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

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Tears in heaven

Since when did we start deriding people for crying at funerals?

You couldn’t possibly have missed the brouhaha that erupted when George Osborne, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, let one solitary tear escape down his cheek at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher.

The Internet went into instant meltdown. Some derided him for this show of ‘weakness’ (you know how ‘real’ men ‘never’ cry, right?). Others dismissed his tearing up as a cynical ploy to show just how good a Thatcherite he was (after all, what was he weeping about, given that he had met the Iron Lady on less than a dozen occasions?). There were those who agreed that yes, the tears were not genuine, but put them down to the Tory leader trying to create a more ‘caring’ image for himself (remember, this was a man who was booed at such a feel-good event as the London Olympics). Amidst all the jokes, jabs and jeering, there were only a few who said what I was feeling: what is the world coming to if you can’t even cry at a funeral?

Full disclosure here: I am one of the blubbers of the world. And yes, I cry at funerals. It doesn’t really matter how well I have known the deceased, or how many times I have met them. There is something about funerals that brings out the tears – well mine, at any rate. Sometimes it is a particular bhajan being sung as part of the service; sometimes a tiny detail that evokes memories of funerals past (of those I was particularly close to); sometimes it is the thought of how I would feel coping with a loss like this one; and sometimes it is just the sight of close family members of the deceased trying to pull themselves together even though they are clearly falling apart.

At a time like this, sympathy segues seamlessly into empathy, and you can’t help but cry for the universal sorrow that is bereavement. This is not something any of us can escape. At some time or another, we will have to mourn our grandparents, bid farewell to our parents, experience the loss of a sibling, see a close friend succumb to illness. If we are very lucky, we will never know the gut-wrenching sorrow of losing someone of the next generation, who should by rights have been the one to mourn us. But no matter how life pans out, bereavement that is something that all of us will have to bear, sooner or later.

As the saying goes, grief is the price you pay for love.

But what is the acceptable face of grief when you lose someone you loved, or even just admired from afar? And has it changed over the years?

In India, at least, I would have to say yes. Growing up in a traditional joint family, as a child I was witness to the spectacular outpouring of grief that everyone indulged in when there was a death in the extended clan. There was weeping; there was wailing; on some occasions, there was even some beating of breasts. It was loud, it was disturbing, it was even melodramatic at times. But everything said and done, it was undoubtedly cleansing.

After such an outburst of grief, you felt that you had really mourned someone. There was no buttoning up of your feelings. There was no concession made to sparing the feelings of others. There was no embarrassment about letting it all hang out. In a sense, you were given permission to grieve as publically as you saw fit; as loudly as you wanted to. And nobody judged you or condemned you as an incontinent so-and-so.

In the old days, certain Indian states like Rajasthan even had professional mourners, called Rudaalis (the subject of an eponymous movie that earned lead actress Dimple Kapadia a National award). These were lower-caste women hired to mourn (as loudly as possible) in an explosive public display of grief. This worked at two levels. One, to express the sorrow that the family may have been shy of exhibiting in public and two, to goad them into have a proper cry. Because sometimes there really is no better catharsis than tears.

But that was then. Now, tears at funerals are seen as bad taste. It is considered somewhat repellent to make a public exhibition of your grief. If you must cry, then cry in private. You must not shed tears in public in case you make other people uncomfortable. So, chin up please (and make sure it’s not quivering). And let’s see what the British so delightfully describe as a ‘stiff upper lip’.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I am tired of being told that a display of emotions or the appearance of tears at a funeral (or anywhere else, for that matter) is something to be ashamed of. That we must present a stoic fa├žade at all times, or stand condemned – as George Osborne was – of everything ranging from emotional incontinence to hypocritical cynicism.  

Honestly, it’s enough to make a grown man – or woman – cry.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The writing is on the, er, screen…

There is no denying the convenience of the e-book but it’s the real thing that still gives me a thrill

I’ve entered the world of the e-book rather late, but ever since I bit the bullet and downloaded the Kindle app on my iPad and Mac, I’ve gone just a little bit crazy. I stay up late trawling Amazon for titles by my favourite authors, buying a Kindle version, marveling at the speed of the download, and at how – wait for this! – I can read them on both my iPad and Mac, syncing them so the book opens where I last left off reading on either machine.

I know, I know, it’s all a bit sad. The wide-eyed wonder at the marvels of modern technology. The compulsive downloading of books with the feverish urgency of an addict. But tell me this, how could I possibly resist when I found the new titles of two of my favourite authors on Amazon just before I set off on holiday? They still hadn’t hit the shops in India. But there they were on Amazon’s shelves: Donna Leon’s The Golden Egg and Jodi Picoult’s The Storyteller. The freshly-minted covers were gleaming up at me, whispering ‘Buy me, buy me NOW.’

And so, gentle reader, I did.

You cannot imagine my smugness (or perhaps you can) when I set out on my travels with two brand-new titles nesting inside my Kindle app. This was brilliant, I told myself. Counting my previous downloads, I had five books on tap – and all within a tiny gadget that weighed about 650 grams. No more weighing down of suitcases with tomes I had to get through on vacation. I could finally do that glossy-magazine thing of travelling light. Score!

But then I made the mistake of wandering into a bookstore on the first day of my vacation. And there it was: the new Donna Leon book, all mysterious black and glamorous gold, mocking me from the shop window. Ha, it said, don’t you wish you had held out for the real thing?

