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

Sunday, May 29, 2011

That’s what friends are for...

When it comes to friendships, it takes all sorts to make your life just a wee bit easier

I’ve written in the past about 3 am friends – people whom you can call in the early hours of the morning when you are in the middle of a crisis, with complete confidence that they will listen instead of biting your head off – and how we should consider ourselves lucky if we have even a handful of them. But as I looked at pictures of Maria Shriver, the estranged wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who left him after discovering that he had fathered an illegitimate child with their housekeeper (what a gent, eh?), walking the beach with a few friends looking miserable and near tears, I began to wonder about the nature of friendship.

Yes, it’s all very well to have some people in our lives who will drop everything and listen to us when we are in a funk. But sometimes, that’s not enough. You also have to be sure that afterwards you will feel better about yourself, not worse. You need to believe that your friends are completely on your side. That there isn’t a tiny part of them that is judging you – and finding you wanting. Or even, that at some subliminal level, they are enjoying the sight of your come-uppance.

Which is why, in my book, you need to have four kinds of friends tucked away for such emergencies.

First up is the Sympathetic Listener who, as the phrase suggests, is brilliant at allowing you to let it all out. She doesn’t say very much, sometimes she even refrains from making sympathetic noises. Instead, she just creates a vast stillness between you, a safe space where you can deposit all your fear, your anger, your sorrow and your despair.

And then, by some mysterious process, she gathers all these negative emotions into herself, leaving you feeling strangely unburdened. Spend time with this sort of friend, or even speak to her on the phone, and you end up experiencing a curious lightness of being that leaves you feeling much better about yourself, even though nothing has really changed in your life.

Once you have achieved this sort of closure, you need the services of your Cruel to be Kind Friend. This one takes no prisoners. She is not afraid to tell it as it is, no matter how fragile you may be feeling at that point. And she will not allow you to wimp out even when all you want to do is curl up and die.

No, she will berate you for letting life get the better of you. She will inform you sternly that you have much to be grateful for – a good job, lovely children, your health – and that you need to snap out of it. Stop wallowing in your misery, is her essential message. As the Eagles sang so presciently many decades ago, Get Over It. And there comes a time when all of us need to hear that message.

But while friends like these work like a charm when you are feeling badly about yourself, when you have had a bad break-up for instance, or lost a job, you need a different approach when guilt – rather than sorrow and anger – is the emotion you want to overcome.

We all have moments when we feel that we have screwed up badly; that we have hurt the people we love the most through our thoughtless behaviour. And at such times, all you want to do is hit yourself on the head with a shovel over and over again so that you can wallow in the same pain that you have inflicted on others.

That’s when you need to spend time with a friend who has perfected the quality of being non-judgemental to a fine art. In other words, you need the services of the Whatever Floats Your Boat friend. As far as she is concerned, it’s all good, it’s all a part of life; and you don’t need to beat yourself up over it.

She is never shocked by your worst confessions. Cheated on your boyfriend while on a business trip; yeah, it happens, don’t make a big deal out of it. Feel that you should never have had kids because they make you miserable; hey, everyone feels that way sometimes. Hate your mother-in-law; duh, that’s the way of the universe.

No, none of this takes away the guilt about behaving badly, but you do feel a wee bit better for having shared these feelings – and having had them dismissed as banal rather than shocking.

But, if by some mischance, any of this leaves you feeling a bit rubbish, like you can’t get anything right no matter how hard you try, you need to call in The Eternal Optimist.

She is programmed to always look on the bright side of life; to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. And at times of stress, this relentless optimism can be rather invigorating. It helps that she always has a feel-good story to go with the advice; with the additional homily that if it happened to someone else, there is no reason it can’t happen to you

I just hope that Maria Shriver has at least one such friend in each category filed away in her Rolodex (apart from her ubiquitous celebrity chum, Oprah Winfrey). Or else the months ahead are going to be very challenging indeed.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The madness is the method

You don’t have to be ‘crazy’ to succeed in Indian politics; but if you are a woman, it sure helps

By now you must have had your fill of all those jokes doing the rounds after India elected two new women chief ministers. ‘The three most important states in India are now ruled by mad women’. ‘It is no coincidence that Behenji, Amma and Didi add up to BAD’. And so on and on and on.

