Parenting dilemmas

This piece is heartfelt.  The problem is that I don’t see any solution to this.  Sometimes, parenting seems like a crapshoot– you make certain decisions and hope they work out.  My elder daughter still hasn’t asked for a dog! Did we make the wrong call?

Here it is at The National’s site and pasted below.

Smart choices or luck? Good parenting demands both

On the day our much-adored but very sick Labrador died, we pulled my teenage daughter out of school. Our dog, Ginger, had suffered a chronic kidney failure and had been on antibiotics for six weeks. We had taken our pet to the vet every morning and afternoon for three hours of intravenous fluids, which included a cocktail of drugs.
Ginger had stopped eating for weeks. Towards the end, she stopped drinking. One afternoon, the vet informed us that the E coli infection that had invaded her kidneys had affected her brain. There was no recovery. She would die tomorrow if we stopped the fluids.

The next morning, our vet came to our home to administer an injection that would put our pet out of her misery. My husband and I debated over whether the kids needed to be present. We both agreed that it would be too much for our 10-year-old to watch her pet being put to sleep. It was our teenager that we were unclear about. Would it help her gain closure to be present? Or would it hurt her?

Parenting presents many dilemmas – each with no clear answer. You make decisions on behalf of your child and hope for the best. Your child is unhappy at boarding school. The teachers are mean, he says. He is getting bullied. The curriculum is uninspiring. He wants to come back home. You agonise over your child’s pain.

Here is another situation with no clear answer. Do you pull him out of school or do you leave him there in the hope that it will toughen him up? It’s a fork in the road and each choice will have consequences for your child.

Most parents solve such dilemmas by talking it over with other parents and friends, while recognising that the circumstances of their lives are different and that their child – like all children – is unique. One size definitely doesn’t fit all. But still, the first thing I do when I encounter parenting dilemmas is to phone friends who are going through similar experiences. Talking to them helps me process the situation. Even if I don’t follow their suggestions, knowing that they are in the same boat helps.

Sometimes external events can also help. We call this luck. My friend sent her son to boarding school. He hated it for years but later, much later, after he graduated as head boy and valedictorian, he thanked his parents for not pulling him out of school in spite of his weekly complaints.

What the boy didn’t know was how close his parents had come to driving up to the hills where the boarding school was and discharging him from the school he hated. They had to postpone their trip because a landslide had blocked the roads. Two weeks later, when the weather cleared and became sunny, so did the boy’s disposition. He stayed at the school that moulded him for life.

Recently, some friends have been asking me whether to get a pet. They know how much we enjoyed having our dog and how sad we were when she died. They also know that we will probably get another pet once we get over our grief. They call us to find out if having a dog in the house will be “good for the kids”.

Frankly, I tell them, having a pet often seemed like more work than it was worth. But there were also tender moments when I caught my kids lying on the floor, curled into a ball with our burly Labrador retriever. When they came home in a bad mood, or when they cried, Ginger would put her head on their lap and make them feel better. Every morning, she would come into the bedroom and our oxytocin levels would go up, simply because of her wagging tail and oh-so-beautiful eyes. Those benefits are hard to measure, I tell my friends.

But pets also involve chores – walking the dog, cleaning up their messes. The benefits of having one, much like parenting dilemmas, are not always obvious.

We pulled our teenager out of school so that she could be present during Ginger’s last moments. We still aren’t sure if we did the right thing. Did it give her closure or scar her for life? She says she is fine, but when we talk about getting another dog, she is the one who hesitates and asks us to “wait a while”.

Our younger daughter who wasn’t around when our pet died is ready to get another dog. So we sigh and wonder again and again: did we do the right thing?

We don’t know. I don’t think we’ll ever know.


Shoba Narayan is the author of Monsoon Diary: a memoir with recipes

Father’s Day column for The National

A piece I wrote for The National. Happy Fathers Day!

Father’s Day

Is being a father to a son different from being a father to a daughter? Shouldn’t be, right? After all, one of the central premises of parenting is to treat all your children with the same amount of love and affection. “You both are like my two eyes,” my mother used to say to my brother and I when we asked her which of us was her favorite. “How can I pick one over the other?”

It is a common theme. We parents bend over backwards in our effort to treat our kids fairly and equally. But we all know that we have embarked on an impossible quest. You may love all your kids equally but that does not mean that you will treat them equally. All said and done, a daughter is different from a son.

Nearly a decade ago, when my second daughter was a newborn, my wise journalism professor said something that I’ll never forget. David Klatell and I were talking about parenting. He is the father of two daughters and I mentioned that I had just given birth to my second daughter. “Your husband is a lucky man for he will have two girls who will adore him as long as they live,” said David. “Your life, on the other hand, will be a little more complicated.”

“A little?” I’ll say.

It’s been ten years now. My elder daughter is 14 and my younger one, ten. I can tell you now that David Klatell was right on the money. The father of two daughters has it easy (and I say this with a certain level of bitterness). On the days that I want to make myself feel better, I tell myself that the relationship that my girls share with my husband is not as multi-dimensional as what they share with me. My daughters love their father unreservedly and with an intensity that makes me envious. They are also scared of their father. When he raises his voice, which happens rarely, they run for cover. Fear and love, I tell myself, as I try to poke holes and pick flaws in their connection. That’s so limited; so stereotypical. It doesn’t have the many facets that I share with my girls. My daughters are embarrassed by me; they compete with me; lecture me; look up to me; love me; and hate me, often all at the same time. It is all so breathtakingly complicated. Isn’t that better? It’s got to be.

