’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

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.

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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.

 

LAST PAGE

Bangalore Diary

Bangalore is full of people following multiple diets. Where does that leave us mas­ala-dosai loving, carb-addicted vegetarians?
PHOTOGRAPH BY KASHIF MASOOD
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

Thanks for the plug, Ashville

Thanks for the plug, Ashville, North Carolina here

“And, while there was precedent for a memoir with recipes (Elizabeth Bard’s Picnic in Provence, Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diary and an entire Goodreads list dedicated to “books shelved as cookbook-memoir”), “the cooking lessons with Jonah linked me to the way food was central to both of our stories,” Smith says.”

 

Breakfast in Varanasi

01 January 2016 | E-Paper

A hallucinatory breakfast in Varanasi

Is there a more beautiful sound in the world than the sizzle of frying jalebis early in the morning?


Forget about cholesterol if you happen to be in Varanasi. Photo: Alamy

Forget about cholesterol if you happen to be in Varanasi. Photo: Alamy

South Indians, or should I say Tamilians, can be cantankerous purists. No mixing tastes. No adding sugar to dal like the Gujaratis do; or adding jaggery to rasam like the Kannadigas do. Only one vegetable per sambhar; be it okra, brinjal or small onions. If you mix multiple vegetables, you are a caterer who is trying to palm off all the cheap vegetables available into one pot. These Tamilians ought to taste the pleasures of breakfast in Varanasi. It might change their minds.

I am standing at Vishwanath Mishthan Bhandar in Vishweshwar Ganj. It is 8am and I have just done yoga and pranayamwith a hundred strangers on the banks of the Ganga, led by a female teacher who shouted, scolded and coaxed us into stretches, bends and submission. Just show up at Assi ghat at 6am if you would like to join in. Suitably lubricated, my body is ready for its next round of lubrication.

At the Vishwanath Bhandar, four men sit outside, frying stuff. Have you heard the sizzle of a jalebi early in the morning? It is the most beautiful sound in the world. Chopin’s Nocturnes have nothing on the twin sounds of jalebi and kachorisizzling in oil right next to each other. I stand with the milling crowd. It is my turn. I hold out Rs.10 and get two leaf bowls. An impassive man ladles aloo sabzi into one leaf bowl; and the kachori in another. Now comes the dilemma. How to stand, balance these two bowls in one hand and eat with the other? The others around me are doing just fine; they’ve had years of practice, darn them. If I could be born again, I would come back as a Kashi vasi (Kashi resident), not necessarily for the good karma but for the terrific kachoris. I have had kachoris in Jaipur, Haridwar, Delhi and Bengaluru. So far, the ones in Kashi are the best. They are fluffy, not brittle. They hold their round shape and have a respectable amount of dal. They collapse like a bubble when you tear them open. The best part is the aloo sabzi: a trite tangy, just enough spicy, and piping hot.

The only way to make a kachori better is to mix it with jalebi. It is like adding a pinch of salt to hot chocolate. The shot of pure sugar makes the shot of pure cholesterol better. Best if you don’t think in those terms and use the term that teenagers these days use to explain everything: YOLO (You Only Live Once). Ergo, eat kachori-jalebi for breakfast; if possible, every day.

Once breakfast is done, I go temple hopping. At the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, hot laal pedas (red pedas) are brought out. Devotees buy boxes of them to take to the Hindu god Hanuman and then distribute to those gathered. I stand in line, awaiting my share. A lady in a purple sari hands me one; then, seeing my face, she gives me another with a smile. “Jai Hanuman,” I say and pop one into my mouth. She looks pleased.

“My daughter conceived after eating 10 of these pedas,” she says. “They are a fertility tonic.”

I stop half-bite. Is this why India is overpopulated? Too late. The peda is “too good”, as my nephew, Harsha, says. The trick to a good peda, and I speak as someone who has never made a peda in her life, is the consistency. It has to melt in the mouth but you should be able to chew the last bits. You should make those popping sounds that babies make when they relish food. In Tamil, we call this naaka chappi kotti, which is like saying, “making clicking and clapping sounds with your tongue”. A good peda should make your tongue clap.