But while the sexist undercurrents of these remarks are only too evident, there is no denying that there is a nugget of truth in all these witticisms floating around. Sadly, with the exception of Sheila Dixit, chief minister of Delhi thrice over now, our women CMs haven’t exactly been ringing endorsements for girl power.

Take Mayawati, for instance, chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh. She rules by statue rather than statute, spending obscene amounts of money erecting vast edifices to herself all over the state without the slightest trace of embarrassment. And her net worth has increased a thousand-fold in that period, by way of what she coyly describes as ‘contributions’ from her loyal party base.

Even if you put allegations of graft and corruption aside, Behenji’s imperial style of functioning is truly shaming. Farmers agitating for their land rights are subjected to abuse and torture. Bureaucrats live in mortal fear of being shunted out if they displease Mayawati in any way. And sycophants rule the roost, as the CM’s megalomania gets increasingly out of control.

We tend to forget this now – given our pre-occupation with the astonishing level of corruption in the DMK – but Jayalalithaa wasn’t much better during her own stint as Tamil Nadu chief minister. Despite her ladylike demeanour and impeccable manners, she was hardly a shining beacon of rectitude in public life.

Nor is there any missing the hint of hysteria beneath the cultured, convent-school voice, which threatens to bubble forth to the surface at the slightest hint of reversal. And, as the BJP learnt the hard way, Jayalalithaa is also the princess of unpredictability, capable of blowing hot and then turning cold with surprising speed and startling regularity.

That same mercurial temperament was also evident in that other stormy petrel of Indian politics, Uma Bharti, once the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. Bharti was never afraid of speaking her mind, whatever the consequences. She took on the tallest leaders of her party without worrying about how it would affect her political prospects. She raged, she laughed, she cried, she shouted; and she never gave a damn about just how crazy she was coming off.

Uma Bharti was going to be true to herself; no matter how damaged that self may become in the process. And you have to admit that there was something terribly brave about that terrifying lack of self-censorship.

And now we have the same devil-may-care attitude in another state chief minister: Mamata Banerjee. And sure enough, she is also dismissed by the commentariat as a hysterical harridan, who has no control over her emotions, who lives by her heart rather than her head. After all, how else do you account for the insanity of her position on Singur, her sheer bloody-mindedness when it came to Nandigram?

But you know what? It is just this stroke of madness, that touch of insanity, which allows these women to succeed in Indian politics. It is their special brand of ‘crazy’ that allows them to deal with the slings and arrows of a world that is ranged against them.

Jayalalithaa wouldn’t have made it in Tamil Nadu politics after the death of her mentor, MGR, without a healthy dose of insanity to shore up her spirits. After all, which sane woman could endure all the calumnies directed at her, not to mention the physical attacks on her as she stood beside MGR’s dead body at his funeral, laying claim to his political legacy.

As she said in an interview afterwards to Sunday magazine, where I then worked, “I am a lady so I cannot show you all the places where I have been pinched and hurt.” And yet, she stood her ground. It was a kind of madness. But a remarkable madness for all that.

Think of a young Mayawati, growing up as a Dalit girl in the feudal, upper-class dominated world of Uttar Pradesh. It took a crazy leap of the imagination to even think that she could become the leader of her people and chief minister one day. And it is that ‘mad’ self-belief that helped her get there in the end.

The same is true of Mamata. Consider all that she has had to endure at the hands of Left Front regime in West Bengal. Her workers have been attacked physically, shot at, and at times, even killed. She herself has been lathi-charged so brutally that she ended up in hospital with a brain injury.

Which woman in her right mind would have continued to battle on after all that? Yes, it took a special sort of ‘madness’ to go on with the fight, and to believe that in the end she would triumph – as, indeed, she did.

