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

Sunday, July 25, 2010

What’s not to hate?

There really can be no other honest reaction to smugness

When it comes to human vices, I have no problem getting on board with greed. After all, I can never say no to a second helping of chocolate cake, so who am I to judge? I can sympathise with the instinct to lie, because to tell you the truth, you need a bit of dishonesty to smoothen the wheels of social discourse. I have no quarrel with avarice because if we didn’t want more than we have, then we’d probably still be stuck in the Dark Ages. Bad temper I can cope with, because God knows I am no saint in that department. And I can make my peace with lust because without that the human race would have died out long ago.

There’s just one thing that I simply cannot stand: smugness.

There is something so smarmy and nasty about it that it gets my hackles up the moment it hoves into view. No sooner does it rear its ugly head in my vicinity than I want to tear it right off and shove it someplace where the sun never shines. Okay, so patience is not my strong suit, but seriously, what other honest reaction can you have to smugness?

I was reminded of this when I saw the holiday snaps of American President Obama and his lovely family on vacation in a natural park in Maine. There they were, the tall and handsome Barack, his slim and beautiful wife Michelle, and their two beautiful daughters, riding bikes, trekking up mountains, going for long walks, playing one sport or another. Frankly, it made me wonder when they found the time to catch their breath, let alone have an entire meal.

But the message behind all these photo-opportunities was clear. See, the Obamas seemed to be saying to all their fellow (obese) Americans, this is how a healthy family goes on holiday. And if you want to be as thin and beautiful as us, steer clear of those Happy Meals at McDonalds, stay away from those slot machines at Vegas, and for God’s sake, get off your fat backsides and do some exercise. You can skip like the First Lady, play basketball like the President or hula-hoop your way to fitness like Sasha and Malia. This is what you should be doing on holiday, not kicking back with a six-pack of beer and an oversized packet of crisps.

Now, tell me, how irritating is that? Isn’t it enough that we have to deal with picture-perfect photographs of celebrities and their fabulous lives? Do they have to shame us with images of their aerobicized annual vacations as well?

But while the smugness might begin with celebrities, it certainly doesn’t stop with them. It is alive and well and flourishing in your vicinity, thanks to your many friends, family members, casual acquaintances, neighbours and passing strangers.

It rears its ugly head with your sibling who can’t stop showing off about the fact that he is making double the money that you are; his kids are doing much better in school; his car is twice the size of yours; his house was recently re-modelled; and his wife is still hot enough to elicit admiring glances from the neighbourhood boys.

In the office, this smugness manifests itself in that co-worker who always manages to have his work ready ahead of time, drawing unnecessary attention to the fact that you have missed your deadline yet again. Or it could show up in the boss who is convinced that he is right about everything – and maddeningly enough, always is.

The sad truth is that there is simply no escaping smugness in our everyday lives. You will encounter it in the gym in the person of that hyper-fit young woman who insists on doing her stretches right in the middle of the room so that everyone can marvel at her contortionist ways. Or in that over-muscled man who grunts and groans away in the weights section so that no one can remain oblivious of the fact that he is bench-pressing double his body weight.

In the swimming pool, you will encounter the mandatory bikini babe who is there not to swim but to show off her perfectly-buffed frame. So, she spends all her time on the lounger, rubbing suntan lotion into her exfoliated, cellulite-free body, and adjusting her straps so that she tans evenly – while all the other women lunge for their bathrobes the moment they are out of the water.

Go shopping for groceries or vegetables and you will invariably be stuck behind someone who wants to know where the cherries or pears are from, whether they have any organic basmasti rice, and could they possibly rustle up some roasted snacks rather than all this deep-fried rubbish.

And I’m pretty sure that we all have the neighbour from hell, whose garden looks pristine no matter what the season, whose ficus is always doing better than ours, whose children never seem to break anyone’s windows when they play cricket, and whose wife manages to cook a hot dinner every night despite holding down a demanding job (and who can’t understand why you order in from Dominos quite so often).

The underlying message behind all this smugness – no matter how or where it manifests itself – is the same: “Hey, look, I am much better than you. And you couldn’t possibly be as healthy, slim, hard-working, successful, talented, rich or happy as I am, no matter how hard you tried.”

