’nuff said.

Journeys with a nine-year-old column

In her very last column for Lounge, Shoba Narayan lays bare the processes of writing ‘The Good Life’

The first Mint Lounge issue

The first Mint Lounge issue

This will be my last column. My first coincided with the first issue of Mint Lounge and so it continued for nine years, weekly for the most part. I have grown and changed with this paper, participating in and bearing witness to its multifaceted issues. To be one of its voices has been a privilege I have never taken for granted.

I was going to write a philosophical piece about time. About how this wasn’t really an ending but a new beginning. About how the ancients viewed time as cyclical. I researched the Pirahã tribes of Brazil who know no past or future but live, like Buddhist monks, in the present always. I even emailed Jared Diamond and Ed Yong, favourite writers, about notions of time in anthropology and science.

“Write from the heart,” said the husband.

Words, unlike numbers, are not about absolute truths but about resonances. There is no single right way to express an idea. It is all about perspective. I may be moved by the writings of Edward Said or Elena Ferrante, but they may not move you at all. With every column, the hope was that something would resonate in the reader; catalyse something—an echo, empathy or insight.

Words have climbed above other forms of expression. They have survived and thrived as the fittest communication method for this age. As recently as a generation ago, people sang to express grief. In Tamil Nadu, a group of old women would sing songs called oppaaris when a person died. Today, we give speeches. Instead of touching each other to comfort, we text. Words have surpassed song, dance, art, hugs and all other rituals that humans invented to communicate and connect. They have become what ecologists might call a “keystone species” in terms of influence. To be a wordsmith today is to experience an embarrassment of choices. Unlike the bards of the Shakespearean age, who had to sing their words, today we just need to tap out sentences. Or tweet.

From the beginning, I formulated certain rules for my writing, mostly subconscious, informed by writers I liked to read. Humour was a big aspiration, perhaps because I was never satisfied when I attempted it. I didn’t have the acerbic wit of my friend, the late David Rakoff; nor the breezy insouciance of V. Gangadhar and R.K. Narayan, both of whom I read as a child. So I struggled with creating funny scenarios à la David Sedaris. I studied and imitated Shazia Mirza, Nora Ephron and Sloane Crosley. I hoped that people would read my words and smile. Laugh out loud? That was a grand ambition.

I kept away from politics—there are plenty of political writers in this country. A great weekend paper, in my view, expands the canvas of its readers; shines the light on topics that nourish soul and spirit; and offers them respite and grace from the noise of the week. Mint Lounge did that splendidly with sections on poetry, music, film, literature and art. That was my beat, and then some. I was lucky to have editors who gave me carte blanche in terms of topics. So I wrote about Matunga mornings, female architects, Ig Nobel prizes, eudaemonia, birds and cows. Week after week, the copy desk—an obnoxiously impersonal title for a magnificently acute-eyed group of readers—gave my writing clarity and accuracy. I am reciting their names to myself here as I say thank you.

I was more fox than hedgehog, to use the Greek line made famous by Isaiah Berlin: multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum. A fox knows many things but a hedgehog knows one important thing. Like the fox, I sniffed around and engaged my curiosities. What a ride it has been: “to strive, to seek, to find,” but always to “yield” to the clarion call of deadline and word count.

I begin column-writing days with a ghastly concoction of leaves, shoots and eats: brahmi, tulsi, fennel, and betel leaves from my garden, cinnamon and ginger shoots, along with a big teaspoon of virgin coconut oil, all dunked into hot water with honey and lemon. I swallow said concoction and follow it with coffee decoction. I wait for the coconut oil-induced ketones to kick in and make my brain explode. I dream of benne (butter) masala dosa from CTR (the Central Tiffin Room) in Malleswaram, Bengaluru. I stare at the simmering oatmeal porridge with murderous rage. I stand waiting for the milk cooker to whistle and meditate for ideas, always in the hope that I might levitate one day. Mostly, I stare at the computer and sweat through my compression exercise garments, which I wear to hide the fact that I don’t exercise.

I love this time with the computer. It is just me wrestling with syntaxes and semi-colons; massaging adjectives to convey the slant and spine of ideas. Writing is where my neuroses and angst come to rest; where I achieve flow and equanimity. For someone who dislikes social media, I share a lot in my columns. To do this involves a hypocritical but necessary exercise: I have to write like nobody will read me and then hope like hell that they do.

Connecting with readers is a columnist’s particular pleasure. One woman wrote an insightful response to a piece on parenting. We began corresponding and ended up forming a music troupe that has performed in a few cities. We were strangers before words brought us together. A man wrote, “Shoba, I adore you,” and drew me into his epicurean world. A Mumbai businessman taught me about tea and yachts. A Delhi hotelier took me on a night about town; a Delhi designer still teaches me about fashion and textiles. A birder in the US visited me to discuss Gulf Coast pelicans. Readers who become friends are like random acts of kindness: They beget surprise, smiles and sighs of gratitude.

Transience and change are a constant: wabi-sabi, as the Japanese call it. Psychologist Carol Dweck calls it the “growth mindset”. So I pull out a Montecristo, saved for a special occasion. Pour myself a glass of Corton Grand Cru, Domaine Latour, 2001—a gift from a generous friend. I stare at my fountain pen. It is a Ratnam’s and it still leaks, through all that chalk I have ministered it with.

