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

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Double trouble

In a world that swears by political correctness, double standards are all the rage

So Posh Spice finally has what she ‘really really wanted’ for a long time: a baby girl, a much-awaited and longed-for daughter after three strapping boys. With each pregnancy, or so the gossip rags maintain, Victoria hoped for a daughter, a teeny-tiny Baby Spice to dress up in pink and to whom she could pass on her wisdom about Girl Power. But it wasn’t to be. The Beckhams instead became parents to three beautiful boys – Brooklyn, Cruz and Romeo – but they never gave up on their dream of a daughter.

So even at considerable risk to herself – all her children were born by C-section (cue the usual jokes about being too Posh to push) and three is generally considered to be the safe limit for this procedure – Victoria became pregnant again in the hope of bringing forth a baby girl this time. And this once, the Gods smiled upon the Beckhams, who welcomed their first daughter, Harper Seven (really, what is it with celebrities and outlandish names for their offspring?) into the world last month.

But even as the media gushed about the fact that Victoria and David’s family was now complete and how absolutely fabulous it was that they had finally got the daughter of their dreams, even if it had taken them four tries to get there, an uneasy thought popped up in my mind.

Would we have reacted in the same way if the Beckhams had been trying for a son rather than a daughter? Would we have been quite so indulgent about their desire for a child of a particular gender if the genders had been reversed?

Somehow, I think not. There seems to be some sort of peculiar double standard at work in the world today when it is perfectly okay to express your desire to have a daughter. But if a woman ever dares mention that she is hoping for a son, or would even like to have one, well then, she is no better than a traitor to her own gender.

So while it is fine to keep ‘trying’ in the hope of producing a baby girl, doing so in the hope of getting a baby boy marks you down as being obscurantist, old-fashioned, gender-insensitive and, of course, politically incorrect.

Strange, isn’t it?

Of course boys have been universally preferred down the ages, being seen as the heirs to the family fortune, who will carry their proud name forward, while girls marry and leave for their own homes. And in a country like India where female foeticide is endemic, it is always a refreshing change to have someone say that they would prefer a girl over a boy.

Surely, however, it is human nature to want one of each kind, to want to experience the joy of having a son as well as a daughter. But such is the strength of the double standard – and so despicable are some of the means we employ to have boys rather than girls – that it takes a brave woman to say that, yes, she does hope to have a son this time round.

But in a world where political correctness has run wild, such double standards are well-established now.

Let’s take a look at how we refer to foreign visitors to our shores. Anybody who is White is unthinkingly referred to as a ‘Firangi’ or ‘Gora’, without the slightest fear that this may give offence or be perceived as racist. But nobody with the slightest sensitivity would ever refer to a Chinese person as ‘Chinki’ or call a Japanese a ‘Nip’. And anybody who did would be promptly accused of being vilely racist – as indeed they should.

And yet, when you think about it, what’s the difference? Why do we get to use ‘Gora’ in polite conversation when we wouldn’t dream of saying ‘Chinki’? Surely, the offence is much the same?

Similarly, nobody bats an eyelid when you imitate English and American accents to send people up. But God forbid that you should ever do the same with a German, French or Italian accent. For some reason that is seen as racist while the first two are just dismissed as so much good fun. And imitating Japanese, Thai or even Chinese accents is simply beyond the pale.

Then, there’s the politically correct take on fairness creams. Surely by now all of you must know that they are A Very Bad Thing. The manufacturers prey on the insecurities of dark-skinned people and make them pay obscene sums of money to lighten their complexions with creams that are no more effective than a good sunblock. Shame on them! Don’t they know any better?

That said, nobody objects to the booming fake tan business, in which people try and to darken their light complexions to prove that they are rich enough to holiday in spots where they can get a nice sun-tan. And yet, you can’t deny that both are two sides of the same coin; a manifestation of the desire of people to improve their appearance in a manner that pleases them. So why be judgemental about one and not the other?

