Journalism and engaging with the world

Steve Coll, the Dean of my alma mater, Columbia University’ Graduate School of Journalism, came through town. My friend and alumni co-conspirator, Phyllis Fang Savage, pretty much organized the Bangalore leg of his trip, which ended with dinner at her sprawling home.

Having read his articles and books over the years, I was giddy with delight at the thought of meeting him. He gave a fantastic presentation in Bangalore at the Oberoi, moderated by the inimitable Rohini Nilekani, and sponsored by the Deccan Herald, my favorite  hometown newspaper.  Nikhil Kanekal, the third generation of the family that owns and runs the Deccan Herald is an alumnus of Columbia.

What struck me was Steve’s optimism. He was hopeful about the state of journalism, books, and the written word. He had clearly thought through the role of journalists at a time when everyone who has a camera and a pen can spread the word–and why not?

I had the pleasure of interacting with Steve over dinner in Bangalore at Phyllis’ home; and in Delhi, where my friend, Anant Nath, scion of the Delhi Press group that publishes Caravan magazine among others, hosted dinner at the beautiful Lodhi Garden Restaurant.

I did not tell Steve  what I am about to say here.  Over the last several months, I have become involved with the launch of Rajasthan tourism’s new marketing campaign.  I am part of the Steering Committee, that oversaw every aspect of the campaign, ranging from choosing the ad agency (Ogilvy & Mather) to deciding whether to do dinner or high tea at the launch.  It has been an amazing experience, working with government.  I learned a lot.

Here’s the thing though.  One of the things that they taught us at Columbia  was about the value of objectivity in a journalist. Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of the Washington Post during Watergate, famously didn’t vote because he thought it implied political bias.

Now, it is not as if I am some hot shot investigative writer; or a political journalist.  But I have written about Rajasthan.  So I emailed all my editors a Mint about my new role.  What does this mean for me in terms of writing?  Hereafter, I will have to disclose my connection with every future story that I write about the state.

With that preamble, let me now enthusiastically talk about the campaign in the next few posts.


Of all the figures in India’s freedom struggle, Nehru and Sarojini Naidu fascinate me. The mixture of their pragmatism and romanticism…fighting internal demons that came from being born in privilege and wealth. As Manish Sabharwal’s fantastic essay appearing aptly on Children’s Day shows, Nehru wrote beautifully as well. Read it here.

Reduce transactions

I am speaking at The Bangalore Club on November 20th. The title, which I suggested is “Returned to India: now what?”
I am sorta freaking out because I want to make it funny. Debut stand-up act and all that. The below is stuff that I am thinking about as I prepare my material. Yikes.
Oh, and I pay a compliment to my spouse, which I rarely do (in person or in print). Darn it. Not funny enough.