It’s time to move on. Climb new mountains, flex new muscles—in my case, only figuratively. To learn something new and leap into the unknown. I feel a frisson of fear when I say this, but that is as it should be. Any enterprise worth undertaking ought to be scary in the beginning and hurt a little at the ending. If it doesn’t, you haven’t invested enough. So it is with this column.

Parting is such sweet sorrow, said Shakespeare’s Juliet. I know exactly what she meant.

No endnote this time. Just an ending.

Shoba Narayan tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Also Read: Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

I am fire. Neruppu-da. Rajinikanth the icon.

Had fun writing this piece.  Going to watch Kabali today.

23 July 2016 | E-Paper

All is well in the Rajini world

You don’t go to a Rajinikanth movie for the plot. You go for the comfort it gives

The Rajinikanth-starrer Kabali released in theatres on Friday


To understand the hold that Rajinikanth has on his fans, you have to meet my ex-driver, Robert. An archetypal Rajini fan, Robert dresses, walks and talks like Rajini. Conversations with him are a triumphant reminder that while English is the language of logic and analysis for us Indians, our mother tongue is the language of the heart. It is Tamil that I turn to when I want to plead or persuade. And like many of our great vernacular tongues, Tamil lends itself to exquisite hyberbole. What passes of as conversation in Tamil would sound like a film dialogue when restated in English.

Robert quit working for us for two reasons: he wanted to open a restaurant and he was tired of my accusations that he was drinking away his salary every time he came to work with red eyes.

“Modom,” he told me. “I follow Rajini. Not just me. My whole family. Yes, I did drinks. My father got spot out in a lorry accident because of drinks. My mother asked me for a promise from her deathbed. ‘Dai, Robert,’ said she. ‘Give up drinks.’ But I couldn’t. Not then. But when Thailavar told that drinks is bad, I quit immediately. On the spot,” said Robert just before he quit.

It was Robert I turned to when I wanted first-day-first-show tickets for Kabali in my neighborhood Lavanya theatre. I was tired of all the trainers in my gym crowing about snagging tickets. I called every theatre in Bangalore, Chennai, and every town in a 400 kilometre radius, pleading for a ticket. They laughed—like Rajini, I might add. And like how, I, in unconscious imitation of Thalaiva, laugh.

“Even God cannot give you a ticket to Kabali,” said one particularly uppity lady from Abirami Theatre in Erode. “Why God? Even Thalaivar cannot get you a ticket. Ahh-hahahaha.”

I could imagine her rolling her eyes heavenward, like Rajini does when he laughs. I looked heavenward for guidance. God sent me an image of Robert.

Robert knew the moment he saw me waiting outside his children’s school at 8 a.m. He tried to escape by pretending he hadn’t seen me. I appeared like Rajini as he made the turn into Coles Road. I stood in the middle of the road, planted my feet apart, removed my sunglasses and twirled it around my finger. Unlike with Rajini, my sunglasses fell on the road and cracked. That is why Rajini is Rajini—he wears sunglasses to protect the sun from his rage. My sunglasses crack and cry with a mere twiddle of my thumb.

Robert, without his wife, Mona-darling (actually, that’s not her name), braked his moped in front of me and sweated.

“Robert, you have to make a sacrifice,” I said without preamble.

“Modom, ask me for my blood. Ask even for my children’s blood. But don’t ask for this. I fall at your feet.”

“Remember, Robert, you owe me Rs. 30,000. You said you wouldn’t forget. Well, this is your chance to remember. I want those tickets.”

“My wife will kill me,” said Robert sullenly. In that moment, I knew I had him.

“It isn’t the first show. I can only give you one ticket.”

Why do we love the things we do? Certainly it is not an objective exercise.  It is not even about taste.  Rajini movies for me, aren’t really about plot, character or cinematography. They are about ethos, dialogues, predictability and Rajini-style. They are about how Rajini says his character’s name, whether it is Padaiyappa or Arunachalam or Basha or Muthu. I love them all for complex contradictory reasons that have to do romance, nostalgia, and yes, loss of a stage of life. Rajini is a way of connecting with the patch of earth that I call home.

For a man with two daughters, the chauvinism inherent in Rajini films makes my blood boil. His heroines play to every traditional stereotype, beginning with their names. I mean, who names their daughters Kumudavalli (heroine in Kabali) or Tamilselvi (in Sivaji) or Ranganayaki (Muthu) these days? The names set the tone for the character. Rajini heroines speak softly, dress demurely, jump if a man appears near them, and don’t look a lover in the eye. Come on. Are you telling me that Rajini raised his daughters in this fashion? And how do his two girls put up with this? An assertive woman with spunk is cast as the villain in his films. Ramya Krishnan played this role unforgettably in Padayappa and almost stole the show from the superstar. But you don’t go to a Rajini movie for its stereotypical heroines or predictable plot: Rajini is a poor servant or don, with a heart of gold. He kills all the villains and snags the girl. That about covers the storyline of pretty much every Rajini movie. You go to a Rajini film for the comfort it gives. Europe may be going to hell in a handbasket. Christine Lagarde may liken Brexit to 1914 when World War I started. America may be caught in the throes of a fulminating childish narcissist who thinks the country is like a giant Legoland where fences can be erected. But all is well in Rajini land. The good are good, the bad are bad, and the women are sweet and don’t answer back.

