Senior Citizen Matchmaking

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

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

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

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

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

Indians are discovering it’s never too late for love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoba Narayan is trying to matchmake for her widowed aunt

An ode to improv comedy

And I got to interview the legend: Keith Johnstone

Improv comedy classes make for a funny family holiday in London

When my brother’s family and I decide to go to London together for two weeks, things threaten to quickly spiral out of control. Like most families, we have little in common in terms of interest. So we make a rule: each member of the entourage will be allowed to choose one activity. Everyone else has to participate, whether they like it or not.

There’s eight of us: my brother’s family and mine; four teenagers and four adults. My niece, 17, chose to visit St Paul’s Cathedral. We struggle up hundreds of steps to the Whispering Gallery, then walk up some more for fantastic views of London from the rotunda on top of the cathedral.

My husband, a political junkie, wants to visit the Houses of Parliament; which, all of us agree, turns out to be a great experience. The audio tour leads us through the House of Lords and the House of Commons. We learn about kings and commoners; pomp and circumstance; and how laws are drawn up.

My brother, an erstwhile sailor, chooses to visit the National Maritime Museum; the rest of us go along for the ride. It’s interesting to observe sailing routes and ships through his eyes. It teaches us about Britain’s maritime ­history, but also reveals an aspect of my brother’s life that none of us knew.

My younger daughter, 14, wants to visit Stratford-upon-­Avon, since her class was studying Shakespeare. As the town is 160 kilometres away from London, it takes a day and results in us quibbling about how long each chosen activity could be.

My nephew, 15, the only boy amid three girls, wants to cap each activity at two hours, so he can get back to his beloved ­videogames. Instead of choosing an activity, he asks for a veto. He wants to reduce the number of activities; stay home, watch cricket on TV and play with his PlayStation 3. His request is ­denied by the adults. He chooses Hyde Park under duress, but says he doesn’t really care if we go or not.

My elder daughter, fresh from a brutal first year in engineering school in the United States, just wants to sleep. Also under duress, she chooses kayaking on the Thames, but we couldn’t fulfil this obligation – it rains on the day we schedule this activity. So we go to Harrods and Topshop, which is fine with the girls.

My sister-in-law wants to visit Wimbledon, where her ­family had lived for some years. It’s fun to take a trip down memory lane, visit their flat, now rented by South Africans, and wander in and out of the shops.

I choose comedy improvisational classes. Like it or not, I decide, we’re going to return from our holiday with the ability to make people laugh; or at least ourselves laugh. We’re going to be a funny family.

When you think of improvisational comedy, two locations come to mind: Chicago, where the famous Second City theatre troupe and teaching programme is based; and London, where Keith Johnstone, the father of improvisation and author of the seminal book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, began his career. Johnstone is still a legend in London, even though he now lives in Canada. Every improv teacher I encounter talks about him and wear lessons from him as a badge of honour. “Keith invented improvisational comedy as we know it,” says Jules Munns, our first teacher.

London is full of institutions offering drop-in classes – from singing to storytelling; dancing to DJing; improvisational comedy to acting lessons. My situation is complicated by the fact that we’re a group; and not all of us are passionate about improv. Dragging the whole gang to lessons all over London is simply unfeasible. I need a teacher who can come to us. To my surprise, I find several institutions that offer private lessons in improvisational comedy. Not all of them fit into my budget and I end up zoning in on two: The Nursery and City Academy.

Munns is the artistic director of The Nursery (www.thenurserytheatre.com), a nurturing environment where all kinds of funky classes, including the Feldenkrais Method, are taught. Its website is worth visiting. It has interesting podcasts and interviews with professionals, including Patti Stiles, another legend in this field.

I cold-email Munns asking if he will take a private class for us. He agrees because he thinks it’s “cool” to teach a large extended family. Munns typically charges £75-100 (Dh428-571) per hour for private lessons, but being his first “family” clients, gives us a discount.

We arrive at The Nursery on a cold, wet London morning. Situated near London Bridge on a busy street, this establishment hosts improvisation classes every week; and drop-in classes three times a week. Anyone with a passing interest in improv can take a class, pretty much at the last minute, if they’re passing through London.

We’re in a medium-size room with chairs. Another class is ­taking place in the next room, ­although most sessions happen at 7pm.

Like most comedians, Munns is preternaturally observant. Within minutes of arrival, he notices my gangly nephew likes to lean against the wall as a way of distracting attention from his height; that the girls don’t make eye contact; that I easily feel cold. We stand in a circle to ostensibly introduce ourselves, except with a twist. We have to point to a person and say our name instead of their name. Simple as it sounds, it’s difficult for the mind to process. After warming us up, Munns introduces us to one of the core ­concepts of improv: the “yes, and…” Along the way, he passes along life lessons and wisdom. Improv is somewhat like Buddhism, he says. You accept things as they come to you and build upon it; rather than rejecting what someone says.

