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

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Zero tolerance

Put away a man who gropes a woman; and the odds are he won’t grow up to be a rapist

By the time you read this, I am sure you will know all the details about the Sanjay Nirupam-Smriti Irani controversy. But even so, what Nirupam said about Irani during a TV show bears repeating. And not the sanitised English-language translation of what he said, but his actual words. During a debate on the Gujarat election results, Nirupam dismissed Irani as someone who “kal tak toh paise ke liye TV pe thumke lagati thi” (till yesterday you used to dance on TV for money).

The sub-text was clear. As was the image that Nirupam was trying to conjure up: that of a nautch girl who is paid to dance for the amusement of men. How could such a woman expect to taken seriously in a discussion about electoral politics? She really should know her place.

But after the storm of condemnation that followed, there were many who asked just how seriously we should take this. After all, you can take the lout out of the Shiv Sena, but you can’t take the lout out of the man. And in a week when we are all grappling with the rage and sorrow evoked by the brutal gang rape of a young woman in a Delhi bus, did this throwaway comment merit so much attention?

Well, the short answer is: yes, it does.

Why? Because the fact that a woman member of Parliament can be belittled, demeaned, and dismissed as a ‘thumke lagane wali’ on national television shows just how deep sexism runs in our society. And it proves that no matter how high you rise in the world, no matter what you achieve, and no matter what the subject of the debate, at the end of the day, if you are a woman you will never be safe from being attacked by sexual innuendo.

Misogyny is so commonplace in our world that we have become inured to it. It starts in the family where husbands treat their wives as their property, where brothers regard their sisters as second-class citizens, where daughters are seen as liabilities, and all women are treated as beasts of burden.  

It manifests itself in our public places, where no woman is safe. She is leered at as she walks the streets. She is groped in buses and trains. She is sexually harassed at work. And if she finds herself in the wrong place at the wrong time, she is brutally gang-raped and left for dead.

But it all starts with the macho arrogance that Nirupam displayed so tellingly on television. And his contemptuously-curled lip as he spewed his vicious poison is an image that shows us just how terrible things are for women in our society. There may be a vast distance between the TV studio in which Sanjay Nirupam abused Smriti Irani and the Delhi bus in which the gang-rape survivor was so brutally assaulted.  But both are the result of the same mindset: which regards women with derision and views them as sex objects. The same rage that is expressed in contemptuous comments on TV debates also lies behind the innumerable instances of sexual violence against women that are reported every day.

As women, we are used to being treated this way. We are routinely whistled at, jeered, groped, pawed, and worse, as we negotiate our daily lives. And we are routinely told to ignore all this, not to make an issue of it. Move on, is the message we get. Don’t sweat the small stuff. How does it matter if someone calls you ‘achha maal’ on the road or brushes against your breast as you board a bus? There are bigger problems in life.

Yes, there are. But they all start from that one comment that we ignore; that one whistle that we pretend not to hear; that one hand groping our bottom as we walk along a crowded street.

It all starts with this belief that women are nothing more than bodies to be exploited and ends in the brutalisation of attitudes to women. And if we ignore those first stirrings of misogyny, the rage and violence escalates until it explodes in a vicious attack on a 23-year-old woman who boards a bus at 9.30 pm. The men who raped her didn’t see her as a human being. She was just a receptacle for these bestial desires. A disposable thing who could be abused and then dumped on the side of the road.

 Through my school and college years when I travelled by public transport I don’t remember a single day when I wasn’t sexually harassed in some way. (And this was in Calcutta, which is supposed to be safe for women.) Every time I challenged my harasser, there was one heart-stopping moment when I didn’t quite know how things would go: whether he would back away or escalate his attack. But it wasn’t bravery that propelled me, it was a visceral rage that anyone could dare to assume that he could violate my body and get away with it.

It is the same visceral rage that every woman feels when she is confronted by sexism or sexual violence. And it is that visceral rage that both Sanjay Nirupam and the Delhi rapists inspire within us.

So, let’s shame a man who makes sexist comments. Let’s have summary punishment for all those who harass women, either by word or by deed. Put away a man who gropes a woman and the odds are that he won’t grow up to be a rapist.

If we want to make the world safe for women, zero tolerance is the only way to go.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


Looking through a box of old pictures is sometimes the best way of bringing the past alive

In one my periodic fits of de-cluttering, I stumbled upon a box of old photographs tucked away at the back of my closet. I sat down to take a desultory look – and before I knew it, I was neck-deep in memories, and the clear-out plan had been postponed to another day.

There I was, in my Class II year-end picture, peering out suspiciously at the world from behind a mop of hair, perched safely three seats away from my class-teacher, Mrs Murray, always an object of terrified fascination. I can still remember her orange lipstick, a shade I have never since seen, and how her short legs dangled under the desk, never quite reaching the floor. But while most of the faces of my fellow-students look vaguely familiar, I am hard put to match names to more than four of them. 

Never mind, I tell myself, that was a long time ago. Maybe I’ll have better luck with my Class XI photograph. And sure enough, the recognition factor goes up significantly. There’s my class teacher Malti Puri, who taught me that history wasn’t only about mugging up dates of important battles but about stirring stories of flesh-and-blood characters who lived and breathed in her lessons – and for that I will always be grateful. (She also taught me that a sari could be sexy, as she dazzled us teenagers with her diaphanous chiffons worn with knotted blouses.)  And there are the giddy young girls I grew up with, scrubbed clean for the camera in their prim blue skirts and white blouses. Only three girls have been courageous enough to wear the sari uniform for the class photo, braving the inevitable ‘behenji’ jeers – but, sadly, I am not one of them.

Yes, old photographs have a way of effortlessly transporting us back to the past, dredging up memories that we had thought lost forever. But far more importantly, they also provide a window into a world long gone.

There’s an old black and white photo of mine, for instance, taken on a trip to Jammu when I was 11. It’s that mandatory shot that all tourists took in those days: wearing a pheran, a Kashmiri headscarf called the Kasaba, tied turban-like around the head and fixed in place with loads of costume jewellery, and gazing soulfully slightly off camera. But the picture, despite its undeniable corniness, resonates with me because I have only recently returned from Srinagar, where the Kasaba seem to have disappeared off the streets to be replaced by an Arab-style black hijab. And therein, as they say, lies a story...

But I am getting ahead of myself. My memory bank starts with a family portrait of my grandparents, seated on imposing armchairs, flanking my father (a teenager rigged out in his first three-piece suit, complete with a flower in the lapel, and looking absurdly proud), with a massive expanse of lawn spread out behind them, fringed with immensely tall trees. But while the men are decked out in Western suits and ties, my grandmother is wearing a seedha-palla sari with a full-sleeved blouse. Clearly, in keeping with the double standards of the time, the Goswami family’s embrace of modernity did not extend to the ladies.