Watching a Rajini movie in a multiplex is a total waste of time. Its pleasures come from the “tharai-ticket” or floor-seats, where you are caught in the warm embrace of other rabid fans who are whistling and screaming so loud that you can barely hear the dialogues that you know by heart anyway.

It will be the same at Lavanya theatre. I know the drill with every Rajini movie. There is a thumping irrational exuberance when the screen comes to life. The unabashed whistling and shouting. I take earplugs, and they aren’t much help. This continues throughout the movie. Every time Thalaivar appears, we jump up and pump our fists. When he announces his name with great style, whether it is “Badshah,” or “Kabali-daa,” we all shout along prayerfully. When his face morphs into a tiger, our eyes riveted on the screen. After a particularly good stunt, when Rajini swings a dozen villains 180 degrees and tosses them aside, I glance at the man next to me, unable to contain my excitement. It is one of my building’s security guys. In that moment, I forget that he is supposed to be at work manning the gate, and not playing hookey. He forgets that I am on the building’s Human Resources Development committee, meant to patrol his patrolling. We are simply two fans enjoying the moment when our beloved Thalaivar has left the abode of the mortals to mingle with the gods. I chew on my red-stained paan and grin at Gagan from Bihar companionably. It is beautiful.


Shoba Narayan plans to watch Kabali about ten times this week.


Marrying my cellphone.

Loved writing (and rewriting) this column, mostly to get the word play right.  Thanks to the husband for supplying the line, “At least the phone is smart.”

07 July 2016 | E-Paper

Getting married to your phone

Our gadgets punctuate our lives and burrow deep into our souls. There is an app for every emotion. Getting hitched to your phone is the next logical step.

Cellphones as lifelines. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Cellphones as lifelines. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

“I am thinking of marrying my cellphone,” I tell my husband. We are sitting beside each other, tapping on our colour-coded iPads—his, black, and mine Hermes orange—the colour, not the brand. “Oh really,” he says in that overly enthusiastic voice he affects when he hasn’t heard a word I have said.

My inspiration is Aaron Chervenak, a Los Angeles man who drove to Las Vegas and married his smartphone, complete with a ring and priest who proclaimed them “husband and cellphone”. Documented and uploaded on YouTube, the marriage isn’t legal. But that, according to Chervenak, is a small price to pay for declaring undying love for what is for many of us our favourite appendage.

“If we’re gonna be honest with ourselves, we connect with our phones on so many emotional levels,” says Chervenak in the YouTube video. “We look to it for solace, to calm us down, to put us to sleep, to ease our minds, and to me, that’s also what a relationship is about. So, in a sense, my smartphone has been my longest relationship. That’s why I decided to see what it was like to actually marry a phone.”

The man is right. Our relationship with our devices is almost as complicated as the Brexit referendum. We may want to quit and return to a way of life that is the stuff of nostalgia but, like David Cameron, Boris Johnson or the British people, we have no idea how galactically difficult it will be to untangle this particular union. More addictive than marijuana, more trance-inducing than Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s addled speeches, our gadgets punctuate our lives and burrow deep into our souls. In a sense, they define us. Look at Chernevak’s list. There is an app for every emotion. For solace, there is MoodKit. For calm, you can meditate through the app Calm or Headspace. To sleep, there are lulling nature sounds, music, or podcasts. To ease your mind, there are a million games. There are countless others. I use Grid Diary for journaling, 7 Minute Workout to exercise, BrainHQ to focus, Freedom and SelfControl to stop distractions, and 50 Languages to learn Kannada. On average, I touch my device more often than I touch my spouse.

“I think I will elope and marry my smartphone,” I say loudly.

This time he looks up, my husband, with that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that I have come to recognize. I can hear the wheels whirring in his head as he processes this bizarre statement, sans preamble or context. I know what he is thinking: What have I done and what is the best response? I even know what he will say, for it would have been my approach. When you don’t know how you have messed up, offence is the best form of defence.

“Well, you certainly pay more attention to your phone than you do to me,” he says huffily.

“At least the phone is a smart one,” I retort and I meant it to sting.

And so it comes to this. You have been married for so long that you can hear each other think; and the object of your jealousy, the mistress in your ménage à trois, is a device that rings instead of purring, that buzzes in lieu of flirting.

Viewed through this prism, marrying your cellphone is both the logical next step and a little sad. Will Chervenak’s bride put up with it when he upgrades to the next model? Will he leave her for someone from a different species?

On 3 December 1992, the first text message was sent over a phone—“Merry Christmas”. The late Finnish engineer Matti Makkonen, pitched the idea of a “short messaging service” at a telecoms conference in Copenhagen. Nokia incorporated the idea into its phones and the rest is history, or at least over a trillion messages sent per year. Remember voicemail—that quaint outdated thing we used to do?

I love voicemails and try to leave some to friends and family through WhatsApp or iPhones. But they don’t appreciate my cutesy messages because they are an intrusion. Reading a text can be done surreptitiously while you are bored in a boardroom. Listening to a voicemail requires headphones and solitude.