This works in life as well as in corporate settings. When a colleague offers a suggestion, the natural inclination – one that we’re all trained to do through years of schooling where we’re taught to think critically – is to view each suggestion with scepticism. This critical eye can impinge on creativity – unless you’re a Picasso or Mozart. Improv, we discover, is all about silencing the voices in our head that tell us to view each environment with wariness. Instead, we’re forced to jump joyfully into each situation and celebrate it.

We’re paired into random couples. The instruction is simple: we each have to say something. No matter how nonsensical it sounds, the other person has to begin their sentence with: “Yes, and…” And build on it. After a few iterations, we loosen up enough to make up narratives that are silly and fantastic. One goes like this:

“Let us go to the mall today.”

“Yes, and let us buy the entire building.”

“Yes, and let us transport the building to Zimbabwe.”

“Yes, and let us buy some rhinos along the way.”

Munns tells us to “commit” to the statement; to say it with conviction. We try to stay in character, but all of us are laughing along the way. Munns wraps up each exercise by saying “scene” – theatre shorthand for “let’s close the scene”.

We try variations of this exercise. One is that we should speak only questions. Each person’s statement has to be a question; and each response has to be a question as well. Another variation is “yes, but…”, in which each response has to start with that phrase. We learn that questioning each other or doubting each other with a “yes, but…” makes the conversation fall apart within a few minutes. There’s no humour in that model. We end the lesson with improvisational sketches that each pair took part in while the rest watched. After each sketch, Munns offers us encouraging and instructional feedback.

This pattern continues with Kate Smurthwaite, our next teacher. A slim, smiling woman, Smurthwaite is an instructor at City Academy (www.city-academy.com), which offers a veritable feast of classes besides improv, including singing, dancing, writing and filmmaking, at a variety of locations. It offers short courses, as well as private lessons for groups. Charges vary depending on the instructor and location. Drop-ins are allowed with prior consent.

Smurthwaite is a bit of a celebrity in London, both for her comedy acts and political activism. She was on the panel at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and gives talks on improvisation at senior citizen centres, prisons and ­colleges.

In rapid succession, Smurthwaite runs us through a series of games. We stand in a circle and tell a story. Each person is allowed one word. This is both liberating and constraining, because each of us want the story to progress in a certain way, except the person next to us takes it in a whole new direction. Improvisation, I begin to understand, is all about giving up control. You can’t control the narrative; you have to build it together by staying loose and paying attention.

The more advanced lessons involve theatrical sketches. My favourite is called Interview. Two of us sit on a couch, while the rest act as interviewers. We’re “experts” on crazy, silly things, such as panda football or inkblot paintings. The two experts have to answer questions using the same format of a word per person. Smurthwaite begins proceedings.

“We want to welcome the two professors, who are experts in sunflower genocide, on the show,” she says. “Why do you think sunflowers are used for genocide, as opposed to other flowers?”

Off we go, the two of us sitting on the couch. “Sunflowers… are… flowers… with… yellow… petals… that… are… poisonous.”

A similar game is called Translator. Two people sit on the couch and speak a nonsensical language. Others interview them. The pair are experts on an esoteric subject such as Frankincense architecture or desert art. The expert answers in passionate mumbo-jumbo. The translator gives a spin to the answer. Each of us play a part in building humour: we try to ask crazy questions; the expert uses the limited mumbo-jumbo resources open to them by using their body in a more expressive way – to control the message and get their point across; the translator effectively sabotages the expert’s message by making it their own, translating it into whatever they want. By the end of the afternoon, we’re confident, curious, loose and full of laughter. Smurthwaite and I share a drink after, and she’s generous with her advice about how to attempt stand-up. “Try to pair opposites together,” she says.

When I return to Bangalore, I’m so inspired by the pleasures of improv that I call Keith Johnstone. He has retired to Canada. I find his email on his website (www.keithjohnstone.com) and write to him. A few emails later, I enjoy a Skype call with the legend. I’m tongue-tied at first; then describe my nascent interest in improv and ask him how I can jump-start it. Is there any advice he can give readers about how to become better at improv?

“Start with the fear,” says Johnstone. “You have to find situations where you are not afraid to go on stage – to warm yourself up. If you are trying to be funny, you will be afraid. You should go on stage not to be funny but to form relationships with the other performers. And, I suppose, the audience. If you walk on stage trying to be your best, you will fail. I think you should walk on stage trying to be average; then you will learn quicker.”

In other words, don’t be a perfectionist; don’t aim for the stars; don’t try to be funny. Instead, be yourself, be average and address your fears.

weekend@thenational.ae

Tiger’s Trail

 So every writer aspires to be a photographer or at least I do.  Here are the photos I took at Kanha and Pench.  You have to be patient and refresh the page many times.

