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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The world is fat

The truth is that we all struggle with our weight, one time or another

How do you react when someone you meet after a long time tells you, “Wow, you’ve lost a lot of weight!” Do you gobble up the compliment as if it were a piece of cake and respond with a graceful “Thank you”? Or do you stick on a fake smile as you wonder silently about just how fat you were to begin with?

I have to confess that I find myself squarely in the second category. The moment someone asks, “You’ve lost some weight, haven’t you?” I find myself cringing inwardly about just how overweight I must have looked before. And it doesn’t help that the scales have told me that morning that I am exactly the same weight I was a month ago. The compliments are probably down to clever tailoring or the brilliant use of black as a camouflaging agent rather than any real loss of weight.

Ah, weight! It’s been the bane of my existence for too long now.

Which is rather ironic considering that I was a wiry child, a thin teenager and a slim young adult – all of it managed without the slightest bit of effort. Growing up in a Punjabi household meant that my day began with paranthas soaked in ghee, the packed school lunch was white-bread sandwiches slathered with butter and jam, evening snacks were pakoras or samosas, and dinner meant copious quantities of rice and curry, with potato chips to provide texture.

The motto of our home kitchen was: when in doubt, deep-fry. And yet, despite a diet that seemed to consist entirely of trans-fats – and no exercise whatsoever – I never put on even a scintilla of weight.

And then, suddenly, it all changed. I turned 30 and it was as if the switch to my metabolism was turned off as well. Now, every parantha found its way to the extra tyre rapidly building up around my waist, every samosa settled down comfortably on my hips, even as the white butter and cream went straight to my thickening upper arms.

Ever since then, it’s been a slippery slope down the road to porkiness. And it’s not as if I haven’t tried every trick in the book to get back the slim, lissom self of my twenties. I’ve pounded the treadmill, rocked the cross-trainer, signed up for Pilates, tried my hand at yoga, hired a personal trainer. I’ve joined slimming centres, gone to personal dieticians, tried every fad diet in the world in the world and then some.

Sure, the weight goes off – though, with every passing year, it takes longer and longer to melt away. And then, once I get off the diet or slack off on the exercise, it comes creeping back on until I’m right back where I started.

Given how the diet industry is flourishing and getting bigger every day (ironic or what?) I’m guessing that this is probably how it is for every woman – and most men – who are on the wrong side of 35. We go on a diet, we lose weight, we lose our minds, we go off the diets, we put on weight...and thus the vicious cycle goes on and on.

Sounds familiar? I bet it does. We’ve all been there, done that, and have the stretch marks to prove it. Kalli Purie, however, has done one better. She has written what she calls a ‘weight-loss memoir’ to chronicle her path to skinniness. In her new book, Confessions Of A Serial Dieter, she recounts the 43 diets and workouts that took her from 100 kilos to 60.

I have to confess that I’m not really one for diet books. I invariably end up resenting the po-faced advice that dieticians keep dishing out in their best holier-than-thou manner. Especially since it’s so clear that not one of them has had a decent meal in years – or even has the slightest interest in good food. Not to mention the fact that they’ve never been fat themselves – and so couldn’t possibly know what it feels like.

Kalli is nothing like that. She is very much a regular woman – a wife, a mother, a professional – who loves her dark chocolate and her rajma-chawal. She has struggled over the years to control her appetites just like you and me. She’s failed sometimes. And sometimes she has succeeded. And she feels no shame in sharing both these narratives with her readers.

There is a certain searing honesty in Kalli’s account of her journey to her fattest self and the struggle to find the skinny girl inside her. It takes courage to admit to your own vulnerability – and how heavy you really were. But Kalli has done just that, allowing us to accompany her on what is as much an emotional journey as it is a weight-loss plan. She comfort eats; she binges; she purges; she works-out like a maniac; she fall off the exercise wagon. She is full of self-loathing one moment; and on an endorphin high the next.

Yes we’ve all been there; but some of us have come through on to the other side. And for that alone, the story is worth telling. Try chewing on it instead the next time you find yourself reaching for the jar of cookies.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Days!

Whether it’s Christmas, Diwali or Id, there’s nothing we Indians love more than a good festival

Unlike most people who grew up in Calcutta and then moved away, I am not overly nostalgic about the city. I don’t pine for Bengali culture or Bengali music. I don’t reminisce fondly about the late, lamented Sky Room (a landmark city restaurant in its time). I don’t hanker after the baked beans of Flury’s or the jhaal muri outside Lighthouse cinema (though I sometimes dream about the puchhkas!). I don’t long for the lawns of Tolly Club. I don’t miss the delights of New Market. And I certainly don’t gaze back on my Calcutta days through a fug of rose-tinted nostalgia.

Except on one day of the year: Christmas. Or as we Cal types call it, Bada Din, or quite literally, Big Day.

That’s the only time I get a bit nostalgic about my Calcutta days. Growing up, Christmas was a huge deal. The excitement would start building up weeks in advance, reaching a crescendo when the festive lights on Park Street were turned on. Christmas trees would crop up in the unlikeliest of locations. There would be a sudden flurry of shopping as everyone stocked up on presents. The city’s clubs would vie with one another to host the most spectacular Xmas Eve party. The more devout among us would head to St Paul’s Cathedral for the midnight mass.

Christmas Day would be reserved for picnics to make the most of the short-lived Calcutta winter. I, for one, still have vivid memories of Bada Din family picnics in the Botanical Gardens, with almost the entire neighbourhood in attendance. Meals would be cooked in the open, the kids would dance along to loud music or play raucous games while the adults amused themselves with a pack of cards while keeping a wary eye on their children.

It didn’t really matter what religion we belonged to or what God we worshipped. When it came to Christmas, we were all believers – and celebrants.

As the saying goes, what Calcutta did yesterday, India will do tomorrow. And sure enough, over the years, Christmas has become a huge deal in the rest of the country as well. Our children believe in Santa Claus as fervently as those in the West. Mistletoe and ornament-laden Christmas trees sprout up all over our public spaces as well. We plan special parties on Xmas eve. We enjoy the day off on Christmas with our families and friends.

Of course, the cynics among us will say that it’s just that we Indians love nothing more than a good old festival. And Christmas, with its message of good cheer, its gleaming fairy lights and its lilting carols, fits the bill exactly. It’s a festival after our own hearts, with its emphasis on family, friends and feasting. Rum-laden fruit cakes, stuffed turkey with cranberry sauce, eggnog, mulled wine – who could possibly resist?

But I think there’s more to the way we have made Christmas our own. If you ask me, this ‘secularisation’ of Christmas is, in a sense, a triumph of Indian secularism itself.

As someone who spent her entire childhood in convent school, I grew up with a sense that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary were just two more idols to add to the Hindu pantheon that I worshipped at home. Before every major exam, most of us would slip quietly into the chapel to have a quick word with God. It didn’t really matter if it was Mother Mary of Ma Durga we prayed to. Even as kids, we knew instinctively, that God was one even if She was called by many names.

And it is in this spirit that we in India take to celebrating each other’s festivals with as much gusto as we would our own.

The most obvious examples are Diwali and Id. Both have religious significance for Hindus and Muslims respectively. But the celebrations that mark them cut across religious lines effortlessly. Diwali parties are not all-Hindu affairs, just as Iftar gatherings and Id dinners are attended by people of all religions.

Hindus may mark Diwali with a special puja to Goddess Lakshmi, but there are many Christian and Muslims families who will light up their homes and burst crackers with as much fervour. Practising Muslims may celebrate Id with prayers in the mosque and exchanging idi gifts with family and friends. But their Hindu, Sikh and Christian friends will join in by cadging invitations to homes where they are guaranteed the best biryani and seviyaan.

And so it is with Christmas. Christians may mark it with a midnight mass or a early morning service on Christmas day, but the rest of us will celebrate the spirit of the day in our own way.

And that, if you ask me, is the greatest triumph of our syncretic Indian culture: that our festivals retain their religious significance even as they are celebrated across religious lines. Contrast this with the West where political correctness now dictates that you should say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’’ for fear of giving offence to some minority or religious group.

Strange, isn’t it? Especially when in secular India we have no problem in wishing one another Shubh Diwali or Id Mubarak. And in keeping with that spirit, here’s wishing all of you a Merry Christmas. Enjoy the Big Day!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Delhi Vs Mumbai

Wait! Why not just celebrate what’s best in each city?

Have you noticed how any conversation about how much you love living in Delhi or working in Mumbai invariably degenerates into a Delhi vs Mumbai slanging match. The Delhi folks turn their noses up at the dirt and slush of Mumbai (seriously, what is that smell?). The Mumbai loyalists hold forth on how Delhi has no heart and no time for those with no money or power. Team Delhi sneers about how Mumbai is routinely held to ransom by the Marathi manoos brigade. Team Mumbai scoffs at how Delhi judges you by where you live and what car you drive. Delhi points at the south Bombay snobs and giggles. Mumbai tosses its head and says that at least women are safe in their city (unlike Delhi, which is the rape capital of the country). And thus it goes.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been inveigled into such conversations (okay, fights, if you insist) despite trying my best to stay out of this my-city-is-better-than-yours debate. But last week, as Delhi celebrated 100 years of being declared the capital of India, I found myself being sucked into that very maelstrom. Tweeting about what I loved about the city with the hashtag #ilovedelhi, I found myself floundering in a sea of Mumbai vs Delhi-type responses.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t tweeting about Mumbai at all but merely detailing what I loved about Delhi. I still got jumped on by Team Mumbai, who insisted on telling me why their city was so much superior. Then Team Delhi got into the act to thumb their noses at Mumbai. And soon a full-scale war was in progress.