As I write this, my ten-year-old daughter, Malini, is making a Father’s Day card for her Dad. It has a garden, butterflies, blue skies, flowers, a rainbow, sunshine, hills, a father and a daughter holding hands. It is uncomplicated, just like their relationship. I envy that.

As a psychology student, I studied the Oedipal and Electra complexes in which sons competed with fathers and daughters competed with mothers. I see shades of that in my household, but even that, oversimplifies things. Sure, my girls compete with me, but they compete with their Dad too. They want to dress differently from me; they want to be “cooler” than their Mom. Their struggles with their Dad are deeper. They want to make their father— this alien creature— see their point of view. They yearn for his approval in a way that is different, and somehow deeper, than what they seek from me.

Our children learn a lot from us. But most of all, they learn how to be men and women from us. If you are lucky enough to be the father of daughters, you have got one entire segment of their growing up out of the way. Your daughters don’t look to you to figure out how to be women. Freed of that parenting constraint, they can simply adore you.

Happy Father’s Day!

The trouble with teenagers

I hope my daughter doesn’t read this. For The National.

My life: The trouble with teenagers
Shoba Narayan
May 18, 2011 Updated May 18, 2011 5.12pm

At a party recently, I asked a close friend what I considered an innocuous question. “How is Vivek?” I asked, referring to her son who had just graduated from Brown University and had returned home.

“I don’t know how to talk to him anymore,” my friend replied forcefully. “He is 22 years old and still hasn’t decided what to do with his life. He wants to take a year off to figure it out. What’s there to figure out? I knew I wanted to be a doctor when I was eight years old.”

“Things are different these days,” I murmured sympathetically. “Kids have choices. Not like how it was when we were growing up.”

“But he should at least tell me what’s on his mind,” my friend continued, barely registering what I had said. “He should tell me his plans, instead of floating about the house in limbo, answering in monosyllables.”

The teenage years are tough. Everyone tells me that. But as a parent whose first child has just become a teenager, I can tell you that the toughest thing is the silence that suddenly emerges like a chasm between you and the child who was once a part of you, who was once almost an appendage.

I used to be able to tell my daughter anything, and usually did once every few minutes from dawn to dusk. “Brush your teeth. Don’t forget your lunch box. Remember the library book. Did you finish your homework? Eat your vegetables. No TV if you don’t finish music practice. Clean up your room, young lady, or else… That’s it, you are grounded.”

And so it went.

My daughter’s moods were simple and transparent. I knew exactly what was on her mind, whether it was the oft-repeated “I don’t want to” or the resigned “Yes, Mom, I did my homework” to the querulous “I didn’t make the mess. Why should I clean up?”

The point was that I felt connected to her – until she became a teenager, until the wall of silence descended.

Nowadays I find myself holding back, figuring out just what to say to her, when to bring up issues and how to discipline her without having her pull back from me.

On the other hand, when my nine-year-old spills “ghost medicine” – a mix of shampoo, moisturiser, mouthwash and anything else she can find – all over her bed, I yell at her: “How many times have I told you not to mix ghost medicine on my bed?”

Young children are physically draining, especially if you don’t have household help. However, now that I have a teenager, what I appreciate is that young children offer parents a certain mental and emotional liberty that goes down as the years go by.

When my teenager comes home late from a party that I didn’t want her to go to in the first place, I cannot yell the first thing that comes to mind, because I need information from her. I need to find out who was there at the party and what they were up to. I need her to trust me enough to reveal her thoughts and actions. Yelling is the quickest way to shut her up and close her down.

I have to follow the parental version of Aristotle’s decree: “Anyone can get angry – that is easy. But to get angry with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way – that is not easy.”

Even more so when the person in question is your teenage child.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.

How to bring up kids?

This is something I think about a lot. While I know that there is no magic formula for parenting, chasing one seems unavoidable if you are a parent. Whether you are a teacher, or a parent, or run summer camps, dealing with kids is an engrossing puzzle simply because there doesn’t seem to be one right method. The variables are too many– the kid, the adult, the situation, the kid’s personality, the adult’s personality, the other children involved, the history….the list goes on. But still we keep trying.

I am very fond of this piece. I wrote it a while ago and kept tinkering with it and tinkering with it. Here is the link in Mint Lounge and below is a cut and paste version.

Is an iPod their birthright?
The realization usually comes as a wake-up call after a question or a comment
The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

The summer holidays are looming. The children will be home. What are you going to do? Send them to camp? Fly off on a holiday to the Caribbean? Ask them to do chores around the house? Or all of the above?

One of the first things Michelle Obama did after entering the White House was tell the staff not to make her children’s beds. She wanted her girls to do chores, just like she did while growing up. Later, in a television interview, Obama told Barbara Walters that her children definitely believed in Santa Claus. Why? Because their parents would never buy them so many gifts at one time.