You tell me. What’s not to hate?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The battle of the sexes

We all agree that no means no; so let’s also accept that yes means yes

Over the last few weeks, I have been getting increasingly tired of the narrative of woman as eternal victim. It doesn’t matter if she is attractive, accomplished, talented, well-paid, successful, even famous. So long as she is a woman, victimhood is a cross that she must bear.

And what annoys me even further is that some women seem only too happy to play up to this stereotype when it suits them – and all too often it does.

If they aren’t hired for a job, it must be because of sexist reasons, not because they don’t have the necessary qualifications. If they don’t get a promotion, then it must be because they are women and the bosses are misogynistic so-and-sos. The idea that they may simply not be good enough does not factor in the welter of accusations. And if they are fired, then it must be because they resisted the sexual advances of the Big Bad Boss.

It is not my case the sexual harassment does not happen at the workplace. Of course it does, and women need to make a stand against it, just as companies need to be sensitised to their concerns. But it doesn’t really help any woman’s case when she only levels charges against her superior years after the event – and then only once she has been denied promotion or fired.

The David Davidar-Lisa Rundle affair (for want of a better word) is a case in point. Rundle sued Davidar for sexual harassment after working with him for three years, during which period they went out for meals, played tennis together, attended the theatre and travelled out of town on business. She spent time alone in his office watching Roger Federer on TV, she gave him gifts, he dropped her home. And yet, three years after this long and apparently consensual relationship, she sued him for sexual harassment.

Well, the Davidar-Rundle case has been settled out of court, with all parties signing a confidentiality agreement. So, we will never really know the truth of the matter. Did she really send him ‘cream-filled biscuits’? Did he really ‘force’ himself into her hotel room wearing ‘excessive cologne’? Was it a case of sexual harassment? Or was it a ‘consensual flirtatious relationship’ that went wrong?

But what bothers me about this whole affair is the assumption that any male who is in a position of authority over a female subordinate is ipso facto guilty of sexual harassment even if both parties were willing participants in the relationship.

Why should this be so? Why are we so unwilling to allow women the option of free will? Why are we so reluctant to believe that women can make decisions about their own sexual lives? Why can we not respect a woman as a mature adult who takes responsibility for her own life choices? Why is a woman’s word worth less than that of a man?

The feminist movement has spent many years fighting for the woman’s right to say no. And now, it is received wisdom that a woman has the right to say no to a man at any point. She can ask him up to her hotel room, she can make out with him, she may even invite him into her bed. But right until the moment of consummation she has the right to say no, and he has an obligation to respect that right.

No means no. We all accept that. And any man who does not and forces a woman into having sex is guilty of rape.

Well, my point is this: if no means no, then shouldn’t yes also mean yes?

If an adult woman willingly enters into a relationship with her male superior at work, then it is her choice. She has made her bed, as it were, and now she must lie in it. It should not matter that he is her boss, or that she reports to him, or even that he decides on her promotion.

If she consents to a relationship with him, whether or not it includes sex, there should be no suggestion of sexual harassment. Yes means yes.

You could argue that the man should not be entering into such relationships at the workplace. And his employers would be well within their rights to fire him for vitiating the atmosphere at work and for creating a conflict of interest.

But does the woman have a case of sexual harassment against him? I think not.

Yes mean yes. And every woman has the right to say no if she wants to.

It is specious to argue that often women have no choice but to give in to the sexual demands of their superiors. Frankly, if that’s what the workplace is reducing you to, then it is time to find another job. And the time to complain about being sexually harassed is when sexual advances are first made to you. Crying wolf several years after the event is just plain stupid – especially if you have consented to a relationship all along.

Women need to take responsibility for their own decisions if they want to be treated as equals at the workplace. They need to move their personal narratives beyond that of eternal victimhood. They need to understand that just as no means no, yes means yes. And which one of these words they utter is their choice – and one which they must exercise judiciously.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Small is beautiful

It’s about time we phased out the Big Fat Indian wedding

There were many things that were heart-warming about the Mahendra Singh Dhoni-Sakshi Rawat love story. The fact that India’s cricket captain didn’t succumb to the blowsy charms of some six-feet-tall supermodel but fell for the cute girl next door. That both Mahi and Sakshi chose to conduct their relationship well below the radar, choosing privacy over publicity (so much so that few were even aware of Sakshi’s existence before the engagement announcement). But most heart-warming of all was the way in which they wed.

