Children remember the oddest things. If you have kids around you; kids that visit you from time to time, you might want to consider the kind of person you are and personify. This one is written with Prabha-mami and Nagarajan-mama in mind. Two special people who were the ‘characters’ of my childhood.

Cherish the weird and the wonderful
Memory remembers the weird and the wonderful; the people who touch our senses, not just our brains: the ones who are different
Shoba Narayan
First Published: Sat, Oct 05 2013. 12 08 AM IST
Kharbanda (left) in a small but memorable role in ‘Monsoon Wedding’
When your nieces, nephews or neighbourhood children come to visit you, what do you discuss with them? Do you ask them about school and grades which, to a 10-year-old, are like what taxes are to adults? Or do you sing and soar and leave them wide-eyed with surprise? I don’t sing and soar. I barely mumble “hello” to the visiting 10-year-olds and then respond to the “tring” of a message from Airtel telling me that my bill is due. I delete spam and send emails of no urgency or consequence.
It didn’t used to be this way. Most of us can remember a time when we knew which neighbourhood auntie would give us chaklis when we asked, ostensibly, for water; and which auntie would tell rambling stories when we knocked on her door. We had uncle-jis who didn’t know they were weird, epitomized by Kulbhushan Kharbanda in Mira Nair’s wonderful movie, Monsoon Wedding. Kharbanda’s uncle answers his niece who wants to know the meaning of uxorious with this memorable line: “Woh uxorious nahi, beta. That is luxurious with the ‘l’ cut off”. Or something like that.
Memory, we are told, remembers the weird and the wonderful; the people who touch our senses, not just our brains: the ones who are different. In this age when efficiency and focus are emphasized above all, I would like to make a case for characters: for being or becoming one as an adult, not just to be contrarian but to be effective. If you are in a field with the potential of influencing minds, even better.
Think back to your school and college days. Think back to your first job; the boss or mentor who you remember? Were they effective or were they characters? Ideally, they were both, and if you have encountered such beings you are lucky, for the workplace is populated by those who choose efficiency over eccentricity; safe over—in the interest of rhyming—scary. The politically-correct, sanitized environment that we populate now doesn’t leave room for the screamers and the birdwatchers; the ramblers and the raconteurs.
The intent is not to dismiss what smartphone apps call productivity, but to discount it a little; to redress the balance between content and character; effectiveness versus embodiment. Twenty years after graduation, do you remember the content of the fluid mechanics class or the weird professor with a bobbing Adam’s apple, who stuttered while explaining it? Do you remember the teacher who took the time to stand in the corridor to listen to your woes, or the one who rattled off the dates of the three Battles of Panipat? Long after content is forgotten, form and attitude will be remembered. To quote American writer Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Some people will suggest that you cannot become a character. You either are or aren’t. I beg to differ. One of the rich benefits that age confers is that you lose the fear of being judged; you cut yourself some slack and inertia reduces your need to keep up with your peers. Even those who grew up in a fairly conventional fashion can own up to their weirdness at middle age, when peer pressure exerts a diminishing influence. Becoming weird involves several small, but important, steps. First is the acceptance that you have quirkiness within you. Second is to delve into the layers of conformity, manners and upbringing that has been dinned into you and find those quirks that cause you to stand apart; to sing. Look at your parents or grandparents. Look for the things in them that annoy you. Then imitate those behaviours. Comedians call this finding your inner truth and parlaying it into stand-up acts.
Being a character requires a meandering mindset. It requires that you ignore your “to-do” list to be in the moment. It involves what our grandparents have: yes, those dadas and dadis who forget to carry their phone while going for a walk and face their child’s wrath upon return—“How can we track you if you wander off without your phone?”.
Characters are playful. They gravitate towards strangeness. My brother is one. He has a genius for spotting irritating songs in multiple languages. Tamil songs are a given. His repertoire in Hindi includes a staccato rendition of “Brishti pade tapur tupur,” a song that—to a non-Hindi speaker—sounds like an alimentary canal loudly letting off. It certainly sounds like that when my brother sings it and it had a car full of 10-year-olds in splits on a long drive.
Characters at the workplace dispense with normalcy in favour of eye-shine or eye-roll. They are terrific; they terrify; they are intense and inspiring. They command attention; they mesmerize. All of these takes energy and you may decide that you don’t have it in you. Being memorable is not for everyone. It is for people who see the butterfly’s wing while stopping to swing; for people who can smell the jasmine or stare at a swooping Brahminy kite. Eccentrics can enthral. The wackos have the potential to frustrate but also stupefy. Above all, they offer a salve to the sameness that permeates life, whether in the community or at work. Celebrate the wackos, I say. Revel in your weirdness. It is about time.
Shoba Narayan thinks that the correct response to “You are so weird”, is a “Thank you”.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
First Published: Sat, Oct 05 2013. 12 08 AM IST

