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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The world is fat

The truth is that we all struggle with our weight, one time or another

How do you react when someone you meet after a long time tells you, “Wow, you’ve lost a lot of weight!” Do you gobble up the compliment as if it were a piece of cake and respond with a graceful “Thank you”? Or do you stick on a fake smile as you wonder silently about just how fat you were to begin with?

I have to confess that I find myself squarely in the second category. The moment someone asks, “You’ve lost some weight, haven’t you?” I find myself cringing inwardly about just how overweight I must have looked before. And it doesn’t help that the scales have told me that morning that I am exactly the same weight I was a month ago. The compliments are probably down to clever tailoring or the brilliant use of black as a camouflaging agent rather than any real loss of weight.

Ah, weight! It’s been the bane of my existence for too long now.

Which is rather ironic considering that I was a wiry child, a thin teenager and a slim young adult – all of it managed without the slightest bit of effort. Growing up in a Punjabi household meant that my day began with paranthas soaked in ghee, the packed school lunch was white-bread sandwiches slathered with butter and jam, evening snacks were pakoras or samosas, and dinner meant copious quantities of rice and curry, with potato chips to provide texture.

The motto of our home kitchen was: when in doubt, deep-fry. And yet, despite a diet that seemed to consist entirely of trans-fats – and no exercise whatsoever – I never put on even a scintilla of weight.

And then, suddenly, it all changed. I turned 30 and it was as if the switch to my metabolism was turned off as well. Now, every parantha found its way to the extra tyre rapidly building up around my waist, every samosa settled down comfortably on my hips, even as the white butter and cream went straight to my thickening upper arms.

Ever since then, it’s been a slippery slope down the road to porkiness. And it’s not as if I haven’t tried every trick in the book to get back the slim, lissom self of my twenties. I’ve pounded the treadmill, rocked the cross-trainer, signed up for Pilates, tried my hand at yoga, hired a personal trainer. I’ve joined slimming centres, gone to personal dieticians, tried every fad diet in the world in the world and then some.

Sure, the weight goes off – though, with every passing year, it takes longer and longer to melt away. And then, once I get off the diet or slack off on the exercise, it comes creeping back on until I’m right back where I started.

Given how the diet industry is flourishing and getting bigger every day (ironic or what?) I’m guessing that this is probably how it is for every woman – and most men – who are on the wrong side of 35. We go on a diet, we lose weight, we lose our minds, we go off the diets, we put on weight...and thus the vicious cycle goes on and on.

Sounds familiar? I bet it does. We’ve all been there, done that, and have the stretch marks to prove it. Kalli Purie, however, has done one better. She has written what she calls a ‘weight-loss memoir’ to chronicle her path to skinniness. In her new book, Confessions Of A Serial Dieter, she recounts the 43 diets and workouts that took her from 100 kilos to 60.

I have to confess that I’m not really one for diet books. I invariably end up resenting the po-faced advice that dieticians keep dishing out in their best holier-than-thou manner. Especially since it’s so clear that not one of them has had a decent meal in years – or even has the slightest interest in good food. Not to mention the fact that they’ve never been fat themselves – and so couldn’t possibly know what it feels like.

Kalli is nothing like that. She is very much a regular woman – a wife, a mother, a professional – who loves her dark chocolate and her rajma-chawal. She has struggled over the years to control her appetites just like you and me. She’s failed sometimes. And sometimes she has succeeded. And she feels no shame in sharing both these narratives with her readers.

There is a certain searing honesty in Kalli’s account of her journey to her fattest self and the struggle to find the skinny girl inside her. It takes courage to admit to your own vulnerability – and how heavy you really were. But Kalli has done just that, allowing us to accompany her on what is as much an emotional journey as it is a weight-loss plan. She comfort eats; she binges; she purges; she works-out like a maniac; she fall off the exercise wagon. She is full of self-loathing one moment; and on an endorphin high the next.

Yes we’ve all been there; but some of us have come through on to the other side. And for that alone, the story is worth telling. Try chewing on it instead the next time you find yourself reaching for the jar of cookies.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Days!

