Last Mint Lounge column

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

Also Read: Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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

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!

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 <>

Subject: May the professor’s tribe increase

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

To: Shoba Narayan <>, “” <>

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)


PVK thatha

Poetry…India…Verse… Performance Poetry Festival. How to appreciate poetry?

The mysterious ways of poetic inspiration

Why do we like poetry? And how do they get into our lives?

T.S. Eliot. Photo: John Gay/Getty Images

T.S. Eliot. Photo: John Gay/Getty Images

“Why do you like poetry so much?” I asked my father again this morning.

He sighed. “Because we had to memorize poems like “Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase,’”he replied.

It is a tangential answer; one that attempts to pry loose and give word to something tenuous, precious.

My father begins reciting the poem to deflect my tiresome questions. His voice is soft, and thanks to newly acquired dentures, a bit slurred. I strain to hear him. “….like a lily in bloom….an angel writing in leaves of gold….”

My mouth opens with another question. My father starts reciting again. “Abou Ben Adhem, may his tribe increase.”

The first time I heard the phrase, “May your tribe increase,” was about five years ago from my friend, K. Srikrishna. He included it in a thank-you note that he sent after a party. I liked the phrase and started including it in my thank-you notes. It seemed like a quintessentially Indian expression.

“In India, we don’t thank a person,” I told my husband grandly. “We offer blessings, and that too, not to the individual—to the group. We don’t take ownership of an action, or even our spouse. Objects and actions belong to the community. We say hum, not main; not my husband but the husband. We don’t say, I wish you well. We say, ‘May your tribe increase.’”

“And it has,” the husband replied drily. “To become the second most populous nation on earth.”

After my father recited the poem, I realized that the phrase I was making much of wasn’t Indian at all. It came from a poem written by Leigh Hunt, a 19th century English poet, who, it turns out, has written about grasshoppers and crickets, death
and fish.

My father walks down every day to visit my brother and I. We live in the same apartment complex. He may start at my brother’s house and end up at mine, or vice versa. He is a worry-wart. When my brother was commanding Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs), ships that plied the oceans, my dad worried that some drunk sailor would throw the captain—my brother—off the ship. Not about payment or promotions. My dad’s worries come from his magnificent imagination. Poetry gives him solace; turns his worries into structured chunks of very lovely words or verses. He is a quiet man, my dad. Doesn’t talk much, except on topics he cares about. And these days, what he likes to talk about is poetry. No matter what the topic, he can link it to poetry.

Appa, what shall I say about silence?” I asked before speaking at a panel discussion.

“You can use Shakespeare’s sonnets,” he replied and began reciting. “‘When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrances of things past.”

Poetry has become a hook; a way to converse with my dad. He loves English poetry and knows a hell of a lot about it. Shakespeare is his favourite but he also loves the Romantic poets who lived in the Yorkshire Moors in close proximity to each other. He talks about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and T.S. Eliot when I ask about poets who had an India connection. In his poem, The Waste Land, Eliot talked about “What the thunder said” and used the phrase, Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (Give, Sympathize, Control).”

The Waste Land is a brilliant poem. There are strands of nonsensical phrases, lines in German, French, Italian and Sanskrit. It is a nightmare to memorize. But once it seeps in, I can imagine that it will change a person—which really is the purpose of all art: to change how you view the world.

As my father’s daughter, I wrestle with poetry. Prose seems more straightforward; less forced. Regional poetry in my native tongue, Tamil; or even translated Sanskrit, Spanish or Russian poetry sounds better to my novice ears. But perhaps I am approaching it all wrong. Poetry, like yoga, music, meditation or sport, is a practice; one that you get better at. Reading and memorizing poetry makes you see the world through a lens that is singular and distinctive. It shapes the way you see things and you may well be 80 years old—like my dad—before you relish its rewards.

Is poetry relevant in today’s world? The way to answer that question is to pick a poet, memorize her poems and see if they influence you. Do it often enough and these poems may give you endurance, courage and joy. Ancient India has a long tradition of poetry in every language. The ones I follow are Sanskrit poets. Bharatiya Kaavya Shastra, they called it, and the list of luminaries is long: Bharata, Dandin, Udbatha, Vamana, Rudrata, Anandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Rajashekara, Kunthaka, Dhananjaya, Bhoja, Kshemendra, Mamatta, Vishwanatha, Jagannatha and Kalidasa. No women. Thankfully, my native tongue—Tamil—has fine women poets—Andal and Avvaiyar being the ones I am most familiar with.