At the Annapurna temple across town, someone is serving sesame rice, perhaps because it is Saturday. Karnataka, where I live, is home to several “rice varieties”, or “chithra-anna”, as we call it: coconut rice, lemon rice, tamarind rice, curd rice, and, best of all, bise bele bhaath, which literally means hot lentil-rice mixture. Sesame rice is not often made or served. It is a delicacy and an acquired taste. I acquired it in Kashi. The recipe is simple: roasted and ground black sesame seeds, red chillies, curry leaves, some urad dal, and a good helping of asafoetida. Grind it all up and mix with hot rice. Here too, the leaf bowls make their appearance. If you like the depth and girth of good sesame oil, you will love sesame rice. It is great for vegans because it contains a ton of calcium.

At the Kashi Vishalakshi Temple, this wide-eyed goddess is served some ghee-dripping sheera as prasadam. The sponsor of this prasadam ladles out a spoon to a line of devotees, including me.

All this eating has made me thirsty. The great thing is that you can get thandai with bhang in Varanasi on an average day. You don’t have to wait for Holi to indulge. Lord Shiva, the ascetic, loved his bhang, made from the leaves of the cannabis plant. At a government bhang shop, I nervously watch the vendor pour a respectable amount of this green concoction, before adding chilled milk laced with crushed nuts, sugar and saffron. The resulting drink is slightly bitter. It is supposed to be hallucinatory. It makes people giggle and wake up with what seems like a hangover.

The other dish that is a signature of the city is not as potent. Banarasi paan is a digestive. I grow betel leaves in my garden. How different can this be, I think, as I stand in front of a tiny shop and ask for a paan.

“With zarda or without?” asks the vendor.

Zarda comes from tobacco. It is addictive; gives a high. How bad can it be? With lightning fingers, the vendor smooths open a bright green betel leaf. He throws in several items: betel nuts, lime paste, fennel seeds, a pinch of zarda, rose petal jam or gulkand, and what looks like tutti-frutti. He folds it into a triangle, sticks a clove to hold it together, and hands it over to me. I have eaten paan before, but this one has oomph. As I chew, I can feel myself becoming light-headed. The juices flow down my throat, inducing a pleasant sensation of relaxation. I smile beatifically and thank the vendor.

“Careful,” he says as I stumble out. “Sambhaalke.”

I wave my hand and keep walking. It is a beautiful day.

I don’t remember very much of what happened after that; except that I, much like a Hindi film heroine, woke up in bed.

Shoba Narayan loves a good Bengaluru bisi bele bhaath followed by a Banarasi paan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

The delights of wearing a sari

This is going to be my year of regional styles of donning this garment.  Just saw and loved Baji Rao Mastani.

Nanditha Lakshmanan, Shilpa Sharma, Sudha Kanago, Deepa Krishnan, Ally Mathan, Jo Pattabhiraman, Chandra Jain, Geetha Rao, and all you casual and effortless sari wearers, this one is for you.

 

25 December 2015 | E-Paper

The delights of wearing a sari

For many of this generation, donning a sari is both a moral and an aesthetic choice


Dress is not a moral question. It is an aesthetic question,” pronounces Rta Kapur Chishti. For her, maybe. But for many 30- and 40-something women who are used to the “comfort” of wearing pants, the sari can seem constraining. So why bother with this garment? Why bother with six or nine yards of unstitched cloth that is, along with curry, cricket, bindis and bling, an instantly recognizable icon of India?

For some, like Ally Matthan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, who co-founded the 100 Saree Pact, the sari has become a crusade; a movement; a sisterhood. It is a way to preserve and relish a garment that is ours for the taking.

For others, like Shilpa Sharma, a co-founder of Jaypore, the online retailer, the sari is a work of art and a way to access Indian culture. Sharma organizes “textile trails” through the different states, introducing participants to weavers, techniques and experts like Chishti. Jaypore has brought Chishti to Bengaluru to run “The Sari School” workshop, in which she demonstrates some of the many regional styles she has learnt from all over India. I am one of the giddy participants.