ArcelorMittal Orbit

The ‘ArcelorMittal Orbit’ is a flight of fancy that arose from a fit of bravado – a product of using time and circumstance wisely

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

Posted: Fri, Jul 20 2012. 1:15 AM IST

Its genesis is serendipitous enough to be the stuff of Shakespearean farce. London’s motormouth mayor Boris Johnson runs into steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal in a cloakroom during the 2009 World Economic Forum. Johnson corners Mittal, whom he is meeting for the first time, and describes his plan for a giant erection at the centre of the 2012 Olympic village to give it some extra oomph. The conversation lasts 45 seconds, at the end of which Mittal promises to donate steel for the monolith. He ends up funding £19.6 million (around Rs. 168 crore) of the £22.7million cost of what would become the ArcelorMittal Orbit.

This piece of information—widely publicized on the Orbit website—fascinated me because it is an example of a Sanskrit phrase I have been hearing all my life: samayam sandharpam (time and circumstance). The phrase is usually used in the context of asking for something. When I wanted to ask my grandfather for a special treat, my grandmother would advise me to ask, “depending on the samayamand sandharpam”, which alludes to time, place, the people involved, mood, circumstance and context. Mayor Johnson used samayam andsandharpam to his benefit when he requested Mittal to donate steel for an Olympic edifice.

Size matters: Mittal spent around Rs 168 crore for the 377ft Orbit outside the Olympic Park. The sculpture has received scathing criticism in London. (Photo by Steve Rose/Getty Images)

Size matters: Mittal spent around Rs. 168 crore for the 377ft Orbit outside the Olympic Park. The sculpture has received scathing criticism in London. (Photo by Steve Rose/Getty Images)

The more interesting question is this: How can India take advantage of the Mittal family connection to the Olympics? In 2005, Mittal’s son-in-law, Amit Bhatia, spearheaded the Mittal Champions Trust (MCT) with an initial funding of $9 million (around Rs. 50 crore now). Its goal is “to put India firmly on the Olympic medal grid” by supporting some 40 Indian athletes with training and infrastructure. Bhatia wants to improve India’s abysmal Olympic record. At the MCT, a panel of eminent sportspeople hand-picks sporting talent from across the country and identifies the gaps that must be bridged in order to take potential champions to the next level. “MCT then bridges these gaps,” says Bhatia. “We do whatever it takes to ensure that each of our champions has access to the same infrastructure, coaching and care as the world’s top athletes.” One thing that MCT doesn’t do is support cricket (which is not an Olympic sport anyway).

Mittal and Bhatia have taken different approaches towards imprinting their name on the Olympics. The father-in-law’s approach is a one-off sprint that carried risk and could confer glory. The son-in-law is running a marathon. His approach is akin to creating a winery from scratch. It involves the long view and many thankless hours in the sun, nurturing and coaxing the soil into sprouting champion vines. “I believe India is capable of producing world champions in sports, just like it is producing top-class professionals in information technology, engineering, medicine and business,” says Bhatia. “What is lacking are the funds needed to nurture this talent or the accessibility to infrastructure and support mechanisms that other international athletes are provided with. What MCT is doing is levelling the training and playing field.”

Mittal may be rueing his chance meeting with mayor Johnson, given the scathing criticism that the ArcelorMittal Orbit has attracted. The Timescalled it “a piece of vainglorious sub-industrial steel gigantism, signifying nothing”. Others have called it a “twisted helter-skelter”, a “turd on the plaza”. Admittedly, critics feed on each other and one early critical review can snowball into countless others. Only time will tell if the Orbitwill be viewed more benignly by future generations. I haven’t seen theOrbit in person, but from the photos, it looks like a roller coaster. It has the same advantage that all massive public arts projects do: scale. Magnify anything countless times and even a spider will awe (as Louise Bourgeois’ travelling public sculpture, Maman, does). To me, the unsung hero of the ArcelorMittal Orbit is its chief engineer, Pierre Engel, who was tasked with converting the design of artist Anish Kapoor and designer Cecil Balmond into a structure that can take 5,000 people a day. From the photos, I can’t tell if the Orbit is as strong a work as Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago, US.