In the new reality, communication is condensed for efficiency and speed. Letters replace words (R u ok?); emoticons replace the emotions that leak through your voice when you actually speak to people or leave voicemail. Texting, unlike live conversation, offers a great buffer. If someone asks you an uncomfortable question, you don’t have to respond. The surprise or pain that you feel will not be apparent to the other party. You can fake a response by sending a “thumbs up” emoji when you actually want to kill yourself and the other person.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in today’s teenagers. Thanks to selfies, they know how to pose: pouty fish lips for girls and macho glares behind glares (sunglasses) for the boys. They are camera-savvy, understanding composition and light in an intuitive way. Facebook is waning in popularity among preteens. They prefer the casualness of Snapchat and the texture of Instagram. A thousand words, typed on Facebook Messenger, cannot convey the mood of a party as effectively as an Instagram photo.

There are many instances when communicating via a device is an excellent option. When you have to spring things on unsuspecting spouses, there is no better friend than a cellphone. Consider this message: “5 friends showing up at home. Know you have world cup finals. Thought u r going to friend’s house to watch so agreed. Hope ok.” Can you imagine springing this on your spouse in person? Through texts you can escape his curses.

Or consider this message to your son or daughter. “Why are you not picking up the phone? You will be grounded if you do not answer my call. I am serious. And by the way, you have to attend the wedding of that cousin you hate next week with us” (offence before defence always, my friends, particularly with children. Yell at them before forcing them to do stuff they detest).

And now I need to go reconnect with my to-be spouse. There are messages to read, emojis to craft, photos to share, and miles to go before I sleep.

Shoba Narayan didn’t elope with her cellphone. Shoba tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

Also Read: Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

An NGO in Bangalore

To think I heard about Reap Benefit from Amy Serafin, an editor in America.  Small world

Discover the best IJD stories from all over the world

Teaching kids to sow and reap

Shoba Narayan
At Reap Benefit’s charming office in an old bungalow in Bangalore is a quote by Mozart, written with chalk at the entrance: “Be silent if you choose but when it is necessary, speak—and speak in such a way that people will remember it.”

It is an apt model for the environmental work that this quiet Bangalore-based social enterprise has done since 2012, motivating schoolchildren aged 12-17 to initiate innovative, actionable solutions to India’s water, sanitation and environmental problems.

Reap Benefit approaches (rich) private schools and (poor) government schools and works with their students year after year to build what they call “an ecosystem of ownership” toward problems.

Solutions aren’t cookie-cutter. Students at the Murphy Town government school started a biogas plant, while a brainstorming session with another group of kids led to a low cost grey water harvesting device that saves the Muthur government school 60 liters a day. Water used by students to wash their hands and plates after lunch is filtered and drained in a specially fitted-out barrel, then recycled for purposes such as gardening. “Human centered design” is key to this type of solution, according to Kuldeep Dantewadia, 27, Reap Benefit’s co-founder. On his desk is the cult book The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman.

Reap Benefit helps students investigate local problems in the local context and come up with answers. “Each child has a unique way of experiencing the environment,” said Gautam Prakash, 30, the other co-founder and hands-on project coordinator who works with students to develop and implement solutions.

Dantewadia calls himself the behavior change ninja. “There are four types of students,” he said of the gamification approach he uses to enthuse his wards. “Some play to win, some seek social standing, some do it for fun, and some for the larger good. Through incentives and points, we try to get them all to do it for the larger good.” Many participating students go on to instigate change at home and in their communities, such as a 9th grade student at DPS Bangalore East School who convinced his parents to install LED lightbulbs, or an 11th grade girl from Sri Kumaran school who organized a clean-up in her neighborhood after the Diwali festival.

With government schools, it is about managing students’ enthusiasm and expectations while navigating authorizations from principals and school boards. The challenges are different in private schools, where children tend to have a lot of book knowledge but less experience with practical applications. For example, they might have theories about solid waste management without knowing on what days the garbage is collected from their apartment building.

Garbage was actually the starting point for the Reap Benefit project. In 2009, armed with a business degree and a heart full of idealism, Dantewadia spent eight months collecting garbage from around his neighborhood. “Garbage is visual in nature,” he said. “It is in your face and therefore people believe that it can be easily solved. But it is actually a behavioral problem rather than a physical or technical issue.” Prakash, meanwhile, was working for the Ashoka Foundation. The two became friends when Dantewadia was inducted as an Ashoka Fellow.

In 2011, they created Reap Benefit. Today, nine employees work full time. The enterprise receives financing from foundations, private schools and the sale of proprietary products such as an organic enzyme that converts waste into compost. Since 2012, Reap Benefit claims to have impacted 11,500 students in 240 schools with more than 500 initiatives, saving 33 tonnes of waste, 19 million liters of water and 1,450 kilo units of electricity.

The organization gathers both qualitative and quantitative data. For example, it discovered that one reason teenage girls weren’t using school toilets was because there were no hooks for them to hang their dupattas (long scarves worn over the chest). It also tracked water use across Bangalore to find out where there was the most waste. In many instances, students collecting the data come up with solutions.

Typically, Prakash begins by showing the kids a pencil. “How much water do you think gets wasted if it drips out of a hole about the size of this pencil?” he asks.

In general, nobody replies. Nobody has a clue.

“1,440 liters,” Prakash answers. “How can we change this?” And the brainstorming begins.

“The ‘aha’ moment is powerful,” Prakash explained, sitting in Reap Benefit’s office. “And it leads to applied empathy,” added Dantewadia. “Students go and talk to the janitors in their school, perhaps for the first time in their lives, to find out where the water leaks are.”

