Can wine be described well?

Lots of nice wine tastings coming up in Bangalore.  One with Food Lover’s Magazine.

How best can you describe a wine?


KRSMA Estates has invited me to a tasting of their wines next week, and frankly, I am a little nonplussed. Not because I dislike their wines, which I don’t, but because there is this whole brouhaha in wine circles over the esoteric terms and pretentiousness of wine descriptions. You know the kind I mean? Descriptions that attempt to illuminate the wine-drinking experience by stating that one of your favourite Rhône reds tastes like a mixture of tar, wet leather and the inside of a man’s shoes (notice the specificity—not the insides of a woman’s shoes, but the more robust, stinkier version that comes from the male chromosome). And this is supposed to entice you?

Robert M. Parker, the influential American wine critic, is often considered the originator of these long, often meaningless descriptions. He once described a Haut-Brion as having “a sweet nose of creosote, asphalt…” and an array of berries. Having never tasted asphalt, and having no idea what a creosote is, this description is absolutely useless to me.

Actually, the credit—or discredit—for wine descriptions does not go to Parker. It goes to Ann C. Noble, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, whose famed department of viticulture and enology offers short wine appreciation courses that are on my bucket list.

It was Noble who came up with an “aroma wheel” to describe the flavours of wine. Ironically, she invented it to streamline things in the wine world; to bring some order into the way wines were described; to give a methodology that would simplify, not complicate things. Look at how that turned out.

Today, there is a reverse trend: wine professionals trying to puncture the opaqueness of wine descriptions. The American Association of Wine Economists has “waged a nearly decade-long crusade against overwrought and unreliable flavor descriptions”, as illustrated in a recent article in The New Yorker by Bianca Bosker titled, “Is There A Better Way To Talk About Wine?” The article quoted several sources, including the Journal Of Wine Economics, which stated that the wine industry was “intrinsically bullshit-prone”. No surprise there as anyone who is caught standing next to a swish-and-sip bore at a party can relate to this.

Some wine descriptions make sense. You drink enough Australian Shiraz and you will learn to identify the thick, viscous, fruity taste that is often described as “jammy” by aficionados. The same grape varietal, when grown in France, does not have this taste, but I have never had the pleasure of drinking an Hermitage Syrah to be absolutely certain of this.

For me, “minerally” wines are easy to identify. They taste pretty much like the water I drink first thing in the morning. A year ago, a well-meaning aunt gifted me a copper lota and told me to drink from it. It would change my life, she said. For the record, it hasn’t. But I continue to drink from copper and brass containers anyway.

My aunt’s recipe for drinking water could give a minerally wine a run for its money. She stores the water in a mud pot, pours it into her copper lota to steep overnight, downs it first thing in the morning in one shot and then proceeds to vomit. I have tried the first part of this experiment, and, I have to admit, the water tastes of copper, mud and some unidentified metal flavour that could be categorized as “minerally”. It tastes, in other words, like the Chablis wines I love.

Some descriptions just don’t make sense to me. What does “flinty” taste like? Do you have to lick a rock to figure out flinty? Some try to be overly helpful by listing a wide range of berries that the wine is supposed to taste like. Having never tasted a linden berry or even a raspberry in its natural, just-picked state, my palate has no clue how to process this information.

Which is why I was glad to see wine guru Jancis Robinson describe the 2005 vintage of Burgundy reds as “surly and tough” early in their lives. Surly, I can relate to. Surly is how we pucker up when we taste some tight reds that have been stored for far too long in state warehouses—although people call that tannic as well.

When I choose a wine, particularly if I want to impress someone, I don’t go by the description. I usually pick one with a long French name—the more syllables the better. Château de la Tour, Château Tertre Roteboeuf, Clos de Vougeot Grand Cru Vieilles Vignes, Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Domaine Georges Roumier—winners all, and ones that I aspire to drink after I win the lottery. Château Palmer is highly rated, but it is too easy to pronounce; it could use a few more syllables that cause your tongue to coil itself into asanas. It sounds like an American winery aspiring to be French.

The same applies to Indian vineyards that pretend to be European. York and Reveilo make decent wines, but isn’t it about time they lost the European wannabe nature of their names? The same goes for Fratelli and its highly regarded wines. Why not choose something like Akluj, the town in Maharashtra where the winery is based, which even non-Indians can pronounce easily and which references their terroir in that most French of ways? The Indian wine consumer is evolved enough not to need such pretensions. Particularly when we can come up with authentically Indian names such as Mandala, Grover’s, Deva, or my current favourite, Sula’s Rasa Shiraz—now, that’s a name. Contrast that with Chateau d’Ori, sans provenance or soul. Give me Dindori anyday.

This is the first of a two-part series on wine tasting. Shoba Narayan loves the name Amrut even though she isn’t a single malt buff. She tweets at @shobanarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Katha Review

Thank you Vijaya Pushkarna, for the generous review.  I am supposed to have a Twitter conversation with you or The Week tomorrow, August 5th from 4 to 5. Have never done this before.  Nervous.


Tales pitch

A STORY for every occasion. Anyone with such a repertoire would be much more than the life of a party, attracting people with their eyes and ears wide open. But how does one come by such a treasure?

Shoba Narayan says it is no big deal, and goes on to show it is QED―quite easily done―in her book. The book is about how storytelling could transform business and management. And she does tell a whole lot of stories on how to generate or source stories, when to tell them and how and with what consequence.

From simple and upfront selling of a product or service and breaking the ice at workplace to breaking bad news or sharing good tidings and for a million other things, simple anecdotes or even sentences can work wonders. Take, for instance, this anecdote about a guy trying to sell software. He begins with a dramatic description of his poor grandfather who died a broken man because he had to sell his Udupi hotel. Before the clients could wonder why, he got them hooked on to the product by saying the software could have saved the hotel.


