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

Sunday, February 27, 2011

It’s in the bag

Stop carrying your entire world around with you in that giant handbag – it’s time to downsize

It is one of those little-known ironies of the fashion world that Jane Birkin no longer carries a Birkin, the iconic Hermes bag specially designed for and named after her. Apparently, she got tendonitis from lugging around her oversized version and was forced to give it up – or so she said in an interview I read a year or so ago.

I have to say that I both know the feeling, and sympathise with it. Like most women, I have bought into the whole con that a Big Bag is a Good Idea because you can carry your whole world around with you. You will never run out of chewing gum, tepid water, sanitising hand-wash, wet wipes, or even nail polish remover for manicure-related crises. You will have an Ipod for when you need to kill time between meetings; a paperback for the commute; and plenty of chargers in case your phone or Blackberry battery packs up.

If you pick the right Big Bag you can bung in a pair of sneakers for when you hit the gym (or simply want to give your feet some respite from those killer heels). You can pile on the foundation and blusher when you go out after work. You can carry the odd bit of jewellery to dress up an outfit. And you can smell as fresh at the end of the day if you have a bottle of perfume tucked away.

As working women we are constantly being told that we should Always Be Prepared. And that every work or home-related emergency can be dealt with so long as our Big Bag is properly kitted out. Band-aids come in handy when the backs of your feet are hurting from new shoes or if the children gash their knees. A bag of nuts is mandatory to deal with in-between meal hunger pangs. An apple to snack on if you are dieting. And of course, a PDA device to make sure your appointments are in order and that you’re running on schedule.

So, naturally, all women of substance and style are required to tote a Big Bag that accommodates all their paraphernalia. And somehow it never occurs to us to ask how men manage to get through the entire day with just a thin briefcase – if that – at their disposal.

Big Bags are the call of the day; and one that we answer with alacrity. In fact, I can bet that nine out of 10 female readers of this article carry a nice Big Bag around all day.

I know that I do. A quick look inside confirms the following items: ticket stubs from the last six flights I took; ditto boarding cards; assorted bills; two strips of Alex lozenges for my allergic throat; six lipsticks covering the colour spectrum; five pens; a dog-eared copy of the latest John Le Carre; a virtual mountain of coins in every currency; a champagne cork (don’t ask!).

Now stop acting all superior for a second and examine the contents of your own bag. Just how much junk do you carry around? Umm, yes, I thought so. You are just as bad as I am.

But now that my back is beginning to protest at this load I’m constantly carrying around, I have decided to give up on Big Bags. And quite frankly, so should you.

In case you are still dithering, here are the top three reasons why you should ditch the Big Bag.

1) Carrying all that weight around is murder on your back. Pair that with high heels and dodgy knees and you have a scary medical scenario awaiting you.
2) Small bags make you more disciplined by forcing you to think about what you actually need through the day.
3) Big Bags encourage the man in your life to use you as a carrier service, dumping all his stuff – sunglasses, mobile phones, the odd small purchase – in your bag, because hey, you have plenty of room in there don’t you?

But if you are going to junk the Big Bag for a smaller version you first need to do some serious de-cluttering. And here, the golden rule is: if in doubt, throw it out.
• Draw up a list of all the things you absolutely need: throw everything else into a drawer, from where you can access them on a need-to basis.
• Be strict. You don’t need the entire contents of your make-up case. Just one lipstick, one powder compact and one eyeliner/kohl pencil will do. If you need to freshen up your foundation or concealer through the day, keep a back-up in your desk at work. If you must carry a perfume, make it a purse spray.
• Minimise your wallet. Keep the credit cards and a few hundred or five hundred rupee notes. Throw out the coins – you never use them and they add to the weight.
• If you must carry water, do it in a small bottle which you refill through the day.
• Get rid of the old plane tickets, bills, mouldy apples that you never got around to eating,
• Throw out the dozen pens littering the bottom of your bag.
• Junk the heavy notebook and start making notes and to-do lists on your phone or Blackberry.

And finally, chose a bag with minimum hardware on it – no fancy buckles, chains and charms that add to the weight. Believe me, your body will thank you for it every day to come.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Who’s the Daddy?

