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

Friday, May 25, 2012

Do I look fat in this baby?

It’s time we laid off Aishwarya Rai for not losing those post-pregnancy pounds – it’s her body; and it’s her business

Unless you have been living on another planet you will probably know that Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan became proud parents to a baby girl about six months ago. And many congratulations to them.

This is a deliriously happy time in any couple’s life, and why should the Rai-Bachchans be any different? This was their time to bond with their first-born, memorize her every expression as she fell asleep, light up at her first smile, snuggle deep into her neck to get their fill of that delicious baby smell, kiss her pudgy little toes and marvel at how fast her nails grew.

Right? Well, I would certainly think so.

But no, there seems to be a section of an increasingly misogynistic media which believes that Aishwarya has it completely wrong. Bonding with her baby? Staying at home to spend time with the little one? Focussing only on her daughter to the exclusion of all else? Enjoying motherhood without even a nod to personal vanity?

What was she thinking? She should be at the gym, working out twice a day to drop all that weight that she had piled on during her pregnancy. She should have consulted with a dietician to starve herself down to supermodel proportions even before she had weaned the wee mite.

After all, that’s what superstars are supposed to do. That’s how celebrities mothers are expected to behave. Because if they don’t collapse back into their pre-pregnancy shape in a matter of weeks, then how can they make the rest of us feel bad about ourselves? If they don’t make it out of the maternity ward in skinny jeans, then who on earth will take on the task of destroying our self-esteem (not to mention our self-image)?

Cue: obligatory mentions of such celebrities as Victoria Beckham and Anjelina Jolie, who miraculously – or rather, mysteriously – seem to snap back into shape an hour or so after popping one (or two, in Jolie’s case) out.

In fact, such is the obsession with Aishwarya’s post-baby weight gain that if you type these magic words into the Google search engine, no less than 377,000 results pop up. The most popular of these links is a video which has been uploaded on Youtube showing before and after pictures of Aishwarya, who, we are told, has ‘shockingly’ put on five to six kilos (oh! The horror; the horror!). And in case you still didn’t get how awful this development this, the ‘fat’ images of Aishwarya are accompanied with the noise of an elephant trumpeting while a female voice-over asks in hectoring tones: “Isn’t it time she hired a trainer to sweat it out in a gym?” She has an obligation to her fans to look good, you know.

What complete and utter tosh!

The only obligation Aishwarya Rai has at the moment is to be a good and attentive mother to her baby girl. The only obligation she has is to remain healthy enough so that she can nurse her new-born. The only obligation she has is to spend time with her daughter to enjoy the joys of new motherhood.

Her body, her weight, her BMI, her diet, her exercise regime – how she deals with it, or even how she feels about it, is no concern of ours. Her body is her own; her shape is her own business; and we need to lay off her and mind our own business (and our own bodies).

And yet, the commentary just goes on and on. Even the British tabloid, The Daily Mail, which generally restricts itself to keeping a strict watch on the cellulite count of international stars, was concerned enough to run a long article on Aishwarya’s weight gain, which it claimed had ‘sparked outrage’ in India. The headline said it all: Aishwarya Rai “accused of betraying her country for failing to lose weight”.

Yeah, right. That’s what millions of Indians were outraged about. That’s why they felt betrayed. Because Aishwarya Rai was still carrying a few post-baby pounds on her frame. Honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up!

Well, so far, so sexist. But then, nobody expects much better from the Daily Mail, which has made a fetish out of focussing on the wobbly bits of celebrities.

But there is something seriously wrong with the world when even an otherwise ‘worthy’ newspaper like The Guardian jumps into the fray with an article titled “Aishwarya Rai’s post-baby body forces India to confront its attitude to women”, faithfully rehashing all the commentary on Aishwarya’s weight gain, albeit in a suitably po-faced manner. Well played, indeed.

I don’t know about you, but I find it vastly depressing to see how even pregnancy and early motherhood are now discussed and dissected through the prism of weight gain. It’s like we have a new variation on “Does my bum look big in this?” Now it’s all about “Do I look fat in this baby?”

