About Me

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

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Drive safe

Because the streets are filled with idiots; and one of them is headed straight for you

I can’t remember the last time an ad struck such an immediate chord with me. It opens with a guy driving a scooter with his pregnant wife sitting behind him. They are discussing the movie they just saw, laughing and joking with one another. Just then, a car comes crashing into the street, jumping a red light – and nearly running them down in the process. The man brakes just in time and the camera moves to a close-up of his shocked face.

“Are you okay?” he asks his wife, who is clutching her baby bump protectively. His ashen-faced wife responds with a breathless, “Yes, I am fine.”

And the voiceover says, “Because the streets are filled with idiots.”

Of course the ad is geared towards selling a particular brand of tyres which comes with superior grip and various anti-skid features. But why it works is because it tells us a truth that is universally acknowledged: our streets are filled with idiots. And that at the end of the day no matter how safely you drive or how faithfully you follow all the traffic rules, there are always enough fools out there to cause an accident.

It doesn’t really matter where you live. One metro is as bad as the other and the smaller towns are no better. People run signals with impunity, jump lanes at will, turn without bothering with the indicator, overtake from the wrong side, side-swipe you at the slightest provocation, and drive much too fast on roads with far too much traffic, weaving in and out like mad drunks (which, scarily enough, some of them are).

You need nerves of steel to survive a day out on Indian roads. If you are driving a car, you have to look out for jaywalking pedestrians who believe that they have right of way in every situation; you must dodge oversized buses and overloaded trucks which think nothing of squeezing you off the road; you need to watch for fellow drivers who happily flout every traffic rule, taking a U-turn where it is expressly forbidden and driving down the wrong direction in one-way lanes.

Sometimes when I watch the chaos that characterises our roads from the safety of the back seat – unfortunately (or do I mean fortunately?) I never did learn how to drive in my youth and now it is far too late – I wonder how we manage to survive the madness: the road rage; the reckless overtaking; the illegal parking; and yes, the sheer idiocy.

The streets are filled with idiots. I had an encounter with one shining example a couple of weeks ago when I emerged from my bank. The bright spark had parked his car bang in the middle of the street outside and then disappeared on some mysterious errand. The traffic backed up on the road creating a complete logjam while the parking attendants scrambled around to find him. After a good 15 minutes, he emerged from one of the adjacent buildings, completely ignored the irate shouts of the people stuck in their cars because of him, calmly started his car and drove away.

I guess it could have been worse. He could have shouted back, the fight could have escalated, violence could have resulted and someone could have been killed.

Yes, that’s been known to happen too, most famously in Delhi’s tony Khan Market, where an altercation led to the death of a manager of a nearby restaurant. He got into a fight with another man at the crossing, was angry enough to step out of his car to hit him, the other driver tried to speed away and ran over him – accidentally, or so the story goes – resulting in his death.

Sadly, such events are not as rare as we would like to think. Every week or so there is a story in our newspapers about one such case. Two neighbours got into a spat about a parking space; one pulled out a gun and shot the other fellow dead. Two cars collided into one another in a busy street; one driver was beaten so badly that he ended up in hospital. A child was run over by a DTC bus, the driver is now absconding. A carload of people were killed as they ran into a truck on a highway.

What is even more worrying is the stuff that is considered so routine that we no longer even bother to bat an eyelid at it. The odd scratch and bump on the car is seen as par for the course if you drive on Indian roads. Nobody thinks twice about driving back home after a party, no matter how many drinks you have put away in the course of the evening. And running a light or taking an illegal turn is okay so long as there is no cop around to note your car number and send you a challaan.

One of the reasons why there are so many idiots out on the road is just this sab-chalta-hai attitude most of us adopt on the roads. After all, if we don’t hold ourselves up to any significant standard of good behaviour when we are behind the wheel, how on earth can we expect other people to behave with a modicum of good sense?

Until that changes, I am afraid, the tag line of that ad will remain as accurate as ever – and our streets will remain filled with idiots.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Holiday lists
Honestly, they have a way of taking all the fun out of holidays

Is there anything more stress-inducing – dispiriting, even – than leafing through a glossy magazine in the run-up to the holiday season? I ask after an afternoon spent reading through the reams of advice thrown out to ordinary mortals like you and me by the arbiters of all that is fun and fashionable. And I have to say that my head is reeling so hard that I might just have to take a break from writing this to have a quick lie-down.

