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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Crime and punishment

One has to follow the other if our cities are to be made any safer

By now, nobody disputes that Delhi is seriously unsafe for women. But I never quite realised just how dire the situation was until a recent incident that occurred a little too close to home for comfort.

This is how it unfolded. My cousin (lucky thing!) lives in a sprawling bungalow in a rather tony area of Delhi. Once her kids grew up and flew the coop, she rented out the first floor of her house to a few young women. All seemed to be going well for a while. My cousin was secure in the fact that there were no strange (in every sense of the word) men on the premises. The girls were happy about living above a family which had a dog prowling the grounds and a guard stationed outside the gate, which in any case was securely locked at all times.

But a week ago, my cousin woke up to loud screams emanating from the first floor. She roused her husband and the servants – thinking there would be safety in numbers – and they rushed up to the first floor. Utter confusion raged. There were two men who had broken in and had chased the terrified girls out to the terrace. One of them had gotten hold of one of the girls by the arm and was trying to drag her into a room. She was screaming for her life.

The moment they saw more people rushing in the front door, the intruders abandoned their purpose, made for the spiral staircase on the side of the terrace and ran down. By the time their pursuers caught up with them, they were long gone.

The guards on the outside road swore that no one had run past them. That left just one possibility. The intruders had climbed over the boundary wall of one of the adjoining bungalows. By then, my cousin had a pretty good idea who these men were. They worked in the bungalow next door. She asked the girls who had been attacked if they could identify them. Yes, they said, they would be able to pick them out with no difficulty at all.

So, my cousin and her husband set off the next day to file a complaint at the local police station. They were told to go home and wait and the police would come and investigate. One day came and went. Then another day passed. Finally, the cops arrived, and asked to see the girls who had been attacked. They asked them if they could recognise their attackers. Yes, said the girls, in fact they had seen them in the neighbourhood even after the incident.

Okay, said the cops, don’t worry. We will pick up these guys and teach them a lesson. And we can guarantee you that they will not bother you again.

But, they asked the girls in tones of faux concern, did they really want to file a case? Did they even understand what it entailed? They would have to go to jail to identify these men. They would have to attend court hearings to give evidence. And God knows how long the case could drag on. It could be years and years. Did they really want to get involved in all this ‘jhamela’?

What do you think these traumatised, terrified victims did? Yes, you’re right. They listened to the cops sketching out this nightmarish scenario with sinking hearts and decided not to file a case.

So, these miscreants got off scot-free.

Now, what do you suppose will happen next? Will these men be chastened after the beating that will undoubtedly be delivered at the police station? Will they decide to give up on criminality and turn into model citizens? Will they now treat women with respect rather than as potential rape victims?

Somehow, I think not.

Instead, they are going to become even more emboldened, secure in the belief that no matter what the provocation, the consequence will never be more than a thorough beating – and that’s only if they ever caught and identified. The next time they go trawling for victims, they will choose some vulnerable girl who is not so well protected, and inflict much worse damage on her. And the odds are that they will get away with it yet again.

The recent Dhaula Kuan rape of a BPO employee is a case in point. All the men who have been arrested are petty criminals who have been breaking the law for years with impunity. And after starting out with minor offences like stealing cattle they have escalated to the point where they turned rapists.

That is why I think there is a lesson to be learnt from what happened one night in my cousin’s house. Allow these miscreants to get away once and they will offend again and again. And every new crime will be more serious than the one that went before.

Perhaps it is time the Delhi Police paid attention to the `Broken Window’ policy that was adopted by the New York Police many decades ago. According to this theory, you can’t ignore even something as minor as a broken window. You must repair it and crack down on the vandals who break it. You need to make it clear that no matter how petty a crime, it will lead to punishment. That is the only way to deter people from breaking the law.

If only that same lesson was reinforced in our own metros, we would all breathe a little easier.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The claws are out

There’s never been much love lost between Hindi film heroines; but what’s with all the recent public sniping?

Older readers will probably remember a more innocent time when film magazines carried reverential articles about the leading stars of the day, when those who were in a relationship were described as ‘very good friends’, and every heroine felt compelled to express her utmost respect for her female colleagues even though what she really wanted was to claw their eyes out.

Well, guess what? That’s exactly what the ladies are doing these days – albeit metaphorically, for the time being at least. For now, their weapon of choice is their tongue and boy, do they hand out a lashing with a rare relish!

Nor are their frank opinions expressed within the privacy of their own drawing rooms. Au contraire, they are aired on their TV channels of choice as they act all naughty and playful on the talk show of the day. The barbs are dressed up with giggles and chuckles but they are sharp and well-directed for all that. And they are trading them as if there is no tomorrow.

Playing a starring role in these cat fights is Deepika Padukone, ex-girlfriend of Ranbir Kapoor and current squeeze of Siddharth (son of Vijay) Mallya. Asked what product her former boyfriend should endorse, Deepika was quick to respond. “Condoms!” she replied, with perfect aplomb. Questioned about Katrina Kaif – with whom Ranbir is said to be ‘very good friends’ (see above) – she said she would like to see her passport. Apparently, this was a reference to the rumour that there is some dispute about Katrina’s nationality and thus, her work status in India. (And no, I hadn’t a clue about this either.)

But Deepika is just the first among equals in this bitching fest, for want of a more polite term. Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra, who began as good friends (or so they claimed at the time) now never tire of sniping at one another. Evidently, it’s all down to the fact that Priyanka began dating Shahid after Kareena dumped him for Saif Ali Khan. Priyanka and Shahid are apparently no longer together (do try and keep up!) but the ladies are still sniping away at each other.

Kareena was first off the block, asking Priyanka where she had gotten her accent from. Priyanka, who has been educated abroad, retorted with a tart: “The same place her boyfriend got his”. Then Priyanka was asked that if she could steal something off the computer of a long list of people (including Senior Bachchan and other Hindi film stalwarts) what would she steal? When it came to Kareena, Priyanka asked with faux-innocence: “Does she even have a computer?”

Oooh, you could just see the (Hermes, of course) handbags being drawn at dawn.

For some reason, most of this sniping and bitching happens on Karan Johar’s talk show. Suddenly in the midst of a somewhat happy-clappy atmosphere where everyone is laughing and teasing one another, you get a zinger like the ones quoted above. And above the sound of a million gasps across the nation you can hear Karan chuckle happily as he thinks of the headlines this little one-liner will elicit for the next few weeks.

Okay, so can I understand why Johar is happy for the occasional barb to be levelled across the parapet of the Koffee with Karan (honestly, what is with all this ‘K’ stuff? Doesn’t anyone know how to spell any longer?) show because that can only be good for his ratings. The more outrageous the stars get on the show, the more people are likely to tune in to get their weekly fix of cheap thrills.

But why do the stars fall in line so readily? Why are they so willing to say unkind things about one another on national television? Why are they so ready to be flip and bitchy about their colleagues? Why do they get so darn nasty with so little provocation?

Okay, Karan does tend to needle them a bit. But then, that’s his job as an anchor, to stir things up, to push the envelope, to make people say things that they otherwise would not. After all, his brief is to make the show as interesting as he possibly can. And quips like these go down swimmingly with the audience at home.

But my question is this: why do the stars fall for it? Why is it that in episode after episode, they all stumble into the same trap of slagging off their colleagues?

Is it that they are so comfortable with Karan – with whom all of them have done a movie or two and, no doubt, partied late into the night for good measure – that they forget that there is an actual audience out there watching and listening? Do they get conned into feeling that they are just among friends, joshing and joking, and that nothing they say will be taken seriously?

There may well be something to that because once the shock-horror reactions start pouring in, all the stars express outrage that what they said in good humour is being taken amiss. But, if you ask me, all this public sniping just makes me long for the good old days when stars concentrated on their pancake rather than their put-downs.

Call me quaint (and I’m sure you will) but I still prefer old-fashioned good manners over this new-fangled bitchiness.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Crime and punishment

One has to follow the other if our cities are to be made any safer

By now, nobody disputes that Delhi is seriously unsafe for women. But I never quite realised just how dire the situation was until a recent incident that occurred a little too close to home for comfort.

This is how it unfolded. My cousin (lucky thing!) lives in a sprawling bungalow in a rather tony area of Delhi. Once her kids grew up and flew the coop, she rented out the first floor of her house to a few young women. All seemed to be going well for a while. My cousin was secure in the fact that there were no strange (in every sense of the word) men on the premises. The girls were happy about living above a family which had a dog prowling the grounds and a guard stationed outside the gate, which in any case was securely locked at all times.

But a week ago, my cousin woke up to loud screams emanating from the first floor. She roused her husband and the servants – thinking there would be safety in numbers – and they rushed up to the first floor. Utter confusion raged. There were two men who had broken in and had chased the terrified girls out to the terrace. One of them had gotten hold of one of the girls by the arm and was trying to drag her into a room. She was screaming for her life.

The moment they saw more people rushing in the front door, the intruders abandoned their purpose, made for the spiral staircase on the side of the terrace and ran down. By the time their pursuers caught up with them, they were long gone.

The guards on the outside road swore that no one had run past them. That left just one possibility. The intruders had climbed over the boundary wall of one of the adjoining bungalows. By then, my cousin had a pretty good idea who these men were. They worked in the bungalow next door. She asked the girls who had been attacked if they could identify them. Yes, they said, they would be able to pick them out with no difficulty at all.

So, my cousin and her husband set off the next day to file a complaint at the local police station. They were told to go home and wait and the police would come and investigate. One day came and went. Then another day passed. Finally, the cops arrived, and asked to see the girls who had been attacked. They asked them if they could recognise their attackers. Yes, said the girls, in fact they had seen them in the neighbourhood even after the incident.

Okay, said the cops, don’t worry. We will pick up these guys and teach them a lesson. And we can guarantee you that they will not bother you again.