I withdrew from the fray, battered by the negativity and a bit bemused by all the angst. Honestly, is it really necessary to knock one city if you want to praise another? Does loving Delhi mean that you must hate Mumbai – and vice versa? I really don’t see why this should be so.

So, here’s a novel idea for all you Delhiites and Mumbaikars to try this week. Instead of running each other down let’s try and celebrate what is best about both cities. Just for a change, let’s list what we like about each other’s city instead of just focusing on what we despise.

Having spent time in both Delhi and Mumbai, I thought I would have a bash at that as well. So, here’s my own list of what I love about both Delhi and Mumbai. Read on, and then do get working on yours.

1) Delhi: The seasons. That’s probably the best part of living in the capital. You may sweat and fume and collapse in a puddle during the relentless summer but there’s always the absolutely fabulous winter to look forward to. The days get shorter, the mornings get foggier, the nights get downright chilly. But even as the sweaters and coats are pulled out of mothballs, the parks turn into a riot of colours, the picnic baskets come out of storage, and all of Delhi is out over the weekend basking in the mellow sunshine. What’s not to love?

Mumbai: The sea. However cramped and claustrophobic your apartment may be, the moment you drive by the seaside and watch the horizon expand before you, it is easy to understand why Mumbai is described as a city of endless possibilities. Walk on to the beach, let the water tickle your feet. Jog along the waterline if you’re feeling energetic. Or simply sit on the parapet at Marine Drive and let the rhythm of the waves take you over. Bliss.

2) Delhi: The food. No matter what your taste-buds crave, you can always find it in Delhi. Trawl the lanes of old Delhi for the best kebabs and kormas. Sample the wares of the delightfully-named Paranthewalli Gali. Try the chaat and gol-guppas at Bengali Market. Scoff down momos at Dilli Haat. Work your way through all the many cafes in Khan Market, eating everything from Thai to Chinese to Italian food. And if you’re in the mood to spend, then treat yourself to the biryani and raan at Dum Pukht or a slap-up meal at Set’z.

Mumbai: The food. My personal favourite is Gajalee, where the fattest crabs lay down their lives so that we can have a great meal, though others swear by Trishna. Try the chaat at Swati, the vada-pao at Jumbo or just sample the wares at the many street food stalls on Juhu beach or Chowpatty. Have afternoon tea with bhel at the Taj’s Sea Lounge when you feel like treating yourself. Chill out at Olive or Indigo Deli. Feast on biryani at Zaffran’s and then stop by at Haji Ali for a tall glass of refreshing juice.

3) And then, there are the people. Don’t fall for all the nonsense about how Delhi people are cold and heartless. Or about how Mumbaikars are too busy to make time for a social life. At the end of the day, people are just people no matter which city they live in. And while every city has its share of misanthropes, you will always find like-minded people if you open your hearts to them. I did – and what do you know? Both Delhi and Mumbai opened their hearts to me as well.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Beauty and brains

The sex symbols of our age don’t just rely on their bodies; they use their heads as well

By now, all of you reading this column will probably have seen Dirty Picture. And whatever your views on the merits of the movie itself, you will agree that Vidya Balan was outstanding in her portrayal of a south Indian sex symbol who may or may not (for legal reasons) be Silk Smitha but is called Silk in the movie.

I have to confess that I haven’t seen the movie as yet but I did watch Vidya Balan captivate the audience at the recent Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. And the one phrase among the many witty one-liners she cracked has stayed with me. Talking about Silk and whether it was easy to identify with such a character, Balan confessed that what had really annoyed her at times was the fact that Silk was really only about her body. That she didn’t seem to use her head at all. And that, said Balan, made no sense to her. As Balan famously declared at the Summit, she liked to ‘celebrate and enjoy her body’ – but she always used her head as well.

If you ask me, that one phrase encapsulates the difference between the sex symbols of previous generations and the sex symbols worshipped by our own. Unlike the femme fatales of yore, who were all about the body, the sex symbols of our times use their brains as well.

Perhaps the difference is best explained using the example of Silk Smitha herself and contrasting her with a latter-day equivalent like, say, Mallika Sherawat or even Rakhi Sawant.

Silk Smitha may have been the break-out star of her generation, she may have sold a movie on the basis of her name alone, she may have made more money than she ever dreamt of, she may have been desired by millions. But for all her fame and her success, in the ultimate analysis she was a victim. She was exploited by the men close to her, she seemed to have no control over her own destiny, and in the end, she was in such despair that she took her own life.

In many ways, her life mirrored that of the greatest sex symbol of them all: Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn too was the biggest box-office draw of her time, her name sold a million movie tickets, and every red-blooded man in the world was in lust with her. But despite the power she exerted over men – including the most powerful of them, John F Kennedy, then President of the United States – Marilyn seemed strangely powerless when it came to staying in charge of her own life. She drifted from one disastrous relationship to another, sought comfort in drink and drugs, and in the end, when nothing seemed to work to numb the pain, she killed herself (or was killed by the Kennedys because she was An Inconvenient Woman, if you believe the conspiracy theorists).

Now take a look at the life of Madonna, who modelled herself on Monroe during her Peroxide Period. Even though she had launched herself as a singer before branching off into acting, it was sex that Madonna used to sell herself to the audiences. Her stage performances were more about raunch than rhythm ; she mimed masturbation on stage; wore outfits that left little to the imagination; hell, she even produced a book of soft-porn images of herself, titled Sex which rapidly became a best-seller.

But in all this, there was only one person in charge: Madonna herself. She had absolute control over her career, she decided just how titillating each stage show be, she decided which movies to sign, and she personally cleared every sexually-charged image of hers before it went out to the public. And every dollar that the Madonna machine earned went to Madonna herself.

Today, Madonna may be on the wrong side of 50 – though you wouldn’t think so to look at her – but she remains one of the wealthiest entertainers in show-business and firmly in charge of her own fortune which has only multiplied over the years. If you’re looking for a contrast to the image of sad victimhood that Marilyn Monroe projected in her last years, it really doesn’t get better than this.

In India, too, there are several contrasts to the Silk Smitha stereotype in our entertainment industry. First up is Mallika Sherawat, who has founded an entire career on her breast implants and the ability to churn out shocking quotes about sex on demand. She knows that all she has to offer is an in-your-face sexuality, but boy, does she make it work for her! The same goes for her small-screen equivalent, Rakhi Sawant, who has become a reality television superstar because she goes boldly where no TV starlet has ever gone before.

But while Mallika and Rakhi are really fringe players at best, even mainstream Bollywood heroines have taken control of their sex symbol tag and run with it. Take Bipasha, for instance, who made her debut in Jism and then went on to excel at what Hindi cinema euphemistically dubs ‘bold’ roles. Or Priyanka and Deepika, who see no shame in making the most of their sex appeal. And then, of course, there’s Balan herself, who has no problems ‘celebrating’ and ‘enjoying’ her body.

But unlike the sex symbols of the past, who never really seemed in control, these women are in charge of their own lives. And tellingly, it’s not their bodies that define them, but their body of work.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wear your attitude

What we wear has a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves – and what others feel about us

Of all the charities that I have read about recently, there’s one that really captured my imagination. It’s called Dress for Success and its patron saint is my favourite comedienne, Jennifer Saunders (best-known for having written and played Edina in Absolutely Fabulous). The objective of this charity is simple: it helps women who have been out of work for a long time – and thus don’t have the appropriate wardrobe for a job interview, or the money to buy one – get back into employment by finding them the right outfits for their job interviews.

These outfits are donated by various companies and individuals as well as by several clothing brands, and women volunteers – including the British PM’s wife, Samantha Cameron, who often makes an incognito appearance – help their unemployed sisters to Dress for Success by choosing the right clothes for them and coaching them on interview techniques to build up their confidence before they hit the job market.

It probably doesn’t sound like much, and yet this simple mantra of dressing right for an interview and thus landing a job has transformed the lives of thousands of women. Just the act of putting on a business-like outfit, a neat pair of shoes, and a smart handbag boosts the confidence level of these women who have, over the years, come to think of themselves as worthless. They walk into their next job interview feeling more in control, more focused, and yes, more confident. And that new outlook often spells the difference between success and failure, between unemployment and a thriving career, between hopelessness and a bright and gleaming future.

And it all begins with the right outfit. Because, when you think about it, how we dress has a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves – and how other people feel about us.

If you spend all day at home schlepping around in a track-suit or a shapeless caftan, the odds are that you will feel lazy and sloppy. Dress up in a smart trouser-suit or put on a pair of high heels and you immediately feel ready to take on the world. Sometimes just putting on a slash of lipstick can lift your spirits on a gloomy morning. A bad-hair day can sink our spirits just as a brand new pair of shoes can put the spring back in our step.

Shallow? Perhaps. True? Undoubtedly.

But it’s not just about how you feel about yourself. People also judge you by the way you look, and that invariably boils down to what you are wearing.

Walk into a meeting with your shirt half-hanging out of your waistband and a suspicious stain on your tie (and no, it doesn’t matter if it materialised mysteriously a couple of minutes before your appointment) and you will be condemned as sloppy before you can even open your mouth. Dirty shoes will completely ruin the impression you’ve made with an immaculate suit. And don’t even bother putting on your make-up if your nails still look grubby.

Don’t wear trousers so low-slung that you show off your underwear when you bend down to pick up an errant pen (and that means you too, boys!). And don’t undo the third button on that shirt unless you are actively looking for the ‘sex symbol’ tag.

Yes, despite all that elevated nonsense about never going by appearances, we make snap judgements about the people we meet every day. And those judgements are invariably based on what they are wearing.

How many times have you passed a woman wearing an ikat sari, an over-sized red bindi, kohlapuri chappals and carrying a cloth bag – or a man in a colourful FabIndia-style kurta and an week’s growth of stubble – and thought to yourself ‘ah, NGO-type’? In fact, the look has even pawned its own description: ‘jholawallah’ after the cloth bag all these ‘NGO types’ carry.

