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

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Have you come a long way, baby?

Jennifer Aniston is rich, famous and successful: and yet, the media persist in painting her as the eternal victim

So, how would you feel about a glamorous, gorgeous Hollywood star with millions in the bank and a steady succession of positively edible eye-candy on the arm? A star who holidayed in scenic locations throughout the year, showing off bronzed limbs and a perfectly-toned torso? A star who made frequent appearances in the gossip columns, thanks to a torrid and sometimes hectic love life? A star who seemed to have everything: money, fame, success, and lots of sex?

Let me guess. You would admire this apocryphal figure, right? You would gaze enviously at the holiday homes and the private jets. You would marvel at the numbers of partners notched up. You would wonder about how lucky some people can get.

Yes, if we were talking about George Clooney, this is exactly how most people would respond. Here’s a handsome movie star with a jet-setting lifestyle, complete with private planes, holiday homes in exotic locations, and a bevy of interchangeable beauties who seemed to grow ever younger as he grew older and greyer.

Wow! What’s not to love? Or to envy.

But if the star in question was Jennifer Aniston, the reaction would be very different, wouldn’t it? As, indeed, would the narrative, even when the facts of the case are much the same.

Yes, the rules are reversed when it comes to the ladies. So while Clooney is written up as the man who has everything, Jennifer Aniston must always be portrayed as ‘poor old Jen’, always so unlucky in love. First, her husband, Brad Pitt, left her to play Happy Families with his Mr and Mrs Smith co-star, Angelina Jolie. Then her rebound guy, Vince Vaughn, didn’t quite work out. And let’s not even get into John Mayer (honestly, what was she thinking?) or what’s his face, Paul Sculfor.

And now, poor thing, she’s looking for love with a younger man, Justin Theroux. But hang on. She is now 43. Yes, you read that right: 43. Is it too late for her to have babies? Has she put her ovaries on ice for far too long? Can she ever have the fairy-tale ending that all women long for: with a doting husband and a brood of beautiful babies?

Poor old Jen, indeed! It must be a dreadful life, right? To have made enough money to never have to work again unless you choose to; to have your pick of the handsome leading men of Hollywood; to still look amazing on the shady side of 40; to be in control of your life. God, I can’t quite figure out how she copes!

But sarcasm aside, isn’t it a tiny bit worrying that even if you are a Hollywood star in the 21st century, you still have to abide by some romantic, medieval notion of how women should live their lives? That unless you are in a happy marriage – which has produced a couple of kids – your life is essentially worthless. And that you must be spending all your time chasing that ever-elusive dream; no matter how loudly you protest otherwise.

To be fair to Jennifer Aniston, she has never played into the poor old Jen narrative of her life story, as retold by the tabloid press. She never tires of pointing out that she is fed up of the eternal triangle she is expected to form with ex-husband Brad and his new partner Angelina. She has moved on; and so should we. She loves her bachelor lifestyle. She is in no hurry to get married again. And she is not sure about having children because kids can get a bit ‘messy’. In other words, she loves her life the way it is.

But no matter what Aniston may say, somehow the narrative of Jen as victim has gotten some sort of insidious hold on the world. And even now, when Justin has announced that he got the ‘best birthday present ever’ on his 41st birthday when Jennifer accepted his proposal (and an eight carat, emerald-cut diamond ring), we are still not willing to let it go.

So now, it’s become all about how Aniston, the poor thing, is trying to steal the Jolie-Pitt thunder by announcing her engagement in the week before her ex-husband and his partner are planning to get hitched in a private wedding at their French chateau. Poor old Jen. She never did get over being dumped by Brad.

Meanwhile, George Clooney continues to party his way across the world with his current squeeze, the former wrestler (honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up!), Stacey Keibler, having dumped the gorgeous Italian model, Elizebetta Canalis, when she became too clingy. Nobody treats him like a failure because he has never re-married after a brief fling with matrimony early in life. And nobody regards him with pity because he has failed to procreate (though, God knows, the world could do with a few mini-Clooneys).

George Clooney and Jennifer Aniston have a lot in common. They both started out as TV sensations, he with ER, she with Friends. They both went on to have film careers, albeit with varying degrees of success. They both had failed first marriages. And they both went on to have a string of relationships afterwards. But you wouldn’t guess that from the way their stories are told by the media.