So, full marks to Aishwarya Rai for refusing to give in to this body fascism. She’s a new mother; she’s put on a few pounds; and she refuses to shed them according to some media-mandated timetable. More power to her. May her tribe increase – and not just figuratively.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The bimbo eruptions

When it comes to cricket commentary, it’s not a fine leg that matters

If you ask me, it all started with Mandira Bedi. Yes, the same Mandira Bedi who materialised on our TV screens nearly two decades ago, resplendent in noodle-strap blouses and low-waisted saris to hold forth on fine legs, cover drives, hook shots and maiden overs. Bless her, she often didn’t get them quite right but who could tell? Everyone was so transfixed by that one bare shoulder (Was she wearing a blouse? Wasn’t she?) and glimpses of that washboard stomach that nobody cared if she got her silly point mixed up with her square leg.

And thus began the cult of the Indian woman sportscaster as bimbo. Don’t get me wrong. Many of the women who have since graced our television screens holding forth on everything from tennis to badminton, from football to cricket, have been pretty darn knowledgeable about the games they commentate about. (Well, okay, some of them have been pretty darn knowledgeable.) But for reasons that I find truly baffling, they all have to fit in with the Mandira paradigm.

That is to say that while their male colleagues can sit back and relax in their suits and ties (and matching turbans in the case of the irrepressible Navjot Singh Sidhu) the ladies have to squeeze into impossibly tight dresses that stop well short of their knees, leave at least one shoulder bare and expose just the right amount of cleavage to keep the punters interested.

Actually, the promos of IPL’s Extra Innings just about say it all. It has all its presenters running into frame and then freezing as they get up to all sorts of ludicrous poses. But while the men hop, skip and jump in their well-tailored suits, or T-shirts and jeans teamed with sports jackets, the women run in slow motion in tiny black dresses and billowing skirts that pouf up tantalisingly so that you feel for one heart-stopping second that you may just glimpse their bare essentials. It’s all very Marilyn Monroe, except that the girl in question is a brunette not a blonde and is wearing a red not a white dress.

But these small details apart, it’s staggeringly clear what the game plan is here. The men are there to add gravitas, to talk intelligently about cricket, rib each other good-naturedly, tell long and tedious anecdotes about their own cricketing days and when things begin to get a little boring, spice things up by making nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to the scantily-clad girls in the middle who are supposed to chat up the cricketers in the breaks. “Ah,” says one bearded fellow as the sixes and fours become a little scarce on the ground, “Let’s see what Archana/Shibani have for us in the field.” Snigger, snigger.

In case you haven’t been watching, that’s Archana Vijaya, a model and veejay who has now graduated to hosting such cricket shows as the IPL, and Shibani Dandekar, who describes herself as a model and singer and has recently returned to India after growing up in Australia and working as a TV anchor in America.

Now I would have no problem with how scantily these girls were dressed – God knows, they are showing much less skin than the cheerleaders doing their stuff on the sidelines – if they had actual cricketing conversations when they are down in the field wielding a microphone in front of some hapless cricketer or the other. Instead, we are treated to a stream of inanities while the action continues tantalisingly out of range. So while Archana/Shibani is asking some bowling coach how he is feeling about the team’s chances, a ball goes whizzing past the boundary line, a close call for a run-out is missed, and finally a wicket falls. And then, thankfully, the adults in the room upstairs take over and the little girls are told to make themselves scarce.

They can come back when all the action is over, the trophies have been distributed, the man of the match interviewed, and then they can do a little jig with Shah Rukh Khan as he teaches them how to achieve the right angle while attempting Bollywood-style pelvic thrusts.

Honestly! Is this really all that women are capable to contributing to a cricket game? Isn’t there one woman who has enough cricketing knowledge to sit in the studio beside Harsha Bhogle and Ajay Jadeja and hold forth authoritatively about the match?

Oh yes, actually there is. She’s called Isa Guha, and has played cricket for the England women’s cricket team and is part of the ITV sports commentary team. So, I was quite pleasantly surprised to see her sitting next to Harsha one fine day, speaking such absolute sense that it made me wish that Sidhu would take a permanent leave of absence from the studio and leave the lovely Isa to regale us with her wisdom.

