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

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Dress Code

It really doesn’t matter what you wear; you can be a feminist in both a sari and a skirt

Women and clothes. It really doesn’t get more complicated than that. There’s conflicting advice coming from every corner. Everyone has an opinion on what you should or should not wear (and where you should or should not wear it). There are people who seem to believe that your choice of outfit has a direct connection with your personal safety. But no matter how much care you take to dress every morning – or evening – you can rest assured that there will always be someone out there who believes that in those clothes, you are simply asking for it.

As for me, all through my life, I have tended to take the path of least resistance when it came to clothes. Growing up in Calcutta, where I went to a school and college run by nuns, there was a certain assumption that ‘good girls’ always dressed conservatively. And quite frankly, I never had a problem with that. I wore salwar kameezes and churidar kurtas routinely and felt incredibly grown-up whenever I wore a sari on special occasions.

Looking back, I often wonder why more of us Loreto girls didn’t rebel against the unspoken dress code that even outlawed something as tame as pedal-pushers (if you have no idea what these are, consider yourself lucky). My guess is that it was mostly because we never really paid that much attention to what we wore. We didn’t see clothes as a means to making some sort of political statement. And I most certainly didn’t think that they defined who I was in any manner.

Clothes definitely did not make this woman, I would have said if I had given any thought to the matter. But quite honestly, I never did. I had more important things to think about (like when I would finally get through the interminable James Joyce opus; and why I could never keep all the characters in War and Peace straight in my head).

After college, I began working at the ABP group, which – in those days at least – was a bastion of orthodoxy. All the women wore saris to work (only one lady with a particularly racy reputation would wear tight kurtas with trousers, which was regarded as the height of daring) and I duly took my cue from them before relaxing into the odd salwar-kameez and finally graduating to that old journo standby, blue jeans.

However I may have dressed on my time off, at work I always veered towards the line of sartorial safety. I would no more have worn jeans and a T-shirt to cover an election rally in a rural area than I would have worn a bikini to an official banquet at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The idea was always to blend in, to seem non-threatening. If I was going to be the proverbial fly on the wall, then I had to be a cipher, nondescript enough to disappear into the background. I couldn’t be that girl in a Bermuda shorts, who thought she was striking a blow against patriarchy by showing off her legs.

But then, these are choices that most women of my generation made, because we wanted to be taken seriously – and we had bigger battles to fight. So, we wanted attention to be focussed on our brains rather than our bodies. And we wanted the conversation to be about our talent and professional abilities rather than our clothes.

I guess we’ve come a long way from that (er, baby, as the sexist Sixties line would have it). And in a way it is comforting that we now take enough of our freedoms for granted to finally be able to have that conversation about clothes. At some level, I suppose it must be seen as a sign of progress that women are all charged up to fight for their right to wear a mini-skirt and not be leered at.

But speaking for myself, I still find the idea of a Slut Walk risible in the Indian context, when women in rural areas who are wrapped up in six yards of fabric get sexually molested, assaulted and raped every day. And call me sexist if you will, but I find it hard to sympathise when women complain of being leered at after putting their breasts out on display in their latest push-up bras. Hell, there are times when even I gawp in horrified fascination at those acres of cleavage on display, so I’m not one to point fingers.

When it comes to clothes, though, I think the common-sense argument is the most compelling one. Of course, you can wear what you like. Of course, you can go where you like while you’re wearing it. And of course, nobody has the right to molest or rape you because of the way you’re dressed. But there is such a thing as ‘appropriate dressing’, and we would be fools to deny it just to sound politically correct. For instance, I still wouldn’t wear a short skirt to a political press conference. And I certainly wouldn’t wear a skimpy top while reporting from a rural area.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that clothes are really not that important. Because what you wear is not who you are. So, let’s not make the mistake of believing that our identity is wrapped up in our clothes. It is possible to be a feminist in a sari as well as a skirt – and we should never forget that.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Telly talk

News television has its own lexicon; here’s a ready primer

These days, as I settle down in front of the TV every evening, I am increasingly struck by how news television seems to occupy an alternate reality of its own, completely removed from the world as we know it. Events unfold at a breakneck pace; everything (no matter how trivial) is informed with a certain urgency; and yes, of course, everyone is much, much shriller. There seems to be no place for subtlety; no feel for nuance; and certainly no room for shades of grey – it’s all black and white even if it appears to be depicted in brilliant technicolour.

