About the banana flower

The pink-skinned banana flower is a luxury

You have to be family to be served banana flower
Updated: Fri, Nov 23 2012. 05 21 PM IST
I am cooking banana flower today. It is a good-looking if shy vegetable, hiding its offerings under pink, smooth skin. Peeling a banana flower requires patience and if you are lucky, community. Joint families are best for this vegetable because it invites sitting around and gossiping. Women in the proverbial ancestral home will sit on the ground in a circle and painstakingly remove the kallan or stigma along with the pink outer skin. The next step is to dunk it into a vat of buttermilk. Otherwise, it will turn black. The same rule applies to brinjal, except that you dunk it in salt water.
Banana flowers are more accepting than a brinjal. You can chop them up in a haphazard way and they won’t bruise like the tender green brinjal. In time-constrained homes, the woman will peel the banana flower the previous night and keep it dunked in buttermilk overnight. This gives the dish a pleasing sour-salty-tangy taste.

The banana flower does not do well with speed, which is why so few restaurants serve it. It is, in that sense, a luxury. To eat it, you have to be invited to an Indian home of a certain ilk. Not the home that is used to throwing parties of the “show-offy” kind, pardon the expression; but a home that is authentic and unselfconscious. You too have to be a certain type of guest in order for a hostess to serve you the banana flower. You have to be family—or almost family; or a friend who can walk in unannounced. In such situations, particularly if it is lunchtime, you may be lucky enough to eat hot rice with ghee; or adal-bhath served with a few lightly sautéedsatvik (healthy) vegetables. This is home food of the best kind. Steamed rice, fragrant goldenghee, piping hot lemon-rasam, and one or two curries.

South Indians cook the banana flower (vazhai poo) as a poriyal (dry curry), kootu (with lentils as a gravy) and a paruppu usili (with ground lentils). Bengalis stuff the banana flower into a potato patty-type thing and deep-fry it asmochar chop. Coastal cuisines make a vada out of it. I have eaten this vada at the Taj group’s masala restaurants, at Karavalli, and at the ITC’s Dakshin restaurant. But I prefer the home-cooked version. A simpler recipe suits this rather retiring vegetable. Restaurants gravitate to two other kinds of vegetables: those that are flamboyant and those that are accepting of torture.
Take the potato. You can fry it, mash it, whip it, sauté it, scramble it, mix it with just about anything, and it will accept all that you dole out with the patience of an earth-mother. No wonder restaurants love this vegetable. The cauliflower is a good-looking vegetable that does well when you sauté it with tomatoes or with potatoes; or shroud it as a gobi-manchurian. The asparagus is a drama queen that demands pride of place in the centre of the plate with only a few drops of contrasting emulsion, the better to highlight its looks and taste. Mushrooms too demand a tart to rest their butts in; either that or they will allow themselves to be whipped into a foam—no middle ground for these masochists. The carrot is too good-looking for its own good, which is why cooks hate it. You can cut it into strips and serve it as a crudité, or you can julienne it for stir-fries, or blend it into soups. But it becomes sweet when cooked, which is a monkey-wrench for those who want a savoury taste in their vegetable dishes.
We Indians have chosen the path of least resistance with respect to this determined vegetable: We make a halwa out of it; and it is arguably the only vegetable that masquerades as a sweet; at least the only one with any provenance. Nowadays, people make halwa out of pumpkin and other nouveau vegetables but they are at best poor approximations, if not outright shams. The carrot, like other brightly coloured vegetables, ought to be handled with care, because it is mercurial and can blow hot, blow cold, depending on when it was picked.
The beetroot, its cousin, is similar. Russians use the beetroot in their hearty borscht, but they douse it with cream to curb the beet. In India, we make cutlets out of it, but mostly we are at a loss in terms of how to handle this volatile vegetable. You can make salads, thoren (Malayali curries) with coconut, and even sambhar with the beetroot, but somehow the cook is left feeling that he hasn’t quite got it right; that he hasn’t quite figured out how to handle this vegetable. The beetroot has the last laugh; or smirk, as if it were saying, “You can bend me but you will never triumph.”
The banana flower, along with yams, bitter gourd, cluster beans and certain gourds, are all native Indian vegetables—not “English vegetables”. They all share one characteristic: They aren’t flamboyant. This is a problem because they require doctoring—unless you happen to be in the satvik frame of mind that appreciates the simplicity of these vegetables. In my house, we do doctor the banana flower into aparuppu usili (lentil mixture). For an usili, you have to grind soaked chana dal (or tuvar dal), green or red chilli, salt and asafoetida (hing). That’s it. You coarsely grind this mixture, then steam it till it is cooked. Finally, you separate the mixture with your hands so that it crumbles (this is what usili means). You mix the crumbled lentil mixture with vegetables such as beans, cabbage and banana flower. There you have it: vazhai poo paruppu usili, home style.
Shoba Narayan’s favourite banana flower dish is the Maharashtrian version with Goda masala, jaggery and tamarind: kelphulachi bhaji. She is waiting to be invited to a Maharashtrian home so she can try the authentic version of this dish.
Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Jeweller Hanut Singh