And then, there’s the wedding portrait of my parents. My mother, all of 18, is lost in a voluminous salwar-kameez, head covered with a gota-bordered dupatta, weighed down with jewellery, almost trembling with nervous tension as she gazes apprehensively ahead. Her husband, whom she has never met before, is perched awkwardly on the arm of her chair, trying to look at ease, but failing spectacularly. They look like the strangers they are, pitchforked into matrimony by two sets of parents, and petrified of what lies before them.

I can’t help but contrast this with the wedding picture of my mother-in-law, which occupies pride of place on her bedside table. It was taken by her husband, on her wedding day. She is a strong and confident 31 year old, wearing a simple Patola sari and a big bindi, holding a bunch of flowers and grinning delightedly into the camera held by her husband, with whom she has eloped to marry in a simple Hindu ceremony in Paris. This is a woman in control of her destiny; a choice that was denied to my own mother. Which makes me all the more grateful that she brought up my sister and me to make our own way in the world.

It’s only because of that, that I now have a treasure trove of pictures to fill my memory box. Here I am on the slopes of Machhu Pichhu in Peru, part of President Narayanan’s press party, smiling gamely despite the asthma brought on the altitude. That’s me on the Wagah border, waiting for Prime Minister’s Vajpayee’s bus to trundle across. And then, there’s the photo I took of Aung San Suu Kyi on my first trip to Burma, perched on a step-ladder on the boundary of her bungalow, with thousands of her followers across the fence hanging on to every word.

The memories flash by, frame after frame, and with each one, I am grateful for the life I was granted.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Men are the new Women

They diet and work out to stay in shape; they use anti-ageing products; and yes, they love fashion

There was a time when the only people on special diets or with wide-ranging allergies (yeah, right!) as you sat down to eat at the table were the ladies. Some were ‘gluten-intolerant’ and could not eat either wheat or rice – or, in fact, pretty much anything else. Others were ‘lactose-intolerant’ and steered clear of anything which had even a whiff of dairy about it. There were those who were vegetarian or, in extreme cases, vegan. Others were on a high-protein diet. Some insisted they could not mix their carbohydrates with their proteins. And yet others stuck to soup because they could not eat solids after 7 pm. In fact, there seemed to be as many diet regimens (and, of course, allergies) as there were women on the table.

But now, men are muscling in on what was earlier a female preserve. These days, it is almost a given that the men will also be on some sort of special diet. Of course they take care to give it a suitable macho name to differentiate themselves from the ladies. But even if you call it a ‘caveman diet’ (what cavemen would eat, as in meat, fruit, etc., rather than the cereals that came with civilisation) or ‘dude food’ (the kind that the boys take so much pride in rustling up at a barbeque) there is no getting away from the fact that men are now intruding on what was once an exclusively female territory: fad diets.

Whereas earlier men restricted themselves to dreaming up whacky diet regimens for the ladies – meet Messrs Montignac, Atkins, Dukan – now the lads are also subjecting themselves to everything from deprivation to starvation to lose those pesky extra pounds.

Ditto, with the exercise regimes. There was a time when the only men you saw pounding away on the treadmill or pumping iron at the gym were putative models/actors who wanted to develop a body like Salman Khan or Hrithik Roshan. No longer. Now the middle-aged are also huffing and puffing through cardio workouts to get rid of their much-too-prosperous middles. They go for walks early morning, jog every evening, get personal trainers in to build up their physiques, and take as much pride in every pound lost as they do on every zero added to their bank accounts.

And if Pilates is on the plate, then can pedicures be far behind? Perish the thought. Beauty treatments are pretty much de rigueur for the men these days. They want their facials and face masks as much as the ladies. They too want their nails buffed to perfection with weekly manicures. And their bathroom shelves are heaving with as many face care products – exfoliating scrubs, moisturising creams, anti-ageing serums, revitalising night creams – as the women in their lives.

Fashion, too, is as much a preoccupation with men these days as it is with women. Gone are the days when they were happy to have a couple of suits in the wardrobe for office wear, and grimy jeans and sweatshirts for their days off. Now, they follow trends closely, keeping an eye out for the latest styles in tailoring.

It is not a coincidence that FTV shows as many men’s fashion shows on prime time as it does women’s collections. Or, that such magazines as GQ have found a ready niche in the marketplace, providing style tips for men who want to look trendy. International menswear brands like Canali and Armani are doing great business in India, even in the uber-expensive, made-to-measure segment. And designer jeans like Seven for Mankind and Diesel are selling as much to men as they are to women.

This new interest in fashion is not restricted to clothes either. Men have become as obsessed with shoes as women have been down the decades. Two pairs each of brown and black shoes will no longer do. Nor will one tatty pair of keds which can be pressed into duty at the family picnic. Now, the man of taste and style wants British brogues to go with his formals, Italian loafers for casual dressing, designer sneakers for the gym, patent leather to play dress up, open-toed sandals for the Indian summer. In short, he needs as many shoes as his wife (okay, I exaggerate, but only a little).

If you want to take a good look at just how much the unreconstructed man has changed, just get a load of the poster boy for the New Man: Shane Warne. Yes, good old Warnie. Remember him, the cheerfully podgy spinner on the Australian cricket team, with a weather-beaten complexion and straw-like hair that flopped down untidily every time he came in to bowl?

Well, if you do, you certainly won’t recognise him in his new incarnation. His forehead looks Botox-smooth, though he insists (as you do) that it is all down to his anti-wrinkle cream. His hair is subtly highlighted, conditioned to within an inch of its life, and perfectly styled to frame his suspiciously-taut face. His whitened teeth gleam maniacally as he gives a rictus-grin to the camera. And his toned abs and pert bum is shown off to perfection in his new designer togs.

Shane Warne, they tell us, is the New Man, for whom the term ‘metrosexual’ was minted. But if you ask me, he is representative of a new breed: Men who are the New Women.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Deja vu

If such American series as Dallas can be revived successfully, why can’t Hum Log and Buniyaad?

Growing up in a pre-satellite television era, my TV viewing was perforce restricted to the stuff that the handful of Indian channels deigned to show. Thus it was that all the excitement about Dallas and ‘Who shot J.R. Ewing?’ completely passed me by. I was much too enthralled by the catfights between Blake Carrington’s former and current wives, Alexis and Krystle (Joan Collins and Linda Evans), as they went at each other with their grotesquely-padded shoulders and seriously-big hair in Dynasty, to care very much about the adventures of another oil tycoon named Ewing.

Now that Dallas has been revived (though sadly, Larry Hagman, who played the legendary JR died after the first season of the sequel), I am trying to shore up my knowledge about the show that had the entire world enthralled during the late 70s, through the 80s, and the early 90s, just so that I can have all the characters straight in my head. But such are the twists and turns of the plots – the entire 9th season was just a dream of one of the characters? Are you kidding me? – that I have given up in despair.

