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Nuance in a polarized world for Nieman Storyboard

As a columnist and a memoir writer, a fundamental question I confront when I begin a piece is this: Do I view and portray this topic as black-and-white, or do I allow for 50 shades of gray? The fact that I need to ask myself this question reflects three things: the polarized times we live in, who I am as a writer, and how journalism uses data to predict audience. Much of today’s journalism draws on data to define the elements of quality that writers have long held sacred. Editors can predict which stories will draw the most “clicks,” the deep scrolls, and the most time on site. Except for a few literary magazines, most mass-market publications now use data to decide the type, tone and length of columns to publish and promote.

Raising middle class kids

In this essay, I address a thorny concept of middle-class values-- what are they and how can you pass them on-- if you can pass them on-- are they useful and do they have an expiry date? Can I pass my middle-class values to my children without them, you know, actually living middle-class lives? Many high-achieving immigrant parents grapple with similar concerns, I learned. We want our children to share our ambition and resourcefulness and frugality, but these traits are often rooted in the defining experience of having been hungry, young, and broke — a way of living our children haven’t known.

Puneeth Rajkumar and the limits of fitness for Hindustan Times

This Deepavali is a quiet and sombre one in Bangalore, not only because of Covid-- it’s long shadow is finally fading-- but because of the sad and untimely death of Kannada superstar, Puneeth Rajkumar at age 46. “Look at these crowds,” said a hardened news reporter, filming the hundreds of thousands of weeping fans who had gathered.  “To touch so many lives so deeply is something amazing.” The death of a Bollywood actor does this-- we know.  But Puneeth Rajkumar seemed to wear his fame lighter than most.  Perhaps it was being born as the son of Rajkumar, a legend and icon in Karnataka.  Perhaps it was being the youngest son in a joint family of 30 people.  Whatever the reason, the word that most people used to describe the “power star” is “humble.” 

What luxury means in 2021

If you ask your mother or grandmother what their idea of luxury is, you will probably get an answer that’s a variation of one of these: “A double ikat Patan patola.” “A diamond addigai (necklace).” “A Kashmiri silk carpet or a shahtoosh.” “A Mughal miniature painting. Or a Srinathji pichwai.” “Listening to Sawai Gandharva on a full-moon night on the banks of the Ganga.” Indians of earlier generations know luxury in a visceral, sensual way. Every product I have mentioned above is hyper-localised, linked to region, personal history and provenance. Often, each of these luxury objects is made by an artist or craftsperson who has worked with the family to custom specifications. It is purchased for a high price by an aesthete who has been following the sector for generations. If that isn’t luxury shopping, what is?

Rara Avis, Black Swans, and Hornbills

For Indian birders, hornbills are the rara avis. Or maybe not, depending on where you live.  If you live in the Northeast or the Western Ghats, you will see hornbills.  Sitting in Bangalore, it is rare. The term rara avis is linked to the Black Swan.  The expression comes from the Roman satirist Juvenal, 'Rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cycno [A rare bird on this earth, like nothing so much as a black swan]. I interviewed Dr. Aparajita Datta about hornbills for the Bird Podcast.  Listen to it here.

Old Favourites for Condenast Traveler

  • Tai chi master

Finding a tai chi teacher

I have come to China from my home in Bangalore, India, to find a tai chi teacher. My pursuit of tai chi has been punctuated by such cultural challenges. When I informed my conservative Indian family that I was interested in tai chi, they were appalled. Why was their Indian child, heir to an ancient and proud tradition—yoga—leaning toward an alien discipline? "I told you that sending her to America was a bad idea," said my uncle, who made me do the downward dog every day as a child. He was right. It was as a young woman abroad in America that I'd found myself bumping up against China's culture: a Chinese roommate, an apprenticeship with an acupuncturist while awaiting my green card, Bette Bao Lord's novels. Yoga is like my mother; I take it for granted. It is so much a part of me that I am tired of it. I want some distance. Tai chi offers this distance while still being based on the Eastern principles familiar to me.

  • Singapore skyline

Singapore fling

Staid, chaste, strict, small—Singapore has heard it all. But this island-nation of 4.2 million people has one thing going for it (many things, actually, but we'll get to that later): Singapore is a sure fling. Changi Airport's superefficient staff get you out in thirty minutes or less. Half an hour later, you're in the city center and the island is yours to savor. Singapore is clean, manageable, and safe; you can drink the water and get around easily; and people don't pester you if you're a woman traveling alone. Best of all, it is small enough (about the size of Chicago) to sample in a day or two. Which is precisely my intent. Having lived in Singapore for two years, I have returned wanting to revel in it as a tourist—to see it all and do it all within forty-eight hours. But what might once have been a leisurely pursuit is shaping up to be a herculean undertaking.

My Life as a Geisha

I have come to Japan to learn about allure. I’ve been married for seventeen years, and while my marriage isn’t falling apart, it is fraying at the edges: a victim of minutiae like leaky taps, lost airline tickets, and PTA meetings. Nowadays when I ask my husband a fairly innocuous question such as, “Does this green dress suit me?” he gets this deer-in-the-headlights expression. I want Ram to look at me without fear and with adoration. So I have come to Japan to learn about feminine allure from its acknowledged masters: the geisha. Geisha were created to pamper men—but they were also the freest women in old Japan, and masters of the arts of calligraphy, flower arranging, music, dance, and drama. Here, a present-day geisha in Gion, one of Kyoto’s historic quarters.