One 14-year-old girl started a change.org petition. Two other girls wanted to track water waste, and Reap Benefit helped them create an algorithm that won them awards at science competitions. One high school boy championed the waterless urinal made from discarded PET bottles that Reap Benefit invented with students, campaigning to have them installed in all the government schools in his town.

Hoping to scale up and reach one million young people across the country, Reap Benefit is preparing to launch a free mobile app. It will help users to identify local problems, tackle them with DIY tools, and communicate data and solutions with others.

Reap Benefit works in the belief that India’s most pressing problems require human capital—people wanting to tackle everyday issues and capable of coming up with solutions. As Dantewadia likes to say, “We want to make solving big problems child’s play.”
For more information

Website: http://www.reapbenefit.org/

Video: http://www.sparknews.com/en/video/reaping-benefits-sustainable-environment-and-education

Talk at ABB

So I have been giving a lot of talks these days.  As any parent knows, having a group of people listen without interruption is like a dream.  At home, of course, my opinions and advice are laughed at by my kids.  So it was a treat to talk to young college students about the importance of literature and humanities.

This one was to the scientists at ABB.  A gentleman  wrote to me out of the blue.  I saw his title and promptly said No. What was I going to tell scientists?

Ashish Sureka, Ph.D
Principal Scientist, Industrial Software Systems (ISS)
India Corporate Research Center (INCRC)

After much persistence on his side and deep breathing on mine, I said Chalo, ok. My goal was to speak without props.  No notes, no laptop, just old fashioned talking.  Here are some photos.  It went well.






Bangalore Diary

“Shoba, you need to be on the back page of Outlook,” said the voice on the phone.  “Have a look.”

I like “Diary” pages because they imply casual writing.  This took a few iterations however.

The main dissonance was that I remain an optimist about Bangalore.  The first draft was sunny, exuberant even.  Thankfully, Krishna, my editor, gently suggested that I add a caveat.  Hence the “unliveable” city quote, which, as it turns out is how many Bangalore papers are describing this city.



Bangalore Diary

Bangalore is full of people following multiple diets. Where does that leave us mas­ala-dosai loving, carb-addicted vegetarians?
Lake Revival gets a fillip

For ‘transplanted’ Bangaloreans like me, who love the city’s grace, gentility and gunpowder laced dosas, the big fear is where the IT explosion is going to end up. There are periodic reports that call it a “dead” city, a claim that 8.5 million of its residents live to refute. Others—mostly jealous Northerners—call it “unlivable”. To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what your definition of unlivable is.

One area offering a ray of hope amidst such ‘accusations’, is the revival of Bangalore’s lakes. As ecologist Harini Nagendra’s book, Nature in the City, points out, Bangalore’s tree cover has increased but the number of its lakes has decreased. This is changing, and not a moment too soon. Last year, Varthur Lake was covered, not with dancing water lilies but with soapy detergent rising like froth above the water.

This month, a research team from the Indian Institute of Science has used soldiers and students to survey Bangalore’s lakes and come up with a detailed plan to save them. The slush and sediment at the bottom of lakes, for instance, could be dredged and used to make bricks, says the report. Companies around the lake could use a part of their CSR for lake restoration. Five corporates already have; and I am going to name them here so they don’t back out. They are Biocon, Wipro, Mphasis, Sensara Engineering and—surprise, surprise—the UB group. The citizens are no slouches either. Spurred by the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP)’s initiative to revive 40 lakes, four citizens, who live around the Ambalipura Lake, came together to form a non-profit. By planting the right kind of native trees, this rara avis effort brought back 40 avian species. Maybe I should do something about my local Ulsoor lake too.

The irony is that real estate developers advertise ‘lakefront property’, yet their very existence is a threat to the said lakefronts. Bangalore used to have 270 thriving lakes in the 1970s. Hopefully, this combination of corporate, citizen and government compliance and effort will revive the storied “sarovaras” of this so-called Silicon Valley.

Art Talk

A canvas of artists exhibited their work at the Venkatappa Art Gallery (VAG) last week. Curated by Ayisha Abraham, who teaches at the Shrishti Institute, the exhibition offered a glimpse of the past, present and the potential future of this venerable art gallery at the border of Cubbon Park.

The VAG is the seat of controversy because of a proposal that it be “adopted” by the Tasveer Foundation, headed by art collector and dealer Abhishek Poddar. Artists such as Pushpamala and Balan Nambiar are protesting such an adoption, stating that gentrifying this gallery, where many Bangalore artists had their first shows, would put it out of reach of the very artists it is supposed to serve. Supporters of this approach have written long missives stating that museums are an elitist exercise anyway—why not make the experience better for museum-goers? The fate of the VAG is in play with no resolution in sight yet. The question is: Can egalitarianism coexist with elitism? While the perceived elitists promise to walk this fine line, the protestors are doubtful.

Wine and Cheese

The Bangalore Wine Club met at JW Marriot only to hear that its general manager, Parul Thakur, had won an award. Female general managers are few and far between. Thakur served us quite a spread, which got me thinking about wine and cheese. So I made the trek out to Krishna Raja Puram or KR Puram.