And then, there’s the usual gender-bender stuff that comes with political correctness. There is no harm is sending up your husband by complaining how he does no housework, doesn’t help with the children, is too messy (remember Michelle Obama’s famous reference to her husband’s ‘smelly socks’?) and just so useless all around. But what if the same put-upon husband were to retaliate by pointing out how rubbish his wife is at driving and how she still can’t parallel park? Well, I’ll just leave it to you to guess how that story would unfold.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tweet your children well...

Sometimes Twitter resembles nothing more than a schoolyard: bullies, cool kids, class monitors, et al

Growing up we were told that school was the perfect training ground for life. This is where we would begin to socialise with other kids; learn to rub along even though we often couldn’t bear to be in the same room. This is where we would learn to share our stuff so that we became a tad less selfish. This is where we would form friendships to sustain us in the future. And this is where we would learn the life skills that would help us survive once we left the safety of the classroom: the ability to stand up for ourselves; the sense to distinguish between right and wrong; and the desire to fight the good fight.

Well, at least, that was the way it was supposed to work in an ideal world. But now that my school-days are but a distant memory – but still have the power to traumatise me deeply when I’m least expecting it – I have realised that while all that time in school helps you cope with Real Life, it is also great training for when you finally bite the bullet and get on Twitter.

Because when you think about it, there’s nothing that Twitter resembles more than a disorderly school-yard (and that’s on a good day) with everyone jostling for space and attention and not worrying too much about whom they hurt in the process. And if you care to look closely, you will see the same dramatis personae on Twitter as you would see in your average school – except they are now all grown up and with the potential to wreck much greater damage.

In fact, the social pecking order here is also frighteningly similar. At the top of the heap are the Cool Kids (celebrities, mostly) whom everyone wants to be friends with. These people know their worth, though, and don’t bother to engage with the unwashed masses, unless they are responding to fulsome compliments and may deign to throw back a ‘Tks’ (apparently when you are famous it’s too much of a drag to type out a whole word). They prefer to engage with the other Cool Kids, being all witty and charming with one another, in the certain knowledge that their every tweet is being lapped up by their massive fan base.

Where there are Cool Kids, there are bound to be Suck-Ups (or Teacher’s Pets as we called them back in school). These people spend all their time tweeting to their idols, praising them for their recent exploits, telling them how wonderful they are, and asking for validation in the form of a tweet back. And you’d be surprised how often this strategy works. While flattery may not get you everywhere, it often does get you a follow-back.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Cyber Bullies, who hide behind the safety of anonymous twitter ids to shower abuse on whoever takes their fancy. These function like those feral gangs in school who would form a posse to bully those who were most vulnerable. They would trip them up on the driveway, punch them in the nose, shove them in the back when they are standing at the top of the stairs, spread vile rumours about them (or their mothers).

Just as it was in the schoolyard, so it is on Twitter (even if the wounds are only psychic). And when things get particularly contentious on Twitter, these Cyber Bullies tend to transform into Lynch Mobs, where anyone who doesn’t agree with them is fair target for vile abuse. Those of us who have experienced being heckled at the school play or at the sports day know exactly how this works (and feels).

But while you can cope with these types by blanking – not to mention, blocking – them out, the ones that really irritate me are the Gosh-Aren’t-I-Wonderful types. These are the kids who always had their hands up with the right answer in class, who always topped every exam – and then said how they simply couldn’t understand it, given that they hadn’t even studied for the damn thing. (Grrrrr...) On Twitter these people content themselves with RTing every bit of praise ever flung in their direction, by telling us how wonderfully their movie/play/music album/book is doing, and giving us little glimpses of their wonderful life.

Fortunately, these Over-Achievers just restrict themselves to sharing their highs, higher and highest. The Over-Sharers, on the other hand, want you to know every detail of their life: when they woke up; what they ate for breakfast; how they made their way to work; what they are wearing; what they are thinking of eating for lunch...You can imagine the interminable essays they wrote after the summer vacations: “What I did in my school holidays”. I feel for their teachers, I truly do.

