Living Wills

I first read about this in the Deccan Herald newspaper. I saw the name Periyakoil (which is a Tamilian name). That got me intrigued about the lady behind the name and so this article began.
For Quartz.

It’s time for Americans to start thinking about how they wish to die

By Shoba Narayan 5 hours ago
Shoba Narayan is a writer in Bangalore. She is the author of “Return to India” and “Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.”

The default, if unconscious assumption when you fall ill and are admitted into a hospital is that the doctors will give you the best possible care—that they would do unto you what they would want to have done to themselves. We’d like to think this is true but a new study reveals an area of hypocrisy: a startlingly high percentage of doctors, 88.3% it turns out, do not want high intensity, invasive care at the end of their lives even though they provide such care to their patients.

Indeed, many of them jokingly talk about having “DNR” (Do No Resuscitate) tattooed on their chest, according to Vyjeyanthi S. Periyakoil of the Stanford School of Medicine who is the lead author of the study, “Do Unto Others: Doctors’ Personal End-of-Life Resuscitation Preferences and Their Attitudes toward Advance Directives” published in May in PLOS.

The study raises questions about why medical practitioners make such persistent efforts to prolong the life of hopelessly and critically ill patients while choosing to avoid such a circumstance for themselves. Medical practitioners acknowledge that most aging and critically-ill patients do not want aggressive treatments. Indeed, the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care indicates that 80% of patients wish to avoid hospitalization at the end of their lives. Yet, in the crisis of the moment, or in the momentum of care that is delivered at ICUs, doctors overrule patient desires when they attempt to save their lives. They subject their terminally ill patients to ventilators, intravenous fluids, tracheostomies, and other procedures that erode the quality of life and personal dignity.

Twenty-five years ago, the Patient Self-determination Act was passed by Congress to help the elderly and medically ill determine what kind of treatments and procedures they wished to allow, or avoid, when they became ill. Also called advance directives or living will, the protocol nudged people into thinking about the level of invasive care they were willing to tolerate if they were to become terminally ill.

The act spawned a cottage industry that sought to help people come up with legal documents that combined a living will with a durable power of attorney. Although it differs by state, today most hospitals are mandated to help elderly and/or terminally ill patients sign advance directives as part of the hospital admission procedure. But hospitals aren’t mandated to follow these directives; therefore, patients don’t necessarily receive the kind of care they want.

The problem often begins at home before aging or terminally ill patients enter the hospital. Surveys by the California Health Foundation show that, while 70%-80% of Americans want to die at home, less than one third of people have talked to a loved one about how they wish to die. Fewer still have actually thought about and written down advance directives. Most terminally ill patients want palliative care that focuses on comfort and dignity, rather than invasive, aggressive treatments. Without prior consideration, in the absence of a pre-written living will, patients are forced to come up with advance directives while admitted into hospitals. The 15 minutes they spend with doctors during this process does not provide enough time to chalk out a treatment plan when things get worse.

As America ages, conversations about how we live; how long we live; and how we die are becoming increasingly (and painfully) resonant in many families. Many of us are caring for octogenarian and older parents, in-laws, aunts and uncles who are physically disabled and some who are terminally ill. The situation is only going to escalate: According to a report from the US Census Bureau, the number of Americans aged 90 and older has nearly tripled since 1980, reaching 1.9 million in 2010 and growing to more than 7.6 million over the next 40 years. This “silver tsunami” of older adults is the largest public health challenge facing society today.

The first order of business, many feel, is to actually get the elderly to make up a living will. The nonprofit organization, Aging with Dignity came up with Five Wishes, a program that helps people make detailed and tough choices about how they wish to be treated at the end of their lives: how long they wished to be sustained if they went into a coma; whether they wished to be on life support; whether they wish to be resuscitated; the level of pain medication they wanted; whether they wanted a cold moist cloth put on their foreheads if they had a fever; whether they wished to be held or not; whether they wanted someone praying by their bedside or not.

Websites such as Mydirectives do the same thing and help people formalize their choices into a legal document. The fundamental question all these documents ask is one we’re afraid to ask: how do you wish to die?

Hardly anyone wishes to die in a hospital. “It takes the heart out of dying,” as Periyakoil said in an interview with 1:2:1 podcast from the Stanford School of Medicine, “the organ becomes more important than the individual.”

However, hospitalization has become the first and default choice in our society. Today, hospices or palliative care is often the last resort because of the number of sub-specialists involved and the fragmented nature of healthcare. This may change, given rising healthcare costs. According to the Dartmouth Atlas of Healthcare, “older Americans account for an estimated 32% of the total Medicare spending on costs related to repeated hospitalizations in the last two years of their life and higher spending has not been associated with better health outcomes.”

As Arnold Relman’s poignant article, “On breaking one’s neck,” points out, hospitals are very good at not allowing people to die. What they don’t do as well is addressing questions of personal dignity and patient comfort. Doctors too, are squeamish about death and dying; and are often uncomfortable about discussing these issues with patients. Indeed, as Benjamin W. Corn writes, most doctors are not emotionally equipped to confront such questions, preferring to act and direct rather than sit and listen. Perhaps the time has come to cease playing ostrich and think about the patient’s quality of death in addition to his quality of life.

Follow Shoba on Twitter @ShobaNarayan. We welcome your comments at

Narendra Modi

As someone who is delighted with what happened in the elections, I just wish our new PM gave speeches that healed and built bridges rather than proclaim himself hero.

In Quartz here

As usual, the comments interest me: Posting some below. The article is below that. In order of appearance. In response to a question below. Yes, I did sit through the full speeches.

Update: just pasted some more comments. My takeaways. Yes, I need to learn more quotes and stories from Indian culture. I cop to that and am attempting to rectify it. Someone said below that Mr. Modi is an earthy Indian politician who uses the cadences of Indian speech by politicians. I agree. Listening to him was like listening to Jayalalithaa. But the earlier generation of politicians were not this way. MGR and Karunanidhi spoke in Tamil but weren’t as self-referential. So I think it is the function of the times. Lastly, criticizing this one area has made me into a critic of Mr. Modi, which I am not. To use a cliché, let us give the man his due. He used to iron his shirts using a lots filled with hot water. He has risen through the ranks without any dynastic baggage and pulled off a stupendous victory. I don’t think praise and criticism should be one or the other. As anyone who is in a relationship can attest, you can praise and criticize. You do praise and criticize.

