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.

weekend@thenational.ae

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.

Spirits of India

Cocktails have an intrinsic problem. Unless they are well made/well balanced, they are too sweet for my taste.

MISSING THE INDIAN SPIRIT
By
Shoba Narayan
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Korea has soju; Japan has sake; America has bourbon; Mexico has tequila and mezcal; Germany has schnapps; Scandinavia has aquavit; France has wine; Greece has ouzo; Britain has beer; Portugal has port; Spain has sherry; Turkey has raki; Brazil has cachaça; Peru has pisco; Scotland has Scotch; and India has…what? Chai? Horlicks? At a time when national spirit is high, shouldn’t we consider a signature spirit as well?
The strongest contender in this area is feni, says Vikram Achanta, co-founder of Tulleeho.com, a beverage education and consultant company. “But feni is still to rise above a state-level curiosity and shed its tag of being a country liquor,” he says.
If Goa, the land of the good life, has not been able to market its tipple, where do mahua, chandrahaas and handiya, the fermented spirit of Jharkhand, stand? And really, it is these local tribal distillations that ought to be our starting point.
In the luxury world, three things are revered above all: revenue, brand identity, and provenance. Indian tribes have been distilling spirits for as long as the Scots have—look where they are with their single malts and look where we are with our local liquors, the names of which even we Indians cannot pronounce.
All is not lost. Things can turn around faster than you can down a gin and tonic which, by the way, was invented in India.
Take tequila, for instance. Fifty years ago, it was a nonsense drink: pungent, unrefined, highly alcoholic. The Mexican government, in its wisdom, decided to throw its weight behind marketing tequila. Enter lime and salt; and a hop, skip and jump to frozen margaritas and tequila shots. Before you knew it, tequila had become a party drink. “Now, tequila has taken the luxury route with 100% agave and boutique producers,” says Yangdup Lama, co-founder of Cocktails & Dreams, a bar and beverage consultancy company in Gurgaon.
Local liqueurs are something that Man Singh, owner of Jaipur’s Narain Niwas Palace and Castle Kanota, knows something about. His family recipe for chandrahaas contains 76 ingredients, including saffron, rose and anise. Rajasthani liqueurs contain herbs, dry fruits and flowers. They taste good and are perfect after a meaty meal of lal maas or safed maas. They haven’t crossed borders though and remain with the home or palace, made in small batches with recipes zealously guarded.
Italy does the same thing with limoncello, except that they market the heck out of it. The fact that a particular limoncello is made using a family recipe is used as a virtue. With the variety of tropical fruits that we have, with our penchant for mixing spices and our heritage for distilling drinks, you would think that at least one of these liqueurs would have made it big.
Part of the reason is that we—country and government—are deeply ambivalent about promoting alcohol. On the one hand, prohibition does not work. Yet, on the other, should we actively encourage drinking? One place to begin would be the North-East and Himalayan states where tribals distil spirits anyway. Just as non-governmental organizations and the government promote small-scale, village-based industries and crafts, says Lama, why not encourage handcrafted spirits in a controlled and refined fashion? Instead, we import and pay premium prices for beer, wine and spirits that are produced in small batches in Europe.
The only area where local players have jumped in is wine. Here too, we are planting imported species of grapevines, be they Sangiovese, Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. Our wine industry is basically a copycat business where consultants and grapevines are brought in from abroad. Still, it begs the question: Why isn’t there a KRSMA, Fratelli or Sula type player in the spirits space?
Amrut Distilleries has done great work with its Amrut brand of single malt and there are now me-too players like Paul John and, to some extent, Tilaknagar Distilleries. What we lack are the mavericks and lone rangers who chase a spirit just because; who distil or die as it were.
Desmond Nazareth is a candidate. His 100% agave and 51% margarita mixes are produced in Andhra Pradesh and bottled in Goa under the brand name Desmondji. It is a start even if isn’t original or, for that matter, Indian. Offering greater hope is Desmondji’s orange liqueur that uses Indian sugar cane and Nagpur oranges.
None of these—Indian spirits or liqueurs—are marketing to the luxury market that is waiting to be tapped. Indians have travelled everywhere and tried out artisanal spirits, beers and wines. This consumer confidence can translate to sales of locally distilled quality spirits if there is a player with imagination and staying power. In these compressed time cycles, what took Scotland several centuries and Mexico 50 years to achieve with their national spirits can happen in India in a mere 10 years—witness the burgeoning Indian wine industry.
Or can it?
Bangalore-based drinks consultant Heemanshu Ashar believes that the Indian market is not ready. “Chasing one national drink is a pipe dream,” he says. “If even the chai we drink is prepared differently in different regions, how can we be united by one drink? We are a nation of choices—multiple choices—so let’s rejoice in that.”
Only a Rajput riding across the horizon with his chandrahaas, or a Himalayan distiller carrying his home-made spirit in a flask, can change this scenario. I am hopeful.