Stories transmit mission statements and core values. They build teams and create a shared sense of purpose. There is also a chapter on eight ways to find stories in real life―get out, leave your cellphone and look around, cultivate skills and hobbies and read.

The book is a breezy story that even those who are not attempting to sell a dream or have anything to do with business would like to read. That is because Narayan makes you believe that storytelling is neither an art you have to be born with nor a craft difficult to learn.

Katha: Tell a Story, Sell a Dream

And, the best part―the book does not have a single word that a class five student will not know or that cannot be found in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. That, a former news editor would tell batch after batch of youth wanting to become journalists, is the hallmark of good storytelling. When that is married to the idea of selling dreams, making businesses grow and succeed, it is a book people will want to grab.

Katha: Tell a Story, Sell a Dream
By Shoba Narayan
Published by Maven Rupa
Pages 192; price Rs295

Memories are made of buttermilk

It is hot now in Bangalore, which, I guess, is what prompted this piece.

Memories are made of buttermilk


My first memory of buttermilk is warmth and darkness.  I must have been five or six years old.  Still confused by the mists of sleep, I walked into my grandmother’s kitchen, drawn by a comforting swishing sound.  My grandmother was sitting on the floor, her legs spread-eagled and resting on the wall.  Soft light filtered through the window in front of her.  In between her legs was a heavy mud pot that was held firmly in place by a coiled towel.  A tall wooden “mathu” or butter churner was inserted inside this pot.  Although I didn’t know it then, it was the older version of a blender. 

I stumbled inside the cool kitchen.  My grandmother turned.  Her diamond nostrils glinted in the shaft of light.  Her beautiful face crinkled into a smile but she didn’t say anything—she was engrossed in her task.  Her hands held the two ends of a rope that was coiled around the butter churner.  They moved back and forth rhythmically.  My grandmother sat like a yogi, alert but relaxed.  I had seen her in this position many times.

Unbidden, I slipped under her hands that were level with her shoulder.  I rested against the C-shaped curve of her body, my back against her soft, squishy belly; my legs spread-eagled like hers; my hands flush against hers.  Together, we pulled the rope, back and forth, coaxing the milk into giving up its butter.  It wasn’t milk really.  It was the thick yogurt that she had collected for a couple of days.

The wooden churner was a marvel of engineering.  It was held in place by two simple pulleys, facing opposite directions.  The first was a U-shaped coil of rope that was tied to the window-grill permanently.  When we began the butter-churning process, we slipped the wooden churner in between this coil.  Then came the second coil of rope that we pulled from the other side.  The churner couldn’t touch the bottom of the pot because that would generate friction when we churned.  Instead, my grandmother placed it expertly so that the churner was a few inches above the bottom of the pot, held aloft by the pressure of her churning.

I loved sitting within my grandmother’s body, matching my arms to hers as we pulled the rope together.  I could smell the buttermilk and feel my grandmother’s breath on my nape.  She didn’t say a word but it was the closest that I came to feeling utterly secure and comfortable.  Some minutes later, we could see the heavy butter lumps begin forming.  My grandmother poured cold water into the mud pot.  We continued churning.  Within minutes, butter lumps floated on top.  Then we stopped.  My grandmother collected all the lumps together in her hands and tossed them together into a round ball.  I sat still and expectant, waiting for the best part.  Once my grandmom put the big round ball into a vessel filled with water, where it floated like those white planets that we drew in our geography book.  Then, she collected the smaller lumps of butter that were still floating inside, made a small ball and glanced at me.  Obediently, I opened my mouth.  In went the freshly churned butter.  It tasted of the saltiness of my grandmother’s hand, the sweetness of cow’s milk and the slight sourness of the yogurt cream that we collected.

Fast forward, a decade and my grandmother still made buttermilk, except with her trusty Braun “mixie,” that my uncle gifted her from the U.S. It made her churning a lot easier. She put thick yogurt into the blender, added ice water from the fridge, and pressed a switch. Five minutes of spirited whirring and the yogurt would foam on top. The bubbles were my grandmom’s cue. She added a little ice water and pressed the switch once again. Soon, lumps of butter would form. After that, it was the same ritual. She would collect the large lumps and toss them expertly with her palm into a large round ball. The dregs of butter went into my mouth. They still tasted like buttery heaven.

Every part of India uses buttermilk. In Kerala, we simply water it down, toss in a few fresh curry leaves and drink it as sambaram. In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, buttermilk is spiced with ground-up green chilies, ginger, curry leaves, some asafetida and salt, all of which are pounded and added to the buttermilk. We call this majjige or neer-mor. Much of North India uses roasted cumin and mint leaves to spice their buttermilk or chaas, as it is called.  A combination of roasted and ground cumin, some salt, a dash of lemon juice, and pounded pudina or mint leaves, are added to the buttermilk for flavor. This watery, delicious and light drink is excellent for digestion and cooling the body. Punjab, of course, has its famous lassis, made with thick buttermilk blended with fruits like mango. Mango lassi is available all over the world at Indian restaurants.  Bengal, I think, doesn’t have buttermilk.  They prefer their mishti dahi, not the watered down version.  

The beauty of buttermilk is its egalitarian nature. No matter how rich or poor, all of India consumes this drink. Down the road from where I live is a pushcart vendor. All she has on her cart is a red earthen pot filled with buttermilk that she sells to auto drivers, bicycle messengers, and anyone who needs a cool drink on a hot day.

As for me, I prefer buttermilk to yogurt just as I prefer light black coffee to thick cappuccino. If I had a choice, I would drink my grandmother’s buttermilk but she is dead now. I still have her wooden churner though. Every now and then, particularly on hot summer days, I think of bringing it out and setting it up with two coils of ropes, just as it was in my grandmother’s kitchen.