Poetry is a child of leisure. It takes a while to appreciate phrases like the “wild braid of creation trembles”, in Stanley Kunitz’s masterpiece, The Snakes Of September. How then to access poetry beyond simply memorizing as much as you can? Thankfully, we have options. Mint Lounge publishes poetry, as do Muse India, Poetry India, ReadLeafPoetry,, The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective and the Enchanting Verses Literary Review, among others.

Delhi is the place to be. They have the Poets Corner group, Delhi Poetry Slam, and the Delhi Poetry Festival—from 18-20 December at Siri Fort Auditorium; mark your calendars. Performance poetry à la Sarah Kay may be the future; or tweeting poems à la Kaafiya—The Poetry Festival. I don’t know. I am not a poet, although I would like to be one.

Shoba Narayan is trying to memorize Abou Ben Adhem. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Love Chennai. Had fun writing this piece.

FRI, JUL 10 2015. 03 44 PM

Anger management at a Chennai cinema

How Shoba Narayan queued up to watch the latest Tamil indie and dished out multi-coloured combs to aunties


I tried my anger management technique when I was standing in line for tickets to “Kaaka Muttai,” the new Tamil film.

Kaaka Muttai is a must-watch, even for those who don’t understand Tamil. The story is simple: two slum boys want to taste pizza. How they achieve this goal forms the core of this heartwarming debut. Director Manikandan, who lists Iranian films ‘A Separation’ and ‘Children of Heaven’ as his influences, and Nandita Das as the actress he’d like to direct, keeps the story moving with assured restraint. No over-the-top Sivaji-esque histrionics that mark Tamil films of yore; and truth be told, I kinda miss those. Kaaka Muttai—the phrase means ‘crow’s eggs’ and refers to the crow’s eggs that the two boys steal and eat– has already won several international awards. Hopefully, it will become a sleeper hit along the lines of “Queen.”

For a transplanted Tamil speaker, Kaaka Muttai offers several pleasures. There is the sly Tamil humour— both hurtful and humorous. There is the effortless Tamil slang that fills the film and filled me with remorse. When was the last time I used the word “peela” here in Bangalore, I thought, and how to convey the punch it carried to my genteel Bangalorean neighbours? “Peela” is slang for lying, and it was precisely what the grandmother behind me was doing.

We were standing in a long line outside Thyagaraja theatre in Chennai. I grew up in Adayar, at a time when theatres were named with panache. There was Jayanthi and Thyagaraja theatres battling it out beside each other. You went to Jayanthi for the night shows and Thyagaraja (with better fans) for the hot and torried matinees. You went to Ganapathy Ram down the road if friends dragged you to so-so movies because you could nap in the oversize seats. Eros was for English movies. Each theatre had a distinct character (different from ambience), not like today’s soul-less, identical multiplexes.

Thyagaraja has become swanky but still attracts conniving Chennai mamis (aunties). This one, with her gray hair and starched Chettinad cotton was angling to jump the queue all the way to the front for tickets. She professed faintness at first. “I am diabetic, you see,” said she. We were unmoved. Then, she upped the ante. Said that her husband was a kidney patient and she needed to see the movie and get back in time for his dialysis. That story was so patently false on so many levels– none of us knew where to poke holes in it. Shameless, I tell you, the depths these people fall to. It was like a story I heard about the French Laundry in Yountville, California, during the time when it was impossible to get reservations there. People would apparently fax letters to the reservation desk stating that it was their child’s dying wish that they should dine at the French Laundry. I mean, seriously? You are going put your child to death to get a restaurant reservation? Or invent a non-existant child and then kill her for a meal? Mind-boggling, I say.

Finally, one of my fellow queue mates took the bull, or in this case, Ambujam-mami—for that was her name, she said on the phone—by the horns.

“Dei, maami peela vidaraa-da,” he said. As in, “Hey, aunty is fibbing,” but this is a ridiculously poor translation.

This being Chennai, tempers got heated. Everyone started yelling in Tamil about how old people were jumping the queue and how slow the ticket office was. That’s when I pulled out my trusty combs (not comb in singular but combs in plural). I had bought them on South Mada street in the street-shops surrounding the Mylapore tank. You see, I am trying a social experiment in anger management.

Whenever there is a scuffle around me, whether it is at the RTO or the movies, I calmly pull out combs in orange, yellow, green, and purple and pass them around. First, it forces the people to pause in bemusement, wondering what the heck I am doing. This pause is all I need. “Why don’t you comb your hair?” I say. “But use your non-dominant hand.”