Not for them, the Big Fat Indian wedding of legend – though God knows Dhoni can afford it. Not for them, a lavish five-star, celebrity-studded affair in one of Bombay or Delhi’s swish hotels. Not for them, a celebration that lasts several weeks and takes in every scenic location in India that you can think of. Not for them, a lavishly-mounted theme wedding in a chateau in France, a villa in Italy, a chalet in Switzerland, or even a beach in the Caribbean.

No, when Dhoni decided to marry his long-term girlfriend, it was in the small town of Dehradun, where her folks stay and the ceremony itself was held in a modest little resort. The large police presence meant that the media was kept at a respectable distance. So, the only people privy to the proceedings were Mahi, Sakshi, their families and close friends who had flown down for the wedding. Which is exactly how it should be.

Of course, there were famous faces around. And how could it be otherwise, given Dhoni’s supersonic fame? But even here, due discretion was exercised on the guest list. R.P. Singh was in attendance; Yuvraj Singh was not (he tweeted rather lamely: “Got to know Mahi is getting married. Congratulations...”). Among the film crowd, only John Abraham – who has been close to Dhoni, advising him on his fitness and his hair-styles – was in attendance. There were none of the usual suspects – Shah Rukh Khan, Shilpa Shetty, Preity Zinta, et al – who generally litter such events.

And if you ask me, the wedding was much better for it. There were just 60 people in attendance from both sides of the family. There was no fancy DJ flown in from Morocco to regale the guests with Bhangra Rap. There were no rare vintages of French wines or cases of Dom Perignon waiting to be quaffed or even any Grey Goose or Belvedere. Instead, Dhoni kept his wedding an alcohol-free zone. And there were no camera crews in attendance recording every moment for the prime-time TV audience.

In other words, it was a dream wedding – the kind that revolves around the bride and groom and not around the thousands of celebrity attendees and what they are wearing.

I don’t know about you, but I am getting a bit tired of the overblown extravaganzas of excess that pass off as Indian weddings these days. Everyone is competing with the other to choose the most exotic locale, serve the most esoteric food, put on the most lavish entertainment, invite the maximum number of people. Everything must be on a grand scale: the flowers, the decor, the bride and bridegroom’s outfits. And with each one vying to out-do the other, the bar is raised so high that you can’t help but look ridiculous as you attempt to clear it.

NRI businessmen fly into India to take over entire resort properties to host over-the-top weddings for their sons. Only to be topped by industrialists who can afford to take over historical palaces in France to give their daughters a befitting send-off. Young couples whizz off to Florence and Barcelona – along with several thousand guests – just so they can marry in the city of their dreams. Honestly, it’s gotten so bad that if you host a wedding in near-by Thailand you are seen as letting the side down.

It all makes me long for the weddings of my childhood, which were simple, no-nonsense three-day affairs hosted by families in their homes, be they ever so humble. Everyone pitched in to help out with the organisation – relatives, friends, neighbours. And they all did it for love rather than a large pay cheque. Nobody worried too much about colour co-ordination, so long as the bride wore red. The food was plentiful rather than fancy. And the only exotic locales involved were those the happy couple chose for their honeymoon.

Not only were they cheaper to host but they were also more fun to attend. There was none of the anodyne decor so favoured by wedding planners, no designer outfits on display to put your own trusty Kanjeevaram to shame, and no surfeit of choice with endless buffet tables groaning with every cuisine known to man. You did a bit of lusty Punjabi-style dancing with the band, handed over your envelope to the happy couple, posed for a picture, tucked into your kebab (and sometimes sharab) and then departed before the interminable pheras got underway.

The feel was intimate; the mood was buoyant; the scale was perfect.