——— Forwarded message ———-
From: parlikad narayanan venkata Krishnan
Date: Sunday, May 18, 2014
Subject: NaMo

I agree with the author 100%.
I was also hearing the speech live.
His ref to the children repeating AB ki Baar,Modi sarkar- was very cheap.
It does not suit the future PM of this great Nation.
he is poisoning the minds of young children.
In fact as per the model code of conduct ,children can not be used for propaganda purposes.
All these you tube publicity involving children are a intentional violation of this code.
Some learned members must look into this aspect too.

Let us wait and see how Namo evolves as the PM

Good L:uck to NaMO and BJP
PNV Krishnan
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: satish mullick
Date: Sunday, May 18, 2014
Subject: Shobha on Modi


I read what Shobha has written about Modi, and feel sorry for her. I get the impression that she is so Anglicized, that she was unable to understand what was said in Hindi.

She begins with “ —– large number —English speaking —-“ as if that makes her and those like her superior in some ways. Then she quotes, as so many “Western ass kissers” do, Kennedy and McArthur, because she does not know of any Indian to quote. Her up-bringing has been based on what was imposed on India and Indians by the Britishers. It is a shame that she, like millions of other Indians, is not aware of what India and Indians have done for the world, over the centuries. I am sure she can quote, verbatim, what Yeats and Milton wrote, but not what Kalidas and Nirala did. And, so on and so forth.

Modi was addressing all Indians, who clearly understood what he said and meant. It was, I guess, as is obvious from Shobha’s comments, above the grasp of those “English speaking” Indians, including her.

I was happy to note that she has changed some. I will be waiting to read her comments, and assessment of accomplishments of the new government after being in office for just one year. She will be proven wrong. Will she admit it? We will simply have to wait and see.


Subject: your article on Modi

I like your outlook on Mr.Modi after election results. But please remember that you are not talking
about a man who came out of Harvard or Oxford. This is a plain ,common man from one of the
underdeveloped villages of India. His life is his education and he may lack the skill of public speaking.
But he has proved his capacity as an administrator in his state. He was able to lead his people to better
life than many of the great speakers who ruled from Delhi. As you wrote, I am not a BJP supporter or
fan, but a true Indian who looks forward for the ìgood daysî of the honest people toiling hard inside
and outside the country. Let us be patient and give the honest man a chance for five years, for, we
have tolerated so many corrupt and dishonest orators in power for so long !! India has seen the worst
class of power politicians in the last half century that nothing can be worse than what we have already
gone through.

One word about secularism. Is congress secular? Do any big or small political party in India show honest
secularism? Why all the breast beating about minority, only when they face election? I am very
confident about the common people of India and this country will always upkeep the great culture and
values that it has upheld for so many centuries. I have no fear of its future as India is a great country
with very civilized population.

Jayaram pillai

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Jack D
Date: Sun, May 18, 2014 at 7:51 PM
Subject: Narendra Modi’s gloating victory speech was the wrong way to usher in India’s new era

Is Shoba Narayan nuts?

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Tom Bose
Date: Saturday, May 17, 2014
Subject: Your recent article Re Modi
To: ideas

I completely agree with your thoughts. I heard him in Hindi,m and did not understand. I hope he will take some lessons to speak English at least haltingly.
We Indians abroad hope, we are anxious to see this man enact good programs, irrespective of race and regions, and keep peace in all communities, In India which is a non secular DEMOCRACY
Jai Hind and Gos bless us all
K Thomas Bose
Carlsbad CA
May 17, 2014
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: ‘girish shah’ via Ideas QZ
Date: Saturday, May 17, 2014
Subject: Modi’s victory speech.

Modi was not gloating. Quit your western crappy mind and let him do his job. Poor Shoba Narayan was disappointd. When Obama won he too did not give a profound speech but was an ordinary one. Judge Modi on his work and not based on your crappy western mind.
Let me ask you what do you know about being a hindu? Are you a hindu? Have you read any of your scriptures? Probably not. But you are the shameful brown English left behind by the British and I believe the right word for you is Macaulayites. Go research this and discover who you are.

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Naresh wadhwani
Date: Saturday, May 17, 2014
Subject: Modi speech

I guess we both didn’t hear the same speech.
I guess you have to learn to be more positive

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Amit Rahalkar
Date: Sat, May 17, 2014 at 10:54 AM
Subject: Shobha Narayanan
To: “”

She quotes the below in her article something that Modi didn’t say in his Vadodara speech . Did she listen to his speech at all or got second-hand biased information to base her opinion on ? Dissapointed .

“Consider the snippets from his speech that were translated as subtitles in television channels. “Rivals were busy mudslinging and maligning me. They made fun of the Gujarat model, called it a water balloon…. Even those vested interests didn’t realize what a magician Modi is…. Rivals are forced to follow me….”

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Shiladitya Chakrabarti
Date: Saturday, May 17, 2014
Subject: Comments on Shobha Narayan’s article

The author of the article “Narendra Modi’s gloating speech was the wrong way to usher in India’s new era” complains that Mr. Modi sounded unpresidential in his victory speech and uncharitable towards critics. This may be news to those who have only recently started paying attention, but uncharitable rhetoric has been a feature of the Modi playbook since his initial campaigns as Chief Minister of Gujarat state.

He has honed the art of dishing out red-meat rhetoric in the form of barbs at his favored opponents, and his targets include politicians of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, the all-powerful liberal media based in New Delhi, the state of Pakistan, and various other dog-whistles to refer to the Muslim community. Such barbs tend to play well with the core support base of young Hindu nationalist males, who like the image of being led by someone deemed strong and decisive who isn’t interested in “appeasement”, whether it be of the overly coddled minority community within the country, or the terrorist state next door. One only has to go through the gist of most speeches of his, to realize it is all about him and what he has done for the state (and now the country), and if something’s not been done, it’s because of those evildoers who are not letting him do what he wants to do. I expect more of this self-centered politics in both rhetoric and action to take hold in India over the next five years.


Narendra Modi’s gloating victory speech was the wrong way to usher in India’s new era

By Shoba Narayan an hour ago
Shoba Narayan is a writer in Bangalore. She is the author of “Return to India” and “Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes.”