On a tiger trail in India

I’m sitting on the deck outside my tent, which perches high above the Banjaar River in central India. Across the river lies Kanha National Park, which at 1,945 square kilometres is one of India’s largest. White egrets pick their way across the bank searching for fish. A male langur cries from within the jungle to establish territoriality. I smile happily. I have spent countless summers trekking and tenting within national parks in four continents. I love the herbal scents in the air; the swaying rustle of leaves; the gurgle of the river. Most of all, I love the spiffy luxury of my tent, so far removed from digging a hole in the ground and using broad teak leaves as toilet paper.

There are 48 recognised tribes in Madhya Pradesh, including Gonds, Bhils, Bastars, Baigas and Ojhas. They live in pockets all over the state, making beautiful sculptures and foraging for medicinal plants. Banjaar Tola’s spaces are enlivened by whimsical metal sculptures created by the local Bastar tribal people. The brass door handles, hanging hooks and water tumblers have tribal faces etched on them. Bottles containing saffron and turmeric conditioner and body wash have metal cork-like closures ­displaying women with geometric faces and coiled hair. In the middle of my bedroom sits a sculpture of a woman with a telescope turned to the sky. As well she might, because the night sky is glorious, revealing a cross section of the Milky Way and a whole array of constellations. I pick at the lemony salad with home-grown lettuce, bite into ­coriander-and-yogurt infused kebabs and sigh in satisfaction. I haven’t been on my first drive into the jungle. In fact, I’ve barely ­arrived.

The human vision of wildlife is romantic and often forgets how inaccessible wildlife is, and should be. Reaching a national park in any continent requires hours of travel by pretty much every mode of transport. So it is with Kanha National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The word “madhya” literally means centre in Hindi.

Getting to Kanha involves flying to Mumbai; then to Nagpur; and then driving five hours into the jungle (if you have time, Bhopal is a beautiful city to visit on the same trip). This long journey forces Type A travellers such as myself into resigned ­acceptance of a slower rhythm; something of a stupor really. By the time I arrive at Banjaar Tola, I am ready for anything, or rather, nothing.

Wildlife tourism reached a luxury tipping point in India nearly 10 years ago when high-end global players such as the Aman group and Africa’s &Beyond entered the country. In 2006, &Beyond partnered with the Taj group of hotels to establish Taj Safaris, a joint venture with jungle lodges in four national parks in Central India: Pench, Kanha, Bandhavgarh and Panna. The lodges are designed by &Beyond and operated by Taj. The service is warm. The beds are firm. The rangers are superbly trained, the staff attentive but not obsequious. The architecture is rustic and in keeping with the forest – choosing wild flowers rather than manicured lawns. The food is Indian but plated well with grilled meats, dals, birianis and curries, all served with your choice of drinks. Rooms are decorated with local tribal objects but are rustic in sensibility. There is no television, no internet, and barely any phone reception. And really, it’s rather silly to sit in a jungle and poke someone on Facebook. The library has both television and a computer with an internet ­connection.

Of the four, Bandhavgarh National Park is touted to have a high density of tigers, which translates into “guaranteed” ­tiger sightings. I choose Kanha and later, Pench – inspired by a BBC documentary, Spy in the Wild, on the tigers of Pench. Narrated by David Attenborough, the superb film uses hidden cameras shaped like tree trunks, that are carried by elephants and placed right beside the tigers, offering unparalleled access into the daily, mating and maternal life of this magnificent animal: Panthera tigris tigris.

Kanha has about 95 tigers in its whole area, but the 300 square kilometres that are open for tourism house barely 10. The 10 four-wheel drives that enter the forest at dawn are chasing these tigers. Of course, we don’t say that. Tiger sightings are rare and cannot be created or conjured up, even by luxury tour operators. Of India’s 27 tiger preserves, I have visited about 15 over the last dozen years. I have seen the tiger in the wild only once: in Ranthambore. I have been to Kanha before and spent days without a tiger sighting. So I don’t dare hope for ­anything. Still, there is no getting away from the elephant in this particular room: we have all come to Kanha to see the tiger.

The forest in Kanha is dense and moist. Dew drips from the tall sal trees. Sunlight filters through. Mist rises from the grasslands, which are coloured white, pink and purple. Sheet spiders create their webs horizontally like sheets at the bottom of trees, waiting in funnel-like homes to catch the unsuspecting insect that falls down. Brilliant yellow orioles fly across trees, glinting like the sun.

As we drive in, we see Kanha’s biggest success story: the barasingha or swamp deer. In 1970, their count dropped to a precipitous 66 animals because of infection, habitat loss and over-killing by ­tigers. Park officials cordoned off grasslands and researched the population decline. Of the 25 species of grass available at Kanha, the swamp deer picks at only seven types. Thirty years of conservation later, the count stands at a respectable 450. “The swamp deer and not the tiger is the true hero of this park because you can see the barasingha only in Kanha and it came back from near extinction,” says my naturalist, Dipu from Kerala.