And in this parallel universe – populated by shouting, hectoring anchors, breathless, sometimes near-hysterical reporters, and guests who yell louder and louder in an attempt to be heard – words and phrases tend to take on a completely different meaning from the ones they have in the real world.

So, in an attempt to help you decipher the workings of your favourite news channel, here’s a ready reckoner of what things mean in the real world – and how they translate when they’re used on TV news.

Breaking News

In the real world: This means news that is of earth-shattering importance. The kind of event, announcement or development you hold the front page for. The key word in this phrase is not ‘breaking’ but ‘news’. What matters is the quality of the ‘news’ and the impact it has on us, not the fact that it is ‘breaking’.

For instance, it may be ‘breaking’ that Rakhi Sawant has had breast implants; but that does not make it ‘Breaking News’. On the other hand, if a bomb attack has been reported, a volcano has erupted, or a minister has been sacked, then the term ‘breaking’ may usefully be employed.

In the world of news TV: However, the term ‘Breaking News’ has come to mean any old bit of news that is coming through on the wires and will provide a welcome break from the tedium of half-hourly updates. So, it doesn’t matter if the news item in question is as frivolous as Deepika Padukone making a dig at her former boyfriend Ranbir Kapoor or as unexciting as the release of the list of candidates for the local municipality elections, it will still be described as ‘Breaking News’ and conveyed to the viewer in a suitably high-pitched tone.

As if this was not enough, one channel has gone even further and titled one of its prime-time shows ‘Breaking News’ – as if genuine ‘news’ would ‘break’ at a time of their choosing – thus making a complete and utter mockery of the phrase.


In the real world: There is no confusion about what the term ‘exclusive’ means. It means something that is available to only some people. In journalistic terms, the meaning is even plainer: an ‘exclusive’ refers to a piece of news, a breaking story, an interview, or some information that only one particular news outlet has access to.

It could be an ‘exclusive’ interview with the Prime Minister (assuming our Prime Minister ever found his voice). It could be the revelation of some documents in the 2G case. It could be a story about Rahul Dravid’s retirement; or even an interview with Shah Rukh Khan about his mid-life crisis.

But no matter what the story, it is only an ‘exclusive’ if nobody else has it. Pretty self-evident, don’t you think? No, not for the denizens of the news telly universe, apparently.

In the world of news TV: The word ‘Exclusive’ seems to mean the complete and exact opposite. Even when a news story is ‘breaking’ simultaneously across several channels, and even when all of them have the exact same information, each channel still insists on branding their story with an ‘Exclusive’ tag. Why do they bother when their viewers – who tend to surf through all news channels – can see for themselves that there is nothing ‘Exclusive’ about their information? Don’t ask me. I am as puzzled by this self-serving mendacity as you are.

First Look

In the real world: This means pretty much what it says. If a magazine says that it is bringing you the ‘first pictures’ of, say, Angelina and Brad’s new baby, then it means that nobody else has access to these pictures. If a newspaper promises you a ‘first look’ at some documents relating to the Adarsh scam, you can rest assured that these will not crop up in a rival publication on the same day.

In the world of news TV: Though, everyone rushes to assure us that they have been the ‘first’ to bring a story to our attention, even when this is patently untrue. But no matter what the event (or how tragic the circumstances), news channels vie with one another to tell us that they are the first to bring us visuals of a bomb blast/an earthquake/a tsunami/insert catastrophe of choice. Not only are these contradictory claims completely baffling but it also begs the question: is it really necessary to insert such an inappropriate note of self-congratulation in the coverage of what is essentially a disaster in human terms?

Spoke to our reporter

In the real world: This old chestnut means that the politician/film star/industrialist/sports star/celebrity actually spoke to the publication in question on a one-on-one basis, answering questions that a reporter put to them.