Narendra Modi’s victory speech in Gujarat, May 16. REUTERS/Amit Dave

There is a group of Indians—quite a large slice of them in fact—who have, over the course of months and years, slowly warmed to the idea of India governed by a Narendra Modi-led BJP.
These are globally traveled, well educated, English-speaking Indians who have doubts about Modi’s handling of the Gujarat riots and who often cite America’s denial of a visa to Modi as a reason for being suspicious of him.
These same Indians, and I count myself amongst them, have slowly changed their views about Modi and the BJP, helped in large part by the mismanagement and lack of leadership that the Congress Party displayed through ten long years that slowed the country’s economy and made corruption front and center in the electoral consciousness. Along came Modi speaking the language of development, or “vikas,” as he calls it—and promising to put India on the path to prosperity.
A large section of the Indian electorate was immediately won over. Others like me were slowly converted, and still others remained suspicious. Election day in India changed all that. As the results swept in, terms like “tsunami,” or rather, “tsunaMo,” were being evoked and the semantics of the landslide vote that the BJP got were being discussed. In the middle of the vote-counting day, after it was clear that the BJP won by a clear majority, the party leaders came out to speak to the press.
Rajnath Singh, the party president projected clarity and discipline at the first press conference. He instructed the party workers to clear the room for the media and warned the BJP foot soldiers not to use incendiary or hurtful language. He took questions and answered them with masterful dignity. All good, I thought.
Then came the controversial Amit Shah, who orchestrated a stupendous victory in Uttar Pradesh. He spoke to a popular Indian channel with an anchor who is used to shouting above his guests and handled the questions with canny aplomb. He didn’t duck any questions about in-fighting amongst the BJP and tackled questions about the Hindu fundamentalist leanings of his party head-on. Many of my Congress supporting friends often refer to Mr. Shah as a fixer, and that too, when they are being charitable. But the man came across as a “political genius” on TV, in the words of a Congress sympathizer I know.
At 4:30 pm came the mother-son duo of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to make a statement, but not to take questions. Rahul Gandhi’s statement was pathetically short and he grinned goofily throughout the whole thing. He said two things: that the defeat would force them to think about what happened, and that he took responsibility for the defeat. His statement was widely panned, and added credibility to the accusation that Gandhi was an entitled man-child and a political amateur lacking leadership qualities.
As the day wore on, even the hardened critics of Narendra Modi seemed hopeful about the change sweeping the country, to use a tired political cliché. The BJP were acting like adults, as opposed to the sycophancy of the Congress party members who still kept kow-towing to the dynasty despite their rout.
In the evening, Narendra Modi addressed two rallies: one in Vadodara where he won by a decisive margin; and another at Ahmedabad, both in his home state of Gujarat.
As someone who has gone from a critic of Modi to someone who was quite taken by the BJP’s way of handling things, I was expecting great things from Modi’s speech. I was disappointed. The man gloated about his victory; seemed self-absorbed about his role in it; and had no sense of statesmanship.
Indian television anchors have frequently called the Congress Party “bitter” about their defeat. In my view, Modi seemed bitter. Consider the snippets from his speech that were translated as subtitles in television channels. “Rivals were busy mudslinging and maligning me. They made fun of the Gujarat model, called it a water balloon…. Even those vested interests didn’t realize what a magician Modi is…. Rivals are forced to follow me….”
It was not a victory speech, it was more like a stump speech at a political rally
While he invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s name, his speech was also self-referential. “Go on Youtube and you will see young children who can barely say Mummy or Daddy say, “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar (this time around, Modi’s government)”
He added folksy humor with a sting in the tail. “How can they call me anti-establishment when there is no establishment to begin with?”
The best thing that I can say for Modi’s speech is that it is an Indian version of Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you.” In Modi’s words. What is over is over. Forget it. I want to make all of you soldiers of development. If 125 crore people take a step forward, that is equal to 125 crore steps.”
The man is entitled to savor his win. But his arrogant, narcissistic tone gives me pause. Unlike outgoing prime minister, Manmohan Singh, Modi engages with the public. Unlike Dr. Singh, Modi has little humility to display. He is, to flip General Douglas MacArthur’s words, “proud and unbending” in victory; and hardly “humble and gentle” towards the losers.
Like much of India, I too am ready for the great purge of government that is happening now. Unlike much of India, I am not a full Modi-convert yet. I think the man needs to tone it down a notch. If he is going to take the country and the various parties along with him as he promises to do, he needs to quit blaming the opposition and share the spoils of victory. The Indian media have called this a presidential election. Now the man who will be India’s next Prime Minister needs to sound Presidential.
Follow Shoba on Twitter @ShobaNarayan. We welcome your comments at
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Planet Earth: vast and humbling

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

Reads better in here

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

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

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

New Zealand’s film industry for WSJ

New Zealand’s film industry
– By Shoba Narayan
Queenstown, New Zealand — EVER SINCE DIRECTOR Peter Jackson put his native New Zealand on the map by setting The “Lord of the Rings” trilogy there, the country has been actively marketing itself as a movie backdrop, and global filmmakers have come rushing in. The common wisdom is that “The world in one country” — with its tropical rainforests and snow-capped mountains all within a few hours of each other — has lured overseas producers with its natural charms. But New Zealand’s appeal to filmmakers may have more to do with its deregulated economy and first-world banking system.

In New Zealand, creative and technical talent can be had for a fraction of the price paid in Hollywood, and film producers aren’t at the mercy of unions and overtime. Most crew personnel don’t belong to the unions that are the stranglehold of Hollywood. Negotiations between director and crew have a fairly straightforward set of guidelines based on “who-does-what” rather than “how-much-liability,” as one producer puts it. In addition, New Zealand’s film industry is supported by a first-world banking system where loans can be had without the bribery and corruption that burdens many Asian countries.

New Zealand has also been actively marketing itself, perhaps more than any other country, as a haven for filmmakers. The government of this small isolated country of just over 4 million people realized that films showcase the natural beauty of New Zealand which in turn attracts more tourists. As Daniel Rutherford, tour operator for Trilogy Trails in Queenstown says, “Films set in New Zealand may not make a person come here right away. But most people have a list of places that they want to visit and films tip that list in favor of New Zealand.”

Last year, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark flew to Bombay to strengthen “business and cultural ties” between New Zealand and India. Ms. Clark’s visit was motivated in part by the over 100 Bollywood productions that have been filmed in New Zealand since 1995, leading to an estimated 18,000 Indian tourists to visit the country. Recently, the government introduced a grant where film companies who spend between 15-50 million New Zealand dollars ($10.6 and $35.5 million) in production costs in New Zealand would be granted a sum totaling 12.5% of their New Zealand production costs.

The government has set up Film New Zealand, a one-stop shop for global film producers whose aim is to “ensure that everyone has a satisfying experience of filming in New Zealand and we will do everything in our power to ensure this happens.” This includes helping film companies register their production, introducing them to local talent, drafting legal contracts for local Kiwi technicians and everything in between. “Shooting a movie is made so easy in New Zealand that it is hard to turn them down,” a Bollywood producer said recently. “Most other governments delight in throwing obstacles, bureaucracy and unions at you. With New Zealand, it is opposite. Any problem you have, they solve it.”