The entire exercise did get me thinking, though. Given how many of the old British and American series have been revived of late – Upstairs Downstairs, Charlie’s Angels, (Beverly Hills) 90210, Hawaii Five-O – there is clearly a market for nostalgia in the world of television serials. So why is it that nobody in India has gotten around to making sequels of all those serials that we grew up on?

I know that there are some that I would love to see updated for the 21st century. First among them is, of course, the programme that set the ball rolling, as it were: Hum Log. When it started in 1984, the high spot of the TV-viewing week used to be the film song programme Chitrahaar. But from the first episode on, Hum Log became required viewing in almost every household in the country. We would watch enthralled as a middle-class family (where the daughters were endearingly referred to as ‘Badki’ ‘Majhli’ and ‘Chutki’) went about its everyday life, with all the highs and lows this entailed. And we stayed tuned in as Ashok Kumar, the grandfather of the nation, materialised on the screen to give us a little homily on family values. (If any intrepid soul does revive the show now, Anupam Kher would be a shoo-in for the Ashok Kumar slot.)

Running a close second is that old favourite, Buniyaad, which told the story of a Punjabi family torn apart by Partition. Lajjoji and Masterji became iconic figures in their time while the young and radiant Kiran Joneja, playing Veeravali, won the hearts of the nation (and that of her director and future husband, Ramesh Sippy). Given how TV-friendly he is, maybe Karan Johar can take over the task of recasting Buniyaad, tracing the trajectories of the characters as they make their way in a newly-resurgent India. Or even take it forward two generations and set it in the new millennium, with Veeranwali playing the grand old matriarch to the descendants of her illegitimate son.

And then, there was Rajani, the crusading housewife played with a certain insouciant charm by the late Priya Tendulkar, who took on the system in her own brisk, no-nonsense way in every episode, and triumphed over it, striking a blow for Everywoman and Everyman. I can’t help but think that this era, in which the phrase ‘aam aadmi’ is on everyone’s lips – not to mention political agenda – is just right for a revival of the Rajani spirit. And wouldn’t it be a coup if some production company could tempt Smriti Irani back on the small screen to play the role that Priya Tendulkar made famous?

I am not so sure about how I would recast Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi though. Shafi Inamdar and Swaroop Sampat were so perfect as Ranjit and Renu Verma – he, the long-suffering, put-upon husband and she, the harried, slightly ditzy housewife – that it is hard to see who could match up to them. And maybe the simple, almost childish fun that the serial encapsulated is not in tune with our more-cynical times. But it would be nice to see it revived, if only to recapture the spirit of a more innocent age.

The other serial I have happy memories of is Karamchand, the detective drama which immortalised the lines: ‘Sir, you are a genius’ – ‘Shut up Kitty’. But while Sony Television did try to revive it, with Pankaj Kapoor reprising his role as Karamchand while Sushmita Mukherjee was replaced by Sucheta Khanna as Kitty, this version did not evoke quite the same magic. So, it’s not as if Indian television does not do re-makes of sequels of old shows. Sab TV, in fact, commissioned an Indian version of the American sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie, titled (rather risibly) as Jeannie Aur Juju (don’t ask!). But this version didn’t have anything like the resonance of the original.

But I refuse to be disheartened by these failures. After all, if Bollywood can do re-makes of such mega-hits as Don and Agneepath and have them raking it in at the box-office, surely television can reprise its iconic series successfully too? And until it does, I for one, will live in hope of seeing a remade-for-our-times version of Hum Log or Buniyaad.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Sexism rules, OK?

Misogyny is so deep-seated in our society that it has passed into its very vocabulary  

It didn’t take very long for the media coverage of the General David Petraeus affair to veer off into the well-trodden realm of misogyny, did it? There was the initial dismay about how another idol turned out to have feet of clay. There was some tut-tutting about how men will be men. There was much shock and horror expressed about how a former three-star General and Director of the CIA could be stupid enough to be caught with his pants down.

And then, with a certain inevitability, the attention turned to the women caught up in this sorry mess. There was Holly Petraeus, the wronged wife, said to be incandescent with fury but still standing by her man. There was Paula Broadwell, biographer-turned-mistress, the temptress who had brought the Great Man down from the heights of heroism with her feminine wiles. And then there was Jill Kelley, the other Other Woman, who had unwittingly set off the controversy by complaining to the FBI about some threatening mails that Broadwell – who believed Kelley was getting too close to Petraeus – had sent her. (Phew! You really couldn’t make this stuff up.)

To illustrate this little morality play we were provided helpful colour pictures of all the protagonists in this sordid drama. Holly Petraeus, the weary, unglamorous spouse, looking every one of her near-60 years. Paula Broadwell, all toned arms and perfect figure, showcased in clothes so tight that they could well have cut off her circulation if she wasn’t such a champion athlete. And Jill Kelley, smoky-eyed and sultry in designer togs that showed off her enviable legs and tiny waist.

The sub-text was clear. What chance did poor old Petraeus have against the combined charms of Broadwell and Kelley? How could he possibly resist their blandishments – especially given what his poor, old, greying wife looked like? And just get a load of how these sirens are dressed, drawing all eyes to their pert derrieres and perky breasts! Which man could possibly stay chaste and faithful to his marital vows in the face of such an assault on his defences?

It’s familiar territory, really. It’s the same song whenever a powerful man is caught doing someone who isn’t his wife. He gets off as someone who gave in to temptation; the Other Woman is stigmatised as the one who lured him away from the straight and narrow. Clearly, the narrative hasn’t changed very much since the Original Sin. The apple never falls far from Adam and Eve, and that age-old tale of women luring men to their downfall.  

And in keeping with these misogynistic double standards, while the men are rehabilitated in public life after a decent interval, the Scarlet Women who ‘tempted’ them are consigned to the shadows to live out the rest of their lives in disgrace. Just compare how Bill Clinton came off after the White House scandal to how Monica Lewinsky fared. Her life was ruined with her name becoming a byword for sexual incontinence while Clinton has re-emerged as a President-maker, milking the applause at Democratic election rallies for Barack Obama.

Back home in India, while our leaders manage to keep their sexual shenanigans out of the media, their deep-rooted misogyny is played out in full public view. When Congress leader Digvijay Singh wants to poke fun at Arvind Kejriwal for his daily ‘exposes’ he doesn’t compare him to, say, Salman Khan, who has a propensity to rip his shirt off at the slightest provocation. No, he says Kejriwal is like Rakhi Sawant, who also ‘exposes’ but has no ‘substance’. 