I have to explain what non-dominant hand is—which is quite tiresome. It is the opposite of the hand you normally use. If you are a rightie, it is your left hand and vice versa.

Eighty percent of the world is right-handed. Scientific–and wild–theories exist as to why this is so. Some say that people are right or left-handed based on the position of their liver, or how they were positioned in the womb. If the right side faced outside, it received at the most stimulation, turning you into a left-handed person. That’s the theory anyway. One consensus is that the right and left brain control the opposite side of the body. The right hand therefore, is connected to the left brain, which is the seat of language, analysis, intellect, and reasoning. The left hand is connected to the right brain, which is the source of creativity, insight, spontaneity, and feeling. Several celebrities and leaders including Narendra Modi, Ratan Tata, Amitabh Bachchan and U.S. President Barack Obama are purportedly left-handed.

Most of us go through life, unconsciously using the hand that we are comfortable with. Using your non-dominant hand however, has fascinating repercussions, according to recent research. It improves your willpower and self-control. It controls your anger against queue jumpers like Ambujam-mami. The effort involved in using your non-dominant hand equalizes the brain hemispheres and evens out your temperament.

“Why this kolaveri di?” said someone.

“Enda saavu-cracki. Vettila sollittu vandhirukaya?” I replied. (Saavu cracki is untranslateable. The next line means, “Have you told your folks at home?” That you are not coming back is the unstated threat.)

Thank God this is an English paper and I can swear in Tamil. After letting loose a spirited string of Tamil expletives, I proceeded to calmly comb my hair.

Try it. If you fly off into a rage, try using your non-dominant hand throughout the day. It may help calm you down. It could be simple things: stirring a cup of tea with your non-dominant hand, opening the car door, or brushing your teeth.

As for Ambujam-mami, she combed her hair all the way to the top of the queue. As for me, thanks to letting the mami pass ahead of me, I didn’t get a ticket to Kaaka Muttai and ended up going to Ganapathy Ram to watch Papanasam, another new and quite wonderful Tamil movie. Remade from the original and superb Malayalam movie, Drishyam, also forthcoming in Hindi, Papanasam features Kamal Haasan and Gowthami. It’s raining good Tamil movies. Just make sure you take some combs when you go to the movies—for anger management. PS: I watched Kaaka Muttai the following day.

Shoba Narayan favorite hair tool is a Mason Pearson nylon (not the boar bristle) brush.

Probably the only thing Jony Ive and I have in common

Is the cadences of speech.  Wish I had read this profile in the New Yorker before submitting mine– I would have led off by saying that I speak like Jony Ive.  I think the profile is right in that it is a desire to be “liked” that makes us speak this way.  But the benefit of middle age is that you can attempt to overcome this.  Shorter Ive profile takeaway here at The Awl.

Clunky headline notwithstanding, my piece for Mint Lounge below.

Which Verbal Personality type are you? 

What is your verbal tic? Do you say “like” or “means” more than two times in a sentence? Big data has discovered that men say “uh,” and women say “um,” according to The Atlantic Monthly. Perhaps yours is not so much a verbal tic as a tone that conveys the wrong impression. You are not a complainer but you have a whiny voice. You think you are flexible but your tone is clipped, giving the impression of rigidity.

I have a verbal tone that drives my husband nuts. It is needlessly tentative. “Why do your sentences trail off towards the end?” he will ask. “Why do you ask questions instead of just stating facts, especially since these are subjects that you know?”

I think I speak this way because…wait, scratch that. Let me be declarative and you will see why. I adopt this tone out of childhood habit. I was taught to speak a certain way so as to not appear arrogant.

Our speech patterns are deeply ingrained and most of us don’t know how or why we speak the way we do. Some of it is because we mimic the speech of those we admire. Some of it is because of our inner biases playing out in the cadence of our speech; and some of it has to do with assertiveness.

Do you declare (“This research paper is hogwash”) or do you hedge (“Seems to me and I could be wrong but this research paper doesn’t read quite right”)?

Do you speak forcefully (“India wants an answer”) or do you speak softly (Don’t mean to push but would you like to answer that?”)

Assertive people speak to claim attention. Reticent types speak to connect with each other. Speech patterns also have to do with whether you are comfortable with disagreement. Some of us hate confrontation. We don’t interrupt others and fall silent when we are interrupted. Arnab Goswami would render such people practically mute. Both men and women interrupt a woman four times more than they would interrupt a man.