New Zealanders call this accommodating attitude a “Number 8 wire mentality.” Number 8 wire is a certain gauge of wire that is used by Kiwis to fence New Zealand”s many farms. Widely available in New Zealand, the wire has also become a symbol of Kiwi adaptability and innovation. Robert Rutherford, a private pilot who flew cast, crew and equipment for Lord of the Rings explains, “We New Zealanders are so used to making do for so long that we believe that we can fix anything with a Number 8 wire.”

To give one example of the Kiwi “fix-it” mentality: When director Peter Jackson was filming a battle scene with 100 horses and riders, a cinematographer scared the horses by hovering over them on a helicopter. If it were Hollywood, the story goes, all shooting would have been stopped till the studio big-wigs convened a few days later to decide how and whether to proceed with the scene. Memos would have been written; changes pondered and then approved. . . or not. Meanwhile, the horses, riders, cast and crew would have just hung around, adding thousands of dollars of expenses.

In New Zealand, say the locals with pride, one technician suggested using a crane instead of a helicopter, another determined that two cranes were needed to do justice to the scene, a third scouted and found two cranes in neighboring Dunedin and a fourth summoned the cranes within six hours. Mr. Jackson resumed shooting that same day with the two cinematographers hovering over the horses on the two cranes.

Mr. Rutherford, who runs a tour company that drives and flies tourists to the “Lord of the Rings” locations, is a direct beneficiary of New Zealand’s film boom. “We bought that plane because of it,” he says, pointing to a beautiful white small aircraft outside his Queenstown airport office. Over 30 tour companies all over New Zealand offer the “Lord of the Rings” tour, driving and flying tourists to locations from the movie such as the Forest of Lothlorien and Middle Earth. Some tour companies offer a spin. Wanaka Sightseeing allows tourists to handle and try on the weapons, costumes and jewelry used in the film. Some rabid fans show up in cloaks and capes, tour operators say, and spout the entire Tolkien books word-for-word.

And now, the ring has come full circle with resorts being built to accommodate these visitors. “Lord of the Rings” has certainly lifted New Zealand’s profile internationally, says John Darby, principal of Darby Partners, a real estate development firm which built and developed some of the more high-profile resorts such as Millbrook, Clearwater, Blanket Bay and others. The film has also spawned an array of new small-scale tourist operations in otherwise quiet corners of rural New Zealand. In his own business, Mr. Darby sees clients who will go on a Lord of the Rings tour, be seduced by the beauty of New Zealand, visit a real estate agent and subsequently purchase property in the country.

All these things considered, it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince movie producers to set up shop here. But with international visitors spending a whopping $6.6 billion — contributing to 10% of New Zealand’s GDP — the government is hardly about to cease its efforts to market New Zealand as a mecca for filmmakers.

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The Singaporean Paradox for WSJ

Articles > Newspapers > Asian Wall Street Journal > The Singaporean Paradox
The Singaporean Paradox
– By Shoba Narayan
WHEN LEE HSIEN LOONG took office as the third Prime Minister of Singapore last year, one of the first things he did was to announce a fresh and bold approach that would encourage Singaporeans to be less conventional. This would not seem radical but for the fact that since independence, Singaporeans have been trained to be dependent on their government. This presents Singapore’s leader with a challenge: To what degree can creativity and efficiency coexist?

Singaporeans are told to obey rules, follow conventions and above all, conform. Mr. Lee himself gave the example of Singaporeans at Changi Airport who would stand in long lines at the “Singapore Passports Only” counter, even if all the other counters were empty. Similarly, Singaporeans, the saying goes, won’t make a U-turn unless a sign says they can. Just compare this with a New York City driver or even a Hong Kong cabbie.

Now, Mr. Lee wants to change all that, sort of. Bruised by China’s success in the manufacturing sector and facing intense competition from its other Asian neighbors, Singapore recognizes that it needs to make itself attractive to service industries. This will entail attracting freethinking professionals who are the creative core of this sector. “We’ve got to support entrepreneurs,” said Mr. Lee in his first National Day Rally Speech. “We’ve got to support Singaporeans being spontaneous, being unconventional. We should not put obstacles in their way. We should help them to succeed.” Mr. Lee also, in the same speech, entreated his citizens to have more babies: a couple at least; if possible three. And therein lies the Singaporean paradox.

Despite its calls for spontaneity, the government can, and does, micromanage this tiny city-state one-fifth the size of Rhode Island. To be sure, Singapore has done many things right. It has leapfrogged many of its Asian neighbors thanks to its superior infrastructure, banking system and open economy. The squeaky-clean bureaucrats and politicians of the People’s Action Party are very effective at keeping this city-state humming. Singaporeans are great at following the rules and getting things done. They are great at execution as long as it doesn’t involve risk. They are engineers, practicing a task till it is perfect. Now, Singapore wants to infuse creativity into this culture, and with its typical pragmatism, is trying to change its stripes in a couple of decades.

But while Singapore may appear willing to spice things up, all the old signs of micromanagement and slick operation remain. Take the recent building of two giant entertainment centers complete with casinos — which are mainly to attract tourists and boost the economy.

To all the Chinese families already crippled by gambling debts, the government offered disincentives like a high entrance fee, as well as counseling for serial gamblers. To mothers like me who were worried that casinos would attract the very gamblers, perverts and sexual predators that would change the character of the island, the government said that these resorts would be as decent and wholesome as could be.

Yet even among all this controversy, what was amazing was the relative absence of public protest compared to say, in America, or even in India. Sure, there were interviews in the newspapers where Singaporeans who were against the casino voiced their views. There were `Speakers Forums’ where individuals vehemently voiced their disapproval. But there were little or no marches, and no flag-waving, slogan-shouting strikes. Perhaps Singaporeans prefer to show their disapproval in dignified ways. Perhaps they figured that protests wouldn’t accomplish much anyway. Perhaps, as the mauvaises langues would say, Singaporeans are too conformist to protest. But the most likely explanation is that long-accustomed to a political environment in which opposition voices are rarely heard, Singaporeans have little reason to believe that their government will tolerate dissent.

The government would like to believe that creativity can coexist with efficiency. But history indicates otherwise. To paraphrase Orson Welles in Graham Greene’s “The Third Man,” in the Renaissance the Italians had murder and chaos and delivered Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. The Swiss in 500 years of calm were a model of efficiency and delivered the acme of perfection as epitomized by. . . the cuckoo clock. Perhaps a certain amount of chaos is needed for creativity to flourish. Blood, heat and dust are not just the results of creativity. They are precursors.

Singapore, always more Swiss than Italian, says it wants creativity. But its leaders hardly seem ready to embrace the debate and dissent that are virtually absent in its society before rushing to open the doors and, as Deng Xiaoping famously said, let the flies in.

