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

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Blood is thicker

Every child should have the right to know where he or she came from

A few weeks ago I wrote about a man who was fighting a legal battle to establish his rights as a father.

Adam Dell had gone to court to ask that his name be added to the birth certificate of his daughter Krishna after a DNA test had established paternity. And he was in negotiations with the child’s mother, Padma Lakshmi, to come to an arrangement that ensured that he got to spend enough time with Krishna.

His relationship with Padma Lakshmi may have ended badly. But Dell wanted to be involved in Krishna’s life. He wanted Krishna to know who her father was; and that he cared enough to fight for her.

Well, today, I am going to write about a man who has just lost a legal battle to escape being named as a father.

N.D. Tiwari, that fine, upstanding political leader who has been chief minister of one state and Governor of another, lost the final skirmish in his long legal battle when the Supreme Court of India ruled that he had to supply a DNA sample so that it could be proven, one way or the other, whether he was the biological father of Rohit Shekhar.

It was a significant victory for Shekhar and his mother, Ujjawala Sharma, who had been trying for decades to get Tiwari to admit paternity. But Tiwari resolutely refused to recognise Shekhar as his son, even though his relationship with Ujjawala was common knowledge in political circles.

In his petition to the court, Tiwari – chivalrous old codger that he is – labelled Ujjawala as an ‘unchaste woman’ for having had a relationship with him while still married to her husband (presumably, she held a gun to his head while she had her nasty way with him, the poor man!). Rohit, he maintained, had been born while Ujjawala was married to another man and, in accordance with Indian law, he should be regarded as the legitimate son of her husband.

Therefore, said Tiwari, there was absolutely no reason why he should be required to give a DNA sample to prove (or disprove) paternity.

Well, the courts clearly thought otherwise. First the High Court and then the Supreme Court ruled that it was the right of every child to know who his or her father is. And that right trumped all the legal arguments that Tiwari’s team of crack lawyers had presented in court.

Finally, it seems Rohit Shekhar will get to know who his biological father is, even if he had to wait until he was 30 to get conclusive proof.

Now, you and I may well quibble over whether a man who behaves the way N.D. Tiwari has, should have any right to be called a father. But none of us can deny that the principles of natural justice demand that every child should have the right to know where he or she comes from.

Yet every day we see instances of children being denied access to that knowledge. And while many such battles are fought away from the limelight, the list of public figures who have dodged paternity is long and illustrious.

N.D. Tiwari is not the only politician to deny paternity of a love child simply because it was politically expedient to do so. Across the border, we have the shining example of Imran Khan, who refused to acknowledge his daughter, Tyrian, with Sita White. The US courts declared him the father in absentia when he failed to turn up for a court hearing or provide a DNA sample. But Imran continued to deny her existence because it would difficult to explain a child conceived out of marriage to his followers (such as they are) in Pakistan.

It is to his ex-wife, Jemima’s credit, that she took Tyrian under her wing after untimely death of her mother, Sita, and gave her the recognition that she so badly craved. But then, Jemima, who was born to Annabel and Jimmy Goldsmith while her mother was still married to her first husband, Mark Birley, probably knows how important paternity is to children no matter what the circumstances of their conception.

Aatish Taseer, the son of the assassinated Pakistani politician, Salman Taseer, addressed his angst at not being recognised by his father in his book, A Stranger to History. When he finally met his father at the age of 21, Salman explained to him that it would have been impossible for him to be in Pakistani politics with an Indian wife and a half-Indian son. Tragically, the two were estranged when Salman was shot dead by his guard and Aatish wrote poignantly about “mourning a man who was present for most of my life as an absence”.

Of late, though, science has made it that much more difficult for men to evade parental responsibility. Back in the 70s, Mick Jagger refused to acknowledge paternity of Karis, his daughter by African-American model, Marsha Hunt, until the girl was 12 years old. But in 1999, when the Brazilian model Luciana Morad had his son, Lucas, a paternity test cleared up the matter immediately and Jagger obediently stumped up child support.

