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

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 canap├ęs. 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?