Delegation in domestic matters frees up time for me to waste
Shoba Narayan

November 4, 2014 Updated: November 4, 2014 05:08 PM

I am deeply suspicious about productivity apps and self-help books that deal with this subject, because I think they miss an important point: being productive focuses on the end-product while relegating the process to the background.
A parallel and somewhat contradictory trend in the world is mindfulness or living in the moment, which argues that no matter what you do, regardless of how simple or boring it is, it is all a way to practice mindfulness.
Connecting these two antithetical dictums in your brain requires a certain sort of mental agility. I ponder this conundrum every day without any sort of resolution because of my circumstances.
I live in Bangalore and work at home. My entire family lives within a couple of kilometres. This combination allows for moments of joy and chaos. There is the closeness of connections with loved ones, but that also means constant interruptions. This has forced me to be flexible and spurred me into seeking ways to increase my productivity.
Living in most developing nations gives you a certain mental flexibility because daily life in, say, India or Pakistan, abounds with contradictions compared to straightforward systems in the West.
Having lived in both India and the US, pretty much in equal measure, I can tell you that the ease of living in America has several advantages but one important disadvantage: it doesn’t force you to be mentally alert at all moments.
In India, on the other hand, even walking on the street requires observation, concentration and alertness because the pavements are uneven and a stray dog could be sleeping where you were just about to set your feet.
My father walks to my house every day and takes the same route. He sees familiar faces: the papaya vendor, the tailor, the barber, and the priest. He’s forced to talk to them while keeping a watchful eye open for the stray cow that wanders nearby. He has to remain mindful to what is around him because of the nature of Indian streets.
Similarly, the nature of Indian homes force continuous transactions throughout the day. The doorbell never stops ringing. When I really think about it, the reasons for the ringing doorbell are beneficial to me. The dry cleaner drops off my laundry, the vegetable vendor delivers fruits and vegetables to my doorstep, the milkman wants his monthly salary and the postman delivers a document.
Still I complain, sometimes sheepishly and with self-awareness but mostly to vent.
This situation epitomises another universal contradiction. In every society where people have domestic helpers, they complain about them.
This was true in New York, where my friends used to complain about their nannies while simultaneously saying that they couldn’t do without them. It was also true in Singapore, where people complained about their efficient housekeepers. It’s equally true in India, where people complain about their cooks and drivers.
The trick then is to figure out a way to ease your daily life while maintaining the joy and spontaneity of it. Recently, my spouse helped me do this, lending credence to the theory that the best help comes from somebody who knows your situation intimately and isn’t afraid to offer constructive criticism.
The solution that my husband suggested was simple. I had to try to reduce the number of transactions in which I was involved. This is easier said than done in my situation, but really it is the only way out of the quagmire in which I find myself mired on a daily basis.
Like most mothers who work from home, my time and space isn’t sacrosanct. My child can and does interrupt with questions about homework and relatives drop in because they know that I’m at home. They expect me to drop everything to entertain them. While my housekeeper can manage most things, she still interrupts me to sign a paper or answer a recipe question.
Short of locking myself into a room and not answering the door or phone, it is difficult for me to get uninterrupted time.
These days, I punt it back. When my child wants me to answer a question, I point her to Khan Academy. When the driver calls to ask which type of bananas he needs to buy, I tell him to decide.
It is these simple and seemingly ludicrous interruptions that had me in a lather. Reducing these kind of transactions has proven to be a great way to free up time. Whether or not I am productive with that time is another matter altogether.

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

College Bound

Thanks to all the advice-givers of this piece.

University is a time for discovery, exploration … and even purple hair
Shoba Narayan

August 4, 2014 Updated: August 4, 2014 04:20 PM

‘Parting is such sweet sorrow,” said Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet. In the next few weeks, hundreds of thousands of 18-year-olds from all over the world will make the long trek to join universities in America. They will be basketball players and artists; maths wizards and chess geeks; athletes and musicians. They will be both excited and terrified, for this is the beginning of a new phase of their lives; and one that, arguably, will effect them more than anything they have done before.
A group of us have been in the privileged position of giving advice to a bunch of 18-year-olds who are going off to college. Some of the advice has been interesting and funny: “Colour your hair purple – every-one should do that once in their lives.” Much of it is thoughtful and has to do with regrets: “I wish I had known when I was 18 how much time management and structuring my day would matter.”
Here, then, are a few themes for every college-going student to consider as they embark on their adventure.
Figure out if you want to sample or dig deep. This depends on if you have a passion already. Perhaps you are bent on being an engineer. It is something that you have always wanted to do. The question then is: do you just take courses that further your engineering goals (digging deep) or do you take courses in art history, music and other liberal arts?
We live in a world that rewards specialisation but college seems too early to specialise, particularly at the undergraduate stage.
This is the time of life when you can view the academic offerings as a buffet and sample everything. There is the famous story about Steve Jobs taking calligraphy courses, which seemed to have no earthly use, at least at that time in his life. He sampled.
Try to take courses or activities that make you uncomfortable. If you ask adults what they regret, many of them will say that they regret not taking enough risks when they were young.
In many ways, growth happens when you are uncomfortable. If you don’t think you’re artistically inclined, force yourself to take a course in drawing. Put yourself in the way of discomfort. If you don’t think you have a way with numbers, take a calculus course – the beginners’ one, of course. If you think you cannot dance, take a group dance course.
College is the time when you can make a fool of yourself without too much compunction; when the risk is low. Take advantage of these four years when you are allowed to – indeed, encouraged to – fail.
Prioritise what happens outside the class as much as you do the classroom. Of course you will be busy submitting tests, doing homework and poring over library books for a project. Realise, though, that some of the best friends you will make in your life are the people around you. Nurture these relationships, because they will be the friends you will fall back on in times of crisis.
Join every club that interests you. Increase the surface area of relationships that will enter your life. “Only after you kiss many frogs will you discover the prince,” as a friend said.
Team sports are an underappreciated way to grow. Research suggests that playing a team sport is a great way to cultivate confidence, competence and a number of physical skills. This is particularly true for girls.
Being part of a college team, regardless of whether it is rowing, basketball or lacrosse is a great way to learn those physical and social skills that will see you through for the rest of your life.
Finally, no matter what, have fun. And be safe.