I guess in the end it really doesn’t matter just how far you’ve come, baby. If you’re a woman, your life is still deemed worthless unless you have a baby (or two), and a husband to call your own. Yes, even if you are Jennifer Aniston.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Hear no evil; see no evil

The tragic death of Pallavi Purkayastha is a chilling commentary on urban life today

It’s a nightmare scenario that every woman replays ever so often in the dark corners of her brain – along with the fevered prayer that it never comes true. But for Pallavi Purkayastha, that nightmare became all too real when she was attacked and killed in her Mumbai apartment by a building watchman, Sajjad Ahmed Mughal, who had become obsessed with her.

It was sometime after midnight when the lights went out in her flat; she called the building’s maintenance to complain. The electricians came upstairs to repair the fault, accompanied by the watchman. When the electricians had departed, the watchman saw his opportunity. He stole the house keys, waited for a while and then let himself in to attack Pallavi, who was by then asleep in her bedroom.

He tried to rape her, she resisted; he attacked her with a knife, she fought back. He slashed her wrists and throat. Bleeding profusely, she ran out of her flat and rang her neighbours’ bell (there are four other flats on the floor; she is believed to have rung the bells outside at least two). Nobody responded. Her assailant dragged her back into her flat and continued to attack her. He then left Pallavi Purkayastha, a 25 year old lawyer with a bright and glittering future ahead of her, to bleed quietly to death. Her murder was reported only at 5.30 am when her partner, Avik Sengupta, came back home and found her lying in a pool of blood.

I can only marvel at the bravery of this young woman who fought so doggedly against a man who was holding a knife to her throat. I can only salute the courage that led her to escape his clutches long enough to run out for help. And I can’t even begin to imagine the horror of fear and desperation her last moments must have been when nobody came to her rescue.

And while we all mourn for Pallavi Purkayastha today, her death is much more than a personal tragedy for her parents, her soon-to-be husband, family and friends. It is also a chilling commentary on urban life today.

It doesn’t matter how hard you try to stay safe. You can live in a gated community, you can have private security, you can install CCTV all around, you can have intercoms to summon help. But in the end, you are on your own. You can’t rely on the security guards who are supposed to safeguard you. And you certainly can’t hope for any help from the people next door.

It has become something of a cliché now to complain about how neighbourly ties are breaking down in our metro cities, and how people are becoming increasingly anti-social. There is certainly no denying that everyone increasingly lives in isolated silos, not caring to even know the name of the person next door. We revel in the anonymity that city life affords us, allowing us to do our own thing. And while we all have stories about neighbours from hell (whose children deface our walls with graffiti; who throw garbage over their walls into our backyards; who lure our staff away; who play loud music late into the night) our choicest abuse is reserved for those who are perceived as being ‘nosey’ – as in taking an interest in your life.

I have to confess that like most people of my generation, I have always been leery about neighbours who try to pry into my business. But today, as I sit down to write this, I can’t help but wish that Pallavi Purkayastha had been blessed by such ‘nosey’ neighbours, people who were curious enough to peep out when the bell rang late at night, and who would then take the trouble to investigate if anything was amiss.

Instead, the people living on Pallavi’s floor seem to be part of the ‘let’s not get involved’ fraternity, who turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the goings-on next door, on the grounds that it is none of their business. But even so, I imagine it takes a special sort of indifference to not respond to a blood-splattered woman ringing your doorbell in the early hours of the morning; to turn away and go back to sleep even though the landing outside is soaked with blood; to not even pick up the phone and call the police control room or emergency services.

We do not know whether Pallavi’s life could have been saved if her neighbours had intervened – if not personally than by summoning help – but at least she would have died knowing that she was not alone. The knowledge that there were people out there who cared enough to come to her rescue may have been of some comfort to her as life bled slowly out of her.

And at the very least, if her neighbours had been vigilant enough – leave alone caring enough – they could have helped apprehend her attacker who dumped the murder weapon and fled the scene. It was a stroke of good luck that the police caught up with him at the train station before he boarded the train to Kashmir. But he could just as easily have gotten away – and that really does not bear thinking about.

I can only hope and pray that those people who claim to have not heard the bell ringing in the dead of night never find themselves – or their children – in trouble. And that if they ever do, they are not met with the same indifference with which they treated that desperate, frightened young woman.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The medium is the message

Lessons the Indian media can learn from the TV coverage of the Wisconsin gurudwara shooting

All acts of senseless violence are reprehensible, but there is something particularly disturbing about an attack that takes place at a place of worship and targets people at prayer. As the news broke late on Sunday night of a shooting at a gurudwara in Wisconsin, I watched the nightmare unfold live on American TV news channels and via Twitter updates by people who were on site.