Samajwadi Party President Mulayam Singh Yadav patronisingly explains to rural women that they will not benefit from the Women’s Reservation Bill because they are not attractive enough (unlike women from affluent families). BJP chief minister of Chhatisgarh Raman Singh holds forth on how good-looking women are contributory factors in causing road accidents (“If there is a good motor-cycle, a good mobile and a good girlfriend, then accidents are bound to happen.”). Congress minister Sri Prakash Jaiswal tells us that as a wife gets old with time, she loses her charm.

Women in public life are routinely subject to misogynistic attacks and jibes. While Mamata Banerjee is derided for her crumpled saris and Hawai chappals, Mayawati has to face down jibes about her penchant for pink and designer handbags (damned if you don’t; and damned if you do). But then, what can you expect from a world in which even Indira Gandhi was dubbed the “the only man in her Cabinet”, as if it were a compliment of the highest order when it was anything but.

The sad truth is that misogyny is so deep-seated in our society that it has even passed into the language. Sexist remarks have become such a part of our daily vocabulary that we trot them out without even registering how offensive they are. When we want our sons to toughen up, we say, “Don’t be such a girl.” When we think someone isn’t facing up to a situation with sufficient grit, we ask him or her to ‘man up’.

And then there’s that old chestnut: “Oh for God’s sake, grow a pair!” Honestly, it’s enough to make you want to aim a well-directed kick at them instead.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sound and fury

Counting the many, many things I hate about Diwali

Don’t get me wrong. I like a celebration as much as any other Indian. And like everyone else, I wait all year for the festive season to come around. There is the first hint of winter in the air; the markets are lit up, gleaming like new brides; and the annual round of parties promises some great food and drink. What’s not to like? And I do like it very much indeed.

But of late, the build-up to Diwali has left me reaching for the sick bag as the commercialisation of the festival reaches new heights every year. And as the original spirit of the day – to celebrate the triumph of good over evil, the victory of light over darkness – dies a deafening death every year, I get more and more disillusioned by what we have turned Diwali into. From a festival of light it has been transformed into an orgy of noise; from a day of prayer, when we welcomed the Goddess Lakshmi and the spirit of prosperity into our homes, it has turned into a celebration of conspicuous consumption; and from an occasion to get together with friends and family it has become an endless round of social events where one-upmanship is the name of the game.

Every year, as I settle down the clean the debris of the festival, sending off hampers of baked goods and mithai to the neighbourhood orphanage, I can’t help but reflect on how soulless and impersonal our Diwalis have become. So here, in no particular order of importance, is a list (by no means exhaustive) of what I have come to hate about Diwali.

1)   The advertisements: The build-up starts weeks before the festival, as every company worth its marketing budget starts bombarding its target customers with exhortations to buy, buy, buy – and then buy some more. Buy your wife gold jewellery; buy your mother a bigger, better fridge/TV/expensive electronic appliance of choice; buy your kids a new phone/ipad.

As I flip through newspapers or surf TV channels, I can’t help but wonder how this affects people who can’t afford any of this stuff. Do they feel like failures because they can’t buy new clothes for their kids, leave alone jewellery for their wives? Do they get depressed at the thought that theirs will be the only family in the neighbourhood not to get a new TV or sofa set? Is the festival effectively ruined for them because they can’t afford all those goodies, so seductively set out for their delectation?

2)   The traffic: Yes, it does become a bit of a nightmare, doesn’t it, as the entire city gets behind the wheel to do the rounds, driving from one corner to the other to drop off all those Diwali presents to friends, family, business colleagues and corporate honchos.

Result: travelling times gets doubled no matter where you go and what time you set out. Tempers fray, instances of road rage increase, and don’t even get me started on the amount of fuel wasted.

3)   The hampers: Ah yes, the hampers. The baskets full of rubbish, most of which, I suspect, has been hastily recycled from one basket to another (though, on the bright side, it does make it more eco-friendly). Gone are the days when a dabba of mithai would suffice. Now you have to source exotic chocolates, endless pastry products, jars of olives, and that obligatory bottle of wine/champagne. Honestly, why not just send a diya and be done with it?

4)   Card parties: Oh God, how I loathe them! All that huddling around a table, staring furtively at your cards, refusing to wind up the game so that dinner can be served at a decent hour, and then moaning and groaning about how much money you have lost. How can this be anyone’s idea of a party?

5)   Diwali melas: They are my idea of hell. It is as if the entire collection of second-rate products in the world has been brought together in one place so that you can choose from among a treasure trove of tasteless tat (once you’ve found parking for your car, a near-impossible feat). Isn’t it time we rediscovered the charm of shopping for Diwali at our own locals?

6)   The spam: It starts from the week before, as every company/PR outfit/shop/restaurant that has bought your phone number off some master list starts inundating you with smses. Get 20 per cent off on Diwali dinner if you buy a loyalty card; say no to crackers; buy a new flat.

7)   The crackers: Diwali has long since been transformed into a festival of sound rather than a celebration of light, but of late the cracker menace is getting even worse. I’m not one of the green brigade that believes that crackers will bring about the end of civilisation as we know it, but I can’t help being appalled at just how over-the-top the fireworks display has got of late.

As children, we were happy to light our phooljharis and anaars and set off the odd rocket. But the sheer scale of cracker-bursting these days is both scary and repellent. Just how much money do we blow up every Diwali, and how much damage do we do to our environment (never mind, scaring the life out of little children and dogs)?

I can’t help but think that if all of us curtailed our expenditure on some – if not all – of the above and gave the money saved to charity, it would be a true celebration of Diwali: the festival that marks the triumph of good over evil.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Blast from the past

Sometimes just an image, a sound, or a smell, can take you right back to your childhood

It is the strangest things that remind you of your childhood at times, evoking memories that lay long buried in your brain. It could be anything really: an image; a touch; a smell; or even a sound. And before you know it, you have been transported back in time to relive those childhood moments that you had thought lost forever.

Last week I had one such moment of déjà vu. Aimlessly channel-surfing, I stopped at FTV because the clothes on the ramp looked mildly interesting, when my eyes were caught by the shoes of one of the models. The square toes; the little strap across the ankle fastened with a buckle; the shiny patent leather; it all looked so familiar. If you ignored the high heel – as I did – the shoes were a dead ringer for the Mary Janes that I had worn to school all through my childhood.

That one image took me back instantly to the Bata store on Chowringhee, Calcutta’s busiest thoroughfare, where I would make an annual pilgrimage at the start of every year to buy the school-mandated black shoes that made up my uniform. There was no agonising over styles, dithering over alternatives, or pondering on colours. There was only one option that I could choose (if choose is the right word) but that didn’t detract from the shopping experience one bit. The thrill of buying a new pair of shoes; the joy of seeing that my feet were finally growing to adult size; and the knowledge that I was going into a new class with all the possibilities it represented; all of this combined to make this trip to the shoe shop one of the highlights of my year.