Nothing says ‘sales rep’ as much as a short-sleeved shirt worn with tie (but no jacket). Traders can generally be recognised by their safari-suits and large gold rings. A white kurta with a dark waistcoat has become the hallmark of a politician. And unfortunately, in our lexicon, a short skirt or a skimpy dress still translates into ‘slut’.

But, how we dress goes even deeper than that. In a sense, every profession has its own ‘uniform’ as it were, an easily recognisable way of identifying someone as part of a ‘tribe’.

Those in the fashion industry take particular pride in dressing in an eccentric manner, wearing wildly-mismatched colours, avant-garde designs, and completely outrageous accessories. Journalists try to display their nonchalant, devil-may-care attitude by wearing dirty jeans and crumpled T-shirts everywhere. Anyone with a starchy, neatly pinned-up sari, and no-nonsense flats is in all probability a teacher. And if you see a man wearing an impeccably-tailored suit with a suitably sober tie even in the height of summer, the poor sod is probably middle-management in an MNC.

But quite apart from the messages people get from our clothes, how we dress is also a powerful way of projecting the image we want to convey to the world. We put on a colourful scarf when we want to project our playful side. We wear our highest heels when we want to feel sexy and powerful. We carry an expensive handbag to show that we have made it.

Yes, what we wear says a lot about who we are – but it also says a lot about how we would like to be perceived.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The cougar effect

Why do older women always end up being dumped by their much-younger spouses?

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the televised proceedings of the British House of Commons committee that was grilling Rupert and James Murdoch about the phone-hacking carried out by their newspapers. Remember the most compelling image that emerged from that meeting? Yes, it was the moment when Rupert, the ageing patriarch of the Murdoch clan, was attacked by a man who pushed a ‘foam-pie’ into his face.

But it wasn’t the sight of a powerful media mogul subjected to public ridicule on international television that enthralled us. It was the image of his young wife, Wendi Deng, seated behind her husband, leaping to his defence like a protective tigress and hitting his attacker flush in the face. The look of murderous intent in her eyes said it all: she would kill, if that’s what it took, to protect her man.

In an instant, all those who had scoffed at their December-May pairing when they wed in 1999 – Rupert, 37 years older than Wendy, is now a sprightly 80 to her youthful 43 – were forced to eat their words; or should that be humble (foam) pie? This was no gold digger out to make her fortune by marrying a rich old man. This was a woman who loved her husband and would do anything to defend him – yes, even use her powerful right hook.

Now contrast this with another portrait of a marriage. Demi Moore was 41 when she fell in love the 25 year old Ashton Kutcher. They married a couple of years later despite their 15-year age difference. Predictably, the sceptics scoffed and prophesied that the union would not last. But Demi and Ashton seemed determined to prove them wrong, with their endless public displays of affection, and avowals of eternal love. Demi went by Mrskutcher on twitter and Mr Kutcher did such playful things as snap her white-bikinied bottom as she ironed his shirt (ah, the joys of domesticity!) and post the picture on Twitter as if to prove what a fit wife he had.

Fast forward to their sixth wedding anniversary and what do we see. Demi’s husband is far away in San Diego, cavorting in a hot tub with a bunch of 20-something, near-naked girls, one of whom he ends up in bed with (apparently, after having failed to persuade her friend to join them for a threesome). Not surprisingly, Demi announced that she was filing for divorce soon after.

Not that Demi is the first older woman – or cougar as we are told to call them these days – to be publically humiliated by her much younger husband. Even the ageless Madonna had to suffer the same ignominy when Guy Ritchie celebrated his impending divorce by telling his friends that his wife was so skinny that sleeping with her was like ‘cuddling a piece of gristle’ (charming man, right?). And then he did one better by running off with a much younger model and having a baby with her (that’s one in the face for the much-menopausal Madonna, then).

Courtney Cox hasn’t had much joy out of her marriage to a younger man, David Arquette, either (though she did manage to have a daughter, Coco, after years of trying). Arquette has been in and out of rehab throughout their 11-year marriage. And no sooner had they separated than he was calling in at shock jock Howard Stern’s radio show to announce that he had sex with a bartender/actress while still married and how Courtney (sob!) just didn’t fancy him anymore. And then, like most men fresh out of a relationship he moved on to another girlfriend with the speed of light (or should that be neutrino?)

Perhaps the only celebrity older woman whose marriage with a much-younger man seems to have remained on track is Joan Collins who is now 78 to her husband Percy Gibson’s 46 (yes, you read that right). The pair still appear devoted to one another and when asked about the huge age gap between them, Collins famously declared: “Well, if he dies, he dies.”

Other than Collins, I think of a single famous woman who has managed to live happily ever after with a much younger man. Sooner or later, she ends up being cheated on, publicly humiliated, and then traded in for a younger model. Rich men, on the other hand, have no problem holding on to much younger wives. And some of them, like Murdoch, are lucky enough to inspire absolute devotion in their much younger spouses.

Why should this be so? Why is it that older men are more successful at this younger spouse gig than older women?

Well, if you ask me, it all comes down to these ladies choosing to marry little boys – and here I am referring to their mental as well as their chronological one – perhaps in an attempt to re-capture their own youth. But then these boys refuse to grow up – and the problems begin. As Courtney Cox famously declared to David on their 11th anniversary: “I don’t want to be your mother any more”. Well, in that case, Courtney, you should not have married a child.

In fact, that’s probably a salutary lesson for all older women out there. If you don’t want to play Mummy, ladies, then don’t marry little boys – or men who behave like little boys. Pick someone your own age instead. You’ll probably be much happier in the long run.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The medium is the mess

But if an ‘advisory’ is the answer, then here’s my very own...

So, the press is everyone’s favourite whipping boy these days; or should I say the media, given that TV channels get as much – if not more – flak than newspapers. Journalists are accused of everything from venality and corruption to plain stupidity. We are told that we are neither well-educated nor well-read; that our priorities are all wrong; that we can’t tell the wood from the trees. And that given a choice we would rather focus on cricket and Shah Rukh Khan than on farmers’ suicides or the maternal mortality rate.

To be fair – and despite being part of that much-maligned breed, a journalist, I do try to be fair – there is certainly something to this criticism. Yes, we do tend to go overboard when India wins the cricket World Cup. We attain a near-hysterical pitch when Saif Ali Khan starts dating Kareena Kapoor. We have turned the phrase ‘Breaking News’ into a running gag on television by splashing it randomly across the board to any news items that comes through on the wire services. And we have made the term ‘Exclusive’ meaningless by applying it to interviews granted to every media outlet.

So, yes, the media have a lot to answer for. But I don’t think that the answer lies in issuing risible ‘advisories’ on how the media should – and should not – cover the birth of Baby B, the first-born child of Abhishek and Aishwarya (helpful pointers included: don’t position OB vans outside the hospital; don’t run astrology shows about the date of the baby’s birth; don’t run ‘Breaking News’ tags on the item; don’t reveal the sex of the baby – okay, I made the last one up, but just barely). Quite apart from the fact that this was hardly a seminal event in the history of the nation which warranted an ‘advisory’ (how about one on the Manipur blockade, guys, or even the children’s death from encephalitis in Uttar Pradesh?), it was also singularly pointless because there wasn’t a hope in hell that the habitual offenders would pay the slightest attention to it.

But inspired by this example and in keeping with the same spirit, I thought I would issue an ‘advisory’ of my own: a list of dos and don’ts for when you are dealing with the media.

1) Don’t open the door to any place you don’t want the media to go. Because once you allow entry there is no getting rid of them. So, if you agree to dish the dirt on your love life, your marriage or your divorce while you are promoting a book/movie/music album, then consider yourself warned. From then on, it will be open season on you. And you won’t really be in a position to object, given that you opened the door to that line of questioning in the first place. So, if you had no compunctions giving lovey-dovey joint interviews with your girlfriend when you were in the first throes of love, then don’t throw a hissy fit if the media go mad with speculative stories when you split up or when you are caught cheating on her. You made that bed; now they will report who lies in it.

2) If you don’t like the way a particular television channel conducts its prime-time news debates, then don’t agree to appear on it. It’s really not that hard to do. When the guest coordinator calls to ask if you are free to appear on such-and-such show, take a deep breath, say a polite thank you for the invitation, and say no. Keep saying no every time they call. In a couple of weeks, the invitations will dry up of their own accord. And you can spend the evenings at home, sipping your whiskey/wine and relaxing on that well-worn couch.

It beats the hell out of the alternative: driving miles out to some god-forsaken studio, shouting to be heard over the five other people on the panel, being lectured to by some self-righteous anchor, losing your temper or worse still, losing it on national television, and threatening to walk out. And then making an absolute fool of yourself by turning up on the show the very next night, to be slapped around all over again.

Honestly, why subject yourself to this daily humiliation? Do yourself a favour. Stay at home. And if you must get your blood pressure elevated, do so in the privacy of your own drawing room, while shouting invective at the TV screen. I do it every evening. And believe me, it works like a charm.

3) Let’s assume that you have no choice but to engage with the media despite all your reservations about it. Stick to the policy perfected by American politicians over the decades. Decide before you go on what message you want to get across to the watching masses. And then stick to that message no matter what the anchor or reporter asks. Remember, it’s not the questions that will stay with the viewers; it’s your answers that will stick.

Or better still, avoid mainstream news outlets altogether and rely on social media to get your message across. Given how obsessed mainstream media is with Twitter and the like, you’ll get the same amount of coverage anyway – and without having to go through the middleman, as it were.

And thus ends my own little ‘advisory’. (Follow at your own peril.)

Saturday, November 12, 2011

What’s the good word?