For M magazine

Hanut Singh is a grandson of Maharaj Karamjit Singh of Kapurthala. Simon de Trey-White

Hanut Singh is a grandson of Maharaj Karamjit Singh of Kapurthala. Simon de Trey-White

 

 

Singh scours the globe in search of his favourite gemstones. Courtesy Hanut Singh

Singh scours the globe in search of his favourite gemstones. Courtesy Hanut Singh

 

 

Singh likes to focus on colour, balance, silhouette and proportion. Courtesy Hanut Singh

Singh likes to focus on colour, balance, silhouette and proportion. Courtesy Hanut Singh

 

 

Beyonce bought some of Singh's earrings before she went to Cannes for a photo shoot. Getty Images / Gallo Images)

Beyonce bought some of Singh’s earrings before she went to Cannes for a photo shoot. Getty Images / Gallo Images)

 

 

Hanut Singh's clients include Rebecca Romijn (left) and Meryl Streep. Getty Images / Gallo Images)

Hanut Singh’s clients include Rebecca Romijn (left) and Meryl Streep. Getty Images / Gallo Images)

 

 

India’s crown jeweller

Apr 28, 2012

 

Clad in jeans and a black, sleeveless top that reveal the tattoos on his arms, the jeweller Hanut Singh holds court over an assembled group of adoring customers in the anteroom of Bungalow 8, Mumbai’s famed concept store. Pink and purple macaroons are placed like pyramids in dainty containers all around, except that none of the Pilates-toned bodies are touching them.

An attentive waiting staff carries around tall glasses of bubbly refreshments. The women put down their Gucci bags and gush over Singh’s latest Moth to a Flame collection, retailing for about US$3,500 (Dh12,856) on average for a pair of earrings. Later, Singh plans to take this collection to New York and Los Angeles, but for now, he is assisting as his loyal customers choose their baubles.

“Darling, that green looks so good against your skin,” he pronounces. “Don’t you love this?” he asks, picking up a pair of ruby earrings that are carved into the Hindu elephant God, Ganesh. The women pull back their long black hair, and preen before the floor-length mirror. Singh never pushes them to buy. As he says often, his pieces are for women who already own significant jewellery and know their baubles.

Singh, 39, knows his baubles, too. His great-grandfather, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of the erstwhile kingdom of Kapurthala, was a flamboyant Francophone, who ascended the throne at the age of five and ruled until 1948, a year after India became independent. The king was among the most widely travelled of his time and spent summers in Europe and the south of France with his five wives, including a Spanish dancer, Anita Delgado. Jagatjit Singh loved shopping for jewellery and travelled to Paris carrying suitcases of gemstones to offer commissions to Cartier, Boucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels and other European jewellers. In 1926, Cartier created a turban ornament for him using a hexagonal 177-carat emerald, along with numerous diamonds and pearls.

“My great-grandfather was a connoisseur of varied and exquisite taste,” says Singh. “Not only did he travel the world over 130 years ago, he was a visionary and aesthete.”

Singh’s paternal grandmother – Princess Sita Devi, or Princess Karam as she was called – was considered one of the loveliest women in all of India. Photographed frequently by Cecil Beaton, Princess Karam arrived in Paris when she was a 14-year-old newlywed. This “Pearl of India” cut a stylish figure with her dusky countenance, couture clothes and spectacular jewellery. Muse to photographers such as Man Ray, clad in Mainbocher and Madame Grès, Princess Karam inspired Elsa Schiaparelli to design a collection of gowns based on the saris she wore. When she was 19, Vogue magazine anointed her a “secular goddess”. Five years later, Look magazine called her one of the five best-dressed women on earth.

Elsie de Wolfe threw a party in her honour with trained caparisoned elephants welcoming the guests. Princess Sita Devi arrived wearing a Grecian gown and dripping with jewels by Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and Chaumet. Princess Karam wore peasant-style dresses and Grecian gowns and combined her chiffon saris with pearls and fur coats. The society pages in London and Paris tracked her clothes and considered her a stylish trendsetter. Later, the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, then at Harper’s Bazaar, asked the Princess if she and her team could visit the Kapurthala kingdom for a photo shoot. The Princess opened up her Versailles-style palace and the photographs now are part of the royal memorabilia.

“My grandmother, Princess Sita, was not only the most exquisite woman you could ever see,” says Singh, “but she was a great wit, raconteur, superb cook and a woman of deep spiritual practice. We were blessed to have her in our lives.”