Whatever Padma Lakshmi may say, the truth is that fathers do – and should – matter

If you have been following the life and times of Top Chef judge Padma Lakshmi (best known in India for being Salman Rushdie’s ex-wife) then you will know that she is now the proud mother of a year-old daughter, Krishna. Mother and daughter have been featured in magazines and newspapers, with a glowing Padma beaming beatifically at her baby, her own little miracle (Lakshmi had been told that she could never conceive because of endometriosis and was reconciled to not having kids, until Krishna came along unannounced).

For a long time, the paternity of baby Krishna remained undisclosed. Then it was revealed that there were two men in the running for the role of Baby Daddy: Ted Forstmann, with whom Padma was currently in a relationship and Adam Dell, with whom she had had an affair. By the time the baby was born, however, Dell had been dumped (Padma called him an ‘unambitious man’ with an ‘uninteresting career’ and ‘unmemorable friends’ and told him that she hoped to God that he didn’t turn out to be the father) and Forstmann, the 70-year-old billionaire boss of IMG, was the man in Lakshmi’s life.

A paternity test, however, revealed that it was Dell who had fathered Krishna. And unlike some men – Steve Bing, the biological father of Elizabeth Hurley’s son, Damian, comes to mind – who are only too happy to abdicate any parental responsibility in such circumstances, Dell wanted to be involved in the life of his daughter. Padma, however, had moved on and moved in with Forstman, who she had happily cast as Krishna’s father, even teaching her to address him as ‘Papa’. The real Daddy, on the other hand, only got to spend a measly seven hours a week with his daughter.

Dell, after unsuccessfully negotiating for a more meaningful role in his daughter’s life, sued for sole custody. Needless to say, he wasn’t stupid enough to believe that he would get it. The idea, his lawyers said, was to pressure Padma legally into sharing custody in a more equitable manner. And yes, he wanted to be named as the legal father on the birth certificate so that his child could bear his surname as well: she should be known as Krishna Lakshmi Dell.

Padma Lakshmi’s response was to fume and fret about how her ex was playing out their dispute in the public and in the courts and how this could damage her daughter. She insisted that it was irrelevant who had actually fathered her daughter. “I don’t care if Hitler himself had impregnated me. All that matters is that I got pregnant and that Krishna is here,” she is quoted as having told a friend. As far as she was concerned, Forstmann was the baby’s father and had been playing that role ever since Krishna was `delivered into his arms’.

I mention this case only because it illustrates perfectly how marginalised fathers have become in our society. While I have the greatest sympathy for single mothers – adoptive or otherwise – who want to bring up their own children, there is no getting around the fact that fathers play a crucial role in a child’s life. And that we turn them into an irrelevance at our own peril – and to the considerable detriment of our children.

And yet, that’s exactly what is happening these days, at least in the urban milieu. Men are becoming increasingly disenfranchised in the fertility wars. A woman has the right to decide whether she wants to have a baby or not. And given that she is going to carry the baby to term and be the primary caregiver, that’s how it should be. But surely, the man should have some say in the matter. After all, it is going to be his child as much as it is hers.

But while we are all agreed that women can and should exercise control over their bodies, men are beginning to lose the battle for control of their bodily fluids. Women decide if they want to get pregnant, they decide if they want to keep the baby, they choose if they want an abortion, and it is left up to them to decide on the father’s involvement (or, as in Padma’s case, to decide who gets to play the father).

How is this remotely fair? Mothers may be the most important figures in a child’s life – especially in the early years – but surely that doesn’t mean that fathers should be made irrelevant if not redundant?

I have no problem with the view that fathering a child involves much more than the act of insemination. That it is a life-long commitment that involves sleepless nights, constant worry, incredible patience, selfless care and unending love. But if a man is to play that role, he must be allowed to be a father to his child – no matter how the mother feels about him.