Shoba Narayan likes Amul Masti Dahi. 

Birding: seeing versus hearing

This season is hard for birding.  The trees are lush with leaves.  Small birds are chirping and I can’t see them.  Drives me nuts.

How to identify birds just by seeing them


Ayurveda divides us into three phenotypes: vata, pitta and kapha. Vatas have acute hearing and enjoy the sense of touch—if my memory serves right. Pittas have acute vision and enjoy the sense of smell. Kaphas have acute taste and enjoy listening to good music or sounds.

As a classic vata, I have acute hearing, as a result of which I’m very sensitive to the sound of birds. As I write this, I hear three birds: a wagtail, a bulbul, and a parakeet. This can become a curse when I hear the sound of a bird that I cannot identify. I obsess about it and go to an app called Bird Calls, that is loaded on my phone to try to figure it out.

Some visually sensitive birdwatchers can identify birds as they fly past; as they sit in a distant tree; from a mere one-second sighting. I am not like that. I work hard at identifying birds. I have to focus on them for a while before I can see all the markings and figure it out. I make frequent mistakes, even with birds that I know. Is it a grey heron or a pond heron? Is it a painted stork or not? The bird flies away. I am not sure.

It all has to do with a way of seeing that is cultivable but not necessarily common. I use the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website ( to build seeing skills. The trick to quick identification is differentiating or sorting birds based on size and shape, colour patterns, behaviour and habitat, according to this website. They even have a Merlin Bird ID app but I find that it is heavily North America focused and therefore not useful to me.

I have still not cultivated this way of seeing yet. Mostly I stare at a tree where the bird calls emanate from and wait for movement. I cannot drive by birds on telephone poles and quickly identify them. Where I score is with the sound. Once I hear and identify a bird by its call, I never forget it. Even now, I can wake up and listen to the trill of a Kingfisher calling at a distance and know that it is in my neighbourhood. I know the Rosy Starlings that have migrated from Tajikistan by their excited cheep-cheeps; the bulbul, by its sweet piercing whistle that echoes around my building; and the crow by its caw.

My birdwatching happens through the day. Usually, when I’m bored or have nothing to do, I pick up my binoculars and look out. Usually I see something. There was the time when it was raining. I trained my binoculars on a Ficus tree, and found a golden oriole perched on top. It did the most amazing thing. It circled and went upside down on the branch, almost as if it wanted the rain to wet its underside. It had been a terribly hot day. As I stood and watched the oriole enjoy the water drops, I felt like doing the same. On another branch, a Black Drongo (Dicurus macrocercus) sat still, enduring the rain that was pouring on its black head.

In the beginning, with pig-headed ambition, I decided that I would memorize the Latin names for all the bird species that I saw. I have given up that endeavour now. It is complicated enough to keep track of the markings and learn the common names. This then is the other learning that will occur: spotting minor differences between birds that belong to the same species: White-cheeked Barbet, Grey-headed Barbet, Coppersmith barbet, Blue-throated Barbet, you get the picture. They all belong to the Megalaima species.

The bird that is easiest to observe is the kite. They sit still for long periods of time on a high branch or electric pole and watch their surroundings. Suddenly, they lift off to catch a wind current that takes them high in the sky. They circle around for a long time—up to 20 minutes—before coming down for a break. The only time I have seen a kite attacked by a smaller bird was when I was walking near Ulsoor Lake in Bengaluru. I can recognize the keening sound that the kite makes, but for the first time I heard it shriek—and unceasingly. I stopped in my tracks and looked up. There was a crow attacking a kite’s nest. The kite would try to nip the crow, which would fly away to the nearest branch, and then return. The kite would shriek, peck the crow, would fly away and then back. This scenario continued for 15 minutes. Neither bird gave up; but I did. None of the people passing by noticed anything. I wouldn’t have either, had I not been a birdwatcher. Once you peer into the kaleidoscope of nature, she opens your eyes to the magic all around.

I use several websites to figure out what I’m seeing. India Nature Watch is great for just identifying birds. Indiabirds, The Internet Bird Collection, and Oriental Bird Images are good for learning about the various genus and species. Facebook has Birding Friends, where wonderful images come up on my feed. Although I am not a nature photographer, I follow several friends who are bird photographers. Their close-up images of birds help me with future identification. It doesn’t come easy to me but I struggle at it anyways. Slowly and surely, like a tortoise, I’m climbing up the hill of taxonomy and nature watching.

Shoba Narayan’s bookmark folder is filled with bird sites.

This is the third in a four-part series on birdwatching. Write to her at

Trees and birds

In London, it was the sweet song of the thrush.  In India, it is the kooo of the Asian koel that I am listening to right now.

Birdwatching is also about the trees

The rhythms of nature are evident in the patterns of the bird movement

In which the author connects birds and bees with flora and foliage

Like most things that require identification, be it wine, textiles, or art, identifying birds is figuring out patterns; like recognizing an artistic or musical signature, or the terroir of wine. It is about seeing patterns, not just on the birds but also on the trees that they inhabit. Nature is both generous and opportunistic. Trees attract birds during certain seasons; and then allow other trees to get that opportunity. The red silk cotton tree beside my house was agog with birds when it flowered a few months ago. Today, it stands bereft, with its flowers and leaves gone. The silk cotton pods have opened out and released their cotton puffs. Now the tree has become a playground for squirrels. Meanwhile, the gul mohar tree across the street is in full bloom; and attracting wagtails, rose-ringed parakeets, bulbuls, and barbets in droves—like the sirens of yore.

