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

Friday, February 24, 2012


The experience of the Kolkata victim shows why rape is still a crime that dares not speak its name

So, what was a 37-year-old divorcee with two children doing at a nightclub in Calcutta well past midnight? Well, I’ll tell you what she wasn’t doing. She wasn’t looking to get brutally gang-raped at gunpoint in a moving car by a bunch of vicious thugs.

That’s all you really need to know. She wasn’t looking to get raped.

Other than that, her sexual history, her marital circumstances, what she was wearing, how much she was drinking, how she was behaving, none of it is at all relevant. All that matters is that she wasn’t asking to be sexually violated.

And yet, ever since the single mother has come forward to report a sexual assault, that’s all we’ve heard: criticism of her behaviour; barely-veiled insinuations about her ‘character’; even a bizarre claim that she is part of a ‘political conspiracy’ against the Mamata Banerjee government.

Divorcee. Nightclub. Drinking. Anglo-Indian. All these words have dominated the discourse for a reason. In fact, the sub-text just leaps out and hits you in the face, doesn’t it? This was a good-time girl looking for a good time.

This was no dutiful wife and mother. She was divorced from her husband. She had left her children at home while she went out partying with her friends. She was drinking. She struck up a conversation with strangers and left the nightclub with them.

See where this is going? Yes, right. She was ‘asking’ for it. Why else would you interact with complete strangers at a nightclub late at night? Why would you allow them to drop you home in their car?

Okay, so let’s assume for argument’s sake, that all these value statements are correct. Let’s accept that her judgement was impaired because she had been drinking. Let’s agree that she made a bad call by leaving the nightclub with a bunch of strangers. Let’s concede that she acted without a requisite regard for her own personal safety.

But you know what? Even if all of this is true, none of it is at all relevant. The only thing that matters is that she was raped. She was subjected to a sexual act that she did not consent to. Her body was violated against her will.

And yet, no matter how hard we try, we can’t seem to wrap our heads around this simple fact: the victim is not at fault. She is not the one who has to pass some sort of ‘purity test’ set by the moral police. She is not the one who needs to account for her past behaviour or her life choices. She is not the one who is guilty. She is not the one who should be feeling ashamed.

But the way things pan out in this skewered world of ours, that’s exactly what ends up happening. It’s the victim who is put in the dock of public morality and asked to explain why this should have happened to her. It’s the victim who is made to feel that she bears responsibility for the assault on her body.

In the Kolkata case, when the victim finally steeled herself to go and report the rape to the police she was met with derision rather than empathy. She was asked how it was possible for someone to be raped in a moving car. Could she describe the positions exactly? One of the officers at the station even asked if they could go to the nightclub in question and get a beer together (because she was ‘that kind’ of girl, right?).

Worse was to follow. The chief minister of the state, Mamata Banerjee, announced grandly that the rape charges were cooked up and were just an attempt to malign the reputation of her government. One of her Cabinet ministers then went on television to ask: why was a divorcee with kids at home doing at a nightclub so late at night?

Well, Mr Minister, let me say this once again very slowly so that you get it: She. Was. Not. Looking. To. Get. Raped.

Now repeat after me: She was not looking to get raped.

But her experience explains why so many rapes go unreported in India. Consider this. Only one out of ten rapes in India is ever reported. And of those reported, only one out of four cases results in a conviction. Pretty good odds if you’re a rapist, right?

If you are a victim, however, the dice is loaded against you from start to finish. First up, the police will refuse to take you seriously unless you fit in with their idea of a rape victim, i.e., a good girl who doesn’t drink, wear revealing clothes or flirts with men. If the case does get registered, it will be open season on everything from your wardrobe choices to your sexual history. And then, the case will drag on for years, making it impossible for you to move on or get some sort of closure.

In other words, after being violated by your rapist, you will end up getting raped yet again by the system. Are you surprised then, that so few women come forward to file a complaint of rape?

Which is why all of us need to salute the bravery of this 37-year-old Anglo-Indian divorcee from Kolkata who had the courage to come forward and tell her story, who had the guts to take on her rapists, who refused to lie down and play dead. No matter what the outcome of the case, in my book, she’s already a winner.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Belt up!