What has stayed with me since then was the incredible bravery of the president of the gurudwara, Satwant Kaleka, who lost his life in a bid to tackle the gunman; the tragic death of the priest Prakash Singh, who had just moved his wife and son to America; the helpless grief of those who stood outside wondering what had become of their loved ones inside the building; the courage of the policeman who engaged the shooter in an encounter and killed him before he could do any further damage; and the astonishing news that the Sikhs gathered outside had offered food and water to the journalists reporting on the incident as part of their ‘langar sewa’.

But as I think back on the whole episode, I am also beginning to appreciate the restraint and tact of the media coverage of the incident. And try as I may, I can’t help but contrast it unfavourably with the way we in the India media cover such acts of terrorism.

In Wisconsin, there was never any danger of the terrorists getting any tactical advantage from watching the TV news. All the news channels abided by the diktat that they should not show any footage that gave away the position of the SWAT teams that were deploying to storm the temple. The cameras also obediently pulled away from aerial shots of the gurudwara once they were asked by the authorities to do so. And despite all these precautions, they still erred on the side of caution by putting out a delayed feed so that the terrorists didn’t have any real-time information of events unfolding outside.

Contrast this with the way in which the Indian news channels covered the events of 26/11 in Mumbai. There were a cluster of TV crews outside the Taj Mahal and Oberoi hotels giving minute-by-minute coverage of what the security agencies were planning so that the terrorists only had to turn on a television set to find out what they were up against. Some reporters even gave away the location of where some of the hostages were hiding, thus enabling the terrorists to hunt them down and kill them.

Live pictures of every development were beamed all across the world – including Pakistan, giving the terrorists’ handlers a front-row seat to the carnage. For instance, when the NSG commandoes rappelled down on Chabad House to rescue the hostages, their operation was show in real time by most TV channels (only a couple had the wisdom to put in a time lag) thus taking away the surprise element that is crucial to any such attack.

And then there was the insensitive, even callous treatment of relatives and friends who were waiting outside hoping for news of their loved ones. It can’t have been easy having microphones thrust into their faces and asked variations of that old chestnut, “And how are you feeling?” (“Aap ko kaisa lag raha hai.”). In Winsconsin, on the other hand, the loved ones of those inside the gurudwara were corralled away from the site at a safe distance, and the media questioning – when it happened – was both sensitive and sensible.

But the pictures that still haunt me from the TV coverage of 26/11 are the ones of the hostages finally emerging from the Oberoi hotel, having been rescued after a hellish night. The moment they came out, the TV cameras were on them, the microphones thrust into their catatonic faces. “Tell us what happened”, “How many people are dead inside?”, “Did you see the terrorists?”

Can you even imagine what that feels like? To spend the night wondering whether you are going to survive to see another day, to see your friends and family mowed down in front of you, to finally emerge from that nightmare – and then have to negotiate a bunch of loud, raucous reporters walking all over one another to ask you a bunch of asinine questions. That’s exactly what all those who had been rescued had to encounter the moment they walked free.

Contrast this with Wisconsin, where we didn’t even see a glimpse of the hostages. The authorities evacuated them once they had sanitised the gurudwara interiors, but safely out of sight of the cameras. Their traumatised faces were kept out of the press; their privacy was respected by the authorities who did not give out any names; and they did not have to run the gauntlet of a media grilling the moment they walked out.

Leave alone the hostages, we didn’t even see close-ups of dead bodies, or screen shots of injured people. And the hospitals refused to release the names of those who were being treated out of respect for their families. In India, the camera crews would have been right outside the emergency room, trying to get in as many gruesome shots as they could for the benefit of their viewers.

Yes, there is a lot that is wrong with America – its gun laws, for instance, which allow such lunatics access to serious weaponry. But there are some things that it does get right – and its media coverage of such terror attacks, for one, is worth emulating.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Making up is easy to do

But would you be willing to go bare-faced in front of the world?

You know how they say that no matter how tired (or drunk) you are, there are certain things that you do on auto-pilot. Take off your shoes before collapsing into bed. Put your wallet into your bedside drawer when you get home. Keep the car keys on the table just beside the front door.

Well, in my case, the auto-pilot works best when I am leaving the house. A squirt of sunscreen to smear over my face and neck. A slash of kajal on the lower and upper eyelids to (as all those make-up artists promise optimistically) ‘open up’ my eyes. A dab of concealer to banish the dark circles earned after decades of reading much too late into the night. A dash of lipstick. And then to round it off, a fritz of perfume.

And voila, I am ready to face the world.