© 2005 Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive LLC (trading as Factiva). All rights reserved.

Disclaimer © 2005 All Rights Reserved.

Spas versus tradition for AWSJ

Spas versus tradition
– By Shoba Narayan
Walk into any spa from Bali to Boca Raton, Florida, and the menu is likely to include Chinese reflexology, Tahitian fruit wraps and Thai massages. Such treatments are so commonplace these days that it’s easy to forget that just a few years ago, hardly anyone outside of their native countries had any clue as to what they where. Now, once obscure practices have the spa industry to thank for removing them from the “endangered traditions” list.

Ayurveda, virtually unknown outside of India a decade ago, has become the pride of trendy spas world-wide. Ayurveda is a 5,000-year old system of medicine that incorporates oil massages, yoga, meditation and a balanced diet. This fairly sophisticated form of healing was practiced by Indian sages for centuries, until Western medicine became the norm. Ayurveda is now enjoying a renaissance in India, thanks in part to the spas which have made it fashionable again.

The spa industry may seem an unlikely champion of traditional medicine. Only a decade ago, spas took pride in sanitizing and deodorizing all beauty and healing rituals. European spas modeled themselves after the clinical exactitude of hospitals. Even Elizabeth Arden’s famous Red Door spa in New York boasted pristine white walls and lab-coated employees. Most spa and beauty-product companies purposely distanced themselves from messy treatments: Grandma’s traditional oatmeal and raw-egg face mask was repackaged as cold cream—without any color or odor that might offend. Such Spartan products and minimalist spaces appealed to increasingly stressed out modern women; and spas made a killing in the process.

Later, in a quest for market differentiation, spas turned to exotic treatments. Treatments that were once considered questionable suddenly became a chic way to set oneself apart from the competition. Thai massages suddenly threatened to overtake Swedish ones as the massage of choice; scrubs and wraps from the South Pacific to Asia became desirable. Slowly but inexorably, the spa industry began co-opting the very practices that it had once scorned. And while of course they didn’t intend to revitalize traditional beauty practices, that was a happy byproduct of this new interest.

In Kerala, India, for instance, ayurvedic schools that were once decrepit and without students a scant three years ago are now oversubscribed with both men and women who hope to become full-time masseuses in Kerala’s new spas. The wages that these spa practitioners make are equivalent to those earned by a local doctor. Ayurvedic treatments that were once relegated to academic studies are now catching the fancy of spa professionals. Ancient Sanskrit textbooks are being dusted off and their methodology translated. And now, a significant number of young people want to study the same ayurveda that they had once cast aside as old-fashioned.

In Indonesia, Javanese women have passed on the art of making jamu (NEEDS DEFINITION) from generation to generation. These jamu healers mix fresh herbs such as ginger, pepper, turmeric and galangal every morning, then go door to door trying to sell bottles of their product. Today, these jamu healers are employed by modern Indonesian beauty companies like Martha Tilaar, Mustika Ratu and Nyonya Meneer to teach ancient herbal treatments and recipes to their college-trained technicians. Ancient techniques are fused with modern scientific practices, and everyone is happy. The spa industry gets exotic treatments and experts who are dying to revive them. The ancient medical practitioners get newfound respectability, acceptance and a chance to make a decent living.

Of course, there are those who question this fusion. Traditionalists will argue that the spa industry is diluting ancient herbal recipes to make them palatable to modern people. They say that popularizing these venerable treatments will somehow remove their purity and authenticity.

Such contrarians would be displeased with Singaporean company Eu Yan Sang, which measures and packages traditional Chinese herbs with scientific exactitude and markets them in the form of pills and capsules at mass outlets such as Giant, Carrefour and Watson’s. One of the biggest challenges that the company faced was from its Chinese customers who believed that Chinese herbs ought to be smelly, as well as weighed and mixed on the spot. Even today, many older Chinese believe that unprocessed herbs are more potent than the packaged non-odorous variety.

Then you will always find those who protest these fusions by painting modernity as the enemy of tradition. But those who make that simplistic argument would do well to remember that the spa industry has rescued some of these traditions from the brink of extinction.

© 2005 Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive LLC (trading as Factiva). All rights reserved.

Skydiving for WSJ

rticles > Newspapers > Wall Street Journal > Skydiving
– By Shoba Narayan

With Nowhere to Go but Down, Siblings Reconnect

(This article originally appeared in June 2001)
TENS OF THOUSANDS of Americans skydive every year. Some do it to confront their fears, some do it for the thrills, and some, like me, do it to bond with a sibling. Although my only brother Shyam and I were born just a year apart, we weren’t particularly close while growing up in India.

As soon as he turned 15, Shyam joined the merchant marines and high-tailed it to the high seas. I saw him only sporadically after that, since I left for the U.S. soon after, to enter Mount Holyoke College.

One hot August afternoon, I received a call from Shyam. His ship had docked in Baltimore and he had hitchhiked up to see me. He was waiting for me outside a skydiving school in Northampton; the man who gave him a ride from Philadelphia taught there, and was willing to give us a discount. Did I want to go skydiving? I did; I always had. But I had just graduated, and blowing my entire $165 rent allowance on an afternoon of skydiving seemed wasteful. Fortunately, Shyam had enough to cover us both.

So I hopped on the bus and an hour later hugged my brother outside Airborne Adventures. Shyam and I exchanged pleasantries as we signed liability-release forms. We hadn’t seen each other in five years. Since we were both first-timers, we would each go tandem jumping with an instructor. Our instructors, Hal and Bubba, gave us an alarmingly brief preflight lesson. Bubba handed me a yellow jump suit, helmet and goggles, similar to the one he was wearing. We would be hooked together in six places: two each at the shoulders, waist and hips. Each of the hooks could hold more than 200 pounds, Bubba said reassuringly, so that even if five hooks came off, the sixth could hold us together. His backpack contained two parachutes: a red manual parachute and a black backup with a computer timer that would automatically unfurl if the main one didn’t.

The plane was small, with a seat for the pilot and a hole for the door. Shyam and I attempted to catch up over the din of the engine. I told him about my four years at Mount Holyoke, and he told me about the shipping life. He had visited Sydney, Gdansk, Rotterdam and Baltimore in the last few months. The money was good; his company paid in dollars.

