Journeys with a nine-year-old column

In her very last column for Lounge, Shoba Narayan lays bare the processes of writing ‘The Good Life’


The first Mint Lounge issue
The first Mint Lounge issue

This will be my last column. My first coincided with the first issue of Mint Lounge and so it continued for nine years, weekly for the most part. I have grown and changed with this paper, participating in and bearing witness to its multifaceted issues. To be one of its voices has been a privilege I have never taken for granted.

I was going to write a philosophical piece about time. About how this wasn’t really an ending but a new beginning. About how the ancients viewed time as cyclical. I researched the Pirahã tribes of Brazil who know no past or future but live, like Buddhist monks, in the present always. I even emailed Jared Diamond and Ed Yong, favourite writers, about notions of time in anthropology and science.

“Write from the heart,” said the husband.

Words, unlike numbers, are not about absolute truths but about resonances. There is no single right way to express an idea. It is all about perspective. I may be moved by the writings of Edward Said or Elena Ferrante, but they may not move you at all. With every column, the hope was that something would resonate in the reader; catalyse something—an echo, empathy or insight.

Words have climbed above other forms of expression. They have survived and thrived as the fittest communication method for this age. As recently as a generation ago, people sang to express grief. In Tamil Nadu, a group of old women would sing songs called oppaaris when a person died. Today, we give speeches. Instead of touching each other to comfort, we text. Words have surpassed song, dance, art, hugs and all other rituals that humans invented to communicate and connect. They have become what ecologists might call a “keystone species” in terms of influence. To be a wordsmith today is to experience an embarrassment of choices. Unlike the bards of the Shakespearean age, who had to sing their words, today we just need to tap out sentences. Or tweet.

From the beginning, I formulated certain rules for my writing, mostly subconscious, informed by writers I liked to read. Humour was a big aspiration, perhaps because I was never satisfied when I attempted it. I didn’t have the acerbic wit of my friend, the late David Rakoff; nor the breezy insouciance of V. Gangadhar and R.K. Narayan, both of whom I read as a child. So I struggled with creating funny scenarios à la David Sedaris. I studied and imitated Shazia Mirza, Nora Ephron and Sloane Crosley. I hoped that people would read my words and smile. Laugh out loud? That was a grand ambition.

I kept away from politics—there are plenty of political writers in this country. A great weekend paper, in my view, expands the canvas of its readers; shines the light on topics that nourish soul and spirit; and offers them respite and grace from the noise of the week. Mint Lounge did that splendidly with sections on poetry, music, film, literature and art. That was my beat, and then some. I was lucky to have editors who gave me carte blanche in terms of topics. So I wrote about Matunga mornings, female architects, Ig Nobel prizes, eudaemonia, birds and cows. Week after week, the copy desk—an obnoxiously impersonal title for a magnificently acute-eyed group of readers—gave my writing clarity and accuracy. I am reciting their names to myself here as I say thank you.

I was more fox than hedgehog, to use the Greek line made famous by Isaiah Berlin: multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum. A fox knows many things but a hedgehog knows one important thing. Like the fox, I sniffed around and engaged my curiosities. What a ride it has been: “to strive, to seek, to find,” but always to “yield” to the clarion call of deadline and word count.

I begin column-writing days with a ghastly concoction of leaves, shoots and eats: brahmi, tulsi, fennel, and betel leaves from my garden, cinnamon and ginger shoots, along with a big teaspoon of virgin coconut oil, all dunked into hot water with honey and lemon. I swallow said concoction and follow it with coffee decoction. I wait for the coconut oil-induced ketones to kick in and make my brain explode. I dream of benne (butter) masala dosa from CTR (the Central Tiffin Room) in Malleswaram, Bengaluru. I stare at the simmering oatmeal porridge with murderous rage. I stand waiting for the milk cooker to whistle and meditate for ideas, always in the hope that I might levitate one day. Mostly, I stare at the computer and sweat through my compression exercise garments, which I wear to hide the fact that I don’t exercise.

I love this time with the computer. It is just me wrestling with syntaxes and semi-colons; massaging adjectives to convey the slant and spine of ideas. Writing is where my neuroses and angst come to rest; where I achieve flow and equanimity. For someone who dislikes social media, I share a lot in my columns. To do this involves a hypocritical but necessary exercise: I have to write like nobody will read me and then hope like hell that they do.

Connecting with readers is a columnist’s particular pleasure. One woman wrote an insightful response to a piece on parenting. We began corresponding and ended up forming a music troupe that has performed in a few cities. We were strangers before words brought us together. A man wrote, “Shoba, I adore you,” and drew me into his epicurean world. A Mumbai businessman taught me about tea and yachts. A Delhi hotelier took me on a night about town; a Delhi designer still teaches me about fashion and textiles. A birder in the US visited me to discuss Gulf Coast pelicans. Readers who become friends are like random acts of kindness: They beget surprise, smiles and sighs of gratitude.

Transience and change are a constant: wabi-sabi, as the Japanese call it. Psychologist Carol Dweck calls it the “growth mindset”. So I pull out a Montecristo, saved for a special occasion. Pour myself a glass of Corton Grand Cru, Domaine Latour, 2001—a gift from a generous friend. I stare at my fountain pen. It is a Ratnam’s and it still leaks, through all that chalk I have ministered it with.

It’s time to move on. Climb new mountains, flex new muscles—in my case, only figuratively. To learn something new and leap into the unknown. I feel a frisson of fear when I say this, but that is as it should be. Any enterprise worth undertaking ought to be scary in the beginning and hurt a little at the ending. If it doesn’t, you haven’t invested enough. So it is with this column.

Parting is such sweet sorrow, said Shakespeare’s Juliet. I know exactly what she meant.

No endnote this time. Just an ending.

Shoba Narayan tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Also Read: Shoba’s previous Lounge columns

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