Obama’s quest to keep her daughters “grounded” while in the White House reflects a conflict that most upwardly mobile urban parents face today: how to enjoy the fruits of your labour without turning your children into spoiled brats.

The realization usually comes as a wake-up call after a question or a comment. Your teenage son casually asks for another iPod because he lost his barely month-old one during a school excursion. You take your Delhi-bred children to a beloved aunt’s home in Dharwad and your nine-year-old refuses to go to the Indian bathroom at her house. Your seven-year-old asks, right in front of your retired relatives, “Why aren’t we staying at a five-star hotel?” It is usually after events such as these that realization dawns: You are raising your children with a warped sense of the world. Not intentionally, but not wholly without fault either.

It is a familiar tale among the upwardly mobile and here are some conversational snippets that I hear over and over again.

“Both my husband and I grew up in middle-class families. Summer holidays were spent with grandparents and cousins. Nowadays, we travel abroad for holidays. We think of our vacations as annual indulgences. The only problem is that our children see this as a way of life—because they know no other.”

“My wife and I love gizmos. Our home is filled with them. After working 60-hour weeks, we feel that we have earned our right to enjoy them. The problem is that our children see our gizmo-laden large home, and multiple cars as their lifestyle, as their birthright. They don’t realize how much hard work went into it.”

“I celebrated my son’s fifth birthday with magicians, face painters, the works. I give him all the things I never had growing up. But he is no happier than I was, growing up. Rohan is always looking for the next new toy. What worries me is the thought that I am foisting a skewed set of values. Am I buying him things because I cannot spend time with him?”

“Does consumerism reduce character? As a parent, is it your duty to build your child’s character? What is the role of a parent?”

As with almost everything with respect to parenting, there are no formulas, else the world would be full of perfect children. One school of thought takes the “less is more” approach. In lectures and articles, steel baron Andrew Carnegie asserts that successful people have the “advantage of being cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty”. Carnegie goes further. He says there is “nothing so enervating, nothing so deadly” to great achievement than hereditary wealth. More recently, on his trip to India, Warren Buffett said, “Personally, I would much prefer not to be born rich.”

Most parents of this generation intuit that. We want to indulge our children but not spoil them. We want to give them the opportunities that were denied to us but don’t want them to feel entitled. We resist putting them on what happiness scholars call “the hedonistic treadmill” where they want more and more instead of being contented, even happy, with what they have. Simply put, we don’t want them to feel deprived but we don’t want them to feel rich either.

Carnegie believed that character springs out of hardship. Troubles test our mettle and conquering hurdles builds character. The trick is identifying what characteristics you want your children to imbibe. Most of us cherish this nebulous construct called “middle-class values”, but would be hard-pressed to define it. Some of it has to do with hunger, ambition and hard work; but most of it has to do with grace in the face of adversity, a porous sense of personal space, unconscious acts of generosity and never giving up.

Growing up privileged doesn’t automatically mean that you will become, as Carnegie fears, a wastrel. Witness Bill Gates or Anand Mahindra. Can children learn character in a comfortable setting, untested as they are in Carnegie’s school of poverty? Even if you buy into Carnegie’s theory, translating that into action is difficult. Does gifting your daughter an iPhone prevent her from learning the virtues of thrift? Where is the line between indulging our children and giving them a false sense of entitlement?

Solutions might include examining your own choices and seeing how they affect your children. For example, you might decide to fly business class when travelling alone and economy when travelling with your children. Another method would be to give your children routine responsibilities and chores such as making the bed or setting the dinner table. One family I know takes their children to volunteer at an orphanage during Christmas.

In the end, what helps (or hinders, depending on your point of view) parenting is the fact that there are so many factors involved. All we can do is make choices that seem right at that moment and hope that things turn out okay. After all, “slumdogs” can become millionaires and a black man with an Islamic middle name can live in the White House, both of which, as it turns out, happened without much parenting at all.

Shoba Narayan hopes that her children have good genes. They need all the help they can get, given her erratic parenting style. Write to her at

Sleepovers for The National M magazine

I am part of a rotating group of columnists who write for The National’s M magazine. My editor, Rick Arthur has the courteousness of a Southern gentleman but having never met him, I don’t know if he is American or not.

A teenage daughter’s sleepover can fray a mother’s nerves
Shoba Narayan
Last Updated: Feb 23, 2011

My 14-year-old daughter, Ranjini, wants to go for a sleepover. This isn’t a simple proposition in my household. I am generally against sleepovers. This, I believe, is an Eastern attitude, and comes from the tradition of joint families, with all their incestuous complications.

When I grew up in India in the Seventies, the concept of sleepovers didn’t exist. During the summers, our entire family congregated at my grandparents’ ancestral home in Kerala. About 15 cousins slept under the same roof every night for about a month. We stayed up late, whispering secrets under the eaves and sharing jokes. Such enforced closeness brought us together, but also taught us about human frailty. There was the uncle who hugged the young girls for longer than was needed; there was the elderly aunt who was known to be a kleptomaniac (everything was locked when she came to visit); there was the cousin who shocked our Hindu family by eloping with a Muslim boy. Living with myriad family taught us children all the things that today’s kids glean through sleepovers, but in a much more intense, prolonged way.