The problem is when your speech doesn’t reflect who you are. You may be confident but you speech is tentative. You may second-guess yourself to be polite, but you appear unsure of your opinion (“I may be wrong but I think Rahul Gandhi has some issues”). Do you have speech patterns that you have fallen into; that it is time to outgrow? Do you qualify your statements and if so, why? To appear nice? (“You probably know this already, but everything is relative, isn’t it?”)

Assertive folks speak 2.5 times longer than shy retiring types: in classrooms, meetings and boardrooms. When someone interrupts them, they shut up; and take a while to speak up again. They are vulnerable to interruption, as the jargon goes.

This applies in social settings as well. During a debate or a discussion at a party or salon, a few people jump in assertively. They interrupt each other constantly. When things get heated, they have no problem out-shouting each other. They think fast on their feet and state opinions authoritatively, even if they end up being wrong.

The other group waits to be heard. They engage in “turn-taking” behavior. They don’t interrupt, and if they do, they aren’t loud enough. They wait to formulate perfect opinions before they open their mouths. They worry about being seen (and judged) as stupid or ill informed. Predictably, women speak far less in public than men. One-on-one, it is the opposite.

The next time you are in a lecture and the speaker invites people to ask questions, notice the ratio of men to women. Which gender asks more questions?

The question is what to do with this information. If you are running a meeting; or convening a business conclave where men outnumber women 3:1, as they usually do, what is your approach? If you want to make sure that the shy brainy folks contribute to the meeting, what is a good strategy?

One approach would be to simply pause. Take a moment before responding to what someone has said. Be aware of how you are responding to women versus men. Satya Nadella discovered that too late. Notice your biases and your body language. Are you choosing men to answer ‘impactful’ questions and tossing the women the lighter questions? The idea is to cultivate a memory for your behavior and biases so that your responses can be equitable.

Society lays the onus on women. Lean In, says Sheryl Sandberg. Break the glass ceiling. Speak up. Dance like a man. That is one way. If you are the boss, sure, you can tell your quiet colleagues to speak up. Or you can simply hire more women. As has been reported in the New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Inc. and The Atlantic, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men on a consistent basis. “The secret to smart groups: it’s women,” as a headline in The Atlantic said.

Shoba Narayan has never had assertiveness training. She could be wrong but she doesn’t think she needs it.

Valentine’s Day

Had fun writing this piece.

Are you a spouse whisperer?

Pity the newly-weds this Valentine’s Day. Flush with love and fresh with flowers, these men and women make heartfelt declarations of love, little realizing that what they need is not a card embossed with hearts, or an app that suggests new ways to regurgitate that tired old phrase, “I love you”, but a spouse whisperer.

What, you will ask, is a spouse whisperer?

Remember The Horse Whisperer, the movie in which Robert Redford makes a horse do things that it does not want to do? Spouse whisperers do the same thing to spouses.

There comes a time in every relationship when you realize a simple truth: Your spouse doesn’t listen to you. The harsher truth will follow: Your spouse listens to someone else who says the exact same thing that you’ve been repeating for days, months, sometimes years. That beloved man with a dimpled chin that you fell in love with is 100 times more likely to follow well-meaning advice and instructions when it comes from a dispassionate third party.
You could have been telling him to buy mutual funds for years. Suddenly, one day, he will return from his golf game or even his barber and announce: “You know, Billu barber is buying mutual funds. I think we should too.” Before you froth at the mouth, read on. If you are as smart as I think you are, you will immediately see the need to cultivate the barber, tailor, hairdresser, golf buddies, drinking buddies, and colleagues, who shall henceforth be referred to as spouse whisperers.

The common need for spouse whisperers became apparent to me after a night out with friends. We had a few drinks and pretty soon, we began talking—lovingly, of course—about our spouses. My husband, poor thing, works long hours; he should exercise more. She should shop less. He wakes up too early on weekends to head out to the golf course. She stays late at work. He needs to cultivate hobbies; I only have his best interests at heart. She should nag less. After our venting, we arrived at the same conclusion: Our spouses didn’t listen to us. They followed the advice of TV news anchors; articles in magazines; and even random strangers they had met at parties.

Sounds familiar? I thought so. In all these situations, who are you going to call? A spouse whisperer.

Take a simple example that is the source of much discussion in many households these days: the amount of time that your spouse spends on social media. As her well-meaning husband, you believe she is spending far too much time on Twitter and Facebook. It is not a belief; it is a fact.