As overcoats become part of our winter wardrobe, the classic trench is quite the trend-setter

There are few everyday pleasures more life-affirming that sitting at the window of your favourite cafe, sipping a steaming cup of cappuccino, and watching the world go by on a sunny winter afternoon. There’s the harried mother hurrying along, two frisky toddlers in tow; the lovelorn couple who insist on walking hand-in-hand even if it means blocking the entire pavement; the gaggle of girls who have bunked classes on this glorious day to do some serious window-shopping; the laptop-wielding professionals out for a business lunch.

As I idly watched them pass by my window to the world a few weeks ago, I began to wonder: just when did overcoats become part of our winter dressing in India?

I remember shivering through many winters when I first moved to Delhi while my long, black, toasty overcoat gathered dust in the closet. No, I wasn’t a glutton for punishment. It was just that nobody – and I do mean nobody – ever wore overcoats to keep out the cold. Instead you were supposed to layer – thermals, sweatshirt, sweater, jacket, muffler, shawl, all piled on, one on top of the other – until you resembled nothing more than a little butterball. But overcoats were only pulled out when you were travelling abroad in the winter.

Don’t ask me why. It’s just the way it was. Overcoats were simply not part of our winter wardrobe in this part of the world, no matter how cold it got.

That, thank God, is no longer the case. Now you see every kind of overcoat on display on the streets in colours ranging from boring black and regulation camel to red, pink or even yellow and every fabric from heavy wool to supple tweed or even soft leather. There’s the quilted knee-length number; the ankle-length style that provides complete coverage; the pea-coat version; or the formal double-breasted.

And then, there’s my personal favourite: the belted trench.

For several winters now, I have lived in a trench that I snapped up at an Abraham and Thakore end-of-season sale. It’s made of black silk, lined with lightweight wool, and embellished with an appliqué pattern of a palm-print. A three-button style, it comes with a thin fabric belt that you can use to cinch your waist in.

And what makes it worth every rupee of its price is that it goes with simply everything. You can slip in on over a tailored suit; you can wear it over jeans and a sweater; it works with a woollen dress; it’s perfect with a tailored skirt. Hell, you could even pair it with track-pants and it would still look elegant and fresh.

But then, that’s the thing about the trench. It is simply the most versatile winter garment ever. And given the many different trench-styles patrolling our streets these days, I’m guessing that more people than ever are buying into the trend.

It helps, of course, that the label that is synonymous with the trench – Burberry – is now in India and doing brisk business (its sales are second only to Louis Vuitton). The company recently hosted an Art Of The Trench event in India, where it invited people to come wearing their Burberry trenches, styling them in their own distinctive ways. And I have to confess that I was taken aback at the number of people who owned one.

If you ask me, though, nobody wears a Burberry trench better than Catherine Middleton, or as she must now be styled, the Duchess of Cambridge. In one of her first engagements as the fiancé of Prince William, she chose to wear a knee-length trench with frill detail at the hem, a kind of cross between a coat and a dress. Needless to say, the style sold out in stores soon after.

In India, the Burberry trench has been spotted on various Bollywood beauties. Deepika Padukone wore a rather fetching, thigh-skimming version at the Grand Prix in Noida. Lesser stars like Jacqueline Fernandes and Neha Dhupia have both been snapped in trenches as well. But, for my money, the Duchess is still on top of that particular style list.

Ah money. Yes, there’s no getting around that. The Burberry trench is expensive – and it is the only style that never goes on sale. No, never ever. I guess one way of justifying the expense is to tell yourself – over and over – that it is a classic that will never go out of fashion. And that it will begin to pay for itself in a decade or so.

But if you can’t hypnotise yourself into spending that kind of money, never fear. Every high street brand is doing its own version of the trench and some of them look just as good (even if, alas, some of them don’t feel quite as luxurious). Try your luck at Zara, Top Shop, or even some of the designer brand factory outlets as the winter winds down.

This is, in fact, the best time to get your hands on this style staple at an end-of-season sale. And it will be a bargain at any price because you will be living in it for many winters to come.