Now I know that this sounds ridiculously low-maintenance to all those ladies out there who start off with toner, go on primer, then slather on the foundation and blend, blend, blend. And for those who wear eye-shadow and mascara as a matter of course, my amateurish attempts with kajal and concealer must seem laughably crude.

But however slapdash the process of putting it together, this is my work face. My world face. This is the face I must put into place before I have the courage to face the world. And even though it isn’t all heavy-duty pancake and lashings of blusher, I still feel naked if I venture out without it.

And with good reason. On the few occasions when I have sailed out to face the world without kajal/kohl/eyeliner (say, after an eye infection) I have always been greeted with such solicitous stock phrases as: “Have you been sleeping well?” “You look a bit tired” “Are you feeling all right?” “You look a bit pale; all well?”

At first I played fair. No, no, I’m fine, I would assure everyone. It’s just that I’m not wearing kajal today. Yeah right, they would say, stopping just short of rolling their eyeballs, all the while wondering why I couldn’t just admit to being a trifle out of sorts. So now, I just play along and say that I’m feeling a bit under the weather and resign myself to the pampering that follows. (If you can’t convince them, hoodwink them.)

But if these experiences have taught me anything, it is not to be ever caught without my face on. It’s really not nice to scare little children. Or, for that matter, to make my friends believe that I am secretly suffering from some terminal disease.

So, you can imagine the awe I felt when I saw the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, leave off her face when she made her recent trip to the sub-continent. There she was in Bangladesh, without a scrap of make-up on her face except for a slash of red lipstick, her eyes hidden behind large, black-rimmed glasses, her hair pulled back in an untidy ponytail, laughing away as if she didn’t have a care in the world – and certainly didn’t care what you thought she looked like.

Oh my, the bare-faced effrontery of it all! (And how I wished I could be half as brave.)

Clearly, I was not the only one to be gobsmacked because Hillary’s no make-up look even warranted a mention in her interview to CNN. When asked why she had left off the gunk, Hillary laughed and said: “I feel so relieved to be at the stage I’m at in my life right now...if I want to wear my glasses I’m wearing my glasses. If I want to wear my hair back I’m pulling my hair back...at some point it’s just not something that deserves a lot of time and attention. If others want to worry about it, I’ll let them do the worrying for a change...It’s just not something that I think is that important anymore.”

That, of course, spawned reams of commentary on what this aversion to make-up (open itals) really (close itals) meant. Was it an indication that Hillary was finally ready to call it a day as far as politics was concerned? After all, why else would she no longer palpably care how she looked to the American electorate as she traipsed around the world as their representative? Did it mean that she was too old to bother with ‘tarting’ herself up? And what did this augur for other women of her age who were still in the public eye?

Was it okay to give up on grooming after a certain age? Or was Hillary letting her sisters down with this I-can’t-be-bothered-with-make-up attitude? Didn’t women have an obligation to themselves to look as good as they could? Was giving up on make-up a bit like giving up on life itself – and all its glorious possibilities?

It all seemed a bit bonkers to me, but then I live in India where our women politicians can’t really be bothered with dabbing on the foundation and slapping on the lipstick. Whether it is Sonia Gandhi or Sushma Swaraj, Sheila Dixit or Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati or Jayalalitha, none of them has ever bothered with putting a full face of make-up on before facing the cameras.

But all this psycho-babble in the Western press prompted me to conduct a little experiment of my own; a strictly unscientific survey with an entirely unrepresentative sample of the ladies on my Twitter timeline. How many of them, I asked, would be willing to face the world without a shred of make-up?

And what did I learn over the course of the day?

One: most of the ladies on my timeline were happy to go bare-faced. But that’s only because they didn’t seem to regard powder, kajal, eyeliner, lip gloss, lipstick and bindis as ‘make-up’. Without anyone quite saying so, it was apparent that to them make-up meant eye-shadow, foundation, mascara, blusher, and other such heavy-duty, face-altering products.

And two: all the women on my timeline looked absolutely gorgeous when they finally agreed to go bare-faced on a dare. After I took the plunge and posted a make-up free display picture of mine on my Twitter profile, all the ladies joined in like the good sports that they are.  And very lovely they looked too!

Yes, I know this is hardly a novel idea. Such celebrities as Demi Moore and Terri Hatcher have beaten us to it. We’ve seen Terri’s Botox-free forehead straight out of a shower. We’ve seen a bare-faced Demi in bed. But hey, these women are stars and are expected to look beautiful even without any help.

But it’s a special moment when women like you and me dare to bare ourselves (just our faces, I hasten to add) to the scrutiny of an often cruel world – and live to tell the tale. And it’s even more special when that path to a happy ending is paved with compliments and kind words.