Being the software engineer that you are, you have ingeniously set timers to detect when she logs in and out of Facebook and Twitter on all her devices. You have wads of proof that you have collected on your daughter’s graph paper—pencil marks that go up and down like an ECG, plotting the amount of time she is on social media on a minute-by-minute basis.

One evening, you begin a discussion about this, little realizing that it is a path to self-obliteration. Let’s figure this out rationally, you say. As you speak, there is a series of reactions in rapid succession. First, she doesn’t listen. Then she pretends she doesn’t understand what you are saying. Third, she says that you are wrong! Flat out. Without discussion. It is all in your head, she says.

That’s when you bring out your ammunition: those green graph papers that you clutch in your hands. Proof. Going back weeks. That’s when her eyes go cold. “Have you been spying on me?” she says in that deceptively quiet voice you have come to fear. That is when you realize that all your meticulous tracking of her time on social media, and rigorous collection of proof, was not just suboptimal; not just a waste of time. It was worse. It was like digging your grave, jumping inside it, and smearing yourself with dirt just to save your face.

The tone of the discussion changes entirely after that. Your spouse spiritedly argues with you about how you are wrong in your perception of her. She has the gall to call it “perception” when you were waving around scientific proof. Then she turns the tables on you. She isn’t the one spending too much time on Facebook, she says. You are the one who is constantly on the phone—checking messages, texting colleagues, giving the thumbs-up to lame jokes on all the superfluous alumni groups that you are part of on WhatsApp, all late at night, when you should be sleeping or doing better things, like cultivating your mind. You are the one with the addiction, not her, she says.

At the end of 4 hours, she doesn’t merely disagree with you or think you are wrong. She is furious, packing her bags to go to her mother’s house. The present scenario is so far removed from the image you had in your head that it makes you doubt how somebody in your office called you empathetic and insightful in your last performance review.
In your imagination, you show her the graph paper. She pores over the weeks of data you have collected and goes red with shame. She sees the validity and truth of your statements. She sees the fault of her ways. Her eyes fill with tears of gratitude. “Thank you for showing me the way,” she says. What follows is a night of merriment.
What has ensued is the exact opposite.

You know what the worst part is? It is not that she has packed and gone to her mother’s house. She will be back after two days. The house is in her name anyway; for tax reasons. If anything, you’ll be the one thrown out on the street should you guys split. The worst part isn’t the fight or its aftermath. It occurs during a casual dinner a couple of weeks later. As she sips soup, she says casually, “You know, there was an article posted on Surekha’s Facebook update about how women are addicted to social media. It causes our hormones to go entirely out of whack; and turns us into raging psychotic beasts. Do you know that the most aroused emotion when you are on social media is envy?”

“Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I tell you?” you feel like shouting. But you hear the word “aroused” and stay silent.

Your lovely wife proceeds to blithely tell you that Surekha and she have made a pact to stay off social media for a week; to “detox”, as she calls it. You may wish to dump all those graph papers on Surekha’s head; you may wish to avoid her at all parties. But that would be a wrong approach. You need to cultivate Surekha so that she can deliver your messages to your wife. Silly Surekha, as you call her, is your spouse whisperer.

Spouse whisperers come in many guises. As a sneaky spouse, your job is to figure out who they are; and how you can get them to pass along your messages. If your wife reads a daily tarot card or an app that gives the day’s astrological predictions, you need to be able to get the astrologer to predict what you want: “Engage in loving habits with your husband and it will pay off handsomely this week. Don’t buy jewellery.”

If your husband is tight with his golf buddies, befriend them. Get them over for lunch or dinner. Then, have a quiet chat with the man your husband respects: “I think it is so great that you are strict with your children. You should mention that to Ravi (insert your spouse name). He spoils our kids and leaves me to be the bad guy.”

The last bit of advice I have for you is to cultivate a tag-team of spouse whisperers, because you never know when your spouse will wisen up to the fact that the driver is giving him suggestions for vacation destinations—particularly if those vacation destinations happen to be the ones you are pushing.

Always have a Plan B: in life and in terms of what you want whispered into your spouse’s ears.
Happy Valentine’s Day—to you, your spouse, and your team of whisperers.

Shoba Narayan has ruined all the whispering by revealing the concept to her spouse through this column. Write to her at

Gifts 2014

This could have easily been a photo feature.

The best gifting ideas from 2014

A list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear for Christmas
Shoba Narayan

It is just before Christmas. You are probably in the throes of figuring out what to buy for family, friends and co-workers. Here is a list of objects that you could consider buying for your near and dear. The logic of choosing these objects was simply this: I saw them during the course of this past year and they stuck in my head—because they are unique, innovatively designed, and beautiful.