That same feeling of déjà vu struck me on a recent visit to the local Marks and Spencer store. One entire rail was devoted to leggings with stirrups, a style that I had last worn when I was 10 years old. Now of course, I would not be caught dead in them, so I quickly moved on to the next rail. But quite without volition, an image jumped up and took possession of my brain: the pair of olive-green leggings with sturdy stirrups that I had refused to get out of for an entire year (and which are immortalised in several family photographs taken over the period). And with that image came the memories: of visits to the zoo; of raucous birthday parties where everyone ate far too much cake (and which, suffice to say, not everyone managed to keep down); of picnics with friends; of family weddings where I was the only one not in the regulation ghagra-choli.

Of course, it’s not just clothes or fashion that reminds me of my childhood. Coming across a re-run of Yes Minister on BBC Entertainment has much the same effect. In the days before satellite television arrived in India and we were all at the mercy of Doordarshan programmers, this was the one show that I would hurry home to watch. The opening credits of Chitrahar, which was pretty much appointment viewing in those days; the notes of Abide with me, which we sang every morning Assembly; the sound of a tolling bell, which punctuated my day at school; all these sounds double up as aide-memoires.

And then, there’s food. There are some things that always take me back to the nostalgia-tinted meals of my childhood. Cupcakes with old-style frosting and sprinkles (rather than the new-fangled dollops of cream) remind me of the pastries that I bought every lunch-time from the school cake-wallah. I would carefully consider his two layers of cakes (I could buy only one every day, given my meagre pocket-money), each in a different style and colour, before buying the vanilla cupcake yet again. Clearly, even at that young age, I felt a certain comfort in the familiar.

Of all things, home-style finger chips – rather than the new-fangled French fries we all scoff down these days – conjure up memories of my childhood almost instantly. Cut in chunky bits and deep-fried to a lovely golden, crisp on the outside and moistly crumbly inside, these were served up every Sunday lunch-time, right after Mahabharat, with a side of blood-red ketchup. The aromas wafting from a cup of steaming black tea take me back to holidays spent exploring the grounds of my aunt’s tea estate in Assam, the gardens redolent with what I only later discovered to be the smell of drying tea leaves. The taste of an orange bar, the ice-lolly on a stick that was a staple of my growing years, reminds me of evenings spent hanging over the balcony waiting for the ice-creamwallah – with his colourful van teeming with goodies – to hove into view.

And then, there are the images. The sight of scraggly rows of roses always takes me back to the lawns of the old-style dak bungalows; the good old Ambassador – a rare sight on the road these days – reminds me of road trips taken as a child; and a bouffant hairdo reminds me of the styles my older sister sported in her youth, and which I longed to replicate when I grew up. Of course, by the time I grew out of pigtails, the bouffant was long gone, having been replaced by the gamine crop – but that, as they say, is quite another story.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Crime as punishment

What I have learnt about rape from political leaders across the world

There isn’t a day that goes by in India when you open a newspaper and don’t see a news item (or four) about rape. There’s the 16 year old Dalit girl who is gang-raped by upper-caste men in her Haryana village. There is the Mumbai professional who is raped by an acquaintance because she dared say no. There is the Bangalore student who is dragged away from a parked car and raped by a group of men who believe that because she is making out with one man she must be ‘up for it’ with them as well. There’s the girl who set herself on fire because she couldn’t live with the stigma of being a rape victim. And then, there’s the father who kills himself when he is shown video clips of his daughter being molested by a group of men.

Given the staggering number of rape stories that emerge from India every day, there really isn’t much more than we can learn about this crime, is there? We know that it is not so much about sex as it is about power. We know that such is the aura of shame that surrounds the crime that the victim ends up feeling much more at fault than the perpetrator. And we know that society plays into that feeling of guilt by effectively telling the woman that, in one way or the other, she asked for it.

But that doesn’t stop political leaders across the world from giving us the benefit of their wisdom on the subject of rape. And here, in no particular order of importance is what I have learnt about rape from these worthies.   

1)   Marrying late causes rape. Young men and women have sexual desires; so as soon as they reach puberty, they should be married off so that they do not ‘stray’. In other words, the best way of ensuring that rape does not occur is by making sure that girls and boys are married off as minors. Because, as we know, married women never get raped, and married men only ever have sex – consensual or forced – with their wives.

Source: Sube Singh, Khap Panchayat leader in Haryana. This view was later endorsed by Om Prakash Chautala, a former chief minister of the state, who weighed in to say that crimes such as rape did not occur in the good old days (he went all the way back to the Mughal era to mine his example) when girls were married off as minors.

2)   Around 90 per cent of rapes occur when women go along willingly with their rapists. When what starts off as consensual sex goes wrong, these women start crying rape (the naughty trouble-makers!).

Source: Dharambir Goyat, Congress party spokesperson, Haryana.

3)   Eating fast food like chow mein (or presumably Maggi noodles) causes rape. The consumption of this kind of food – burgers and pizzas for example – creates a hormonal imbalance in men, makes their animal instincts veer out of control, and their increased sexual desire manifests itself as rape.

Source: Jitender Chhatar, Khap Panchayat leader, Haryana.

4)   If you go to nightclub, drink too much and talk to men who are strangers, then you really shouldn’t complain when you are raped. Honestly, what were you doing there in the first place?

Source: Madan Mitra, minister in the Mamata Banerjee government of West Bengal (a view never repudiated by the woman chief minister herself, who later categorised the rape cases in her state as a ‘criminal conspiracy’.)

5)   If you get raped, and the rape is ‘legitimate’ (as in you are not making this stuff up to make yourself sound more interesting) then the body has a way to ‘shut itself down’ and you will not get pregnant. (All those women who do get pregnant after being raped? Whose bodies didn’t ‘shut down’? Well, we know what to think about them, don’t we?)

Source: Todd Akin, US Congressman who is running for the Senate as a Republican candidate.

6)   If you do get pregnant as a consequence of being raped (you dirty slag, you!) then abortion is not an option. Because even if it is conceived in an act of rape, a child is still a ‘gift from God’. Yes, this is what God himself intended.

Source: Richard Mourdock, US Senate candidate (“I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”)

7)    Some rapes are more serious than others. In the case of an 18 year-old man having sex with an underage girl, or in cases of date rape, the crime is less serious than other rapes and deserves a lesser punishment.

Source: Kenneth Clarke, Justice Secretary, United Kingdom.

Yes, this is what political leaders across the world – not just in backward, obscurantist Haryana but in such developed, enlightened countries as the USA and the UK – believe about rape.