Shoba Narayan likes her martini shaken and not stirred. With a side of olives. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Flowers

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

A simple garland of flowers is a powerful cultural emblem.

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

Train Diary 4

The last of my beloved train diaries. For now.

Train diary No.4: strangers and friends

There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert
Shoba Narayan
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There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert. Every compartment usually has both. There are the silent types who stare unblinkingly as you enter their compartment. There are others who smile and make room; and just when you are thinking of them as good prospects for sharing the night’s dinner, they ask you to exchange their upper berth for your lower one. That is when you look at the strong, silent type and wish you’d followed his example.

Indian train compartments are beautifully designed for the most part. There are hooks from which to hang the odd plastic bag filled with fermenting black bananas that are bursting with what seems like pus. There are electrical plugs to charge your mobile device; metal rods into which you chain your bag or suitcase in case midnight robbers make off with your belongings; and seats that fold out into sleeping berths.

Although we like to pretend otherwise, human beings are deeply attuned to pace and proportion. To go from Bombay to Britain in 8 hours is possible by plane, and we do this all the time. We get off feeling groggy and disoriented and attribute it to melatonin and jet lag. What we don’t talk about is the psyche and its adjustment—or lack thereof– to air travel. It is only when you travel by trains that you notice how their speed and size are suited for human beings: fast but not disorienting; cozy but not cramped, at least in the air-conditioned coaches. The one defect has to do with height: train berths are designed for dwarfs. Sit up and…well, you can’t sit up particularly in the upper berth. You have to scrunch in a foetal position, both when you sit and when you sleep. As a teenager, I scrunched so much that I fell off the top berth. True story. Apparently, I didn’t even wake up. From then on, my mother repeated this exploit as if it were an achievement. “She got 97% in her Unit Tests. And you know, she fell off the top berth and didn’t even wake up,” my Mom would say, flexing her muscles in a way that would give the Phogat sisters a run for their medals.

Sometimes the train stops, as mine does– at 9:15 on a dark night, in a field before Dharmapuri. After a few minutes, I walk to the door. There are a couple of men smoking cigarettes. It seems civilized to blow smoke-rings into the great wide open. In contrast, smoking booths in airports look like cages in a zoo. The smokers inside speak on the phone as they hold their lights, as if the phone conversation makes them look and feel less alone. Here, the two men speak desultorily about why the train has stopped. Something about “shunting,” and an inter-city train crossing ours.

Inky blackness envelops the sky. No homes; no lights save for those from the train, and no dwellings. I climb down the steps—the only woman amidst a few men. My family would have had a fit if they saw me alone in the middle of nowhere, with darkness all around, waiting outside a train with a couple of strangers sharing a fag; beside a train that could take off any minute. The thought is thrilling. The light turns green. We all climb back as the train pulls away. There is something about a running train (or bus) that makes climbing in an adventure. Perhaps it is matching your body to a moving object; Newton’s law of physics and what not.

The train picks up speed. The toddler in the next compartment is fussing. She walks down the corridor, anklets jingling, followed by a smiling, adoring Dad.

“She has a cold,” he explains to us.

We make clicking sympathetic voices. “The only thing that works is Waterbury’s Compound,” he says. He pulls out a tiny Johnny Walker bottle, opens the cap and pours the fluid down his toddler’s mouth. Nobody blinks. Instead, we fan ourselves with Maalai Murasu, Dinamalar, and Kalki, Tamil publications all.