It’s too late for that as far as Rohit Shekhar is concerned. He is a grown man now, a lawyer in his own right. But while he may no longer need a father to support him financially, he still needs to know who father is. That is the right of every child – even after he is all grown up.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The backlash against Botox

It’s already visible in Hollywood; but is it travelling nearer home any time soon?

Have you noticed how the only time celebrities ever own up to using Botox is when they announce that they are giving it up? It’s a bit like how they only admit to `substance abuse’ (i.e. doing copious amounts of cocaine) when they are finally checking into rehab in the full glare of the cameras.

The latest in the long line of Botox deniers is Nicole Kidman. The actress, whose forehead has been completely immobile for well on a decade, has never ever owned up to using Botox, putting her wrinkle-free look down to good genes and clean living. But brave Nicole has now fessed up, declaring that she no longer thinks Botox is a good look for her. She intends to give up the needle, as it were, and let nature take its own course.

Nicole is in good, if ever-so-slightly wrinkly, company. Both Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston, who once played best friends in Friends and now reprise the same roles in real life, also claim that though they have used Botox in the past (just the once, I’m sure!) they no longer do so. They simply didn’t like the way it felt and decided to give it up, they say, wiggling their eyebrows desperately to prove the point.

Terri Hatcher (Susan Myers in Desperate Housewives) went one better when she decided to ditch the botulinum. Getting out of the shower one morning, she took close-ups of her make-up free, Botox-less face and shared them with the world by posting them on her Twitter account. I don’t know if there is any connection but these days even Marcia Cross (who plays the control freak Bree in show) seems able to move her forehead just a teeny-tiny bit when she wants to show emotion. It’s just the slightest creasing of skin but still, that’s progress.

But while there seems to something of a backlash against Botox in Hollywood these days, there has always been one notable refusinik. Julia Roberts has never agreed to join the ranks of the frown-free because, as she puts it, she would like her kids to know when she is angry. As Roberts once famously said, she believes that your face should tell a story – and it shouldn’t be about your visit to your cosmetic surgeon.

But with such A-listers as Kidman now openly eschewing the frozen look, could it be that the tide is finally turning. It certainly is beginning to look like it. Both Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right had marvellously mobile faces, liberally sprinkled with laugh lines, crow’s feet and creases on the forehead. And as the stars traipsed down the red carpet at the Oscars recently, there were more wrinkles visible on faces than we have seen in years.

Ironically, just as the Hollywood brigade seems to be giving up on the trend, the Bollywood bunch is embracing it with both syringes. These days all our 30-something actresses have fewer lines on their faces than they did when they started out in their 20s. Some of them can barely raise a brow to express surprise, let one frown to show disapprobation. And then, there are those 50-something actresses whose eyebrows are raised so high that they look perpetually startled (perhaps they can’t believe just how old they have gotten).

Needless to say, every one of them denies using Botox but they take great pleasure in pointing out who else has been having the stuff injected on a monthly basis. During one of the many shock-horror moments on his show, Karan Johar even asked his panel of guests to name someone whose Botox had gone really bad. It is entirely another matter that Anil Kapoor got the wrong end of the stick and went on about how Shilpa Shetty’s lips had changed shape and ruined the continuity of his film. (Karan had to gently point out that this must be put down to collagen not Botox.)

And as is usual, real life mimics the world of celebrity. Never before has the use of Botox been so commonplace. And yet, it is hard to find a 40-something woman who admits to using it. Ask them about their suspiciously smooth foreheads and they will tell you about this marvellous facial they had at that spa in Thailand or refer you to this new eating plan which involves all the best anti-oxidants the planet has to offer and which does wonders for the skin.

Honestly, if their noses grew any longer, they would need the services of the plastic surgeon for something more than a little jab of the needle.

But maybe we should just give these ladies some time. Who knows, after a few years of being unable to express any emotion on their immobilised faces, they may just decide that it’s best to go all natural. And then, just like Nicole, Jennifer, Courtney, Terri and the rest, they may finally admit that they had been shooting up all along.