In a quiet Benedictine monastery are a group of monks with pronounced Malayali accents. I waited under the mango tree while a young man in purple shorts fetched me what ended up being a rather tasty mascarpone, some pecorino and goat cheese. Vallombrosa cheese, made by Benedictine fathers, delivers to city outlets. But to collect the cheese from their place of origin is a special thrill. ‘Terroir’, as the wine connoisseurs would have it.

Diet Docs

Bangalore is full of people following multiple diets such as South Beach, Paleo, Atkins and high-fat. Where does that leave us mas­ala-dosai loving, carb-addicted vegetarians? The highlight of my morning is a walk around Ulsoor lake followed by a set dosa, or, if I am feeling adventurous, a rava dosa. I used to think these were wholesome foods, but the protein-propagating protagonists of these new diets call them poison. Stop messing with my dosai, I say!

Last week…

For a taste of Bangalore, try the all-encompassing ghee rava masala dosa with a dollop of coconut chutney at an Adiga, Maiya or MTR outlet. It’s a piece of heaven. Chew on that, you joyless dieters, you.

Mint Lounge columnist Shoba Narayan is a tree-hugger, bird-watcher and author of three books

E-mail your diarist: shoba [AT] shobanarayan [DOT] com

Senior Citizen Matchmaking

Elisabeth, my Parisienne friend.  I am wearing the kurta you got for me in Anokhi.  The pink one.  I miss you.

It has been a while since I posted on this blog.  Somehow, writing messages to friends is an idea that I got from my friend who won the “ovarian lottery” and began this blog for me.

So in addition to dumping articles here, I will write, to paraphrase Roald Dahl who said, “secret plans and clever tricks,” in his Crocodile book, I will write “secret messages and candid compliments” when I can.

I like writing for The National, because my editor, Nick March, has a sense of humor that matches mine quirk for quirk

Indians are discovering it's never too late for love
Speed dating for older people is one of many societal changes in India. Sam Panthaky / AFP

Indians are discovering it’s never too late for love

Can a senior citizen speed date? Well, the 280 senior citizens who showed up at the matchmaking event in Bangalore were attempting to answer this question. Time they had in abundance, so really there was no need for speed. Dating too was a somewhat alien concept for these 60- and 70-year-olds, used as they were to marriages arranged by families to spouses they barely knew. But now, the spouses were dead. These widows and widowers who belonged to a time when divorce was unheard of were trying – awkwardly – to choose a new companion. “Ours was a different time,” said a 72-year-old retired engineer. “I married my wife without seeing her and stayed married for 47 years. I thought she would live forever, or at least for my lifetime.”

How do you begin dating for the first time at 72? Cautiously. A mere 20 years ago, the average 72-year-old would not have considered remarrying. Instead he would have been the patriarch of a large joint family. He would have sat on an easy chair, chatting with neighbours and keeping a watchful eye on his grandchildren. They may not have needed him, but he felt wanted, useful and, on occasion, cherished. Widowed grandmothers would have moved in with their sons or daughters and helped out with the children.

Such joint families weren’t necessarily harmonious. After all, fights between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law provide fodder for most Indian soap operas. No matter how crazy, however, the joint family endured. It still does for strange and fanciful reasons.

I know friends in Mumbai who live with their parents because they cannot afford their own apartment. I live in a joint household. My parents live behind my flat and my brother’s family lives in the same building. Until very recently, my in-laws also had a flat in my building. It was perfect – everyone had their own space and yet we were together.

Today, the forces of globalisation have changed things drastically for some families. Many of the elders gathered in the matchmaking hall had children who lived in the US, UK or Middle East. The children sent them money every month for expenses but they missed the chatter of their grandchildren. The silence was crippling, as were the long, lonely nights. They feared falls in the bathroom and then they feared that nobody would ever know that they had fallen. They wanted a companion. So they mingled, shyly at first. They discussed health problems, their daily routines and families.

The circle of life is strange. At my stage in life, surrounded as I am with conflicting priorities, demanding work deadlines and relationships that are pulling me from all sides, there is nothing that I long for more than days of silence and rest. If I were to be left alone at home with no one knocking on the door, I would be delighted. Or so I think. The fumbling elders in the room taught me that man, in the end, is a social creature. We may think that we are an island; we may want to live on a desert island; but we will lose all joy and the will to live without companions.

The Harvard Grant study, one of the most important longitudinal studies of human development, followed 268 Harvard undergraduate men for 80 years. It measured a wide range of psychological, physical and anthropological traits – from IQ to family relationships to habits. Recently, George Vaillant, who directed the study for 30 years, published a summary of the insights that the study has yielded. Some of these insights are obvious: alcoholism is destructive. Others are counterintuitive: above a certain level, IQ doesn’t matter. But the key takeaway from the $20 million (Dh73 million) and 80 years that have been spent on the Grant study is simply this: in Mr Vaillant’s own words, “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

Age confers few benefits. But one thing it gives you is a measure of stoicism and the ability to judge other people within a few seconds. To the surprise of even the organisers, a few elderly couples made rapid progress. They made plans not just to meet up, but also to get married. After all, they didn’t have much time together. The clock was ticking.

Shoba Narayan is trying to matchmake for her widowed aunt

Ode to Radio

Today is my good friend, Shailaja’s birthday.  In her honor, writing these words

It is hard to find a friendship who has a combination of wit, honesty, discretion and humanity.  In Shailaja, I have a friend who will point out my mistakes with candor and compassion; who is funny as hell; and who keeps my (and all her other friends’) secrets in that well of her.  Happy Birthday, Shailaja.  Who my kids call “Shailu Mami.”  Love

Loved writing this, but failed to address the question: if the whole clan was listening to the radio, how come only my Dad lost his accent? Must ask him.