We don’t see a tiger during my time in Kanha. We do see jackals, jungle fowl and other animals; and really, they ought to be enough. But I can’t help feeling disappointed as I drive to Pench, three hours away. Baghvan Lodge in Pench has wooden huts that are raised a little off the ground. The indoor and outdoor showers are nice, but I preferred the old-fashioned bathtub with brass fittings at Banjaar Tola. The best part of Baghvan’s rooms is the machan, a tree house that comes with every room. In the afternoon, I take my laptop there and read, type and doze. All around are trees filled with birds whose cries and screams remind me of home.

Tigers have been part of India’s ecosystem and lore for centuries. Tiger images are seen on Bronze Age seals. The pharaohs and Romans are said to have imported Indian tigers for gladiatorial sport. Indian maharajas hunted the tigers nearly to extinction. In 1972, then prime minister Indira Gandhi started Project Tiger to protect and preserve the Bengal tiger. The project is viewed as a success. The latest tiger census shows a count of about 1,500 tigers across 27 tiger preserves in India. Today, tourists come to India’s parks mainly to see this top predator that cannot be seen in any other continent. Three subspecies – Javan, Caspian, and Balinese – are already extinct; and only a few hundred of the Siberian and Sumatran sub-species exist. Hence the pressure on the Bengal tiger – to save it and to sight it.

Planning early is essential ­because getting into the park involves getting permission from the forest department. I take a few days to send in my identification card and as a result, am not able to go into Pench on the first morning’s drive. The bookings are full. That happens to be the day of a glorious tiger ­sighting: a tigress and her three cubs. Wolfgang, a German, regales me with photos of the tigress walking, sitting and even pooping. I show him the photos of birds that I took on a walk. I know that sounds lame but the birds were gorgeous.

I spend two days in Pench, following the typical safari lodge routine: forest drives in the morning and the evening with time in the afternoon to nap, read, swim, or in my case, exercise using the “jungle gym” left in the room: a yoga mat, weights and skipping rope, mostly to prepare for the evening’s labours: dinner. With me at the camp are Belgians, Germans, Americans and British tourists. They compare vegetation across continents: the ­Indian jungle scores in the dense foliage area.

Why does man seek the jungle? Most of us go for a change from city life, to see the tiger if possible and return refreshed. Being amid ancient trees is invigorating. Pench contains sal, teak, banyan, frankincense, Indian gooseberry, wood apple and mahua trees, all of which come together to form sacred groves that rejuvenate passers-by. The sounds of a jungle are distinct in what they do not offer: no wailing ambulances or annoying horns; no shouting and cursing drivers; no shrieking brakes. Instead, it’s the flutter of dragonflies, the chatter of parakeets and the barking call of the deer. You see creatures big and small and each of them links you back to your genetic ancestry in a way that textbooks never can. If you are lucky, as I wasn’t even on Day 3, you will see a tiger.

weekend@thenational.ae

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Storytelling

Was in Masinagudi to run a module on “Storytelling in the corporate context: how to use narrative to enhance your pitch.”

It was for SAP Labs.  Thanks to Sunder Madakshira, Head of Marketing at SAP for the connect.

And thanks to Heemanshu Ashar for connecting me with Sunder.

It is always interesting for me to see how corporate teams work– their highs and lows; their deadlines and stresses; delivery and accountability.

Before the session, I went on a safari ride.  Saw some amazing birds: shrikes, Asian Koel, lots of peacocks, Brahminy starlings; hoopoes….but the highlight was…..a sighting of two Greater Coucals.  It was thrilling!!!

Sri Lanka

If there is a takeaway from the below piece, consider this.  Watch Mani Ratnam’s movie, Kannathil Muthamittal (She kissed my cheek).  Read Romesh Gunasekhara’s (spelling?) books.

Sri Lanka: fantasy island

There are some places that seem familiar even though you haven’t actually visited them. Paris is like that for Europeans and Sri Lanka is like that for me. Thanks to myth, movies, politics, geographical proximity, and a shared language, Sri Lanka was part of my mindset while growing up in Chennai in the 80s.

Lanka-puri was the golden land described in the Hindu epic, Ramayana, where the demon Ravana spirited away princess Sita. An army of monkeys built a stone bridge, waged a war, and rescued the princess. Some Hindus, my relatives amongst them, believe that the bridge still exists, submerged under the ocean. I can’t help looking for it from my winged chariot— Flight UL 122—but the water is as gray as a turtle’s back.

There was the Eelam depicted in the phenomenal 2002 Tamil movie, “Kannathil Muthamittal,” in which an Indian couple adopts a girl whose biological mother is a Tamil Tiger: a terrorist group. The family sets out to find the birth mother leading to a climactic scene where the mother chooses between her biological daughter and staying with her secessionist cause.

