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

Sunday, August 28, 2011

I’m sorry, but that’s private

No, that’s not a phrase that goes down well in a world gone mad on over-sharing

Like almost everyone else on the planet who is in possession of a mobile phone, I am haunted by spam smses. Not an hour goes by without my being exhorted to buy a flat; get a car loan; upgrade my water purification system; dine at the all-you-can eat buffet at a local restaurant; and most worrying of all, lose weight with a magic sauna belt (now, how could they possibly tell?).

This is irritating enough when I am in the country. But it drives me insane when I am abroad and end up having to pay several thousand rupees for the privilege of receiving offers I have expressed no interest in and will never ever take up.

The same goes with email. I can understand being inundated by nonsensical mails on the email id given below this column, because honestly, what else do you expect if you offer yourself up like the proverbial sacrificial lamb for slaughter by spam? But, more mystifyingly, my private email id which is shared only with friends and family, is also routinely clogged with importune messages from people I don’t know and organisations that I have never heard of.

I don’t know about you, but I find it incredibly annoying when my privacy is breached in this manner. Is it too much to expect that your phone number and email id be kept private by your service providers? Isn’t confidentiality part of the deal when you sign up with a phone company or an email service?

Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you? But within days of signing up, your information mysteriously leaks out into the public domain – and from then on, it’s only a matter of time before you’re spammed into submission.

Clearly, having even a reasonable expectation of privacy as you go about your life is asking for too much in this hyper-connected world. There is nothing that a dogged telemarketer – or a determined stalker – cannot discover about you in the digital universe.

Mobile numbers and email ids are small change in this world and finding out your address mere child’s play. Your credit card details are no longer out of bounds. Information about your purchase decisions is bought and sold by large corporations. What you wear, where you holiday, what you eat, how you relax, what you read, your choice in music – it’s all out there, waiting to be discovered by various interested parties.

So, given that so much of our lives inadvertently end up being lived out in the public domain, is it even possible to lay claim to a private life any longer? Well, I am old-fashioned enough to hold out for privacy but it seems to be an endangered concept – an idea that is rapidly vanishing under the concerted assault of social media and aggressive marketing.

But then, how could the concept of a life lived privately survive when all of us are complicit in invading our own privacy? I have become used to be being laughed at – good-naturedly, but still – by friends because I don’t post my vacation photo albums on Facebook or Twitpic my latest culinary adventure on to my Twitter page.

Why, they ask, am I not willing to share my experiences with the world? Why this pathological insistence on keeping my private life private? What harm can a few pictures possibly do? Why am I so secretive? What is there to hide?

Frankly, I can think of no better route to mind-numbing boredom that being forced to view pictures of other people’s holidays/weddings/children/pets, so I wouldn’t dream of inflicting my own personal albums on an already-suffering world. But more than that, I have a peculiar horror of sharing my private moments with people on a public forum; making my personal life public property, as it were, by posting it on the Internet. And yes, there a difference between ‘secret’ and ‘private’ – as anyone above the age of 18 should know.

But from what I see around me, I seem to be part of a minuscule minority. The overwhelming majority is made up of people who see nothing amiss in sharing every moment of their lives – be they ever so banal. It’s almost as if they don’t believe that any event has truly occurred until it has been shared with the world via the internet – and someone has pressed the ‘like’ button or posted a comment.

Take a look at your own Facebook page or Twitter feed and you’ll see what I mean. You will be inundated with stuff you never needed – or wanted – to know. Your old school-mate’s child has had a fall in the schoolyard (‘poor baby’); your cousin in America is ‘partying hard’ in Las Vegas (don’t forget to click on that ‘like’ button); your former colleague has landed a dream job (grrr...); well, you get the drift.

Why do people post such a great detail of personal information in the public domain? I guess it’s comes down to a combination of a number of factors: a honest desire to share; a propensity to show-off; a certain degree of self-aggrandisement; sheer vanity; or just plain gormlessness.

But it certainly seems as if people want validation for every moment of their lives – and they can only get that by sharing every detail of their routines online.

In such a world, what price privacy? No, you can’t buy it for love or money. And, if you ask me, more’s the pity.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pink or blue

A new test makes it possible to tell the sex of foetus at seven weeks – but should we be using it?