Wearing a sari, for me, is both an aesthetic and a moral question. Do I sleep in a sari like my mother? No. Do I wear it throughout the day and travel to global conferences in a sari like my mother-in-law? No. Is the sari a second skin for me, as it is for Chishti? No. Then why am I wearing this garment? I certainly don’t reflexively reach for it every morning like countless women of the previous generation did. When invited to a party where I know most women will be dressed in designer Western clothes, the choice of a sari isn’t merely aesthetic. It is a blend of loyalty, even patriotism towards a garment that you believe is endangered and deserves to be saved, preserved and handed over to the next generation. It is a way of asserting an identity at the risk of standing out, something that many women dislike. It is a statement: “See, if I can wear a sari, maybe you will too.” It is—many times—uncomfortable to go to a party, be the only one in a sari and risk being stereotyped as old-fashioned.

Wearing a sari, for people of this generation, is an act of principle; a conscious choice. Having said that, I discovered a delightful consequence. The sari disarms. You walk into a room full of stylish, svelte women in bandage dresses and think, “Oh God! I am the only one in a sari.” But then they gravitate towards you, these men and women. They talk about Mangalore tiles; red-oxide floors; and grandparents. “I love your sari,” she says. “I wanted to wear one.” They associate your garment and you with comfort, nostalgia and family. That is the effect of this garment. It disarms the viewer and connects you with your past.

Chishti and Saumya Nagar, who works with her, demonstrated several regional styles, none of which required a petticoat. “Once you get hooked on to the feel of a sari around your body, you can never go back to the restrictions of a petticoat.”

The regional styles, many of which involve a kache, or drape between the legs, are like pyjamas; they are more comfortable than the way we wear a sari now, because they free up the legs to move.

That said, would you wear such a drape to a party? It requires conscious choice; the risk of standing out and being labelled “strange”, and the confidence to “own” a style that is Indian and ours for the taking. It is, in other words, the next and natural step for someone who chooses to wear a sari, not only for its aesthetic but also for what it represents.

Shoba Narayan is wearing regional-style sari variations to parties these days. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Also read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns here .

Poetry Feedback

Funny how poetry evinces so much passion.  Did not realize.

Hi Shoba,

As a poetry junkie, loved your last column.  Would love to meet your father some day. Like your father,  I too “had to memorise” Abou Ben Adhem as a schoolboy! 

By the way,  if I am not mistaken, the correct verse is “An angel writing in a book of gold”  – and not “an angel writing in leaves of gold”.

Here’s the link to  a piece on Abou Ben Adhem and, incredibly, an obscure topic in the biological sciences.  It is by, who else, a South Indian Brahmin (Tam Brahm, perhaps) scientist based in the US!

http://bit.ly/1NyQrxw

I think you will like it. 

Best regards. Vivek

PS: Do let me know if the link does not open. 

Begin forwarded message:

From: Padi Moorthy <rangok@yahoo.co.in>

Subject: May the professor’s tribe increase

Date: November 16, 2015 at 9:15:13 PM GMT+5:30

To: Shoba Narayan <shoba@shobanarayan.com>, “shyam@peakalpha.com” <shyam@peakalpha.com>

My dear Shoba,

                         Read your piece on your father’s love for poetry

                         Well written.

                         You are lucky to have a father who remembers Abu Ben Adam.

                         He has the talent to remember lines and recite them

                         My memory is notorious

                         But of all poems I remember Casabianca !!

                        The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but he had fled

                        The flames that lit the battle wreck shone round him over the dead”                         

     In a school elocution competition I recited this poem with tears running down my cheek

    I got the first prize for CRYING

   When some one passes, I remember this dismal Tamil verse, not Kamban or Bharathi

Andandu thorum azuthu purandalum maandar varuvaro Manilatheer, Vendaam

Edu vazhiye naam pom alavum

Nammak Enna endru

Ittu, undu irrum.

Notice the emphasis on Ittu(Give first ,then eat and stay on)

Blessings

PVK thatha