Trees are nifty that way. They know when to attract and when to repel. In his book, “What a Plant Knows: a field guide to the senses,” biologist Daniel Chamovitz talks about how willow trees that are being attacked by insects release specific pheromones that can be “smelled” by neighboring trees. Suitably warned, the neighboring willow trees produce higher levels of toxic chemicals, thus making their leaves unpalatable for caterpillars and other insects. I can see this happening before my eyes. The mango trees are in full bloom now. They are attracting the birds who have abandoned the neighboring millingtonia, bauhinia, and cassia trees. Instead, they perch on the mango branches, nipping at the green fruits and spreading the seeds.

This symbiotic ecosystem was invisible to me before I began watching birds. Now I see the dance of birds, butterflies and bees as they move across trees: mango to jacaranda to cassia to bauhinia to ficus to silk cotton, depending on the warp and weft of seasons; and indeed, the time of day. The male Asian koel calls when it is cloudy; the female Asian koel like to shriek in the middle of the day; the black kite calls throughout the day; the crows are loudest early in the morning.

The rhythms of nature–the waves of flowering, fruiting, and shedding of leaves that a tree goes through–are evident in the patterns of bird movement. Indeed, our ancients could divine an approaching storm just by the way the birds flew sideways, buffeted by invisible wind currents. Seasonal and daily differences in temperature and weather are reflected in the behavior of birds.

Some birds prefer certain trees; and some birds like certain locations in trees. Spotted doves and Asian koels, for instance are secretive birds that like to sit within the green foliage rather than look at the view from top like an eagle does. You should see how they nestle with the tree? Like a tree hugger. The male koel is black like a crow with red eyes and a curved gray beak. I had a devil of a time discovering it. It would coo loudly from within a tree and I couldn’t see it at all. It is only now—in this season– when the koels come to rest on the bare silk cotton tree that I am able to view them. Koels, once you are able to see them through your binoculars are easy birds to watch because they are of medium-size and don’t move around too much. The female bird is spotted and gray. The male bird is more beautiful–as is common in nature. It is only in our species, Homo sapiens, where the females preen and primp and take the trouble to look beautiful. Birds and animals have the opposite equation.

Hobbies and passions change people. They give you a prism through which to view the world. Religion and spirituality change people, sometimes for the better and sometimes, I would argue, for the worse. When you begin seeing the world through religious boundaries— who is faithful and who is an infidel– you close yourself in. Bird watching in this respect is unique because it gives you depth of perspective without impacting your political, moral or religious values and principles. It can become political but it doesn’t have to. You can watch birds without becoming strident about climate change and the environment. As hobbies go, bird watching like gardening or anything to do with nature allows tolerance and expansion, rather than jingoism and contraction of lifestyles and values.

The best thing that is happened to me as a result of this year-long journey is the cliché: I feel connected with the universe. Let me be clear. I don’t think you wake up one morning and suddenly feel at one with the cosmos. It is a gradual process of shedding layers of armor that you have built around yourself. The way it happened for me, and I am by no means there yet, has to do with connecting multiple species and seeing a greater whole. Once I started paying attention to birds, I began noticing the butterflies that flitted around. I began identifying them. Then I noticed the carpenter bees with their shiny backs that are just big enough to be able to fly. I began to take kindly to lizards and even became somewhat benign towards the cockroaches I once hated.

As I stand in the balcony every morning, gazing through my binoculars, feeling the warmth of the sun on my back and the wind on my skin, watching the dance of birds and the wave of leaves, I sniff the air and smile. This precious, fragile planet that we are privileged to occupy has wondrous beings that are right in front for eyes if only we care to look.

Shoba Narayan has joined a butterfly group on Facebook. She had the privilege of observing a Dakhan Dark Blue Tiger at close quarters. This is the second part of a four-part series on birds. Write to her at

How to bird-watch. How to watch birds

I am writing about nature.  About what is turning out to be a favorite subject.

How to birdwatch

Shoba Narayan starts a four-part series on birdwatching

In which the author makes a case for bird watching as a hobby and tells you how to start:

It begins with a pair of binoculars; and a balcony, if you have one. If there is some greenery visible from your balcony, even better. But you need binoculars to begin this voyage. Mine are Bushnell binoculars from Amazon for about $35. They have a magnification of 10X50, which didn’t mean anything to me except that it seemed better than the 8X40 advertised by other brands. I use them every day, except during travel, and even that, I want to change. Chroma sells pocket travel binoculars for under Rs.1000. I am considering buying a pair.

My bird-watching happens around 7 AM, when the sun is up. I have a cherished morning routine. I usually begin by sipping lemon water or orange blossom water (from Muscat) as I make filter coffee. Naturopathy says that beginning the day with water and some sort of citrus is a good idea, and I have been doing that. I like making filter coffee. We use Kotha’s coffee powder with an 80: 20 ratio of coffee to chicory, available at Thoms, my local grocery store. I prefer stainless steel tumblers at home. They help froth my coffee. Recently, a friend gave me some Black Cat classic espresso beans from Intelligentsia Coffee, Chicago. If I am by myself, I go to the trouble of grinding fresh coffee beans and savoring their aroma in the morning quiet, as I make myself an espresso.

Coffee and binoculars in hand, I walk out into the terrace. Across the road is an army cantonment with lots of trees. This is my ecosystem; one I have come to know very well. Friends have asked for a bird watching primer, and that is what this attempts to be. With the zeal of a convert, I can write it. Most of my bird watching friends have done this for years. They are too far-gone to give— or even remember– basic instructions such as these.