On the odd occasion when my daughters attend sleepovers, they talk about staying up late and giggling under the covers, about raiding the fridge at night and about making pancakes for breakfast. My own childhood “sleepovers” taught me a lot more. I learnt that two people who were fantastic as individuals could bicker all summer in a dysfunctional marriage. I learnt that sleeping on a hard floor in a room full of women gave me the comfort of being in a womb and a sweetness of sleep that I haven’t experienced since. I learnt to look away when my grandfather belched after a delicious meal. I learnt that there were people – aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins – who would love me no matter what. I learnt that these same people were not paragons of virtue, but flawed, complicated humans who could talk about generosity but act in a manner that was anything but. Living in a large family was like being in a permanent sleepover.

Today, I have to balance my own experience with my daughter’s expectations. I come up with rules that sound arbitrary, even to my own ears. When she was young, I told her that sleepovers were not allowed at all since I didn’t know her friends’ parents. As the years passed and I got to know other families, I changed the rule. She couldn’t go to the homes of her friends who had elder brothers, I said.

“Why?” she cried.

“Because I don’t want you around hormonal teenage boys,” I blurted out.

“Ma, this is so weird. All my friends are going to be there,” she replied.

I had nothing to say. How could I tell my daughter about straying, predatory hands that touched me in the middle of the night? How could I tell this innocent creature who thought she was tough enough to handle anything about feeling vulnerable within your own family?

Ranjini did go to the sleepover at her friend Tina’s house. Turns out that other Indian parents share my mindset. Faced with the prospect of 10 teenage girls sleeping over at her home, Tina’s mother sensibly sent her 18-year-old son away for his own sleepover.

All of us mothers with daughters breathed easy. And 10 squealing teenage girls stayed up all night and had a wonderful time.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.

Passage to India for House Beautiful

It was a dog-dripping-sweat summer’s day in Southern Kerala, when ravens took refuge under drooping jacaranda, and donkeys lay spread-eagled on muddy wayside pools.

We were speeding along the narrow coastal road, the black Fiat rattling ominously with every bump. On one side was the aquamarine glare of the Arabian sea and on the other, the dense green foliage of the coastal palms. Hot air rushed at my face through the open window, steering beads of sweat down my nape. I felt cramped and sticky, my head was groggy from jet lag, and every bone begged to be horizontal. Yet I couldn’t stop my heart from rising like a hot air balloon and bringing a smile to my lips. I was going home!

Like for most immigrants, home, for me, was usually a memory. I went back every year to reclaim and relive those memories when I visited Vaikom House. It had been a long journey- JFK, London, Madras, then by a small local plane to Kerala airport where Ranga had picked us up for the two-hour drive to Vaikom House.

Ranga had been a curly haired, bright eyed lad of eighteen when he drove us to nursery school. Now in his sixties, he still maintained and drove the two ancient Fiats in Vaikom House. Ranga veered sharply to avoid some peasant boys who had darted on the road. Cursing softly, he slowed down as a herd of elephants surrounded the car to cross the road. I turned around in delight, but the girls and my husband were fast asleep. One of the elephants thumped the road with dung as she crossed. My smile widened. Welcome to Kerala!

Kerala state extended like a finger, along the South Indian coast. It was a land of long beaches and waving coconut palms, of lush tropical trees that fairly burst with nature’s bounty- ripe mangoes all year round, jack fruit, tapioca, cashews, rubber, cardamom, and of course, the ubiquitous coconuts.

Our village, Vaikom, was a little inland. It didn’t have the kisses and caresses of the Arabian sea to soothe and calm its people. Instead, the turbulent Noorni river flowed through it. Four religions- the Christians, converted by St. Thomas, the Muslim migrants from the North, the Hindus and the Jews- had coexisted in sporadic harmony, and over the years, produced a handsome, distinctive race of people.

Keralite women had long, dark hair, and the golden skin that they inherited from the Portuguese spice traders who had sought Kerala’s shores. They had the voluptuous figures that were captured in so many Indian sculptures. Their flashing eyes, flaring skirts, tight blouses that exposed bare midriffs, and swaying, sensual walk, would all have seemed openly erotic were it not so casually displayed.

The men were hirsute and stocky, with eyes that were permanently hooded from the potent Kallu liquor that they imbibed in large quantities. Like their Portuguese forefathers, they took pride in their masculinity. Their sense of humor, however, was all Indian- self effacing, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. They would argue for hours about communism, and ever so often, like the coming of a monsoon cyclone, they would take up their knives to settle a quarrel.

The volatile tempers and simmering passions of Vaikom village were good business for my grandfather- a criminal lawyer, a superb one at that. The entire village called him Swami, which meant God. My grandmother was referred to in a less grandiose fashion as Akka, which meant elder sister. Legend had it that men in drunken brawls would yell that they had Swami on their side before sinking a knife into another man’s throat.

My grandparents were an odd couple. Swami was a tall, imposing man, with dark skin, penetrating eyes, and a sharp nose. Like most brahmin men of his generation, the front half of his head was shaved, and his long hair knotted at his nape. He was a strict, stern disciplinarian who followed a rigorous routine all his life. Swami rarely smiled, and spoke only when it was necessary.