At the next station, the gruff pharmaceutical executive who shares my compartment meets his family. They stand away from the crowd milling at the entrance of the compartment and catch up. I know what they are talking about because I have done this so many times with relatives while growing up. Some uncle or aunt would take the time to bring us food at random stations and we would have a few minutes of conversation. But what can you talk about really amidst the tension of a train that could leave any minute? Mostly you ask questions without waiting for answers? “How is Farida/Charles/Baby aunty? How is your health? Did Ahmed/Unni/Fatty write his exams? When are you coming to Delhi?” Connection through questions, as a way of saying thanks. Indians of yore didn’t say thanks. They viewed it as an insult almost. “You can put your thanks in a parcel and send it to Honolulu,” my Mami used to say loudly when we sputtered thanks, thanks to a convent school education. It was easy to imagine a line of thanks winging their way through the oceans to sunny Honolulu. It is these vignettes of life that make travelling on Indian trains a memorable experience. Minister Sadananda Gowda should capitalize on this collective affection that Indians have for train travel by making some improvements: cleaner toilets and stations that reflect and sell local food specialties would be a start. But first, he has to sort out the mess at home.

Shoba Narayan loves train travel.

Diwali Food for BA

My editor from British Airways magazine emailed with this commission.

We’re after a piece on how different regions/cities in the country celebrate Diwali with food – this could be anything from street food in a big city like Delhi or Bombay to regions that might be influenced by other cultures (e.g French influence in Pondicherry).

The tone should speak very much to a local audience as opposed to someone, say, living in the UK.”

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What shocked me was how little I knew about foods in other regions.  Not the broad “Bengalis love fish” type thing but details.  Phone calls to friends/chefs, etc.  The result is here.

Mindfulness

To be obsessed with meditation seems like defeating the purpose. My problem is that I still haven’t conquered this. How to sit “simply” and stare into space aka unfocus your eyes? How didn’t all those rishis that I read about in the Amar Chitra Katha books do it? To the point where anthills grew over them? Crazy stuff.

Reading and loving Haruki Murakami’s “What I think about when I think about Running.” Sejal Gulati, if you see this post, that book is for you.
Reading Sunil Menon’s translation of Mahabharata. Matsyabhangi– now that’s a name.