Young Hanut grew up watching his glamorous grandmother, mother and sister wearing priceless family heirlooms and discussing jewels in a matter-of-fact way. Jewellery in his family was considered to be an extension of personal style, not something to be put away in a box. After studying literature and media studies at New York’s Hunter College, Singh worked at Elle magazine as a fashion writer and editor.

“Even though everyone said that I was good at it, I realised that writing was not my

métier,” he says. “It didn’t inspire me and I wasn’t fuelled by it.”

Eight years ago, when he was 31, he borrowed Rs50,000 (Dh3,580) from his uncle and another Rs50,000 from his mother to design his first collection of jewellery called Frutti de Mare. Much of the collection was made with pearls and Japanese abalone shells. Singh invited 40 stylish women to his sunny, spacious New Delhi penthouse for a trunk show and was sold out by the end of the day. He repaid his loans, designed his second collection, Wind Chime, within three months, and hasn’t stopped since.

Shweta Bachchan Nanda, the daughter of the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, has been wearing his jewellery for years. “I love that Hanut is constantly discovering new materials and using them so effectively,” she says. “I always get compliments when I wear his jewellery.” Like many Indian women, she says that the appeal of Singh’s pieces are their versatility, the fact that they can be paired with both Indian and western clothes.

For a country with a long tradition of jewellery making, India has surprisingly few independent jewellers. The London-based Alice Cicolini, a graduate of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, is one. She works with craftsmen in Jodhpur to produce her brightly coloured rings and necklaces using the intricate meenakari, or champlevé technique. Other contemporary Indian jewellers such as Farah Khan Ali and Roopa Vohra are considered more established in that they have freestanding stores and stockists. Munnu Kasliwal, scion of the family that owns the famed Gem Palace, Jaipur, retails his Munnu collection, both at home and at Barney’s in New York and Los Angeles. Singh pegs himself as more artisanal, making jewellery “with a point of view”, as he says.

The prolific designer, who sports tattoos of doves “for peace,” bamboo stalks for prosperity, and others on his arms, says that inspiration for his designs comes in two ways. “Either I fall absolutely madly in love with a stone or I get inspired by my surroundings. It could be the crescent moon in a miniature painting or the Islamic gallery of the Met. It could be anything – a street in Morocco, Moorish architecture, music, nature, the crescent shape of the moon or the slice of a dagger.”

Today, his clients include not only Indian socialites but also global celebrities such as Madonna, Meryl Streep, Beyoncé, Penelope Cruz, Cindy Sherman, Wendi Deng Murdoch, Queen Rania and a slew of Hollywood stars and models including Rebecca Romijn, the Olsen twins and Amy Adams, among others.

“Wendi Murdoch is a long-time client of mine and she gifted Queen Rania a pair of my earrings as a birthday present,” says Singh.

Singh’s tryst with Hollywood began in 2005, when Beyoncé bought a couple of his earrings just before she went to Cannes for a photo shoot. Soon she was seen flaunting his earrings on magazine covers.

“It was so kind of Beyoncé to showcase my work,” says Singh. “She was pulling her hair back and working the jewellery. She must have known I was a young designer.”

In due course, his jewellery caught the eyes of other stars. Madonna commissioned a pair of skull earrings from him, and also borrowed several pieces when she went on holiday. The Olsen twins, who Singh calls “very cool and absolutely charming”, wore his jewels, as did supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Karolina Kurkova.

“You know, celebrities get paid a ton of money to wear jewellery,” says Singh. “I don’t play that game. I don’t have that kind of money. And in the end, yeah, it’s a big deal [to have a celebrity wear your jewellery] but really, it’s not that big a deal. I am a bit snobbish about my work.”

Handwritten testimonials from his clients are part of his archives. The shoe designer Christian Louboutin, who signs off as “Xtian Louboutin”, says that Singh’s work “has so much in common with what I like with my own work: to be able to express through small objects like shoes or jewellery our love and passion for handicraft, women, traditions mixed and shaked with a good twist, elegance and delicatessen… I can’t stop myself buying his work, it became one of my favourite addictions, and I never, and probably never will, regret it! So, keep on, dear Hanut, and thanks for existing!!!”

The fashion designer and philanthropist Rachel Roy says in her testimonial that “Hanut so perfectly combines the richness and history of Indian detail with the modern edge of what women want to wear today”.

Clearly, many of his celebrity clients end up as friends to this savvy jewellery designer. Within India, Singh is part of the glamorous set that parties in Goa, holidays in the south of France and shops in New York. The fashion designer Malini Ramani, who is known for her resort wear, is an old friend. Ramani says that Singh has a “diamond heart that is filled with love, compassion and a strong sense of fairness”. Singh, in turn, calls Ramani his muse and “BFF”, indulging in the giggly chatter and inside jokes of longtime friends.

“I could swear he possesses some sort of shamanic powers,” says Ramani. “Every time I speak to him, a wave of calm washes over me. There is beauty all around.”