U. Chicago Magazine

Message from my dear friend Tommy (Tomas Haendler) who has known my eldest since she was born.

Hi Guys. Just came back from a week at the beach and among the reading stuff I take I reviewed the University of Chicago magazine article on Wendy Doniger’s writings on Hinduism, and surprise, surprise…. there she was.
Shoba’s comments all over it.

Link here

Very polarizing issue. I still get reader letters saying that I am wrong to defend Ms. Doniger. Below is a recent one.

——— Forwarded message ———-
From: ‘Nathu Ram Verma’ via Ideas QZ
Date: Tue, Jul 15, 2014 at 1:08 AM
Subject: doniger’s book Hindus: An Alternative history
To: “”

I read your column, Shoba, on the above. I could not digest it. I am also reading this book, now at page 252. I am not tired. I will finish the book. My objection is not about freedom of expression or thought, but the larger question of sensitivity of billions of people. Depiction of Rama and Sita in this book, to say the least, was obnoxious. From which version of Ramayan Wendy has taken details, I do not know. From her references, I gathered they were mostly Westerners. People have sensitivity, right or wrong. To violate it in such utter abundance is morally wrong. Do not tell me about scholarly/ academic / witty/ and what else approach. The story of Rama is venerated in many southeast Asian countries. In Thailand near the Buddha shrine, there is a Rama temple.
You call Wendy brilliant. Yes, but brilliance is to be tempered with wisdom.
I may be wrong. But I do not think Indians mock Christianity in the name of scholarship or otherwise, although there is a lot of bull… in it. To put it simply Jesus was a bastard. How Wendy will like it ?
Since you do not know me. I should tell I am not exactly illiterate and I dislike all organized religions. But Wendy is beyond me.
I do not know whether you reply to your readers’ comments. If you do, pl enlighten me with your wisdom at (REMOVED)