Essentially, what you do on your first day is to sweep your binoculars from tree to tree to figure out your baseline: a tree that attracts a lot of birds. My baseline tree is a tall Millingtonia with fragrant white flowers. This is the tree that I train my binoculars on, first thing in the morning. Usually, there are birds on it. Parakeets, kites, crows, this tree gives me something to see everyday. When you see your first new bird; one you cannot identify, it is a seminal moment, for this is when your bird watching journey begins. You have to train your binoculars on that strange new bird and notice its markings. What color are its wings? What color is its chest? What size is it? Does it have a long beak or a short beak? Does it have any streaks across or above its chest, eyes, or back? How long is its tail?

Once you have memorized these markings, you have to identify the bird. This is what I do. I type what I see into Google Images: “small bird, white chest, green wings, Bangalore,” or something like that. Several images appear. I keep scrolling down till I identify the bird. My first was a white-cheeked barbet (Megalaima viridis). Only it wasn’t. A few weeks later, I saw what I thought was a white-cheeked barbet, only to discover that there was a similar species called the brown-headed barbet (Megalaima zeylanica). Identifying sub species is a whole new game and we’ll get to that.

I spend 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes before sunset—give or take half an hour depending on bird activity. This is not because the birds are most active at this time, although they are, but because it’s easier for me to stand on my terrace for extended periods of time when the sun is not shining hard. At first, even holding the binoculars at eye level for more than a few minutes was challenging. Now, I have gotten used to it. Bangalore ornithologist M.B. Krishna showed me the right way to hold binoculars. Essentially, you keep your elbows down, not at the side.

I have a simple goal: I want some sort of “wow” effect. I want to see something that I haven’t seen before. It could be a close up of a male Asian koel as it emits its mournful call: koo-ooo. Or it could be two golden orioles pecking each other mid-flight. The best part is that nature usually delivers. Everyday so far, I have seen something that catches my breath. I lose myself for 15 minutes as I scan the trees with my binoculars.

A Brahminy kite flew towards me from the horizon one day. The flap of its wings were rhythmic; its movement through the clear blue sky, slow and majestic. It looked lonely and somehow profound as it made its passage across the sky. I stood still and watched unwaveringly. Pariah kites– Krishna says that Black Kites are as racist as the previously used term, Pariah Kites, and so I have started calling them that. These kites—Milvus migrans– are common in my neighborhood. I see them in the sky all the time, usually a dozen of them flying high or low. Brahmini kites are rare, and this has to do with the habitat, I guess. There was a section in Kerala where I drove past and found tons of Brahmini kites in the sky and the trees. Dime a dozen. For some reason, the trees in my neighborhood don’t support the Brahmini kite and therefore, when it becomes visible, it is usually a heart stopping sight. On that morning, I followed this kite with its white chest and brown wings etched against the blue sky all the way till it was out of sight. Where was it going? Why was it alone? Who was it searching for? What was it thinking? Lost in these thoughts, I forget who I am. Connected to the flight of that Brahmini kite, I lose track of the mundane minutiae of my life. For that moment, I am linked with nature. I am linked with innocence and divinity. That noble kite takes me to a higher plane. It is for this reason that I watch birds. Next week, I will tell you how.


Shoba Narayan has been watching birds for over a year. This is the first part of a four-part series on bird-watching. Write to her at

The Sanskrit Podcast

I met Vrinda Acharya through my sister-in-law in Florida.  She teaches my sis-in-law carnatic music via skype.  Vrinda is a young, dynamic musician, performer, researcher and has a Master’s degree in Sanskrit.  Her husband is a mridangam artist.  She lives in Malleshwaram and is steeped in music and sanskrit.

I interviewed her on the Sanskrit Podcast here and embedded below

Astrology of the Apple Watch

The astrology of the Apple Watch


The problem with the Apple Watch is that it aspires to be a timekeeper; a gadget amd a fashion accessory. Admittedly, Apple’s genius is creating products that people didn’t know they wanted; leaving slack-jawed competitors in its wake.

But do you really need yet another smart device when you are already checking your phone some 154 times a day? I decided to test this premise on an early-adapter relative of mine—called Seenu mama by one and all, including his wife.

Seenu mama, 78, lives in T Nagar, Chennai, and frequently goes to the Bay Area in the US where his three children live. In his Godrej almirah, amid the odd dead cockroach with transparent wings, are a slew of gadgets given to him by grateful nieces and nephews in exchange for the astrological predictions he dispenses with uncanny precision. He begins his day at 3am, when Chennai is quiet and mellow. After a cup of frothy filter coffee, Seenu mama does his morning prayer and peruses the horoscopes that have been emailed to him from all over the world. While he prefers to make calculations by hand, he also looks to apps and software for corroboration. He skypes with students in Toronto; consults with worried software engineers in the Silicon Valley; and helps real estate magnates in New Delhi decide on a suitable time for breaking ground on a new project. Seenu mama is an avid user of digital devices. Were it not for his age, this septuagenarian would fit the perfect customer profile for the just-out Apple Watch.

Seenu mama’s current gadget of choice is the iPhone 5S, on which he has several apps of choice: Yik Yak, to anonymously complain about his wife to strangers; The Night Sky, to track whether Gemini or Cancer is ascendant; and astrological software that he uses to chart planetary transits on a minute-by-minute basis. But a watch? Would he use the Apple Watch, particularly since he is so devoted to his Titan Edge? I wasn’t sure.

The products that give us pleasure are deeply personal and occasionally contradictory. The corporate executive who wears strait-laced pinstriped suits may reveal and revel in striped orange underwear and pink Paul Smith socks—known only to his lovers and laundress.

Free-spirited hippie types who eschew bathing and cleaning may stock OXO Good Grips soap-dispensing cleaning brushes in every bathroom simply for the pleasure of that satisfying squirt.

We each contain “multitudes”, as poet Walt Whitman said; and unpredictable contradictions, which drives marketers nuts.