Whether it’s Christmas, Diwali or Id, there’s nothing we Indians love more than a good festival

Unlike most people who grew up in Calcutta and then moved away, I am not overly nostalgic about the city. I don’t pine for Bengali culture or Bengali music. I don’t reminisce fondly about the late, lamented Sky Room (a landmark city restaurant in its time). I don’t hanker after the baked beans of Flury’s or the jhaal muri outside Lighthouse cinema (though I sometimes dream about the puchhkas!). I don’t long for the lawns of Tolly Club. I don’t miss the delights of New Market. And I certainly don’t gaze back on my Calcutta days through a fug of rose-tinted nostalgia.

Except on one day of the year: Christmas. Or as we Cal types call it, Bada Din, or quite literally, Big Day.

That’s the only time I get a bit nostalgic about my Calcutta days. Growing up, Christmas was a huge deal. The excitement would start building up weeks in advance, reaching a crescendo when the festive lights on Park Street were turned on. Christmas trees would crop up in the unlikeliest of locations. There would be a sudden flurry of shopping as everyone stocked up on presents. The city’s clubs would vie with one another to host the most spectacular Xmas Eve party. The more devout among us would head to St Paul’s Cathedral for the midnight mass.

Christmas Day would be reserved for picnics to make the most of the short-lived Calcutta winter. I, for one, still have vivid memories of Bada Din family picnics in the Botanical Gardens, with almost the entire neighbourhood in attendance. Meals would be cooked in the open, the kids would dance along to loud music or play raucous games while the adults amused themselves with a pack of cards while keeping a wary eye on their children.

It didn’t really matter what religion we belonged to or what God we worshipped. When it came to Christmas, we were all believers – and celebrants.

As the saying goes, what Calcutta did yesterday, India will do tomorrow. And sure enough, over the years, Christmas has become a huge deal in the rest of the country as well. Our children believe in Santa Claus as fervently as those in the West. Mistletoe and ornament-laden Christmas trees sprout up all over our public spaces as well. We plan special parties on Xmas eve. We enjoy the day off on Christmas with our families and friends.

Of course, the cynics among us will say that it’s just that we Indians love nothing more than a good old festival. And Christmas, with its message of good cheer, its gleaming fairy lights and its lilting carols, fits the bill exactly. It’s a festival after our own hearts, with its emphasis on family, friends and feasting. Rum-laden fruit cakes, stuffed turkey with cranberry sauce, eggnog, mulled wine – who could possibly resist?

But I think there’s more to the way we have made Christmas our own. If you ask me, this ‘secularisation’ of Christmas is, in a sense, a triumph of Indian secularism itself.

As someone who spent her entire childhood in convent school, I grew up with a sense that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary were just two more idols to add to the Hindu pantheon that I worshipped at home. Before every major exam, most of us would slip quietly into the chapel to have a quick word with God. It didn’t really matter if it was Mother Mary of Ma Durga we prayed to. Even as kids, we knew instinctively, that God was one even if She was called by many names.

And it is in this spirit that we in India take to celebrating each other’s festivals with as much gusto as we would our own.

The most obvious examples are Diwali and Id. Both have religious significance for Hindus and Muslims respectively. But the celebrations that mark them cut across religious lines effortlessly. Diwali parties are not all-Hindu affairs, just as Iftar gatherings and Id dinners are attended by people of all religions.

Hindus may mark Diwali with a special puja to Goddess Lakshmi, but there are many Christian and Muslims families who will light up their homes and burst crackers with as much fervour. Practising Muslims may celebrate Id with prayers in the mosque and exchanging idi gifts with family and friends. But their Hindu, Sikh and Christian friends will join in by cadging invitations to homes where they are guaranteed the best biryani and seviyaan.

And so it is with Christmas. Christians may mark it with a midnight mass or a early morning service on Christmas day, but the rest of us will celebrate the spirit of the day in our own way.

And that, if you ask me, is the greatest triumph of our syncretic Indian culture: that our festivals retain their religious significance even as they are celebrated across religious lines. Contrast this with the West where political correctness now dictates that you should say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’’ for fear of giving offence to some minority or religious group.

Strange, isn’t it? Especially when in secular India we have no problem in wishing one another Shubh Diwali or Id Mubarak. And in keeping with that spirit, here’s wishing all of you a Merry Christmas. Enjoy the Big Day!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Delhi Vs Mumbai

Wait! Why not just celebrate what’s best in each city?