Let’s not trivialise sexual harassment by coyly calling it ‘eve-teasing’

Of all the words that seek to hide a grim reality behind innocuous euphemisms – honour killings, collateral damage, dowry deaths – the most ludicrous has to be ‘eve-teasing’. And of late we have been getting an overdose of this word in our media because of the horrific murders of two Mumbai boys, Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandez.

These two young men were out with friends one evening when some ‘eve-teasers’ started misbehaving with the girls in the group. Keenan and Reuben objected to their behaviour and got into an altercation. The miscreants left, only to return with a gang of rowdies. A fight ensured, in the course of which the goons stabbed both Keenan and Reuben. (I wonder, does that make them ‘knife-wielders’ rather than murderers?) Keenan died on the spot. Reuben passed away a week later in hospital. And we were told that the boys had paid the ultimate price for standing up against the menace of ‘eve-teasing’.

Funny old word, isn’t it? Eve-teasing. It evokes pictures of bashful young girls being playfully ‘teased’ by mischievous young men who are just looking for a lark and some laughs. It brings to mind bucolic images of a beautiful Garden of Eden in which nubile young girls (the Eves in eve-teasing) are gently joshed with by well-meaning, witty men. Yes, it sounds nice and soft, all romantic and wonderful, doesn’t it?

The reality, of course, is quite different. What ‘eve-teasing’ means in real terms is the incessant, unremitting sexual harassment of women by men who take a perverted pleasure in tormenting them. There’s the boy whistling loudly at a girl as she walks down the street. There’s the man passing lewd comments on the physical attributes of the woman who works with him in office. There’s the boy who brushes up against a bunch of teenagers in the mall. There’s the man who pinches the bum of the woman nearest to him in a crowded bus. And much, much worse.

Yes, sexual harassment can take many forms. But not one of them qualifies to be coyly termed ‘eve-teasing’, with its connotations of playful joshing and the sense of how ‘boys will be boys, yaar’. And yet, we are constantly being bombarded with the subliminal message that these ‘eve-teasers’, those naughty boys, are just out for some innocent fun and a few laughs. And honestly, we shouldn’t take it so seriously.

At one level, this laid-back attitude to the sexual harassment of women is a by-product of our patriarchal culture in which men are allowed to get away with murder (sometimes quite literally). Their bad behaviour is excused or explained away on one pretext or the other; their various misdemeanours treated with indulgence. And never more so than when their victims are female.

But if you ask me, our popular culture is just as culpable. In India, of course, that translates into the movies. And our cinema hasn’t exactly helped by elevating ‘eve-teasing’ to an art form. Remember those Sixties movies that made Shammi Kapoor a star? In which he chased his heroines relentlessly through the first hour after which they obligingly fell in love with him? The same formula has been repeated in every decade after with everyone from Rajesh Khanna to Govinda, from Salman and Shah Rukh to Imran Khan following this peculiarly Hindi-movie style of courtship that is more harassment than romance.

There is a word for a man who follows you around, insists that you give in to his advances, won’t take no for an answer, and continues to believe that you are in love with him despite all evidence to the contrary. In the real world he is called a stalker. In Hindi movies, he is the hero. And somehow, the heroine always obediently falls in love with him in the course of the second song sequence.

As a consequence, all the men who grow up watching their heroes indulge in what is coyly described as ‘chhed-chhad’, come to believe that this sort of harassment is completely acceptable behaviour. It’s all about breaking down her defences. It’s all about brow-beating her into submission. And then there’s that old chestnut: she may say no, but she actually means yes. You just have to keep at it until she says ‘yes’ as well.

In other words, these men begin to see stalking as courtship.

But real life is not the movies. And real-life women have this irritating way of not falling in love with their harassers unlike Hindi film heroines. Unfortunately, the men can’t seem to tell the difference between reality and the movies and continue to act as if harassment is actually a legitimate form of interaction with the opposite sex. And as a society, we are implicit in trivialising this sexual harassment when we refer to it as ‘eve-teasing’.

I think the tragic deaths of Keenan and Reuben should serve as a wake-up call in this regard. These two fine young men didn’t die because they were objecting to ‘eve-teasing’. They died because they took a stand against the sexual harassment of women. And the fact that nobody stood up for them as they were being stabbed to death shows us just how de-sensitised we have become as a society.

The Santos and Fernandez families will never get their men back. But let’s not besmirch their memory by our constant references to ‘eve-teasing’. They didn’t die because they didn’t have a sense of humour. They died because they had a sense of honour. Let’s at least respect that.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

From rags to riches

Reality television can change your life; so long as it was pretty gritty to begin with

Poverty tourism in India may be passé these days, what with droves of high-rollers flying in their private jets to invade our palace hotels and luxury resorts, but hard-luck stories have found fertile ground elsewhere: on Indian television shows. No matter which channel you turn to or which programme you watch, the song remains the same: the participants vie with one another to tell viewers just how badly off they are, and how this stint on TV has the potential to change their lives for the better.

On Masterchef India, we have already met two ‘single mothers’ who are living away from their children – cue quivering chins and discreet tears followed by brave smiles – and hope to reunite with them if they do well on this show. No, I can’t work out either how these two events are related but the ladies bring up their domestic troubles whenever the opportunity presents itself and the judges look suitably sympathetic. Does this make the food they cook taste any better? No clue. Should their sad lives make a difference to their scores when the results are tabulated? Of course not. And yet these ‘personal problems’ crop up ever so often.

Meanwhile Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) has recast itself as a show for India’s Less Fortunate. The catch-line of the show says it all: ‘Koi bhi aadmi chhota nahin hota’. The promise is clear: this is the show that ‘Aam aadmi ko khaas bana deta hai’. In keeping with the theme, participants roll on to tell their stories of woe to the greatest superstar of them all, Amitabh Bachchan, and confess how they are looking to transform their lives by a big win. This one hopes to pay off his debts with the prize money; the other wants to buy a house for his parents. This one wants to complete her studies; the other wants to send his kids abroad to study. So far, so heart-breaking.

Take the lucky chap from a small Bihar village who won the Rs 5 crore pay-off (and was promptly – if somewhat predictably – nicknamed Slumdog Millionaire). Sushil Kumat grew up in a mud house with a leaking roof, didn’t even own a TV set and had to watch the earlier seasons of KBC at a neighbour’s house. A government clerk, he taught at a local institute to supplement his income while he studied to crack the Civil Services exam so that he could fulfil his dream of becoming an IAS officer. But now, with the KBC prize money, he could buy a new house for his family, give enough money to his brothers to set up businesses of their own, and sit and home to prepare for the Civil Services exam rather than working two jobs.

Kumar’s was the typical rags-to-riches story that makes the stuff of television TRPs these days, an arc that goes effortlessly from deep deprivation to fame and money, taking in a teary TV appearance along the way. Clearly, to make it in reality television – or game shows, for that matter – these days, your reality has to be more gritty than glossy.

And by allowing the participants to tell their stories, these shows tap into our love of the underdog. The back-stories also help to humanise the participants on these shows, to make them flesh-and-blood creatures that we care about. And that makes it easier to evoke sympathy and a certain fellow-feeling (otherwise just how badly would we react to somebody else walking away with a Rs 5 crore prize while we lolled about on our sofas?) for the participants of these shows. The subliminal message is clear: if they can transform their lives, maybe we are in with a chance as well.

Small wonder then that the format of using hard-luck stories as a magnet has been adopted by reality shows across the board. India’s Got Talent could just as well have been titled India’s Got All Teary as the sob stories piled on. The winners of the last season, the Prince dance troupe from Orissa, were sold as the under-dogs of the competition, impoverished performers from one of the more impoverished states of the Indian Union. This, despite the fact that they were so talented that they would have won on sheer merit. And yet, their back-story was told and re-told...and then told yet again for good measure.

There is no mistaking the message: television can change lives; it can make fortunes; it can transform destinies. It can take a poor man who lives in a mud hut in a Bihar village and turn him into a crorepati. It can unearth unknown talents in the depths of rural India and make them national superstars.

In other words, reality television has the potential to change your reality. There’s just one caveat: don’t bother to apply if you are middle-class and middle-income. Unless you have a hard luck story to tell – and sell – you simply don’t stand a chance.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


What do you see when you look into the mirror?

Have you ever thought about what a baby sees when she looks at herself in the mirror? Does she wonder who this other little person is staring back at her? Does she puzzle over the fact that she can’t touch this person even when both of them are reaching for one another? Does she look down on her clothes and wonder why the baby in the mirror is wearing the same thing? Or does she, by some intuitive leap, understand that the face looking back at her so solemnly from the mirror is her own? And if she does, then at what stage does this understanding dawn?

I was trying to work this out as I idly watched my friend’s young daughter sitting transfixed in front of a full-length mirror. She smiled uncertainly at her reflection; she tapped experimentally on the glass to see if she could get to the other side; she pressed her nose against it and then snapped back looking startled at the distorted image reflected back at her; and finally she summoned me over with an imperious finger to help her solve this new mystery the world had presented to her.

I sat down next to her on the floor, pointed to my reflection in the mirror and then at myself. She looked back and forth, a glimmer of understanding in her eye. I pointed to her reflection and then back at her. Suddenly, her face lit up with the glow of recognition. That baby in the mirror. It was her. That was what she looked like. That was what the world saw when it looked at her.

We soon tired of this game and moved on to something else. But the little interlude got me thinking. As we grow older, what do we see in the mirror? Is that how the world sees us as well? And how accurate a reflection is it of how we feel inside?

As a child, the mirror was my best friend. I would spend hours preening in front of it, trying on my mother’s make-up, my elder sister’s grown-up clothes, my grandmother’s saris, my father’s clunky reading glasses. Every new item made me look a little bit different; it was almost like trying on personas for size before I decided on which one suited me best.