Choose Pleasure

Something that I’ve been debating about with very productive friends

Choose pleasure over productivity

There is a virtual explosion of “productivity” lists on the Internet. You know the kind: 10 ways to make your life more productive; nine habits to ditch if you want to squeeze the most from the first hour of the day; 12 mistakes that losers who don’t get things done are making; how to be the top performer at work in 10 days or less; and the final straw, 36 things to do if you want to get away from making to-do lists. I mean, is the irony not lost on these people?
Such lists are proliferating like turtle eggs. Some headlines are straightforward, and follow the military dictum of saying it quickly and concisely: “End email addiction now” or “Throw away that time-wasting device”. Others do it more artfully by suggesting the opposite, as if they know the thoughts in your head: “When your mind says, ‘I can’t’, know that you can” is a typical headline that is best faced after a double shot of caffeine which, as it happens, is good for you according to the latest research.
The problem with such lists and apps is that they treat life as if it were work. The workplace is about productivity. Life is about messiness and being in the moment. Work is about efficiency; life is about experiences and emotions. Work is about incentivizing and motivating yourself to Get Things Done, as author David Allen says. Life is about improvising and coping. Work is about action. Life is about people. Work is about planning. Life is about spontaneity. Work is about compartmentalizing time into conference calls and meetings. Life is about flexible time.
How then to achieve work-life balance? The current approach is through lists, apps and reminders: using the tools of work to tackle the vagaries and pleasures of life. That is wrong, in my view. Sure, you need boundaries to differentiate between work and life. In the past, it used to be through time, 9-5, and place, office and home. Now that everything has merged and we are available and “on” all the time, the trick is not how to be more productive. It is how to live better. As a species, we are working more than ever. We are producing; we are effective; we are ticking things off our to-do lists. What we have become “inefficient” at is life; those moments and hours in between work.
How then do all of us who value productivity integrate it into our lives? One way is to prioritize life the same way that you prioritize work, but using a different methodology. Unlike work, which involves chalking out chunks of time for tasks—brainstorming, memo writing or business plan discussions—prioritizing life requires a different skill set: waiting, alertness, openness, saying Yes, saying No, improvising, being spontaneous.
To capture and savour life, you have to be alert and in the right frame of mind. Do you hear the songbird call for rain? Do you walk out into your balcony and try to spot this bird that seems to be going hoarse? Can you feel the wind on your nape? Is it moist or dry? Can you hear the squirrel scurry up the trees? Where is it? Are you able to see what’s ahead of you or are you preoccupied with your thoughts? That is life.
Life is about waiting. It is about being open and receptive to a child’s question when it happens instead of when you carve out time for it. It is the ability to pause in the middle of a task to see the hurt in a loved one’s eyes. It is about listening to sighs and silences; about inferring their meaning and responding to it. It is about alertness and waiting.
Life is about putting yourself in the way of joy and pleasure. It is about saying Yes when a neighbour calls you for water polo or a hike; saying No when a colleague asks for a conference call (again) at night simply because that is the most convenient time in the UK, US or Germany. It is about rescheduling overflow meetings for a later date and leaving your desk with the same discipline that you use while coming to your desk. It is about unplugging your phone or mobile device for an hour a day, if possible.
Life is about choosing pleasure when possible. About massaging yourself with essential oils or expensive lotion; about refusing to answer your work-mobile phone while you are indulging in quiet time; about figuring out what you love to do and making sure that you do it; about sipping a single malt and reading a book. Or playing golf. Life is about cultivating hobbies that can see you through retirement. About imitating children; about frittering away time in meaningless but absorbing activities.
I have tried productivity. I have read essays and lists with gusto. They gave me a halo effect for some time and made me feel that I could actually implement the suggestions. It took several months and nearly 20,000 such forwards before I realized that I was diligently reading and deleting everything without doing a darn thing. I wasn’t changing a single behaviour or even a thought process. I was merely feeling that I was in the throes of change, thanks to all those lists. It was like continuing to eat ice cream while watching aerobic exercises on TV. You felt fit without doing the work.
Life is more than productivity. I will go further. Productivity is overrated. Choose pleasure. Stop and smell the jasmine, tuberose and Oriental lilies wherever and whenever you feel like it. Stop scheduling everything. Remember, the Lord gave us Sunday for leisure and contemplation, not scheduling. Sometimes, life is not about analysing or achieving. It is about going off the script and off the schedule.

Shoba Narayan is choosing pleasure by slurping on rasmalai as she writes this. Her life-script does not include the weighing scale tomorrow. Write to her at


The best way to make advice stick? Nag incessantly
Shoba Narayan

April 22, 2014 Updated: April 22, 2014 18:18:00

One of the perks of being a parent is that you get to offer advice to your children. One of the problems of being a parent is that you forget how little advice you took from your own parents. This inherent paradox is being played out in countless living rooms and dens in this, one of the peak seasons for parenting advice.

In many parts of the world, students are applying to go to colleges abroad. The prospect of losing their children to the world produces a great deal of anxiety amongst parents. This is certainly true of me. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, my children make me want to be a better human being. Even better, they lull me into thinking that I am one.

When I nag my children to study hard, stay focused and stop fooling around with the iPad, I can almost believe that I did not indulge in any distractions at their age. Children are great that way. Give them an old-fashioned scolding and you are guaranteed to feel good.