If the ArcelorMittal Orbit is a flight of fancy that arose from a fit of bravado, Bhatia’s softer but consistent approach might well be the truss that props up India’s Olympic dreams. Given the murmurs about our nation hosting the Olympic Games at some future date, I can’t help indulging in a flight of fancy myself: Suppose one of our politicians or sports authorities were to meet Bhatia in a cloakroom in Davos. Who should that be and what should he or she ask of Bhatia? Should it be Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit; or Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati, with her penchant for erecting public sculptures of herself? Or should it be sports icon-turned Rajya Sabha member Sachin Tendulkar? If they meet, what should Tendulkar ask Bhatia? How can the Indian Olympic fraternity gain some momentum from a chance meeting between India’s most popular cricketing icon and a philanthropist who wants to convert India into the medal-hauling champion that China has become?

If I were to consider time, place and circumstance—samayam andsandhapam—in inventing this hypothetical scenario, I would argue that it shouldn’t be Tendulkar asking Bhatia to help create Indian Olympic champions, but vice versa. Sure, Mittal gave $30 million because Johnson asked for it at the right place and time. But he also gave the money because he recognized that it wouldn’t be frittered away. When Bhatia and Tendulkar run into each other, perhaps it will be Bhatia who does the asking. Perhaps he will ask Tendulkar to throw his might behind the Olympic fraternity after he retires from cricket. The Mittals could pledge more funds and Tendulkar could be the man who turned things around.

The champion who nurtured the next generation of Olympic champions: Not bad for a man who is a contender for the Bharat Ratna.

Shoba Narayan would have liked to be a fly on the wall when the first conversation between Mittal and Johnson happened. Write to her at

Indian Pharma

A dose of Indian state support will keep drug firms healthy

Shoba Narayan

Oct 3, 2010


Indians are not pill poppers. Or so I thought until a report in the Lancet Infectious Disease Journal linked an antibiotic-resistant “superbug” to India. In a somewhat dubious compliment the new “genetic mechanism” is even named after us: New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase 1 or NDM1. The report, published in August, caused uproar in the Indian and international medical community. The Indian health ministry has appointed a committee that will frame and monitor policy on antibiotic use.

Hard as it is to believe, India really doesn’t have a comprehensive framework on how to prescribe, control and monitor the use of pharmaceutical drugs, including antibiotics. As a result, Indians self-medicate; in large numbers it seems, according to the Lancet. This is contrary to my own experience. Everyone I know of my parents’ generation hates popping pills. My father complains bitterly about problems he has sleeping but refuses to be persuaded to take a sleeping pill. My mother has a veritable array of lotions, unguents and Ayurvedic oils by her bedside. But no pills.

She prefers Amrutanjan for headaches, Vicks VapoRub for colds and Tiger Balm for aches and pains. No wonder Indian pharmaceutical companies had to look abroad for their generics businesses, I thought. The Indian pharmaceutical industry is in robust stock-market health, having outperformed the broad market index substantially over the past two years. But it is also in the throes of intense self-reflection on how to prevent chronic degeneration, and in the coming months will attempt to reinvent itself to remain relevant in these changing times.


A couple of weeks ago, the health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad convened what was dubbed a “high-level” meeting with the captains of the pharmaceutical industry. The springboard for the meeting was the so-called “sell-outs” among Indian drug companies to foreign multinationals. Piramal, for instance, recently sold its domestic formulations division to the US-based Abbott for an up front payment of US$2.2 billion (Dh8.08bn) and additional cash influx of $400 million a year for the next four years starting next year.

Shantha Biotech and Dabur Pharma, too, have sold controlling stakes to the France-based Sanofi-aventis and the German company Fresenius Kabi, respectively.Some Indian firms, such as Lupin Pharmaceuticals, have followed a different route to the same result by acquiring foreign-branded pharmaceutical businesses. Recently, Sun Pharma bought a controlling stake in the Israeli company Taro Pharma, after a bitter three-year battle.

Taro, which makes topical dermatological products, was seen as the perfect niche branded business that Sun needed to complement its existing stable of products. So far, the pharmaceutical industry has been pretty much going it alone. The Indian government left them to fend for themselves. Mr Azad wants to change all this. He assured the industry chief executives the Indian government would help them address urgent and long-term issues regarding what the industry called “eking out profits in an increasingly competitive world”.

In turn, Mr Azad wanted the companies to supply low-cost drugs to the poorest of poor Indians. The reason for all this angst, both in government and industry circles, is the fact that the industry needs to change course. In the next three years, several products are coming off-patent in the West, thus ending the ride that Indian drugs companies have enjoyed on the coattails of generics. Now that sales of generic drugs are expected to peak worldwide, the industry is being forced to look at new revenue streams.