As I grew a little older, my relationship with the mirror evolved as well. The only child in a family of grown-ups, the mirror became almost a playmate. I would conjure up imaginary friends and set up a dialogue with them as I sat in front of the dressing table. I would try on expressions, a laugh here, a frown there, a giggle for punctuation and try and work out how I appeared to people I met in the real world.

Then, teenage struck and the mirror turned into my enemy. Suddenly, all I saw in the mirror were my flaws. My forehead was too short, my nose too stubby, my cheeks too fat, and was that a fresh pimple sprouting on my chin? It seemed to be growing larger every minute I stared at it.

No matter how hard I tried, I found it impossible to love the image reflected back at me. And even though now I marvel at the thin waist and pert bum of my teen years – and don’t even start me on my perfectly-toned arms – at the time I hated, just hated, what I saw in the mirror.

Did things change? Of course they did. The raging hormones of teenage calmed down and I began to see myself for what I was. Not great, but not absolutely vile either. And thinking back, I can faintly remember about a nanosecond in my late 20s when I was actually happy with what I saw in the mirror. It was as if I had finally grown into my face, all the bits and pieces had made peace with one another, and I could smile back at the mirror when I looked into it. And that self-confidence helped me through the next decade or so.

But now with incipient middle-age creeping through the lines on my face (and my neck, oh God, I’d hoped you’ve have the decency not to bring up my neck!) I think that equanimity is not long for my world. Of late, I find myself re-arranging my features before I risk a look in the mirror. Cheeks ever so slightly sucked in, neck held straight, jowls tightened, lips raised in a half-smile. And it seems safer to do my make-up one feature at a time – a quick fix of kohl pencil, a smudge of under-eye concealer, a dash of lipstick – and then risk a look at the sum of my parts. Aha, not so bad after all!

And no, I’m not really deluded. It’s just that Nature comes to the rescue of women like me. Your eyesight becomes a little less perfect to go with the general decline of your features. And all those flaws that are so apparent in the harsh light of day are softened just a bit as you gaze at the ever-so-slightly blurred image in the mirror. It’s a bit like looking at a picture shot through a soft-focus lens. It is real all right, but just a tiny bit better for being a tad diffused.

Take my advice. Accept it as the truth. In these matters, it’s best not to investigate too closely.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Happy Diwali!

This festive season, go forth and light up someone else’s life

Aren’t you just about fed up with the absolute avalanche of advertising asking us to go forth this Diwali and buy, buy, buy? I know I am. I am fed up of being told that I should bring home a new sofa/fridge/car/television this ‘festive season’. I am fed up of being lectured about how the best way to ‘celebrate’ this special time to buy some diamonds or invest in some gold jewellery. And I am fed up of the suggestion that the only way we can make the special people in our lives feel special is by breaking the bank and buying them some extravagant present.

Yes, I know that this is the time that the Goddess Lakshmi is worshipped in most Hindu homes – even those that are not particularly religious at other times of the year – and that the Goddess of Wealth is supposed to be welcomed with, well, a show of wealth. But seriously, what is it with all these exhortations to spend, spend, spend...and then spend just a little bit more?

Is that really what the spirit of Diwali has been reduced to in these materialistic times? Did the ‘festival of lights’ metamorphose into an ‘orgy of conspicuous consumption’ while we were busy shopping for gifts for the family? And is money really all it takes to celebrate the advent of the Lakshmi in our midst?

Well, it is certainly beginning to look like it. The markets are clogged with eager shoppers greedily picking their way through the shiny wares on display. The traffic moves at a snail pace because everybody and his uncle (and aunt and a gaggle of children) are out in their cars busy dropping off Diwali presents to all their near and dear ones. And everybody who is anybody has a veritable mountain of corporate hand-outs littering their dining table.

At one level, I guess the excitement is understandable. After all, Diwali comes around just once a year. And amidst all the diyas, the patakas, the phuljharis and the anaars, it is easy to get lost in the sheer headiness of it all. But as we scoff the chocolate barfis and kajus and badams and swear that we will go on a detox diet as soon as the last box of mithai has been polished off, do we ever stop to think about how those who don’t have our kind of disposable income are celebrating the festival? How do they cope with the ubiquitous message of conspicuous consumption when they can barely scrape together two meals a day? How do those who have no money to speak of welcome the Goddess of wealth to their homes?

If these kinds of thoughts ever do rankle, then this Diwali make a pledge to do something about it. Ignore all those media messages asking you to re-do your homes, buy a new wardrobe, upgrade your car, splurge on some jewellery or whatever new gizmo there is in the market. Don’t order a huge hamper full of exotic goodies to give away to friends and family. Cancel that expensive dinner you were planning to host for your card-playing buddies. And do the environment a favour by not bursting any noisy, polluting crackers.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t celebrate the festival with your loved ones. But do so with love and affection rather than just by mindless spending. Don’t bother with expensive, all-purpose gifts. Instead think of what each individual on your list would most enjoy. Is your cousin interested in cooking? Gift her some herbs – parsley, coriander, mint, sage, rosemary – growing in small pots that she can place on her kitchen ledge. Is your wife a proud hostess? Find her some hand-made aromatic candles that she can display proudly at her next dinner party. If putting that much thought into each gift seems daunting, then just stick to the tried-and-tested: earthernware diyas that can be used in the Diwali puja, and potted plants that can survive the seasons on the balcony.

Once you’ve bought all these ‘alternative’ gifts, make a quick estimate of how much money you have saved. Now, find some worthwhile cause to donate it to. It could be to an NGO you trust; the neighbourhood centre that educates underprivileged children; the blind school; a shelter for battered women; or even a temple that feeds the poor.

As for all those hampers of bakery products and confectionary littering your drawing room, pile them all into your car and head for the nearest orphanage or blind school. Set up a little counter and give away all the stuff to the children. Watch as they scoff it down with delight. That experience is worth more than any bit of jewellery you could possibly own. And the fact that you are able to enjoy it is true wealth.

So, this year instead of going forth and buying, buying, buying, make a pledge to go forth and spread some good cheer among those less fortunate. And on that note, Happy Diwali to all of you!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Without my daughter

Movies are just dandy for Sanjay Dutt; but his daughter should steer clear, or else...

If you are of a certain age, you probably remember a time when conventional wisdom had it that the world of movies was steeped in sin. And that while it was okay for strapping young men from good families to join the film business, it was no place for a woman from a ‘decent’ household. Raj Kapoor, the great patriarch of Hindi cinema, famously declared that no woman in his extended family would ever work in the movies. Thus, both his daughters-in-law, Babita and Neetu Singh, dutifully retired from the film world once they had acquired the Kapoor family name. And most film stars of his generation took their cue from him, forbidding their wives, sisters, daughters and daughters-in-law from joining the film industry.

You would think that many decades down the line, things would have changed. After all, a new generation of Kapoor daughters, Karisma and Kareena, has taken the lead to become the leading actresses of their time. Even as traditional a Jat as Dharmendra had no objection to his daughter with Hema Malini, Esha Deol, making her debut as an actress. More recently, Anil Kapoor’s daughter, Sonam, has made her entry into the film world as has Sonakshi Sinha, the daughter of the yester-year star, Shatrughan.

In all of these cases, the fathers took a certain pride in their daughter’s achievements. And even if they didn’t quite splash out on a huge debut for them under the home banner, they supported and cheered them on from the sidelines. They certainly didn’t take the old-fashioned view that the film industry was a Very Bad Place, which their girls had to be sheltered and protected from.

But just when it looked as if the bad old days – when Hindi cinema was seen as a predatory place where women were at risk – were over, along came Sanjay Dutt to remind us that chauvinism is alive and well and kicking ass in the film industry. Dutt’s daughter from his first marriage, Trishala, announced that she wanted to become an actress but Daddy declared that that was out of the question. There was no way any daughter of his was joining the film industry, said Dutt.

Yes, the same Dutt whose mother, Nargis, was a legendary star of Hindi cinema; whose first wife, Richa, had been an actress; who had dated and nearly married Madhuri Dixit; and whose second wife, Manyata, had been an item girl in her time. But despite the fact that nearly every significant relationship in his life so far had been with an actress, Sanjay declared that that was not a career option open to his daughter.

Why, you ask? Well, he’s never really explained it. So, I guess all we can do is speculate.

The charitable explanation, of course, would be that Dutt is wildly protective of his daughter and would not like her to be subjected to suspect behaviour if she joined the movie business. There’s only one problem with this theory. No one in their right minds would dare to mess with the daughter of Sanjay Dutt, a man not exactly known for his calm and even temper. So, it’s not even remotely possible that Trishala would be sexually harassed or fall victim to the infamous casting couch of the film industry. On the contrary, film producers would probably be queuing up for the privilege of launching her in the movies.

Or perhaps Dutt feels that actresses are not respected by society, even looked down upon because of the nature of their profession. But surely, empirical evidence suggests otherwise. His mother, Nargis, who became an actress during a much more conservative era, was universally loved and respected right until her untimely death. Sharmila Tagore, who broke several class barriers when she joined Hindi cinema, is seen as an icon of style and grace even today. Shabana Azmi and Hema Malini have been nominated to the Rajya Sabha (as, indeed, was Nargis). Madhuri Dixit still rules over the hearts of millions of Indians. Aishwarya Rai continues to make movies even after becoming a Bachchan bahu. And even the current crop of actresses, from Bipasha Basu to Deepika Padukone, are treated with respect by the film industry (yes, even those who do not have star dads).

So, what exactly is Sanjay’s problem? Why is he so implacably opposed to his daughter acting in Hindi movies?

Well, I’ve puzzled over this for days but only one explanation make sense. And that explanation has more to do with Dutt himself than the film industry he seems so down on; it’s more about his own attitude to women than the treatment accorded to them by Bollywood.