IMG_3565 IMG_3617 IMG_3555

A lush, tropical island shaped like a teardrop in the sea of time, this is a land of many musical names: Serendib, Taprobane, Ceylon, Eelam, and finally, the official Sri Lanka. Smaller than Tasmania, Sri Lanka is both fertile and prosperous. It’s per capita of $6531 is higher than neighboring India’s $4077. The flash of its gems, blue sapphire and moonstone are as well known as the flush of its teas. Also known are its internal conflicts. For 25 years since Black July 1983, Sri Lanka was caught in a civil war that took an estimated 100,000 lives. Since 2009, the country has been coming back to normalcy and tourism is on the verge of taking off.

Locals are optimistic. “Things have changed in the last five years,” says France-educated diplomat, Saroja Siresena. “While retaining old world values, we have modernized. Compared to Bangkok or Mumbai, our cities are liveable and cosmopolitan. Nobody stares at you if you dress differently.”

+++++

I am taking two children– my daughter, 12 and nephew, 13—on a trip to a land that I ‘know’ but have never visited. This is their first visit too; one that is unclouded by history and known only through cricket players like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane, both of whom are partners in the popular Ministry of Crab restaurant. Its celebrity chef, Dharshan Munidasa, plans to open Kaemasutra, serving contemporary Sri Lankan cuisine in July (Kaema means food in Sinhalese). “We all grew up with the war. We didn’t know a different life,” he says when we visit him. “Now that we have peace, I worry less about sending my child to school. I take more risks.”

The trick with travelling with kids is to keep moving. This we do after checking into the aptly named Taj Samudra (meaning sea in Sanskrit), scarfing down the complimentary chocolates and a pasta-lunch.

Colombo, everyone says, is a business city, known for shopping but not much else. The kids have lists from friends back home and are quite chuffed about shopping. I take them to the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple instead. I want them to engage with a clean slate– unpolluted by Sri Lanka’s politics and bloody history, but I am not sure how to engineer it. We hire a hotel car. Our driver, Hussein shows us layers of Sri Lanka’s colonial history: the Dutch hospital; Cargill’s, an English department store, now leased by an Indian bank; Portuguese outcrops and the mosque where he worships along the way. He accompanies us into the temple, pointing out the Buddha’s mudras or hand gestures that depict various moods. He explains the murals on the ceiling. I grin at the serendipity of having a Muslim explaining Buddhism to us Hindus. This, I think, is the magic of Sri Lanka. We stand before an ancient Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) and fold our hands. Finally, we go to the museum inside the temple: a kitschy assortment of watches, swords, combs, jewellery, and seemingly everything that the temple has received as a gift.

We visit a few other religious sites during our stay in Colombo: the Seema Malaka Buddhist temple, designed by acclaimed architect, Geoffrey Bawa; the Dutch-style St. Antony’s church; and the colorful Hindu temple across the street. The children like the Gangaramaya temple best, mostly because there is a lifelike elephant that they can hug, and a Buddha image painted in such a way that the eyes move to stare at you wherever you go. We spend a giddy ten minutes trying to escape Buddha’s eyes but to no avail. The golden Buddha’s eyes resolutely stare at us. We can run but we cannot hide.

Temples should always be alternated with chocolate. We go to Paradise Road café for coffee and a nut-filled chocolate cake. The well-proportioned space used to be Geoffrey Bawa’s office and is now where Colombo’s swish-set comes for sundowners or lunch. I eye the paintings by Sri Lankan artists along the walls; the children read Sumitha Publishers’ illustrated children’s books that retell Sinhalese myths in English. “The Great Flood and the Gourd,” is one title. Opposite is a store called Rithihi, which to my surprise, has a colourful selection of silk saris from all across India. We end the day with a swim at the hotel. Counterintuitive as it seems for a tropical country, Taj Samudra’s heated pool is heavenly and removes all the knots from my shoulders.

Breakfast is the usual sumptuous spread. I choose red string-hoppers with the famous trio of sambal powders: pol sambol which is mostly coconut, seeni sambol made of carmelized onions and katta sambol made of ground red chilies. I douse the fiery powders with a stew made of coconut milk. The children stick to pancakes and eggs. Where’s your sense of adventure, I chide. That was before my eyes start watering.

On day 2, we hire a tuk-tuk and go to Barefoot Gallery and Café (for me) where I buy a colorful cotton dresses; and A&M cupcakes across the street (for them); to Saskia Fernando Gallery (for me) and to Odel department store where they buy yellow sandals, muffins decorated with Spongebob icing; string necklaces and souvenirs. As the sun climbs, we duck into The National Museum and wander through 5th century Buddha images. The children protest at the sameness of the century-old statues, but are engaged by accounts of prehistoric Sri Lanka beginning with Balagoda Man. Wall plaques neatly describe how Prince Vijaya journeyed through the seas from North India in the 3rd century; married a local princess and founded Sri Lanka as it were. On the way back, we spot a procession of protesting monks, who want the freedom to pursue Buddhist education. So says Hussein, even though I don’t understand why ordained monks who have presumably had a Buddhist education would have that particular demand. Discontent, it seems, simmers under the island’s placid façade. Even though Buddhism is the majority religion, Sri Lankans are warriors by nature, says a veteran journalist who didn’t want to be named. “Look at their names. Simha means lion and Raja means kings.   This is a country with robust warrior-names.”