And then, bringing up the rear – and trying to bring about some sort of order – you have the Class Monitors. In school these kids were assigned the thankless task of keeping a few hundred kids quiet while the principal addressed the school assembly. And even now, they can’t bear it if someone speaks out of turn. That old childhood conditioning kicks in and they butt in with well-meaning attempts to restore order. Don’t use bad words. Treat a lady with respect. Don’t intrude in conversations that have nothing to do with you. Don’t be racist. Don’t be communal.

Of course, just as it was in school, nobody pays a blind bit of attention to anything they have to say. But I still love them for making the effort.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Have money; will spend

There’s a new disease affecting the middle-classes: it’s called affluenza

Growing up in a middle-class home, I didn’t really give much thought to money. But some things were taken for granted. Going out for a movie and dinner afterwards – even if it was just idlis and dosas in the local Udupi joint or kebabs at Kwality – was a major occasion. When we went on a picnic, the food was always home-made parathas or sandwiches. Holidays were spent with relatives to save on hotel bills. And when we felt like French fries or pakoras, they were rustled up in the kitchen by our mothers – or our cooks, if we were a little bit better off – rather than ordered in from the neighbourhood fast-food joint.

No matter how much money our parents made, they were always obsessed with putting some aside. Sometimes it was for a big purchase like a car or a home of our own. Sometimes it was for a social occasion like the wedding of the eldest daughter. Sometimes it was for the proverbial rainy day, in case everything went belly-up and we were left without a regular income. But whatever the reason, putting money away was always considered to be A Good Thing and it was something that we were encouraged to do from the time we started getting little cash presents on birthdays, Diwali, Eid, Christmas, Rakhi or Baisakhi.

Money was always better when it was tucked away somewhere safe for a day when we would really need it. And no, we did not need another pair of shoes; those school Bata shoes were just fine for a weekend trip to the shops. We did not need to splurge on cold drinks every evening in the marketplace when Mom could rustle up perfect lemonade at home for a fraction of the price. And we certainly did not need big parties thrown to celebrate our birthdays: a few friends, a shop-bought birthday cake (a special treat, you understand), some chutney and cheese sandwiches, home-made chana bhatura and you were set for the year ahead.

See, that was the time when parents – well, okay, let’s admit it, mostly moms – had the time, the energy and the inclination to play what we would now call a Domestic Goddess role. And when families actually spent time doing stuff together rather than out-sourcing all the boring bits because frankly they were too darn busy and, in any case, they could afford it – so what was the problem, exactly!

I guess it all began with the advent of double-income nuclear families when there was plenty of money to go around but not enough time. And that’s when affluenza struck: the condition in which we throw money at every situation that we don’t have the time, energy or inclination to handle on our own.

Here are some of the most common symptoms of affluenza among the cash-rich but time-poor. Let’s see on how many counts you qualify.

• You have a gardener to mow your lawn, window-cleaners who turn up every week to ensure that those glass French windows always look pristine, and a guy who comes every morning to clean your car inside out (sometimes, of course, he’s called the driver and also ferries you around all day). There’s the live-in maid who does all the cleaning, dusting, ironing, grocery-shopping. And the cook comes in every morning and evening to make a three course meal and stick it in the fridge for when you are ready to re-heat and eat.
• Your child can’t master the first principles of physics (or geometry, algebra, chemistry, insert subject of choice) no matter how hard he allegedly tries in class. And frankly, the thought of going back to muddle through middle-school text-books is too much to bear. Not to mention that you’re knackered by the time you get back from work. No problem: just bring out the cheque book and hire a private tutor.
• Both of you have high-pressure jobs that involve long hours and bringing work back home. And you have that whole competitive tiredness thing going on where each one of you acts more put upon than the other. So when you finally do get away for that long weekend without the kids, you spend more time getting massaged in the spa rather than in bed with one another.
• Your kids are home long before you are. And you don’t want them vegetating in front of the television, watching endless re-runs of Friends or worse, The Simpsons. So bring on the tennis coaching, the piano classes, the salsa sessions, horse-riding instruction, hell, even synchronised swimming will do. Try and get the little mites to learn every skill that money can buy. Keep them so busy that that they don’t have a moment to call their own until Mummy and Daddy finally stagger home. And then you can appease them by ordering in a nice, large pepperoni pizza with all the extras.