Honestly, what can you do but laugh? Because if you didn’t laugh, you would have to cry: at the ignorance; the insensitivity; and the sheer stupidity of it all.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The triumph of the older woman

It’s the season when the 30 and 40-pluses are crawling out of the woodwork – and not a moment too soon

As someone who grew up seeing Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit light up the large screen with their 1000-watt smiles, I must admit to taking a particular pride in their recent return to the limelight. While Madhuri made a slight misstep with the massively ill-judged Nach Le (which wasn’t as much comeback vehicle as a car crash waiting to happen) she has recovered lost ground with her mega-glamorous judging stint on Jhalak Dhikhhla Jaa. Certainly, more people tune in to see her work that old magic on the dance floor rather than watch the actual contestants.

And then, there’s Sridevi. What can you say about a woman who looks better today, at the cusp of 50, than she did during her 20s and 30s? (Except that she should patent her diet and exercise regime and flog it to make an absolute fortune.) An actress who can come back to the movies after a 15-year old hiatus and make us feel like she was never away? A star who doesn’t need a huge production house to bolster her chances, but has the confidence to take on a small, simple movie like English Vinglish, knowing that she can make it sparkle and shine with her own charisma?

There’s really not much to say, apart from ‘Welcome back’ and ‘What took you so long?’

But who knows, perhaps both Sridevi and Madhuri have judged the zeitgeist well. And that, in India at least, this is the exact right moment for the older woman to make her claim for a spot in the sun.

In the West, of course, women stars of a certain age have been flourishing for a while now. In Hollywood, Meryl Streep still rules, churning out hit after hit (Mamma Mia, It’s Complicated, Julie and Julia, The Iron Lady), and manages to exude a mature sex appeal even though she is now a venerable 63. This year, she won the Oscar for best lead actress for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher – and among the rivals who lost out to her were Glen Close, 64, nominated for playing a cross-dressing waiter in Albert Nobbs and Viola Davis, 46, nominated for her portrayal of an African-American maid The Help.

On American television, the most popular female comic star today is the 42-year-old Tina Fey, who created 30 Rock, based on her experiences as a part of Saturday Night Live, and plays the central character of Liz Lemon. The biggest global hit to come out of US network television in recent times is the series, Modern Family. And of its female stars, Julie Bowen (who won the Emmy this year for her role of harried mom-of-three Claire Dunphy) is 42, while the Colombian bombshell, Sofia Vergara, who plays her step-mother (and is gloriously pregnant in the latest season) turned 40 this year.

In fact, if you took a good look across the auditorium where the Emmy awards were being held, it was hard to spot an A-list actress who was under 30. The heavily-pregnant Claire Danes who went up to receive her award for lead actress in a drama series for Homeland is 33; Christina Hendricks who was nominated for Mad Men but lost out is 36; while the award for the best supporting actress in a drama series went to Downton Abbey’s Dame Maggie Smith, now a majestic 77. The biggest loser of the day was the 26-year-old Lena Dunham, whose comedy show, Girls, didn’t win a single gong – though she was memorably pictured naked on a toilet eating cake, in a comedy skit preceding the show.

On Indian television, too, the older woman seems to be coming into her own. Sakshi Tanwar, who is arguably the best-known female TV star after her lead roles in Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii and Bade Achhe Lagte Hain (now that Smriti Irani has abandoned acting for politics), is now just one year short of 40. The anchor of choice for reality shows, Mini Mathur, is 36. And on news TV as well, the biggest female stars are all well over 30: Sagarika Ghose of CNN-IBN is 47; Barkha Dutt of NDTV is 40; Nidhi Razdan, also of NDTV (clearly a very woman-friendly organisation), is 35.

Yes, the day of the teeny-bopper seems to be well and truly past. This is turning out to the era of the mature woman. A woman who has lived a little; a woman who has the wisdom of the years behind her; a woman who just gets better with age. A woman like Sridevi and Madhuri, who may be past the first flush of youth, but can still hold her own against the teenage sensations of today.

And if you ask me, it’s not a moment too soon.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Marking the day

We may well acknowledge the first International Day of the Girl Child in India – but let’s not dare assume that we have the right to celebrate it

On the 11th of October the first International Day of the Girl Child was celebrated across the world. In India, too, we had the usual suspects releasing statements, attending functions, organising events to mark the day. But surely the irony of celebrating a day dedicated to the girl child could not have been lost on any of us. Not when more than 500 women have been raped since the beginning of the year in Haryana alone (and that’s just the cases that have been reported); when the figure for women being married off before they turned 18 stood at an astounding 60 per cent in Bihar; and when female foeticide is believed to have killed at least 10 million girls in the womb all across the country.

Yes, the girl child doesn’t really get much of a break in India. If she escapes being aborted, she arrives into a world that regards her as a burden. She is much less likely to finish her primary education than her brothers. She will probably be married off even before she attains majority. And when she gets pregnant, the likelihood of her dying in childbirth is astonishingly high (more than 65,000 women die giving birth in India every year – or, in other words, every 8-10 minutes a woman dies in childbirth), assuming of course that the pregnancy is not terminated because she is carrying a girl child who needs must die before she can born.

And thus the vicious circle continues, sucking each successive generation of women into its vortex of despair.

I know what you’re thinking. Why paint such a bleak portrait of Indian womanhood? After all, there are plenty of women among us who are valued and cherished by their families, who are brought up as valuable members of society, who are educated, who go on to have worthwhile careers, and are both financially independent and socially secure.

Yes, of course, there are. And I number myself among them. But we are the lucky ones, the minuscule minority who were fortunate enough to be born into the right families and the right social class. If it wasn’t for an accident of birth, we could just as easily be among the 35 per cent of women who are not literate, the 47 per cent of women who are married off as minors, the 212 women in every lakh who die in childbirth because they don’t have access to medical facilities, the 7,00,000 girls aborted every year because they are simply the wrong sex.

When you think of the sheer numbers involved – considering that our population stands at 1 billion and counting – it’s clear just how bad things are for women in India.

It doesn’t really matter that we’ve had a woman President in Pratibha Patil or that the UPA is headed by Sonia Gandhi or that the leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha is Sushma Swaraj. It is of no consequence that five states of the Indian Union – Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh – have (or have had) women chief ministers (in Jayalalitha, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati, Vasundhara Raje and Uma Bharati). Or that the world of finance has seen such power women as Chanda Kochhar and Naina Lal Kidwai running large institutions with aplomb. Or even that we have produced such world-class sportswomen as Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza.

All of these are achievements that must be celebrated – as indeed they are – but there is no ignoring the fact that these are exceptions that provide a stark contrast to the trials and tribulations that ordinary Indian women have to suffer every day of their lives. And that they mean nothing to the mother living in a remote village who has to trek for miles every day to get drinking water for her family; to the women who have no access to sanitary napkins let alone comprehensive health care; to the new bride who is harassed to death by the dowry demands of her husband and in-laws; to the young girl who is first raped and then told that she ‘asked’ for it; to the widow who is forced out of her family home and sent off to Vrindavan to await death.