Have you noticed how any conversation about how much you love living in Delhi or working in Mumbai invariably degenerates into a Delhi vs Mumbai slanging match. The Delhi folks turn their noses up at the dirt and slush of Mumbai (seriously, what is that smell?). The Mumbai loyalists hold forth on how Delhi has no heart and no time for those with no money or power. Team Delhi sneers about how Mumbai is routinely held to ransom by the Marathi manoos brigade. Team Mumbai scoffs at how Delhi judges you by where you live and what car you drive. Delhi points at the south Bombay snobs and giggles. Mumbai tosses its head and says that at least women are safe in their city (unlike Delhi, which is the rape capital of the country). And thus it goes.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been inveigled into such conversations (okay, fights, if you insist) despite trying my best to stay out of this my-city-is-better-than-yours debate. But last week, as Delhi celebrated 100 years of being declared the capital of India, I found myself being sucked into that very maelstrom. Tweeting about what I loved about the city with the hashtag #ilovedelhi, I found myself floundering in a sea of Mumbai vs Delhi-type responses.

It didn’t matter that I wasn’t tweeting about Mumbai at all but merely detailing what I loved about Delhi. I still got jumped on by Team Mumbai, who insisted on telling me why their city was so much superior. Then Team Delhi got into the act to thumb their noses at Mumbai. And soon a full-scale war was in progress.

I withdrew from the fray, battered by the negativity and a bit bemused by all the angst. Honestly, is it really necessary to knock one city if you want to praise another? Does loving Delhi mean that you must hate Mumbai – and vice versa? I really don’t see why this should be so.

So, here’s a novel idea for all you Delhiites and Mumbaikars to try this week. Instead of running each other down let’s try and celebrate what is best about both cities. Just for a change, let’s list what we like about each other’s city instead of just focusing on what we despise.

Having spent time in both Delhi and Mumbai, I thought I would have a bash at that as well. So, here’s my own list of what I love about both Delhi and Mumbai. Read on, and then do get working on yours.

1) Delhi: The seasons. That’s probably the best part of living in the capital. You may sweat and fume and collapse in a puddle during the relentless summer but there’s always the absolutely fabulous winter to look forward to. The days get shorter, the mornings get foggier, the nights get downright chilly. But even as the sweaters and coats are pulled out of mothballs, the parks turn into a riot of colours, the picnic baskets come out of storage, and all of Delhi is out over the weekend basking in the mellow sunshine. What’s not to love?

Mumbai: The sea. However cramped and claustrophobic your apartment may be, the moment you drive by the seaside and watch the horizon expand before you, it is easy to understand why Mumbai is described as a city of endless possibilities. Walk on to the beach, let the water tickle your feet. Jog along the waterline if you’re feeling energetic. Or simply sit on the parapet at Marine Drive and let the rhythm of the waves take you over. Bliss.

2) Delhi: The food. No matter what your taste-buds crave, you can always find it in Delhi. Trawl the lanes of old Delhi for the best kebabs and kormas. Sample the wares of the delightfully-named Paranthewalli Gali. Try the chaat and gol-guppas at Bengali Market. Scoff down momos at Dilli Haat. Work your way through all the many cafes in Khan Market, eating everything from Thai to Chinese to Italian food. And if you’re in the mood to spend, then treat yourself to the biryani and raan at Dum Pukht or a slap-up meal at Set’z.

Mumbai: The food. My personal favourite is Gajalee, where the fattest crabs lay down their lives so that we can have a great meal, though others swear by Trishna. Try the chaat at Swati, the vada-pao at Jumbo or just sample the wares at the many street food stalls on Juhu beach or Chowpatty. Have afternoon tea with bhel at the Taj’s Sea Lounge when you feel like treating yourself. Chill out at Olive or Indigo Deli. Feast on biryani at Zaffran’s and then stop by at Haji Ali for a tall glass of refreshing juice.

3) And then, there are the people. Don’t fall for all the nonsense about how Delhi people are cold and heartless. Or about how Mumbaikars are too busy to make time for a social life. At the end of the day, people are just people no matter which city they live in. And while every city has its share of misanthropes, you will always find like-minded people if you open your hearts to them. I did – and what do you know? Both Delhi and Mumbai opened their hearts to me as well.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Beauty and brains

The sex symbols of our age don’t just rely on their bodies; they use their heads as well

By now, all of you reading this column will probably have seen Dirty Picture. And whatever your views on the merits of the movie itself, you will agree that Vidya Balan was outstanding in her portrayal of a south Indian sex symbol who may or may not (for legal reasons) be Silk Smitha but is called Silk in the movie.