But, they asked the girls in tones of faux concern, did they really want to file a case? Did they even understand what it entailed? They would have to go to jail to identify these men. They would have to attend court hearings to give evidence. And God knows how long the case could drag on. It could be years and years. Did they really want to get involved in all this ‘jhamela’?

What do you think these traumatised, terrified victims did? Yes, you’re right. They listened to the cops sketching out this nightmarish scenario with sinking hearts and decided not to file a case.

So, these miscreants got off scot-free.

Now, what do you suppose will happen next? Will these men be chastened after the beating that will undoubtedly be delivered at the police station? Will they decide to give up on criminality and turn into model citizens? Will they now treat women with respect rather than as potential rape victims?

Somehow, I think not.

Instead, they are going to become even more emboldened, secure in the belief that no matter what the provocation, the consequence will never be more than a thorough beating – and that’s only if they ever caught and identified. The next time they go trawling for victims, they will choose some vulnerable girl who is not so well protected, and inflict much worse damage on her. And the odds are that they will get away with it yet again.

The recent Dhaula Kuan rape of a BPO employee is a case in point. All the men who have been arrested are petty criminals who have been breaking the law for years with impunity. And after starting out with minor offences like stealing cattle they have escalated to the point where they turned rapists.

That is why I think there is a lesson to be learnt from what happened one night in my cousin’s house. Allow these miscreants to get away once and they will offend again and again. And every new crime will be more serious than the one that went before.

Perhaps it is time the Delhi Police paid attention to the `Broken Window’ policy that was adopted by the New York Police many decades ago. According to this theory, you can’t ignore even something as minor as a broken window. You must repair it and crack down on the vandals who break it. You need to make it clear that no matter how petty a crime, it will lead to punishment. That is the only way to deter people from breaking the law.

If only that same lesson was reinforced in our own metros, we would all breathe a little easier.
Attention, please!

When there are so many distractions available at the click of a mouse, can you stop your mind from wandering?

Over the last few months, I have been trying to work on a new book, a racy thriller that I hope will turn out to be a page-turner (not to mention, a bestseller!). But the operative word in the last sentence is: ‘trying’. Yes, that’s right. I am trying – very hard indeed – to write a book. But I’m sorry to report, I am not getting very far.

And it’s all the fault of that scourge of our times: the Internet.

No, seriously, if it wasn’t for the distractions available at the click of a mouse, I would be half-way through my opus by now. I have written the first chapter, which is always the trickiest. I have the plot more or less worked out. I have plenty of thoughts on the twists and turns I could throw in to surprise the reader. I have the gleamings of a cracker of a climax in my head. And by now, I know my main characters almost as well as I do some of my best friends.

And yet, the writing is not going very well.

Of course I carry some blame for that, for being an undisciplined so-and-so who can’t keep to her self-imposed deadline of at least 500 words a day. But truth be told, most of the blame rests on my laptop, which is connected to my wifi network, and keeps throwing up interesting little nuggets when I am trying to work.

Suddenly an icon pops up telling me that a friend wants to chat on Gmail. Now, if she were to call me on the phone at that juncture I would probably not even notice (my mobile is nearly always on silent) let alone take her call. But there is no ignoring her on my laptop. The icon blinks on and on and I can’t keep my eyes off it.

Finally the temptation gets too hard to resist. Who knows what choice piece of information she may have to offer? What if she needs to discuss something urgent? The questions whirl around in my head until I concede defeat, close my word document, and press ‘Yes’ on that icon.

Of course, nine times out of ten she is just looking for a good gossip in the middle of the workday. And by the time the two of us have finished instant messaging the news of the week, a good half hour has passed. And so has the mood to work on my novel.

If it isn’t instant messaging on Gmail, it’s Facebook alerts that pop up to provide instant distraction. Yet another friend has a ‘Recent Status Update’ that he would like to share with me. Another has sent a private message with such an intriguing tagline that it is impossible to ignore. And then, there’s that link to a piece in the Guardian. Would it really be so bad to have a quick read before I resume work?

Of course, it would. Because when it comes to surfing the newspapers, there really is no end to it as far as I am concerned. I click on a link about Obama’s state visit to India, get distracted by a strap line that talks about the forthcoming royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton (or Catherine, as we are all apparently now meant to call her). From there it’s one easy click to an article about Princess Diana and how she may well overshadow her daughter-in-law even from the great beyond. And so it goes, until all thoughts of my book have been chased from my head, which is now filled with conspiracy theories about the Princess’ death in a car crash.

And then, there’s my new toy: Twitter. No, I don’t really tweet that much, mostly because I have nothing to say. But I do get a tad curious if I get an alert about someone having tweeted to me. I sign in to check what that’s about, quickly type out my replies, and then get waylaid by what everyone else is twittering on about. It’s not long before I have been inveigled into a conversation or two with my Twitter friends, or, as is more likely, have gotten into an argument that takes up so much of my mind space that there’s no longer any room for novel-writing in it.

I guess this is an unavoidable fall-out of the Age of Information that we live in, surrounded by so many social media networks that we find ourselves quite lost in all that babble. And given this constant flitting between different things, it’s no wonder that our attention spans are shot to hell.

Well, at least I know that mine is. With all this instant messaging, twittering, Googling and what have you, I find it harder and harder to concentrate on any one subject. In fact, given the level of my distraction, it’s a wonder how I manage to get any work done at all.

Which is why I’m making a resolution even before the New Year rolls in. From now on, I am going to restrict my use of the Internet to two hours a day, judiciously spaced out over a 24-hour period. Who knows, with a bit of luck, I may even get down to finishing that book.

(Full disclosure: in the course of writing this column, I logged on to Twitter, answered a couple of emails, and did a quick Internet search for Kate Middleton and Princess Diana.)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

One and only

Are only children happier than those with siblings? A recent survey appears to suggest so

Some of my friends who have chosen to restrict themselves to a single-child family are often disconcerted by the kind of reactions they elicit from family, friends, acquaintances, hell, sometimes even passing strangers. Their decision not to extend their family always evokes shock, horror, amazement, even a smidgeon of pity.

The questions come hard and fast. Are they really sure about this? Don’t they realise that their child will grow up lonely? How on earth will he learn to get along with other kids or even share his toys? Who will be there to support her after they are gone? Maybe they should change their minds about this before it is too late. And so on and on and on.

Well, all those friends of mine who have been so exasperated by these demands over the years can now heave a sigh of relief. For a recent survey suggests that only children are far happier than those with siblings.

Well, I guess, at a certain level it makes some sense. Only children never have to compete with someone else for the love of their parents. Their parents can lavish more money, attention and praise on them because there is no other child around to make demands on them.

They don’t have to cope with bullying by an elder sibling or make concessions for a younger one. There are no invidious comparisons to be drawn between them and a brother who is so much better at maths or a sister who can write so well. They never have to share either the bathroom or their books.

And when it comes to their inheritance, the whole caboodle will come to them in the fullness of time.

Hey, maybe my friends with single-child families are on to something here. Perhaps they are actually doing better by their kids than those who bring two or even more children into the world.

Okay, so these kids don’t have the ready-made companionship of a brother or sister with blood ties to bind them. But they can go out and make friends of their own choosing. At least, that way they will be sure of getting along with them. With siblings there is always the danger than you will drive each other up the wall or be at one another’s throats before Mom and Dad charge in to break up the brawl. And sometimes these childhood – even childish – rivalries fester well into adulthood, poisoning relationships and ruining family gatherings.

Certainly there are enough grown-ups around who profess to be quite happy with their single-child upbringing. They enjoyed the feeling of being at the centre of their parents’ universe. They loved the idea of being the sole focus of attention. And they really didn’t miss the give-and-take that comes with a sibling relationship.

Of course, you could call them selfish, self-centred or even self-absorbed with no interest in anything other than themselves. And there may even be some truth to that. But they prefer to describe themselves as self-contained. Having grown up in isolation they are used to being by themselves. And as a consequence, they have developed enough inner resources to cope with being on their own.

You may see them as lonely but actually they are just alone – and no, it is not that same thing.

But just as some people are content with their single-child status, others are actively unhappy. As children they probably pestered their parents for a sibling, as grown-ups they feel as if they have lost out on an essential part of the human experience. Some of them try and make up by creating big families of their own in an attempt to re-write history. Others content themselves with berating others who are disinclined to extend their families.

I guess at the end of the day, it all comes down to personality. Some people are essentially loners, who thrive on their only-child isolation. Others long for social contact and meaningful inter-familial relationships, and they can never quite make peace with their sibling-less status.

But even though the survey says otherwise, I can’t help but feel that only children do tend to lose out – sometimes in ways which they don’t even comprehend. Sure, they may not have to contend with sibling rivalry. But they have no opportunity to enjoy some sibling revelry either.

And I have a sneaking feeling that they are the poorer for it. The rich web of human relationships that are formed between siblings are lost to them forever. They may not have had to share their parents’ love, but there will be no one to share the burden of their care in old age either. And once they are gone, they will never be able to share the memories of their parents with anyone else. And there will be no one around with the same shared history of growing up.

They will never experience the special bond that forms between aunts and nieces. They will never have the pleasure of playing indulgent uncle. They will never enjoy the sight of their kids playing with their cousins, all of them united by a certain family resemblance. And they will never be able to fall back on the unconditional support that only a sibling can provide in a time of crisis.

But I guess, you don’t miss something that you never had in the first place. Perhaps that explains why only children profess to be quite so happy.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

That sinking feeling

To be human is to be disappointed – and vice versa

So, it is official. President Barack Obama is a disappointment. He is a disappointment to those who believed in his message of change and turned out in droves to vote him into the White House. He is a disappointment to the Democratic Party which has lost its dominance of the US House of Representatives under his watch. He is a disappointment to Rajiv Pratap Rudy who wanted him to denounce Pakistan as a terrorist state from the terrace of the Taj Mahal Hotel. He is a disappointment to those Indian media commentators who would have liked him to order a nuclear strike against Waziristan during his Indian visit. And he is certainly a disappointment to all those school kids who now know that Obama can’t dance, sala (unlike his wife Michelle – Oh Yes, She Can!).