The one lesson we should all learn from the Padma Lakshmi imbroglio (apart from the obvious ones involving contraception and not sleeping with two men at the same time) is that we devalue fathers at our own peril. But amidst all this muck, there is at least one thing to be grateful for. When Krishna grows up there is one thing she will be sure of – that her father loved her enough to fight for her, no matter what it took. And I do believe that she will be the happier for it.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bin the red roses

Love means never having to say ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’

Okay, I’m just going to come out and say it: I hate Valentine’s Day. No, I am not a Hindu fundamentalist or even a handmaiden of the Sangh Parivar. I have no affiliation with the Ram Sene of Bangalore pub – as in “no woman should be seen in one” – fame. Nor am I a rabid ‘nationalist’ who is opposed to every ‘Western import’ on principle. On the contrary, I am quite content to live in blue jeans (or, at this point, black jeggings) and T-shirts and watch Mad Men on television while munching on pepperoni pizza and guzzling Diet Coke.

And yet, I hate Valentine’s Day. Hate as in abominate, abhor, detest, despise, oh well, I guess you get the drift.

Now before you dismiss me out of hand as a certifiable lunatic who is working herself up into a lather for no good reason, allow me to explain just why Valentine’s Day makes me see red – and not in a good way.

Well, first of all, there is the sheer pressure of it all. The entire world appears to become part of a giant global conspiracy to turn 14 February into a day for celebrating romantic love. And you’re made to feel like Grinch (the guy who stole Christmas, or something like that) if you refuse to become part of the madness. You don’t have any plans for Valentine’s Day? Oh dear! You must be a sad single. Or worse, someone who is too cheap or too uncaring to celebrate this special day with your special someone.

Then, there is the crass commercialisation of it all. You’ve got to buy her flowers, choose the most expensive chocolates for her and make sure you gift-wrap them prettily. Don’t forget to get her a ‘serious’ present to show how much you adore her. And, of course, the most ‘serious’ you can get is with diamonds, the bigger the better.

The greeting card industry rakes in billions as gullible lovers all over the world queue up to buy cheesy cards to send along with the flowers/chocolates/diamonds (or all three, depending on their budget). The restaurant business makes ridiculous profits while lovers make sheep’s eyes at one another over their overpriced champagne and such ‘aphrodisiacs’ as oysters and asparagus.

Needless to say, the laws of demand and supply kick in and the price of red roses sky-rockets around this time. Hotels and restaurants charge double and even triple their usual price for set menus for Valentine’s dinners, knowing that the punters will pay up without any protest (well, certainly not within ear-shot of their wives/girlfriends).

But it’s not just the businesses that show an appalling degree of avarice in this season. Women (and for some reason, it is always women) exhibit an appalling level of greediness as they drop hints about what would be an appropriate Valentine’s day present. Magazines are left open on an ad for Chanel handbags; the phrase ‘new Hermes perfume’ is dropped oh-so-carelessly into conversations; the song ‘Diamonds are forever’ always seems to be playing in the background.

And to add to it all, there is the general competiveness. My boyfriend took me to a more expensive restaurant than yours. Your husband didn’t even remember Valentine’s Day; mine took me on a mini-break to a resort spa. Oh you poor thing, all you got was that single red rose; I scored a solitaire!

But what is most dispiriting about this entire Valentine’s Day palaver is just how sexist the entire thing is. It’s always the men who have to find some way of making this a day to remember. It’s the men who have to come with the grand gesture or the fabulous present. It’s the men who have to stump up for expensive meals in up-market restaurants. All the women need to do is show up and look suitably appreciative as all that attention is showered upon them.

Why? We spend the entire year declaiming about how it’s all about equality. But on this one day, we are only too happy to have the men do all the running (and spending). How is this remotely fair? Shouldn’t women pull their weight when it comes to Valentine’s Day as well?

Of course, in an ideal world – well, okay, my ideal world – Valentine’s Day would not even exist on the calendar. February 14 would be a day like any other, and we would spend it doing all the things that we usually do. Reading the morning newspaper over a hurried cup of coffee and toast; attending endless, tedious meetings at office; working late; getting home in time for a late dinner and a movie on the DVD.

And it certainly would not be the one day in the year when you show your love for your significant other. Honestly, isn’t that something you should be doing all the year round? And not with red roses, greeting cards, chocolates, diamonds, slap-up meals or expensive holidays but with kindness, understanding, patience and a deep and abiding affection.