I have to confess that I haven’t seen the movie as yet but I did watch Vidya Balan captivate the audience at the recent Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. And the one phrase among the many witty one-liners she cracked has stayed with me. Talking about Silk and whether it was easy to identify with such a character, Balan confessed that what had really annoyed her at times was the fact that Silk was really only about her body. That she didn’t seem to use her head at all. And that, said Balan, made no sense to her. As Balan famously declared at the Summit, she liked to ‘celebrate and enjoy her body’ – but she always used her head as well.

If you ask me, that one phrase encapsulates the difference between the sex symbols of previous generations and the sex symbols worshipped by our own. Unlike the femme fatales of yore, who were all about the body, the sex symbols of our times use their brains as well.

Perhaps the difference is best explained using the example of Silk Smitha herself and contrasting her with a latter-day equivalent like, say, Mallika Sherawat or even Rakhi Sawant.

Silk Smitha may have been the break-out star of her generation, she may have sold a movie on the basis of her name alone, she may have made more money than she ever dreamt of, she may have been desired by millions. But for all her fame and her success, in the ultimate analysis she was a victim. She was exploited by the men close to her, she seemed to have no control over her own destiny, and in the end, she was in such despair that she took her own life.

In many ways, her life mirrored that of the greatest sex symbol of them all: Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn too was the biggest box-office draw of her time, her name sold a million movie tickets, and every red-blooded man in the world was in lust with her. But despite the power she exerted over men – including the most powerful of them, John F Kennedy, then President of the United States – Marilyn seemed strangely powerless when it came to staying in charge of her own life. She drifted from one disastrous relationship to another, sought comfort in drink and drugs, and in the end, when nothing seemed to work to numb the pain, she killed herself (or was killed by the Kennedys because she was An Inconvenient Woman, if you believe the conspiracy theorists).

Now take a look at the life of Madonna, who modelled herself on Monroe during her Peroxide Period. Even though she had launched herself as a singer before branching off into acting, it was sex that Madonna used to sell herself to the audiences. Her stage performances were more about raunch than rhythm ; she mimed masturbation on stage; wore outfits that left little to the imagination; hell, she even produced a book of soft-porn images of herself, titled Sex which rapidly became a best-seller.

But in all this, there was only one person in charge: Madonna herself. She had absolute control over her career, she decided just how titillating each stage show be, she decided which movies to sign, and she personally cleared every sexually-charged image of hers before it went out to the public. And every dollar that the Madonna machine earned went to Madonna herself.

Today, Madonna may be on the wrong side of 50 – though you wouldn’t think so to look at her – but she remains one of the wealthiest entertainers in show-business and firmly in charge of her own fortune which has only multiplied over the years. If you’re looking for a contrast to the image of sad victimhood that Marilyn Monroe projected in her last years, it really doesn’t get better than this.

In India, too, there are several contrasts to the Silk Smitha stereotype in our entertainment industry. First up is Mallika Sherawat, who has founded an entire career on her breast implants and the ability to churn out shocking quotes about sex on demand. She knows that all she has to offer is an in-your-face sexuality, but boy, does she make it work for her! The same goes for her small-screen equivalent, Rakhi Sawant, who has become a reality television superstar because she goes boldly where no TV starlet has ever gone before.

But while Mallika and Rakhi are really fringe players at best, even mainstream Bollywood heroines have taken control of their sex symbol tag and run with it. Take Bipasha, for instance, who made her debut in Jism and then went on to excel at what Hindi cinema euphemistically dubs ‘bold’ roles. Or Priyanka and Deepika, who see no shame in making the most of their sex appeal. And then, of course, there’s Balan herself, who has no problems ‘celebrating’ and ‘enjoying’ her body.