Akka, on the other hand, was short, round, and garrulous. She had the cheerful fatalism of someone who had given up trying to control her world. She was always busy, fussing over people, feeding them, taking in strays, hovering over projects that never seemed to get done, and holding multiple conversations, all at the same time. Her sisters-in-law clicked their tongues disapprovingly and said that Akka ran Vaikom House like it was a railway station.

They were waiting for us when we got home. I greeted my aunts and uncles, hugged my brothers and sisters-in-law as we climbed up the wide, shallow steps that lead to the open verandah. Akka and Swami were standing at the threshold, holding the arati, as they always did when we returned.

“Come, come! We are all waiting for you,” Akka smiled as she circled the lamp around us in a traditional welcome.

They had aged, even since last year! Akka had lost weight, Swami’s tall frame was bent. They looked frail and delicate, like they got tired easily. Like old people! Would I see them next year? I pursed my lips rebelliously and sighed. Nothing would happen to them. No point thinking about it.

“How was the journey?” Swami asked my husband with the courtesy that he reserved for the sons-in-law of the family.

As the others went in, I paused on the threshold and gazed around slowly. The swing, the unruly garden, the hole in the verandah wall, everything was just the same. The huge hall was still bare, its red tiled floor burnished by hundreds of bare feet walking over it. In one corner were the stacked bamboo chairs, brought out for visitors. I took a deep breath, reveling in the smell of magnolias and mango. It was so good to be home!

They had a feast waiting for us- puffy rice muffins, called idlis with coconut chutney, crepe-like dosas with spicy sambar, two kinds of sweets, three kinds of curries, yogurt, pickles and popadam. Banana leaves lined the floor of the hall, as we sat down in batches- the children and men first, then the women, and finally, the servants.

After lunch, we went upstairs to unpack the gifts. I had brought Yardley powders, boxes of candy, stainless steel cookware, Revlon lipsticks, Oxford dress shirts, and an assortment of toys, pencil boxes, hair clips and imitation jewelry for the children.

My great, great grandfather bought Vaikom House from a British army colonel in 1857. A handsome, two-storied bungalow, it has housed my family ever since. Ours was a joint family back then, and Vaikom House was perfect for it. There were numerous eaves, nook and crannies, that a child- lost in the anonymity of a large family- could take refuge in, or make into a special place.

The house wasn’t built for privacy. There were four small cubicles around the hall. Swami used one cubicle as his office. The remaining three cubicles were used by the elder three sons and their wives as “private” rooms. My parents, being the youngest, only got a curtained cubicle in one corner of the hall.

Upstairs was another large room where the children slept, with Ayah somewhere in the middle. Akka and Swami had a bedroom upstairs and slept in it when it wasn’t being used for deliveries, or to accommodate guests.

With over a dozen children, and a dozen adults in the house, something was always happening. Children fell sick and recovered; couples fought and reconciled; babies were born, usually in the middle of the night, upstairs in Akka’s bedroom with the help of a local midwife. Cousins got engaged or married, and all the ceremonies were conducted in the house. Relatives visited for a few days, or stayed for a few months. People from far and near came to seek Swami’s legal advice and Akka’s reassurance.

Then, there was the staff: an ayah to look after the children, two servants to clean the house, a cook, a gardener, a driver, and two law clerks who ran errands in between taking down case-notes.

Being children, Ayah was our main contact with the rest of the household. She was a thin, wrinkled woman of nebulous age, and a permanent frown of concentration as she tried to keep track of her errant charges.

Every morning, the white-washed walls of the House were bathed in the orange and yellow hues of a tropical dawn. A crack in the sloping, red-tiled roof caused a shaft of sunshine to shine right on Akka’s eyes, prompting her to wake up. Generations in my family have argued over whether the crack on the bedroom roof was natural, or the work of my great grandfather, who wanted his coffee at the crack of dawn.

Ayah would wake us up at 5.30. Muttering sleepily, we would troop downstairs, where Swami would be waiting for us. We would follow him to the Noorni river that linked every backyard in the village. As Swami stood at the edge of the river, and washed himself dignifiedly with small buckets of water, the fourteen of us would get neck-deep, clothes and all, into the fiercely cold river.

Swami would finish his morning ablutions and look up. This was our cue. Together, we would sing the Sanskrit hymns and chants that he had taught us. Swami believed that every brahmin child ought to know the Sanskrit verses that were codified in the Vedas. It was his opinion that singing in neck-deep water, at dawn, would strengthen our voices. We detested that opinion with a passion, but were powerless to do anything about it. As the sun’s rays warmed our heads, our voices would lose the hoarseness of sleep and sulkiness. Half an hour later, we would finish the chants in beautiful harmony.

Nodding slightly, Swami would return to the house. We would wait quietly, till his footsteps died away. Then, all our pent up energy and resentment would explode as we wrestled and paddled the fast-flowing river.

All too soon, Ayah would come to tell us that it was time for school. With ancient instinct and innate negotiating skills, she would cajole and threaten fourteen boisterous, temperamental children out of the river and ready for school.

At breakfast, the young ones would whine that they didn’t want to go to school. The older kids would argue over who was the fastest swimmer. Akka would fuss over Swami in between admonishing us half-heartedly to keep our voices down. Every now and then, Swami would look up from his silver plate. Immediately, there would be silence. Till the first voice started whispering.