25 June 2016 | E-Paper

An ode to Indian radio

Ameen Sayani, Melville De Mellow, and the voices that shaped us and united a nation

Ameen Sayani . Photo: Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times

Ameen Sayani . Photo: Vijayanand Gupta/Hindustan Times

How did you lose your Malayalam accent, I asked my father, especially since it has smeared itself like coconut oil on every other relative from Kerala. Radio, replied my father. My paternal grandfather was a lawyer in Kottayam, the kind of man who made fallen dominoes out of hardened criminals. At 9pm sharp, he would order his vast clan of sons, daughters and nephews to collect at his feet. Together they would turn on the radio and listen to the familiar voice that said, “This is London calling.”

Listening to the BBC, said my father, taught him diction and delivery, skills he put to good use during his career as an English professor. He may have been a teacher, but his heart was in radio. Like legions of young men of his time, my father was inspired by Melville de Mellow, an iconic radio announcer who brought the nation to tears with his marathon 7-hour commentary during Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral. One 17-year-old was so inspired that he followed in De Mellow’s footsteps with his trademark line: “Mein Jasdev Singh bol raha hoon (This is Jasdev Singh speaking).”

Curious about De Mellow, I called P.V. Krishnamoorthy, the first director general of Doordarshan. Rangoon PVK, as he prefers to be known, is 95 years young and lives in Chennai. In the circuitous fashion familiar to Indian families, he happens to be my sister-in-law Priya’s grandfather. PVK worked under De Mellow and recounts tales of the radio icon’s dedication. “I made the mistake of telling DeMel that I heard packs of jackals baying behind Birla House on my way back home. Years later, for a documentary, he asked me to record the jackals. When I slyly offered voice recordings of British foxes, he said, ‘You lazy lout, PVK. I want the Indian jackal, not the British fox.’ So I went at midnight with my recorder and waited for these jackals to oblige me, which those buggers did, after a few hours.”

A meticulous man, DeMel, as he was known, practised speeches many times before the need to deliver them actually came. Like Nicetas of Smyrna, Demosthenes and Cicero, who used their skills of augury—by watching the flight of birds—to practise speeches for future events, De Mellow kept a close watch on history as it was unfolding. “His best running commentaries were at the funerals of Nehruji and Gandhiji. I have a feeling that he prepared well in advance after (Madanlal) Pahwa tried to place a bomb at Gandhiji’s prayer meeting,” PVK says.

The voice of my childhood, however, was Ameen Sayani and his Binaca Geetmala. Introduced to radio by his elder brother, Hamid, the younger sibling soon became hugely popular for his countdown of Hindi film songs. His opening greeting, both elegant and affectionate, epitomized the Indian ethos, whether delivered to his “Fauji bhaiyon (Army brothers)” or to his “Behno aur bhaiyon (Sisters and brothers)”. My husband recalls napping during hot Delhi summers, radio by the pillow, listening to the reassuring voice of Mr Sayani. Growing up in Chennai, I was not as clued in to Hindi film songs. Instead, I looked up to impossibly sophisticated college boys, who were obsessed with the Bournvita quiz contest, magisterially conducted by the voice of Hamid Sayani.

Ours is a family that loves the radio. We may watch talking heads on TV at night, but we still wake up to the sound of the radio, whether it is 100.1, a radio station that plays classical songs in the morning, or other channels that help me practise my Kannada.

Radio united India at one point, with everyone tuning in at the same time to listen, like they did when the TV serialMahabharat aired. Can there be a more poetic name for this particular device than Akashvani (voice from the heavens)? This celestial name captured the mythology of an entire continent and forged it into the soul of an instrument, albeit one that is on the verge of becoming an antique.

The beauty of the radio is its simplicity. Like a book, it offers some choice in stations (as titles do with books). But once you pick a station or a book, you cannot control the content. Rather, you rely on curation by experts who seemingly know your taste in music better than you. Unlike mobile devices or YouTube, where you can choose every single song that is played, the radio is a relief. You turn it on and off it goes: plain old music peppered with commentary from professional radio jockeys. I would like to believe that the current RJs are not as good as those who came earlier, but that isn’t really true. They speak to the times we live in, and the best ones these days are often young women, sharp of wit, spry of comment and fetchingly laid-back and conversational in delivery—verily the opposite of the baritone that made Walter Cronkite the voice of America.

What makes a good radio announcer? Is it a good baritone or a catchy way of speaking? Cricket commentary is what most people associate with radio these days, and this has its own line of giants, including Anant Setalvad, Suresh Saraiya and Harsha Bhogle. My dad remembers smuggling a wire into the long-sleeved shirts they would wear during cricket matches and holding a pocket radio to the ear during classes. An entire class of boys, elbows on desk, head cushioned on palm, staring unwinkingly at the droning lecturer and sweating in their long shirts in hot and humid Kottayam—all so they could listen to cricket commentary.

As Mint’s founding editor, Raju Narisetti, told me in New York, today we have households where everyone watches the same show, be it Quantico or Modern Family, on multiple devices in their own space and time. As for the radio, it is relegated to traffic jams.