All of us in India are familiar with those signs that hang in ultrasound clinics and hospitals and warn expectant parents that it is illegal to enquire about the sex of their baby. Sex determination – either through ultrasound or amniocentesis – is illegal in India, where the practice of female foeticide is endemic.

But clearly, many people manage to get around this little legal hurdle, or else the male:female ratio in so many areas of our country would not be so skewed. Some of them go to fly-by-night operators who have no ethical problems with telling them the sex of the baby; or organising an abortion if it’s a baby girl that’s gestating in Mummy’s tummy. Some go to otherwise reputable clinics that use code words to convey the sex: Jai Mata Di if it’s a girl and Jai Shri Ram if it’s a boy, according to one account. And yet others have a ‘family doctor’ or a doctor in the family who can tell them whether it’s ‘pink’ or ‘blue’.

Whatever the methods adopted, the end is invariably the same. The female foetus is aborted. Sometimes this happens in the second or third pregnancy, when the parents are desperate for a boy to ‘complete’ their family. And on occasion, it even happens in the first pregnancy with families who don’t want to be ‘burdened’ with a girl child. And shockingly, this kind of sex selection takes place even among educated, middle-class or even upper-class families who really should know better.

Well, these people are in luck because a new medical test now makes sex determination even easier. A test has been developed which can tell you the sex of the foetus with about 95 per cent accuracy at seven weeks. A blood sample of the expectant mother is taken at the time and tested for the presence of the Y chromosome. If it is present the baby is a boy. If it isn’t then the baby is probably a girl (though it could also mean that there was no fetal DNA in the sample).

In the West, this test is used when there is a danger of a gender-specific disease being passed on the baby. For instance, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy only affects boys, so a girl foetus would not be at risk and further intrusive testing is not required. But tellingly, some companies refuse to sell this test in India and China for fear that it will be misused in countries where there is a strong cultural preference for a boy.

I have no doubt that were this test readily available in India more people would end up aborting female foetuses rather than end up being ‘stuck’ with a daughter. In the view of people like these, a daughter is nothing more than an endless strain on their resources. You first spend money bringing her up, educating her, making her presentable enough to make a good marriage – at which point you have to liquidate all your savings to give her a grand wedding and a spectacular dowry. It’s a mug’s game, isn’t it?

How much better to have a son, who will repay the investment you make on his education by supporting you in your old age? Not to mention, the nice, big dowry he will score when he finally gets married – and brings a girl into your home to play general drudge, baby-making machine, and additional source of income all rolled into one.

Well, that’s the theory, at least. It’s another matter that these days it is difficult to find a bride in such communities because, by some remarkable twist of fate, everyone just has sons in the family. And that many of these sons have little time or money – or even the inclination – to support aged parents either financially or emotionally.

Which brings me to my question for today: should we allow Indians to use this test to determine the sex of the foetus, given that anyone who asks for such a test would likely abort a girl child at the earliest?

Well, at the risk of sounding heartless and incurring the wrath of many, I have to admit that my answer to that question is, tragically, yes. Before the brickbats start in earnest, perhaps I should explain why I feel this way.

Let’s assume for a moment that you deny such sex-determination tests to expectant parents, thus ensuring that they had daughters whether they liked them or not. What kind of a life do you suppose this little girl would have to look forward to, with parents who would have gladly killed her in the womb?

Do you think she will loved and cherished? I think not. Do you believe that she will be valued for herself? No, she will probably be reminded at every turn that she is not that longed-for son. Will she be raised with every advantage that money can buy? On the contrary, every expense incurred on her account will be grudged.

Will she be resented as an extra drag on the family’s resources? You bet she will. Will she be mistreated and regarded as a burden? Without a doubt. Will her parents make it clear that they wish she’d never been born? All the time.

Now why would you wish that kind of life on anyone? I know I wouldn’t. What I would wish for is a cultural change in our society so that we value all children, regardless of gender, equally. And I wish that change comes about sooner rather than later.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Leave the kids alone

We need to take a long, hard look at the overtly sexualised depiction of children in popular culture

What would you say if you saw a fashion magazine spread featuring a young model, draped in a low-cut dress, wearing sky-high heels, posed provocatively on a couch, all sexy red pout and tumbling blonde hair? Nothing much I daresay, given that this is pretty much par for the course.