Soon we were at 8,000 feet. We had decided that Shyam and Hal would jump first. As they stood up, Shyam said casually, “I’m thinking of quitting shipping.” “What?” I screamed, but they had already pushed off. I watched Shyam’s bright red suit somersault and become smaller. It was my turn. I teetered on the edge of the plane. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Just as my body instinctively began to pull back, I fell into a somersault. Moments later, I was spread-eagled and staring down at the green and brown patches far away. There were too many sensations, and part of my mind was blocking out everything. The wind was deafening, plastering my cheeks back as I opened my mouth into a scream I couldn’t hear. Oh my God, there was nothing under me! When would the damn parachute open? This was taking far too long. “Arch! Look up!” Bubba yelled. I looked up. A photographer was surrealistically suspended in midair, clicking away through a camera attached to his helmet. With a jerk, the parachute opened.

After the furious velocity of the freefall, the parachute was anticlimactic in its gentleness. All of a sudden, everything was quiet, and we were floating down slowly. Bubba showed me how to yank the left string to make a left turn. Soon we were making turns in the air, alternately pulling the right and left strings. When we pulled both strings at once, we stopped moving. It felt eerie to stand on air.

We descended further. My body felt wrung out by the wind, squished by the elements. What had seemed like a slow glide at 2,000 feet seemed inordinately rapid once I could see the ground rushing toward us.

“Lift your feet, lift your feet,” yelled Bubba. I did and heard the thud of his feet on the ground. In spite of Bubba’s warnings to let him land first, my feet touched the ground with a speed that sent a shock up my legs. I would have fallen over had I not been attached to Bubba in six places. I grinned stupidly. We had done it! Behind us, the delicate, red-and-yellow parachute crumpled languorously on the ground. “Congratulations!” the photographer said, handing me a roll of film. Bubba and Hal scribbled on little blue books, stating that we had successfully completed our first jump. Certificates and film in hand, Shyam and I waved goodbye.

The whole thing had taken two hours. Over a pizza dinner, Shyam and I talked. He was tired of sailing from port to port and wanted to put down roots. In fact, he had already applied to several business schools in America and had been accepted by Wharton. What did I think? “Well, we can go skydiving in Philadelphia next time,” I said flippantly. Shyam slept on my floor and took off the next morning for Baltimore. Over the next few years, skydiving became our method of connecting. After a lifetime of being taciturn siblings, riding on a plane somehow opened us up. Perhaps it was the prospect of potential death, perhaps it was the din of the airplane, or perhaps it was the adrenaline that brought our emotions to the surface.

We were both closet actors anyway, and making theatrical pronouncements at 8,000 feet seemed appropriate. Shyam told me that the reason he made such dramatic announcements was to take my mind off the jump ahead. One time Shyam flew down from Philadelphia to Memphis, where I was attending art school, and we went skydiving in neighboring Arkansas. As we circled the cornfields, I blurted out that I had fallen in love with a mountain climber. “Totally unsuitable,” Shyam said before launching off. “You’ll both be air-headed.”

To celebrate our graduations from graduate school, we went skydiving in Florida. My parents were trying to arrange my marriage, Indian-style. I was beset by doubts. Shyam thought that I should give it a chance. “But what about falling in love?” I wailed before jumping off. A few years later, it was my turn. I was happily married to the man my parents had recommended, and Shyam was now in the marriage market. We were back in Northampton, discussing the woman who would become his wife. Shyam had met her several times but wasn’t sure about what to do. He now held a strenuous job with long hours; marriage seemed so daunting.

“Do you think I should propose?” he asked on cue, as we stood up.

“Yes,” I shouted, and out we went. Shyam told me later — and I agreed with him — that the quiet ride down on the parachute helped him mull over problems and reach a solution by the time his feet hit the ground.

Like my husband, Shyam’s wife thought we were nuts to jump from a plane. Skydiving prepared me for life, I explained earnestly. It taught me to trust a piece of equipment, another human being, to take chances, to confront daunting questions.

Though both our skeptical spouses indulged us in our passion, Shyam and I are in a different situation now. We have kids. The risk of a parachute not opening is not one that we are willing to take anymore. We’ve decided to try something less extreme. Like bungee jumping.

This article originally appeared in June 2001.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Indian Art Exhibit for WSJ

Articles > Newspapers > Wall Street Journal > Hindu Art Exhibit
Hindu Art Exhibit
– By Shoba Narayan

An Atrocity and an Exhibition Make One Believer Reflect on Her Faith

(This article originally appeared in September 2001)
Growing up in India, I had an intimate but businesslike relationship with Lord Ganesh, the remover of obstacles in the Hindu pantheon of gods. Come exam time, I would stand in front of Ganesh at the local temple and indulge in some intense bargaining. If he granted me an A+, I vowed to circle the temple 101 times and break several coconuts, which were his favorite food according to the myths my grandmother told me. If, however, I only got a B, Ganesh would only get one coconut and no temple circling.

Five days after the terrorist attack on New York, I stood again in front of Ganesh, only this time at the Museum of Natural History. The early-20th-century marble statue was gorgeously corpulent, as Ganesh ought to be. It holds pride of place at the entrance of “Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion” (through February, 2002), an earnest exhibit that attempts to contain the chaos, color and culture of Hinduism within the hushed confines of a museum. I had come to the museum to get away from the charred images of the previous days. I was seeking a distraction, a sanctuary, and I found it in the soothing strains of Raga Shivranjini that echoed through the dark room.

In his hands, Ganesh held two “modakams,” round rice balls stuffed with coconut and the crude sugar called jaggery, another of his favorite foods. (It is no secret in Hinduism that the way to this particular God’s heart is through his stomach.) In spite of myself, I silently reverted to my usual relationship with Lord Ganesh. I told him that if he found my friend’s brother, who was missing amid the rubble, I would deliver a plate full of modakams, if not to the museum, at least to the Ganesh temple in Flushing, Queens. And with that, I realized, my own experience of Darshan, the Sanskrit word for “meeting god,” had come full circle. In the past I had importuned Ganesh for something as banal as good grades, and here I was, communing with him again, when surrounded by tragedy.

As religions go, Hinduism is a melange of interrelated ideas that bend to accommodate the mundane and materialistic as well as the profound. As Stephen P. Huyler, the curator of this exhibit, points out, Hindus visit temples to heal from life-threatening cancers and tie make-shift cradles on holy trees to conceive a child, but they also do puja (pray) to win the lottery or get a promotion. In fact, there is a temple in New Delhi, called the Visa Ganesh temple, that is thronged by Indians who want to get visas to the United States. This elasticity and flexibility of Hinduism allow it to thrive in secular India, which has a history of nurturing diverse religions such as Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Buddhism, Jainism and Judaism. (It is only recently that Hindus in India have become more stridently parochial.)