The PR guru Nikhil Khanna, who represents many of the top luxury brands in India and is a friend of Louboutin, says that Singh is “genuinely unfettered, freewheeling and counterintuitive… He is so zany and free – the way he lives, the things he says, his humour. All of that translates to his work”.

For all the free-spirited, party-loving image that he projects, Singh is a steely businessman who describes himself as clear-cut, methodical and pragmatic. He retails out of his atelier in New Delhi and through trunk shows in New York, London, Paris and across the world. Friends who are stylists also plug his work to their celebrity clients. Trained master craftsmen do all his lapidary work in house from the sketches he makes.

Singh’s forte is gemstones and he scours the world for them: Sri Lankan sapphires, Persian onyx, Japanese abalone, Afghani tourmalines, Russian topaz, blue-green Amazon beetle wings, pale pink Morganite, light green chalcedony, red rubellite, green Peruvian opal that Singh calls his favourite stone, peridot, citrine, black pearl and of course, diamonds, rubies and emeralds, all set in 18-carat gold. Unlike traditional Indian jewellery, which makes up for its use of small gemstones through elaborate embellishments and filigree work, Singh resolutely seeks out large gemstones and highlights their natural beauty with the slightest of embellishments. His focus on silhouette, colour, proportion and balance put his work closer to European brands such as Christian Dior, Tarina Tarantino, Paloma Picasso, Alexis Bittar and John Hardy, rather than contemporary Indian jewellers who work in Jaipur and New Delhi.

Unlike family-owned Indian jewellers such as S Zaveri & Sons, C Krishniah Chetty & Sons, Bapalal, and Khanna Jewellers, which cater to the masses, Singh chooses his clients carefully and creates his wares with a restrained hand. While he is a long way off from being a global brand, the fact that he is increasingly being mentioned in those circles is proof that the stars are burning bright for the man whose curved dagger earrings are coveted by women in the know.

Quintessentially

India’s super-rich a quintessentially complicated bunch

Shoba Narayan

Sep 26, 2010

 

I have a request for Paul Drummond, the boyish co-founder of Quintessentially, the UK-based luxury concierge service: can he get me into elBulli before it closes forever? If he can, here is one Indian who will sign up for his company’s services on the spot. Mr Drummond was in India recently to drum up (sorry, couldn’t resist) clients for his bespoke concierge and luxury lifestyle group. As a fast-growing economy, India is “a very serious market for us”, he said. To that end, Quintessentially has tied up with Lodha Developers who are constructing Mumbai’s World One, which, when launched, was touted to become the tallest all-residential tower in the world. Now though, Dubai’s Pentominium, currently unfinished, is expected to take that title. World One is scheduled to be completed in 2014 and Quintessentially’s services are on offer to all 300 apartments, which are priced between US$1.6 million (Dh5.9m) and $10.8m.

Quintessentially’s entry into India makes sense: right place, right time. With 49 dollar billionaires, India stands fifth in the world in its billionaire count, after the US, China, Russia and Germany. It has just increased the number of its millionaires by 51 per cent – the second-biggest biggest jump in the Asia-Pacific region after Hong Kong – from 84,000 to 126,700, according to the 2010 World Wealth Report issued by Capgemini and Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. Wealth managers say even these large numbers underestimate the true wealth in India, given its “black money billionaires” who literally have wads of cash tucked under the floor and have to figure out a way to spend it. Many of them prefer to spend it abroad, which plays in nicely with Quintessentially’s property services. Indians overtook Britons as the seventh-highest big spenders in hotels, according to the latest Hotel Price Index survey, conducted by Hotels.com.

A magazine profile of Nita Ambani, the wife of Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man with an estimated net worth of $29 billion, is a case in point. In the article, the interviewer asks Mrs Ambani the price of one kilogram of vegetables, almost as a test. Does Mrs Ambani know the price of a kilo of tomatoes? She claims she runs a tight ship, visiting her kitchen every morning and knows exactly how much the family spends on groceries. You could almost see Indians everywhere nodding approvingly when they read this. The Ambanis may be building a $2bn home, the most expensive residence in the world but, by Jove, the Missus knows the price of carrots and tomatoes. Try fleecing her at the bazaar. This is the type of customer that Mr Drummond and company will have to deal with.

Quintessentially states its customers are famously picky: demanding that a birthday cake be delivered to a distant Moroccan island; or asking for seats at exclusive fashion shows and art auctions. Indian customers will have the same requests with added layers of complication. Imagine the conversation between Quintessentially and Mrs Ambani, who perhaps wants a similar cake delivered to an uninhabited Greek island where a relative is doing solitary yoga.