But guess what? Nobody seemed to be paying the blindest bit of attention to what she said. The social media was all agog about her outfit, twitter was abuzz with talk about her cleavage, and Facebook was busy rating her charms against Shibani and Archana. The poor girl could have been spouting Swahili for all it mattered.

I don’t know about you, but I blame Mandira Bedi.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Word of mouth

Why food is probably the most mood-altering substance around...

Last week I wrote about the kind of woman I could imagine being best mates with. And how I couldn’t possibly be friends with a woman who refused to break bread – yes, literally – with me. To be honest, I’ve always thought this to be something of a personal idiosyncrasy; my obsession with classifying people by what they do or do not eat. But going by the contents of my mail box, I am coming around to the view that I am not alone in judging people by their relationship to food. As the cliché goes: you are what you eat.

Speaking for myself, I believe that food is the most powerful mood-altering substance around. What I eat or drink has a direct connection with how I feel. And how I feel has a direct co-relation with what I want to eat.

When I’m feeling a bit blah about the world, nothing cheers me up more instantly than a quick-fix of chocolate. On particularly stressful days, a judicious dose of carbohydrates can have a calming effect. And there’s nothing to beat the caffeine rush of a cold Diet Coke on a warm summer day.

But just as a good meal can have me burping with satisfaction for days afterwards, there’s nothing quite like a bad meal to put me in a vile mood for the rest of the day. First of all, there’s the opportunity lost, a meal that I will never ever get to enjoy again. Then, there’s the small matter of all those empty calories that have been consumed without any concomitant pleasure.

Small wonder then that I am always so disgruntled at the end of a bad meal – and as hungry as when I began eating. No matter how many calories I have scoffed, if the food doesn’t satisfy my taste buds, it doesn’t assuage my hunger pangs either. So, after a dissatisfying meal, I invariably end up eating another meal to make up for the first.

And then begins the self-loathing. What was I thinking? How could I possibly have eaten a sandwich after that three-course French meal? How could I have come back home and stuffed my face with chocolate after dining at a friend’s house? Why on earth can’t I just let one bad meal go?

But no matter how hard I try to resist, food continues to exert its visceral hold on me. 

It’s funny how this stuff works. I must have a steaming cup of coffee beside me before I feel ready to power up my laptop and begin to work. But slip a sandwich into the mix and suddenly all I want to do is surf endlessly through all the trashier news sites on the internet. Somehow in my mind coffee equals work but coffee plus food equals mindless surfing.

Similarly, I don’t really feel like I am on holiday unless I can order a really sinful treat for my room service breakfast (think French toast, pancakes, waffles, or anything that can induce a sugar rush). But once I’m at home, it doesn’t feel right eating anything other than organic muesli with low-fat milk first thing in the morning.

In times of stress I long for the comfort food of my childhood, the nursery delights of nostalgia. The bread pakoras of the school canteen; the mashed potato toasties mum would make for an evening snack; the frosted cupcakes that were served at every birthday party; the illicit chaat that I had sneak away to eat. Just a tiny mouthful of any of these is enough to transport me back to the safe, secure haven of my school days.

I only have to plop one oversized, overflowing puchhka in my mouth to be transported back to my days in Calcutta when we would stand at the balcony for hours waiting for our favourite vendor to come trotting by (there was just something about his water mix!). Unfortunately, I have never found a puchhkawalla to match his skills in all the years since.

There’s nothing that makes me obsess more about food, though, than being on a diet. That’s when I begin to dream about such high-calorie treats as a greasy biryani, a creamy risotto, fluffy puris, full-fat ice-cream, baked cheesecake, and icy-cold magnums of champagne.

Ah, champagne! There’s nothing quite like a bit of bubbly to elevate an utterly ordinary meal into a memorable occasion. In fact, Sunday brunch at a fancy restaurant never seems quite right without copious quantities of champagne (or Prosecco or any other sparkling wine). There is just something so celebratory about the loud pop as the bottle is opened, the hiss of the wine as it hits the glass, the frothy bubbles that always threaten to spill over and stain the table-cloth, and that first sip that hits the roof of your mouth with memories of great meals past.