Because if you think about it, it is Dutt who shows scant respect for his female co-stars when he announces that his daughter would never be allowed to become an actress. It is Dutt who reinforces the idea that the movie business is a dangerous place for women by trying to bully his daughter out of it. And it is Dutt who falls short of honouring the right of a woman to make her own life choices when he lays down the law to his adult daughter: don’t join the movies or else...

Yes, at the end of the day, this whole sorry episode is an indictment of Dutt’s values and beliefs; not a judgement on the film industry. Perhaps Trishala should keep that in mind before she comes to a decision – a decision that is her own, not her Daddy’s.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Small vs silver

TV stars abroad may quality as A-listers; but in India they remain on the C-list

Over the last couple of years I’ve become a fan of Glee, the US television series set in all-American high school. And my favourite character is the cheerleading coach Sue Sylvester. So, imagine my joy when Jane Lynch – who plays crazy, driven Sue with a delightfully demented gleam in her eye – was chosen to host this year’s Emmy awards. And whatever the fashion fascistas may have thought of Jane’s frocks – cue shock and horror – I thought she did a bang-up job. (And that’s the way Seema sees it!)

But what struck me much more forcibly at the Emmys was the wealth of A-grade stars lined up on the red carpet. In fact, such was the glut of celebrity in the presentation hall that you searched in vain to see an unfamiliar face. There was Gwyneth Paltrow, who won a special award for her guest star turn on Glee. There was Kate Winslet, looking absolutely ecstatic at winning for Mildred Pierce. There was Christina Hendricks of Mad Men fame, her legendary curves poured into a shimmering dress that could barely contain them. It was easy to see that this was an A-list gathering – because almost every lady in the room could pass the litmus test of celebrity, with her cellulite and cleavage under the daily scrutiny of the tabloid press.

That’s what set me thinking. If I tuned in to see an equivalent awards show for Indian entertainment television – and yes, you’re right, I wouldn’t really – I would be hard-pressed to recognise a single star. Yes, there would be some faces which would look vaguely familiar. Was that Anandi what’s-her-name from Balika Badhu? Is that the actress who plays the eternal Savitri Bhabhi (not to be confused with the other, much-maligned Savita Bhabhi?
The only faces I could place with some degree of certainty would be the stars of reality television – Rakhi Sawant, Dolly Bindra – but only because the news channels play them up every day in their entertainment shows. And even then I would be hard pressed to tell Veena Malik from Payal Rohatgi or Ashmit Patel from Sameer Soni.

Not because I am some sort of sad snob, but because our entertainment channels don’t really produce A-list stars. Our TV actors may have their 15 minutes of fame while their shows are doing well. But they soon fade away never to be heard of again. Who remembers Gracy Singh, for instance? Or Jassi of Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin? Or even Dakshaben from Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi? In fact, the only cast member of that iconic show who survives in our consciousness is Smriti ‘Tulsi’ Irani – and then only because she has since recast herself as a BJP politician and turns up on news channels regularly to give us the benefit of her wisdom.

The truth is that no matter how much transient fame our TV stars achieve during their all-too-brief careers, they never really graduate to the A-list. They never rate a glossy magazine cover, for instance. Nor are they ever signed up to endorse top-end products like sports stars and film actors are.

Contrast this to the kind of stardom that TV actors achieve in the America and Britain. The stars of Friends are still considered to be A-listers. Celebrity magazines are still obsessed with the love lives of Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox. Matt LeBlac may have flopped spectacularly with Joey, but he still has enough star value for a new show – Episodes – to be created around his real-life persona. More recently, the actors of Desperate Housewives and Mad Men have become bona fide stars. In fact, Eva Longoria’s wedding and subsequent divorce was accorded the same treatment as Tom Cruise’s nuptials to Katie Holmes.

In the UK, the stars of Downton Abbey are forever being written up in the press. The British show, The Only Way is Essex – better known as TOWIE – has attained near cult-status. And it’s not for nothing that the legendary British actor, Alec Guinness, followed up his role in Star Wars with the TV mini-series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Across the Atlantic, such is the power of television that even big Hollywood stars think nothing of working in TV shows. At the height of her fame, Meryl Streep starred in a TV series, Angels in America; Glen Close did a magnificent job in Damages and The Shield; Robert Downey Jr dazzled in Ally McBeal; and Alec Baldwin continues to sparkle in 30 Rock alongside Tina Fey.

One measure of the power of these TV shows is how many A listers they can pull in as guest stars. Gwyneth Paltrow in Glee is perhaps the most famous one. But the last season of 30 Rock had Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Bono, Condoleeza Rice, Michael Keaton and Alan Alda come on as guest stars.

Contrast this with India when Bollywood actors only condescend to work in TV serials if their careers have completely collapsed. Otherwise, the only way you can tempt them on to television is to give them several crores to host a quiz show or a reality TV programme. So while Amitabh Bachchan is happy to front Kaun Banega Crorepati and Salman Khan and Sanjay Dutt will do the honours for Bigg Boss, and Akshay Kumar will do his usual dare-devilry for Khatron Ke Khiladi, no A-list film actor will ever deign to act in a TV series.

In India, at least, it seems that television is doomed to remain the ‘small’ screen forever, while the biggies strut their stuff on the ‘silver’ one. And more’s the pity.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dumb and ditzy?

Don’t be taken in by the packaging; these glamour babes are savvy businesswomen as well

The Indian media was all agog last week with the visit of Paris Hilton to this country. The cameras were in attendance when she arrived at Mumbai international airport at some unearthly hour. Packs of hacks followed her wherever she went in the city. And breathless reportage was according to every minute of the stay. Paris wore a sari-drape dress. Paris did a Namaste. Paris was offered a role in a Bollywood film. Paris went shopping. Paris ate a kebab. Oh well, you get the drift.

But no matter what event the media were covering, the sub-text was quite clear. Paris Hilton was this frivolous It Girl, who had pink sequins where her brains should be. She was someone who was famous for being famous, a C-class celebrity who had made a career out of posing in small, tight clothes for the gawking paparazzi. To put it plainly, she was depicted as some ditzy party girl who didn’t have anything going for her but her family name, a generous trust fund, and an impressive décolletage.

So far, so completely wrong. If we have learnt anything over the last decade, it is that it is dangerous to under-estimate Paris Hilton. She may sport a giant blonde beehive when she’s channelling her inner Marilyn Monroe, but she has a sharp business mind ticking underneath it. And though you may have missed it among all the party pictures of her frolicking with various Mumbai celebrities, Paris was here on serious business: to promote her own name brand of handbags and accessories.

In case you think this is just a case of rich girl plays at business, consider this. There are now 30 ‘Paris Hilton’ boutiques in more than a dozen countries in the world, which retail as many as 17 different product lines. She has launched as many as 11 fragrances, all of which sell on the basis of her brand name. And if you include all her business earnings along with her trust fund, she is worth a staggering 45 million dollars.

So, how has Paris done this? Why, by parlaying her image as an empty-headed celebrity into a international brand that now has better name recognition in some circles than the original Hilton group of hotels which were founded by her grandfather Conrad Hilton. And on that basis, she has launched a career in reality television, her own fashion labels, a perfume line, and God alone knows what else.

Whatever you may think of her predilection for pink, you have to admire Paris’s chutzpah. She has mastered the art of taking the most unpromising situations and turning them into drivers of positive publicity for herself. Cast your mind back to the last US Presidential campaign when John McCain poked fun at Obama by comparing him to a Z-list celebrity like Paris Hilton. Unfazed by the snub, Paris retaliated by sending out her own video message, wearing a skimpy bikini and promising to paint the White House pink if she was ever elected President. By sending herself up so brilliantly she didn’t just show that she had a sense of humour; she also showed up John McCain as being silly and outdated.

So, why do we persist in seeing Paris as a pretty airhead? Part of it is down to what I call the Legally Blonde trap. We are so conditioned to seeing pretty young blondes as dumb and dumber that we often miss the fact that they have bright minds under those gleaming tresses.

And as it is in the West, so it is in India. Only here, it’s best described as the Rakhi Sawant syndrome. Just as Paris is dismissed as a silly little thing, Rakhi is routinely derided in our media as a crass vulgarian, a talentless bimbo who is good only for carefully-orchestrated publicity stunts. But while she is undoubtedly good at that, Rakhi is also savvy enough to spin off a show-business career on the basis of that.

Just consider, for a moment, just how far she has got on the basis of very little talent and very average looks. She features regularly on prime-time television, she breaks up with her boyfriend in full view of the cameras, she hosts a programme to find herself a husband, she hits the newspaper headlines every other week with some stunt like wanting to marry Baba Ramdev. And as her celebrity quotient goes up, so does the fee she charges for every new gig.

Or take that other media darling, Mallika Sherawat, who has, quite literally, made a career out of saying outrageous things on camera. Mallika may not be the best-looking actress around or even the most talented, but she knows how to make a splash. And sometimes all you need is name recognition when Jackie Chan comes looking for a new heroine. (And sometimes one half-naked appearance on the red carpet is worth more than a dozen good roles.)

But instead of knocking these women down as dim-witted vulgarians, I think we should admire them for their ability to make the most of whatever assets nature bestowed on them. They have enough self-knowledge to know what works for them, and enough drive to work that to their best advantage.

It’s time we recognised that no matter how many dumb blonde-type jokes we crack about them, the laugh is really on us.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Public figures; private lives

It’s time to make the case for privacy, as social media creates public personas for us all

So, once more we return to that old chestnut: are public figures entitled to keep their private lives private?