The normal non-Apple Watch occupies that nebulous space between relic, heirloom, status symbol and luxury product. Young people generally don’t wear a watch, except when they are going for job interviews. My husband has a Rolex watch, given to him by his father, who himself got it as a wedding gift from his father-in-law. None of these men, as far as I can tell, has worn the watch. Well-heeled friends collect Swiss watches and prattle on about minute repeaters and escapements to a Bitcoin-crazy generation that views currency, forget a watch, as a quaint has-been and writing code on GitHub as an alternative to a university degree.

Can Apple make a watch an edgy must-have accessory? For the first time, I am not sure. The gadget universe is divided into purists and, for lack of a better word, mixologists. Purists like objects that do stated, specific, single things. A watch is for telling time; a fountain pen, for writing; a cocktail shaker, to look cool; and a stiletto, to look sexy. The beauty of these objects lies in their simplicity, and elevating that specific task to perfection. Apple specializes in mixology. Its phone can do things that your mother cannot; and oh, as the late Steve Jobs famously said, it also makes calls. Apple-ifying a watch seems like the logical next step, except that it is wearable. Therein lies its strength and its weakness.

For many, the biggest concern with wearing a device on your wrist is the electromagnetic radiation that will ensue. These are the people who never carry a phone on their person; never stand in front of a microwave; and believe that the radio frequency (RF) radiation that these devices emit will change their blood glucose levels. For these people, wearing an Apple Watch would be akin to curdling the brain.

Apps are Apple’s secret weapon. They are what make the phone addictive. I have about 40 apps on my iPhone 6 Plus. I use Pocket extensively to read offline. I exercise using 7 Minute Workout and walk using Moves. I downloaded Life360 to track my family, but they didn’t register. I can access the app version of, which streams Carnatic music from a station in Singapore, on my phone; as I can Bird Calls, which helps me recognize my avian neighbours. Current research states that we should spend on experiences rather than objects, but I love my iPhone. This particular object gives me so much pleasure. At the same time, I struggle to keep away from it, lest I become more addicted to it than I already am. I periodically put it on silent and ask my children to hide it for a few hours.

Author and historian Yuval Noah Harari brutally likens computer games to a drug-addled brain in a conversation with Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, titled “Death Is optional”, for As robots and technology make us humans redundant, we will have no meaning in life, he says cheerily. We will solve our inner problems by clicking on digital gadgets. Many of us do that already, witness the slew of passengers who attack their anxiety by babbling into phones the minute the plane lands. What will happen with an always-on watch? I shudder to think.

As an Apple product user, I have doubts about their latest product for these and other reasons. I would hate to wear a device that vibrates or buzzes with every silly Whatsapp, Facebook or Twitter notification. At a time when I am trying to figure out how to detox from digital gadgets, the thought of wearing one is like hugging the enemy. As for Seenu mama, his problem with an Apple Watch is simple: It needs to be charged. “Who wants to carry one more charger while travelling?” he says. “I’d rather carry my Brihat Parashara Hora Shastra (astrology book).”

Shoba Narayan will not be buying an Apple Watch. She will buy a Microsoft Universal Mobile Keyboard instead. Write to her at

Patrick Pichette is probably a nice guy but…..

Got an email from a reader with some tough questions. I have my answers for them, but plan to write to him separately.

Begin forwarded message:

Date: March 21, 2015 at 1:13:43 AM GMT+5:30
Subject: Regarding – Balance vs Early Retirement
From: Vaibhav Bhosale

Dear Shoba,
Read your article in Mint and frankly loved it. It gives a fresh aroma of freedom. Unclogs the mind blockages. Reminds me that I am not a prisoner of my own device, that I have to draw a line of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable to me.
But the real question is – how do you train your mind not to drift itself in whirlpool of life? It is not easy to stop when you want to win and succeed desperately.
How do you achieve a work-life balance on a regular basis? How do you create a belief that the sacrifice you are going to make in favor of life, is not going to cost you a whole lot in the work aspect? It might actually cost you. But then how do you reconcile your mind to not feel like an underachiever or somebody who didn’t actualize his / her talent?
Warm Regards,
Vaibhav Bhosale

Why balance wins over early retirement


A retirement letter masquerading as a wise sermon should hardly make news, let alone cause effusive gushing. Yet, that is what happened with a letter that Google’s chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, wrote.​ In it, Pichette announced that he was stepping down from his high-powered job and explained why. In terms of life lessons, there was little that was new, but he put it well.

Pichette opens with him standing atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his wife. After a few minutes spent staring at the Serengeti, his wife comes up with a proposition: Why not keep travelling, she asks—from Africa to India to Bali to Australia to Antarctica? Pichette says they have to go back to their jobs and board positions; at which point his wife asks when it will be their time. “So when is it going to be time? Our time? My time. The questions just hung there in the cold morning African air.”

Pichette comes across as a nice man. He has a lyrical turn of phrase. That, along with the fact that he holds a top job in a revered Silicon Valley company, may be why his resignation letter has the drama it does. Man rockets to the top; then drops off the cliff. That’s the story. The Washington Post praised it as “candid” and “reflective”. The Huffington Post called it “inspiring”. Most people admired his desire to seek balance in his life.

But the point is that Pichette didn’t seek balance. The life he describes is no different from the hard-charging worker bees that he manages: people who work long hours; travel constantly; leave their spouse to do much of the child-rearing; are available on call and email constantly, even when they don’t need to be; and suddenly stand atop an African mountain with a wife who is asking tough questions and discover that the children have flown the coop. To step down at that moment isn’t wisdom or a search for balance. It is exhaustion giving way to spousal priorities. It is a simple resignation letter masquerading as a sermon from the mount.