Perrin Paris: Glove Clutch Eiffel How many of us wrap our hands around a clutch? Now imagine if we could slip our hands into a glove-clutch. I saw this on Instagram and wanted it instantly. The Perrin Paris glove clutch has turned the hand into an ornament. Prices start at $1,850 (around Rs.1.17 lakh).
The Perrin Paris glove clutch;

Sophie Hulme box tote in raspberry Because it has cute animal eyes on it. At $700 a bag, it is reasonably priced compared to what you have to shell out for, say, Dior’s stunning Be Dior Flap bag, which costs about $4,400; or LVMH’s Capucines bag, without the littered logo thankfully, that costs $5,600.


Dibbern China, Black Forest pattern, designed by Bodo Sperlein Dibbern China by Bodo Sperlein I saw this collection at the home of a woman who is part of my book club. It has haunted me since. Of course, at €28 (around Rs.2,200) a teacup, it is likely to remain in my dreams. But what a collection! German precision mixed with Japanese minimalism and a bit of Fornasetti’s whimsy.


Lee Broom’s light bulbs Cut lead crystal bulbs by Lee Broom I saw these light bulbs in a magazine and loved them. They are made of cut lead crystal and the beauty is that you can do away with those ugly lamp shades that we use to hide incandescent bulbs at homes. These are perfect for India because all you need to clean is just the bulb itself. I thought they were made by designer Tom Dixon, but they are not. I discovered the name of the designer by typing in “crystal light bulbs” on the Internet. Lee Broom, take a bow. They are priced at £109 (around Rs.10,900) each.


Akris I don’t own anything by Akris. I don’t know anyone who wears Akris. Actually, not true. I know of a Baltimore, US, based CEO of an Indian pharma company who wears Akris. But I wish I lived in colder climes so I could wear their winter coats. Their summer line doesn’t bust my cockles, but fittingly for a Swiss company, they know their wool. Just buy one of their wool coats and you can very well wear rags inside. You won’t take off the coat and nobody will have eyes for anything else.


Fountain pens I love fountain pens. I own a Ratnam pen, a Lamy and a Parker Sonnet, all gifts. Were I to buy one, I would buy the Monteverde, because it is black, sleek and costs Rs.5,600 at William Penn—a far cry from the Rs.100 Camlin pen I used to write with but cheaper than the cult retractable Pilot fountain pen which retails at around Rs.12,000 on

Champ de Rêves pinot noir 2011 A bottle of Champ de Reves pinot noir 2011 I bought this at a wine store in Washington, DC because the winemaker had signed it. At $45 for a bottle, it is a luscious aromatic wine, particularly if you are one of those who was charmed by that famous monologue in the film, Sideways, about the “haunting” primitive beauty of a good pinot. This winery makes only one type of wine—pinot noir—and they make it well. Eric Johannsen, I have a bottle signed by you and it’s a keeper.

F Pettinaroli, Milano If I lived in Europe I would be writing these words on Pettinaroli’s papers. I tried ordering their Mignon organizers online and had a devil of a time. I satisfied myself with a Moleskine and our own Rubberband Paint Box series notebooks instead. and

Javadhu-scented powder I bought this powder at the Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan in Kumbakonam. It is made in a small town called Mukkudal in Tamil Nadu. It retails in colourfully packaged 5g bottles for the magnificent sum of Rs.55 each. If you are done with khus, vetiver and rose, try javadhu.


Coloured gems and jewellery The Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring Bulgari, Graff, Van Cleef & Arpels, you name it. They are selling jewellery that would match the jewel tones of our Kanjeevarams and Banarasi weaves nicely. Maybe start with a Bulgari Sapphire Flower ring.



Happy shopping!

Shoba Narayan plans to buy a lovely teapot this Christmas season. Suggestions are welcome. Write to her at

Bonda Soup

Still bummed that I didn’t go to Ayodhya in Mangalore for typical Mangalorean food.