Okay, so I am back. And on the grounds that it’s never a good idea to suffer alone, I am going to tell you what I have learnt about what goes into the making of a dream vacation.

Well, first up is the destination. Now, this is trickier than you might think. It’s not just a simple choice between beaches and mountains, Europe and Asia, spa break and walking tour, family holiday and romantic getaway. No, you also have to consider which are the trendy destinations of today and which are the no-go areas where nobody of wealth, style and distinction would be caught dead.

So Goa is passé, unless you’re partying with Vijay Mallya. Pattaya and Phuket have been done to death and if you’re going to any place called Koh make sure it doesn’t have Samui attached to it. The Southern hemisphere rates better than the Northern; the East scores over the West. Maldives is the new Mauritius (which is now too mid-market to rate). Or maybe Croatia is the new Maldives – I’m sorry, but it’s impossible to keep up with this stuff!

All you really need to know is that it is imperative to holiday in a place that hasn’t already been destroyed by tourist hordes (i.e. you and me); a paradise unspoilt enough for you to feel as if you are the first to discover it.

Once you’ve decided on the trendy location of choice, you need some trendy luggage to go with it. You need a lightweight bag with wheels so that you can zip around at airports across the world; a roomy carry-on so that you can pack a neck pillow and cashmere throw (both of which are apparently essentials on a long-haul flight) along with a nice trashy novel you can read if you don’t like the in-flight entertainment. If you’re going trekking, you will need a backpack; if you’re headed to the beach, you will need a straw tote; if you’re staying at a fancy hotel, you will need a smart clutch for the evening.

What to pack is a favourite topic. As is how to pack. Apparently, a white shirt and blue jeans are essential no matter where in the world you are going (so why is it that I never see anyone wearing this vacation staple no matter where I holiday?). We are all supposed to roll our socks and stuff them inside our shoes so that they don’t get crushed beneath the weight of our skin-care products (and these have to be packed in sealed, see-through, zip-lock containers on pain of death).

The instructions don’t stop even after you’ve safely boarded. Remember not to drink too much alcohol on the flight. Sure, the champagne and wine may be free, but you will certainly pay for the hangover once you land. Tea and coffee are both dehydrating. Just stick to water – and make sure to drink lots of it. And don’t just lie there, slumped in your seat – walk around the plane once in a while to guard against deep-vein thrombosis.

If you think this is exhausting enough, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet. If you go by the Glossy Manual of Vacation Planning, you will probably need a holiday to prepare for your beach holiday.

First up is the fitness routine. You can’t seriously be thinking of venturing anywhere near a beach with that wobbly stomach which has the consistency of cottage cheese? Perish the thought. You have to have what is called a beach-perfect body even if it means giving up carbs, alcohol, hell, even the will to live. Every waking hour must be spent on the treadmill, pounding away till the pounds melt away, on the floor working those abs till they are washboard firm, lifting weights to give definition to your pecs and biceps.

Yes, the instructions come hard and fast. How to get that perfect bikini body; what to wear once you have got it; how to disguise it if it doesn’t pass muster. You get lists of swimsuit styles so that you can puzzle over which works for your body type. You can choose from among sarongs, caftans, and see-through kurtis if you’re looking to cover up. Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to spend your entire vacation cowering in the bathroom, staring disconsolately at your cellulite.

Then, there’s the beauty routine. Exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate. Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise. Don’t forget to pack a sunscreen with a SPF factor of at least 30. And re-apply every few hours to get maximum protection through the day.

Get a manicure. Get a pedicure. Get new flip-flops to show off your pedicure. Get a Brazilian (warning: this involves the use of hot wax, not a hot South American man). Get a bikini to show off your Brazilian.

Frankly, after an afternoon of this, all I want to say is: Get a grip. It’s a holiday, for God’s sake, not a military campaign that has to be planned to perfection. You don’t need lists to make it work; it’s not working that does the trick.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

It’s not cricket

But Shahid Afridi’s anti-India tirade is pretty much par for the course

For the life of me, I can’t understand why people in India are so outraged by Shahid Afridi’s statements made on a Pakistani TV channel. In case you’ve been living under a rock over the past week, this is what Afridi said: Indians did not have as pure and large hearts as Pakistanis and Muslims did; and that no long-term relationship with India was possible because of this.