I guess, that’s the thing about being built up into some kind of demi-God. No matter what you do afterwards, no matter how you behave, no matter what you say, you will always be a bit of a disappointment. Try as hard as you like. But you will never be able to measure up to the picture that people have built up of you in their heads.

That said, I have to admit that I was distinctly underwhelmed by the Barack Obama we saw in India. Maybe it was the drubbing he received in the recent US by-elections, maybe it was jet lag after a long trans-Atlantic flight, but the American President seemed curiously unengaged, even distracted, during his sojourn in India. There wasn’t any of the eloquence that we have come to expect from him; his address at the memorial to the 26/11 victims was rather pedestrian by his standards. There was none of that razor-sharp wit and blazing intelligence in evidence; in fact, he waffled quite embarrassingly when asked the P (yes, that would be Pakistan) question by a Mumbai student.

But why blame poor Obama alone when disappointment is really endemic to life; a part, if you will, of the human condition. From the time you are old enough to identify an emotion for what it is, to the time you die, disappointment is destined to be a regular feature of your life. In fact, if you ask me, to be human is to be disappointed – and vice versa.

It all begins in early childhood, when you start to realise with dawning horror that the entire world does not revolve around you. The epiphany could strike when a cousin comes visiting and gets far more attention from your grandmother than you. Or when the arrival of a younger sibling means that you are no longer the centre of your parents’ universe. Or even at your first day at school, when the teacher praises the girl sitting next to you, while ignoring you entirely.

As a child, you look on the world with a certain innocence, even insouciance. Everything seems possible; all things appear well within your grasp if you would only reach out for them. But as you grow up and the realities of the world intrude, the realm of the impossible grows bigger and bigger. And from then on, you seem to be whizzing downhill at an ever-increasing speed as the disappointments pile up hard and fast.

There’s the moment when you finally come to terms with the fact that you are not going to grow up into a bona fide beauty like your mom. When you realise that with the best will in the world – and many, many hours of back-breaking practise – you will never become another Sachin Tendulkar on the cricket field. And that no matter how much you wish for it, however hard you pray, that boy/girl down the street is never going to take much notice of you.

Once you have got over the disappointment of realising that you really are not as special as you were led to believe by your parents, life kicks in with its own set of special let-downs. You can’t get into the college of your choice though you topped your school in the board exams. You will never be able to fulfil your dream of being a neurosurgeon or nuclear physicist. You can’t even get an interview – let alone a job – at the company you always wanted to work for. Your boss doesn’t appreciate you; that raise is simply not good enough; and no, you’re not going to make it to the board after all.

It doesn’t get much better in your personal life either. Your girlfriend isn’t the supermodel you dreamt of when you were an adolescent boy (and the boyfriend isn’t quite the Greek God, for that matter). Your spouse simply doesn’t understand you as well as that charming co-worker in the next office. Your kids aren’t budding geniuses who will fulfil all the dreams that died young in your case.

But worst of all, is the sense of being disappointed with your own self, the feeling that you have failed to achieve your full potential. There’s nothing worse than the disappointment that ensues from knowing that you have made mistakes along the way. And that there is no one to blame but yourself for the way your life has turned out.

Well at least, that’s how ordinary folk like you and me feel about themselves. But I can’t help but wonder if the rich, the famous, the powerful, also feel the same way.

What do you think? Is Obama as disappointed in himself as the rest of the world seems to be?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Food for thought

Why does the sight of an attractive woman enjoying her food
make us think of sex?

I've read her books, tried her recipes, and devoured the results with lip-smacking delight. I've followed her career from the time she was a food writer at Vogue to now that she has become a global food brand in her own lunchtime.

But through it all, I've never understood all that palaver about her sundry television shows. Why did everyone get their knickers in their twist about what they termed `food porn'? What exactly did Nigella Lawson get up to with a carrot as the camera lovingly panned in for a close-up? What unspeakable acts did she commit with a rack of lamb? To
what evil end did she use dark chocolate?

My mind boggled as I thought of every deviant act that a grown woman behind a kitchen counter could perform on food objects for the delectation of television audiences worldwide.

I finally had the chance to get some answers when channel-surfing idly I came upon a programme titled Nigella Feasts (Discovery Travel and Living). My first thought as I watched the splendidly upholstered Nigella throw in cups of full-fat cream and ladlefuls of butter as she whipped up a humungous quantity of eggs was that the show's title was grossly misleading. It was less Nigella Feasts and more Nigella Serves
up a Heart Attack.

Suddenly, the secret behind that bounteous cleavage was all too evident. It glistened and gleamed, quivered and bounced with such life and verve because of the copious amount of animal fat, red meat and sugar it had been brought up on. Clearly, Nigella took her duties as self-anointed Domestic Goddess seriously enough to gobble up all the
high calorie treats she cooked on her show.

For the life of me, however, I couldn't understand all that fuss about `food porn'. Or `gastro porn' as some of the more literary critics dubbed it. Sure, Nigella has a rather tactile approach to cooking, touching – even caressing – her ingredients, kneading and pounding with feeling and slurping everything up with lip-smacking approval.

And unlike most curvy women who hide behind shapeless dresses, she does this while proudly showing off her assets in a tight sweater.

But `food porn'? Seriously! Anyone who thought that there was anything even remotely pornographic about a full-figured woman enjoying her pudding needed their head examined. And as for that well-worn cliché about how food is like sex, those who believe that cannot have had much experience of either.

I have to say, though, that the show got me thinking. What was it about Nigella that made people immediately think `porn' even if it was in the context of food? Sure, she is sexy in a Mother Earth sort of way, with soft, flowing tresses and a mouth that was made for licking batter off a bowl. And it can't hurt the ratings that her cleavage
shows off to best advantage when she bends over the stove to taste her spoils. But to go from there to pornography is rather a stretch.

Part of the problem may well be that we are simply not used to seeing women of Nigella's shape as sexual beings. The media is flooded with images of stick-thin women with plastic breasts and collagen-enhanced smiles. So the sight of a normal sized woman who (to the best of our knowledge) has not been cosmetically enhanced, looking sexy and
sensual throws us completely.

We see women like this around us every day but they become imbued with a certain fetishistic appeal when they appear in their full-bodied glory on television. There is almost a shock/horror element to seeing them showing off their bits on screen without the slightest trace of embarrassment.

What makes Nigella's performance even more unnerving, I think, is that she doesn't apologise for way she looks – she celebrates it. And instead of dishing out slimming recipes or offering low-fat options, she delights in all manner of fattening foods. As she once wrote, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, "I have nothing to declare but my greed".

And in her persona as foodie femme fatale, her appetites are to be indulged – not dulled by a regimen of sensible eating. Perhaps the reason why people find something sexual in her blatant enjoyment of food is because it implies that she will not shy away from feeding her other senses.

Padma Lakshmi, the former Mrs Salman Rushdie, who also hosts a food show, doesn't evoke quite the same feelings. Even though the former supermodel has a fabled appetite (for food, I hasten to add), you can't help feeling that she had to have thrown up everything she ever ate to look this emaciated. And while her first cookbook, Easy Exotic, listed a model's low-calorie recipes from around the world, Nigella's
How to Eat embraced every food group, no matter how `unhealthy'.

Maybe, that's what accounts for all this nonsense about `food porn'. In our shape-obsessed world, food has become forbidden fruit, a guilty treat best sampled in secret. The act of tucking into a big meal – or looking as if we enjoy it – in public has acquired a tacit taboo at a time when self-deprivation is all the rage. And maybe that's why Nigella's performance smacks of illicit pleasures rather than an honest appreciation of good food.

Which begs the question, food porn anyone?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Playing ‘favourites’

There really is no good answer to any question that contains that word

There’s nothing that stumps me more than a question that begins: “What is your favourite...?” It doesn’t really matter what word or phrase completes the query. It could be something as innocuous as ‘colour’ or ‘restaurant’ or as deep and meaningful as ‘time of life’ or even ‘religious text’. But no matter how it ends, any question that contains the word ‘favourite’ within it strikes terror in my heart. I stumble, I stutter, I flail around searching desperately for an appropriate response – and in nine cases out of ten, I come up empty.

Because, to tell you the truth, I really don’t get this concept of a ‘favourite’ something or the other.

Take colours, for instance. How could anyone possibly choose one over the many that are on offer? And yet, there are people who don’t even have to think about it. “Red”, they reply confidently. “Purple”, say some others. “Black” is another frequent response.

Well, you know what? I love all of the above. And on occasion, I’m fond of a dusky pink, a flaming orange, or a deep indigo. But I couldn’t possibly choose one over the other, no matter how hard I tried. There are times when I love the crisp monochromes of a black and white graphic print. There are times when the deep blue of a monsoon sky overwhelms me. And there are times when a palette of beiges, like an undulating desert landscape, soothes and calms.

Choose one over the other as an absolute ‘favourite’? Sorry, I couldn’t possibly.

It’s much the same story with restaurants. I am sure that many of you have a ‘favourite’ restaurant, but I couldn’t pick one if you held a gun to my head. Sure, I have many favourite haunts, where I return time and again. I love the cafes in Khan Market where I hang out over lazy lunches with my friends. But I love the chaat joints in Bengali Market just as much. I love the earthy flavours and huge portions at Bukhara, the mod-Jap vibe of Wasabi, the buzz at Set’z, the butter and garlic flavours of Swagath.

Well, I could go on, but I guess you get the general point. When you are as promiscuous as this about eating out, how could you possibly pick one restaurant – or even two or three – as a ‘favourite’?