 

“How will you get there — by car or boat? Better take the boat because gas is cheaper. Oh, and by the way, my assistants have charted the shortest route between the mainland and the island so your people had better stick to that. And each account statement is looked over by me personally, so the numbers had better add up.” Quintessentially will have to carefully calibrate its services to manage the Jekyll and Hyde personalities of India’s super-rich, who still haggle over the price of groceries but wildly overspend on other things; weddings now routinely cost $5m and more. Wealthy Indians prefer to have their children married abroad – a recent one took place at the Ferragamo mansion outside Florence in Italy – to escape prying, poverty-stricken eyes. Brand names are big among status-conscious Indians and Quintessentially’s ability to procure an exclusive Birkin bag at short notice (in time for a niece’s wedding next week, perhaps) will gratify its Indian clients. The trick is to spot them.

As the author and marketing consultant Santosh Desai says, an Indian millionaire could just as well be a farmer buying a souped-up tractor as a senior manager in a big city. They may hide their wealth from the income tax people but have no qualms about buying a Ferrari “all-cash” at the showroom . Does Quintessentially even want these people as clients? A few years ago, Ferrari was in the news because it claimed to have turned away 700 customers who didn’t “suit [the] product profile”. One way to spot clients is what Quintessentially has just done: through the property developers. Jones Lange LaSalle, the property consultancy, estimates about 3,500 luxury homes costing $1m and above are being constructed in Mumbai. After homes come cars, brand names and exotic vacations. The frugal lifestyle of the Gandhian era is long gone. With 44 per cent of the population less than 20 years of age, India is not just a young economy – it also has the largest number of young people in the world. Indian youth is no longer shackled by the Hindu notions of detachment and contentment. My father, for instance, can afford a Cartier Tank watch but wouldn’t dream of buying one. He would think it to be an obscene, crass and unnecessary display of wealth. Young Indians on the other hand, revel in such spending.

One last thing for Mr Drummond to ponder: how is he going to say “No” to Mrs Ambani’s sister-in-law’s aunt’s nephew by marriage who will beat on his door for membership? In other words, how is he going to process the spider-web of Indian extended families? Like I said, a reservation at elBulli would do the trick for me.

 

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore and the author of Monsoon Diary

 

Wealth for The National

Is wealth a spent argument, or can India find new way?
Shoba Narayan

Last Updated: Apr 9, 2011

Antilia Tower, the new residence of Mukesh D. Ambani, chairman of India’s Reliance Industries Ltd., stands in Mumbai, India, on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010. Ambani’s personal wealth is estimated to be $27 billion. Photographer: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** 755760.jpg

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About this time of year New Yorkers develop a fascination with the property market in the Hamptons: who is renting, who is buying and which property?

As the scent of summer arrives, the desire to snag a rental at this enclave of the rich and famous becomes stronger.

Why are we so fascinated by the wealthy? We may sneer but we also want to know how they live and spend their money.

The rich, as it turns out, are not that different – from each other, that is. Many of them seek tax havens through buying vineyards and giant tracts of land, and spending money on yachts, private jets and collectibles.

This year’s edition of The Wealth Report, released this week, suggests the richest invest about 35 per cent of their wealth in property. Most buy second and third homes in other countries.

Monaco, London and New York are high on the list but this year so are cities such as Sao Paulo, Shanghai, Mumbai and Singapore, all of which are booming with double-digit growth.

Other cities such as Chicago, Dublin, Los Angeles and Hanoi are sagging, thanks to oversupply and dwindling demand.

The Wealth Report, released by the property company Knight Frank and Citi Private Bank, polled 5,000 ultra-high net worth individuals, each worth more than US$100 million (Dh367.2m), who are clients of Citi Private in 36 countries.

India and China feature prominently in the survey, not least because India has 47 dollar billionaires, and China has 72. The UK has 42, Russia has 58 and the US has 396.

Mumbai is the seat of the property market in India, where the average price for a luxury property unit is $17,000 per square metre, several times more than what the average Indian makes in a year.

Bangalore, the only other Indian city that features in the survey, holds number 52 with an average price of $4,300.

Next to buying property, 64 per cent of the Indian rich want to buy yachts and private jets over the next five years, compared with Africa’s 50 per cent and Latin America’s 20 per cent.

Does how you accumulate and spend your wealth follow an almost inevitable pattern globally as each nation goes through its developing phase; or can the pattern be broken, avoided or changed? In other words, can the newly rich in India and China spend their wealth in a more “sophisticated” or sustainable fashion or will they follow global luxury trends?

You could argue (as I do) that the Indian rich are simply copying the West in their desire for yachts and other such trappings.

The evidence so far suggests the Indian rich will behave no differently from those across the world, and particularly in Asia. The Japanese became wealthy and bought Gucci. The Chinese favour Louis Vuitton and very expensive Bordeaux wines, neither of which have cultural resonance with their heritage.

One factor that does play a role in how the very rich spend their money is if they belong to a strife-torn nation. The wealthy in Africa or parts of the Middle East park their money abroad and use a significant portion of it for their personal security. But the extremely wealthy in Europe spend freely on lifestyle.