But unlike the sex symbols of the past, who never really seemed in control, these women are in charge of their own lives. And tellingly, it’s not their bodies that define them, but their body of work.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wear your attitude

What we wear has a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves – and what others feel about us

Of all the charities that I have read about recently, there’s one that really captured my imagination. It’s called Dress for Success and its patron saint is my favourite comedienne, Jennifer Saunders (best-known for having written and played Edina in Absolutely Fabulous). The objective of this charity is simple: it helps women who have been out of work for a long time – and thus don’t have the appropriate wardrobe for a job interview, or the money to buy one – get back into employment by finding them the right outfits for their job interviews.

These outfits are donated by various companies and individuals as well as by several clothing brands, and women volunteers – including the British PM’s wife, Samantha Cameron, who often makes an incognito appearance – help their unemployed sisters to Dress for Success by choosing the right clothes for them and coaching them on interview techniques to build up their confidence before they hit the job market.

It probably doesn’t sound like much, and yet this simple mantra of dressing right for an interview and thus landing a job has transformed the lives of thousands of women. Just the act of putting on a business-like outfit, a neat pair of shoes, and a smart handbag boosts the confidence level of these women who have, over the years, come to think of themselves as worthless. They walk into their next job interview feeling more in control, more focused, and yes, more confident. And that new outlook often spells the difference between success and failure, between unemployment and a thriving career, between hopelessness and a bright and gleaming future.

And it all begins with the right outfit. Because, when you think about it, how we dress has a huge impact on how we feel about ourselves – and how other people feel about us.

If you spend all day at home schlepping around in a track-suit or a shapeless caftan, the odds are that you will feel lazy and sloppy. Dress up in a smart trouser-suit or put on a pair of high heels and you immediately feel ready to take on the world. Sometimes just putting on a slash of lipstick can lift your spirits on a gloomy morning. A bad-hair day can sink our spirits just as a brand new pair of shoes can put the spring back in our step.

Shallow? Perhaps. True? Undoubtedly.

But it’s not just about how you feel about yourself. People also judge you by the way you look, and that invariably boils down to what you are wearing.

Walk into a meeting with your shirt half-hanging out of your waistband and a suspicious stain on your tie (and no, it doesn’t matter if it materialised mysteriously a couple of minutes before your appointment) and you will be condemned as sloppy before you can even open your mouth. Dirty shoes will completely ruin the impression you’ve made with an immaculate suit. And don’t even bother putting on your make-up if your nails still look grubby.

Don’t wear trousers so low-slung that you show off your underwear when you bend down to pick up an errant pen (and that means you too, boys!). And don’t undo the third button on that shirt unless you are actively looking for the ‘sex symbol’ tag.

Yes, despite all that elevated nonsense about never going by appearances, we make snap judgements about the people we meet every day. And those judgements are invariably based on what they are wearing.

How many times have you passed a woman wearing an ikat sari, an over-sized red bindi, kohlapuri chappals and carrying a cloth bag – or a man in a colourful FabIndia-style kurta and an week’s growth of stubble – and thought to yourself ‘ah, NGO-type’? In fact, the look has even pawned its own description: ‘jholawallah’ after the cloth bag all these ‘NGO types’ carry.

Nothing says ‘sales rep’ as much as a short-sleeved shirt worn with tie (but no jacket). Traders can generally be recognised by their safari-suits and large gold rings. A white kurta with a dark waistcoat has become the hallmark of a politician. And unfortunately, in our lexicon, a short skirt or a skimpy dress still translates into ‘slut’.

But, how we dress goes even deeper than that. In a sense, every profession has its own ‘uniform’ as it were, an easily recognisable way of identifying someone as part of a ‘tribe’.

Those in the fashion industry take particular pride in dressing in an eccentric manner, wearing wildly-mismatched colours, avant-garde designs, and completely outrageous accessories. Journalists try to display their nonchalant, devil-may-care attitude by wearing dirty jeans and crumpled T-shirts everywhere. Anyone with a starchy, neatly pinned-up sari, and no-nonsense flats is in all probability a teacher. And if you see a man wearing an impeccably-tailored suit with a suitably sober tie even in the height of summer, the poor sod is probably middle-management in an MNC.

But quite apart from the messages people get from our clothes, how we dress is also a powerful way of projecting the image we want to convey to the world. We put on a colourful scarf when we want to project our playful side. We wear our highest heels when we want to feel sexy and powerful. We carry an expensive handbag to show that we have made it.

Yes, what we wear says a lot about who we are – but it also says a lot about how we would like to be perceived.