Make-up? Meh! Who needs it?


You know you are a prisoner of make-up when

a)   You refuse the leave the house without making sure you have kajal and lipstick on.
b)   You hide behind a giant pair of sunglasses if your eyes haven’t been ‘done’.
c)   You panic when you discover you have left your make-up bag at home and can’t affect repairs through the day.
d)   You cry for days when your favourite make-up brand discontinues your favourite lipstick shade.
e)   You stock up on your favourite foundation/eyeliner/mascara just in case they phase that out as well.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Because we are like that only...

Some Olympic categories in which Indians could go for gold

Did you know that the oldest person to ever win an Olympics medal was a 73-year-old British graphic artist called John Copley? And that he won the silver medal for etching in the 1948 London Olympics? Yes, that’s right. Etching. That was an Olympic category back in the day, along with literature, architecture, music and town planning. (I can just about imagine the Doordarshan commentary as these contests got underway.)

I don’t know about you but this bit of Olympic trivia left me longing for a simpler world in which people weren’t so hung up on sporting talent – at which we are, quite frankly, completely rubbish – but had time to appreciate the finer things of life. Like...er...etching.

Now, I’m not sure that any of us would do very well in the town planning department (just drive around any modern Indian city if you don’t believe me) but there are some areas in which our teams would be an absolute shoo-in for the gold. So, maybe sometime in the distant future, when all those ghastly memories of the Delhi Commonwealth Games have faded, and India is hosting the Olympics, we could smuggle in some of these non-sporting categories so that our boys and girls can, at long last, improve on their medals tally.

Here are just a few ideas, off the top of my head. Feel free to add to the list, and we’ll petition the Indian Olympic Association in good time.

1)   Whining

I’m not dead set on ‘Whining’, you understand. You could call it ‘Outraging’ or even the more boring ‘Complaining’. But no matter how it is titled, I’m pretty sure we would make a clean sweep of this category every four years. After all, this doesn’t require uniforms, special training equipment or large stadiums to practice in. We can all hone our talents in front of the television set, on social media, at office, while shopping. Hell, we could even put in a couple of hours of practice while commuting back and forth from work. And God knows, we’ve been doing just that years and years. So, let’s not let all that good work go to waste. Let’s at least get a medal or two for our plaints.

2)   Musical choreography

Nobody does the choreographed musical number better than Bollywood. And thanks to all those dance shows on TV like Jhalak Dikhla Ja and Dance India Dance (or whatever else they’re called this season) the jhatka-matka school of modern dancing has taken root in our hearts – and our feet – as well. Rare is the Indian who can sit still when the Hindi music begins to blare. So let’s get those pelvic thrusts an Olympic category of their own. And see India shine and shimmy and go for gold.

3)   Driving recklessly

By that I don’t mean driving fast on Formula One tracks (because, yes, we are pretty rubbish at that too) but driving recklessly: taking turns without using the indicator; fender-bending with panache; braking suddenly, changing lanes with abandon, and never ever taking your finger off the car-horn. I’m just thinking aloud here but maybe all of these could be sub-categories in this competition. And I’m quite sure the Indians would make a clean sweep of all of them.

4)   Eating deep-fried snacks

We have a pan-national advantage in this sport, what with every region in India having its own deep-fried specialities. If the Bengalis have their luchis and the Punjabis their paranthas, the UP bhaiyas have their kachories and chaats. The Tamilians and Kannadigas have their medu vadas, the Maharashtrians their chaklis, the Malyalis their banana chips. I could go on but I’d then have to take a break to have a deep-fried snack of my own. Maybe I should do that; get in some early practice on the off-chance that I make it to the final squad. It may be my only hope of ever winning a gong.

5)   Sexual harassment

You know we’d be brilliant in this category, don’t you? Come on, admit it. All those decades of practice at whistling at the ladies as they walk down the road, groping them when they travel in public transport, harassing them at the workplace, molesting them when they have the temerity to go out at night, raping them when they ‘ask’ for it, all of it would pay off finally. Score!

Then, of course, there are the minor categories, like haggling for a good price, making tall promises that we know that we can never keep, and that old Indian chestnut, ‘jugaad’, which we are so inordinately proud of. And let’s not forget ‘Late-coming’ as well.

The only problem with the last though, is that given our attitude to time-keeping, the competition will probably not start until the next Olympic Games roll around. And then, they’ll be held in some stupidly-sporty nation like Australia or Germany, and it will all be over for us and our Olympic hopes.