• A large house and a lovely garden just cries out for a dog, doesn’t it? Or maybe even two? But given that the entire family is out all day, either earning money or spending it, who is going to take the cute little thing out for walks and the like. Yes, you’re right – yet another member of staff, bringing up the grand total of home help to a grand four or even five.

See, that’s the thing with affluenza. It strikes when you’re not looking. And before you know it, you’ve got a full-blown case of infection to deal with.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The medium is the messanger

A look back at how we covered the last Mumbai attacks...

As the media brouhaha about the television coverage of the Mumbai attacks rages, it’s time to stop being defensive and to try and understand just why people are so upset.

The words used – in social discourse, on the Internet and in the print media – to describe the coverage are telling. Over the top, sensationalist, exploitative and melodramatic – these are just some of the adjectives being thrown about.

But the fury of the response and the venom of the attacks suggest that this is not a one-off thing. This resentment over the way television channels cover events has been building for a while. The 26/11 attacks were just a catalyst for people to express grievances of long-standing.

At the root of this anger lurks the resentment of the viewing public about the assumption of journalists that their opinions are the only ones that matter. As offensive is their presumption in inserting their own views into the narrative of whatever story they happen to be covering.

What is under attack here is the constant contamination of the news by the views of those who disseminate it on television.

As the cliché goes, comment may be free but facts are sacred. And when it comes to the news space, they need to be kept apart.

The problem with television is that there is a constant blurring of the lines so that one never quite knows where the news ends and the views begin.

God knows the print media has its own problems and it often gets things wrong. But where it scores is that the dividing line between opinion and fact is always very clear. Opinion belongs on the edit and op-ed page – and in the feature and style sections. The news appears on all the other pages, uncontaminated by the views of those reporting it.

Yes, newspaper columnists can be as self-indulgent and self-obsessed as television reporters (and I’m guilty as charged for my weekly column in Brunch) but on the whole they restrict themselves to the spaces reserved for the venting of opinion.

In television that is hardly ever the case. Newscasters start editorializing in the middle of a news broadcast, anchors of panel discussions are more interested in holding forth than eliciting the opinions of their guests, and interviewers routinely interrupt their subjects in mid-sentence only to insert their own agendas.

And that’s what viewers resent the most: being told how to feel or how to think. We are not imbeciles sitting at home that you have to tell us over and over again that an event is a national tragedy. We can work it out for ourselves.

Is it really surprising then that the viewing public has finally snapped and said: Don’t tell us how to feel about things. Don’t even tell us how you feel about things. Just give us the facts and let us make up our own minds.

But while it is easy to knock television journalists, let’s not forget that some of these problems are inherent in the medium itself. In the print media, when you sit down at a computer terminal to write your story, you are already one step removed from the event. And that in itself lends some distance and hence, some perspective to your report.

Television journalists don’t have that luxury. The nature of their job demands that they report from the thick of things in real time. And when there are flames billowing behind you, grenades exploding, bullets being fired, feelings running high, it is difficult to step back from the event so that you can report it dispassionately.

But it is easy to start to think that you are part of the story. It is easy to con yourself into believing that it’s all happening to you rather than around you. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your emotions, your reactions matter – that your pain, your anger, your anguish are part of the narrative.

Only they’re not. Your job is to tell the story, not become the story. More important, your job is to tell the story as an objective observer in a manner devoid of hyperbole. The event is big enough; you don’t need to magnify it through needless hysteria.

As the post-mortems on the TV coverage of 26/11 get underway, one thing is clear. What people resent most is getting the news through the prism of someone else’s emotions.

A reporter is supposed to be the filter not the funnel between the news and the viewer. A filter helps keep all the extraneous clutter out so that you can concentrate on the essential details of the story. A funnel on the other hand just pushes everything through without bothering about the contents too much.