Or pick a ‘favourite’ cuisine, for that matter. I love parathas and pickle as much as the next Punjabi, but there are times when a nice Chinese stir-fry just hits the spot. Sometimes you need a spicy Thai curry to get your gastric juices flowing; at others, it is the wasabi flavour of Japanese food that does the trick. Choosing one over the other is just a matter of convenience and mood. And it changes every day – well, it does for me, at least.

The other ‘favourite’ question that gets asked all too frequently is: “What is your favourite holiday destination?” Huh, what? Just the one? You have got to be kidding!

How could anyone pick just one place in the whole wide world as a ‘favourite’ place to holiday in? Surely, urban breaks in London, New York or Paris are as much fun as adventure holidays in New Zealand or Australia. Beach resorts are just as relaxing as mountain getaways. And holidaying in India has its charms just as taking off abroad is a special pleasure.

After much soul-searching, I have managed to narrow my choice down to one country: Italy. I’d much rather holiday here than anywhere else. After all, where else could I go from a beach resort on the Amalfi coast to verdant vineyards in Tuscany to the mysterious beauty of Venice to a pizza-eating orgy in Naples to a shopping blitz in Milan – all in the space of a single week? But there is no way I could narrow it down any further.

Books is another area in which I am utterly unable – hell, even unwilling – to choose a ‘favourite’. No, I don’t have a favourite book, let alone a favourite author. There are many books that I like enough to re-read from time to time, but they are written by authors as diverse as Jane Austen and Dominick Dunne, as far apart as Agatha Christie and Bill Bryson.

But most annoying of all is the ‘favourite’ person question. I can just about cope with the ‘Who is the best person you have ever interviewed’ question by pulling a random name out of my head. But the “Who is your best friend” question leaves me rather puzzled.

Best friend? Seriously? What, are we in Class I again? Because, this really is the kind of question that only makes sense in primary school. I don’t know anybody who has a single best friend as they grow up to adulthood. Speaking for myself, I have several ‘best friends’ whom I have gathered over several stages of life.

There is the old school buddy, whom you catch up with occasionally, taking up seamlessly from where you left off. There are my work friends, with whom I have shared office space at one time or another, who are always great for a good down-and-dirty gossip session. There are friends with whom I can share my passion for fashion, friends who are part confessors and part therapists, and friends who are always ready for a late-night coffee (and never mind the caffeine rush).

Honestly, how could you possibly choose a ‘best friend’ among them? But then, as you can probably tell, I’m not very good at all this ‘favourite’ stuff.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Happy birthday to you

How happy you are when the big day rolls around is often a function of how old you are

It is probably the one song that every one of us has sung at one time or another. It goes: “Happy birthday to you, Haappy Birthdaaay to youuuu...” It is always sung with more rigour than rhythm, is often accompanied by shrieks of alcohol-fuelled laughter, and elicits much embarrassment from the person it is addressed to.

Unless, of course, the person in question is all of one year old and has absolutely no clue why several red-faced adults and a smattering of mud-streaked children are singing their guts out and beaming dementedly at him. In which case, the only sane reaction is to burst into loud tears and keep getting louder until the singing staggers to an end.

Well, that’s exactly what my friend’s son did at his first birthday party last month. But no, celebrations didn’t come to a crashing halt after his so-violently expressed displeasure. He was shushed up with a few mouthfuls of cake – every moment dutifully recorded on three video-cameras so that every angle could be covered – and then bundled off to bed while the rest of the party went on, well, partying.

But then, that’s the thing about first birthdays, isn’t it? They are less about the baby and more about the parents. And how could it be otherwise? The hapless child who is the centre of all the carousing has no idea what a birthday is, so how could he possibly comprehend that this is his first birthday party ever, a historic occasion that must be committed to digital memory and dug out to embarrass him for the rest of his life (“Oh look, that is you throwing up all over Dinesh Uncle! How cute!”).

Yes, first birthday celebrations are all about the proud parents. And the party is about all their friends, child-free or otherwise, who are expected to turn up with impressive presents to justify the consumption of all that champagne and canapés. And the bewildered baby – who cannot work out why so many strangers are kissing him so enthusiastically and responds by crying, shrieking or projectile vomiting – is often just terribly in the way.

To be honest, this whole birthday party shebang is quite foreign to me. I grew up in a traditional Brahmin household where your birthdays were marked by a cold bath in the morning, followed by a puja and then a trip to the local mandir to make a ritual offering of four kinds of grain and six kinds of fruit. And I went to school in a strict convent where any kind of conspicuous consumption was looked down upon. So, the students were only allowed to distribute sweets to all their classmates at recess time and that, I’m afraid, was that.

So, this new-fangled culture where a lavish party is thrown every year to mark a child’s birthday, expensive gifts must be bought and equally expensive exchange presents given to departing guests (including, on one memorable occasion, an I-pod – boy, was I stupid to miss that party!) is quite alien to me. The most I have ever managed in terms of celebrating my own birthday is a dinner out a pricey restaurant with a core group of friends.

But while you could argue that all this hoopla is wasted on the very young, who have no clue what all the fuss is about, birthdays have certainly taken on an added importance in recent times. Parents try and find a new theme every year for their children’s birthday parties. Significant birthdays like your 18th or your 21st have become occasions for over-the-top celebrations rather than a raucous night out with friends. And most surprising of all, even the women are quite willing to admit to turning 30 if they are sweetened by the promise of a big party and even bigger presents.

Of course, this kind of candour doesn’t last. By the time the big 4-0 begins to loom on the horizon, a lot more people have gotten a lot more reticent about their age – and hence their birthdays. On the whole, it is only those who are pleased with their progress through the decades, who have hit all those personal milestones of marriage, family, kids, big house in the suburbs and big fat bonus every year, who are willing to acknowledge in front of the world that they have hit their 40s. Those who haven’t quite made it tend not to draw attention to their failure by a big birthday bash.

For alpha males, 50 is the big one. This is the birthday that calls for an all-out splash. They are now at the height of their earning capacity so they can afford to shell out for friends and family to travel to some exotic resort to party for three days and two nights. And more often than not, that’s exactly what they do.

Women hovering around that marker tend to sublimate their desire for a big party into throwing the mother of all celebrations for their better halves. Rare is the woman – in fact, I can only think of one in my own circle – who draws attention to hitting 50 by hosting a blow-out for her friends.

But once these sensitive markers have been crossed, in my experience, everyone tends to get a little more relaxed about their age. By the time you are 60 or even 70, given the achievement inherent in reaching that age, you want to celebrate with all your loved ones around you. And as for the lucky ones who get to hit the decades beyond that, surely the least they deserve is one good party.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Feet of Clay

Why do we expect our heroes to be epitomes of all-round perfection?

Doing my usual trawl of news sites recently, I came upon an interview with Nelson Mandela’s eldest daughter, Dr Makaziwe, popularly known as Maki, the child of his first marriage to Evelyn Mase (whom he left for Winnie Mandela).

A child when her father was sent to prison, she was grown up with kids of her own by the time he was released. But all her hopes of establishing a close father-daughter relationship with him were soon belied. She says now that while Mandela may be a warm, extroverted presence for the entire world, with his own family he seems incapable of expressing his love, always remaining a distant, emotionally unavailable figure.

As I read through the long interview – in which Maki is at pains to point out that she no longer holds his emotional coldness against her father; that’s just the way he is and she has made her peace with it – I couldn’t help but be reminded of all the other larger-than-life political figures who seemed to have failed those closest to them.

The most famous example of this phenomenon – in which an iconic leader wins over the world but fails to gain the affection of his own immediate family – is, of course, Mahatma Gandhi. Those of you who remember the controversy over the film, Gandhi, My Father, will recall the salient facts. The Mahatma had a strained relationship with his first-born, Harilal Gandhi, who became a drunk, converted to Islam in an apparent attempt to provoke his father, then reconverted to Hinduism before dying a penniless alcoholic.

He said famously of the man who was referred to as the Father of the Nation: “He is the greatest father you have…but he is the one father I wish I did not have.”

Ironic, isn’t it? That Gandhiji, the man who was affectionately called Bapu by the entire country, failed his own son so spectacularly? That Mandela, the man who is held up as a symbol of hope and reconciliation in the entire world, couldn’t emotionally connect with his own daughter?

But while it may be jarring to discover that our idols have feet of clay, perhaps we really shouldn’t be that surprised. So, our heroes also have dysfunctional families just like the rest of us. Of course, they do. We may have built them up as larger-than-life mythological figures on our imagination. But at the end of the day, they are only human, made of the same flesh and blood as you and me. Just as we struggle with the various facets of our personality, so do they. And yes, just like us, sometimes they fail at one thing or the other.

Some of them may turn out to be spectacular failures as fathers. Others may be revealed as terrible sons. Some may fail at being faithful husbands. Others may fall well short of our modern standards of political correctness.

But for all their faults, there is still something about them that marks them out as leaders of men. They may be bad at the small stuff, but by God, they know how to deal with the big picture.

Take Winston Churchill, for example. If he were alive and in British politics today, he would be exposed for the racist bigot that he was. His view on Indians – whom he derided as “breeding like rabbits” – was that they were a “beastly people with a beastly religion”. He damned Hindus as a foul race “protected by their mere pullulation from the doom that is their due”. He hoped for “bitter and bloody communal violence” in India so that the Raj could last longer. And yet, despite these racist views that were expressed all too often privately, who can deny that Churchill’s leadership was pivotal in defeating Hitler in World War II?

If the media had been as intrusive at the time that John F. Kennedy was President of the United States, Camelot would not be the one thing that JKF is famous for today. Instead, he would have been seen a Clinton-esque figure best-known for his serial adultery and the fact that he had sex in the White House pool with a succession of women. Several years later, Bill Clinton went one further by having sex in the Oval Office itself. But unlike Clinton – whose entire Presidency became a late-night show gag after the Monica Lewinsky episode – JFK got away with it, until more recent biographies unearthed all the dirt about what would today be termed his ‘sex addiction’.