The Hinduism I knew was utterly unholier-than-thou. Rather than inducing guilt, it offered options. So you forgot a promise that you made to God? There are ways around it. Go on a pilgrimage, fast for a day, do karma yoga, and God will forgive, God will accept. A Hindu devotee echoes these sentiments in Huyler’s excellent documentary, titled “Puja,” which is shown as part of the exhibit. I found the documentary and interspersed video clips to be the best part of the whole exhibit, because they contained images of real-life Hindus going about their business of worship, ranging from sunrise prayers at the holy river Ganges, to bustling temple processions, to drawing kolam-designs with rice flour so that even ants and insects would get sustenance.

In an adjacent room, puja utensils such as lamps (aarthi), prayer beads (maala), ritual water containers (panchapatharam), spoons (uddharanes), bells, and containers of vermilion powder, turmeric and sacred ash, have been placed behind glass enclosures. While these ritual objects are pristine and beautiful to behold, they are touched and used every day by Hindus during their daily prayers. I wished that a snippet of the “Puja” documentary showing a woman in the Washington, D.C. area doing puja at her home had been placed next to these objects to give them context.

To Huyler’s credit, rather than try to explain Hinduism in a logical, hierarchical fashion, which would be nearly impossible, he has simply showcased disparate images, almost as a montage, albeit with specific explanations. This simulates the aggregate, rambling nature of Hinduism, more akin to the cosmic threads of the Milky Way than a monolithic, cohesive solar system. There is the esoteric doctrine of Vedanta to contrast with daily rituals that are almost childlike in their simplicity. Hinduism is not congregational, yet people gather in temples, sometimes daily, for communal worship. To paraphrase Walt Whitman, Hinduism is large; it contains multitudes. A bewildering pantheon of Gods, Goddesses, rivers, trees, visiting guests, cows and even ants are considered sacred. Museum visitors are given a taste of these Gods, ranging from playful, mischievous Krishna, a favorite of children, to strong, loyal Hanuman; the fierce Goddess Kali; Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth; and Shiva, the cosmic dancer and destroyer of evil. Interactive shrines invite visitors to open their closed wooden doors to get a startling glimpse of the vivid colors that epitomize a puja room. These shrines are among the more successful elements of the exhibit. I observed some visitors gasp when they opened the first shrine.

Toward the end, the exhibit tries to explain the concept of sanyas, or renunciation of worldly pleasures in pursuit of the spiritual. As a lifetime Hindu, I know that sanyas is one of the four life stages (ashrams), which include brahmacharya (bachelor), grihasta (householder) and vanaprastha (forest dweller). Strangely, this exhibit merely touches on the concept of sanyas without delving into it fully. Nor does it talk about the other life stages, leading me to think that sanyas could have been left out altogether.

More interesting, insightful and fun were the photos just outside the exhibit, showing Indians in America incorporating Hinduism into their daily lives. There are photos of Indian cab drivers carrying images of the goddess Kali in their windshields, video-shop owners improvising makeshift puja rooms behind the cash register and a family in New Jersey doing puja.

I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Huyler, an author and cultural anthropologist who has made numerous trips to India, recording its crafts and religion in photos, books and videos. However, I humbly submit one suggestion for his next project: Rather than putting Hindu icons behind museum glass, how about a full-length documentary that reflects the throbbing vitality of Hinduism with clapping devotees, clanging bells and chanting priests? I would look forward to watching it.

This article originally appeared in September 2001.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Gatekeeper of the Indian Soul: about RK Narayan for the WSJ

Gatekeeper to the Indian Soul
– By Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan pays homage to writer R.K. Narayan.

(This article originally appeared in May 2001)
When I tell people that I am from India, they often ask who my favorite Indian writer is. Sometimes, a friend planning a trip to the subcontinent will ask what books to read in order to “understand” India. To both questions, I have one answer: R.K. Narayan, the author of more than 30 works of fiction, nonfiction, essays, short stories, memoirs and mythology. Narayan died last Sunday at age 94.

Salman Rushdie may spin dazzling, exuberant tales about Indian cities; Vikram Seth may use his prodigious talent for wordplay to weave complex family tapestries; Arundhati Roy may craft a marvelous, multifaceted story; Anita Desai may be a master at brooding, complicated plots; but Narayan holds the key to the Indian soul. His characters embody the Indian psyche with all its accompanying hopes and anxieties, born of a deep-rooted belief in fatalism.

Critics have often compared Narayan with Faulkner, perhaps because most of Narayan’s tales occur in a fictional Indian town called Malgudi, somewhat akin to Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha. Like Faulkner, Narayan sought universal themes in small-town stories. “The English Teacher,” a favorite of many readers, deals with the death and loss of a loved one. “The Guide,” one of Narayan’s most acclaimed books, which was made into an Indian movie, is about attachment and renunciation, strong themes in the Hindu religion. The story revolves around a tour guide, Raju, who falls in love with a married dancer named Rosie, moves in with her and makes her famous, only to be accused of stealing her money. He then renounces it all, Indian-fashion, to go to the forest and sit under a tree. The next thing he knows, the local villagers begin worshipping him as a saint who can make the monsoon rains come pouring down through his powers.

While some of Narayan’s best writing tackles large themes, other novels are simply stories that revolve around vignettes of the life of a particular character. He seems to eschew complex plots, surprise endings and complicated characters. “The Bachelor of Arts,” his second book, is about a young college student, Chandran, who joins the debating society, goes to movies and eventually falls in love. I was a young undergraduate myself when I read it; I still remember the scene where Narayan describes the “proper” way to go to the movies. The languorous description of how Chandran and a friend finish dinner at a restaurant, saunter along the beach, smoking a cigarette and chewing a paan, before settling down to watch the movie, has set the standard for every movie excursion of mine since.

I grew up with R.K. Narayan. Not literally, but literarily. My father, an English professor at Anna University in India, did his Ph.D. thesis on Narayan and went on to become something of an expert in “Indian Writing in English,” as the genre came to be called. As a result, our house was littered with Narayan’s books, and I read them when I had nothing else to read. At least that is how it started.

It was fortuitous that my introduction to Narayan came through “Swami and Friends,” Narayan’s first published novel. Swami, the main character, was a young schoolboy to whom I could easily relate. Like me, Swami had to deal with the school bully, manage rival factions and decide which group to join, and like me, Swami turned to his grandmother for stories and solace. Swami reminded me of a gentler Tom Sawyer. There is a classic scene in the book that any schoolboy can identify with. Swami catches an ant, puts it on a paper boat, sets it adrift in the sewer and watches its progress till the boat capsizes and the ant dies. Then Swami utters a prayer for the soul of the ant and hopes that God won’t punish him for his evil deed. I remember doing that with many a hapless grasshopper or ant myself.

