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

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Vanity fair

There is something wrong with a world in which your man has more beauty products than you do

So, what is it going to be? Go grey with dignity? Or dye unto death? I am, for a change, talking about men here. Should the male of the species allow nature to take its course or should he fall back on the marvels of artifice and hair colour?

I can see the arguments on both sides of the dye divide. Grey hair on men can be both distinguished and sexy in a slightly rakish George Clooney/Richard Gere sort of way. It shows that you have grown up and – with a bit of luck – grown out of childish things. You are ready to be taken seriously. And, more importantly, you have more weighty things to think about than the greying of your locks.

On the other hand, there is no denying the fact that greying hair only suits a few people like Kapil Sibal or my former boss Aveek Sarkar. On most others, well, it just makes them look old – sometimes much older than they really are. So, the temptation to reach out for a bit of hair colour is quite understandable.

And in today’s age, when people are judged by appearances more than ever, it is only to be expected that everyone from David Cameron and Barack Obama to Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan is hitting the bottle (of hair dye, I hasten to add) with a vengeance.

These days, it’s all about looking youthful and seeming virile. And frankly, what’s wrong with that?

If we don’t judge women for booking themselves in for fortnightly root touch-ups interspersed with the odd session of highlights, then why should we treat men who dabble in dye with derision?

But while I am willing to grant men a dispensation when it comes to hair colour, I must confess that I have a problem with some of the more outré expressions of male vanity you see on display of late.

Call me sexist – and I am sure you will – but I can’t help but feel that there is something faintly ludicrous about men signing up for a ‘pampering facial’ complete with steaming open of pores, removal of blackheads and a little gentle massage. Whatever happened to the days when men just had an extra-close shave when they were looking for smoother skin? When did all these exfoliating scrubs, deep-cleansing creams and hydrating moisturisers (with an SPF count of no less than 30) find their way into the male grooming routine?

I am guessing it was about the time that the word metrosexual first crept into our dictionary. But even allowing for the fact that men have as much of a right to smell nice and have silky smooth skin as women, don’t you think that things are getting a tad out of hand now?

Now be honest here, ladies. Don’t you feel that there is something wrong with a world in which he has more skincare products than you do? Doesn’t it annoy you that he spends more time than you in front of the mirror worrying about his complexion (and wondering if it’s worth giving Fair and Handsome a whirl)? Isn’t it plain wrong that he has more clothes than you do and spends far longer in front of his wardrobe agonising about what to wear? Or that he takes much longer than you to get dressed for an evening out? (I mean, seriously, what is that about? Keeping a man waiting while you fussed over your make-up was just about the last honest pleasure left to us!)

And don’t even get me started on this new-fangled craze for male depilation. There is something faintly ridiculous about all that waxing of chest hair, so that those man boobs built up so carefully at the gym can be displayed to their best advantage. You know the kind of guys who do this kind of stuff, don’t you? The kind who model themselves on Salman Khan, spend all their free time in the gym, admiring their own muscles in the mirror as they work out their glutes/pecs/or whatever the hell they are called. And then, it’s off for a steam and sauna, until they finally shower with their lime-scented gels and moisturise, moisturise, moisturise.

In keeping with the Salman Khan image, hair is a big obsession as well. And it’s not just aspiring models and film stars who are signing up for hair weaves, hair extensions or even, the Holy Grail of them all, hair transplants. These days everyone wants thick lustrous hair, from your Average Joe in middle management to the foul-mouthed macho chef Gordon Ramsay (who was recently pictured with that tell-tale bandage at the back of his head). In India, rumour has it, even young male stars sign on for the procedure – not because they are balding (far from it) but simply because it would give them a thicker head of hair.

I’m sorry, but what exactly is sexy about a man who is so insecure about his looks that he has to have a surgical procedure to boost his own confidence? I’ll take the insouciant charm of a bald Sean Connery or a shaven Bruce Willis over this kind of self-consciousness any day. And so, I suspect, would most women.