In the world of news TV: This seems a handy way to describe any press conference, where the channel’s reporter was also wielding a microphone on the grounds, presumably, that the reporter was also being ‘spoken to’. Go figure.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Prat Pack

Bring up your kids to believe in their non-existent talent; and they’ll soon be making fools of themselves on national television

Have you been watching some of the auditions for the so-called reality shows on Indian TV? You know the ones I mean: which promise to find the best singer in the country; the leading dancing star; or even the most talented performer across genres.

Well, if you have, then you will have been just as bemused to see some of the so-called contestants perform on these shows. There are putative singers who can’t hold a tune to save their lives and give the term tone-deaf an entirely new dimension. There are modelling hopefuls who are short and stout and could do with a spot of dental and dermatological work. There are actors who can’t act; dancers who seem to have been born with two left feet. I could go on, if it didn’t mean that I would rapidly lose the will to live.

I don’t know about you, but every time I watch some of these abominations which make a mockery of genuine talent, I can’t help but wonder how some people can be so delusional about their abilities – or more accurately, the lack thereof.

And now, much teeth-gnashing later, I have come to a conclusion: I blame the parents.

Sounds a tad harsh? Perhaps it is. But it is true nonetheless. Just think about it. How did these people grow up being so deluded about just how good they were about their singing/dancing/acting? It can’t have been because all their chums at school told them how brilliant they were. There is nothing like your fellow students for taking the mickey out of you and telling you that you are making a damned fool of yourself. And they certainly couldn’t have been encouraged by extended family or friends, who have the necessary distance to tell the truth – and with luck, the goodwill to have your best interests at heart.

The only people who could have made them believe in their non-existent talent were their doting parents, who gazed on them fondly through those proverbial rose-tinted glasses which make even the most unpromising youngster seem like a budding genius. Result: we have a whole set of people who have grown up believing in themselves despite every evidence to the contrary, only because Mummy and Daddy told them over and over again how brilliant they were, how so very wonderful, the absolute acme of perfection, in fact.

In some ways, I think, this is a generational thing. The New Age parent genuinely seems to think that the best way to bring up children is to tell them that they are perfect and that they can do no wrong, no matter how hard they try. Their slightest literary effort is praised to the skies. Their sporting ability is exaggerated beyond all rational bounds. And artistic talent is thrust upon them even when there is no evidence that they posses any. These kids are told over and over again how marvellous they are; that the world is their oyster; and all they have to do is go out and conquer it, like the alpha creatures they are.

Is it any wonder than that these kids grow up believing that they are absolutely fabulous? That they can do no wrong? And that the sun, as it were, shines out of their perfect posteriors?

The one place that these children could have the stuffing knocked out of them is at school. But even here the reigning philosophy seems to be to encourage children rather than bring them to terms with a realistic appraisal of their abilities. Now, it’s all about not grading the little mites, so as to not destroy their self-esteem. It’s all about not keeping score in games so that nobody feels like a loser. So, medals all around for merely turning up. And everyone is a winner.

Except that they’re not. There will always be kids who are rubbish at sport (I certainly was; that sad kid always last to be picked by any team). There will be children who can’t make sense of physics or math (yes, me again). And there will be students who can’t write a readable essay no matter how hard they try (aha, not me this time round, thank God). And no purpose is served by convincing the poor dears that they are actually any good at this stuff, when they are patently not.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am all for nurturing the self-confidence of children, of boosting their self-esteem, of inculcating a sense of self-belief in them. But let’s not kid ourselves. We are not going to achieve this by giving them a completely unrealistic view of their own abilities and talents. In fact, you could argue that it is the duty of every parent to tell his or her child just what he or she is good (or bad) at. Because sooner rather than later, these kids are going to go out into the real world where there are no prizes for coming second, let alone last.

So, for God’s sake, be honest with your kids as they grow up. Praise their achievements. But be sure to make them aware of their shortcomings too. Encourage their strengths but don’t fight shy of pointing out their weaknesses. They will thank you for it one day, no matter how much they hate you now.