All of us in the media – both print and television – need to treat the news as a sacred space inviolable by opinion. And just as we exhort the government to keep church and state apart, we need to draw a line between news and views – and make sure that we never violate it.

The message from the public is loud and clear. And we journalists ignore it at our own peril.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

It’s freaks we seek

In today’s world, celebrity-hood is all about vulgarity and sensationalism

I groan inwardly each time I hear somebody quoting Andy Warhol’s famous line about how in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes; not because Warhol was wrong, but because he was absolutely right.

There was a time when you admired the famous. You respected them for the qualities that had earned them their fame. Top sportspersons, international statesmen, big-time movie idols, great artists and creative geniuses. Even the famous people one did not admire – Adolf Hitler or Charles Sobhraj, for instance – served as an object lesson in the negative aspects of the world: the nature of evil, the misuse of power.

These days alas, fame means little. There is so little to admire in so many famous people. And even notoriety is cheaply purchased. About all you can say with a degree of certainty of most of today’s famous people is that within five years most of them will have been forgotten. New instant celebrities will have taken their place – to shine in the spotlight for their own 15 minutes or so.

You can blame society and the communications revolution for the fickleness of today’s fame. But I think that we in the media have to accept our share of the blame. Because we are so celebrity obsessed that we devour and spit out ‘celebrities’ by the week, we create new, undeserving famous people almost on an hourly basis.

To some extent that is inevitable given the demands of today’s media technology and it is not necessarily a bad thing. But what worries me the most is the banality of 21st century fame. We don’t just take minor celebrities and exaggerate their importance. We use entirely new criteria to judge celebrity-hood. We look for vulgarity, for a trashy loudness and for an overwhelming cheapness. All the things that we would consider appalling and revolting in a colleague or a neighbour are the very things that help people to become famous.

Would you want to work in the same office as Dolly Bindra? How would you feel if Rakhi Sawant was your next-door neighbour? Would you allow Maria Susairaj into your home?

No matter how revolting we would find these people if we came across them in our day-to-day lives, we are forced to regard them as celebrities by the media, to follow their antics on our TV screens and to read about their every move in our press.

As far as the media are concerned, the fame game has now become a freak show. The freakier the person, the better the story. The more shameless the person, the more sensational the quotes. And the more horrific the personality, the bigger the spin-off.

It is no longer: in the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. Now it’s simpler and more basic: it’s freaks we seek.

In which world could you have imagined that Dolly Bindra would become a celebrity? Even ten years ago, the media would have ignored her. Once upon a time, Rakhi Sawant would have been recognised for what she is: a two-bit item girl with an unfortunate lip job. Now, TV channels vie to build shows around her and she gives long interviews to famous hosts.

Or take Rahul Mahajan. When his father died and we saw pictures of him at the funeral, we thought of him as no more than a young man whose life had been vitiated by tragedy. Who would have imagined that he would become a bona fide celebrity on the basis of drug-related deaths and a sordid private life played out in public? More worrying is this: as long as he was a subdued tragic figure, the media had no interest in him. But the moment he turned himself into a vulgar, public spectacle, he became a star.

So it is with Maria Susairaj. I won’t get into whether her acquittal on a murder charge was justified. But what kind of society are we if we turn a woman who helped her fiancée chop up her lover’s body and then burn it (she has been convicted on that charge) into a celebrity? Now Ram Gopal Varma wants to cast her in a movie. Reality TV shows vie to win her participation. And her press conferences are turned into bizarre circuses by a rampaging media machine.

Once a society becomes obsessed by the vulgar, the cheaply notorious, the loudly sensationalistic and proudly trashy, it loses its bearings. It forgets all the things that fame should really be about: achievement and excellence. And it abandons the distinctions between right and wrong, between the real and the manufactured, between the substantive and the illusion.

So the next time you see Rakhi Sawant giving an interview or watch a press conference by Maria Susairaj, pause a little and ponder the banality of celebrity-hood today. And remember that when fame becomes a freak show, it is our society that eventually pays the price.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Forty and counting

The tell-tale signs of incipient middle-age; how many do you identify with?