Ah, happy days!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

My kind of woman

How can you tell whom you are likely to be best mates with?

There are some questions that always pop up when a group of young girls gets together. Who is your kind of man? What qualities do you look for in a guy? How would you like your future husband to be?

The answers are often as hackneyed as the questions. The words ‘tall, dark and handsome’ have been known to be uttered. As have ‘sensitive and caring’. A sense of humour is always touted as a desirable quality. And everyone wants a well-educated, even ambitious, man though only a few will admit to looking out for a rich one.

I guess all of us start out with a mental checklist against which we judge any potential mates. It is another matter that this checklist is the first thing to go out of the window when true love strikes. Then, it doesn’t matter if he stands a couple of inches shorter than you or how deep his pockets are. It doesn’t matter if his jokes are unfunny and he doesn’t have a hint of a six pack. And it certainly doesn’t matter that he doesn’t look like one of those pin-ups you idolised throughout your teenage years.

Once you’ve fallen in love, even the most unsuitable of creatures begins to look like your ideal man. And no matter what he is or how he is, he magically metamorphoses into your kind of man.

But then, that’s love for you. It has the knack of turning the world on its head. It has a way of making everything you once believed in seem futile and foolish. As the song goes: “I stand alone without belief; the only truth I know is you.”

Perhaps that is why I have never wanted to define – not even in my head – who my kind of man would be. At some subliminal level I guess I always believed that when I met him, I would know.

But women – ah, now we’re talking. I’ve always been very clear in my head about who my kind of woman is. (And just so we’re clear, by that I mean the kind of woman I could be friends with; not one whom I dream of having babies with.)

It all began – as things tend to do – in school. It didn’t take me long to realise that I wasn’t really cut out for sport and rough-housing of any kind. So hanging out with the sporty, tomboy types was out of the question. Instead, all potential friends had to pass what I called the ‘Do you read Enid Blyton?’ test and only those who had read everything from the Secret Seven to the Famous Five and the Mallory Towers series were in with a chance.

As I grew older, this test was further refined. Anyone who dissed Georgette Heyer as just another romance writer was off my radar in less time than it took to say Beau Brummel. Later still, all those who regarded Ayn Rand as the Fountainhead of all wisdom got short shrift. And more recently, Dominick Dunne has become my litmus test for People Like Us (or, more accurately, People Whom I Like).

But books are just the beginning. The tests of incipient friendship extend far beyond them. Take bread, for instance. No, I mean that. Take bread. Go on, take it. Break off a morsel, slather on some butter, or dip it in olive oil, and plop it into your mouth. Um, delicious, isn’t it?

What? You don’t eat bread? Or carbs of any kind, except on the weekend? Oh well, it was nice knowing you, but this kind of abstention spells goodbye in my book.

In fact, truth be told, food can be a landmine littered with the corpses of would-be friends. You want to share a salad? A salad? Seriously? You can’t even commit to an entire portion of lettuce leaves and rocket finished off with a touch of balsamico? Sorry, but that’s a deal-breaker for me. (Now, sharing a dessert – a nice, gooey, chocolaty concoction – that I can totally get on board with.)

Okay, you got me. I like a woman who enjoys her high-calorie treats, who doesn’t shy away from a bit of pasta or a slice of pizza. I like a woman who has an appetite and is not afraid to feed it. Though it can get a tad annoying if she stays startlingly thin at the end of all that face-stuffing.

And then, there are those women whom I know I would simply never get along with in a million years even if they shared my reading lists and my love for a perfectly crisp French fry. These are just some of the categories that come to mind:

·         The kind of women who wear high heels on long-haul flights. You see them at airports all the time, teetering on laughably high stilettos, mincing along on shoes that look more like torture instruments. These are the women who would puncture the evacuation slide if the plane ever had to make an emergency landing. You want to steer clear of them.

·         Women who are rude to waiters. Though, to be fair, this one applies to men as well.

·         Women who treat their domestic staff badly. It doesn’t matter how beautifully you behave in company if you go back and terrorise your house help. If you can’t treat the people who clean and cook for you – and look after your children for good measure – with respect (if not love) then what hope is there for the rest of us?