My time is running out though. In a few weeks, my kids will be in the full throes of summer holidays. They will be swimming, cycling and practically teleporting themselves to friends’ homes. I, meanwhile, will chase after them with important life lessons running on auto-loop. Seize the day, I scream. Opportunities are abundant, I extort. Don’t miss the wood for the trees. None of these pithy dictums are particularly relevant, but they make me feel useful.

The self-help section of any library is full of books by people who have figured things out. Why they call it self-help when it is usually other people trying to help you is beyond me. Shouldn’t self-help books be written by the self? A diary or a journal in other words? Instead, we have websites like Lifehacker and 99U devoted entirely to self-improvement. Recently, I read a book called, What I wish I knew when I was 20, written by Tina Seelig, a Stanford University professor. In it, the author lists out insights that would benefit any 20-year-old. Things like “don’t burn your bridges,” and “ask the right questions.” The only problem is that such insights have to be realised after painful failure in order for them to stick.

How do you give advice to your children, and how do you make it stick? It is a dilemma that has been faced by generations of parents, made somehow more poignant by memories of childhoods past; or rather the realisation that you don’t have memories of parental advice given in childhoods past. Except those all-inclusive ones like “Eat your vegetables,” and “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.” Beyond that, it is probably one happy blur, both for you and for me.

My method of making advice stick is to nag – to keep repeating the same phrase over and over again. This has a rather unfortunate side effect. They stop hearing me after a while. However there is one method that works: self-flagellation. When they see me fail and fall down, my children learn the lessons inherent in that failure. It is like me getting the halo effect when I chastise them.

Last week, I discovered a tear in my coat just as I was rushing out to an important meeting. As I ran around the house, muttering and stitching the tear with a needle and thread, as best as I could, my two daughters who were silently witnessing the scene chorused the girl scout motto that I had been trying to drill into them all summer: “Ma, don’t you know: be prepared.”

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

Planet Earth: vast and humbling

My rant about how large Planet Earth is; and about the hubris of our species. Sometimes, humans have no clue.
Wrote it last night. Out today. The pleasure of web-zines is their immediacy.

Reads better in here

Superstition about travel may be gone—but our respect of it shouldn’t

By Shoba Narayan 11 hours ago
Shoba Narayan is a writer in Bangalore. She is the author of “Return to India” and “Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.”
We truly only know a small portion of our planet. AP Photo/Andy Wong

Mortality is not something we associate with air travel these days. Unlike our ancestors, we aren’t superstitious about planes falling from the sky—until they do. We buy and cancel tickets—even international ones—with a few clicks. We call them trips, not voyages or even journeys. Travel has become a job; a chore; a ‘red-eye’ that you catch; miles that you rack up; frequent flyer numbers that you proffer, punch or swipe; abbreviations that you remember—LAX, JFK, MUM—as a badge of honor. For most of us, air travel is an activity as mundane as our kids catching a schoolbus. You wake up at dawn, send them off and catch a taxi to the airport.
Every once in a while, a horrific incident happens that jolts our insouciance and takes us back to the time when travel was viewed with trepidation and respect, not merely a matter of routine. And then we must decide what to make of it.
For the relatives of the 370 passengers who are presumed dead, it is a time of gnawing anguish coupled with a yearning for answers about what happened to the Malaysian Airlines flight. What caused this massive Boeing 777 to veer so far off-course and then plunge into the cold depths of the Indian Ocean?
For the rest of us who have watched this unfolding tragedy from afar, it is a time of empathy and compassion for those who have lost loved ones. It is also a time to take stock and pay heed to the vastness of this planet that we inhabit. It is humbling to realize that in this age when humans have travelled to distant galaxies and seem to have mapped every location on earth, there are still spots where a jet plane can get lost; and cannot be found—not for 17 long days.
Scale is hard to comprehend. The jet is supposed to be 3600 m below the ocean—a number that means little to us. As is beautifully illustrated in this article in Australia’s, that is about the depth of 10 Empire State buildings. To say that the oceans are vast is to state the obvious. It is something that we find hard to understand. It is only when a large jetliner disappears for 17 days in spite of best efforts by multiple governments that we can intuit the standing of our species in this bafflingly big planet that we are privileged to inhabit. It is only when we realize that a special submarine may be called to action, simply to spot the thing that we realize how deep our oceans are. Our hubristic parochial approach towards Planet Earth prevents us from fathoming that a jetliner can be swallowed by the ocean; that the human footprint doesn’t reach everywhere; that there are still secrets that nature can hold, even when the whole world is searching. Our natural world is massive; we inhabit a small portion of it.
Disasters, whether they are natural or man-made, bring with them a new set of learnings. This one has brought forth a fresh set of theories from experts on everything from how to make airline transponders automatic to recalibrating methods of searching for a missing plane. For those of us who are mere travelers, this baffling tragedy has brought forth questions about destiny, fate, and renewed questions about the safety of air travel.
Travellers of yore were superstitious. They knocked on wood; returned home when a black cat crossed the street; and stayed away from the number 13. It was an acknowledgement of the unknown dangers that travel presented. Russians sat on their luggage before leaving home. The Chinese didn’t inhabit seats or rooms with the number 4, considered unlucky. Indians didn’t travel south on certain days. The Senegalese would not inform friends before they travelled anywhere because they worried about the evil eye. Our grandparents had a healthy respect for the unknown dangers of travel. Superstitions were a way to keep fear at bay; to exert a measure of control over what was then a journey in the truest sense of the term: to traverse the unknown.
We may not be superstitious about travel any more; we may seek to control errors, both mechanical and human; but every now and then, an incident occurs that is beyond human reckoning. It lends perspective. It demands respect. It requires that we pay heed and recalibrate how we function.
Follow Shoba on Twitter @ShobaNarayan. We welcome your comments at

