My life: Shoba Narayan on being born to write

Feb 29, 2012

My mother doesn’t read my articles but she thinks I am a terrific writer. Out of this seeming paradox springs my attitude and approach towards writing.

It is not that my mum doesn’t want to read my work. It is just that, although she knows English, she is far more comfortable in our native tongue, Tamil. We converse in Tamil. She speaks poetically, using similes and metaphors that are uncommon in English but make perfect sense in Tamil.

“Her cheeks are like a lotus bud,” she might say about a baby. “The river is giggling,” she might say about fast-flowing water.

When I was at journalism school in New York, the most common word used to describe my writing by hard-bitten editors and professors was “lyrical”. For this, I have my mother to thank. Her Tamil is lyrical, and somehow this lyricism hasn’t been lost in translation in my writing.

When a woman you admire thinks well of your abilities without caring too much about the by-product, it gives you a certain strength that is hard to quantify or even describe. The fact that my mother doesn’t read my writing has shaped the way I deal with my readership. To this day, I am uncomfortable talking about my work. I brush off compliments far too quickly and usually change the subject when people tell me they enjoyed a column. I think this is because my mother, and indeed my father (an English professor), don’t fuss over each and every essay or column I write. They don’t discuss it, let alone critique it. My writing is somewhat peripheral to our relationship.

This has given me a humility, for lack of a better word, about my work. When the people who matter in your life judge you not by what you do but rather by who you are, you realise that your work doesn’t define you as a person, that the journey is the reward.

My parents live round the corner from me and we meet pretty much every day. We talk about relatives and how vexing some of them are, about maid issues and parenting problems. They advise me to eat more vegetables, to take care of my health. I roll my eyes. I call up my brother and laugh over how interesting and funny our parents are and how they manage to surprise us still.

What we don’t talk about is my writing. This used to bother me when I was young. I thought my parents didn’t care about my writing, which I believed then was so central to my being. As I have aged, I realise their wisdom. The filmmaker Mira Nair, who directed Monsoon Wedding, once told an interviewer that the true gift of her parents was that they left her alone to pursue her passions. My parents did the same thing. As a result, I no longer regard writing as central to my being. What is more important is character – the choices I make, the way I treat people.

Here is the paradox, however. My mother has an unshakeable faith in my writing abilities. She will brag to her friends about the power of her daughter’s pen, about how chefs come out to say hello when we visit restaurants because they have read my food writing, about how hoteliers are solicitous when we check in because they know I am a journalist.

“You were born to write,” she will say. “Keep writing. Never give it up.” She doesn’t care about the details, only that I continue to write, and because she thinks I am a good writer, I think so, too. As Abraham Lincoln said: “All that I am or shall be I owe to my sainted mother.”


Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India. She is the author of Monsoon Diary: A Memoir with Recipes and is working on another memoir called Return to India

Subscribe to my newsletter