The annual shraadam usually happened halfway through our vacation. It was an elaborate day-long ceremony, when the entire clan gathered to pay obeisance to our ancestors. On shraadam day, we woke up at dawn and took a hurried dip in the river. The staff had been given a day off. The women gathered in the kitchen to prepare the feast that would feed the twelve brahmin priests, two cows, our entire family and all the crows in the neighborhood. Crows were supposed to carry the souls of our forefathers, so the more crows we fed, the better it was for our lineage.

There were strict rules: dairy couldn’t mix with grains, everything had to be fresh and prepared according to a menu and recipes that had been decided on generations ago. The young ones rushed between the store room and the stove, carrying grains, shredded coconut, vegetables, water, and spices; my cousins and I did the prep work, and our mothers helped Akka preside over the stove. The men meanwhile, got the brick fire-pit ready in the hall. Inside were stacks of dung, twigs and wood shavings.

At 7.30, the twelve brahmin priests arrived. The lit the fire and began chanting in stentorian voices, bringing back images of the numerous shraadams, marriages, birth ceremonies and engagements that had been conducted in years past. As Akka said, if the walls of Vaikom House had mouths, they would chant in Sanskrit. Swami, whose knowledge of Sanskrit verse was as good as any priest joined them with gusto. The rest of the men sat in a circle and did what they were told.

Four hours later, the priests summoned us from the kitchen. By then, the cooking was done. All of us squeezed into a circle around the dancing fire. As the smoke rose, the priests invoked eight generations of our ancestors by name.

“Carry this ghee, O Agni, Lord of Fire, to the ancestors of this family! Bless the procreation of this lineage! Shower them with health, wealth and happiness!” the priests chanted as we stepped forward, one by one, and poured the sacred ghee into the fire.

I went shopping the next day. Everytime I returned to the States, I took back bits of Kerala with me. I was never satisfied. This time, I had already bought a peacock fan that would be perfect for the mantelpiece, even though it would crowd the Buddhas, brass elephants and lacquer candlesticks that were already there.

Finally, hot and hungry, I returned to the House and collapsed on the swing. The swing was a wooden plank, the size of a bed. It was suspended on four long chains from the ceiling and was the only piece of furniture in the spacious verandah. The swing was a good way to cool off on a hot afternoon. It was also a good way to indulge in nostalgia.

The swing was where Swami dictated his case-notes after breakfast. Akka took her afternoon nap there, servants gossiped, clients waited to see Swami, husbands and wives exchanged confidences. But in the evening, the swing belonged to the children.

About a dozen of us would clamber on the swing and play an endless game of Train. The swing would become a magic train that visited exotic locations like Paris, Sudan, Korea and nearby Madras, all in one evening. My elder brother, Kannan, by virtue of his knowledge of geography, always got to be the ticket collector.

“Paris, next stop!” he would call in a official voice. “And Madagascar after that. Have you got your tickets?”

The driver’s job was up for grabs, and there was always a furious fight for it. Since Swami played cards at the Club in the evening, we could get as loud as we wanted.

Two acres of property surrounded the house. And since Akka’s idea of a garden was to let whatever grew grow, the garden had become a veritable forest. Fragrant jasmine creepers twined around jack fruit trees, pinegrass grew under papaya. Neem trees sprouted in the oddest places and since they were considered to be the abode of ghosts, we were strictly warned to keep away from them. Crows cawed constantly, monkeys chattered and gossiped as they swung from tree to tree, parrots called nasty names and flew away hurriedly, and at night, the mournful croak of the tree frog put us to sleep.

Ayah told us stories every night. Sometimes it was from ancient Indian epics, about virtuous kings and dutiful queens; sometimes it was from the Pancha Tantra, stories that always ended with a riddle. If we were really good, Ayah would tell us ghost stories.

Vaikom House was filled with ghosts. As a child, I was always tripping over them. I remember the sultry summer afternoon when I retreated into the cool folds of the great banyan tree in one corner of the property. The afternoon breeze, the gentle swaying of the tree, all lulled me into somnolence.

Suddenly, there was a loud, horrified scream. I opened my eyes to find Ayah standing below, gesticulating wildly for me to come down. As soon as my feet touched the ground, Ayah dragged me into the house and into the bathroom. Holding my slithering body in a vice-like grip, she began pouring bucket after bucket of water over me.

“Wretched girl!” she hissed. “Who asked you to go into the banyan tree? Don’t you know that Taylor Sahib’s ghost resides there? Your mother is going to kill me when she finds out about this.” Ayah doused me with water compulsively, as if that would exorcise the ghost out of my body.

“He was an evil man, that Taylor Sahib! He committed suicide, as a sort of revenge, after he sold your great, great grandfather this bungalow. Hung himself on the banyan tree. And you, wretched girl, have gone and stirred up his ghost! What am I going to do with you?”

Ayah twisted my ear, and poured another bucket of water. My mind was teeming with questions. Why had Taylor sahib hung himself? Why had he wanted revenge against my great, great, grandfather? Why did he sell his house if he wanted revenge? But the buckets of cold water numbed my senses and discouraged questions.