The next day goes by in a blur. I try to keep it action-packed and fast-paced. We ride tuk-tuks, chatting with the English-speaking locals. We go in and out of temples, “just for you,” as the kids say. We eat rice and curry like the locals. We try out the spare but charming local trains, less crowded than in India. We go to Pettah market and haggle for umbrellas. Soon it is time to go to Bentota, our next stop.

The best way to go from Colombo to Bentota and further down to Galle is by the train, which hugs the ocean all the way. Not having the foresight or knowledge to buy train tickets, we arrive at the Taj’s sister property, Vivanta by Taj by car.

The pleasures of Bentota are more rural. There are turtle hatcheries where Leatherback, Green, Loggerhead, Hawksbill, and Olive Ridley turtles are rescued and rehabilitated. Funded by donors, these hatcheries buy turtle eggs from fishermen, hatch them and release them back to sea, where they can mate and hopefully thrive. The children get to carry a 10 kg green turtle, which can live for 300 years, according to owner Amarasena Fernando of the Kosgoda Turtle Hatchery. In the evening, we join a boisterous game of cricket in the hotel’s grounds, followed by a swim in the sea under the watchful gaze of a lifeguard.

On Day 4, we drive to Galle, stopping at a mask factory and a moonstone mine along the way. The wares may be real but the ethos reek of tourist traps. Our boat ride through the mangroves is better. It costs Rs. 5000 (Sri Lankan Rupees) for two hours on the water. We spot giant squirrels, three monitor lizards swimming after prey and spend half an hour at a fish farm dipping our feet into a tank and enjoying the nip of hundreds of fish. We hold a baby crocodile, sea snake, and tap some river crabs. We walk through cinnamon trees on an island, where an elderly man shows us how to smell and cut fragrant cinnamon bark. It is 2 PM when we reach Galle. I am eager to explore Galle Fort, but the children want none of it. A bribe of limp French Fries at Rampart View Guest House (our driver insists on taking us there perhaps because drivers get free lunch) buys me some time to buy locally crocheted lace on Galle’s streets. It would have been charming were it not for the blazing heat.

The best is saved for our last day. We visit Sri Sunshine Divers, owned by a strapping windsurfing champion, Thusal Gunawardhane, who lavishes praise on current President Mahinda Rajyapaksha (named after Emperor Ashoka’s son, Mahinda, who brought Buddhism from India to Sri Lanka). We scream through a banana boat ride; and take waterskiing lessons—much harder than I thought.

After lunching on Sri Lankan wild mango curry and red rice, we leave for the airport. The children discuss high points (waterskiing, turtles, snakes, fish, crocodile) and low points (temples, museums, more temples). “But what about the war that everyone keeps talking about?” asks my 12-year-old daughter. “It’s like this,” replies her cousin. “The Tamils wanted a separate state from the Sinhalese. They kept fighting for years and finally the Sinhalese defeated the Tamils.” Seeing my raised eyebrows, he adds, “I read it in my history book.”

That’s all it is to them young ones: history.

END

Fact Box:

Etihaad flies everyday from Abu Dhabi to Colombo. Fares range from AED 720 to 830 outbound. AED 745 upwards inbound.

Taj Samudra in Colombo overlooks the beach and has the best no-frills hotel pool on the island. The hotel organizes day-trips to Kandy and the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. Doubles from AED 640 including taxes. www.tajhotels.com

Vivanta by Taj Bentota is halfway between Galle and Colombo, making it a central access point to the Northern part of the island. Doubles from AED 890 including taxes. http://www.vivantabytaj.com/bentota-sri-lanka/overview.html

Chennai Music and Women

I thought about this a lot, but cannot come up with any solution. Everyone lays it on the women artistes to get together and fight the discrimination, but that’s not going to happen.

A note of dismay over inequality at music and dance festivals in Chennai
Shoba Narayan

January 3, 2015 Updated: January 4, 2015 11:21 AM

Every year, between December 15 and January 15, hundreds of thousands of people across India congregate in Chennai, the capital of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for its Carnatic and Bharatanatyam festivals. More than 300 concert halls in the city host cultural events throughout the month in a tradition that has endured for more than half a century.

But each year, as audiences clad in silk saris and white dhotis arrive, an ugly issue rears its head: the discrimination against female performers by the show organisers and male musicians.