So, yes, maybe all those jokesters are right when they say that India’s most important states are now ruled by ‘mad’ women. But let’s also admit that there is method in that madness – and that there is much to admire in that.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Goodbye seems to be the hardest word

Nobody in this country ever seems to retire with good grace – or in good time

Consider the curious case of Sourav Ganguly. Once one of the most successful captains of the Indian cricket team, these days he is reduced to warming the bench at IPL games featuring the Pune Warriors while newspapers report snidely about how he scored 27 runs off 24 balls at the nets, but managed to get caught twice and bowled out once in the process.

How did it come to this? I know this won’t make me very popular in the bylanes of Kolkata, but I blame Sourav himself. He was a great cricketer, a wonderful captain, and a fierce competitor. But despite being a great strategic thinker when it came to the game, he failed to gauge when he should declare his innings in real life.

Surely Sourav should have seen the writing on the wall in the last season of the IPL when he didn’t contribute a great deal to his team, the Kolkata Knight Riders. But despite every indication that the franchise had lost interest in him, Sourav still put himself up for auction – only to be humiliated when no one bothered to bid for him.

Even then it was not too late. Sourav could have made a gracious statement about how he had decided to quit the game forever (even though, technically, it was the game that had quit on him). And indeed, for a time it looked as if he had made his peace with reality, finding solace in the commentary box instead.

But just when you thought that he was out, Sourav – much like that monster in horror movies who refuses to stay down for the count – was back again. This time, as a replacement player for Ashish Nehra (oh, how the mighty have fallen!) in the Pune Warriors team. No, not as their secret weapon who would be fielded to slay the opposition, but as a bench-warmer who watched his first games from the safety of the team dug-out.

I don’t know about you, but all of this just makes me sad. Why subject yourself to this needless humiliation when you can go out with grace and dignity? I mean, look at Shane Warne. The man retired from Test and one-day cricket when he was at his peak. And now, even though he is the lynchpin of his team, the Rajasthan Royals, Warnie has announced that this will be his last season as a player in the IPL.

Warne has understood something that Sourav plainly hasn’t. Leave the stage while they are still asking, “Why?” Don’t leave it until they are demanding, “Why not?”

But then, why blame Sourav alone? This is a disease that seems to be endemic in India. Nobody in this country ever seems inclined to call it a day, clinging on with their fingernails for dear life. And even when they are forcibly ejected, they tend to go out kicking and screaming.

By any reckoning, both Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani should have retired years ago, leaving the field clear for a younger lot of leaders to take over. But despite having heart surgery in his first term, Singh still put himself forward as a candidate for the Prime Minister’s job in UPA’s second term in office. And L.K. Advani, who failed in his bid to become Prime Minister, continues to play a pivotal role in BJP politics instead of taking a backseat.

Manmohan Singh is now 78 years old. L.K. Advani is 83. And yet, neither of them seems to think it all politic to contemplate retirement from public life. Contrast this with such Western democracies as Britain and the USA. The American President, Barack Obama, is still a few months short of 50 while the British Prime Minister David Cameron is a sprightly 44. And their predecessors, George W Bush and Tony Blair retired at the ages of 61 and 54 respectively, making a clean break from domestic politics.

Our bureaucrats are no better. Rare is the secretary of the Indian government who hangs up his red tape once he has reached retirement age. Instead, our babus vie with one another to find plum post-retirement government sinecures so that they can stay on in their plush bungalows (and drive around in their white Ambassadors) for just a little while longer. The lucky ones get the Governorships that haven’t been gobbled up by ageing politicians; the rest make do chairmanships of state corporations and the like. Retirement at 60 is strictly for losers.

Not that other professions are any different. The movie world is littered with examples of people who defy the laws of logic to still remain in the business. Govinda continues to make execrable comedies that plump the depths of bad taste. Rekha continues to be pulled out of the moth-balls (or should that be aspic?) for a cameo turn every now and then. And Dev Anand – God bless his evergreen heart – continues to churn out movies that nobody ever watches.

I guess the soul is not the only thing that is eternal in these parts.

But, of course, it could be a lot worse. Take a quick look across the border at Pakistan and count your blessings. While their politicians may have a rather short shelf life unlike ours, their Generals never seem to retire – they just become terror masterminds instead.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

No laughing matter

Why has all the wit and humour disappeared from Indian politics?