I should know. I’m wearing my Abraham and Thakore trench even as I type this. And it looks just as good as new.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Married to the job

America may obsess about its First Lady but in India, we simply don’t care about political spouses

Last week I devoured the controversial new book, The Obamas, by New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor, in one greedy gulp. But even at the half-way mark I could understand why the book had so upset the White House. The story may ostensibly be about the Obamas as a couple and the dynamics of their relationship but its focus is undoubtedly the First Lady – her resistance to her husband’s joining politics; her difficulties in adjusting to life in the White House; her extravagance; her stormy relationship with her husband’s staffers; her struggle to find a meaningful role for herself other than that of First Mum; and so on.

But what intrigued me was not so much that Kantor had spun a book – and a very readable one at that – out of meeting the Obamas for about half an hour several years ago (as the White House bitterly pointed out). What really leapt out at me as I raced through the chapters is how important spouses are in American politics.

They may not be running for office themselves but political wives are subjected to much the same media scrutiny as their husbands. Their every move is analysed, every statement mined for sub-text, and every wardrobe choice picked over. Whatever the merits of the men, they inevitably end up being judged by the women they married – and if they managed to stay married to them. And wives can often make or break a political career.

Remember how Hillary Clinton was pilloried for making dismissive remarks about stay-at-home moms who baked cookies when her husband was running for President? Such was the backlash that she had to turn up on a television show with some home-baked cookies she had rustled up herself to prove that she – a high-flying lawyer – was a regular mom like any other. When the ‘bimbo eruptions’ hit Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, it was Hillary who gave a joint interview with her husband to shore up his image. And again, when the Monica Lewinsky story hit the headlines, it was Hillary who came up with the infamous phrase, ‘a giant right-wing conspiracy’ to defend her beleaguered husband.

Yes, wives have the power to shore up their husbands’ political careers if they so choose. President George W. Bush’s image as a warmonger was softened by the gentle presence of his wife, Laura, the school-teacher turned librarian, who spent all her time doing good works and reading to children. And more recently, when Barack Obama’s ratings plummeted to abysmal levels, his wife’s soaring popularity helped to even the score a bit.

Now, as the scrimmage over the Republican nomination for the next US Presidential election continues, political wives merit more coverage than ever. Mitt Romney scores by the simple expedient of staying married to his high-school sweetheart, Ann, with whom he has five strapping sons. Newt Gingrich hasn’t been so lucky. Last week, Maureen Dowd devoted her entire New York Times column to eviscerating Gingrich’s current wife, Callista. Describing the third Mrs Gingrich as a ‘tranformational wife’ who wants her husband to go out there and conquer the world, Dowd wrote, “Draped in Tiffany diamonds, Callista is the embodiment of the divide between Gingrich’s public piety and private immorality.” Ouch!

This American-style spotlight on political wives has now even spread across the Atlantic, with the wives of British Prime Ministers playing a more visible public role. Nobody either heard or saw Norma Major when her husband was Prime Minister. But you couldn’t possibly say that about Cherie Blair now, could you? Even the more low-profile Sarah Brown was pulled out at the Labour Party conference to introduce her husband Gordon to the delegates in a speech aimed at ‘humanising’ him.

Now Samantha Cameron is a visible presence on the British political scene, supporting her husband at political events, flying the flag for British fashion, or hosting a gaggle of political spouses on the sidelines of major conferences. On the Continent, it is Carla Bruni who is flying the flag for the political wife, making joint appearances with her husband, Nicolas Sarkozy, to give his image a much-needed dose of glamour.

Thankfully, we in India are still holding out against this trend of making political spouses part of the political narrative. The only time we see Gursharan Kaur, wife of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in the papers is when she accompanies her husband on some foreign trip. Otherwise, she stays very much in the shadows, preserving her privacy behind the ramparts of Race Course Road.

Of the putative Prime Ministerial candidates on offer, Rahul Gandhi does not have a spouse (though it’s probably fair to say that she would get a fair amount of media attention if she did, in fact, exist). But even among the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidates, it is hard to put a face on the spouses of any of them. It has been rumoured that Narendra Modi has a wife, but I can’t seem to recall a single picture of her being published in the media. And I doubt that most people could identify Arun Jaitley’s wife or Sushma Swaraj’s husband if their lives depended on it.