The bowl matters as much as the soup


I grew up in a home where we ate on stainless-steel plates. My grandmother’s idea of a festive dinner was to lay banana leaves on the floor and have a small army of topless dhoti-clad men race down serving spoonfuls of various dishes in a prescribed order: first payasam (kheer), then paruppu (dal), then pappadam , then pachadi (raita). Then came an array of dishes that are pretty much untranslatable— kootu , avial , olan , kaalan , kosumalli —and pretty much inedible according to my husband. If you were lucky, the meal would include an “English vegetable” such as potato or plantain fry. By the time you opened your mouth to ask for a second helping of plantain fry or whatever it was that your heart longed for, the bare-torsoed men had scurried to the end of the banana-leaf line. The men had names, surely, but we didn’t know them.
 The “mama” or “maharaj” in charge had a bulbous stomach shaped like a ghatam. If we dared to ask for seconds, he would glare at us for a second before yelling, “avial vaa”, which was akin to saying “chorizo, vamos” in Spanish. I think this is the reason that restaurant menus got more and more complicated with the description of the dishes—because they don’t have a top-dog “maharaj”, referring to servers by the names of their dishes.
 Can you imagine the maître d’ at Noma or The Fat Duck calling a waiter by the dish he is serving? “Oy! Shaved cod with grilled steak tartare served with toasted areca nuts and passion-fruit purée. Come here and serve this chit of a girl who is eating as if she has escaped a famine.”
When we met as a family, food was served on the dining table with a hearty dose of “feed you till your stomach bursts” type of hospitality. This essentially meant that there was no conversation; only incessant questions: Do you want more potatoes? How do you find the dal? Is there too much salt in the biryani? So you ate like a duck, quacking “yes” or “no” to the questions that were thrown at you from grandmother, mother, and every sundry aunt that was hovering around the table, serving us all. Interspersed with the questions were constant accusations: “What do you mean, you don’t want more sambhar? Are you sick?” was the most frequent, accompanied by a frown and a glare.
My family viewed food in a complex way. Food was utilitarian—you ate for sustenance. Mealtimes had that hurried feeling of “eat quickly so we can get this meal over with and move on to the next”. It was an expression of aggressive love—you ate because the women in your life would be insulted if you didn’t. It was a competitive sport—you ate because there was a finite amount of your favourite dish and you had to eat as much as you could before your 20-odd cousins could.
It was a delicate balancing act that occurred in between the times the bai (maid) would show up to wash utensils. It was a connection—quite literally, since Indian women are prone to rolling rice-balls and sticking them into the mouths of the non-eaters. If you didn’t eat, it wasn’t because you were full. It was because you were sick. And then you were force-fed Horlicks with bread.
Food was a calling card; a brand identity. Savita maasi’s mango pickle versus Dimple aunty’s lemon relish; Kanti bua’s Goda masala mix versus Shetty aunty’s chicken ghee roast mix. Now we just go to Thom’s Bakery and Supermarket and buy Everest garam masala sans provenance or pride. Women identified themselves with certain dishes. They still do. Entire weddings were centred around the arrival of the Sridevi-like character in my family who made divine laddoos. Saralamami wasn’t as pretty as Sridevi but her laddoos looked better than the ones in English Vinglish and led her to deliver love masked as a threat: “What, you don’t like my laddoos? Why are you eating only four of them?” Accusations and badgering till you hung your head in defeat and masticated without a word.
When I lit a candle on the dining table after returning from the US, my entire family thought that I presaged a power cut. “How does she know when Amma (J. Jayalalithaa) will turn off the power?” they murmured and stared at me with wonderstruck eyes. When my extended family and I gathered for annual vacations in Coimbatore (my Mom’s side) or Kottayam (my Dad’s side), their idea of a fancy dinner was to go to Annapoorna or Aryaas, and have masala dosas with flies on the side. As for conversation, you stared dourly at the sour waiter and willed him to serve you more red chutney. I tell you this as background for what I am about to reveal. My aunts were wrong; my parents were wrong; and my grandmother, whom I adored as a child, was more wrong than them all. Accoutrements matter. Utensils matter.
What you eat with is as important as the dish you actually eat in—and I say this after eating food without caring about where it came from. You can eat a bonda-soup from Mangaluru but equally important is the dish from which you eat it. I have no connection to Arttd’inox or Magpie design, but if they priced their stainless-steel dishes more reasonably, I would eat my bonda-soup from their bowls.