Did you catch President Barack Obama’s rousing performance at the White House Correspondents Association dinner last week? In case you missed it, here are some of the highlights. Speaking at the roast, where Presidents are traditionally expected to skewer their critics – all in good humour, of course – Obama decided to take on Donald Trump, the latest in a long line of Republicans to cast doubts on whether Barack was really born in America (and hence, whether he is really entitled to be the President of the United States).

Referring to the fact that his birth certificate had finally been released by Hawaii, Obama chortled, “But no one is prouder to put this birth certificate issue to rest than Donald and that’s because he can get back to the issues that matter, like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell?”

As Trump tried to raise a tight smile from his seat in the audience, Obama went on to poke more fun at the tycoon’s bid for the American Presidency, showing a video of the ‘Trump White House’ with gold columns and bikini-clad girls in the fountain.

As I watched Obama’s performance I couldn’t help but wonder (yes, I know, that’s a bit Carrie Bradshaw, but what the hell!) why we can’t muster up the same kind of wit and joshing humour in Indian politics. Our politicians conspicuously lack the light touch that Obama demonstrated to demolish his putative opponent in the Presidential race. And certainly, none of them displays the same kind of rapier-sharp wit (or has the speech-writers to do it for them).

It wasn’t always like this. Many decades ago, the legendary Parliamentarian Piloo Modi was celebrated for his quick wit and scintillating repartee. On one occasion when the Speaker had reprimanded the members for using unparliamentary language in the House, Modi insisted on referring to Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed – then a government minister – as ‘Mr Ruddin Ali Ahmed’ throughout the day’s proceedings. Needless to say, he brought the House down every time he said that.

The late Rajiv Gandhi, too, had a nice line in witty repartee. I still remember watching his first press conference in America as Prime Minister, when he was asked a question about the Khalistan movement, then at its peak. Rajiv smiled, looked at the group of Khalistani supporters at the rear of the hall and said, “I would like to remind my friends at the back that when there was last a Sikh kingdom, its capital was in Lahore.”

Mani Shankar Aiyar, a close aide of Rajiv Gandhi in those days, was also a master of the acerbic put-down. The story goes that he once attended a function at his old college, St Stephen’s, along with another political colleague, K. Natwar Singh. As they were leaving, both of them were asked to write in the visitor’s book. Natwar Singh wrote: “Everything I am today, I owe to the College.” It was Mani’s turn next. So, tongue firmly in cheek, he wrote below this: “Why blame the College?”

In a sense, this was a legacy of our British colonial past. Just as the British had left us with a Parliamentary democracy, they had also bequeathed us the art of pithy one-liners perfected by them down the centuries. Who can forget Sir Winston Churchill’s legendary put-down of his political rival: “An empty taxi drove up and Mr Attlee got out.” Or, my personal favourite: “Mr Attlee is a modest man with a lot to be modest about.”

That tradition still thrives in Britain, where politicians attack each other with humour and sarcasm rather than abuse and insult one another. David Cameron, for instance, inaugurated his spell as Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons by announcing: “I want to talk about the future.” He then turned to Tony Blair and added: “You used to be the future once.”

Unfortunately, we have lost that tradition of cutting humour in India these days. Now, we have invective rather than wit, bile instead of humour, and abuse in the place of repartee. Gone is the lightness of touch that our politicians showed in the past. Gone is the gentle good humour that often characterised parliamentary debate. Instead, we have the sorry spectacle of our leaders going at each other with a venom seldom seen before on the nightly chat shows on television.

Debate these days has been taken over by derision, with every politician vying with the other to come up with the most inventive insults. The only time wit makes an appearance in our Parliamentary debates is when the finance minister or railway minister make some very laboured jokes when delivering their annual budget. Otherwise, the House remains a humour-free zone, with nary a one-liner in sight.

