

This is quite different from how it used to be for our grandparents and their peers. Even 50 years ago, travel was viewed as an adventure. It was fraught with uncertainty and you did what you could to minimise the chances of an accident. When viewed through this prism, my grandfather’s elaborate machinations to control the date and time of departure can be seen as his attempt at taking precautions – an older version of procuring travel insurance, if you will.

I think of this as I plan a family holiday. I want to give my children the sense of anticipation that gripped my cousins and I before we went on holiday. Trip-planning websites have made it easy for travellers but they have also robbed the trip of its glamour. When we land in Muscat (as I recently did) or Valencia (where I plan to go), it is almost as if I am revisiting the place, given that I have researched the sights and seen their photographs even before getting out of the airport. How then to return to the time when travel was full of possibilities? The only way I can think of is to change your perspective, given that you cannot change the situation.

Travel is not merely a way to go to Barcelona or Bombay for 10 days and tick off a list of sights and sounds. It is not only about traversing physical distances to discover new landscapes or flora and fauna. It is also about discovering a different part of yourself, one that is chiselled away in a new place amid foreign people. Although business trips make mockery of this notion, travel in its original capacity is an adventure that takes us to distant lands.

Ancient culture embraced this adventure with the respect it deserved. They looked for good omens before undertaking journeys. They prepared – mentally and physically – for the journey. They sent letters to friends in advance, announcing their arrival. These days, we stay in impersonal hotels when we go to new towns. We go in and out of cities with no time to connect with old friends or new friends of friends. Thankfully, these things can be changed and I am attempting that on my summer holiday.

I will connect with friends of friends. I will try to meet them and get a local’s perspective. I will travel by boat if possible, even for a short distance. I will walk rather than drive; stay in the heart of old cities rather than swanky hotels at the edge of town. I will, above all, seek adventure.

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

Carme Ruscellada

I was thrilled to meet this chef. She is casual and confident but underneath you can sense her resolve. It appeared in Quartz here.

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Carme Ruscellada i Serra looks like the seven-star Michelin chef that she is. I met her recently at her restaurant in Barcelona, Moments, to discuss Catalan cuisine, the Mediterranean diet, and why there are so few women chefs as successful as she.
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Like many of them, she downplays the role of gender in the high-temperature, high-testosterone world of restaurant kitchens. Running a 70-staff kitchen, according to Ruscellada, is not about screaming and swearing. It has to do with body language, posture and tone of voice. “My staff can look at my eyes and tell if I am angry about something they have done,” says Ruscellada, a celebrated chef in Catalunya, the corner of Spain that has now become the mecca for culinary travelers. Numerous Catalan chefs, beginning with Ferran Adria have taken center stage. Only two are women: Ruscellada and Elena Arzak.
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Carme Ruscellada i Serra Photo/Shoba Narayan

Every now and again, and particularly during awards season, the topic of women chefs comes up. The 50 best restaurants in the world were unveiled yesterday in London. This year, Helena Rizzo, chef and co-owner of Mani restaurant in Sao Paolo takes home the award for top female chef in the world: the only one with a gender tag. The other eight categories include “highest climber,” and “one to watch,” most of which allude to restaurants. There is no “best male chef” award. Instead, the chef of the top restaurant is deemed the top chef in the world. The top female chef category could be viewed as patronizing. The problem—for female chefs—is that there are so few contenders.
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In the US, for example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women make up a majority of the labor force in the food business but just a handful occupy its upper echelons. There are fewer women chefs than there are investment bankers, and CEOs. This is particularly galling when celebrity chefs list women—their mothers, aunts grandmothers—as inspiration. Women who cook, it seems, serve as muses and mentors. But not colleagues.
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Recently, Time magazine created a furor by putting three male chefs on the cover, prompting renewed accusations and handwringing about the state of women in the world’s kitchens. The reality is that putting a woman chef on Time’s cover would have been tokenism, given the small proportion of top jobs that they occupy. According to Bloomberg News, women occupy just 10 of the top 160 jobs in American restaurants. On the other hand, not acknowledging the slowly rising numbers of female chefs is part of the vicious cycle that causes rising female stars to drop out. I ask Ruscellada why she didn’t. “Because of my husband,” she says. Whenever there was the urge to opt out of the hard life of running a restaurant, she says through an interpreter, her husband would intervene and push her to continue.
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We get talking about female chefs and she grows more animated, switching to rapid Spanish from halting English. “Today, with the ease of kitchen equipment, a woman doesn’t need the superior strength or any special skills to work in a restaurant kitchen,” she says. “What you need is a good husband who will stand by you in this tough profession.”

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Ruscellada doesn’t seem to have heard of Sheryl Sandberg and when I mention the concept of “leaning in,” she nods politely. “The call and the pleasure of a family is hard to ignore for a woman chef,” she continues. “I too was very happy to withdraw and do some small cooking, but Toni, my husband, put my photo in front of our restaurant and said that I had to go for it.” Today, the entrance of the Mandarin Oriental has a fairly large photo of Ruscellada in chef’s whites, beaming at the hotel’s patrons and passersby on the street.
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Women can find it hard to compete and survive in the “ball-busting” atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen. Others describe the difficulties of achieving work-life balance in a profession that demands being away from children on most evenings. But very few chefs, if any—male or female—point to the choice of spouse as the main reason why women aren’t heading kitchens. Husbands matter when you want to become a female chef—perhaps more so than if you want to join Wall Street or head to Silicon Valley, something that the Bureau of Labor Statistics substantiates in its publications on women workers.
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What’s the way forward? How do you help female chefs deal with the brutal working hours of a restaurant kitchen? Chefs come in at noon and often leave at 1 a.m. on most nights, including weekends. Male chefs rely on wives to take care of their families. Ruscellada’s path was different. A farmer’s daughter, she married young and began her first restaurant with her husband, somewhat like the current number one female chef, Helena Rizzo, is doing with her Spanish husband.

Carme Ruscellada

Ruscellada’s husband, Toni Balam, manages the front of her three-starred restaurant, Sant Pau, just outside Barcelona. Her son, Raul Balam is the chef at Moments (two stars). They have an outpost in Tokyo. While Ruscellada’s photo adorns the entrance of the Mandarin Oriental, it is her husband who is the power behind the chef’s hat.

Ruscellada hasn’t won an award yet, but the number one chef in the world, Joan Roca i Fontané, feels that it is time she did. Perhaps soon, her restaurant will also become one of the top 50 restaurants in the world. It is about time.
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Follow Shoba on Twitter @ShobaNarayan. We welcome your comments at deas@qz.com.