Except that, in this case, the model in question is ten years old.

Yes, that’s right. Thylane Blondeau, the daughter of a former French footballer and an actress-TV presenter mother, who was featured in the pages of French Vogue – guest-edited by Tom Ford – is all of ten. And yet, there she was, posed like a sex symbol, a latter-day Lolita, in images that would look appropriate only if she was a decade older.

I’m not sure what the editors at French Vogue were thinking of when they shot that photo-feature or whether they anticipated the furore that resulted from their publication, but I have to admit that I find the pictures distasteful, even disturbing. Yes, we know that fashion is all about pushing the boundaries of good taste, but sexualising a ten year old should surely be beyond the pale.

And sure enough, the images have been roundly condemned by everyone from child psychologists to concerned parents, and in response to the controversy, Thylane’s mother has taken down a Facebook page dedicated to her daughter.

But while this is an extreme case, the sexualisation of young children continues apace all around us; and nobody seems to notice, or even care very much. Go into a store and look at the kind of clothes that are being sold for eight to 14 year olds. Some of them are just as provocative and overtly sexual as those sold to young adults.

What’s worse is that so many parents don’t seem to realise that they are complicit in the sexualisation of their kids when they dress them up in these faux-adult clothes. I was startled the other day to see a five year old wearing a T-shirt that said “I’m too sexy for my shirt...” with the word SEXY spelt out in lurid pink sequins. Her young mother thought that this was hysterical and couldn’t understand why I would have a problem with that.

But then, we seem to have a sensitivity chip missing when it comes to the depiction of children in popular culture. Tune into one of those dance competition-type shows that are targeted at kids and you’ll know just what I mean. Almost every girl who performs on these shows is just as provocatively dressed and heavily made-up as Thylane Blondeau was in the pages of Vogue. But instead of lying supine on a couch or pouting dreamily into the camera – which is all Thylane was required to do on the pages of Vogue – these girls are performing to Hindi film numbers, with much pumping of the pelvis or thrusting of (non-existent) breasts. And when they finish, the judges commend them on their ‘sexy’ moves and their ‘sensuality’.

No, I’m not kidding. These are terms that I have heard otherwise sensible adults use to describe the dancing style of children on such shows, with nobody as much as batting an eyelid at the inappropriateness of it all. In fact, far from objecting, year after year we continue to dress up our children and present them as objects of desire for every pervert and paedophile who cares to tune in to these shows.

In a sense, I guess, this is the fall-out of our far-more-relaxed attitude to childhood, as compared to the West where parents are so protective that they turn near-paranoid when it comes to their kids.

In India, for better or worse, we treat children almost as communal property. If you find yourself in close proximity with a baby in a lift or an aeroplane, you think nothing of making silly gurgling noises and trying to grab its attention. If a child wanders up to you in a restaurant you say a friendly hello and exchange indulgent smiles with the parents. In fact, complete strangers can come up and coo over our children, pinch their cheeks, say how cute they are, and we are just gratified for the attention. We really do believe that because we find our kids so adorable, it’s only to be expected that others would find them irresistible too. And this belief often blinds us to the fact that this ‘attraction’ may sometimes put our kids in danger.

I am by no means suggesting that we should become as uptight as the West, where every adult who comes in contact with a child is treated as potential paedophile unless proved otherwise. We don’t need to go to the other extreme where even parents are forbidden from taking pictures and videos of their kids at school concerts and games for fear that the images may fall into the hands of predators. I know I would hate to live in a society where teachers are scared to comfort their students by putting an arm around their shoulders for fear of contravening some ‘health and safety’ rule. (Or where you can’t coo over a baby unless you’re on first-name terms with the mother.)

So while, on the whole, I’m not in favour of banning books, movies or TV programmes, given the overtly sexualised way children are depicted in some of these so-called ‘dance’ or ‘talent’ shows, I think there is a case for taking a long hard look at how our kids are depicted in popular culture.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Better late than...