And more’s the pity, if you ask me. Think about it. Do we really need this kind of intensely personal, sometimes distressingly private information about our leaders? Do we really need to know if they are cheating on their wives? Or that their sons and daughters are disappointed in them? Quite honestly, what purpose does this serve?

At the end of the day, we have to judge our public figures by their public lives and their achievements in this arena. And if we want to do that, then their private lives should remain just that: private.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Old friends

That’s what books are; so how could you possibly give them away?

I’m sorry but I just don’t get people who can read a book, profess to love it, and then pass it on to someone else. I guess that makes a selfish so-and-so who doesn’t like to share. But no matter how hard I try, I find it impossible to let go of a book that has given me hours of pleasure – and will do so again when I get around to re-reading it in a year or so (as I inevitably will).

See, that’s the problem. It’s not that I don’t like to share. It’s just that for me, books are not just objects that you can pass on from one person to another. For me, they are old friends with whom I have an on-going relationship. I turn to them for cheering when I am feeling low. I fall back on them for companionship on a rainy afternoon. I find new delights in them every time I read them afresh. And sometimes, they function as an aide-memoire, reminding me of happier times when I had read them for the very first time.

The books I had to study for my English Honours course in college still occupy pride of place on my shelves. Only now, I can dip into them for pleasure instead of worrying about tricky exam questions I might have to answer later. Hardy perennials like Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer come in handy when I am feeling a tad nostalgic for my youth. Donna Leon, Elizabeth George and Val McDermid are tucked away in case I should ever want to lose myself in a murder mystery (and no, it makes no difference that I already know who did it). Jodi Picoult is the perfect comfort read over a lazy weekend. And then, there are the classics like Jane Austen, which never get old no matter how many times I read them.

Lest you think I only read women authors, there’s also a stack of Daniel Silvas and John Le Carre, which do duty when the spy thriller fan within me surfaces (as it does ever so often). There are the food books – all the way from Nigel Slater to Nigella Lawson – that provide sustenance in more ways than one. And then, there are the likes of Bill Bryson, whom I read whenever I want to be reminded what really marvellous writing is all about.

Given this kind of history with my books, how could I possibly give them up?

All this is, of course, by way of elaborate explanation as to why I don’t like to lend books to people.

Don’t get me wrong. I am as keen as the next person to share the joy of reading a great story. There is something so deliciously life-affirming about discovering a brilliant new author that you want to share that news with everyone you know. And there is a great pleasure in discussing a much-loved book with someone who has enjoyed it as much as you have.

So, yes, I know it makes a lot of sense to lend books out to people who will have as much fun reading them as you did.

In that case, why don’t I do it? And why, on the rare occasions on which I give in to a fit of generosity and loan a much-cherished signed copy of a book to a friend, do I lie awake at nights wondering if I will ever get it back?

Well, mostly it’s because I never do. The problem with lending books to people is that they seldom – if ever – return them. Oh yes, they swear until they are blue in the face that they will. They promise that they are not the kinds who will borrow a book and then keep it. But then one week passes, then a month, and as the year rolls by, you realise with a sinking feeling that you are never going to see that old friend ever again.

As the saying goes: ‘Loan a book; lose a friend.’ Only in my case, the book is the friend I am most upset about losing.

Which is why I refuse to lend my books to anyone. Of course, there are a few honourable exceptions to this general rule, the handful of people who make the cut on my lending scale. My sister, a couple of my cousins, and one solitary friend – all of whom I can rely on to return old favourites and whom I can pester repeatedly if they don’t.

But what if – as happens so often – I want to share a particular favourite with someone who I know will get it just like I did? Well, in that case, I just head out and buy another copy, gift-wrap it and send it across.

That way, everyone’s happy. I get to keep my friend; and my friend gets to make a new one.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Virtual reality

It’s time to take the Internet back from the loonies

Over the last few months, as I ventured into the world of Twitter and set up my blog, I have been struck by the strange dissonance between social discourse – the way we recognise it in the real world – and the kind of personal abuse that passes for it in the virtual world. No matter what you blog or tweet about – it could be something as harmless as the latest Rajanikant movie or as controversial as Kashmir – there will a bunch of people lying in wait to pounce on you with both venom and vigour.

It seems you only have to express an opinion for the vitriol to come pouring out, all of it expressed in curiously personal terms. The debate is invariably pitched at the level of name-calling and four-letter words so trying to keep it in the realm of ideas seem a near-impossible task. Speaking for myself, I have been called everything from a ‘stupid bitch’ to ‘total psycho’ – and that’s some of the more polite stuff that can be featured in a family magazine without veering into pornographic territory.

And if you think that it’s just my boorishness that elicits this kind of response, well then, think again. A quick search through social media sites will disabuse you of this notion. Whether it is Kashmir, the Ayodhya dispute, the Maoist insurgency, the kind of comment that washes across the Internet is chilling in its intolerance, downright scary in its threat of incipient violence, and deeply troubling in how it targets people at a very personal level.

‘Sickular’ (sic) journalists are asked who their mothers slept with to conceive them. (Hint: it could not possibly have been a nice Hindu man.) Those with a contrarion point of view are routinely slagged off as ‘anti-national’ and threatened with dire consequences if they dare to express their views again. And then, there’s the truly special species of Hindutva types who see no contradiction in lecturing you loftily on the essential tolerance of Hinduism and abusing your parentage in the next breath. (I guess they don’t hand out irony supplements at the shakha.)

It’s really as if the Internet has been taken over by the kind of loonies who used to spend all their time writing angry, misspelt letters to the editor in a more old-fashioned age – the kind of letters that sub-editors routinely tore up and chucked into the waste bin. But now this constituency has found a platform from which it can proclaim its badly-thought-out conspiracy theories for the world to hear. And its members are revelling in finally having a space where they can abuse whoever they want, whenever they want.

So, as the majority of Internet users – decent, thoughtful people who are looking to connect with others of their ilk, have a meaningful conversation, exchange ideas, argue about their beliefs or even learn about the beliefs that others espouse – watch in horror, this lunatic fringe of venomous, abusive idiots is taking over the virtual world, one illiterate, intemperate comment at a time.

It is the equivalent of a bunch of noisy hecklers disrupting a serious meeting or a seminar with loud abuse and shouting of idiotic slogans. You can bet that they will get the most attention – perhaps even a few newspaper headlines – though the meeting they disrupted probably merited more coverage. But it is a function of our essentially superficial age that whoever makes the most noise, whoever is the most abusive, ends up attracting the most attention.

I’ve often wondered just how to deal with these ‘haters’ of the virtual world. Some of my more recalcitrant friends tend to respond to the abuse in kind but I’m afraid that is simply not my style. Others believe on blocking anyone who descends to the level of personal abuse, but I’ve always thought that this gives them entirely too much importance.

On some occasions I have been provoked enough by such remarks to respond with a ‘what on earth are you thinking?’ kind of reply. But this just brings on more abuse so is somewhat self-defeating. There are times when I have responded with humour in the hope that it will defuse the situation. But, no, it only makes it worse. So, on the whole, I settle for brushing off the abuse – like so much water off a duck’s back –and moving on.

But now, I am beginning to ask myself if disengagement is really the right policy. By ceding this space to the lunatic fringe, am I, in fact, abandoning my own responsibility to promote civilised debate on the Internet? After all, if people like you and me let the loonies take over the asylum, then what hope is there that order will ever be restored?

So, what is the best way of taking control back from the lunatics? I’m not sure that I have the answer to that as yet, but I am open to any suggestions that you might have.

But until then, I’m going to adopt a more pro-active approach. As a first step, anyone who transgresses the boundaries of civilised discourse – as we know it in real life – will be off my timeline.

Because the way I look at it, it’s time to stand up for the values of a civilised society. It’s time to treat the abusive commentators of cyberspace as the social pariahs that they are. And it’s time to take back the Internet from the loonies.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The best time of your life

Which decade would you vote for: your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s or even your 60s or 70s?

Okay, I am going to come right out and say it. I am not a fan of all this ageing malarkey. With every year I notch up, I seem to slip further down the sliding slope to decrepitude. The days when I barely broke a sweat during a two-hour long workout are long gone. These days, I huff and puff away on the treadmill and my joints creak when I go through my Pilates routine. It gets harder and harder to recover after a late night. And most mortifying of all, my neck is waging a relentless battle against incipient wrinkliness – and losing.

So, yes, I don’t get all this stuff about how ageing is such a marvellous thing. About how we should celebrate all our lines and creases as evidence of a life well lived. About how we should embrace every phase of our lives and enjoy what it brings us. I’m sorry, but I really don’t see what there is to enjoy about losing the fight to gravity. Call me shallow, call me vain, call me what you will, but that’s how I feel.

But it’s not just appearances alone. The decline goes much further and deeper. As you creep into your 40s, medical problems crop up with increasing frequency, wear and tear becomes a major issue, backs get thrown out, knees give up on us, the weight piles on despite diligent dieting and exercise.

As your middle gets thicker even as your hair gets thinner – now, why couldn’t that work the other way round? – it’s hard to see what there is to celebrate about getting older. And please, no nonsense about how the trick is to remain young at heart. The spirit may still be willing but what is the point of that if the flesh is just getting saggier by the day?

Given how I feel, imagine my surprise when a friend recently declared over lunch that her 40s were the favourite time of her life. At my look of bemusement, she explained: her 20s were spent trying to get out of home and create her own life; her 30s went by in a whirl of child-rearing and career-building while trying to muddle along in a joint family; but now that her kids were ready to fly the nest and she finally had a home of her own, this was her decade to enjoy.

I guess looked at that way it made a lot of sense. After a decade of juggling a demanding job and childcare, keeping the husband and in-laws happy, while trying to carve out some space for yourself, it must feel great to get a breather of sorts. And I suspect an increasing number of women – and I daresay, men – feel this way as they enter into their middle life.