And if you don’t, then be warned. One day in the not-so-distant future, it could be your kid up there making an absolute ass of himself (or herself) on national television. And believe me, you don’t want that.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The naked truth

Wear a bikini if you want to – life is too short to be scared of a little cellulite or a large muffin top

Bikinis have been very much on my mind all of last week. Not because it’s a furnace out there and the swimming pool has never looked more tempting. No, I’ve been thinking of bikinis because of something that my late, great heroine, Nora Ephron, wrote in her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck. Talking about the pains of ageing she wrote: “Oh, how I regret not having worn a bikini for the entire year I was 26. If anyone young is reading this, go, right this minute, put on a bikini, and don’t take it off until you’re 34.”

Now, I must confess that I’ve never ever worn a bikini: not at 16, not at 26, leave alone at 34. Partly, this is down to the fact that no matter how hard I tried – and I promise you, I did – I never did get the hang of that swimming thing. And partly, it is because I lacked the chutzpah to carry off wearing what is essentially underwear – except in nicer colours and styles – in front of a bunch of strangers as I lounged around the pool.

But now, as all the Ephron obituaries and tributes dutifully trot out her thoughts on bikinis (among other things: my favourite Ephron line is “Be the heroine of your life; not the victim”; and her bitchily pointing out that her second husband, Carl Bernstein, would even ‘make love to a Venetian blind’) I have begun to wonder if I did, in fact, leave it too late. You know what they say about youth being wasted on the young? Well, my youthful skinniness was certainly wasted on me...

Or wait, was it? Much as I would like to swear by all things Ephron, I have to concede that the zeitgeist on bikinis seems to have shifted since her book came out. When she wrote it, Ephron was 64, and the book had a gently elegiac quality about it, almost as if – in retrospect – it was foreshadowing her own death at 71.

But even as Ephron was writing sadly, if wittily, “If you’re fortunate enough to be in a sexual relationship, you’re not going to have the sex you once had. Plus, you can’t wear a bikini”, there were other women – her near contemporaries in age – who were all set to prove her wrong.

A mere two years later, across the Atlantic, the fabulous Helen Mirren was pictured in a bright red-bikini, frolicking in the sea with her husband, and looking like a million bucks. This was in 2008, when both Mirren and her husband were 63 years old. And yet, there they were, behaving like giddy, madly-in-love teenagers as they cavorted on the beach in Puglia with Mirren’s bikini body looking good enough to put any teenage girl to shame.

Since then, we have had our share of 40, 50 and 60-somethings lining up to show us that there are still some bikini years left in them. Whether it is the 44-year-old Carla Bruni, the 48-year-old Courtney Cox, the 56-year-old Jerry Hall or the 59-year-old Marie Helvin, they have all done their bit to prove that bikinis can look just as good on women of a certain age as they do on nubile young girls.

But then, these are women who look good for their age – hell, they look great for any age! What about the rest of us, who struggle to keep our muffin tops under control, who have borne children and have the scars to prove it, who have wobbly bits that no amount of lycra can keep under control?

What about the average woman like you and me? Should we dutifully set aside our bikinis at the magic age of 34 and slip into one-pieces (and oblivion)? Or should we throw off our inhibitions along with those much-despised one-pieces and put our mid-riffs boldly on display?

Well, I got my answer on a recent holiday in Italy when I ventured out into the hotel swimming pool. Every single woman in the pool area was wearing a bikini. Some of them were thin and toned. Others were overweight and out of shape. And then there were those who were, quite frankly, obese. And yet all of them sported their bikinis with such insouciance that I could only admire their self-confidence and their ease with their bodies.

Their breasts spilled out, their bellies flopped over, their bikini bottoms could barely contain their bums. But did they care? No, not a jot. They happily swam in the pool, went kayaking, sun-bathed, and even fetched up at the bar for a drink. I am ashamed to admit that I watched with a certain horrified fascination to begin with. And then, soon enough the novelty of all those lady bits on display wore off and I began to wonder what the fuss was about.

After all, if you are confident enough – and comfortable enough – to wear a bikini to the swimming pool, then why should you let any kind of body fascism stop you? As far as I am concerned when it comes to getting dressed – for the beach; the pool; the office; or a party – there is only one rule that matters. And that is: There are no rules.

That said, much as I admire these women, I have to admit that I won’t be wearing a bikini any time soon – not unless there is a tropical villa with a private pool involved. And even then – call me craven if you will – I’m going to keep that sarong well within reach.