This time, the question is prompted by recent media reports on the state of a chief minister’s marriage. So relentless was the speculation and so vicious some of the rumour-mongering that the chief minister had no choice but to issue a statement to set the record straight – which, of course, only gave a further fillip to the coverage. Now all the newspapers which had ignored the story ran holier-than-thou pieces on how the fine line between public and private lives had been transgressed by the media – quite ignoring the fact that they were just as guilty.

I am aware that I am laying myself open to such criticism as well, but now that the issue is on the top of most people’s minds, I think it’s worth risking opprobrium to make a few points.

And so, back to our question: are public figures entitled to private lives? Well, there’s no easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to that one. But there are some rules that the Indian media have, on the whole, adhered to all these years. And for the most part, they have served us well.

First up, there has always been a clear distinction between how we treat politicians and other people in the public life. Film stars, models, singers, sports stars have always had their love lives scrutinised, their marriages and affairs reported, their break-ups gossiped about. But politicians and, to some extent, businessmen have always been granted a measure of privacy as far as their love lives are concerned.

And no, there was no double standard at work here. The logic was that film stars and other entertainment celebrities had no problems discussing their private lives in their interviews. They happily talked about their boyfriends/husbands, dished the dirt on their break-ups, and announced their engagements/weddings with much fanfare (think John Abraham and Bipasha Basu or Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya). So given that they themselves opened the door to their homes, in a manner of speaking, they had no right to complain if we all turned into Peeping Toms.

But when it came to politicians, the game was played according to different rules. As long as politicians didn’t bring their wives and families into the public domain, we steered clear of reporting on their private lives, no matter how tangled they might be. As long as their private lives didn’t impact on how they performed their public duties, we took the line that it was no one’s business but their own whom they did or did not sleep with. In other words, if a politician was dating someone, it wasn’t a legitimate news story. If his girlfriend was using him to make money, well then it was.

In this respect, the India media took their cue from the French press rather than the rabid British tabloid culture, which has made a fetish out of dabbling in the stuff of other people’s souls. We may have known full well which minister was having an affair, which one was unhappily married, which one was homosexual; but we chose not to report this on the grounds that none of this was in the slightest bit relevant.

All of this seems to be changing now. The old rules are in the process of being junked as the tabloidization of our media continues apace. Now, it seems that even mainstream publications have no problem running speculative stories about the private lives of politicians, all of them brimming over with unproven rumours and unverified gossip.

And that, if you ask me, is a pity.

The argument used to carry such stories goes roughly like this. Anyone who enters public life should get used to the concept of public scrutiny at all times. If you are a public figure, well, then your entire life should be lived out in public. And the public has the right to take an interest in whatever part of your life they see fit. In other words, public interest is defined as anything that the public is interested in.

To see just how dangerous this concept this, just extrapolate it outwards to include all those who exist on the fringes of public life. And in this age of social media, that would include you, me and all the several thousand people who follow you on twitter or read your blog.

To that extent, most of us are public figures now because we have a presence on social media networks and platforms. Journalists, bloggers and just regular folk who like to post their wisdom on Facebook or Twitter – all of us have created public personas for ourselves. We are constantly blogging and tweeting about our spouses, our kids, where we went on holiday, what we ate. And in that sense, we are opening the door to our private lives on a public forum.

But in doing so, have we forfeited all our rights to privacy? Are our private lives fair game as well? Should our marital problems be published on Facebook for all to see and snigger at? Should our divorces become trending topics on Twitter? Should our shouting matches with spouses/partners be posted on YouTube for the amusement of the world?

If your answer to any of the questions above is a horrified ‘no’ then think long and hard before you dip into a story about a chief minister’s marital problems. There, but for the grace of God, go you...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Work in progress

A quick look at the various life forms that flourish in every office

Let me guess. Even as you settle down to reading the papers on a lazy Sunday, a part of you is already dreading the return to office come Monday morning. And who can blame you? There is something soul-destroying about being thrown into close proximity with a bunch of people for days and months, even years, on end – especially if you didn’t like them very much to begin with. The daily irritants just pile on until you’re ready to scream blue murder – or commit one with your own bare hands.

Every office has its irritants – and none is more annoying than an irritating colleague. These come in all shapes and sizes and have their own particular quirks. But odds are that there is one of the following types in every office across the world.

The Whinger:
No matter how well things are going, this guy (or gal) will find something to complain about. His raise wasn’t good enough; she didn’t get to go to the company off-site in that swanky location; the air-conditioning is too cold/not working; parking is such a bitch when you don’t have your own spot; the folks at head office are such idiots; and who on earth made that bozo their boss?

The Lothario:
This one is almost exclusively male – and a pretty unreconstructed male as that. He is convinced that he is God’s gift to womankind; and nothing, not even a kick in the groin, will convince him otherwise. Say no all you want, he will still believe that you actually mean yes – it’s just that you are too coy to say it out loud. Nothing deters him: not the presence of an all-too-visible boyfriend; not the threat of an irate husband; not the derision of the entire office staff. The only way to stop him is to report him for sexual harassment – though he’s likely to misinterpret even that for some sort of perverse come-on.

The Flirt:
It’s probably very politically incorrect to say this, but this one is almost always female. She’s the girl we all love to hate. The one who teeters into work on impossibly high heels and has the entire male staff lining up to open the door. The one who can get out of pulling night shifts by the simple expedient of batting her eyelashes at the supervisor. The one whose annual raise is inversely proportional to the size of her dress. The one who gets the best assignments by charming the boss – and then gets one of her deluded (male, of course) admirers to do the work for her. Yes, say it out loud, we hate her.

The Gossip:
This one is the best friend you can have in office because by some mysterious process he or she knows exactly what is going on in every department. The Gossip knows who gets paid more than you for considerably less work; who is sleeping with whom; who has broken up with whom; whose marriage seems to be in trouble; who is the boss’ blue-eyed boy/girl this month; which posting will be up for grabs at the end of the year; and much, much more. The only downside is that he or she will also gossip about you with the same cheery viciousness when talking to other people. But hey, that’s a small price to pay for being so well-informed.

The Tell-Tale:
This one has got the flow of information down pat. It’s in one ear and out in another person’s ear. But once you’ve got his or her measure, it’s relatively easy to deal with this type. You can put the Tell-Tale to good use when you want to get a rumour started on the office grapevine: just drop a word in that every-ready ear and swear him or her to confidence. The next thing you know the story will be buzzing up the office email and getting them all into a huddle at the water cooler. Mission accomplished.

The Martyr:
True to the name, this one always looks as if he or she has the cares of the world on their slender shoulders. But how can you blame them? Clearly, the office would cease to function if they did not come in early to work; pick up the slack of less efficient (not to mention less conscientious) staff members; stay in for lunch to catch up on outstanding projects; stay back after the boss to clear up the mess he has created; and then trudge in early to perform the same routine all over again. Honestly, it’s enough to give anyone a halo of incipient sainthood.

The Suck-Up:
This one never met an authority figure he didn’t want to sidle up to with an insincere compliment. He’s made a career out of cosying up to those in power, be it his boss or his boss’s boss. But he doesn’t stop at that. He also finds a way to worm his way into the affections of the boss’s wife, he makes friends with the boss’s kids, remembers all their birthdays and makes it a point to mark the occasion with a thoughtful little gift. His pay-off is the opportunity to baby-sit on weekends and a glowing confidential report at the end of the year.

The Slacker:
He never works at anything that he can palm off to someone else – and yet, he appears mysteriously busy all the time. You may have a sneaking suspicion that he’s playing Solitaire on his computer but when you sneak up on him you’ll find him studying a pie chart. Honestly, it’s enough to drive anyone up the wall.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Makeover mania

Is it ever a good idea to try and change the man you love into the man of your dreams?

So, now for our question of this week: What exactly is up with Shane Warne? The laddish leg-spiner from Australia is doing such a good impersonation of a newly-minted metrosexual that it is hard to believe that this is the same guy who peroxide-tinted the ends of his hair and – judging by appearances – lived entirely on pork pies and beer.

The new, improved (well, okay, the jury is still out on that one) Warne is missing one beer gut, innumerable wrinkles on his forehead, laugh lines and dodgy hair cut. He now cuts an impeccably slim figure with a suspiciously smooth forehead, a sculpted chin and perfectly highlighted hair. Gone are the grungy track pants and baggy jeans and T-shirts that he lived in. This avatar of Warne wears designer togs to show off his new slim-line waist and toned butt.

So what lies behind Shane’s new look? Plastic surgery? Face lift? Mid-life crisis? Perish the thought. Apparently the makeover is down to the new woman in his life: Liz Hurley. According to Liz, Shane’s new wrinkle-free look is entirely down to his using Estee Lauder skin care products – yes, the same brand that, by some remarkable coincidence, pays Hurley an obscene amount of money to flog their creams and lotions.

These must be magic potions of some potency because Shane Warne has been completely transformed after using them. Now, the man who used to drive his first wife, Simone, nuts with his unreconstructed male behaviour – sexting every second woman he met, for starters – is reduced to tweeting to Hurley’s parrot (yes, the bird has its own Twitter handle) to demonstrate his devotion to his lady love.

By now you’re probably muttering to yourself: what on earth is our Warnie thinking? The erstwhile Rajasthan Royals captain appears to have been reduced to nothing more than a pale – though very smooth-skinned – shadow of his former self. So, why is he allowing his girlfriend to change him into something he is palpably not?

Well, I guess you could put it down to the throes of new love. Rare is the man who can resist the blandishments of his woman in the honeymoon phase of the relationship. And if she comes bearing Resilience Lift face and eye cream, well then, what better way to show your love than to slap it on with a trowel?

But my question is this: why is Liz Hurley falling into the oldest trap in the world? Why is she trying to change the man she fell in love with? Why is she intent on turning him into something that he is clearly not? And why on earth is she bent on recasting him in her own image, complete with dewy complexion, skin-tight jeans and blow-dried hair?