Shoba Narayan contacted Ameen Sayani for this piece, but he wrote a nice email back, thus depriving her of the great pleasure of listening to the voice of a legend. Shoba tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

A woman’s love affair with jewelry

Still looking for that hair ornament to tame my curls.

28 March 2016 | E-Paper

A woman’s love affair with jewellery

In India, every community offers their own style of covetable bangles, earrings, necklaces and anklets

A traditional necklace of the Ao tribe of Nagaland. Photo: Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images

A traditional necklace of the Ao tribe of Nagaland. Photo: Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images

The range of jewellery available in India in terms of materials used, designs and techniques of craftsmanship is unparalleled,” says author and jewellery expert Usha Balakrishnan. She gives examples. The Nagas make jewellery using beetle wings, feathers and bones; Bengalis use conch shells for their bangles; Keralites include tiger claws and elephant hair in their jewellery; Maharashtrians use black beads; many states, including Tamil Nadu, use terracotta. The language of Indian ornamentation is vast. There is no such thing as pan-Indian jewellery. As Balakrishnan says, “Every region, every community and every caste has a specific form, design and technique, as instantly identifiable as regional textile prints”. And hugely covetable, might I add.

Consider the unusual ornaments available for a modern Indian trousseau: the curved veni hair ornament of Maharashtra, worn above and around a chignon; the long gold necklaces of the Samvedi Christian community of Goa, with round gold coins the size of a Rs.10 coin; the jadai billai that covers the braided hair of the Andhra bride; the cubist-looking pampadamearrings of Tamil Nadu; the kada-like silver ankle bracelets of Rajasthan; the graceful Kashmiri jhumkas; the fabulous turquoise and silver necklaces of Himachal Pradesh; the shell bracelets of Nagaland; the kasu mala or coin necklaces worn by the Syrian Christian brides of Kerala; the striking tulu-nadu brass belt of Karnataka, with its cobra head; thekopou phool, orchid-like earrings of Assam; the amulet necklaces worn by the Muslim communities of Kerala and Hyderabad; the loriyan earrings, with their geometric shapes, worn by the Mehr and Rabri tribal women of Gujarat; the serpent-like nagmuri bracelets of Madhya Pradesh; the nagbeshar nose ring worn by the Rana Tharu communities of Nepal and Himalayan India. The list goes on and on.

In that sense, Indian jewellery conforms to every notion of luxury. It has provenance in that it is specific to time and place. It is customized. Families have certain motifs for their ornaments—like the tulsi plant or the shiva-lingam found in Tamilian thalis—or mangalsutras. Women still sit down with jewellers and custom-design their ornaments. Each piece of jewellery has an ethos and a meaning, from the navaratna stones that are used to propitiate planets to the jewel-like key bunch that is ceremonially handed over by a mother-in-law to her daughter-in-law.

Some regions are far more accepting of jewellery traditions. The more cosmopolitan a state gets, the less it holds on to its traditional ideas of aesthetics. In Chennai weddings, you still see women wearing uniquely Indian jewellery. The bullukkunose ring; the oddiyanam waist band, usually made of thick gold; the vanki armband, with its graceful upward curve that ends with two peacocks or flowers touching each other.

This love of jewellery transcends region and religion. In Kerala, our Syrian Christian friends went to church wearing starched white “sets” and spartan mundus or dhotis. Come a family wedding though and they adopted the Indian notion of alankara, adorning oneself with gold jewellery to the point where little else is visible. India has a “more is more” aesthetic, and nowhere is this more visible than in the way we use jewellery.

In south India, women wear glass bangles mixed with gold, a casual and sensual mixing of colour, sound and price-point. The colours too are prescribed: for instance, women in Tamil Nadu wear green and red bangles while the Koli fisherwomen of Mumbai wear just green bangles.

The film Bajirao Mastani brought the beautiful jewellery of the Peshwas into soft focus. Not too many Maharashtrian women I know wear the nath, the beautiful nose ring, but they should. They own it after all. Often, a bride was blessed by the jewellery she wore: “May your nath be ever present,” “May your mangalsutra outlast you.”

My mother and mother-in-law view certain pieces of jewellery as cardinal. If I visit their homes, often I am greeted with, “Where are your bangles?” or “Why no earrings?” A mangalsutra is a sacrosanct symbol of marriage. The same goes for toe rings and nose rings.

The late Carnatic singer M.S. Subbulakshmi wore them all with—I’d like to say rare grace, but really it wasn’t that rare. The grace with which M.S. carried her jewellery can be seen in pretty much every traditional south Indian woman of the previous generation. They loved their jewels and had no qualms about wearing them and enjoying them.

I come from a family of women who enjoy and collect jewellery. My aunt in Washington has three diamond necklaces and a gold waistband and wears them for functions even in winter. Jewellery, like perfume, is seen as an expression of self; a bolster to the spirit; a reflection of the soul.

I know a purveyor of antiques in Chennai called “Lily-aunty”. She has a shringara set of antique ornaments that is spellbinding in its variety. I bought a brass kajal-dani at an antique fair some time ago. It has two parrots as decoration and ingeniously opens out into two containers: one for the kajal and the other for a mirror. I use it to wear my contact lenses and feel like a tribal princess.

Shoba Narayan is looking for a stone-studded veni (hair ornament).