Shoba Narayan enjoys the Shetty’s chicken ghee roast powder that she purchased in Mangaluru at Sri Sai Condiments. She coats her paneer with it. Write to her at

Heritage Conservation

What Mumbai has that Bengaluru doesn’t

There is an anecdote that is the stuff of legend. When queen Victoria took over the administration of India from the British East India Company in the 1860s, she gathered a group of cultural big shots to figure out urban planning and aesthetics. The group came up with a plan. They would give Bombay a Gothic style of architecture; Calcutta, a Colonial style; and Madras, an Indo-Saracenic style. As for Delhi, they would give it to a young architect called Edwin Landseer Lutyens, who was becoming known for his syncretic approach to building. The question then is, what is the Indian style of building; and when we talk about heritage conservation, aren’t we mostly referring to buildings built in the British time?
Should we preserve the British aesthetic that was handed down to us; or should we define an Indian one that is suited to the time and place we live in? The question is in some senses moot (or irrelevant) because the real-estate titans who are defining our skylines are adopting an approach that is more global than local—building glass and steel high-rises that look no different from the ones in Shanghai, New York or London. The buildings that are being constructed in any urban city in India today have largely no character or sense of place and serve a utilitarian purpose of maximizing space and economic returns without any real panache—all of which bolsters the argument for heritage preservation, such as it is. Can there be an Indian model for heritage preservation?
Shikha Jain, director of Dronah (Development and Research Organisation for Nature, Arts and Heritage), a New Delhi-based non-governmental organization working in the field of preservation and community design, has described one model that could be useful to many of our Indian cities. In her paper, Jaipur As A Recurring Renaissance, Jain makes a case for viewing city planning as a process rather than a product; marrying current city needs such as solid waste management and parking spaces with existing heritage structures. The rub for Bangaloreans, who are new to this game, is that a number of Indian cities have thought about this and implemented heritage conservation acts, including New Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Jaipur and Panaji. The reason is obvious, even to someone who makes her home and loves the city of Bengaluru, as I do. Bangaloreans aren’t united, passionate, or driven enough to make a case for its heritage structures. That may change with the victory civic activists have had with saving the Balabrooie Guest House. Mumbai, in contrast, has whole clusters of civic activists who are passionate about preserving its buildings and streetscapes.
When I called conservation architect and activist Abha Narain Lambah, she was at a government office, trying to get the paperwork for a heritage project moving. “In Bombay, we realized early on that we could not rely on the government for help,” she said. “We also realized that we had to be more innovative with respect to what constituted heritage. Is it streetscapes? Is it urban clusters?”
When I asked about Mumbai’s successes with heritage conservation, Lambah promptly listed what her fellow citizens had done. Three women took Mumbai’s municipal corporation to court to get custody of the badly maintained Oval Maidan and won. To this day, Ocra, or the Oval Cooperage Residents Association, maintains the premises. Anahita Pundole filed a public interest litigation in the Bombay high court, stating that the visual sanctity of the city was being spoilt by hoardings. She too won. Lambah convinced 70 shopkeepers on Dadabai Naoroji Road to accept redesigned signage that was in keeping with the area’s visual history. The shopkeepers not only agreed, they funded the project. Recently, the residents of Bandra Bandstand reclaimed its seafront. The list goes on.
Mumbai seems to inspire this sort of loyalty and activism among its citizens. Does it say something about the quality of its residents? Is it because Mumbai is a wealthy city?
Heritage conservation is an elitist, high GDP (gross domestic product) activity. This is not to say that the average driver, cobbler, waiter or flower seller does not appreciate the graceful proportions of old buildings. It is that this busy segment of the population either has no access to these spaces or sees no value in them. The Balabrooie Guest House is off limits to most Bangaloreans. I have never entered it. So are many old buildings. How then to get the general public to care? How to get them to protest to save a building or tree? Or is it not important to involve all segments of the population? Is heritage conservation a rich person’s game? More specifically, is it a niche in which women do well? If “his-tory” is written around men, does “her-itage” centre around “her” or women? Okay, I just said that for wordplay.
The truth is that heritage conservation is not a costly exercise. In 2001, the facade of Elphinstone College was restored for `15 lakh, according to Lambah. In the late 1990s, the Kala Ghoda Association restored Horniman Circle for `6 lakh. “It just takes one municipal commissioner with will and a group of dedicated citizens,” says Lambah.
Sounds simple but hard to duplicate in other Indian cities. It takes visionaries like architects K.T. Ravindran and A.G.K. Menon, who can combine urban planning, heritage conservation and development. It takes urbanists like Prasad Shetty and multifaceted personalities such as poet-translator-architect-teacher Mustansir Dalvi to come up with nuanced yet implementable approaches to heritage conservation. It requires collaboration and consensus-building on what constitutes heritage and how to conserve it. So far, in Bengaluru , I cannot think of a single person who has the will, the wiles and the chutzpah to take it forward.

This is the second in a two-part series on heritage conservation. Write to her at