Mindful wanderers
When we think of meditation, the image that often comes to mind is that of the Buddha, or ministers with their eyes closed in the Lok Sabha. A Western spin on this is to use the word “mindfulness” as a way of approaching this practice. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer says that mindfulness is to make a concerted effort to notice something new in every situation. When you go back home and meet your spouse, she says, try to actually see five new things in them. That is a brave goal. What if you don’t want to see new things in your spouse?
We Indians have a far more laid-back approach. The yoga sutras instruct you to sit with your back straight and allow your mind to focus on one point. The Sanskrit word for this is dharana or concentration, which leads to dhyana or deep meditation. Of late, Western researchers have used meditation techniques to improve the performance of not just monks and mere mortals, but also soldiers and athletes. Take psychologist Amishi Jha of the University of Miami psychology department and director of contemplative neuroscience for the UMindfulness Research and Practice Initiative (yes, you can study these things in American colleges).
Born in Sabarmati to a Hindu family, Jha grew up watching her mother chant and pray. She studies attention, working memory and how to improve resilience in high-stress situations. She has received funding from the US department of defence and the US army to figure out how mindfulness training can help army troops improve their resilience and reactions to high-stress situations; to develop a mental armour as it were.
Her lab gives soldiers training in mindfulness so that they can cultivate discernment; so that they know when to NOT pull the trigger, as Jha calls it, instead of mindlessly turning a machine gun on perceived targets. Mindfulness trains soldiers to be present and take control of the moment so that their actions don’t result in “psychological injury” to themselves or others.
Children could potentially be the last frontier in terms of meditation. On the one hand, it is easy to argue that meditation techniques will help them focus and calm down. Certainly, several schools have tried this, with mixed results. Often, what happens is that a teacher walks around teaching the children to keep their eyes closed and breathe deeply. The minute her back is turned, a child opens his eyes and starts shooting paper rockets at his current arch-enemy.
One exercise, however, is easier on children than others. It is called trataka or trataka yoga kriya. A simple way of saying it is “candle gazing”, although this phrase does not do it justice. Trataka is about focusing your eyes on a particular object. It could be a candle or it could be your shoulder.
There are four types of tratakas. Dakshina jatru trataka is when your head remains straight and your eyes focus on your right shoulder. Try it. The effect is that of a a dancer who looks to the right. Vama jatru trataka is the same practice, except that the eyes are focused on the tip of the left shoulder. Namikagra trataka is when the eyes are focused on the tip of the nose.
Bhrumadhya trataka is when the eyes are focused on the spot between the two eyebrows. Another method is when you sit at arm’s length from a candle that is placed in a spot where the flame does not flicker. The goal is to stare at the tip of the candle without blinking your eyes. What happens typically is that your eyes begin watering after a few minutes. Then you shut your eyes and relax. You bring your closed-eye gaze to the spot between the eyebrows.
Trataka is an especially good practice if you have a young daughter who has not achieved puberty. This practice delays the onset of puberty, according to yoga practitioners. This is because trataka nurtures the pineal gland, which René Descartes called “the seat of the soul”. In yogic philosophy, the pineal gland is located in the ajna chakra or the “third eye”. When the pineal gland weakens, it stimulates the sexual hormones leading to puberty. This is my broad and rather non-expert interpretation. There are many essays on this topic.
Making your daughter do trataka is an easy way of improving her concentration and delaying the onset of puberty. A simple approach is to keep a candle by the bedside. Ask your child to lie on her side and gaze at the candle just before she goes to sleep. This will get her into the habit and knock her out in a few minutes. Even Western medical doctors concede that the endocrine system responds to mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation. Hormones have powerful effects on the body, and they can be managed through ancient techniques such as modulating the breath and focusing the eye. This can also open the seat of the soul, leading to soul-stirring ideas.
Ancient India was known for its approach to spirituality and the self. Today’s India is known for its software companies, analytical skills, and business process outsourcing (BPOs). One way to merge the ancient and the modern is through these yogic practices. The West, particularly the US, has become the seat of innovation.
India can jumpstart its innovation by focusing on creativity and imagination among its workforce—by allowing the mind to wander mindfully; to see the world in a little boy’s open mouth; to activate the third eye; to sit still and follow the mind on all its various tangents and trajectories; to “sniff the winds” like Apple’s Steve Jobs did, and sense what lies ahead.

Shoba Narayan is shooting paper rockets at the pigeons on her balcony while trying to meditate. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Intuition/Imagination