The Indian rich could choose a third path. This week, the social activist Anna Hazare began his fast until death to protest against corruption. His fast has galvanised every segment of society.

On the one hand, you have reports trumpeting the arrival and spending power of India’s super-rich. Parallel to this runs a dispiriting thread of what the economist Raghuram Rajan calls the “oligarchic capitalism” of India.

India’s oligarchs could contribute towards making India a society with a more equitable distribution of wealth; not out of some altruistic motive, but so they can live and spend easier without fear of a revolution stripping them of their property.

After all, it is one thing to park your money in a Swiss bank; it is quite another to enjoy your wealth every single day without fear or guilt.

Perhaps next year, The Wealth Report will include a section on sustainable spending.

business@thenational.ae

Secret Luxury for Mint

Mint’s luxury issue to coincide with the luxury conference had a bunch of interesting takes. I liked the one about knowledge and bespoke catering. Would have been nice to see more stuff on luxury travel, music, cigars, etc. Here is the link to Mint’s page. And here it is below.

Discretion is the better part of luxury
Luxury brands are portable symbols of wealth and prestige. Yet even in India, there is a growing group of people who disdain overt displays of wealth and opt instead for subtlety and quiet pleasure
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

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On the face of it, Sandeep Karyotakalam, 38, is your typical IT professional. He wears navy full-sleeved shirts and speaks in precise sentences. After a stint at Infosys Technologies in Zurich, he just completed his executive postgraduate programme at IIM Bangalore, which is where I met him (he was a student in a class I taught there). Underneath his reserved but friendly demeanour is an epicurean sensibility. Karyotakalam collects high-end audio systems and speciality chef’s knives, a passion that began when he used pots as speakers for school parties. “From an acoustic point of view, earthen pots make the best speaker enclosures,” he says. “There are no parallel or flat surfaces, no standing waves, no moving joints.”

Secret pleasures: (left) A Bottega Veneta handbag with its trademark Intrecciato weave and B&W’s Nautilus speakers . Priyanka Parashar/Mint
After he started working, Karyotakalam would bring back audio equipment from abroad.Today, his collection includes some of the best names in audio equipment—Bowers & Wilkins (B&W), Marantz, Pro-ject, Bose, Sennheiser, Yamaha, Sonodyne and others, which cost him around Rs. 3.5 lakh. Next on his list are B&W’s Nautilus speakers (Rs. 20 lakh a pair), Krell Evolution Mono amplifiers (Rs. 6 lakh a pair) and a Marantz Ken Ishikawa Pearl SACD player (Rs. 2.5 lakh). “High-end audio systems are quite beautiful with analogue dials, exposed valves and heat sinks. If you play Knopfler on a high-end super audio CD (SACD) system, you can close your eyes and imagine him sitting next to you,” says Karyotakalam, reeling off details about dampening and connecting equipment, D/A (digital to analogue) converters and specialist cables.
The bling factor: Socialite Paris Hilton with a statement handbag. Toru Yamanaka/AFP
In his kitchen are the professional knives, pots and pans that he collects. He has a couple of Kasumi knives, but he loves Zwilling, Sekiryu and Fackelmann knives as well. The best part? Few people can put a price on his passions. It is, in that sense, a secret luxury.
Secret luxury is a trend that has gained ground in the US in the aftermath of the global financial crisis when it was considered obscene to be spending money on frivolous goods such as Chanel sunglasses and Dior handbags when people were losing jobs and going bankrupt. This resulted in the concept of stealth wealth or discreet luxury. The online fashion site Net-a-porter.com offered the option of sending out its purchases in recycled brown bags last year as opposed to its signature ribbon-wrapped black boxes, to take the “shame out of shopping”, as one trend watcher said. Gucci saw an increase in sales of its handbags with a toned-down logo. The Paris fashion house, Celine, under its current designer Phoebe Philo, has eschewed logos. Its Spring 2011 collection of handbags, with nary a hint of the brand name, received rave reviews from the fashion press.

Mature luxury markets such as France, the UK and US can embrace stealth wealth but India is still an emerging market and we like to flaunt it—most of us, anyway. Marketing professionals tell us that the reason we buy a Prada handbag or Bulgari shades is to “signal” to the world that we have arrived. Luxury brands are portable symbols of wealth and prestige. Yet even in India, there is a growing group of people who disdain overt displays of wealth and opt instead for subtlety and quiet pleasure.Years ago, in Manhattan, logo-phobic women would shop at the Yuta Powell Salon for unusual clothes that didn’t scream Hermès or Versace. In India, the nice thing is that logos still aren’t the norm with our fashion designers so patrons who want to wear a Wendell Rodricks blouse or a Tarun Tahiliani skirt can still do so without being labelled label junkies.