Satya Nadella

Wrote this right after Nadella became CEO. It was published yesterday

Suddenly, all Indians seem to know Microsoft’s new CEO
Shoba Narayan

March 11, 2014 Updated: March 11, 2014 19:33:00

Now that India-born Satya Nadella is the new CEO of Microsoft, the number of Indians who know him, are related to him, have studied with him in school, college or kindergarten or claim kinship in some loose form has skyrocketed.

“He must belong to the Nathella Sampath Chetty jeweller group in Chennai,” said my father, who began his teaching career in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, the state where Nadella is from. “Nadella must be the Anglicised version of Nathella.”

“No jeweller connection, Dad,” I replied. “His father was an IAS officer.”

Reports are rampant on Facebook, Twitter and other social media about Mr Nadella’s character and humility. A former colleague has stated that although Mr Nadella didn’t attend his book launch, he went to great pains and emailed his regrets. Other versions include the family wedding, baby shower and sweet 16 parties. The Indian diaspora is giddy with memories of encounters with this man, who until last year was a virtual unknown. How a CEO post can change a life!

If all else fails, Indians resort to the old faithful: they claim kinship with his family. My parents knew his parents because they were in the Indian Administrative Service together, said someone I know. I studied in the same school where Mr Nadella did, chimed in another. I speak Telugu, his mother tongue, said a third. Well, I am losing hair, just like Mr Nadella, said I. Does that count?

I am not surprised by this need to connect to the man who has risen to the top of one of the world’s iconic companies. Claiming kinship with “one of our own” is a natural human trait, and India, perhaps more than any other country, operates this way. The first thing that my father does when he is introduced to a stranger is figure out a way – either through language, location, family name, career or at the very least gesture and mannerisms – to connect with the other person. This is not in the simple and straightforward “nice to meet you” way that typifies my western-educated friends and generation. Indians of my father’s generation are much more specific yet circuitous, oxymoronic as that sounds.

Take a typical introduction to a perfect stranger. “Oh, you are from Lucknow,” my Dad will say. Mulling thoughtfully, you can hear the wheels turning in his head. “My father’s first cousin’s brother-in-law used to teach at the university there between 1967-70. Perhaps you know him? His name is Venkat Ramalingam.”

This is a connection forged through a link to the past, something that is very real to the people of a nation that is hurtling towards the future. The word that is often used in this context is “antecedents”. When relatives are asked to check up on whether a boy is suitable to be married to a daughter or niece, they are asked to check on his antecedents: where he lived, who he was, with whom he had a relationship and how he lived his life. Ditto for his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, going back seven generations if possible.