Which is why I think it is time we retired the Big Fat Indian Wedding, or better still gave it a decent burial so that it can’t come back and bite us in the bottom. Bring on the Small Thin Indian Wedding instead. Trust me, you will love it.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

To sleep, perchance to dream...

Why sleep deprivation is such a modern malaise

Are you getting enough sleep? More to the point, are you getting enough deep sleep, the kind that really leaves you feeling like all’s well with the world? Or even REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which marks the time when you dream? When you wake up, is it from a light sleep – which ensures that you are all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – or from deep sleep, which makes you feel all groggy and grumpy?

You can now get these answers in the privacy of your own bedroom. All you need to do is buy the Zeo Personal Sleep Coach, a headband-type device that you slip over your head before you nod off which evaluates your sleep patterns and sends wireless signals through the night to a small monitor on your bedside table. The next morning, this neat little contraption will tell you how long you slept, what part of this was light sleep, how much deep sleep you managed, how many minutes of REM sleep you clocked up, and whether you woke up out of a light or deep sleep.

The idea presumably is that you can use this information to improve the quality of your sleep – and by extension, the quality of your life.

Because, as it turns out, sleep is really, really important to our lives. Our bodies repair themselves as we sleep, our cells rejuvenate, our systems reboot and recharge and our minds get refreshed. Miss out on your sleep and you could be setting yourself up for a mighty fall, both in physical and emotional terms.

The sleep-deprived are more likely to over-eat because it takes more calories for them to feel satiated. They crave carbohydrates more than those who have had a good night’s rest. They are at greater risk of obesity because lack of sleep also contributes to hormonal changes that can cause weight gain. They are, therefore, more likely to develop diabetes and are at greater risk of suffering a heart attack.

And that’s just the long-term effects. On a day-to-day basis, those who don’t get enough sleep cannot perform routine tasks at optimum levels because their concentration is shot to hell. This can have especially dangerous consequences if they are doing things like operating heavy machinery, driving along a busy highway or – the nightmare to beat all others – piloting an airplane. At an emotional level, lack of sleep can make people irritable, anti-social, short-tempered, disgruntled, and at extreme levels, can even lead to depression. And then there’s the embarrassment inherent in nodding off at that all-important client meeting

So, all things considered, lack of sleep is a dangerous thing. And yet, sleep deprivation is a fact of life, a very modern malaise that affects all of us. And yes, I do mean all of us.

There are the obvious candidates, of course. Mothers of young babies, who need to be fed, burped and changed every couple of hours, can often go for months, sometimes even years, without a good night’s sleep. People who work night shifts on a rotating basis often have trouble adjusting to new sleep cycles every fortnight or so. Party animals who carouse late into the night, drinking and dancing (though, on the whole, they tend to make it up by sleeping late into the afternoon). Students cramming for exams who take a little pharmaceutical help when they need to study until the early hours of the morning. And let’s not even get into bona fide insomniac territory, where people just cannot fall asleep no matter how many sheep they count.

But sleep deprivation is not just restricted to these people. It has become endemic in our times.

Most of us try to cram so much into our days that it is just impossible to schedule around eight hours of sleep as well. And medical researchers are now agreed that this is how much sleep we need – except for those genetic marvels who have some sort of gene mutation that means that they can get by with a scant four to five hours. But what with full-time jobs, caring for children and elderly parents, having an active social life, keeping up with all the soaps on TV and hitting the gym first thing in the morning, sometimes the one thing that gets sacrificed is a sleep.

I guess it all began with the invention of electric lights, which allowed people to stay up later and later into the night. If you no longer had to struggle to see beyond your nose by the dim light of a few candles or a couple of oil lamps, then there was much more incentive to stay up late, to say, read in bed or even work on your office accounts.

The advent of TV, not to mention the entry of the television set in the bedroom, has made us even more nocturnal creatures than before. Rare is the modern family which does not settle down in bed after dinner for an hour or three of TV viewing. And the Internet has made matters even worse, given the addictive quality to net-surfing. Bung in a couple of Blackberries into the mix, with their ready access to Facebook and Twitter, and you can bid goodbye to a good night’s rest.

All of which has led us to becoming a generation that is chronically sleep-deprived. And I think it’s about time we started to lose some sleep over this.