Also Read | Shoba Narayan’s earlier columns

In a study published in the Journal of Marketing last year, consumers were labelled based on whether they liked “loud” objects that screamed out their logos, or whether they were logo-phobic. The “patricians” were wealthy aristocrats who didn’t need the status that logos conferred and went to great lengths to buy discreet logo-less objects that only their fellow patricians could recognize and appreciate. In the Indian context, this would be more like Nadir Godrej, who lives in a semi-bungalow at the end of a leafy lane in the heart of Malabar Hill rather than his neighbour down the road who has erected a 27-floor tower that looks like an Ikea CD rack. Antilla’s owners might be labelled “parvenus” or nouveau riche by the study’s authors. These are wealthy consumers who are high in need of status, and who, as the study says, “use loud luxury goods to signal to the less affluent that they are not one of them”. Think of Paris Hilton and her branded handbags, or any number of socialites in India. The third category are “poseurs”, who buy fake brands and try to emulate the patricians even though they cannot afford that lifestyle. If you save up to buy a Chanel sunglass simply because of its highly visible interlocking C logo, then you are a poseur, according to the study’s authors. The “proletariats” are those who don’t care for and aren’t driven by status purchases.

Secret luxury is less about eschewing brands and more about keeping it quiet. You could buy Frette bed linen or Porhault towels for your home and the world wouldn’t know. You could place the sleek BeoLab 5 speaker from Bang & Olufsen in your den or living room and people might think it to be a space capsule. A Loro Piana cashmere overcoat will see you through the Delhi winter in style, and no one will guess that it cost $4,500 (around Rs. 2 lakh). Perofil undershirts (we call them banians) and Kyle King’s bamboo underwear cost over Rs. 4,000 each but customers swear that they are great value. You could carry a jute bag but rub Crème de la Mer on your skin and still pass off as a college student of poor means. Bottega Veneta, which advertises only through its Intrecciato weave, has always been a cult favourite, as are logo-less brands such as Martin Margiela.

But if I had the money, the brand I would buy is a Chanel. Not Coco, but Guy. This master craftsman made the famous Hermès saddles before starting a small line of high-quality but discreet leather goods. Check out “France”, and “Travel”, in his man-bag line; and “Duetto” from his woman-bags line. Everything is customized; the bags are supple and well made. Best of all, no one will know where they are from. The catch? They cost upward of €1,500 (around Rs95,000) a piece, occasionally going up to €50,000. Proenza Schouler’s new PS1 bags are easier on the wallet and cost only $1,995.

For all my admiration of secret luxury and discreet style, I am not there yet. I have a few of the usual suspects in my closet, which I bought for their logos, and this puts me right in the camp of what Holden Caulfield called phonies. But to understand the intricacies of objects, to learn about their provenance, and to cultivate the connoisseurship that is a component, if not the essence of style, takes time and effort. Buying a brand simply because of the logo is much easier and quicker. I still have my secret and strange walking shoes, though, made by a company called Masai Barefoot Technology. The best part? Rather than staring at my shoes with envy, the housekeepers in my building commiserate with me about my poor shoes. An expensive object sans guilt or shame; and one that puts you on par with the proletariat—that’s a luxury worth having.

Shoba Narayan’s secret luxury is an aged Pauillac.Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

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The Good Life Shoba Narayan

Flying Coach for The National

I know about Qatar because a lot of my friends from the US fly the airline to get a connection straight into Kerala. This was a reaction.

Flying coach class doesn’t have to be a malodorous misery
Shoba Narayan
Last Updated: Mar 26, 2011

Qatar Airways would do well to take another look at coach class.

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I greeted the news that Qatar Airways plans to reverse course and include first-class cabins on new superjumbos with mixed feelings.

On one hand, I can hardly afford Qatar’s first-class fares on my journalist’s salary. Yet, on the other hand, I am a major proponent of the move to bring the glamour back into flying, particularly at a time when invasive searches at airline terminals are becoming more common.

It’s all very well to make flying into a first-class experience, but I have a question for Qatar’s executives: what about us poor passengers in coach?

Wouldn’t it be nice if Qatar or some enterprising airline revamped its thinking about those of us in the back of the bus? This is not hard to do. A few small things will help. Smell, for instance. Walk into the coach-class cabin of any airline, whether Lufthansa or Air India, and you are greeted with an unmistakable yet unnameable odour.

It is a combination of shoe polish, congealed food and stale sweat. As my teenage daughter says, “Coach cabins are the one place in the world where the bathrooms smell better than the rooms.” I think it is because airlines install industrial strength odour removers in the tiny coach bathrooms but don’t think it necessary to do so in the cabins.

If I were Qatar Airways, I would begin by installing the same strong odour-removers in the coach cabins. Something emitting a pleasing aroma would be welcome; which brings me to my next point.