No, in India, political spouses are just not part of the political discourse. We don’t care what they think about the political issues of the day; what they do to earn a living; or even, what they wear. And long may it stay that way.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

True lies

There are times when lying is the lubricant that keeps our society ticking over nicely

So, how many lies do you get through on an average day? Less than ten? More than 20? Around a 100? Well, if you’re hitting the three-figure mark, then it may be time to check in for some therapy. But if your individual score is less than 30, don’t worry: you come well within the normal range.

Because, truth be told, it is impossible to get through the day without lying to someone or the other about something or the other. No matter what you do, whom you meet, you will always come up against situations in which truth-telling is both cruel and needlessly hurtful. There will always be some situations in which honesty is demonstratively not the best policy.

And that’s when you will realise that lying is the lubricant that keeps our social contract in good working order.

Never mind all those moral science lessons that were drummed into you in school. Never mind what your religious texts tell you about how lying is a Very Bad Thing. Never mind the scolding you got whenever you lied to your parents as a kid. Now that you’re a grown-up you have to assess when telling the truth works; and when it is simply out of the question.

While each one of us will have to make our own individual assessments as we go along, I think we can agree that there are some areas where lying is always better than sticking to inconvenient truths.

First up is children. Other people’s children, that is. No matter how close you are to the parents, it is never a good idea to tell them the truth about how you feel about their kids (unless, of course, you adore them – in which case, go right ahead). But otherwise, discretion is always the better part of frankness.

Going to see a friend’s new-born baby? Remember to coo and sigh and say “How cute” and “How absolutely adorable” at appropriate intervals even if she/he resembles nothing more than a shrivelled-up prune which comes with its own surround sound.

Having dinner with friends with young children? Smile encouragingly when they are coaxed out of their bedrooms to regale you with the rhymes and songs they have learned at play school. Clap loudly when the ordeal ends even if you are bored to death. And nod along enthusiastically when the proud parents tell you how marvellously talented they are.

Nobody wants to know what you really think. Nobody wants the truth. They just want someone to validate their pride in their children. So be a pet and play along.

In fact, the only way to negotiate the social minefield is to spread a few lies around strategically so that you can step on them and avoid being blown up by a hidden landmine.

You may well think that your cousin’s new home is a monstrosity, a landmark to bad taste and too much money. But what’s the point in saying that (unless you want to pay him back for the time he locked you into a toilet for an entire day)? Admire his new sound system, exclaim over the Italian furniture, go into ecstasies over the Jacuzzi in the bathroom. There, it wasn’t that difficult, was it?

Your boss’s wife’s home-cooked dinner may be completely inedible but if you want a raise – and an invitation back next year – then act as if you’re enjoying every morsel. The sweater your grandmother knitted for you may be in execrable taste, but if you don’t want to break her heart you better wear it when you go to visit her (and tell her how much you love it while you’re at it). Your father-in-law may be driving you up the wall by regaling you the same stories over and over again. But don’t tell him that if you want your wife to be speaking to you at the end of the day.

A friend sends you his new novel and asks for your ‘honest’ opinion. Should you confess that you fell asleep over the first chapter? Of course not. He has an editor to tell him unpalatable truths. As his friend, you need to be supportive, even if that means offering up a few white lies at the altar of truth.

Your wife is getting ready to go out with the girls on their weekly night out. She pulls on her skinny jeans, pulls a face and turns to you with that old chestnut: “Does my bum look big in this?”

No, wait, what on earth are you doing? You are not supposed to actually look at the bum in question. That would imply that there was something to consider; a judgement to be made. No, trust me, you don’t want to go down that road. Just look at her straight in the eye and say: “No.”

If it makes you feel any better, rest assured she’s not going to wear that pair of jeans anyway. The reason she asked is because she’s already made up her mind that yes, her bum looks big in that. But it really isn’t for you to say.

Yes, sometimes people ask questions not because they want to know the truth. Sometimes they just ask them to find out if you care enough about them to lie. And sometimes a lie can tell the truth about a relationship much better than searing honesty.