If you ask me, more’s the pity. All of us lose out when humour and wit cease to have a place in our public life. And yes, it’s no laughing matter.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Princess Diaries

The Diana-Kate comparisons are overdone; it’s Camilla and Catherine who are most alike

By the time you read this, Prince William and Catherine Middleton will be husband and wife and with a bit of luck, all that hoopla surrounding the Royal Wedding will be over. But something tells me all those insidious, even invidious, comparisons between William’s late mother, Diana, and his new wife will continue to plague the royal couple for a long time to come.

Ever since William and Catherine (as we must learn to call her now; Kate is, apparently, far too common) announced their engagement, the Diana vs Kate industry has gone into overdrive. It doesn’t matter that the only thing the two women have in common is their love for William. For some reason, the media have decided that Kate must be seen through the prism of Diana, living in the shadow of the mother-in-law she never met. (And it didn’t exactly help that William gave his mother’s old engagement ring – an enormous sapphire surrounded by diamonds – to Kate when he proposed to her, thereby reviving memories of his mother’s disastrous marriage to Prince Charles.)

But look at it dispassionately, if you will. Princess Diana was an aristocrat, the youngest daughter of an Earl, styled Lady Diana from birth. Catherine Middleton is from solid middle-class stock, the daughter of two self-made professionals who made their millions from selling party paraphernalia on the Internet. Diana was the product of a broken home, her mother having famously eloped with a lover, leaving behind her children, whom she later lost in a bitter custody battle. Catherine grew up in a loving, secure, two-parent home, with none of the bitterness and bile that comes with broken marriages.

Even as far as appearances go, the women could not be more unlike one another. Diana was an English rose, all peaches and cream complexion, bottle-blonde hair cut short, and that famous fringe framing her lovely blue eyes as she batted her lashes oh-so coyly. Catherine is just as pretty but set in a completely different mould: a no-nonsense sensible type, with a forthright smile and long brunette hair that hangs down glossily past her shoulders.

And yet, the media are full of pictures of Diana and Kate which purportedly show just how alike they are. See, both of them are wearing strapless red gowns! Look both of them are in a blue suit! Wow, both of them are wearing little black dresses! Don’t they seem eerily alike? Er, no, they don’t. They look about as alike one another as any two women wearing a dress of the same colour would – no more, no less.

In fact, if any comparisons are to be made with Catherine, they should be with Camilla, the current wife of the Prince of Wales and William’s stepmother.

For starters, both women are from non-aristocratic stock; and from close, tightly knit-together families. Both have solid middle to upper-class moneyed backgrounds; and neither has ever held down a proper job. Both fell in love with their respective Princes fairly early on, and have remained devoted to them through thick and thin. While Camilla was pilloried as the third person in a crowded marriage, Catherine has been dubbed Waitey-Katie by a cruel tabloid press committed to making fun of her because Prince William took such a long time to propose.

And both have taken the criticism, the mockery and the taunts head-on, smiling resolutely for the cameras while saying nothing at all (thereby adhering to the time-tested royal motto: never complain; never explain).

In fact, it is in their relationship with the media – or rather the lack of it – that Camilla and Catherine are most alike. Unlike Princess Diana, who was close friends with some tabloid hacks and routinely used them to plant stories about herself in the press, neither Camilla nor Catherine has ever chosen to engage with the media. The only interview that Catherine has given is the one she gave jointly with William to mark their engagement. And Camilla never talks to the media, period.

And most importantly, both of them are the first loves of their Princes. Charles fell madly in love with Camilla, the dashing debutante, almost from the time he met her. But in a repeat of that age-old story, she was ready to settle down and he wasn’t; so, she married Andrew Parker-Bowles instead. William and Catherine too fell in love early on, while still at St Andrew’s University. But in this modern age, they could afford to live together until such time as they decided to get married.

In fact, that’s the key difference in their love stories. William married his Catherine, who waited for him patiently, despite all those horrid Waitey-Katie barbs levelled at her. Charles, on the other hand, missed out on marrying his Camilla until the second time round. If he had had the sense to marry her to begin with – the same good sense that William has shown with Catherine – he would have spared a lot of people a lot of misery.

And there would be no Princess Diana spectre hanging above the glossy brunette curls of Catherine Middleton today.