Leap before you think

Before he began Apple, Steve Jobs spent seven months in India, something that is described in his biography by Walter Isaacson. In it, Jobs talks poetically about the difference between intellect and intuition. “The people in the Indian countryside do not use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect in my opinion.”
Jobs was not a fan of India. If he identified intuition as the one Indian thing that he wanted to emulate, that is worth considering. There are a few Sanskrit words for intuition: pratibha being the most common one. Developing intuition, discernment (or viveka) and wisdom (vijnana) have been Indian preoccupations for centuries.
Different cultures are obsessed with different things at different stages in their evolution. Japan, for instance, is obsessed with refinement and perfectionism. Singapore is obsessed with systems. China, with scale. The US, with innovation. Ancient Indians were obsessed with self-cultivation; to figure out “how God thinks”, as Albert Einstein said.
In a quote attributed to Einstein, he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Notice that this scientist used the word sacred—proving that the rational and the intuitive are not as disconnected as we make them out to be.
Intuition is something that every religion knew about. Jesus, as the story of Lazarus (and the fish which had a four-drachma coin in its mouth) illustrates, was a man of intuition. As was Mohammed the Prophet. In today’s world, we call these intuitive thinkers visionaries. Religion teaches us that the way to develop intuition is through prayer and meditation. As Jobs says: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to comment, it will only make it worse. But over time, it does calm down, and when it does, there is room to hear more subtle things—that is when your intuition starts to blossom.”
Typically, flashes of insight that are the result of intuition occur at dawn. This is the time when the free-flowing, loose, flexible stillness of the mind gives rise to solutions that are fully formed. During the day, the mind is a wandering beast. Typically, when you try to sit still and meditate, the mind wanders to knotty problems that need to be solved: who said what to whom and how to resolve unfinished business. But if you can still your mind and keep it loose, you increase the chances of insight; of the muse sitting on your shoulder and allowing your imagination to flourish.
Focusing on the moment is the gift that prayer and meditation afford. There are many things that civilizations use to centre their mind. Tibetans use bells. In Aldous Huxley’s novel, Island, which recreates a utopian land, parrots fly over people screeching, “Here and now, boys. Here and now.” They were reminding the islanders to focus on the present; to live for the here and now. The anklets that Indian women wear serve a similar purpose. Try it. The rhythmic jingle of these anklets when you walk serves to bring your mind back to the musical sound; to the here and now.
The ability to voluntarily bring back a wandering mind again and again and again is what we call meditation. American psychologist William James said that this ability to focus was the root of judgement, character and will. The wandering mind is also the root of imagination and creativity.
Paradoxically, it is the controlled kind of wondering that elicits the best results. Think of a kite—rooted to the earth and yet bobbing in the sky. That is the kind of mind-wandering that we need to create. In a famous Time magazine cover that appeared decades ago, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg said, “I dream for a living.” Daydreaming creates the kind of associations that lead to blockbuster movies—and companies, I might add. The trick then is to allow the mind to fly and figure out how to rein it in. Indians have numerous tools for this. We have anklets, for example.
Neuroscientists ask people to close their eyes to see how much the mind flits around. When the eyes move behind closed lids, so does the mind. Bharatanatyam has a famous saying that is taught to every new dancer. It is from the Abhinaya Darpana (Mirror Of Gesture), by the redoubtable Nandikeshvara, often spoken of as a rival to Bharata Muni, who composed the Natya Shastra, the foundation of dance and other arts. In Sutra 36-37 of Abhinaya Darpana, the author talks about how to focus the mind and create rasa or emotion. This famous verse goes: “Yatho hastha thatho drishti. Yatho drishti thatho manah. (Where the hands go, there the eyes will follow. Where the eyes go, there the mind will follow)”.
You want to meditate? Hold your hands in a certain position (mudra, according to Buddhists), and focus your eyes on an object.

Shoba Narayan’s favourite mudra is “bhoomi sparsha mudra” or “caressing the earth mudra”. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Indian Wine

The wine club that I belong to is informal and wonderful. We meet, drink good wine and talk about life.
Below is a wine we drank recently.