More to the point: how long does she think she can keep this up? And how far down the line will Shane protest at being treated like a work in progress rather than a red-blooded male with a mind and personality of his own?

And at the end of the day, when they are done with their His and Hers facials and spa treatments, when they have scoffed down their green salads (dressing on the side) with sparkling water, will Liz still fancy the man she fell in love with – even though she is hard put to recognise him as the same person? And will he still see her as an object of desire rather than a mistress of makeover?

But why blame Liz Hurley alone? She is merely following the pattern laid down by countless others. I’ve lost count of the number of women who get into relationships with clearly unsuitable men with the rallying cry of: “No problem, I can always change him.”

Well, maybe you can in the short run. You can prevail on him to throw out all those grungy clothes. You can buy him an entire new wardrobe. You can tear him away from all his unsuitable friends. You can cut out red meat and beer from his diet. You can introduce him to the delights of a juicer. You can get him a trendy new haircut to go with the spanking new wardrobe. You can even get him to remember birthdays and anniversary – and get you flowers and chocolate.

Yes, you can train him to do the usual dog-and-pony tricks. But only up to a point. Sooner or later the worm will turn. He will begin to resent your overweening influence in every sphere of his life. He will begin to feel claustrophobic in the tightly-controlled world you have created for him. He will sneak out to meet his friends for a night out – and load up on all the forbidden food groups. He will announce his independence by letting his hair grow past his shoulders – and refusing to wash it even if you beg.

And sometimes even when he doesn’t chafe under the burden of your expectations, even when he continues to obey your every command, it still won’t work – because you have changed him so much that he is no longer the man you fell in love with.

Will Shane Warne and Liz Hurley go the same way? Well, let’s give it time. But all those ladies out there hoping to transform the men you love into the men of your dreams: consider yourself warned. You can never really change someone – no, not in the long run.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Name and shame

Does granting anonymity to rape victims also reinforce the idea that being raped is something to be ashamed of?

So after that infamous perp walk conducted in full view of international media and a night spent at Riker’s Island jail, rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn have been dropped by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. The prosecutors on the case decided that the rape victim was not a credible witness, and that if they could not trust her story they couldn’t very well ask a jury to do so.

In the interim, as the case began to collapse, the hotel maid who was the alleged victim came forward to put her version of events in front of the world. In order to do so, Nafissatou Diallo voluntarily gave up the right to anonymity that the law grants her and allowed her name – and her face – to be splashed all over the world. But until she herself chose to reveal her identity, no media outlet was allowed to as much as name her, let alone carry her picture. Her privacy was guaranteed and protected by the law that insists on anonymity for victims of rape.

In India too, section 228-A of the Penal Code guarantees the same anonymity to victims of rape. And at one level, this guarantee makes absolute sense. Women who have been traumatised by a sexual attack should be allowed to recover in private. Revealing their identities in these circumstances only adds to their trauma. In addition, the guarantee of anonymity also ensures that more women come forward to report rapes – a crime that is under-reported to a shocking extent because of the social stigma associated with it.

So, there is a strong case to be made out for the granting of anonymity to rape victims. More so in a country like India where women who are raped are often ostracised and even told that they must have ‘asked’ for it by the way they dressed or behaved. So, granting them the right to keep their names and identities out of the public domain is the right thing to do.

And yet, at a more subliminal level, I can’t help but feel that this only reinforces the idea that women who are raped have something to be ashamed of. And that the vicious assault they suffered on their person has also tainted them in some mysterious way – and that this taint needs to be hidden away from the world.

Just consider the way in which rape is projected in popular culture, via our movies and TV shows. The phrase used most often to describe the act of rape in Hindi cinema is ‘izzat loot li’. The message that goes out is stark and simple: a woman’s ‘izzat’, her honour, is invested in her body. And you can ‘steal’ her honour if you violate her body.

So the act of rape is not something that dishonours the person who commits it; on the contrary, it besmirches the person who is the victim. Now, how does that make any sense?

And yet, every time we refrain from naming the victim of a rape by granting her anonymity we are, in a sense, both protecting her and shaming her at the same time. What we are effectively saying is: “You are not just the victim of a terrible crime; you also have something to be ashamed of.”

Why should that be so?

If we say that we are granting anonymity to protect a woman’s reputation because rape is such a heinous crime, then shouldn’t we also offer the same protection of anonymity to the alleged rapist? After all, the basic principle on which our jurisprudence is based is that everyone is considered innocent until pronounced guilty. So, if presumption of innocence is the guiding principle in these matters then why guarantee anonymity to the complainant while naming and shaming the defendant?

Whatever your opinion of Strauss-Kahn’s behaviour in that hotel room with the chambermaid – and even his lawyers concede that there was a sexual encounter, though they insist that it was consensual – there is no getting around the fact that he was treated as guilty from the word go, without even the pretence of a presumption of innocence. New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg even scoffed: “If you don’t want to do the perp walk; don’t do the crime” ignoring the fact that no case had been proven against Strauss-Kahn. (Bloomberg did an about-turn weeks later, terming perp walks ‘outrageous’ – so far, so predictable.)

But while none of us will shed many tears for Strauss-Kahn, given his long history of predatory behaviour towards women, his treatment in this case should give us pause for thought. Should any man be treated as guilty until proven innocent merely because a charge of rape is bought against him? If the crime of rape is so heinous that it will permanently scar a woman who is a victim of it, then how badly would it ruin a man’s reputation if he were to be falsely charged? So if we are to grant anonymity, shouldn’t it be to both parties, until such time as a verdict is delivered?

After all, when it comes to rape, naming and shaming works both ways. Hence, just as women’s names are protected, so should the reputation of men. Or else, we might as well throw the presumption of innocence out of the window – and any pretence at fair play.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

I’m sorry, but that’s private

No, that’s not a phrase that goes down well in a world gone mad on over-sharing

Like almost everyone else on the planet who is in possession of a mobile phone, I am haunted by spam smses. Not an hour goes by without my being exhorted to buy a flat; get a car loan; upgrade my water purification system; dine at the all-you-can eat buffet at a local restaurant; and most worrying of all, lose weight with a magic sauna belt (now, how could they possibly tell?).

This is irritating enough when I am in the country. But it drives me insane when I am abroad and end up having to pay several thousand rupees for the privilege of receiving offers I have expressed no interest in and will never ever take up.

The same goes with email. I can understand being inundated by nonsensical mails on the email id given below this column, because honestly, what else do you expect if you offer yourself up like the proverbial sacrificial lamb for slaughter by spam? But, more mystifyingly, my private email id which is shared only with friends and family, is also routinely clogged with importune messages from people I don’t know and organisations that I have never heard of.

I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly annoying when my privacy is breached in this manner. Is it too much to expect that your phone number and email id be kept private by your service providers? Isn’t confidentiality part of the deal when you sign up with a phone company or an email service?

Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you? But within days of signing up, your information mysteriously leaks out into the public domain – and from then on, it’s only a matter of time before you’re spammed into submission.

Clearly, having even a reasonable expectation of privacy as you go about your life is asking for too much in this hyper-connected world. There is nothing that a dogged telemarketer – or a determined stalker – cannot discover about you in the digital universe.

Mobile numbers and email ids are small change in this world and finding out your address mere child’s play. Your credit card details are no longer out of bounds. Information about your purchase decisions is bought and sold by large corporations. What you wear, where you holiday, what you eat, how you relax, what you read, your choice in music – it’s all out there, waiting to be discovered by various interested parties.

So, given that so much of our lives inadvertently end up being lived out in the public domain, is it even possible to lay claim to a private life any longer? Well, I am old-fashioned enough to hold out for privacy but it seems to be an endangered concept – an idea that is rapidly vanishing under the concerted assault of social media and aggressive marketing.

But then, how could the concept of a life lived privately survive when all of us are complicit in invading our own privacy? I have become used to be being laughed at – good-naturedly, but still – by friends because I don’t post my vacation photo albums on Facebook or Twitpic my latest culinary adventure on to my Twitter page.

Why, they ask, am I not willing to share my experiences with the world? Why this pathological insistence on keeping my private life private? What harm can a few pictures possibly do? Why am I so secretive? What is there to hide?

Frankly, I can think of no better route to mind-numbing boredom that being forced to view pictures of other people’s holidays/weddings/children/pets, so I wouldn’t dream of inflicting my own personal albums on an already-suffering world. But more than that, I have a peculiar horror of sharing my private moments with people on a public forum; making my personal life public property, as it were, by posting it on the Internet. And yes, there a difference between ‘secret’ and ‘private’ – as anyone above the age of 18 should know.

But from what I see around me, I seem to be part of a minuscule minority. The overwhelming majority is made up of people who see nothing amiss in sharing every moment of their lives – be they ever so banal. It’s almost as if they don’t believe that any event has truly occurred until it has been shared with the world via the internet – and someone has pressed the ‘like’ button or posted a comment.

Take a look at your own Facebook page or Twitter feed and you’ll see what I mean. You will be inundated with stuff you never needed – or wanted – to know. Your old school-mate’s child has had a fall in the schoolyard (‘poor baby’); your cousin in America is ‘partying hard’ in Las Vegas (don’t forget to click on that ‘like’ button); your former colleague has landed a dream job (grrr...); well, you get the drift.

Why do people post such a great detail of personal information in the public domain? I guess it’s comes down to a combination of a number of factors: a honest desire to share; a propensity to show-off; a certain degree of self-aggrandisement; sheer vanity; or just plain gormlessness.

But it certainly seems as if people want validation for every moment of their lives – and they can only get that by sharing every detail of their routines online.

In such a world, what price privacy? No, you can’t buy it for love or money. And, if you ask me, more’s the pity.