The whole household watched me for a week after that, to see if Taylor sahib’s ghost had entered my head. Ayah, especially, followed me everywhere, looking for signs of aberrant behavior. I wasn’t allowed to nap in the afternoon, in case the ghost further penetrated my head. Finally, they decided that I was untainted and let down the vigil.

The banyan tree became magical to me after that. With a child’s flexible imagination, I attributed many things to the tree. Every type of ghost and gremlin resided in it. Some were good ghosts that brought pots of gold and hid them under the banyan tree. Others were satanic, and had to be fought and vanquished. The branches became my weapons, the tree my fort. I would scurry up the branches, swing down the long secondary roots that hung on all sides, and camoflouage myself within the green fronds. I was princess, pauper, spy and warrior, all at once.

The most prominent ghost in Vaikom House was a woman. Ayah called her Mohini. She was supposed to take the guise of a beautiful young woman, lure young men behind a tree, and slap them into stone figures.

“When you come back home at night, and hear tinkling anklets behind you, DON’T look back,” Ayah would warn in a hushed voice. “That’s Mohini, just waiting for you to turn. She will rush at you, slap you dead and suck your blood.”

“Don’t worry!” Ayah would reassure our rounded eyes. “She can’t do anything unless you look back. And she will do everything to make you look back- laugh so melodiously that you will think it is music, waft a fragrance so wonderful, you will want to turn and find out where it is coming from. But Don’t Look Back! Or you will become stone.”

On full moon nights, we would gaze out of the attic window, wrapped securely in blankets. Our eyes would roam the speckled landscape, straining to catch a glimpse of Mohini’s flowing white sari, listening for the sound of her silver anklets. The coconut palms would rustle in the breeze, the shadows of the full moon would ripple through the darkness. Mohini was definitely taking a walk that night!

This article originally appeared in April 1995.
Copyright © 2001 House Beautiful. All rights reserved.


I used to be the Hinduism columnist for Beliefnet when it began years ago. When it got acquired, I even got stock options for which. They have a page for me here but most of my articles are archived under the Hinduism banner.
Beliefnet’s Search page which has all my stories.

Here are some of the topics and links.

The Meaning of a Guru

I have to admit that I have trouble with the whole ‘guru’ thing. Guru means teacher in Sanskrit, but it connotes much more than that. A guru is someone who removes your ignorance, without whom you cannot attain the knowledge you are seeking.
Delaying Puberty with Yoga.

Pop Karma: My Name is Earl TV show.

Ritual Initiation: Varalakshmi Puja

Rama: Beloved Avatar

Saying a Traditional Goodbye

Yoga as Middle Path

Loving with no strings attached

The Incomparable M.S. Subbulakshmi

Decoding Destiny with the I-Ching

Incarnations of the Mother Goddess

May Hanuman be with you

Soy: soul food or spiritual sham

Stop Building Hindu Temples

Bah, Humbug!

Confessions of a Closet Vegetarian

Fashionably Devout

Just Say No to Turkey Propaganda: Hindu Thanksgiving Recipes

End to Passive Resistance
Indian or Hindu: One, Both or Neither?

Karma’s a Drag
– Movement Meditation
Shortcut to Spirituality

Stripping the Soul out of Yoga

The Vasthu Vibe

Tuning Out the Teletubbies
Vegetarian Nirvana

Time Magazine

I did a number of pieces for Time magazine. Here they are.
You can also find them at the Time magazine Search site here

The Parent Trap
By Shoba Narayan May 31, 2007
How do you warn your kids about child predators without sacrificing their innocence?

Being Mohandas
By Shoba Narayan Apr 12, 2007
A new biography on Gandhi provides a tantalizing glimpse into the man inside the saint

Building a Greener World: Architects: Natasha Iype and Jeeth Iype
By Shoba Narayan Apr 27, 2007
In India, building green can mean promoting a return to traditional living arrangements
| view cover

The Oil Boom
By Shoba Narayan Jun 24, 2005
Forget the Med. Some of the world’s best olive oil comes from farther south

Whey to Go
By Shoba Narayan Apr 16, 2005
New Zealand’s cheesemakers have lifted their game

Time Traveler
By Shoba Narayan Apr 16, 2005
Waterworld. Like Eleanor, you’ll fall for this rainforest marvel

Malaysian Sensation
By Shoba Narayan Apr 04, 2005
The new Four Seasons Langkawi brims with local flavors

Amuse Bouche: Food Fight
By Shoba Narayan Feb 20, 2005
Singapore helped kick-start fusion cuisine—now it leads the backlash

Amuse Bouche
By Shoba Narayan Aug 16, 2004
Their Daily Bread: When in Turkey, try some gozleme

Nothing Doing
By Shoba Narayan Apr 12, 2007
At Maia, it’s all sleep, eat, spa, sleep

Cruise Control
By Shoba Narayan Mar 01, 2007
Small liners and private charters allow you to sail Asian waters in sedate style

India’s Lust for Luxe
By Shoba Narayan Apr 03, 2006
India’s nouveaux riches are spending like never before, and high-end retailers from Hermès to Tiffany are eager to oblige

Thread Of Hope
By Shoba Narayan Feb 09, 2006
Indian weavers say they have a wearable cure for skin ailments