What should make news are executives who choose balance on every step of the corporate ladder. Leaders who make career compromises for the sake of a gifted or dyslexic child; CFOs who choose to forgo more stock options so that they can be home on weekends; heads of divisions who take annual vacations sans the laptop with their families; law firm partners who forgo an exciting assignment so that their spouse can have a turn at the career wheel; and who don’t need to get on a mountain top to understand work-life balance. Except that those people probably don’t become Google CFOs and get its bully pulpit.

Balance in today’s world is mostly about saying “No”. Pichette stepped off his ostensibly fabulous job when he resigned, which is why he is lauded. For the rest of us, it is a series of small negative shakes of the head. A list of things not to do. Small things, but hard to implement. How addicted are you to your mobile device? How much time do you spend checking your messages and email? I do it constantly. Every study says that this frazzled, constant checking of digital data fries your creativity and drowns your concentration. How do you switch off? Are you doing anything about it? That is balance.

Do you surreptitiously check messages when you are helping your child with homework? Why? How can you stop yourself? Parenting happens during pauses; during boredom. Sometimes it is just being at the right place when your child has a certain question. It is the ability to pick up on cues and know what questions to ask. To do that, you cannot be preoccupied all the time. How are you going to achieve a free, open mind that picks up on cues from people you care about? That is balance.

Pichette says he is dropping out of Google to travel the world with his wife. How about going to the corner store with her? Grand gestures make for good storytelling, but it is the small stuff that makes a marriage. Date night is a Western concept, but the notion of doing something with your spouse is a good idea. People of our parents’ generation didn’t make a conscious effort to do an activity together, but we can.

Balance is about saying no to trips that you don’t really need to take; to come up with alternatives such as teleconferencing. Balance is walking away from an assignment that you really love to help a friend get through his illness. Balance is small, incremental choices in a direction that is fair to all the people you care about; that encompasses the physical, mental and spiritual; that incorporates hobbies, passion and purpose. It is not about standing on a mountain and announcing that you are dropping out. That is drama, not balance.

Balance is to have priorities that go beyond immediate family (spouse and children) and your career. Our Indian system is geared for balance. In order to prioritize away from the suction of a career, you need to have things to prioritize towards: family, friends, duty, obligations, these are the stuff of balance. India is full of that. A family wedding falls on the same day of a product roadshow. Which do you choose? A Silicon Valley CFO probably never used the line: “My second cousin’s wedding is on the day of the launch. We grew up together and I have to attend—for four days.”
India is rigged for a balanced life. We each have elderly relatives that we are sort of responsible for. We don’t necessarily like these aunties and uncles but a cousin calls up from Europe and says that they need to be taken for a blood test. What do you do? Having multiple people and obligations in our lives gives us perspective; prevents us from being consumed by one thing: our career.

If you don’t have college classmates who will nudge you to take a trip every year, how will you know the pleasure of friendship or, for that matter, vacations? If you don’t go to church on a regular basis, or have some sort of spiritual affiliation, how do you pause to think about the big things in life? If you don’t look up from your computer to watch a sunset, how will you get a hobby that will engage you after retirement? If you don’t find pleasure in art, gardening, nature or sport, how will you prepare yourself for the solitude that accompanies old age?
Balancing involves choosing between conflicting priorities. For many, there is no conflict. The priority becomes work. To me, Pichette’s letter isn’t an inspiring take on balance. It is an extended apology for all the small things that he didn’t say “No” to. Because, you see, balance isn’t sequential; it is parallel—and constant.

Shoba Narayan has turned off email on her mobile device and uses Freedom and Self Control to limit time on the Internet. Write to her at

Tiger’s Trail

 So every writer aspires to be a photographer or at least I do.  Here are the photos I took at Kanha and Pench.  You have to be patient and refresh the page many times.

On a tiger trail in India

I’m sitting on the deck outside my tent, which perches high above the Banjaar River in central India. Across the river lies Kanha National Park, which at 1,945 square kilometres is one of India’s largest. White egrets pick their way across the bank searching for fish. A male langur cries from within the jungle to establish territoriality. I smile happily. I have spent countless summers trekking and tenting within national parks in four continents. I love the herbal scents in the air; the swaying rustle of leaves; the gurgle of the river. Most of all, I love the spiffy luxury of my tent, so far removed from digging a hole in the ground and using broad teak leaves as toilet paper.

There are 48 recognised tribes in Madhya Pradesh, including Gonds, Bhils, Bastars, Baigas and Ojhas. They live in pockets all over the state, making beautiful sculptures and foraging for medicinal plants. Banjaar Tola’s spaces are enlivened by whimsical metal sculptures created by the local Bastar tribal people. The brass door handles, hanging hooks and water tumblers have tribal faces etched on them. Bottles containing saffron and turmeric conditioner and body wash have metal cork-like closures ­displaying women with geometric faces and coiled hair. In the middle of my bedroom sits a sculpture of a woman with a telescope turned to the sky. As well she might, because the night sky is glorious, revealing a cross section of the Milky Way and a whole array of constellations. I pick at the lemony salad with home-grown lettuce, bite into ­coriander-and-yogurt infused kebabs and sigh in satisfaction. I haven’t been on my first drive into the jungle. In fact, I’ve barely ­arrived.

The human vision of wildlife is romantic and often forgets how inaccessible wildlife is, and should be. Reaching a national park in any continent requires hours of travel by pretty much every mode of transport. So it is with Kanha National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The word “madhya” literally means centre in Hindi.

Getting to Kanha involves flying to Mumbai; then to Nagpur; and then driving five hours into the jungle (if you have time, Bhopal is a beautiful city to visit on the same trip). This long journey forces Type A travellers such as myself into resigned ­acceptance of a slower rhythm; something of a stupor really. By the time I arrive at Banjaar Tola, I am ready for anything, or rather, nothing.