Truth be told, there is something faintly repellent about this new-found, over-the-top vanity of men. And it makes me long for the days when a dash of Old Spice was all they needed to work their magic.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Back to school

And the promise that the beginning of the school year held out

I am a bit hazy about when new school terms start these days – blame it on not having a few stroppy mites of my own – but I remember the beginning of my own academic year with crystal clarity. By some happy chance, it coincided with the beginning of the New Year itself. And so, as a new year dawned, it was time to enter a new class at school.

There was a certain ritualistic joy to the whole routine. The buying of new textbooks and notebooks, sitting down one evening with reams of brown paper to cover them before sticking on a label with my name and class clearly marked out. The new school bag and pencil box, the slightly larger uniform that I could grow into in the course of the year, the annual visit to Bata to buy the regulation school shoes and, if I could persuade my mother, a brand-new haircut.

The newness persisted once school actually began. There was a different classroom, for starters, and the chance to bag a better seat than the one I had the year before. There was all that jostling to ensure that my best friends were seated next to me. There was some nervous excitement at the thought of meeting the new class teacher, and much speculation about how nice/strict she would be. And then, there were the lessons themselves, comprising completely new information for our impressionable minds.

All told, there was a sense of making a fresh start, the promise of a new beginning. And I am sure it was the same for my classmates.

It didn’t matter if you had failed miserably at maths last year; this year you could do a complete turnaround and surprise everyone. Maybe this would be the year when you were finally elected class monitor. Perhaps, for once, you would not be the last person to be picked when the class was choosing its basketball team. And with a bit of luck, this time round you would land a meaty role in the annual school concert.

And the most brilliant thing about school – as far as I was concerned at least – was that you got this chance to start over every year.

And then came college, with an even bigger opportunity to completely recast your image. There you were, just another unknown in a cast of anonymous hundreds. Nobody really knew anything about you. The professors had no clue what you were good or bad at. Your classmates didn’t have any pre-conceptions about you, nor you about them. As for the smattering of old school friends still around – they were just as keen to re-invent themselves and hence were content to give you a wide berth.

So, here was the chance of a lifetime: to be whatever you had ever dreamt of becoming.

The class nerd could have a personality transplant and become the mainstay of the debating society. The mousey little girl with spectacles and braces, who always sat at the back of the class in school hoping desperately that no one would notice her, could get a makeover and become the star of the college’s drama division. The sports captain could flower into a writer; the swot could blossom into a singer; the class idiot could discover a sudden talent for photography.

This was a world brimming with possibilities; it was entirely up to you to reach out, grab one and then run with it.

I think, to some extent, that’s the problem with growing up – or even, growing older. The prospect of new beginnings begins to fade with each year, becoming more and more remote with every decade that passes you by.

I don’t mean to suggest that adults – young, middle-aged or old – cannot start over. Yes, of course we can. But without the optimism of youth to back us up, we find it much harder to take that leap of faith. It takes a certain insouciance to press alt, control, delete on the keyboard of life and start afresh. And the older we grow the less willing we are to take that risk.

That’s not to say that people don’t indulge in some sort of course correction at some point in their lives. Sometimes it comes as part of a mid-life crisis, sometimes as a wake-up call after a health scare, and sometimes it is the result of sheer boredom with the life you have been leading so far.

This may manifest itself in different ways. Men may cheat on their wives with their pretty young secretaries; women may sign up for plastic surgery to resurrect their younger selves; couples may relocate to a new city to rediscover the romance in their relationship; and people may change jobs, even careers, to recapture that rush that accompanies a new start.

But no matter what you hard you try to re-invent yourself as an adult, there is no denying the fact that the older you get the more difficult it is to rid yourself of the baggage of your past.

You may find a brand new wife/husband but the baggage of your first failed marriage will always weigh you down. You can try and recreate your childhood through your kids or even use them to fulfil your dreams. But kids have a way of growing up and moving on and there you are, left to your own devices once again.