Because, when it comes right down to it, a heartfelt hug always trumps red roses. And there’s no better present than the loving presence of someone you love in your life.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Better halves

Star wives are the new stars in the making

I am not a big fan of the new-fangled reality shows on Indian TV but give me a film awards function and I will happily stay in on Sunday evening and watch it from start to finish. Yes, all the way from the cheesy interviews of stars on the red carpet (“Who are you wearing?” “How are you feeling?”) to the many ‘scintillating’ performances by stars who have been paid enormous amounts of money to shake their booty, interspersed with the awards themselves.

Despite the bad jokes, the tacky costumes, the snarky commentary and the corny comedy routines, there is something fun about these evenings. And I love every moment, even though there is a certain predictability about the entire exercise.

You know that Shah Rukh Khan will make snide comments about his co-stars and then apologise laughingly in the next breath. You know that Karan Johar will get a bit teary at some point or the other. You know that the camera will focus lovingly on Rekha when Amitabh Bachchan is on stage and vice versa (they had an affair a quarter of a century ago; get over it, people!). And so on.

But last week, as I sat down to watch the Zee Cine Awards, there was a surprise in store for me – and the many millions watching across the world.

Doing his tried-and-tested ‘Gosh I am so witty’ routine Shah Rukh invited Hrithik on stage. There was the usual banter between the stars on the lines of how Khan had taught Roshan everything. But now, said Shah Rukh, it was time to teach Hrithik how to treat his wife. And for that, he needed the ‘lovely’ Sussanne Roshan on stage.

Sitting pretty in the front row, Sussanne went all pink with embrassment, then stood up gamely and went on stage much to the delight of the delirious crowd. But then, as the routine unfolded, it became clear that this was no impromptu interlude but a well-rehearsed item that the stars had put together well before hand.

Sussanne entered into the spirit readily enough, going on her knees to say “I love you” to a ‘stupefied’ Hrithik. And as they traipsed happily off the stage, Shah Rukh announced to the delighted audience: “This has never happened at any awards show before this.”

He’s probably right about that. But what’s the betting that this kind of stuff will become routine as this decade unfolds? That star wives will become part of the entertainment instead of just sitting in the audience and clapping madly with fixed smiles on their faces?

Yes, the writing is pretty much on the autocue on that one. Star wives are no longer content to sit on the sidelines, basking in the reflected glory of their husbands. They want to be stars in their own right, thank you very much.

We’ve come a long time from the days when stars like Dharamendra kept their wives (well, in his case, only the first) locked up at home. Or when heroes married in secret – Aamir Khan to his first wife, Reena – so that their sex appeal at the box-office remained intact. Or when even the most dedicated reader of Stardust couldn’t pick out Jeetendra’s wife from a line-up.

Even heroines at the peak of their careers had to go into hibernation once they got married. Dimple was whisked away into the shadows once she married Rajesh Khanna, re-emerging only once her marriage broke down. Jaya Bhaduri went into retirement after marrying Amitabh Bachchan, only to be coaxed back to do Silsila with the other woman in this triangle, Rekha (okay, okay, I know it was a long time ago; sorry to bring it up again).

Today’s star wives are not the retiring creatures of old. Like Gauri Khan (for Vogue and various other glossies) they are cover girls in their own right, flaunting the latest designer outfits on their gym-fit bodies. They appear on Koffee with Karan with their other halves, poking gentle fun at their husbands, all shiny and sparkling with confidence. They sit majestically in the front row at fashion shows, bona fide style stars in their right.

They have their own Twitter accounts; their own fan following; sometimes even their own ad campaigns. Twinkle Khanna stars in one featuring a mobile phone even though she retired from the movies nearly a decade ago after marrying Akshay Kumar. And Gauri Khan co-stars with husband Shah Rukh in an ad for a home decor company (she is, apparently, its brand ambassadress).

Over the last month, we have seen wall-to-wall coverage of the release of Dhobi Ghaat, with the husband-wife team of Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao (lead actor and director respectively) giving joint interviews to anyone who turns up with a microphone and a camera. And while I am sure that Kiran Rao is an immensely talented woman who has made a very worthwhile movie, there is simply no denying that the publicity whirl around her is down to who she is married to. She gets all this attention because she is a star wife not because she is a brilliant first-time director.

Whichever way you look at it, one thing seems clear. Star wives are finally striking out for a bit of stardom in their own right. And in our celebrity-obsessed world, it looks as if they will get it.