Now, as far as I am concerned, this is pretty much par for the course. However much we may try to kid ourselves, throwing around phrases like ‘We are the same people”, or even “Pakistanis are like our brothers and sisters” the truth is somewhat different. If you monitor their media, listen to people on the street, or even log on to Facebook groups and Twitter, it rapidly becomes evident that most Pakistanis don’t like us very much.

And frankly, that’s hardly surprising. Ever since the Partition, each successive generation of Pakistanis have been brought up to regard India as The Enemy. The textbooks they study tell them how awful Indians are; the media sends out the same message; the political leadership constantly harps on an anti-India theme; and the army whips up a frenzy about India’s dire designs on the Pakistani state.

So, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that we are regarded with implacable hostility at best and visceral hatred at worst by our ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ across the border. And yet, every time a story like this pops up, the reaction seems to be shock and horror.

How could Afridi say such awful things? Doesn’t he know that we are the ‘same people’? (And that, in any case, there are more `pure-hearted’ Muslims in India than there are in Pakistan!)

At some level, I understand where these reactions are coming from. As a Punjabi whose family roots lie in Pakistan, I was also brought up on a steady diet of pre-Partition stories of love and brotherhood. My father’s friends from Pakistan visited, there were many evenings of bonhomie as they remembered the good old days, even as we kids hung on to every word invoking a past we could never re-visit.

It was easy to believe – as we sat down to large meals and an even larger dose of nostalgia – that we were indeed the same people, with the same roots, the same tastes, the same culture, but just divided by a border created by political forces beyond our control.

It was in that mood that I made my first trip to Pakistan – as part of the press party accompanying the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, as he made his historic bus yatra across the Wagah border. I was all set to get in touch with my Jhelum roots, re-discover the land of my ancestors, and get a taste of that famous bonhomie that had always marked India-Pakistan relations.

Boy, was I in for a shock!

The first false note was struck when a bunch of us were introduced to a group of volunteers who were assigned to look after us at the media centre. Our Pakistani friends repeated each new name with trepidation, as if they were trying out an entirely different language and weren’t quite sure of the pronunciation. Finally, it was my turn. “Ah, Seema,” said one of them with palpable relief. “Yeh naam toh hum jaante hain. Yeh baaki sab Hindu naam humnein kabhi sune nahi.”

That’s when I first realised that the West Punjab of my parents and grandparents had well and truly passed on. Now, there was a new West Punjab, with a new generation of Pakistanis, who had grown up with no Hindu neighbours. In fact, most of them had probably never met a Hindu in their life. To them, we were foreigners in their land; not long-lost brothers and sisters with whom they could establish an instant camaraderie.

If anything, the prevalent mood was one of hostility and suspicion. It reminded me of a story the late Mani Dixit used to tell about his time in Pakistan, when he visited a Pakistani diplomat at his home. He was introduced to the couple’s young son as a visitor from India. The child said an obedient ‘hello’ and then started running around a startled Dixit shouting ‘Hindustani kutta, Hindustani kutta!’ The embarrassed parents hurried him out of the room and apologised profusely to Dixit.

A friend’s aunt, who is married to a Pakistani, and often visits the country, had much the same experience. Sitting at the breakfast table one morning, she saw that her young nephew was playing with his toy airplanes. She walked across to join him, but stopped short when she heard him mutter, “Main India pe bomb maroonga...”

In any case, this stuff about a shared culture only goes that far. After all, it’s only Punjabis – and to some extent, Sindhis – who have a cultural affinity with Pakistan. For the rest of India, there is no special bond in the shape of a common language or even a common cuisine.

I remember an office lunch at Bengal Sweets, when there was a group of Pakistani ladies sitting at the next table. There was flurry of excitement when our paper masala dosa was served. What on earth was this, the ladies wanted to know. They had never seen a dosa in their life.