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Just kidding. That was a gift from my wine-collector brother-in-law. At the Oberoi Bangalore, we tried this and it was amazing.
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FIRST PUBLISHED: SAT, APR 05 2014. 12 17 AM ISTHOME» LEISURE» THE GOOD LIFE
The route to Napa is through Nashik
Making a case for encouraging domestic production and consumption of wine in India
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I am on the phone with Xavier de Eizaguirre, whose name is less consonant-ridden and hard to pronounce than a self-respecting south Indian name (Venkataramanan, for instance). Eizaguirre is the chairman of Vinexpo, a trade fair for the wine and spirits industry. He is in Mumbai to drum up support for Vinexpo Asia-Pacific 2014, which is to be held in Hong Kong from 27-29 May.
As someone who drinks wine in the fond hope that its tannins will make my complexion look as radiant as Catherine Deneuve or at least Charlie Chaplin, I am as good a candidate as any for a discussion on wine.
So why is Eizaguirre here? After all Indians drink abysmally low quantities of wine. We probably drink more Woodward’s Gripe water or Safi blood purifier. The answer lies in the numbers. According to a new survey commissioned by Vinexpo, Asia is where the markets are.
Though we drink very little wine compared to China, the growth in still and sparkling wine expected in India between 2008 and 2017 is a whopping 68%. We are still low on the totem pole, below Thailand, the Philippines and even Vietnam in terms of quantity, but we are expected to make the biggest gains. The top 10 wine-consuming countries are the US, France, Italy, Germany, China, UK, Argentina, Russia, Spain and Australia. Going forward, wine consumption in most of these countries is expected to stay the same or fall a little. Only the US, and to a much greater degree China, are expected to substantially increase the amount of wine that they imbibe.
India starts from a low base but we have a young population that is discovering new lifestyles. Even though there is huge debate and disagreement about whether our spicy cuisine goes well with wine, it has become more a matter of managing our cuisine and wine pairings, rather than doing away with one or the other. Indians have discovered wine, no doubt about it. Some say fruity white wines pair well with our spicy food while others say we need big bold reds to stand up to the spicy heat of our food.
The Indian wine market is probably where the US was 40 years ago and where China was a mere 15 years ago. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Napa Valley was still farmland, and Americans were drinking jug wine. Today they produce 350 million cases. In three decades, they have become one of the top five players. Local wineries have increased not only the production of wine but also the consumption of wine.
China’s story is a little different. The Chinese market didn’t involve moving from jug wine to Bordeaux and Burgundy. They went straight for the jugular as it were, finding and buying the finest vintages and driving up prices in the process. China consumed over 155 million 9-litre cases of red wine in 2013, a figure nobody would have dreamt of in 2008. From 2008-12, Chinese consumption of still wine went up 136.8%. Compared with that, the expected growth there from 2013-17, of 33.8% (for still and sparkling wine) and 33.17% (for red wine), is paltry.
This is why India is interesting. The question is whether it will follow the US or China model. The US treats wine the way Indians treat jewellery. We are savvy consumers of jewellery, buying it for personal use and enjoyment; and yes, to show off during weddings. China treats wine like a branded good—an Hermès bag, for instance—something to buy for effect and to impress; to show off. My hope is that we will follow the US model.
The best way would be to encourage domestic production and consumption, according to Kripal Amanna, publisher of the Food Lovers magazine; an assessment I agree with. For us, the route to Napa is through Nashik. Or Bangalore. If local wineries thrive, more Indians will drink wine.
Some part of it has to do with pricing. Indian wineries are selling products at ridiculously high prices. “The monthly Indian per capita income stands at $85 (around Rs.5,100). An average wine bottle costs between 12-16% of this,” says Amanna. This worsens when you move from retail to F&B establishment. “And therefore, most Indians find their spiritual solace in other beverages.”
It is in everyone’s interest for the prices to come down. Only when the Americans began drinking $10 wines did they develop a palate and then buy more expensive bottles. Pricing an Indian wine at Rs.750 and above makes little sense if you want to build a market. The sad part is the government policy views low-alcohol wine as a luxury product with equivalent taxes while high-alcohol toddy is not accorded the same stifling penalty.
Wine clubs are proliferating all over India. The time is ripe for local producers to capture and grow this interest. An informal club I belong to served some nice white wines recently: an aromatic white from Château de Fontenille and a 2008 Aussières Blanc Chardonnay from Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). The members of this club travel frequently and bring back wines. They do give Indian wines a try but prefer to pay two-three times more for wines of guaranteed quality. They are the market.

Shoba Narayan is willing to lobby for lower prices for Indian wines.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
Comment E-mail Print 39 First Published: Sat, Apr 05 2014. 12 17 AM IST
WINE SULA NASHIK NAPA MARKET

Maternal Mortality Rates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maternal Deaths

This appeared in Christian Science Monitor. India’s MMR statistics are shameful, something which I didn’t know. But there is a nice report called “State of the World’s Mothers” that outlines where India stands. The process is complicated because everyone has a view on how to get women into hospitals and take care of themselves. Given the number of interviews I did for this piece and the amount of information that I’ve collected, I imagine that I will write more on this important subject.

Tackling Indian maternal deaths by smartphone
India leads the world in annual maternal deaths. Technology firms are pairing with the government’s village health program to work with rural women.
By Shoba Narayan, Contributor / March 23, 2014

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A commuter talks on a mobile phone in New Delhi, July 17, 2013. In bustling New Delhi, technology firms are pairing with the government’s village health program to work with rural women.
Altaf Qadri/AP/File

NEW DELHI
Subhi Quraishi believes that the solution to the high maternal mortality rates that have dogged women in rural India starts with a mobile phone.

