About Me

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

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Taking a break?

Travel the world if you want to; but don’t knock the humble ‘family holiday’

Chances are that you are reading this either while planning a holiday, enjoying a break, or recovering from the rigours of a family vacation. Yes, this is the holiday season, when everyone who can afford it gets away from the heat as fast as they possibly can.

And these days we are all spoilt for choice, aren’t we? We can hit the beaches of Goa or Koh Samui, depending on our budget. We can enjoy the mountain air in Manali, Shimla or even Switzerland, if our money stretches that far. We can trek in Nepal; go shopping in Dubai; watch plays in London; golf in Scotland; sample the best of Renaissance art in Italy; indulge in a bit of wine-tasting in France or the Napa Valley; gorge – or gag, it depends entirely on you – on authentic Chinese fare in Shanghai or Beijing.

As far as holidays are concerned, the sky (and of course, our bank balance) is the limit. And even then, there’s nothing we enjoy more than pushing the limits. A week spent river-rafting in the wilds of the South American jungle? Bring it on. A fortnight in the icy wilderness of Greenland getting in touch with our inner Innuit? Why ever not? Walking up the slopes of active volcanoes in New Zealand? Count us in.

These days, everyone wants to push the envelope when it comes to holidays. It’s no longer enough to go tiger-watching in Ranthambore, Pench or Bandhavgarh. You have to go on a safari in Africa or better still, watch from the sidelines when the annual migration of wildebeest takes place in Kenya. Chilling out on the beaches of Kovalam is now passé. These days you must head out to Croatia, the new jewel of the Mediterranean. And Nainital and Darjeeling are now spoilt beyond belief; if you want to enjoy the mountains then Ladakh is where it’s at.

It sounds great doesn’t it? After all, who would pass up the opportunity to see the world in all its glory, sample the delights – both culinary and cultural – it has to offer, and explore every nook and cranny of our beautiful planet. If we live in a global village, then I guess it behoves us to get acquainted with all its secret gardens. And great fun it is too.

And yet, even as I scour the internet looking for the best deals on hotels and airline fares, there is a tiny little part of me that misses the good old days when holidays were more about family time and less about seeing the world. When we spent our vacations bonding with assorted uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and a veritable army of cousins rather than discovering the delights of gelato or the finer points of bull-fighting. When taking a break didn’t necessarily involve breaking the bank.

Growing up, I spent all my school vacations visiting various members of our extended – and, to be honest, fairly extensive – family. The summers were invariably spent at my aunt’s tea garden in Assam. And the holiday started from the time we boarded the train from Sealdah station, me armed with a stack of Amar Chitra Kathas and my mother with a lot of patience. Snack-time came with every station we stopped at, with deep-fried samosas and pakoras being scoffed down with hot, milky tea drunk from terracotta bhands (yes, I know, it sounds a bit vulgar, but it just means a tea-cup).

The high point of the journey was the ferry transfer across the Brahmaputra, which put all those geography lessons in perspective. And then, there was the rickety jeep-ride to the tea garden itself, with us indefatigable kids singing loudly and I fear quite tunelessly in the back while the adults struggled to stay upright on those long and winding roads.

And then followed a few weeks of absolute bliss, when you never needed to do anything you didn’t want to. There were no mandatory early mornings to catch the sunrise on the beach; no traipsing around museums feigning interest in the Dutch masters and dinosaur models; no endless shopping trips for our moms to drag us on. Instead, my assorted cousins and I ran quite wild: going on long exploratory walks on the tea slopes; examining the wild life in the area (mostly frogs and leeches, if you must know); starting our own Enid Blyton-style Five Find-Outers gang; making friends with the kids in the local village; and generally, having a blast.

In the winters, we headed north to visit more uncles and aunts. It helped, of course, that my uncles were in the army and hence could host us in a different city every three years or so. Thus it was that we sampled the delights of Southern temples, splashed around on the rocky beaches of Visakhapatnam, explored a yet-unspoilt Bhutan, visited endless forts and palaces in Rajasthan and made ourselves at home in army messes all around the country. All of this, leavened with lots of inter-generation bonding, and much re-telling of old family lore.