I don’t know about you, but it makes me long for the promise that the beginning the school year held out.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Table manners

Going to restaurants would be a much better experience if we all acquired some

I’ve always said that if you want to know how well (or ill) behaved people really are, you only have to observe them in a restaurant setting. I don’t know what it is, but there is something about eating and drinking in a public place that makes people reveal their essential selves. And going purely by my own experience, in eight cases out of ten, this is not a terribly edifying spectacle.

Among the many lovely qualities that you see on display are boastfulness, pride, self-aggrandization, rudeness, bullying, arrogance, belligerence, with a little lying and cheating thrown in for good measure.

There will be people who arrive without a booking but expect a table on the strength of their last names, their daddy’s balance sheet, their place in the Union Cabinet or simply because they are best friends with the owner (take your pick). There will be those who take particular pride in being rude and obnoxious to the wait staff and then refuse to leave a tip on the grounds that the service simply did not cut it. And that’s not counting those who will eat their way through a large three-course meal and then summon the manager to complain about the quality in the hope that they won’t be obliged to stump up for it.

On the basis of my largely unscientific research (not to mention empirical observations) I have come up with a guide of what to do and what not to do in a restaurant. Do feel free to pass it on to all those who appear to be in dire need of such a primer!

• Don’t arrive at a restaurant at peak hours without a reservation and expect to be seated immediately on the strength of that time-tested refrain: “Don’t you know who I am?” (To which the only acceptable answer is: “Why? Have you forgotten?”) If you haven’t reserved a table then get in queue like the rest of us.

• If you make a reservation then make sure that you keep it. That means turning up at the restaurant at the appointed time. If you arrive half an hour late and discover that your table has been given away, don’t kick up a fuss. The management has a perfect right to do that especially if you haven’t had the courtesy of calling up and telling them that you will be late.

• If you have made a reservation for four, then don’t turn up with six guests. No restaurant can miraculously whistle up two extra covers at a minute’s notice. And no, it is not possible to add two extra chairs to a table of four. The laws of physics – not to mention restaurant aesthetics – mandate against it.

• Please don’t eat out when you are clearly suffering from the flu. All that sneezing and coughing is enough to put everyone else off their food. Not to mention the very real fear of infection, given how close tables are set these days.

• If you want to bring along your children for lunch or dinner then look after them yourselves. If that’s too much of a strain and you must bring the nanny along, sit her down at your table and treat her like any other member of your party. Don’t make her stand behind your child’s high chair, napkin at the ready to wipe off drool and assorted food stains.

• If there is something wrong with the dish you ordered or you simply don’t like it, return it immediately. Don’t eat your way through three-quarters and then demand a replacement.

• If you want French fries, order your own. Don’t steal them off someone else’s plate while pretending to be an oh-so-abstemious salad-eater.

• Don’t order soufflé for dessert and then complain about how long it is taking. The waiter explained when you ordered it that minimum cooking time was 25 minutes. He wasn’t kidding. It isn’t his fault that you didn’t take him seriously.

• Don’t dawdle over your tea or coffee at peak times when other people are waiting to be seated for their meal. You may be well within your rights to do so, but good manners demand that you relinquish your place to those still waiting to be fed.

• Your waiter is a person, not a sub-human species. So, don’t whistle or cock a finger to attract his attention. If you can’t catch his eye, a loud “Excuse me” usually does the trick. But if he is wearing a name tag then do him the courtesy of addressing him by his name. (Needless to say, the same applies to waitresses.)

• If your favourite coffee place is full, it is not cool to go and stand behind a table that looks as if it may be the first to get vacated in the hope that you can grab it before anyone else. And it is downright rude to ask those seated just how long they are going to take over that cappuccino.

• It doesn’t matter if a 10 per cent service charge is included in your bill. It is still a nice gesture to leave a little something behind for your waiter. For one thing, it will get you better service the next time around. But more than that, it is the right thing to do.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Year-end Specials

I’m sorry, but I simply don’t have any time for them

Question: Why are journalists regarded as the original environmentalists? Answer: Because at the end of the year, they recycle everything.