In a recent post on Facebook, Kalpana Mohan, a ­California-based writer, highlighted an incident that happened two years ago at a concert hall in Chennai. A prominent male vocalist kicked up a fuss when he realised he would have to perform alongside a young female violinist. An older, established musician, he refused to take the stage with a junior female artist. The organisers found a male violinist to replace the female artist, leaving her in tears.

After describing the incident in her Facebook post, Mohan ended with an appeal for gender equality: “I do hope December 2014 is the season in Chennai in which artists, young and old, fight back, ask questions, write to local and national newspapers and launch a campaign to fix the cracks, while simultaneously fixing the crackpots who believe that a woman is inferior – when all that matters is prowess, not age or gender. I certainly hope that this is the year that older, established vocalists, both female and male, step up and fight for the sake of their younger female counterparts. I hope that the next time something like this happens, the rest of the performing crew unites in support to protest the injustice.”

When The National contacted the violinist who wasn’t allowed to play, she declined to talk about the incident: “I wish to tell you that it does not interest me. I would rather focus on my music,” she said

Oddly enough, nobody in the Chennai music circles blames her for her reluctance to comment, because Carnatic music has traditionally been the bastion of men. In this rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal set-up, female performers don’t want to be seen as troublemakers, especially if they are young, because of the repercussions it could have on their career.

“It is unfortunate and terrible,” says pianist Anil Srinivasan, who works with a variety of performers, male and female. “But the only way forward is for women to band together and boycott all those musicians and percussionists who are saying such things. The audience should also show their support by boycotting concert halls that allow such ­inequality to go unchecked.”

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Anita Ratnam, a renowned classical dancer, says: “Senior male performers would rather accompany a junior and emerging male vocalist than sit beside an established and accomplished female singer. It is appalling. Nobody does anything about it, so the abuse continues. Female artists should speak out, not with anger but with confidence.”

Ghatam Karthick, a young percussionist who plays the ghatam (pot), gives some context. “Legendary percussionists such as Umayalpuram Sivaraman, T K Murthy and Palghat Raghu were used to accompanying exclusively male singers,” he says.

“Until the ‘trinity’ of female singers – D K Pattammal, M L Vasanthakumari and M S Subbulakshmi, who won the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian honour – found success, no male accompanist would work with women,” he says.

Karthick credits female singers and musicians for his big breaks. His first concert at the Madras Music Academy was with the well-known vocalist Charumathi Ramachandran, he went on his first foreign tour with the veena player Veena Gayathri, and says his career soared after he played alongside top female singers such as Sudha Ragunathan and Bombay Jayashri, who was ­nominated for an Academy Award for Pi’s Lullaby in Life of Pi (2013).
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“I owe everything to women,” Karthick says matter-of-factly, but agrees that no effort is being made to challenge senior male performers who practise gender discrimination.

“Will we need a Nirbhaya in the music world?” asks the eminent veena player Jayanthi Kumaresh, referring to the 2012 Delhi rape victim whose brutal death drew attention and galvanised support for improved attitudes towards women across India.

artslife@thenational.ae

Vimala Rangachar

Welcome to the Sanskrit Podcast where the ideas of ancient India meet the modern world.

Vimala Rangachar has been associated with fine arts and performing arts conservation movement of Karnataka for many years. She holds multiple positions of Chairperson of the Craft Council of Karanataka, Founder Member and President of M.E.S Institutions, President of the Natya Institute of Kathak and Choreography, President of the M.E.W.S Ladies Club, Malleshwaram, Bangalore, heading M.E.S Kalavedi, President of the Seva Sadan Orphanage, Hon. Secretary of the ADA Rangamandira, Committee Member, Gandhi Center for Science and Human Values- Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan.

In this episode, she discusses temple crafts of Karnataka.

Watch it on Youtube here.

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here

Identity and Culture

One more ode to my favorite garment: the sari.

How a simple, draped cloth defines a national aesthetic
Shoba Narayan

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November 19, 2014 Updated: November 19, 2014 07:07 PM