Even today, when I have traversed every continent in my travels, it is those family holidays that evoke the most heart-felt memories. And it is the family bonds forged on those vacations that provide me with the most emotional sustenance.

So, in case you haven’t booked that mini-break in Bangkok just yet, you might want to examine the possibility of a family vacation. Your kids may balk at it now; but they may well thank you for it in the years to come.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Slut Walk? No thanks!

There are better ways of standing up for our freedoms than parading around in small, tight clothes

Okay before we get into all this ‘Slut Walk’ business, let’s get two things straight.

One: a woman’s right to refuse sex is – and must remain – undisputed. It doesn’t matter what she is wearing; how she is behaving; how much she has been drinking; why she came back to a hotel room with the guy in the first place; or even, why she allowed him to kiss and fondle her.

If she wants to say no – no matter at what stage in the proceedings – she has an absolute right to do so. And any man who ignores that is guilty of rape.

That is something that we are all agreed upon: Yes means yes; and no means no.

Two: Rape is never ever a woman’s fault. Never. Ever. Okay, let’s say that again. Never, ever.

It doesn’t matter if she is provocatively dressed. It doesn’t matter if she is walking down a rough street alone. It doesn’t matter if she is drunk. It doesn’t matter if she is out late at night. It doesn’t matter if she is sexually active. It doesn’t matter if she is ‘promiscuous’. It doesn’t matter if she is a sex worker.

No woman ever ‘asks’ for it. Never ever.

But my question is this: do we really need to parade our streets in small, tight clothes to reinforce these two messages?

In case you have been living on a different planet for the last month, this is how it all began. A policeman in Canada suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order not to be victimised. This led to widespread outrage and a world-wide movement to reclaim the word ‘slut’ for women who wanted the freedom to dress the way they wanted.

Women organised Slut Walks all over the world, during which they walked the streets wearing short skirts, bikini tops and the like to assert their right to dress provocatively – and to reinforce the message that this did not justify rape.

Well, duh, of course it doesn’t. But if you ask me, all this ‘slut talk’ (not to mention Slut Walk) seems to be missing the point somewhat.

Let’s assume for a moment that a woman has the right to dress like a porn goddess if she so desires. That she has the right to cavort in public all day long, dressed like that. And that if the men around stare and leer or treat her as a ‘sex object’ then they are infringing on her right to dress any way she pleases.

Now, let’s turn it around. Let’s also grant men the right to display pornographic images wherever they please – at work, at home, on public transport – because, well, they enjoy looking at them. Let’s allow them to crack dirty jokes all day long or make sexually explicit comments because, hey, they love doing that. How long do you think it would be before the ladies start complaining?

Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme. So, let’s take a step back and allow men to put their own flesh on display if they feel so inclined. They can whip off their shirts at the office; show the crack of their bums on the streets; and go dancing in nightclubs sporting just their underwear. Yes, I agree, it won’t be long before the women start crying foul.

So, what we are effectively saying is that women have the right to sexualise their environment if they feel like it. But the men around them must do nothing of this sort – for fear of being dismissed as Neanderthals and hit with a sexual harassment action for good measure.

Double standards, anyone?

Let’s look at this another way. Let’s say you decide that it is your right as a law-abiding citizen to leave your front door unlocked when you go out. Is this likely to attract the attention of your friendly neighbourhood burglar? Probably. Is it more likely that you will be robbed as a consequence? Of course.

Does this mean that the thief who robbed you is not guilty? Of course he is. Does it follow that you bear no responsibility for what happened? Of course you do.

You turned yourself into an easier target because of your actions – and you have to take the rap for that. Every choice we make has consequences; and we have to keep those consequences in mind every time we make a choice.

So, no one is denying women the right to dress any way they feel like. But if you dress to be noticed, then don’t complain when you are noticed. If you dress to attract attention, then you must be reconciled to the fact that you can’t control what kind of attention you will attract. None of this can be used as a justification for rape – but yes, freedom does come with responsibility.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how the best way to target a woman was to attack her sexuality. And one of the words thrown around by such people was, yes, you guessed it, ‘slut’. So pardon me if I see no reason to adopt the word as a badge of honour rather than slam it for the sexist abuse it is.