One of my daily trawls across the Internet threw up this interesting fact. According to a recent study, people become more concerned about their health once they hit 40. And by the time they are 45 they tend to make serious lifestyle changes so as to improve their quality of life. They start to eat better, exercise more, take their daily supplements, have preventive health check-ups, and so on and so forth.

Or I guess, in other words, they become a little more aware of their own mortality and start taking steps to defer it for as long as possible.

Looking around me in my peer group of 40-somethings, I have to admit that there is something to this study. These days it’s impossible to have a meal with a friend without it turning into an exercise in calorie-counting. Do you think the salad is a better bet than the soup if we order the dressing on the side? Wine? You must be joking; a Diet Coke, please. If we skip the main course, can we share a dessert instead? Let’s have an Americano rather than a cappuccino (and no, I don’t care if they make it with low-fat milk).

And that’s just the men. The women, on the other hand, have perfected the art of ordering the least calorific meals without even looking at the menu. So, it’s sashimi rather than sushi; fish rather than meat; steamed rather than sautéed (and please don’t even mention the ‘f’ word: ‘frying’); mushrooms rather than potatoes; coffee rather than cake.

The conversation follows much the same line. When we are not discussing the latest injuries we picked up doing power yoga/Pilates/kick-boxing, we are playing the ‘my work-out is more aerobic than yours’ game. The merits of Dukan Diet are debated endlessly (did you see how good Carole Middleton looked at her daughter’s wedding thanks to that regimen?). We swap notes about our latest spa retreats, trekking holidays or wellness resorts. We advise each other to have Omega 3 capsules, glucosamine, primrose oil and lots of goji berries.

So yes, you can tell the onset of middle-age by what we eat, how much we exercise and what we talk about. But that is – as is usual – just part of the story. There are several other markers of incipient middle-age and here is just a sampling of the most common. Read on and weep for your lost youth...

• You worry much more about exams than you ever did as a kid. Only this time round, it’s your children’s board exams that you are obsessing over. I mean, honestly, have you seen the cut-offs this year? They are insane!

• If you have spent most of your youth trying not to get pregnant then this is when Sod’s Law catches up with you. Now, it’s time to obsess about having a baby before your body clock gives up on you. So bring on the basal thermometer, the hormone treatments, the IVF, whatever it takes. Tick tock, tick tock.

• You think more about comfort than style when you go shoe-shopping. You may gaze longingly at those vertiginous heels that you used to go dancing in (God, when was the last time you went dancing?) but you settle for the sensible wedges in which you can do the school run and the grocery shopping after a hard day at work.

• For someone whose hearing is beginning to present the teeniest-tiniest problem, you develop an astonishing sensitivity to sound. Do your kids really need to have the music up this loud? Must the folks upstairs move heavy furniture around every morning? And why does everybody on the Metro have to talk so loudly into their mobile phones? Honestly, couldn’t they have made it an Underground like the one in London?

• It gets easier and easier to fall asleep when the night is still young – but harder and harder to wake up after a night out. And when you do surface, you need industrial doses of caffeine to feel human again.

• You begin to measure your day in pills: for blood pressure, for diabetes, for constipation, for back pain, and several other bodily functions that we will draw a discreet veil over.

• The fashions of your youth roll by again; but your kids kill themselves laughing when you try them on. Honestly, don’t you think I can work these ‘boyfriend’ jeans? Er, no, Mum. I think that biker jacket would look great on me. In your dreams, Dad!

• To make matter worse, the nice young couple who have moved in next door call you ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’ when they can’t be more than a few years older than you. (Okay, so maybe a decade older, but hey, who’s counting?)

• In an attempt to cheer yourself up, you go to the nightclub with your buddies to check out the babe action – and realise that all of them could be your daughter’s friends. Eww!

• You have to think twice before going on your knees to retrieve a shoe that’s rolled under the bed – because you’re not sure if you can ever get up again.

If you identify with four or more of the items listed above, then you’re officially part of the middle-aged club.

But hey, don’t get too depressed. You know what they say about growing old. It’s seems like bad news – until you consider the alternative.