Indians approach relationships in this same circular way too. Before we do business; before we break bread or exchange marriage garlands, we establish kinship. If Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer had used the Indian approach to their search, they would have visited Bukkapuram village in Anantpur District, Andhra Pradesh, where Nadella’s family “hails” from, and talked to the relatives and neighbours. I tease of course. Indian companies are built on meritocracy and resumes, just like everywhere in the world. Our search firms find and place the best in the world.

Scratch the surface, however, and you will find that deep longing for a shared past that can somehow be translated into a connected future. This is why we are thrilled about Microsoft’s new CEO – not because of his new title but because of his old country, because he is somehow related to us.

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

In support of arguing

My friend said something about fighting couples ages ago that served as the seed for this article. We were talking about elderly couples who balk at doing stuff for each other– particularly women. Caring for husbands during illness, that sort of thing. He said that a couple should fight all the way and iron out differences so that by the time you reach seventy or whatever, your angst about each others’ flaws is ironed out. Been thinking about this and this is a tangential take.

He who shouts loudest is just a teen trying to make his point
Shoba Narayan

Sep 24, 2013 Updated: Sep 24, 2013 09:24:00
Save this article

There are 15 teenagers in the building community that I live in. Every now and then, us parents of these teenagers will get together for what we euphemistically term “tea” but what is really therapy.

We talk about exams, SAT scores and the race to get into the right colleges. And then we talk about arguments and how our households seem rife with them.

“I didn’t grow up like this,” a mother will say. “I listened to my parents; didn’t argue so much about everything.”

“Times have changed,” we will admit ruefully. “The world has changed.”

“Sometimes it seems like my son argues just for the sake of it,” a parent will confess.

“No matter what I say, he takes the opposite view to the point where I have now started to instruct him on the opposite of what I want. But he is smart. He has guessed my game and is beating me at it.”

“It gets my blood pressure up,” a father will mutter. “When will it end?”

At our last meetings, someone shared two heartening studies. One was conducted by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan.

In it, researchers used a sample of 1,842 adults between the ages of 33 to 84. Over the course of eight days, these researchers asked the subjects whether they encountered situations where they might have argued and what was their reaction to such situations. The subjects also had to give saliva samples.

Sixty two per cent of the subjects reported that when they encountered a tense situation, they did not argue; instead they walked away or kept their thoughts to themselves. The remaining subjects argued. They had it out with their opponent as it were.

Researchers discovered that while all their subjects had feelings of disquiet about the tense environment, only those that did not argue experienced elevated levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – for one extra day. Those that argued felt unpleasant and uneasy, but these symptoms were erased from their bodies through the argument as it were. Those that stewed in their thoughts and kept quiet had cortisol coursing through their blood the following day.

Household arguments are unnerving and enervating. But they do serve a biological purpose, it seems. They get rid of the accumulated stress that caused the argument in the first place.

The second study was recently conducted by the University of Virginia and it supports what numerous other studies have said.

Teenagers argue not merely to rebel or to prove a point. They argue for a deeper developmental reason. Arguing is a way for them to “separate” from their nest; from their parents.

It is his way of cutting off the umbilical cord and venturing forth into a brave, new and often terrifying world.

The good news is this: teenagers who argue at home often turn out to be well-adjusted adults in college. They eschew risky behaviours and turn down objectionable substances.

Arguing at home helps them formulate their own point of view about the values that they will take with them. It builds up their brain muscles and allows them to put choices in perspective.

While they may mock a parent for refusing to allow them to attend parties, such arguments also help crystallise the parental point of view to them.

My grandmother used to say that those kids who are rash while young will turn out to be model citizens in adulthood. She said that to comfort my mother while I was growing up. She insisted that the continual arguments that I had with my parents was a sign of respect.

At least your daughter is “engaging” with you, she would say. At least she is not deceitful and closed. The same could be said of today’s teenagers who have verbal battles with their parents, but will hopefully become model citizens of the future.

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