Okay, as jokes go, it’s probably a little lame, but you know what I mean, don’t you?

Yes, I’m referring to that annual ritual conducted by all media organisations, both in print and on television, otherwise referred to as the Year-End Special. This basically consists of dredging up every newsworthy thing that happened through the year and writing it up with pretty pictures and witty captions – and I should know, having ‘conceptualised’ several such series during my years as feature editor of a newspaper.

Yes, as surely as winter follows autumn, December heralds a crop of ‘year-end’ features, all of them marked by a certain tiresome similarity (except, I hasten to add, those compiled by my colleagues at Brunch and HT City, who do a marvellous job of an essentially thankless task!).

By now I am so weary of these year-end special issues that from the time December hits the mid-month mark, I simply stop reading magazines and the feature sections of newspapers. And every time the dreaded words ‘Year-end’ come attached to a TV programme I change channels.

So, why do I regard such specials with such dread? After all, they are nothing but a harmless catalogue of the year that has gone by – or sometimes an attempt to see what the coming year will bring. So, why do I hate such features so much? And what is it about them that irks me the most?

Well, even if you ignore the fact that most of these features recycle similar stories and themes from previous years, there is much to loathe about them. And here, just off the top of my head, are four things I can’t abide in these year-end abominations.

1) Gift-giving manuals: It all starts with the run-up to Christmas. What should you give your mother-in-law for Christmas? Do you need to buy a present for your secretary? How do you choose the perfect gift for your boss? What is the best way of telling your sister-in-law that you don’t want yet another electric toaster? How does an aromatic candle rate on the gift-giving scale? Do you need to send a bottle of champagne with a cake for New Year? Is it ever acceptable to recycle gifts (well, if you can do that with year-end features...)?

2) Diet advice: The most popular topic during this month in the health section is, “How to keep your weight off during the festive season.” Articles on this subject crop up with a distressing predictability in most newspapers and magazines. And the advice given by everyone from celebrity dieticians to famous nutritionists (for some reason that I can never quite fathom, the two are not one and the same thing) ranges from the downright dotty to the plain commonsensical. But shorn of all the nonsense about basal metabolic rates, glycemic index, blood groups diets and what have you, it all boils down to two things. One: eat less. Two: exercise more. Now, are we really so stupid – no matter how bad the hangover – that we can’t figure this out for ourselves?

3) Travel tips: Okay, I get it. Everyone wants to get away for Christmas and New Year. And most people – except for those drones at the bottom of the food chain, who have to slog away while everyone else parties out the old year and rings in the new – are looking for advice on where they should go. My grouse is that the destinations featured in these year-end specials are the same ones that we read about through the year. Now, how is that any help if you are planning a trip?

And don’t even start me on the ‘tips’ on what to take with you. The usual clichés – white shirt, jeans, a roll-up dress that doesn’t get crumpled, comfortable boots, lots of accessories to dress up your outfits, a couple of colourful sarongs – are trotted out year after year (and yes, I plead guilty to churning this stuff out as well). As for ‘packing tips’, I swear I will scream if I read one more story about stuffing tissue paper up the sleeves of my jackets to prevent creasing. Honestly, how much free time do these people have? And haven’t they ever heard of steam-ironing?

4) New trends: This is a particularly dangerous game to play. Trying to forecast what will happen in the year to come – whether it is politics, movies, food or fashion – is a tricky business. And it becomes downright fraught when it is left to the junior-most people on the staff (the only ones who don’t rate a holiday over the festive season). In fact, if you want a good laugh you only have to see some of the ‘predictions’ made by the media about who was going to be ‘big’ in the year to come. Of course, as they say, hindsight is always 20/20 but even so, some of these predictions look downright ludicrous after the event. And I should know. I once predicted that Ruby Bhatia (remember her? She used to be a veejay on MTV. Or was it Channel V?) was going to be the Next Big Thing on Indian television. Only in my case, these turned out to be Famous Last Words.