I often think of that moment when I hear the candles-at-the-Wagah-border brigade ramble on how we are the same people. You know what, actually we’re not.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Kitchen confidential

Sadly, the only people who can afford dream kitchens are those who wouldn’t dream of ever stepping into one

Don’t you just love the shiny, sprawling, spotless kitchens that feature in all those glossy interior design magazines? They come in shades of yellow and green, pale pastels, crisp white, or even monochromatic grey. But no matter what the colour, all of them look like perfect settings for our own inner Domestic Goddess.

Sometimes they are done in faux vintage style with brass and copper implements suspended from the roof. Sometimes they aspire to the minimal look, with every cooking appliance tucked away in storage cupboards. Sometimes there is a nice worktop where you can chop and peel away to your heart’s content. And sometimes there is a tiny table with bar stools where you can catch a hasty breakfast. There is a kitchen to cater to every taste; a kitchen to meet every need.

I don’t know about you but I can spend endless afternoons salivating over the visuals of these kitchens, dreaming of a time when I can finally afford one. Needless to say, that time is unlikely to come – well, at least, not in this lifetime. But hey, a girl can dream, right?

And since you ask, the kitchen of my dreams is a sunlit vision in primrose yellow offset with the palest of pale ivory. There is a large central island with cheerful wicker seating for my friends to lounge around in with a glass of wine while I rustle up a three-course meal (warning: only those who help with the chopping of the salad get dessert). The cooking range is set against a picture window looking on to a patch of garden outside, where fresh herbs grow, ready for the picking. The oven and microwave are industrial-sized but hidden away behind a glass counter. And the shelves are heaving with every ingredient known to Nigella – and then some.

Yes, okay, I admit it. A huge part of my longing for this kind of kitchen comes from watching far too many food shows set in picture-perfect kitchens. It is another matter that these ‘kitchens’ are set in studios rather than in the anchor’s home (yes, even Nigella’s!). But such is the fantasy of domesticity they conjure up that even those of us who can’t really cook want a kitchen that looks just like that – perhaps in the mistaken belief that once the hob is in place the cooking skills will surely follow.

And then, there are all those television serials that nurture the dream. In my case, it all started with Friends, where everyone congregates in Monica’s open-plan kitchen in good times and bad. The kitchen in Brothers and Sisters where Nora Walker feeds her extended family, provided further fodder. And more recently, the open-plan kitchens in Castle, where the mystery novel writer noshes and joshes with his mother and daughter, have fed the fantasy.

The first open-plan kitchen I ever saw in real life was when I went to interview Shah Rukh and Gauri Khan for a cover story (for Sunday magazine, where I then worked). This was before Shah Rukh became Shah Rukh, if you know what I mean, and I was granted the kind of access that hacks can only dream of these days.

As I sat with the Khans in the open-plan living-cum-kitchen area of their first Mumbai home – a humble flat in Bandra – listening to the story of how they first met and fell in love, a couple of things became rapidly clear to me. One: this was the kind of kitchen I wanted when I grew up. And two: I would have to give up on dal and subzi because open-plan kitchens were not conducive to Indian cooking unless you were happy to co-exist with the smell of roasting spices.

As it happens, life didn’t turn out quite like that. And now, as I wander disconsolately through the humungous design showrooms in the malls of Delhi and Mumbai, I realise that my entire real-life flat would fit into one of these dream kitchens and still leave space for more. And given the price of urban property, I am guessing that it’s much the same for most of us.

Which begs the question: who among us can actually afford these dream kitchens that are forever being advertised in the media? And I don’t just mean in terms of money – though the price tag, upwards of Rs 5 lakhs and going up to 25, would give anyone pause – but also in terms of space.

Unless you are a multi-millionaire with money to burn, my guess is that you live in an average-size flat. And flats like these aren’t big enough for one of those spacious kitchens stuffed with every gadget and gizmo that money can buy. In fact, ordinary folk like you and me consider ourselves lucky if we can squeeze in a microwave and oven-griller-toaster into our modest kitchen spaces.

Sadly, the only people who can afford the kind of dream kitchens I fantasise about are people who wouldn’t ever dream of stepping into one. These are the people who leave both the cooking and serving to the staff, and wouldn’t recognise a vegetable slicer even if it took their index finger off. And yet, to them are granted the nicest kitchens of all.

Ah, the little ironies of life – you’ve just got to love them.