And it is particularly ironic that the UN is marking the first International Day of the Girl Child by drawing attention to the problem of child marriages at a time when the khap panchayats in Haryana have announced that girls should be married off at a young age so that they do not get raped (apparently, a mangalsutra also serves as a rapist-repellent in their strange, convoluted minds), a position that was rapidly adopted by such obscurantist political leaders as Om Prakash Chautala.

So, let’s not celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child just yet. Not until we have ensured that every girl in the womb gets a chance at life. Not until we have made the education of every young girl possible. Not until we have made provision for her health care through menstruation, pregnancy, child-rearing and menopause. Not until we have ensured that she gets paid the same wage for the same job as her male co-worker. And not until we have made sure that she has the liberty to make her own life decisions.

Until then, we can mark the International Day of the Girl Child in our calendars – but let’s not dare to assume that we have any right to celebrate it.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Women, lies, and weight-loss

As Nigella Lawson shows off her new, slim-line look, it’s time to ask: are full-figured women ever really happy with their bodies?

We all love Nigella Lawson, don’t we? The food show hostess with the mostess. The home cook with the killer curves. The culinary queen with the majestic embonpoint. The domestic goddess with the décolletage to die for.

Actually, make that to ‘diet’ for. Because that’s exactly what Nigella has been doing over the last year. And now, you can feast your eyes on a new, slim-line Nigella hosting her new food show, Nigellissima (that’s ‘Very Nigella’ to all us non-Italian speaking oiks) and showing off her size 12 frame on magazine covers and in newspaper supplements. Gone is the voluptuary who lived on bacon, red meat, bread, double cream, chocolate, and lashings of butter (not in the same recipe, of course). In her place, we have the ‘sensible’ eater who drinks wine only on Fridays and has discovered the joys of exercise in her 50s.

And that sound you hear? It is the collective moan of disbelief from millions of women all across the world who can’t quite believe that the Patron Saint of Plump Pulchritude has let them down so devastatingly. And when they finally get their voices back you can be sure that they will be asking Nigella a few sharp questions. (So, Nigella, all these years when you were assuring us that you were happy in your buxomness, were you just lying to yourself? Or was that nothing-tastes-as-good-as-gluttony spiel just one giant con perpetrated on the rest of us?)

As someone who also loved the old, voluptuous, sometimes downright greedy Nigella, I can understand the sense of betrayal. This was a woman who made us feel good about having curves and wobbly bits; who told us to take pride in our bulges rather than wage war on them. And now that she has gone all low-fat and small-waisted, we can’t help feeling that she has let the side down.  

Not that Nigella ever set herself up as Poster Girl for big women but the sub-text of all the 3,000-calorie recipes was quite clear. As were those images of Nigella raiding the fridge late at night for some comfort food. Indulgence was good for you. You needed to feed your appetite. Life was too short to have low-fat ice-cream. Nothing tasted better than saturated fat.

Well, some things haven’t changed. Nigella’s recipes still pack in a few thousand calories. But the woman herself doesn’t seem to be eating any of her food. Instead, she’s all gussied up in her new size 12 wardrobe, making the rest of us feel hopelessly fat.

But why blame Nigella alone? I have lost count of the number of full-figured celebrities who go red in the face telling us how happy they are to be big – right until the moment they pose for a photo-spread to show off their recent weight loss.

Sophie Dahl was famously discovered as a fat teenager by the fashion stylist Isabella Blow, and created a sensation when she walked the ramp in all her bodacious glory. But just when you felt that the world of high fashion would at last begin to embrace what it likes to call the ‘plus-size’ woman, Dahl resurfaced on the Opium billboard having lost two-thirds of her body weight and looking as waif-like as the next model.

And then, there’s Dawn French. The humorist who spent her entire life telling us that she was happy to be humungous, has now lost 40-something kilos and is looking like a shadow of her former, frankly-fat self. She puts it down to having discovered exercise (there we go again) and cutting out on chips and chocolate. And, she adds, a tad defensively, that she still loves her ‘old body’. (Oh yes, she loves it so much that she’s got rid of half of it!) 

All of this begs the question. Were any of these women actually ‘happy’ being the size they were? Or were they just lying about it to make themselves feel better even as they tried every trick in the book to slim down? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

That said, women, lies and weight-loss are inextricably linked. For every woman who claims that she is happy at her current size even as she diets and exercises in secret to slim down, there is another who puts her slimness down to good genes and swears that she eats everything and never works out, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

But now that Nigella and her famous curves have left the show kitchen, who will be flying the flag for buxom beauties everywhere? Well, there’s always Christina Hendricks, who plays the curvaceous Joan Harris in Mad Men. But given how offended she was when an Australian interviewer asked her about being an inspiration as a ‘full-figured’ woman (she refused to answer the question and said it was ‘rude’ to describe her in such terms), I’m guessing it’s only a matter of time before she goes all slim-line on us as well.

Ah well, never mind! At least back here in India, we will still have Vidya Balan to reassure us that a little muffin top never hurt anyone (and nor did a muffin or three). But if she ever signs up to a diet regime or threatens to bring out a fitness video, we’ll know that the fat is truly in the fire.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

How? Why? What?

An examination of some of the abiding mysteries of life

You know all those abiding mysteries of life that people lie awake and think about? As in: how did the world come into being? Why are we here? What is it all about? Is there such a being as God? Well, I don’t really waste much sleep over them. Instead, I am constantly mystified by people and the baffling things some of them get up to.

I mean, how do you explain the fact that there are some women who apply toner after cleansing their faces and before moisturising? Who are these women and how do they have the time – not to mention the energy and the patience – to undertake this three-step cleansing routine twice a day? I feel incredibly pleased with myself for smearing on a spot of sunscreen in the morning and managing to clean my teeth before collapsing into bed. And there are apparently women out there who actually manage to not just cleanse and moisturise, but also ‘tone’ their skin? I know these mythical creatures must exist (or else how would you explain the sales of toner?) even though I have never met any of them. But I can’t help being mystified by their devotion to cleansing rituals nonetheless.

Of late, I have been puzzling over another abiding mystery of our time. Who are all these women who find Fifty Shades of Grey (not to mention Fifty Shades Darker and whatever the other Fifty-something book is called) so ‘erotic’ that they are have turned it into the best-selling title of all time, outselling even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series? No matter where you go these days – the bookstore, the supermarket, the grocery shop, the airport – you find a wall of blue-grey covers staring balefully at you, daring you to pick up your daily dose of porn in full view of the public. But even if you ignore the troublesome issue of the mainstreaming of pornography as it were, how do you explain that enough people find this kind of puerile writing sexy and exciting? As someone who has tried reading the book and given up after a 100 pages (yes, even before the ‘sexy’ bits begin), I certainly can’t. How could anyone find this risible prose remotely arousing? And yet, astonishingly enough, they do.