But of course, not everybody agrees. For every woman who says she’s looking forward to getting some me-time, there are ten others who are mourning in earnest as the empty-nest syndrome hits them hard. For every man who is enjoying being at the peak of his career as he hits his 50s, there are a dozen others who are struggling with the loss of their youthful vigour or coming to terms with the demise of dearly-held dreams. So, I guess not everyone is a fan of middle-youth – as the trendies call their 40s and 50s these days – like my friend.

But I’m willing to bet that everyone has favourite decade, depending on their life stories during their period. There are some who plump for their early years, nursing rose-tinted memories of an idyllic childhood. There are a few who actually enjoyed their adolescence enough – despite the acne and the dating disasters – to vote for it as their best time ever. (No, I don’t get it either.)

Then, there are those who felt at their peak in their 20s, as they strode out confidently to conquer the world with all the arrogance of youth. Others felt more fulfilled in their 30s, when they had notched up a marriage and maybe a couple of kids and believed that their lives were finally on track. And then, there are those, like my friend, who love their 40s the most.

I’m sure there are as many people who are enjoying their 50s as they did no other decade, as the responsibilities of children or even ageing parents recede. And there are those who are revelling in happy retirement in their 60s and 70s and they enjoy the fruits of their life-long labours.

I can only hope that when it comes to it, I will be lucky enough to join their ranks. But for the moment, if I had to pick my own favourite decade, I think I would pick my 20s. The torture of incessant exam-giving was over, the agonising indecision about which career to choose had ended. I had a job that I loved, I was making new discoveries every day, nothing seemed impossible, the world was my oyster. And yes, gravity had yet to take its toll. So, that’s why – for the moment, at least – my 20s get the vote for the best time of my life.

But what do you think? If you had to choose your own favourite decade, which one would you pick?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Family matters

We may rave and rant about dynasty in politics: but we think nothing of building up our own

Are you in the mood to conduct a little social experiment this Sunday? Well, if you are, I have something for you. Ask your friends and family what they hate most about Indian politics. If I am guessing right, then most of the respondents will answer: dynasty.

Strange, isn’t it? There are so many things wrong with Indian politics and our system of governance. There is an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. We claim to be a putative superpower but plead helplessness when it comes to feeding our starving millions with grain that is rotting away in government godowns. Both the Kashmir imbroglio and the Naxalite problem seem to rage on without an end in sight.

Our politicians make money off everything from the Commonwealth Games to arms purchases to the IPL. But it seems that corruption is now so endemic that it does not even occasion comment. So, our politicians are corrupt. Well, yes, and the sky is blue. No need to hold the front page then.

But dynasty? Now, that’s different. That’s the one thing that we middle-class folk can get all worked up about. Why is it that every politician’s son and daughter regards it as his or her god-given right to enter politics? Why do political parties treat parliamentary seats as something that can be passed down from one generation of a family to the other? Isn’t it a shame that we the electorate keep voting in members of the same family again and again? India has always had a slightly feudal mind-set, but frankly, this is ridiculous.

If this goes on for much longer, we mutter ominously, all political power will soon be restricted to a few hundred families who will control all our resources and rule over us with impunity. And soon no outsider will be able to breach the system, no matter how good he or she is. How on earth will our system throw up a Barack Obama-type figure, we wail, when it restricts entry to family members only?

All of this is entirely true. And none of this is good for India. But, as always, there is more to this story.

It is a measure of our hypocrisy as a people that even as we moan and groan about dynasty in politics, we see no contradiction in building up dynasties of our own in our own backyards. In fact, we actually thrive on it, draw pride from it, and treat it as a measure of our success as parents.

Look around you. Chances are that if your friends are lawyers, their children are studying law as well (and will inherit the practice in due course). If they are doctors, then the kids will probably follow them into medicine (and yes, inherit the practice). In the media, too, children tend to follow the lead of their parents, becoming journalists either in print or in television – though, unfortunately, only a handful are lucky enough to inherit a media empire.

And that’s just the professionals. In the world of business, things are even worse. Even if families own a minuscule fraction of the company, it is taken for granted that the children will take over as CEO or MD in due course. With privately-owned companies, the sense of entitlement is even worse. Rare is the Narayan Murthy or Nandan Nilekani, who builds up an empire and does not leave it to his kids.

But dynasties flourish in other areas as well. Films are the most visible example where every hero of yesteryear treats it as matter of macho pride to launch his son in a blockbuster movie (somehow the same macho pride does not extend to the daughters, though).

Look at the film industry today. With the exception of Shah Rukh Khan, every other leading actor is a filmi kid. Salman Khan’s father is Salim of Salim-Javed fame; Hrithik Roshan’s father is former hero Rakesh Roshan; Ranbir Kapoor is the son of Rishi and Neetu Kapoor; Bobby and Sunny Deol are the sons of Dharamendra. Even among the heroines a fair proportion of them are filmi kids: Karisma and Kareena Kapoor, Esha Deol, Kajol, etc.

So, what’s wrong with that, you say. Everybody has the right to choose the profession of their choice. And if it happens to be the profession of their parents as well, so what? They still have to make it on their own terms don’t they?

In the case of the doctors and lawyers, they have to work hard for their qualifications. Journos have to go out looking for jobs like everybody else (though conceivably their parents’ contacts would help – though, if you ask me, it is more likely that they would it hard to find someone Dad hadn’t rubbed up the wrong way). And the industrialists are just leaving what they had built up themselves to their kids.

But if you are going to put forth justifications, you could equally argue that politicians too have to earn their stripes like everybody else. It doesn’t matter how big a minister your Daddy is. You still have to win an election to get into Parliament. It doesn’t matter for how many generations your family has held the same seat. The voters still have to vote for you.

So, honestly speaking, what is the difference? It might be something to think about the next time you feel inclined to rage on about dynasty.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Truly pointless research

Why does anyone bother to conduct it; and who on earth is mad enough to pay for it?

I’m sure you’ve noticed it as well – the sudden plethora of utterly useless information being thrown at us in the name of scientific research. Just over the last fortnight, the papers have carried reports of a study that proved that women are more attracted to men who move their torsos and heads on the dance floor (apparently, we don’t really care what you do with your arms and legs). Then came news of research that showed that fat men were better in bed because they could last longer (can this really be a good thing for the women labouring, er, under them?) because they had a female hormone, estradiol, which delayed climax.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. The results of truly pointless research are all around us, in case you care to look. The following, for instance, is what a cursory search on the Internet revealed, when I typed the magic words ‘pointless research’ into the Google search engine.

• Lap dancers get higher tips from punters when they are ovulating. You can just imagine the rigours of research involved in that particular project. (And the queues of enthusiastic men willing to sacrifice themselves in the cause of scientific research.)
• You can cure hiccups by a ‘digital rectal massage’. Okay, I concede this wouldn’t seem like pointless research if you were the one suffering from hiccups but it does make one wonder how the researchers stumbled upon this particular cure. On second thoughts, let’s not go there.
• Older men chasing younger women and having babies with them is good for the survival of the species and for our general longevity. That doesn’t mean, alas, that Rod Stewart and Rupert Murdoch will live longer as a consequence of fathering children well into their dotage but that in the long run, most of us will.
• Women are aroused by the sight of monkeys having sex. Evidently, this was proved by a study which examined the responses of a group of men and women to pictures depicting both human and primate sex. Apparently, while the men were only aroused by depictions of heterosexual human sex, the women also responded to the monkey business. Go figure.
• Fat kids are more likely to be targets of bullies than average-sized children. Yes, yes, I know, this is an undeniable fact of life in the school-yard but apparently someone found it necessary to carry out some scientific research to establish this.
• And then, there’s my special favourite. More people are killed by donkeys every year than die in plane crashes. Needless to say, this isn’t true mostly because nobody has ever compiled figures for how many people are killed by donkeys (and why would they?) but this ‘fact’ is routinely thrown around in articles that try to establish how safe air travel really is.
• And then, there’s this particular gem. In the Twitter world as many as 40.55 per cent of tweets are ‘pointless babble’ (i.e., as pointless as the research that established this.)
You may also be interested to know (or not) that dog fleas can jump higher than cat fleas; suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio; washing your hands without using soap is pointless; and eating less calories will lead to weight loss.

Honestly, do we really need research to establish these facts? Leave alone the fact that most of them are self-evident, we are really none the wiser for having such information at our finger-tips.

But what really intrigues me is this. Who are these people who spend many years of their professional lives working on such projects? And how do they decide on their increasingly surreal topics of research?

More to the point, who on earth is mad enough to pay for this kind of truly pointless research? Don’t universities and research institutes have better things to spend their money on? Can these resources not be deployed to search for a cure for cancer, AIDs or even the common cold?

If you think that these questions deserve an answer, perhaps you can set up your own research team to investigate these matters. But if it’s truly pointless research that motivates you, then there are some other enduring mysteries of life that you may like to enquire into.

• Why is the traffic lane in which you are travelling always the slowest. Ditto, immigration queues, lines at the bank, etc.
• Why do you always encounter a series of red lights when you are running late? When you are not in a hurry, you get a green signal all through.
• Why do you get invited to expensive restaurants only when you are on a diet?
• Why do you always get caught in the rain on the day that you have had your hair washed and blow-dried professionally?
• Why do taxis disappear off the road when it is pouring?
• Why is your wife always right?
Going by the kind of pointless research that is published every day, it shouldn’t be too difficult to swing the funding. And it would certainly be more fun than seeing what a ‘digital rectal massage’ could achieve.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is privacy dead?

Or is it just that nobody respects it any longer?

Okay, even if it makes me sound like something of a cliché, I must admit that I enjoyed reading Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s sometimes self-deprecatory sometimes self-indulgent account of the time she spent in Italy, India and Bali, recovering from a traumatic divorce and a rebound affair gone bad. But as the movie version, with the ever-lovely Julia Roberts in the lead, hits screens all over the world, I can’t help feeling a teeny-weeny bit sorry for the erstwhile Mr Gilbert aka Michael Cooper.