Wildlife tourism reached a luxury tipping point in India nearly 10 years ago when high-end global players such as the Aman group and Africa’s &Beyond entered the country. In 2006, &Beyond partnered with the Taj group of hotels to establish Taj Safaris, a joint venture with jungle lodges in four national parks in Central India: Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna. The lodges are designed by &Beyond and operated by Taj. The service is warm. The beds are firm. The rangers are superbly trained, the staff attentive but not obsequious. The architecture is rustic and in keeping with the forest – choosing wild flowers rather than manicured lawns. The food is Indian but plated well with grilled meats, dals, birianis and curries, all served with your choice of drinks. Rooms are decorated with local tribal objects but are rustic in sensibility. There is no television, no internet, and barely any phone reception. And really, it’s rather silly to sit in a jungle and poke someone on Facebook. The library has both television and a computer with an internet ­connection.

Of the four, Bandhavgarh National Park is touted to have a high density of tigers, which translates into “guaranteed” ­tiger sightings. I choose Kanha and later, Pench – inspired by a BBC documentary, Spy in the Wild, on the tigers of Pench. Narrated by David Attenborough, the superb film uses hidden cameras shaped like tree trunks, that are carried by elephants and placed right beside the tigers, offering unparalleled access into the daily, mating and maternal life of this magnificent animal: Panthera tigris tigris.

Kanha has about 95 tigers in its whole area, but the 300 square kilometres that are open for tourism house barely 10. The 10 four-wheel drives that enter the forest at dawn are chasing these tigers. Of course, we don’t say that. Tiger sightings are rare and cannot be created or conjured up, even by luxury tour operators. Of India’s 27 tiger preserves, I have visited about 15 over the last dozen years. I have seen the tiger in the wild only once: in Ranthambore. I have been to Kanha before and spent days without a tiger sighting. So I don’t dare hope for ­anything. Still, there is no getting away from the elephant in this particular room: we have all come to Kanha to see the tiger.

The forest in Kanha is dense and moist. Dew drips from the tall sal trees. Sunlight filters through. Mist rises from the grasslands, which are coloured white, pink and purple. Sheet spiders create their webs horizontally like sheets at the bottom of trees, waiting in funnel-like homes to catch the unsuspecting insect that falls down. Brilliant yellow orioles fly across trees, glinting like the sun.

As we drive in, we see Kanha’s biggest success story: the barasingha or swamp deer. In 1970, their count dropped to a precipitous 66 animals because of infection, habitat loss and over-killing by ­tigers. Park officials cordoned off grasslands and researched the population decline. Of the 25 species of grass available at Kanha, the swamp deer picks at only seven types. Thirty years of conservation later, the count stands at a respectable 450. “The swamp deer and not the tiger is the true hero of this park because you can see the barasingha only in Kanha and it came back from near extinction,” says my naturalist, Dipu from Kerala.

We don’t see a tiger during my time in Kanha. We do see jackals, jungle fowl and other animals; and really, they ought to be enough. But I can’t help feeling disappointed as I drive to Pench, three hours away. Baghvan Lodge in Pench has wooden huts that are raised a little off the ground. The indoor and outdoor showers are nice, but I preferred the old-fashioned bathtub with brass fittings at Banjaar Tola. The best part of Baghvan’s rooms is the machan, a tree house that comes with every room. In the afternoon, I take my laptop there and read, type and doze. All around are trees filled with birds whose cries and screams remind me of home.

Tigers have been part of India’s ecosystem and lore for centuries. Tiger images are seen on Bronze Age seals. The pharaohs and Romans are said to have imported Indian tigers for gladiatorial sport. Indian maharajas hunted the tigers nearly to extinction. In 1972, then prime minister Indira Gandhi started Project Tiger to protect and preserve the Bengal tiger. The project is viewed as a success. The latest tiger census shows a count of about 1,500 tigers across 27 tiger preserves in India. Today, tourists come to India’s parks mainly to see this top predator that cannot be seen in any other continent. Three subspecies – Javan, Caspian, and Balinese – are already extinct; and only a few hundred of the Siberian and Sumatran sub-species exist. Hence the pressure on the Bengal tiger – to save it and to sight it.

Planning early is essential ­because getting into the park involves getting permission from the forest department. I take a few days to send in my identification card and as a result, am not able to go into Pench on the first morning’s drive. The bookings are full. That happens to be the day of a glorious tiger ­sighting: a tigress and her three cubs. Wolfgang, a German, regales me with photos of the tigress walking, sitting and even pooping. I show him the photos of birds that I took on a walk. I know that sounds lame but the birds were gorgeous.

I spend two days in Pench, following the typical safari lodge routine: forest drives in the morning and the evening with time in the afternoon to nap, read, swim, or in my case, exercise using the “jungle gym” left in the room: a yoga mat, weights and skipping rope, mostly to prepare for the evening’s labours: dinner. With me at the camp are Belgians, Germans, Americans and British tourists. They compare vegetation across continents: the ­Indian jungle scores in the dense foliage area.

Why does man seek the jungle? Most of us go for a change from city life, to see the tiger if possible and return refreshed. Being amid ancient trees is invigorating. Pench contains sal, teak, banyan, frankincense, Indian gooseberry, wood apple and mahua trees, all of which come together to form sacred groves that rejuvenate passers-by. The sounds of a jungle are distinct in what they do not offer: no wailing ambulances or annoying horns; no shouting and cursing drivers; no shrieking brakes. Instead, it’s the flutter of dragonflies, the chatter of parakeets and the barking call of the deer. You see creatures big and small and each of them links you back to your genetic ancestry in a way that textbooks never can. If you are lucky, as I wasn’t even on Day 3, you will see a tiger.

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