In India, time is an elastic concept – get used to it

Last Saturday, on the eve of Delhi’s Slut Walk, I was invited to participate in a BBC Radio programme to discuss the issue with one of the organisers (who shall remain nameless for reasons that will rapidly become clear). So, I duly turned up at the studio at the appointed hour to meet the thoroughly charming Akanksha Saxena, a researcher for the BBC, who was going to coordinate the chat between Delhi and London.

She led me to the studio, sat me down, explained the process, and then we settled down to wait for the other guest to arrive. Ten minutes passed. Another five went by. The producer from London called up to ask what was wrong. We are still waiting for the second guest he was told.

Another five minutes ticked past. Akanksha finally called the lady in question on her mobile. “Oh, I’m just five minutes away,” she announced airily.

So, we waited. Another ten minutes ticked past. London called again, the producer sounding abjectly apologetic about making me wait. Another call was made to the lady. Mysteriously, she was still five minutes away.

And then, a good 48 minutes after the appointed time the Slut Walk organiser finally walked into the studio and the discussion began. It lasted about 20 minutes, which was less than half the time that we had been kept waiting.

But what struck me most after the event was not the discourtesy inherent in making so many people wait while you casually saunter in nearly an hour late. What made more of an impact on me was how resigned and philosophical Akanksha and I were about the delay as compared to the two Englishmen on the other end of the line in London. They were absolutely mortified about the fact that one of their guests was cooling her heels in the studio and couldn’t stop apologising. But as Indians, we regarded this sort of behaviour as pretty much par for the course (though that’s not to say that Akanksha didn’t apologise as well!).

But that’s the honest truth isn’t it? Time-keeping isn’t something that we take at all seriously in this country. Everybody regards an appointment as an approximation and turns up pretty much when they feel like it. And no matter what, if you call up to ask how long they will be, the answer invariably is, “Oh, I’m just five minutes away.”

This somewhat cavalier attitude to time is apparent in other areas as well. Try and get some repair work done in your home. The contractor will assure you it will take two days at the most. Two weeks later, the workers will still be driving you insane with the noise they make. Order a new piece of furniture in a store. The salesman will assure it will take two weeks tops to deliver. Of course it will be two months before it actually arrives at your door-step. Call in the electrician/plumber to deal with some crisis. They will assure you they will be there in the next 10 minutes. Consider yourself lucky if they turn up even three hours later.

There is a word for this sort of behaviour. In most civilised societies it would be called lying. But we brush it aside as just one of those things – even standard business practice. After all, you’re not actually supposed to take somebody seriously when it comes to time – by now you should know that in India it is more an elastic concept than an absolute measurement.

Perhaps that accounts for the fact that people you know only professionally think nothing of calling up on your mobile at 10 pm to extend an invitation to a dinner or ask you to attend a fashion show or a book event. And when you don’t take the call, they call again and again and again – until you’re forced into putting the damn thing off just to get rid of them.

Turn the phone on again in the morning and you’ll find that you have a dozen missed calls from them, between the hours of 11 pm and midnight and 7-9 am. Task them with being rude and intrusive and they will act as if you’re the one who’s lost it. After all, what does it matter what time they call; you’re still awake right? Then why can’t you take the call?

This sort of elemental discourtesy and disregard of time extends well into our social lives as well. I defy you to organise a sit-down dinner in India and actually have people sit down to dinner at the appointed time. When you finally corral them into a restricted space, confiscate their drinks, and physically guide them to their chairs a good hour or two later, 20 per cent of them will remember they have another engagement and decamp, another 20 per cent will announce that they can only stay for the first course, and another 10 per cent will simply get up and leave before dessert can be served on the grounds that they’ve stuck around long enough.

And then, there’s the other extreme. You arrive at a dinner party at what you consider to be a reasonable time (i.e. an hour after the time specified on the card) only to find that you’re one of the first people to turn up. Slowly the other guests will trickle in, get stuck into their liquor and canap├ęs, and dinner won’t laid out till well after midnight – by which time you’re longing for bed rather than biryani.

As I said, time is an elastic concept in these parts – get used to it.