Until then, I guess, we will have to live with their lies, even if their foreheads give away the truth so effortlessly.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Play it again – and again

Sometimes re-runs of old favourites are much more fun to watch on television than new programming

This is a slightly shaming thing to admit to, but I have to confess that I spend more time watching re-runs on television than any fresh programming. What can I say? A re-run of one of favourite shows is so much more fun that watching yet another mindless cop drama or sitting through another dreary, depressing news bulletin or even enduring another tasteless reality show.

A re-run of Friends has a hypnotic pull on my remote, rendering it unable to proceed any further on a channel trawl. I giggle at gags I have seen a million times before; I mouth the dialogues along with my favourite characters; I crack up at Joey’s dim-witted adventures; I identify with Monica’s obsessive compulsive behaviour; I smile indulgently at Phoebe’s kookiness.

But mostly I just marvel at how young the cast members look, all dewy and fresh and embarking on the adventure of life. Don’t get me wrong. Both Jennifer Aniston and Courtney Cox look much more elegant and sophisticated now but there really is no substitute for the bloom of youth.

Will and Grace is as much fun now as it was a million years ago. Though it does seem funny to think now that a gay lead character was seen as such a bold, path-breaking move in those days given how far we have come (out) since then. And ever since re-runs of Frasier have begun showing on FX at some unearthly hour, I find myself staying up till the wee hours chuckling knowingly at what must be one of the best-written shows of all time.

Just in case the programming wizards let me down, I have a box set of West Wing saved up for the proverbial rainy day when I am stuck at home with nothing much to do. I guess that will have to do until Aaron Sorkin deigns to do a sequel with Matthew Santos (Jimmy Smits) as America’s first Hispanic President. (Wonder what’s holding him up? Isn’t the presence of Obama in the White House the perfect moment to go with an Hispanic President in West Wing II.) But till that happens – and I haven’t given up hope – I will just re-acquaint myself with razor-sharp wit of CJ, Sam, Josh, Donna, Danny and the rest of the quirky bunch that inhabit President Bartlett’s often shambolic but occasionally sparkling West Wing.

All of which makes me wonder why we in India don’t make as much of our own iconic shows. After all, if Friends, Frasier or even Full House can have such faithful adherents decades after they were first aired, their desi versions like Dekh Bhai Dekh must have their own fan following, just waiting to be tapped. Or even Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, which made the comic careers of Satish Shah, Shafi Inamdar and Swaroop Sampat.

But while sitcoms are, by definition, creations of their time, there are also those timeless sagas like Buniyaad or Tamas which had the entire nation mesmerised a few decades ago and would strike a chord with the audience even now if only someone had the imagination to mount a re-run at prime time. Growing up in the 80s, I still have fond memories of the luminous beauty of Veeranwali (Kiran Juneja, now married to Buniyaad director, Ramesh Sippy), the courageous spunk of Lajoji (Anita Kanwar), the essential decency of Masterji (Alok Nath). And what could possibly beat the poignancy and drama of the Partition as an epic story for our times?

And that’s not counting the grandmother of all sagas, Ramayana, which was the high point of Sunday mornings during my childhood. It was cheesy, it was glitzy, it was completely over-the-top. But it was mandatory viewing, nonetheless, with the entire family sitting down to watch a story that they knew all too well unfold on the small screen.

Mahabharat was another staple of those times. Rupa Ganguly, with her flowing black hair, made Draupadi come alive while Nitish Bharadwaj’s Krishna quickly acquired a cult following. And we need to bring it back if only to erase the traumatic memories of the ghastly Ekta Kapoor re-make – which had all our epic heroes sporting freshly-waxed chests – that blighted our TV-viewing lives a few years ago.

But last night as I stayed up way past my bed-time to watch Niles gaze longingly at Daphne while Frasier hovered disapprovingly around them, I started to wonder about my own television-viewing preferences.

Are these shows really better than the current fare on television or do I just like them because they remind me of my younger days? Is it genuine wit, humour and sheer entertainment I am reacting to, or am I just caught in a nostalgic haze? Am I, in fact, in danger of turning into one of those ageing codgers stuck on 60s music because it evokes memories of their disreputable university days when they would stay up late smoking questionable substances and like, grooving, baby?