Surely it’s bad enough to suffer through a bad marriage and an acrimonious divorce. But then, to have all those private details of your personal life become public property through first a best-selling book and then a blockbuster Hollywood movie – well, that must be a very special kind of hell to suffer through.

Of course, Cooper is now re-married and has the children (two boys) that his first wife was so loath to grant him. But surely it must rankle that he will forever be known as that feckless so-and-so who chased Gilbert for every penny he could get out of her, even – wait for this – a share in all her future earnings.

Yes, though Gilbert is a bit hazy on the reasons for her divorce in the book (did she fall out of love with her husband; did she fall in love with someone else; we don’t quite know) she is generous enough to share the details of her divorce with her. So, we know that her ex-husband fought her every step on the way, laid claim to the marital home, asked for lots and lots of money, etc. etc.

Now, here’s the thing. The truth is that almost everyone behaves badly in a divorce – especially if they don’t want one in the first place. In fact I can’t think of many people whose behaviour in these circumstances would stand up to scrutiny. But not everyone has their financial wrangling brought into the public domain in so spectacular a manner. So, yes, I do feel a bit sorry for the first Mr Gilbert (especially since he failed to get a slice of his ex-wife’s rather fabulous future earnings and his own personal memoir, Displaced, was cancelled by his publishers because it wasn’t revelatory enough).

You could say, of course, that this sort of stuff is par for the course; it comes with the territory when you marry a writer. After all, isn’t that what writers do? Don’t they all mine their own lives for a good story to tell? And in Gilbert’s case, her life was the story.

Well, I guess so. But surely, anyone in a marriage – or any kind of relationship, for that matter – should have a reasonable expectation of privacy? Everyone should be entitled to keep their private lives private, to keep their personal life to themselves, if they so choose.

And yet, how do you accomplish that when everyone around you seems to be in such a confessional mode? Forget about celebrity sportsmen like Tiger Woods and Wayne Rooney who have to deal with mistresses/girlfriends/escort girls selling their stories for massive amounts of money. Even ordinary folk these days tend to deal with a break-up by venting on Twitter or starting a blog recounting their heartbreak in every excruciating detail. It matters little to them that they are not just invading their own privacy but also of their partners.

And this sort of compulsive over-sharing has become near chronic now. Just look at the recent slew of political autobiographies to hit the market. Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man and Tony Blair’s The Journey are just the latest in a series of books that show scant respect for the tradition of keeping political confidences. Private conversations are recounted verbatim, personal correspondence is quoted liberally, and everything that was off-the-record is placed on record without the slightest trace of embarrassment.

Needless to say, not everybody is happy with the consequences. Alastair Campbell was incandescent with rage when Cherie Blair revealed in her autobiography, Speaking for Myself, that he had once dismissed her hair stylist as “only a f__king hairdresser”, even writing in to newspapers to deny ever having said so. Cherie, for her part, sent in a legal notice to Peter Mandelson for quoting from a letter she sent him after his exit from the Cabinet in which she vented against Gordon Brown (“My only consolation is that I believe that a person who causes evil to another will in the end suffer his returns.”) Which, frankly, is a bit rich coming from a woman who cheerily recounted private conversations with everyone from Princess Margaret to the Queen in her own book.

While the art of the candid political autobiography is yet to come to India – somehow I can’t quite see A.B. Vajpayee or even Brajesh Mishra recounting their difficulties with L.K. Advani with the same reckless disregard for political niceties – a confessional culture is certainly creeping in. Journalists think nothing of tweeting about off-the-record encounters with ministers. Actors share candid details of their relationships with fans on social media networks. And even ordinary folk are getting in on the act, sharing private details in public spaces.

So, is it fair to say that privacy is dead? Or is it just in terminal decline, waiting for a miracle that would bring it back to life?

And do you think that miracle will come about in our time?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Loss of faith

To feel betrayed, you need to have trusted in someone to begin with

How do you think the average Pakistani cricket fan reacted when news of the latest scandal to hit their cricket team broke? When the British tabloid, The News of the World, ran a sting operation on a bookie who boasted on camera that he could get the Pakistani team to do anything he wanted? And when the next day’s play – when two Pakistani bowlers bowled no-balls in exactly the same overs as he had predicted – proved that he wasn’t lying?

Well, the words ‘shocked’ ‘grieved’ ‘embarrassed’ ‘saddened’ or even ‘angered’ come to mind. But do you think that any of the fans really felt ‘betrayed’?

I think not. To feel a sense of betrayal, you need to have had a feeling of trust to begin with. And while I am sure that the Pakistanis love, admire, hell, even idolise their cricket team, I am not sure that they trust any of their players as far as they can throw them.

I mean, honestly, how could they? Even the most naive Pakistani cricket fan is well aware by now that there is something rotten in the world of Pakistani cricket. Allegations of match-fixing have become routine over the last couple of decades. Charges of ball-tampering crop up every year or so, with such senior players as Shahid Afridi at the centre of the storm. And spot fixing – in which a player tries to oblige his bookie friends by influencing a particular period of play by throwing away his wicket or dropping a catch or, as happened in Lords on that fateful day, bowling a no-ball – is so common as to barely occasion comment.

None of this is such a well-kept secret that the Pakistani cricket fan has no idea that this stuff really happens. So, while I am willing to accept that Pakistani fans may be upset and annoyed, I don’t really think that they really feel let down by their national team. As far as they are concerned, all of this is pretty much par for the course.

See, that’s the thing about betrayal. It only hits you like a sledgehammer if you have no idea that it is headed in your direction at the speed of light.

Ask Elin Nordegren. The Swedish ice-blonde wife of Tiger Woods had no idea that her husband was cheating on her – let alone that he was doing so with an assembly line of busty babes. When she finally found out, it was as if her world had collapsed around her. As she said in an interview to People magazine after her divorce was final, she didn’t suspect him for a minute, so when the mistresses began to crawl out of the woodwork she felt very betrayed – and very stupid indeed.

That’s exactly how Victoria Beckham felt a few years ago, when Rebecca Loos sold the story of her affair with David Beckham, complete with accounts of sexually explicit text messages and raunchy phone calls. The Beckhams had built their brand on being a devoted, wholesome couple who only had eyes for each other and it must have come as a complete shock to Victoria to see hard evidence of her husband’s involvement with another woman. But the ones who probably felt the most betrayed were David’s fans who had bought into the myth of Beckham the family man.

It’s only when the world buys into a particular myth that a sense of betrayal kicks in. We all believed – or at the very least, we wanted to believe – that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were made for each other. She was our favourite Friend, America’s corn-fed sweetheart; he was the blonde God of good looks, the pin-up idol of every girl (and at least some of the boys). Theirs was a marriage meant to last.

So, when Brad Pitt fell for the dark, dangerous beauty of Angelina Jolie on the sets of Mrs and Mrs Smith (though they swore till they were blue in the face that no actual impropriety occurred until Pitt had left Aniston – yeah, right!) you could hear the sound of a million hearts breaking all over the world. Jennifer was, as expected, devastated and heart-broken, but all of us felt just as betrayed on her behalf.

It was that sense of betrayal that turned us against Shashi Tharoor when the IPL controversy broke. Tharoor was our middle-class hero, the squeaky-clean Malayali boy made good who had come back home to do his bit for his country. He was going to clean the system, making it as honest and incorruptible as himself. He was a politician with a difference; and he was going to make a difference if it was the last thing he did.

So, imagine the shock when it was revealed that Tharoor’s then girlfriend and now wife, Sunanda Pushkar, had been granted sweat equity worth about Rs 70 crores in the Kochi team that won the IPL bid, with minister Tharoor standing as mentor. You could argue that this was nothing compared to the blatant corruption that some of Tharoor’s fellow ministers indulged in.

But that wasn’t the point. The truth was that we expected better of Tharoor. And when he let us down, that sense of betrayal could only be assuaged by his resignation from the government.

I guess the moral of the story is: the higher we build them up, the harder they fall. The more the trust; the greater the sense of betrayal.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The ugly truth

When it comes to romance, beautiful people tend to gravitate towards others of their kind

Would you sign up for a dating site that announced proudly that it was meant for the “aesthetically challenged”? Which was called TheUglyBugBall.co.uk and abbreviated to the very appropriate-sounding acronym TUBB? And which declared proudly on its home page, “If you are one of the millions of people who don’t like what they see in the mirror, then this is the place for you!”

Well, when they put it as charmingly as that, who could possibly resist?

And certainly, there seem to be lot of people who have posted their pictures – some frankly ugly, some less so – on the site but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out if it was for real or just one big wind-up.

Take these sample quotes from the home page: “instead of fishing in a small pool of prettiness and getting nowhere, dive into an ocean of uglies and have more choice”; “a recent TUBB survey also proved that they (ugly people) try harder in bed”; or even “once with an ugly partner it is unlikely that anyone will try and take them from you meaning you can let yourself go completely once you are together”.

I mean, this has to be someone taking the mickey out of those with self-esteem issues? Surely, all these people who sign up looking for love, romance (or a particular favourite:`anything’) on this site cannot be serious?

But when you think about it, the site is only saying upfront what the rest of us don’t have the courage to acknowledge (except maybe in the privacy of our own hearts and minds). The truth is that pretty people like to date other pretty people. Good-looking folk tend to marry other good-looking folk. Beauty gravitates towards beauty.

Look around you. The odds are that you will find that the couples around you are well-matched in terms of attractiveness. The beautiful women tend to be paired with handsome men. The merely pretty have to make do with those who could be described as attractive. And those who aren’t at all physically appealing end up with other aesthetically challenged people.

Rare is the ugly man who gets a very beautiful woman – unless, of course, his bank balance is very, very attractive indeed. And on the whole, ugly women don’t score with handsome men no matter how rich these women may be.