At the pharmaceuticals industry get-together held in Hyderabad last month, the buzz was all about CRAMS (contract research and manufacturing services) and branding Indian drugs. According to several analysts, drugs industry growth is largely being driven by branded generics, which are expected to generate almost $8bn in sales this year and double that by 2015. Concomitantly, the global market for CRAMS is expected to increase from a value of $26.2bn to $43.9bn, according to the numbers bandied about at the conference.

The other driver is something I see everyday: more and more Indians are falling prey to chronic illnesses and lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. They need branded drugs they can trust and use long-term. Until now, affluent Indians used to buy medicines abroad and bring them home. Nowadays, as Indian brands gain credibility, many of them buy their drugs at their local pharmacy. I used to bring all my children’s medication from the UK or the US, either when I travelled abroad or when relatives and friends travelled they would buy them and bring them back for me.

Now that I have tried branded Indian remedies for my children and found them to be effective, I don’t mind paying first-world prices for these medicines. The point is that there is a segment of Indians who are willing to pay for branded drugs and this segment is growing. Indian pharmaceutical companies have realised their domestic businesses will grow just when their foreign businesses are showing signs of strain.

If only one of these pharma hotshots can figure out a way to prevent Indians from self-medicating, particularly with antibiotics. We do so many things wrong on that front: stopping halfway through the course, choosing our own antibiotic based on past experience rather than go to the doctor. I am ashamed to say that since moving back to India, I’ve done all this, too. The health ministry’s committee that will frame policies on antibiotic and other drugs has its work cut out.

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore and the author ofMonsoon Diary


Women on top

A woman’s touch is exactly what is needed in today’s politics

Shoba Narayan

Sep 6, 2011

As Moza Al Otaiba begins her Federal National Council campaign, one of many women moving into the UAE’s public sphere, I have some good news for her. Recent research suggests that putting women on a team, committee or council improves its overall performance.

In other words, it is not enough to get a group of smart people together to solve problems. In politics or in the workplace, enthusiasm, motivation and cohesion leave something lacking – that crucial woman’s influence.

A recent study by US academics, Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University and Thomas Malone of MIT, found there was “little correlation between a group’s collective intelligence and the IQs of its individual members. But if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises”.

The study has since been replicated twice with the same results, with even the professors saying they were surprised by the findings.

As the FNC campaign gets under way, many candidates are focusing on the hot-button issue of women’s rights. Indeed, most governments and organisations these days are sensitive to gender diversity. Yet the topic is viewed as a feel-good option rather than a necessity.

Women, the thinking goes, add colour and diversity to the work culture. Many companies hire women as a kind of branding exercise that confers some sort of righteous halo of political correctness.

What is becoming clear is that women shouldn’t be hired and put in positions of responsibility just to promote women; high-performing teams, in business or politics, depend on women for productivity.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Prof Woolley attributed the results to a greater level of “social sensitivity” among women, but cautioned that not all of them share the trait.

Indeed. And from personal experience, I can say that some women take sensitivity to a ridiculous extreme.

An example of this different decision-making is available from my own building, which houses 70 families. Frequently, the women come together to have tea and foster a sense of community among ourselves. We plan events, parties and holidays, sitting around a table in the community centre to discuss how to celebrate Christmas, Eid and Diwali.

For the most part, we talk about food and how to organise the potluck meals that are part of most celebrations. Who makes what dish? What worked from an old menu? Can two women share a dish? These discussions frequently last more than two hours, which drives my decisive husband nuts.

Typically there will be at least two follow-up meetings. One woman will have discovered that her cook cannot make kebabs and wants to sign up for pilaf instead, or two women that are making one dish discover who they cannot work together. And so it goes. It can be exhausting and make me long for gender diversity within our group.

Women collaborate and negotiate – about everything. In every women’s group that I have belonged to, from a book club to a workplace committee, decisions are painfully slow, somewhat akin to the ponderous elephant with which India’s democracy is compared.

Women often do operate differently from men and are expected to, or they may face discrimination. Men generally are more ambitious, assertive and confident with respect to their careers – and they have permission to be that way. Women who display the same assertiveness and confidence are viewed negatively.

As more and more women enter the public sphere, in politics, business or other areas, these gender stereotypes will change.

And they need to. More women holding elected office is a wonderful thing for a country. I just wish that in this movement towards gender equality, men would be as assertive in traditionally women’s spheres. We will have seen real progress when my “women’s group” has some men in it as well.

Shoba Narayan is a Bangalore-based journalist and the author of Monsoon Diary: a memoir with recipes