  • Mumbai Gateway of India and Arabian Sea.

Mumbai Meri Jaan

I am going to Bombay to become a movie star. Like millions of others who arrive each day in this island-city by car, plane, bus, or boat, I too have my Bombay dream. I am comely, buxom even (thanks to Wonderbra), and I can giggle and jiggle with the best of them. Age is an issue—I am forty-two—but there's nothing a nip and tuck won't fix. So I am going to Bombay to become a movie star. Why not? Every country in the world, if it is lucky, has a city that allows people to create such gauzy fantasies unfettered by the grim shackles of reality. It would be wrong to say that these cities offer their citizens "the space to dream," for most such places—Rio, Tokyo, Cairo, and New York—are insanely crowded. Still, they thrive and inspire, catalyze personal transformations and fuel creativity, not through wide-open spaces but through vibrant congestion. It's nothing if not a city of contrasts. It's ancient and modern, dirt poor and filthy rich

  • Palolem beach in Goa

Goa Grows Up

Once a hippie haven where even India's tightly chaperoned teens could turn on, tune in, and drop out, Goa has lately gone upscale. Living in a trading port for the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, and Europeans meant that Goans were forced to interact with the outside world far earlier than the average Indian. This has made them friendly but not overly curious about foreigners. Unlike in the rest of India, white people don’t get stared at here, even in the most rural settings. Trance music and tranquil beaches nudge type A personalities into subdued sublimity. The heat and, yes, the hashish encourage a languid pace of life and a state of mind that Goans call sussegado, political cartoonist Miranda told me. “It means a life of leisure—and it is vanishing.”

  • Lakshadweep

Scuba diving Lakshadweep

I don't want to write about this place. Few people know of it; fewer still visit. Perhaps that's the way it should be. In this rapidly shrinking world, there ought to be somewhere that remains remote, even obscure; set apart in space and time; offering the promise of mystery, the romance of discovery. Lakshadweep—the name comes out in a sigh. In Sanskrit, it means One Hundred Thousand Islands, although in fact there are just twenty-seven, ten of which are inhabited. Speckled across the Arabian Sea off the Malabar Coast of India, this archipelago of atolls, coral reefs, and islands was—before El Niño—the largest living ecosystem on the planet. Many maps, even Indian ones, don't note it. Yet for a dedicated group of travelers who seek the world's most far-flung spots, this is as close as it gets to paradise

  • Bazaar

Lessons from my mother

The thought occurred as I eyed a stunning Persian carpet in a downtown Manhattan shop. The Mogul-inspired piece looked terrific but cost thousands more than I was prepared to pay. The slight smile on the manager's mustachioed face suggested that he was willing to bargain. But where and how to begin? Middle age brings with it many challenges: a home, the pleasure and pain of furnishing one, and the sobering realization that you can actually learn something from your mother. For me, middle age was mostly about sticker shock—at the cost of the curtains, sofas, fabrics, and bric-a-brac that it takes to convert a classic six into a cozy home. When a year passed without my buying a single item of furniture, I called my mother in desperation.

  • Cruise through Mekong River Delta, which is 10. biggest river in the world. You can get there from Ho Chi Minh city in about 1.5 hour and enjoy cruise like this

Chasing the Mekong River

Cambodia is like a lotus bud concealing an onion—serene on the surface but eliciting tears as you peel back the layers. The awesome scale and spectacle of the Angkor temples contrast sharply with the ghostly photos and skulls of civilians murdered by the Khmer Rouge in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. The endless peace of a Buddhist monastery gives way to the raucous din of cyclos and tuk–tuks. I am in Cambodia to meet a monk and to travel the Mekong. Being Hindu, I believe in the power of a monk's blessing, and Cambodian monks are way up there in the spiritual hierarchy. So I, like the betrayed people of this ravaged land, line up to get blessed before setting out on my quest. The magnificent sunsets over the Mekong do nothing to diminish the ugly pallor of poverty. It is a young country but an old civilization that reached its zenith in the twelfth century, when the Hindu god–kings (devarajas) built massive stone temples while embracing Buddhism, now the predominant religion.

Wild at Heart

Bangalore is home. I didn't always live here—until two years ago I lived in New York. But now this is the city where my kids go to school, where I hail auto rickshaws for bone-rattling yet perversely exciting rides to work and meetings, where I prowl pubs and malls in search of stories and sales, and where I go to Namdharis Fresh supermarket to buy organic grapes, too-hard bagels, and much-too-soft cream cheese in an attempt to replicate the Sunday morning brunches at my Upper West Side apartment. Come April and May, Bangalore all but closes down: Schools shutter and the city empties out. Earlier this year, I resolved to spend the holiday taking my kids around the region—it was time they got to know their home state. Plotting the itinerary proved half the battle. Karnataka advertises itself as "One State, Many Worlds"—not as catchy as Kerala's "God's Own Country" but probably more accurate.

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