One of the things that arouses first-class envy among us at the back of the bus are those airline pouches with cosmetic freebies. I would feel a lot better about flying coach if as I went towards my seat I saw a gaily-coloured pouch filled with bite-sized goodies. The airline could make this a corporate social responsibility exercise and buy low-cost cosmetics made by underprivileged women.

Qatar could make it a branding exercise and supply native cosmetics used by Arab women for centuries, items such as kohl or rose water, things that are not very expensive but make a woman feel good.

Cloth pouches are not that expensive either. Even I could source them for the airline for about a dirham each. But the appeal of such a perk to us coach-flyers would be priceless.

It is not just about perks; it’s also about basics. In India, IndiGo is a low-cost airline that is gaining fans because of a simple feature of its service. The airline always leaves on time and arrives on time.

You’d think that such a thing should be the norm for every airline, but it is not. Jet Airways offers a full-service experience, even in coach: smart uniforms, professional staff, courteous flight attendants, the works. The problem with Jet is that it takes twice as long to load people into the aircraft as IndiGo. Staff members mill around, carrying bags, passengers bunch up at the entrance, and while ground personnel are solicitous, they also slow things down.

Not so with IndiGo. Quietly and without fuss, the staff get us all into the aircraft. Frequent flyers on expense accounts, people such as my husband, nowadays choose IndiGo over Jet because they are assured of “getting to Delhi for the meeting, even when there is a fog, which cannot be said of any other airline”, as my husband says.

As a foodie, I’ll be the first to admit that airline food isn’t appealing. But here’s a radical thought. How about making coach-class food a buffet instead of a la carte? In other words, how about having us passengers get up and walk to the staff cabin and pick up our trays instead of having to wait like schoolchildren for our food to be handed to us.

Before you protest that chaos will ensue, let me add the caveats. Obviously, this won’t work all the time, and you’d have to set limits about passengers moving around only after reaching cruising altitude. But the point is that most people like choice, and by serving us food on their schedule instead of ours, airlines make the dining experience more like grade school.

Some airline will have to come up with a ground-breaking approach towards in-flight meals – as different from the norm as Southwest Airlines’ humorous flight announcements are from the more staid ones.

I have high hopes for Qatar. I just don’t want to pin it all on their first-class experience. Being a relatively new airline, it should have the nimbleness to change its ways in mid-air.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore and the author of Monsoon Diary.

Time Magazine

I did a number of pieces for Time magazine. Here they are.
You can also find them at the Time magazine Search site here

The Parent Trap
By Shoba Narayan May 31, 2007
How do you warn your kids about child predators without sacrificing their innocence?

Being Mohandas
By Shoba Narayan Apr 12, 2007
A new biography on Gandhi provides a tantalizing glimpse into the man inside the saint

Building a Greener World: Architects: Natasha Iype and Jeeth Iype
By Shoba Narayan Apr 27, 2007
In India, building green can mean promoting a return to traditional living arrangements
| view cover

The Oil Boom
By Shoba Narayan Jun 24, 2005
Forget the Med. Some of the world’s best olive oil comes from farther south

Whey to Go
By Shoba Narayan Apr 16, 2005
New Zealand’s cheesemakers have lifted their game

Time Traveler
By Shoba Narayan Apr 16, 2005
Waterworld. Like Eleanor, you’ll fall for this rainforest marvel

Malaysian Sensation
By Shoba Narayan Apr 04, 2005
The new Four Seasons Langkawi brims with local flavors

Amuse Bouche: Food Fight
By Shoba Narayan Feb 20, 2005
Singapore helped kick-start fusion cuisine—now it leads the backlash

Amuse Bouche
By Shoba Narayan Aug 16, 2004
Their Daily Bread: When in Turkey, try some gozleme

Nothing Doing
By Shoba Narayan Apr 12, 2007
At Maia, it’s all sleep, eat, spa, sleep

Cruise Control
By Shoba Narayan Mar 01, 2007
Small liners and private charters allow you to sail Asian waters in sedate style

India’s Lust for Luxe
By Shoba Narayan Apr 03, 2006
India’s nouveaux riches are spending like never before, and high-end retailers from Hermès to Tiffany are eager to oblige

Thread Of Hope
By Shoba Narayan Feb 09, 2006
Indian weavers say they have a wearable cure for skin ailments

Game Show
By Shoba Narayan Oct 30, 2005
African game lodges are modernizing their act

The Smell Of Success
By Shoba Narayan Sep 04, 2005
Slick restaurants are mushrooming in the Indian boomtown of Bangalore

Hidden Gem
By Shoba Narayan Mar 14, 2005
Hard bargaining for precious stones in Santiago

The Reds Are Coming
By Shoba Narayan Feb 07, 2005
N.Z.’s white wines are popular, but the other sort are the ones to watch

Their Daily Bread
By Shoba Narayan Aug 15, 2004
Preparing gozleme the traditional way