And hence, I say to all the ladies who have been sending me invitations to participate in the Delhi Slut Walk: Go take a walk if you want to. But I’m no slut; and I will be damned before I ever refer to myself as one.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Turning back the clock

India is in danger of being seen a land of snake-charmers and sadhus all over again

If you are of a certain age, then you will remember a time when the very mention of India invited references to snake charmers, elephants, cows and naked sadhus – though not necessarily in that order. When India was seen as the ‘mystic’ East, where people went to find themselves when the materialism of the West had sapped their souls.

This was a time when the word ‘India’ evoked a world of (sometimes dodgy) spirituality, where gurus preached a message of love, peace and grooviness to an entire generation of drop-outs (otherwise known as hippies). Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught the Beatles how to levitate after some light transcendental meditation (even as Pandit Ravi Shankar signed them up for sitar lessons). Then came Bhagwan Rajneesh, later re-styled as Osho, another magnet for disenchanted foreigners, whose Pune ashram was run as a haven for ‘free love’.

India was seen as the land of mysticism and spirituality, where people were more concerned about the consequences of karma than the benefits of globalisation.

Such was the power of this stereotype that people who visited India were always a bit taken aback to discover just how ‘modern’ it really was. Okay, there were still some cows moving lazily across the highways while traffic screeched to a halt to avoid them, but other than that India wasn’t anything like the image they had conjured up in their minds. Most people spoke English, there weren’t any snake-charmers in sight, and everyone was more concerned with making a good living rather than spiritual development.

But no matter how hard we tried to push the image of modern, dynamic India, powered by an ever-younger population, the stereotype of a backward, tradition-bound land persisted.

And then, suddenly, everything changed. It began, I suspect, with the IT revolution, with Indian software talent taking over the world. And by the time such companies as Infosys and Wipro had wiped the floor with the global competition, India had a brand-new image. In the span of a decade it had gone from the land of gurus and the Gita to a spanking new incarnation: Geek Nation.

India’s new avatar was the stuff of global headlines, as the international media went overboard to declare us the success story of the new century. The platitudes piled on. The world was flat; and India was soon going to take it over. We were going to go from software powerhouse to a global superpower. The 21st century belonged to India.

But last week, as I sat in front of my television, at 2 am in the morning, watching the chaotic scenes at Ramlila Maiden as the Delhi Police tried to evict Baba Ramdev and his band of followers with a lathi charge and tear-gas shells, all that talk of being a global superpower seemed like so much tosh.

The world may have anointed us as an emerging economic power, as the proverbial land of opportunity, but from where I sat, India was once again looking like a land of snake-charmers and sadhus – even if the sadhu in question travelled by private jet and ran a business empire worth millions.

A putative superpower was having its political agenda set by a bearded yoga guru whose list of demands included the provision of death penalty for all economic offenders and the demonetisation of 500 and 1000 rupee notes. And instead of dismissing this as bunkum, the government was actually engaging with the godman in question, sending a delegation of ministers to receive him at the airport and inviting him for discussions in a friendly neighbourhood five-star hotel.

That was bad enough. But when the Baba refused to play according to the script and call off his fast, the government reacted with all the finesse of a Soviet-style heavy, sending in the cops to shut down the rally and serve Baba Ramdev with an externment notice which kept him out of Delhi for a fortnight.

And what did that achieve? Well, it put the Baba squarely centre-stage in Indian politics, with everyone – from the far Left to the extreme right – coming out to condemn the police action against him. Even those who thought him a reactionary lunatic, even those who didn’t have the slightest sympathy for his cause or his methods, were left with no option but to stand up for his right of peaceful protest in a democratic state.

And thus, thanks to the ham-handedness of the government, Baba Ramdev effortlessly went from sant to saint. A man who believes that yoga can cure cancer and that everyone guilty of tax evasion should be hanged is now the rallying force in Indian politics.

And just like that, India has reverted right back to being a nation of sadhus and snake charmers – both in our eyes and in those of the world watching in rapt disbelief.

How on earth did we get here? Where did things go so spectacularly wrong? At a time when the whole world was cheering us on past the finish line, how did we manage to drop the ball?