There are many ways to come at the concept called identity. Aesthetics is one of them. Every culture has a distinct aesthetic. Chinese poetry describes eyebrows like willow leaves; Japanese paintings celebrate women with white skin and rosebud-shaped lips; the Arab world emphasises the beauty of a woman’s eyes; Europeans pay attention to cut and silhouette and how it complements a woman’s body.
India, in contrast, is a culture of drapery, not tailoring. Even though we have fantastic tailors, we love hand-woven textiles. Women of my mother’s generation called it “the purity of the unstitched cloth that has not been sullied by a needle and thread”. Our saris are woven, as are our pashminas and the dupattas that we wear over our tunics.
That is the Indian aesthetic and I think it’s remarkable – because I cannot think of any culture that has this historical link to textiles the way early humans designed them. If you go the Louvre or to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and look at ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian art, you will see humans wearing draped cloth. The men and women wear textiles that are draped just like we Indians drape saris and, for the men, lungis.
Today, the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians have all migrated to tailored clothes. Nobody is wearing a toga on the streets of Rome these days. India is arguably the only civilisation that still has a vibrant culture of drapery, with a living connection to textiles that goes back tens of centuries. Even the Arabian abaya, which comes close in terms of draped cloth, is stitched, unlike the sari.
This is why I try to wear a sari as often as I can. Frankly, I am not very comfortable in it. Not as comfortable as my mother anyway. The women from previous generation could work and sleep in saris. But I love this tactile connection that I have with history, with my heritage and, indeed, the history of all textiles across all civilisations. The sari is a living emblem of the human connection with unstitched cloth.
Anthropologists look at things that are unique and specific to a particular culture. However, few researchers talk about the aesthetics. India is a culture of ornamentation. You can look at Kerala paintings – by Raja Ravi Varma, for example – and get an idea of the Indian fashion sense as it percolates down the centuries.
Take anklets, for example. They are distinctive Indian ornaments that are rarely found in other parts of the world. India has jewellery for pretty much every part of the body: the forehead, ears, nose and even ankles. Anklets jingle as a woman walks. My feminist Indian friends say that it is so the husband can keep tabs on his wife as she walks around the house. I think that the reasons are less about power and more about sensuality. The sweet sound of jingling anklets are a good way to drive out traffic noises. They are also Zen in that the sound of the anklets focus your mind as you walk.
Modern designers fetishise the leg. Shoe designers like Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo know that the arch of the heel is beautiful. They design their stilettos to emphasise this arch. But western designers have forgotten about the ankle and making it beautiful with an anklet. Indians didn’t forget.
In that sense, India is not like Scandinavia with its “less is more aesthetic”; nor it is like Japanese minimalism. We have a “more is more” aesthetic. For global business travellers who work in multiple cultures, there are many ways to understand the people that they interact with. One way is to observe a culture’s aesthetic.

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

Culture and Globalization

The Question of our Time.

How can we stay rooted in our own culture in a globalised world?
In a globalised world, it’s hard to define our respective culture by what we eat or how we dress up.
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Mike Young / The National

How can we stay rooted in our own culture in a globalised world?
Shoba Narayan

November 10, 2014 Updated: November 10, 2014 06:36 PM

What makes you who you are? Is it genes? Or culture? Is it the environment that you grow up in? If it is environment, what aspect of it influences you the most? Is it family, school, college, friends, teachers? These are the questions that interest me – culture and identity and how they dance with each other within a person and across time.

Why do some cultures transmit their values better than others? How does a culture reinforce identity?

I grew up in a fairly traditional south Indian family. Take a simple sentence like that. What does it mean when I say a “traditional south Indian family?” When I say it, I mean a few things that have to do with family, lifestyle and values.

The milieu that I grew up in involved a close relationship between generations, between grandparents, parents and children, all of whom either live in the same house or met each other often.

We ate foods that were contained to a region. Our daily meals were south Indian dishes like dosa and idli, mixed with the occasional north Indian dish.

We didn’t eat out very much, and when we did we went to Indian restaurants. We listened to Indian music – Carnatic music, Tamil and Hindi film songs.

We didn’t know too many foreigners and that was normal.

I remember the first few English movies that I saw. They were Poseidon Adventure and Towering Inferno. The fact that I remember them vividly perhaps means that I didn’t see many Hollywood movies.

We listened to a few western bands – Abba and Boney M — mostly to appear cool to our college friends. Although we tried to wear jeans and T-shirts, we were most comfortable in loose Indian clothes like the salwar kameez.

The fact that this list is so specific to a particular region and time says something about me. My time, the time when I absorbed external influences, was Madras in the 1970s and 1980s.

An Indian growing up in Kolkata or Mumbai, Darjeeling or Ahmednagar would have a different set of specifics; a different set of regional particularities. The food they ate, the clothes they wore, the books they read, the movies they watched – all would be different and specific to that region. But every region with a strong sense of identity operated (and perhaps still operates) within a narrow bandwidth in terms of the food they eat, the clothes they wear and the lifestyle they enjoy.

It seems to me that the more narrow your world is, the tighter your sense of identity. My parents grew up in small towns and their sense of self is very particular.

Today that is no longer possible because we live in a world where information and identity are very porous. There’s a lot of give-and-take.

Today, I wear western clothes as well as Indian clothes.

I bought a lovely scarf in Dubai, which is made by the French fashion house, Hermes; and I wear it in India, paired with a sari. Objects and values flying across cultures; global versus local, reflecting the shifting sands of time.

My question is this: how does one stay rooted and local while living in a global world? I realise that there is no one answer to this question, but what is yours? Is it Islam, or Arab values, or a language, a constitution, a culture?

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

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
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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