And, on the cheerful note, here’s wishing all of you a very Happy New Year!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The perfect getaway

We all need happy places that we can retreat to – even if they just exist in our minds

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – the book, not the movie – remains an eternal favourite of mine. Every year or so, I pick it up and re-read it, revelling in the antics of Holly Golightly, marvelling at her own particular brand of capricious madness. The title of the book says it all really. Of course, nobody ever has breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is a store that sells jewellery. But for Holly, Tiffany’s equals a magical place where nothing bad can ever happen. It is her own special ‘safe place’ where she seeks refuge when things tend to get too much for her.

Reading the book yet again recently got me thinking. Yes, safe places are all very well. But there’s a lot to be said for happy places as well, isn’t there?

Happy places. We all have them in our lives and in our memories. Places where we felt at peace, where we experienced joy, where we indulged in laughter or where we simply felt loved and cherished. Sometimes these places are associated with other people who are or have been special to us. Sometimes they are places that are significant only to us, our own personal islands where we spent some special time with ourselves.

At every stage of our lives, we all have our own happy places. And even though we may not always be able to access them physically, in times of stress even their memory is enough to soothe and please.

Even today, when the sun shines down warmly on a balmy winter day, I am transported back to my happy place in the house I grew up in. My favourite spot at home was a tiny little enclosed verandah in the front of the house, which got sun all through the morning. Once school broke for Christmas break, I would spend the entire day there, sprawled on an easy chair, reading my latest loot from the lending library, moving every hour or so to lap up the rays of the sun as it moved across the horizon. The reading was punctuated with parathas for breakfast, chomping down on sugarcane for a quick energy rush, and endless cups of sweet, milky tea before the chill of dusk sent me scurrying indoors.

At college, I found my happy place in the library, in the row of desks set against a bank of windows overlooking the central courtyard. I would sit there for hours on end, reference books open on the sloping desk, making copious notes when the exams came perilously close. When I wasn’t in the mood for serious study, I would choose an old favourite from the shelves heaving under the combined weight of the literary endeavour of several centuries. There was a special joy in simply reading a book, without bothering with the analytical stuff that comes with studying literature as a subject. My attention would wander from the printed page on to the flower-edged lawns below, watching the women come and go (with no thought of Michelangelo – or T.S. Eliot, for that matter).

More recently, my happy places have included the palm-fringed terrace of the barsati I lived in when I first moved to Delhi. This was the venue of many an impromptu party, a place where my friends could let their hair down over some pizzas and plenty of beer. This was where I organised a brilliant fireworks display for a friend’s young son only to have him cower in a corner all evening, looking frightened out of his wits. This was the vantage point from where I first fell in love with Delhi winters, with their mixture of mysterious fog, glorious sunshine, and the riot of colours as the seasonal blooms took over the traffic roundabouts.

Of course, there are plenty of other venues that qualify as happy places for me too. There is my favourite cafe, where I can curl up with a good book and a strong cup of coffee whenever I want some downtime. There are the green pastures of Lodhi Garden, the best place to go for a walk as the day winds down to an end, with Joni Mitchell singing to me from my I-pod. And strangely enough, I find long-haul flights happy places as well, where you can settle down with a glass of wine and watch crappy movies back-to-back without feeling the least bit guilty about wasting time.

I guess at the end of the day, a happy place is just someplace where you create some warm, fuzzy memories for yourself. For a young mother or father, it could be at the foot of their child’s bed, as they watch him snore breathily in the deep slumber of innocence. For a young couple, it could be the tiny little flat they moved into after their wedding, the venue of their first enthusiastic grapplings in the marital bed. For a 50-something man on the verge of retirement it could be his office, the scene of many professional triumphs over the years. For a 60-something woman, it could be the memories of her childhood home where she felt safe, secure and pampered before the vagaries of married life took over.

Yes, all of us have our own happy places. Sometimes they are just a car or plane ride away. Sometimes they are merely the stuff of memories. But even if they only survive in our minds, our lives are always happier for their existence.