And why on earth did we revert back to stereotype quite so easily?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Storm in a T-cup

Despite all our hard-won freedoms, a woman’s sexuality still remains the best way to target her

As some of you may remember I wrote a column a few weeks ago that mentioned Sourav Ganguly’s refusal to go off quietly into the sunset. To be honest, I expected to attract some flak for it. After all, Dada’s supporters are famous for their fanatic devotion to him, so a certain amount of abuse was likely to result for saying that it was high time he retired.

So, yes, I was prepared for being told off for a) not knowing anything about cricket; b) being guilty of ageism; c) being anti-Bengali; or even d) being anti-Sourav.

What I did not expect was that most of the attacks would be waged on such a personal level. That they would be couched in terms of how old, fat, unattractive – and, as would follow – sexually frustrated I was. The comments and mails took in everything from references to bestiality, frigidity, even nymphomania. But no matter what kind of perversion they referred to, they all centred on my sexuality (or, perhaps, on the lack thereof).

In retrospect, perhaps, I should not have been surprised. We may have come a long way, baby, but a woman’s sexuality still remains the easiest way to target her. Want to shut her up? Easy. Just call her any one of the following names: slut, slag, bitch, whore, or that other ‘c’ word that is so deliciously taboo.

And while not everyone descends to this level, a certain casual misogyny has become a marker of our modern culture. We think nothing of it if a woman is referred to as a ‘cow’ or a ‘dog’ in private conversation. And when this sort of thing spills over into the public space of the blogosphere or twitter, well then, hey, that’s just another manifestation of free speech. Deal with it.

Certainly, the hate and the bile on the Internet is an equal opportunity game. The men are targeted just as much as the women. And yet, for some reason, it’s only the women who face sexual abuse, no matter what the original provocation may have been.

No man is ever told that he deserves to be raped by dogs. Or that he is so ugly that he will never have sex with anyone other than himself. No, not even if he pays them.

The women, on the other hand, are fair game. It doesn’t really matter what you are commenting upon. It could be Sourav Ganguly. It could be cricket. It could be politics. It could the movies. It could be music. It could even be something as innocuous as the weather. But if anyone doesn’t like what you say, then you are an ugly, fat bitch who needs to be taught a lesson (and yes, you can well imagine what that lesson would be, even if I can’t refer to it in a family newspaper).

It’s a bit like walking down a crowded street or through a busy market. You can be sure that someone will ‘accidentally’ brush against you and that somebody else will make some crass comment about your derriere.

In that sense, putting yourself out there in cyberspace is a bit like travelling in a crowded bus in real life. Sooner or later, you are going to get your bum pinched – or worse (speaking metaphorically, of course). Or even going to a party where some men will spend the entire evening having a conversation with your breasts. Yes, we’ve all been there – and had that done to us.

No matter how liberated we may feel, no matter how hard we may have fought for our freedoms, a woman’s vulnerability is still tied up with her sexuality. And so it remains the easiest way to attack her. The abuse may be physical or verbal – but the target remains the same.

Part of it is down to the fact that as a society, we are so subliminally attuned to objectifying women that we do so even without realising it – and sometimes women are just as guilty of this as the men. (In fact, recent research suggests that the first thing women notice about each other is their waistlines – how slim or thick they are.)

Look at the way our politicians are portrayed in the media. Most of our male politicians are not exactly oil paintings. But for some reason, it’s only female politicians like Mayawati and Mamata who are derided because of their physical appearance. It’s never the men who are told off for their lack of grooming or good looks.

Even when men attack one another, they do so through the medium of women. The most common abuses – whether in Hindi or English – remain ones that involve having sex with the other man’s mother or sister (for some reason, it is never the wife). When it comes to name-calling, then again we have the classics: ‘son of a bitch’ and ‘bastard’, both of which are more about the mothers than the sons.

So, I guess despite all our talk about women’s liberation, we are still in some measure prisoners of our own bodies. And the best way to attack us is to violate them – through speech, if not through actual physical violence.

In that context, the torrent of twitter abuse about the Sourav column is just the proverbial storm in a T-cup. But what it says about how women are seen in our world is what is truly shaming – and worrying.