Game Show
By Shoba Narayan Oct 30, 2005
African game lodges are modernizing their act

The Smell Of Success
By Shoba Narayan Sep 04, 2005
Slick restaurants are mushrooming in the Indian boomtown of Bangalore

Hidden Gem
By Shoba Narayan Mar 14, 2005
Hard bargaining for precious stones in Santiago

The Reds Are Coming
By Shoba Narayan Feb 07, 2005
N.Z.’s white wines are popular, but the other sort are the ones to watch

Their Daily Bread
By Shoba Narayan Aug 15, 2004
Preparing gozleme the traditional way

Amuse Bouche: their daily bread: Time magazine

Two hours southeast of the Turkish capital of Ankara lies a surreal landscape of giant pink rocks carved by nature into phantasmagoric formations. Locals call the area Cappadoccia, or “fairy chimneys,” and at nearly every roadside stop, there’s a stall selling gozleme�the flat bread native to the region. A mixture of feta cheese, parsley, vegetables and spices is wrapped in dough and sizzled over a hot griddle until perfectly crisp. Gozleme is tangier than an Indian paratha, more robust than a French crepe, and altogether delicious.
Cappadocians eat gozleme for breakfast, lunch and dinner (usually with a refreshing glass of ayran, a frothy yogurt drink). Newer restaurants in the area offer various kinds, including those stuffed with eggplant or mushrooms. While purists may scoff at such modern varieties and argue that there can only be three types of gozleme�cheese, spinach or potato�travelers needn’t be limited by such local controversies. Enjoy gozleme in whatever form you find it.


Amuse Bouche: Food Fight: Time magazine

Emmanuel Stroobant, chef of Singaporean popular restaurant Saint Pierre, serves a signature wok-fried foie gras with tetaki of Japanese squid, julienne of Parma ham with warm yogurt jelly and black peppercorn reduction. But ask him if he is a fusion chef, and he balks. “I guess I am,” he says, “but I don’t like the word fusion.”

“Fusion has become a bad word in Singapore,” says food-and-beverage consultant Peter Knipp, whose company organizes the city-state’s annual World Gourmet Summit. “People use it as an excuse to mix ridiculous ingredients, charge double the prices and upset a lot of people.”

It wasn’t always this way. Singapore was in the avant-garde of the fusion trend of the early ’90s. Knipp, who has lived here for 26 years, can remember a time when every high-end restaurant jumped on the fusion bandwagon, mixing caviar with cumin and foie gras with fennel. Some combinations were daring�such as naturally sweet cod fish and salty miso�but most were mediocre at best. “A lot of chefs don’t know how to use Asian ingredients,” says Stroobant.

Nowadays, while restaurants in London and New York are still discovering “exotic” spices and techniques ranging from tamari (a wheat-free soy sauce) to tagines, most of fusion’s earliest supporters in Singapore have turned turtle. “It simply doesn’t work,” says Gunther Hubrechsen, chef at Les Amis, arguably Singapore’s best French restaurant. Part of the reason is simple snob value. To class-conscious Singaporeans, fusion cuisine has become down-market. How could it be otherwise, when it’s the mundane fodder of food courts? Pandan tuna wraps, Peking duck pizzas and (the horror! The horror!) green-tea frappuccinos are freely available. So are Singapore’s traditional syncretic cuisines. Long before fusion godfather Jean-Georges Vongerichten was mixing tamarind with truffles, local hawkers were fusing ingredients with aplomb. Nyonya cuisine (Chinese-Malay), Mamak food (Indian-Malay), and kaya toast (English toast with coconut-egg custard) are all fusion foods, doled out daily to office workers for $2 a pop. That’s why class-conscious diners are being drawn to less chewed-over culinary styles.

“Why would you want to spend $400 on food that is better prepared at your hawker stall for $2?” asks Chung Ho Shi, the Hong Kong-born chef of the Golden Peony restaurant in the Conrad Centennial Hotel, where Jackie Chan likes to stay and eat high-end Cantonese food. “Fusion got pretty screwed up in the late ’90s, with chefs putting too many flavors on the same plate�a little coconut milk, some smoked salmon, some curry,” says Otto Weibel, director of kitchens of the Raffles Group and president of the Singapore Chefs Association. “That’s not fusion; that’s confusion cuisine.”

In the past few years, several high-end restaurants in Singapore that served fusion cuisine�like the Japanese-European Centro 360�have closed. Others have refashioned their menus to make them more representative of one culinary culture. Last year, Weibel changed the focus of Raffles’ Jaan restaurant from French-Cambodian to modern French. At Equinox, on top of the adjacent Raffles City complex, he has gone to great lengths to assure diners that they can choose between “pure Western and pure Asian cuisine,” cooked in two separate kitchens.

How are overseas chefs reacting to Singapore’s fusion backlash? Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia, of London’s modern Indian restaurant Rasoi Vineet Bhatia, was shocked when he flew in to be guest-chef for a week at local haute Indian restaurant Rang Mahal. “To call something fusion in Singapore is taboo,” he says, “because people think it is bastardized food.” Culinary faddists be warned: if Singapore’s chefs are any indication, you’d best send back that salmon tikka pizza and get your nose out of the lemongrass lobster bisque.