Standing in his bustling New Delhi offices, Mr. Quraishi shows off the mobile “lifeline channel” that his software firm has developed to send nuggets of information to rural users. The app uses rhymes, songs, and interactive games to spread maternal health tips and rudimentary but crucial information.

India leads the world in annual maternal deaths, according to a 2013 report by the advocacy group Save the Children. The report notes that in rural India – especially in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – poor sanitation and malnutrition are rampant and women often give birth in the “filthiest” area of the house. Newborns are placed on dirt floors and breast-feeding is discouraged under the notion that it will debilitate the mother’s health.

India has made progress on its millennium development goal to lower maternal mortality rates to 109 deaths per 100,000 births by 2015. It has cut the rate by 42 percent from 1990, when maternal deaths stood at 457 per every 100,000 births, but the United Nations says rates haven’t dropped quickly enough for India to meet its target by 2015.

ZMQ Software, the firm founded by Qurashi and his brother Hilmi, developed the “lifetime channel” in 2003. It aims to apply the skills of India’s fast growing technology and healthcare sectors to the problem and reaches 500,000 women. The information is sent through visual and sound-based reminders from the company’s server to the user’s mobile phone, bypassing the Internet.

“Once a woman registers herself on our system, and she is pregnant, she will get information every week pertaining to her week of pregnancy,” Quraishi says. “It sends timely information about immunization schedules for her children and pregnancy information for her.”

As the number of mobile phone users in India explodes (the country has the second largest number of mobile phones in use, below China and above the US), more women in rural locations have access to the technology. Programs like Qurashi’s are growing. He now competes against firms like Dimagi and BBC Media Action, who offer similar platforms. Yet there are still vast challenges to overcome, including many women off the grid, skepticism of modern practices, and government policies that health care experts say are inadequate.

Pairing with government volunteers

ZMQ, along with a handful of other Indian technology companies, is working with ASHAs – or Accredited Social Health Activists, government-sponsored volunteers – who are at the forefront of India’s battle against maternal and infant death.

The program, whose name means ‘hope’ in Hindi, is roughly similar to the community health workers or ‘barefoot doctors’ of China, Iran, and Bangladesh. Instituted by the Indian government in 2005 with a goal of establishing at least one ASHA per village, there are currently about 900,000 of them. The program consists of village-based volunteers who get small monetary incentives when they achieve outcomes like ensuring that a pregnant woman delivers in a hospital.

ZMQ works with ASHAs by sending their “lifetime channel” information to the pregnant women and to the ASHAs working with them.

What do you need for delivery?

Anita Kumari is an ASHA worker in rural Bihar, one of the poorest Indian states. She works in Sigriyawan, a small village two hours outside the state’s capital. She monitors the women and children in her charge and visits the homes of pregnant women regularly.

Hina Kumari, one of her charges, is in her seventh month of her first pregnancy. She lives in a thatched hut without running water or electricity with her in-laws. Chickens and a pig run around the mud floors of the single room hut. Anita asks her to repeat all the things she needs before her delivery next month. “Clean sheet of cloth, clean blade, clean water in a clean bottle, clean change of clothes for me and the newborn baby,” Hina recites.

Anita uses her mobile phone and a health booklet to send reminders – to herself and her charges – about what health service is due to whom and when.

Evaluating success

Despite the enthusiasm for harnessing new technology, a daunting challenge still remains. India’s progress has been slow and many rural women remain disconnected from technology or urban best practices.

Developing apps will only do so much, says Professor Mathew George from the Center for Public Health at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, who has argued in papers that India’s high maternal and infant mortality rates are in part due to the failure of the state to ensure public health functions like nutrition and sanitation for the state.

“Technology by itself will not work until the structures are in place to support it,” he says.

The ASHA program has its critics too. They say that it only addresses some of the causes of the maternal mortality rate and operates in much of a vacuum. “There are multiple programs running with little coordination at the district, state or central level,” says Rama Baru, a professor of health policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Quraishi acknowledges the criticism, but maintains that using technology for a step-by-step start to the problem is a good place to start. Eventually, he hopes to add other ‘lifeline’ material to the app, including English lessons.