By now, of course, most of you are probably fuming at the suggestion that all our romantic choices are based on something as frivolous as appearances. What about true love? What about the possibility of falling for someone because of who they are, not for how they look? Surely not all of us are as shallow as that?

Of course not. But scientific studies have shown that even small babies – who really should not know any better – are pre-disposed to respond favourably to pictures of people who are conventionally good-looking as opposed to those who are not. So, let’s accept that most of us are more responsive to pretty faces. Once you accept that, then it is just a question of finding your own level of prettiness/ugliness and operating within that comfort zone.

And however much we may protest, there is no denying that we are conditioned to seeing good-looking people paired with other equally good-looking folk. In fact, such is the incongruity of seeing pretty people paired with ugly ones (on the rare occasions that we do) that we cannot refrain from commenting on it.

“What does she see in him?” “Surely he can do better?” We’ve all said this kind of stuff (even if it’s only to our own horrible selves) at some point or the other when confronted with an incongruous pairing of beauty and ugliness. We are inclined to be suspicious of such pairings, which seem to go against the natural order of things. However we try and dress it up, this discomfort is a sure indication that we take the beauty-goes-for-beauty principle as a fact of life.

One reason why people were so suspicious of the Clinton marriage was because they couldn’t conceive how a man with so much natural charisma as Bill, who could have had any woman he wanted (and frequently did) could have chosen to marry the plain, bespectacled Hillary. Could it be love? Nah. No chance. It must some diabolical political imperative that kept them together.

I think the Prince Charles-Camilla love story arouses so much antipathy for the same reason. If Charles had left Diana for another fragrant English rose, the British public and media would probably not have reacted with such visceral rage. But what nobody could fathom was how he could leave the lovely People’s Princess for a frumpy, dumpy, middle-aged woman with no pretensions to beauty or glamour.

And so it goes. We marvel at the fact that the dashing Pierce Brosnan of James Bond fame is married to a woman who is double his size. We wonder why Kajol fell for the saturnine Ajay Devgan. We find Aamir Khan’s taste in women rather quirky because he doesn’t go for the usual model types.

Let’s face it. We are used to seeing beauty paired with beauty. To seeing pretty people getting off with other pretty people. To seeing couples at the same general level of attractiveness. Because, on the whole, this is how the world works.

Which is why maybe, just maybe, a dating site for the ‘uglies’ is not such a bad idea.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Hang up now!
Is our addiction to mobile phones getting out of hand?

Last night I went out to dinner with some friends. There we were, eating, drinking, chatting and generally having a good time. Except for one of us – who shall remain unnamed out of sheer generosity of spirit – who spent all his time checking his mobile phone for messages and then typing out long replies, completely ignoring the real-life person sitting opposite who was trying to conduct a conversation.

After about an hour of this, I couldn’t resist any longer. When he next began tapping out a message even as another friend was in the middle of telling an interesting story, I piped up indignantly, “I’m sorry, but clearly the people you’re messaging are more interesting than all of us right here. Perhaps you should be having dinner with them instead?”

To his credit, the gentleman was suitably abashed at being called out on his bad behaviour. He turned a deep red, muttered unconvincingly about how it was his daughter on the phone. He then put his mobile away ostentatiously, promising that he would not check it again in the course of the evening. And yet, when he thought that nobody was looking, I caught him checking out the display surreptitiously, to
make sure that he hadn’t missed on any calls or smses.

My irritation – and that of my friends – notwithstanding, in the cold light of day I have to admit that none of us can afford to be overly judgemental about these things. And I am the first to confess that I am as much sinned against as sinning. In fact, it was only a week ago that an old friend, with whom I was catching up over lunch, accused me of being a Crackberry addict because I kept checking on the delivery of some urgent emails I had sent out.

So, I guess I shouldn’t be holding forth about the trespasses of others. But you know what, I can’t resist.

Honestly, what is it about mobile phones and us? Why are we always looking at them anxiously, worried that we may have missed some important call during the nanosecond when we weren’t looking? Why do we seem unable to ever disconnect? Why can we never switch off completely? Why have we developed such a symbiotic relationship with
our phones that we appear unable to exist without them? Why are we so addicted to our mobiles that we suffer withdrawal symptoms on the rare occasions we are parted from them?

I still remember the feeling of utter helplessness that engulfed me when I lost my mobile while on holiday a year or so ago. It felt as if I had been disconnected from life itself. Nobody knew how to get in touch with me. Having lost my phone book, I didn’t know how to call anyone. After casting about desperately, I was reduced to emailing people to send me their phone numbers. And all the time, I was in
agony, fretting about all the important calls that I was undoubtedly missing, convinced that there must be some work or family emergency just when I had been rendered incommunicado.

So, don’t get me wrong. Yes, I understand just how important mobile phones are to all of us. You can call the airport from the car to check on the status of your flight. You can keep tabs on your kids no matter where they are. In a medical emergency or in case of anaccident, you don’t have to go around looking for a phone booth to summon help. Your elderly parents can get touch with you at all times.
And after a late night out as you take a taxi home, it is a reassuring feeling to have a mobile phone in your purse so that you can call a friend if anything untoward happens.

I know all this, and yet the tyranny of telephones is beginning to get me a bit miffed. Is it really necessary to take calls when you are in a business meeting? Do you have to have loud conversations on your mobile in a restaurant where everyone else is trying to have a quiet meal? Must the loud ring of your phone disturb everyone else in cinemas, at the theatre, or even during a book reading? Can you not
switch your phone off even when you are visiting a sick friend in hospital?

Surely, life went on even before the mobile phone was invented? We managed to catch flights on time, make restaurant reservations, keep in touch with friends and family, even check our email, long before the mobile became an essential tool of modern life.

So why do people act as if they can’t figure out how we ever coped in its absence? After all, it was only a decade ago that we managed perfectly well without it. Could we really have become so dependent in this short space of time?

I guess the short answer to that is yes. But sometimes it makes sense to do without something you feel is essential to your life – if only to prove to yourself that you can. So maybe it is time to ditch the mobile phone – one hour at a time.

I’m sorry, but I’m not ready to go cold turkey just yet. And I’m guessing that nor are you.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Raindrops keep falling...

In India we love the rain about as much as the British detest it

I was in London a couple of weeks ago and all the talk – rather predictably, I guess, given the British predilection for discussing the weather – was about how the rains were going to make a complete wash-out of September. The summer was effectively over, according to the weather forecasters, from now on it was going to be rain all the way.

The sadness and disappointment was almost palpable, as everyone agreed glumly that it was time to put away those sundresses and shorts and bring out the brollies and boots (not that you can ever quite put them away in England, which is famous for showing you all four seasons in the course of a single day). The days of balmy sunshine were over; from now on it was going to be wet, wet, wet.

As I nodded along sympathetically at my English friends, I couldn’t help marvelling at the very different attitude we in India have to the rain. We long for it during the long summer months when temperatures climb into the stratosphere. We count the days down to the arrival of the monsoon on our shores. We get rather stroppy if it doesn’t arrive on time. We measure every inch of rain to make sure that we have got our entire annual quota. We keep a jealous eye out for other cities, which may have got a little more of the downpour. And a bad monsoon can make us very bad-tempered indeed (not least because of its effect on our economy).

Oh yes, we love the rain – about as much as the Brits abhor it. You could well say that this is because those poor souls have too much of good thing, with it drizzling down every single day (at least, it certainly feels that way). And because we have to suffer through a long, hot, dusty summer, we long for the relief that the rains bring with them.

In a sense, perhaps, for our new-fangled urban ways, we are still an agricultural people at heart. And the sight of rain is an indication that we will have a good harvest this year. Remember the rain song in Lagaan, as the whole village turns out to celebrate the advent of the first monsoon showers in the village?

In India, our attitude to the rain is much like that of a small child looking out eagerly for a much-awaited treat – and then jumping with joy when it finally arrives. No matter how old you are, if you are an Indian, there is a certain sense of joy and abandon attached to the rains.

As a kid I remember stripping down to my chemise and underwear and heading straight up the terrace when the first rainstorm hit. All the children of the neighbourhood would congregate here, yelling and screaming with excitement, as they were soaked to the skin in the downpour. And once enough rain had accumulated in puddles, we would make little paper boats and sail them, having impromptu competitions to see which one of them lasted the longest in the water.

Even now that I am all grown up, there is still something irresistible about the idea of going for a walk in the rain, quite unprotected by an umbrella or a raincoat. Nothing quite matches the feel of rain water as it drops down in tiny droplets on your head or streams down your face or even gathers around your shoes making them squelch so satisfactorily.

This probably explains why rains are such a staple of romance in India – both in real life and in the movies. Young lovers walk along the beach in Juhu as it pelts down; honeymooners book themselves a cottage in Goa during the monsoons; and Hindi film heroines all the way from Mumtaz to Sridevi to Katrina obligingly slip into see-through chiffon saris before dancing in the rain with their co-stars.

Of course, it’s not all about young love alone. Rains have a special significance for families as well. Some of them drive down to the seaside or by a lake to watch the rain come down. Others hunker down to play indoor games like antakshari or dumb charades. Some spend time listening to the many songs that celebrate the season. And then there are those who make the most of rainy days by snuggling down in bed with a good book and a piping hot cup of tea (much as the English would make the most of sunny days by basking in the garden, with a glass of gin and tonic or a tumbler of Pimms within reach).

Needless to say, a whole school of cuisine has been built around the monsoons. In the north, the first sign of showers has the matriarch of the house setting on a pan of oil to deep-fry some pakoras. In Bengal, the rain is the signal to cook some khichuri with lots of ghee floating on top. In Gujarat, it’s time for some daal vada with chillies and salted onions for added oomph. And in Maharashtra, they bring on the gavati chaha (grass tea) and sabudana vadas.

As for me, the rains are just the perfect excuse to take a day off, sit well back on the balcony, and simply watch the sky pour down. The cup of tea is strictly optional though I wouldn’t say no to pakoras if anyone asked me nicely.