Scary thought. Maybe it’s time to tune into the latest season of Castle instead or catch the fag end of Two and a Half Men.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The crying game

Why is it only the actresses who get all teary at the Oscars?

This is one annual ritual that you can set your calendar by: no sooner is the Oscar for the Best Actress announced than the tears follow as the lucky winner gets all misty-eyed and weepy as she delivers her acceptance speech, sobs punctuating every well-turned phrase.

Of course, every winner has her own take on the Big Oscar Teary Moment. Gwyneth Paltrow went in for full-on sobbing, giving effusive thanks to an endless list of people, hot tears running down her cheeks all the while. Julia Roberts started with a little levity before becoming all choked up as she thanked her family. Sandra Bullock started off strong but it wasn’t long before her voice turned as wobbly as her chin. And then, there was Halle Berry, who started crying loudly the moment her name was announced and never really stopped until she was escorted off the stage.

No matter how much the method varied, however, the madness always manifested itself in the appearance of tears. Sometimes they flowed unabashedly down the cheeks, sometimes they were accompanied by runny noses, and sometimes they were forced back with a determined swallow of the throat.

But for some reason, it was always the leading ladies who turned on the waterworks the moment they were announced the winners. The men seemed to take it all in their stride. They made jokes, they joshed around, they remembered all the people they were supposed to thank, and they managed to acknowledge how much they loved their wife and kids without becoming a blabbering mess.

Now, why do you suppose that is?

Well, if you ask me, I think it’s all down to social conditioning. Women are brought up to believe that it is all right to cry to express emotion, be it joy, sorrow or pain. Men, on the other hand, are brought up to regard crying as a mark of weakness, something that they must never be caught out doing.

In time, each generation seems to buy into this without much thought. Every man who has been taught this lesson passes it on to his own children. And the women are just as complicit in relaying this message to the men in their lives.

Think about it. How many times have you caught yourself out telling your weeping son or nephew as he picks himself off the floor after a fall: “Oh, stop crying for God’s sake! Don’t be such a sissy! What are you – a girl?” Say it often enough (and you know that you do) and in time he will come to believe that crying is something for sissies and, yes, girls.

Quite apart from the hideous message it sends out to young boys – that girls are somehow inferior creatures and to behave like them is to be shamed in front of the world – this also reinforces the idea in the male of the species that crying is simply not an option. It’s the absence of tears that marks the men from the boys. And hence, a dry eye is what they should always aspire to.

And while we can only be grateful for this in the context of the Oscar awards – one weepie marathon per ceremony is about as much as we can take – it is probably not the best message to send out to young boys or even fully grown-up men.

While none of us particularly wants to be caught blubbering in public (or, heaven forbid, on international television), there is no denying that crying serves an important purpose in our emotional lives. We cry when we are sad. We cry when we are happy. We cry when we are angry. And we cry when we are in pain – both physical and emotional.

In all these circumstances, a good cry invariably makes us feel a lot better afterwards. It has a cathartic effect of cleansing all those feelings choking us up. And we feel much more in control afterwards – or at the very least, more at peace with ourselves.

But despite the undeniable benefits of a good cry, we persist in denying that privilege to the men in our lives. Men are supposed to be strong, is the message we constantly transmit. And being strong means that they should keep a stiff upper lip in all circumstances. Being strong means not letting a single tear drop no matter what the provocation.

Is it any wonder then that most men are so out of touch with their own feelings – and by extension, with ours? Or, that they don’t know how to articulate what they feel, even when they really really want to? After all, when we deny them the one honest way to express themselves, then why should you expect otherwise?

It’s not too late to change, though. And it certainly is easy enough. Just make sure the next time your son, your nephew, or just the neighbourhood kid trips over and falls on his face, you don’t ask him to shush. Let him cry, allow him to bowl, permit him the luxury of tears. And soon enough he will calm down, blow his nose, wipe his eyes, and feel much better for that crying jag.

Children know instinctively how to honestly express an emotion. And if they choose to do it with tears, it behoves us to listen rather than mock.

Of course, there’s always the danger that one day these boys too will be blubbing on the Oscar stage. But frankly, that’s a chance well worth taking.