And while we are on the subject of kinky sex, are there really any women out there who are applying ‘whitening’ and ‘tightening’ creams to their lady bits in the hope of improving their sex life? Actually, on second thought, even if these creatures do exist, I really don’t want to know.

As the cliché goes, it takes all sorts to make up the world but even so, there are some people – and some kinds of behaviour – that remain unfathomable (to me, at least). Those folks, for instance, who actually enjoy getting up at the crack of dawn, pulling on their sneakers, and pounding the pavements until the sun comes up, and then spend the day banging on about their ‘endorphin high’. If you ask me, never mind their hamstrings, it’s their heads that need examining.

Then, there are those strange creatures that our fashion glossies write for. You know the ones I mean. Those who are happy to junk their wardrobes every few months or so and run off to stock up on the ‘new season’ look. Those who spend hours stuffing tissue paper into the sleeves of their jackets and dresses before packing them so that they don’t crease (have these people not heard of a steam-iron? Or laundry services?). Or those who treat a summer vacation as an excuse to exfoliate, wax and embark on a new diet.

And don’t get me started on those intrepid souls who dare to negotiate the perils of airport check-ins and air travel in vertigo-inducing high heels. Do these women have no pain threshold? Have the soles of their feet no sensation left after years of systematic abuse? Or have they been brainwashed by Fifty Shades of Junk to believe that pain equals pleasure?

There are many things that mystify me when I check into a hotel but top of the list is the horror known as the mini-bar. No matter where in the world I am, the prices listed on the mini-bar list leave me dumbstruck. Who can possibly afford to pay these rates? And yet, apparently, there are people who do just that. Drop the equivalent of a cool Rs 500 for a miniature bottle of whiskey. Spend around Rs 150 for a bottle of water. Or Rs 200 bucks for a packet of crisps. Or Rs 300 for a packet of peanuts (I’m sorry, but that’s just plain nuts!)

While we are on the subject of crisps, though, who are these people who can open a packet and then just stop at one, two or even ten? Do they really exist? Or are they just the stuff of urban legend?

And don’t even get me started on those who can stop at the last chapter of a spy thriller or a good murder mystery, slip in a book-mark, turn off the lights and then go off to sleep. Don’t they want to know how the damn thing ends? How can anyone drift off to sleep without reading the denouement, especially when it is just a few pages away? Quite honestly, it beggars belief.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

That Madeleine moment

We all have food memories that take us effortlessly back to the past

I don’t know about you, but I rather relish the prospect of room service breakfast at a posh hotel. There is something so glamorous about being served on a starched, white table-cloth with a red rose standing stiffly to attention on the side, while a gloved waiter pours you a nice cup of coffee. And what could be more decadent than having someone squeeze a glass of fresh orange juice and cook a nice French toast for you (note to self: must get out more!) first thing in the morning?

Though I usually go for the more sinful options when it comes to hotel breakfasts – bring on the pancakes, the waffles and the parathas – last Sunday I decided to go for the (relatively) healthy option and ordered akuri. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, this is basically Indian-style scrambled eggs seasoned with lots of onion, ginger, tomato, and green chillies, and liberally garnished with coriander. It is usually served with toast but on this occasion the chef sent it with a Bombay-style pau (the kind that makes up one half of pao bhaji).

I stuffed a generous dollop of the eggs between two halves of the pao and popped a generous mouthful in. As the buttery eggs coated my tongue and the ginger and chilli hit the back of my throat, I was instantly transported back in time. With just one bite, I was taken back to my days as a callow, young sub-editor on her first job, who kept herself fortified for the long nights of page-making with a double-roti and omelette sandwich in the ABP canteen in Calcutta.  

And even though the akuri was perfect – just on the right side of runny, creamy and unctuous, at that moment I would have killed for the sandwich of my misbegotten youth, oily junk food though it might have been.

Now, I don’t want to get all Proust – remember his Madeleine? He certainly did – on you on a Sunday morning, but it is strange isn’t it, how some kinds of food suddenly evoke a memory so strong that you find yourself going back in time? Which bring on such a craving that you can’t think of anything other than their taste, their smell, and how you can best replicate them?

Like most people, my food memories are rooted in my childhood. I still remember the taste of those tiny, pink berries that I would tear off the tree in the back garden, having slipped away to investigate the vegetation as my mother undertook her afternoon siesta. If I close my eyes and think back, I can still taste the shingara (that’s samosa to all you non-Calcuttans) and jalebi that used to be my holiday breakfast as a child. The coconut-jaggery prasad that used to be served on Janmashtami has assumed near mythic status in my mind. And nothing tasted quite as good as the churmur chaat that we used to eat during the break in school, with the chaatwallah slipping it under the school-gate like the contraband it was (having been outlawed by the nuns, like everything else that made life worth living).

As you can tell, most of my food nostalgia is Calcutta-related: the puchchkas in front of New Market; the jhaal-muri outside Loreto College; the dosas of Jyoti Vihar; the junk Chinese served up in Chung-Wah, the official canteen of all ABP employees back in the day; the biryani of Shiraz; the rolls of Nizam.  

As they say, you can take the girl out of Calcutta; but you can’t take the taste of Calcutta out of the girl. (And please don’t send me irate letters about how it is now Kolkata; it will always be Cal to me.)

But even if you discount my food memories of Calcutta, there is still a vast swathe of things that I feel nostalgic about.  The home-made idlis that a former colleague would bring to work (paired with the most divine gunpowder and green chutney); the chilli con carne I once had in a Washington restaurant;  the pad Thai served up at a roadside stall in Bangkok.

There is certain pattern to food nostalgia. Britons living abroad often long for a taste of Marmite as a reminder of home. Americans express a craving for steak or the barbeque sauce of their childhood. Italians long for sun-dried tomatoes and a good olive oil. And the French turn up their noses at any cheese that doesn’t stink like the ones they grew up on.

Ask any random sampling of Indians living abroad what they are most nostalgic about and the phrase ‘dal-chawal’ will drip off most tongues. And I can totally relate because when I come back to India after a vacation abroad, the first thing I want to eat is dal-chawl with a nice spicy pickle and lots of roasted papad and lashings of raw onion.

Within India, food nostalgia can be rather region-centric. Rare is the Punjabi who isn’t nostalgic about the kadhi-chawal or rajma-chawal or aloo-vadi that his mother or grandmother made. Bengalis tend to wax eloquent about their fish curries or shukto. Gujaratis bang on about the fluffy dhoklas and the perfect theplas that their Maharajs turned out in their ancestral homes.

As for me, I still fantasize about the double-roti omelette, the shingara-jalebi, and the puchchkas of my youth. And I often wonder if they would taste just as great in real life as they do in my dreams. Or whether remembrance has given them a flavour that they never possessed in reality.