Although I’ve read all of Narayan’s novels, my favorite is “The Vendor of Sweets,” perhaps because of its glorious descriptions of Indian food and the making of it. “The Vendor of Sweets” is Jagan, a man of austere habits whose life revolves around his young son, Mali. Jagan sells sweets and saves enough money to send Mali to America for graduate school, only to find that Mali comes home with a Korean-American wife named Daisy (Narayan’s novels are full of Daisies and Rosies, all of whom are viewed with suspicion).

To Jagan’s consternation, he later finds out that Mali and Daisy aren’t even married. The clash between Jagan’s Gandhian values and his daughter-in-law’s Western lifestyle makes for hilarious reading. Jagan is a strict vegetarian who cooks his own meals; Daisy brings meat into the house. Jagan brushes his teeth with neem leaves; Daisy tries to convert him to toothpaste. Jagan eschews leather as cowhide; Daisy embraces it. The novel ends with Jagan cordoning off a section of the house and refusing to interact with his son and Daisy.

In “The Vendor of Sweets,” Narayan also gives his readers a crash course on how to make excellent South Indian coffee. In a flashback, Jagan recalls his childhood, where his mother would get up at dawn, roast and grind coffee beans, filter boiling water through the grinds in a muslin cloth and add boiling cow’s milk to the coffee decoction. The flashback also recounts Jagan’s own arranged marriage and his trip to a neighboring village to gawk at his future wife. Jagan’s elder brother gives him strict instructions on how to appear intelligent (don’t gobble down the sweets they offer you; instead, chew a tiny piece daintily), how to act like a dignified bridegroom (don’t stare at your wife constantly lest you be considered hen-pecked) and how to conduct himself during the wedding. Most of these events probably happened in exact replica for men of my father’s generation, and still do happen in India, where arranged marriages are the norm. I laughed out loud when I read that chapter, because it seemed so familiar, so authentically Indian, so similar to the stories my grandmother told me about her own arranged marriage.

That, to me, is Narayan’s greatest charm. His novels reveal the nuances of a very specific — albeit narrow — world: the world of a South Indian Tamilian Brahmin Iyer, a community I am intimately familiar with, as I am one myself. In fact, I share a last name with Narayan, which has caused people to ask if we are related. We are not, although I wish we were. Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Narayanaswami (Graham Greene asked him to shorten his name before the publication of his first book) was a quintessential “TamBram” (Tamil Brahmin) who reminded me of my father, my uncles and, in fact, most of the men of my father’s generation who inhabit my hometown, Madras (now called Chennai).

I wish I’d had the honor of knowing him.

This article originally appeared in May 2001.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Electronic greeting cards for WSJ

Articles > Newspapers > Wall Street Journal > Electronic Greeting Cards
Electronic Greeting Cards
– By Shoba Narayan

From Bangalore to Auckland, kin are enjoined to speak no ill of the dead.

(This article originally appeared in August 1999)
Here is how you used to receive a holiday greeting card in the eighties: The postman brought a gratifyingly heavy load of lavender and pink envelopes. You glanced at the panoply of stamps from different countries. A smiling Elvis or a profiled Kennedy told you that the card was from Aunt Maud in Minneapolis. An explosion of blossoms under the word ‘Nippon’ told you that the card was from your eccentric Japanese friend. A stamp of Mahatma Gandhi told you that the card was from Cousin Henry who was working for the Peace Corps in India.

You ripped open the envelopes and scanned through the scrawled signatures, the hastily written notes of greeting, the requisite photograph of a happy family clustered around a Christmas tree and occasionally, the year-end letter updating one and all about family news, events, births, deaths and promotions. Best of all, you could string the colorful greeting cards into a screaming chorus line of your friends and relatives. Anyone who stepped into your home could see exactly how many people cared enough to send you a holiday greeting. It was a testament of your universe.

Here is how you receive a greeting card in the nineties. The mechanical voice from your computer announces, “You’ve Got Mail.” You open your email messages and see an announcement telling you that “Maud Shaw has sent you an electronic greeting card.” You click on the requisite URL and wait. And wait. Sometimes your computer crashes because the browser carries viruses. You curse, reboot and click again, shedding all vestiges of holiday cheer and bonhomie. After a while, a computer-generated image of reindeer prances across your screen, while your tinny speakers play honky-tonk Christmas music. Underneath is a typewritten message from Aunt Maud wishing you a happy holiday season. No scrawled signature to decipher if her penmanship is still strong or shows the telltale shake of aging. No photograph, no letter, no clue to Aunt Maud’s current status in life. Just prancing reindeer across your fluorescent screen.

Now that the holiday season has started in earnest, electronic greeting cards are whizzing around the Internet. From Tokyo to Katmandu, from Bangalore to Bahrain, from Saskatoon to San Francisco, millions of people are sending Christmas cheer to their friends and relatives through cyberspace.

While these electronic messengers are quick and efficient, they offer little pleasure to the receiver. In fact, they are quite a pain. In the last week, I have received 20 messages from friends wishing me a ‘Prosperous Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas and a Happy Year 2000’ all in one grand stroke, or should I say click. The ignominy is that even these impersonal greetings aren’t individual. With electronic greetings, it is possible to mass-mail Christmas cheer. You could pick one holiday message, list all your friends and relatives, and with a single click, send the greeting to the 100-odd people in your acquaintance.

Where will it end? Emailed letters to Santa Claus at Filling out a ‘condolence template’ so that you only need to change the name when a family member dies? Designing birth announcements electronically, especially if you plan on having several kids? Sending an electronic greeting is easy, to be sure. No stationary to choose, no stamps to lick, no addresses to find from your tattered written-over address book, no labels to print out. The environmentalists would even argue that you are saving trees by sending electronic greeting cards. But at what cost? Saving a tree at the cost of civilization and all the refinement that the word embodies?

Cyberspace has it uses but sending electronic greeting cards is not one of them. A greeting card is like a handshake. It is a supremely courteous act that connects one person to another. Just as a handshake gives you clues about the person, a greeting card offers clues about the sender’s current state of affairs. Sending a card electronically robs the gesture of its intimacy and imbues it with a cold veneer. You can read an electronic greeting card but you can’t savor it like a real one. You can’t pick it out and share it with friends. You can’t file it away in a box to be cherished for generations.

To all those who send electronic greeting cards this holiday season, I say. Use the computer for transferring banal accounting information through efficient Excel files. Send a terse email memo to your entire office, by all means. But if you want to send a message that captures the warmth and joie de vivre of this season, turn off your computer.

This article originally appeared in August 1999.
Copyright © 2001 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.