And you know what? I kind of did. Now that the actual, physical book was in front of me, I wished nothing more than to possess it. It would join the 16 (or is it 17?) Donna Leons lined up on my bookshelf at home, and live happily every after in my study where I could pull it out occasionally, re-read the odd chapter (or hell, re-read the entire book) whenever I felt like it. I would feel its heft in my hands, the pages would whisper as I turned them, and I could breathe in that new-book smell, more evocative than jasmine or lily of the valley.

Of course, I couldn’t possibly do that now. The book had been downloaded on my iPad, I had already started reading it on the flight. How could I possibly justify buying the same book twice (albeit in different forms) to my frugal middle-class brain?

But that night, as I lay in bed with my iPad, scrolling the pages rapidly to get to the meat of the plot, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would have been happier reading this in print.

Yes, there is a certain convenience to reading your books on an e-device of some sort (so long as you remember to keep it charged). And e-books are certainly a blessing for people like me who live in small apartments that are already overflowing with far too many (if there can be such a thing) books. And who can deny that there is a certain environmental argument for not felling more trees to produce paper on which books (no matter how execrable) can be printed.

I see all that on a rational level. And now that I have discovered the delights – and the convenience of Amazon – I will certainly be lightening my load with e-books whenever I head out on holiday. But that said, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of holding a brand-new book by one of your favourite authors in your hands, and plunging right in.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

57 channels and nothin’ on…

Why can’t Indian TV give us the equivalent of Homeland, Newsroom, Mad Men or Modern Family?

As you may have gathered from my occasional references to my TV-viewing habits, I am a big fan of TV shows. Offer me a choice between a Hollywood/Bollywood blockbuster and a box-set of the most recent TV series and I will always plump for the latter. And every single time I spend the evening feasting on the best Western television has to offer, I set off for bed wondering why we can't do anything half as good in India. 

Why is it that we don't have an indigenous Homeland, the cracker of a TV show that had the entire world on tenterhooks for its two-season run? Even President Barack Obama - who presumably knows a thing or two about tackling terrorism - is a fan, going so far as to invite Nick Brody (British actor Damian Lewis) to the White House for an official banquet. It's not as if we are starved of inspiration given the number of terrorist attacks that have pummeled us over the last decade or so. And yet, we don't have a single TV show that brings this alive on the small screen. The best we can do, apparently, is to have Anil Kapoor threaten a re-make of 24, the thrill-a-minute Jack Bauer series which has already run its course.

Then there's Newsroom, the Aaron Sorkin show about prime-time news programming. Despite a weak (and much too wordy) start it took off after a couple of episodes, bringing the dilemma of TV news networks home to us. How do you keep your news judgement and your integrity intact and still score in the ratings while competing with hysterical, jingoistic anchors who fall back on hype and sensationalism. This is a subject that is bound to resonate with Indian viewers given the amount of sound and fury on our prime-time news shows. And yet, there isn't a single Indian TV show that has strayed into this territory. Everyone is busy making saas-bahu serials, the tried-and-tested family melodramas that have become such a staple of entertainment programming.

But even family shows can pack a punch, as anyone who has ever watched Modern Family knows all too well. The show has wit, charm, and some of the best one-liners on offer. But it also offers us the portrait of a modern family, the jumble of trophy wife, stepfamilies, gay parents, adopted Asian baby, stay-at-home Alpha mom, klutzy dad, teenager going off the rails, nerd kids, which really shouldn't work but in some mad, out-of-control way, simply does. In its own laugh-out-loud funny way it gives us an insight into the changing landscape of American society.

And what do we have in India? Oh, we do family shows, all right. But what do they show us? A regressive, patriarchal world populated by large, joint families who live in big, imposing mansions, and spend all their time plotting and scheming against one another. The women wake up in the morning wearing full make-up, swan around in Kanjeevaram saris, brandishing their oversized mangulsutras to prove that they are truly ‘pativrata naris’. Their clothes, their jewellery, their lives, nothing has anything in common with us. It is almost as if these shows are set in a different era altogether.

Not that I have anything against different eras. I am a huge fan of Downton Abbey and Mad Men, both of which skillfully recreate a bygone world. In Downton Abbey you get the sense of a decaying Edwardian England in which the old certainties are crumbling quietly, leaving disquiet and anxiety in their wake. Mad Men evokes the New York of late 50s and early 60s, when the advertising men of Madison Avenue ruled the world and didn’t quite know how to cope with the incipient feminism in the air. Can you think of anything remotely like this on Indian TV? No, me neither. And more’s the pity.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Mind your manners

Turn up on time; say sorry if you’re late; and a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ wouldn’t go amiss…

These days wherever I go I hear people bemoaning the demise of good manners. Just off the top of my head, these are some of the biggest bugbears: those who conduct long conversations on their mobiles while ignoring everyone else at the dinner table; those who let their kids run riot in public places without any attempt to discipline them; those who never bother to say thank you (never mind writing a thank-you note) for a birthday present or a dinner party; those who arrive late as a matter of course and never ever bother to apologise for their tardiness.

As you can see, the list is long and exhaustive. But what is most worrying is that what seems boorish and offensive to some is seen as perfectly acceptable behaviour in someone else’s book. Most of the serial offenders, when confronted with evidence of their ‘bad manners’, confess that they had no idea that they were, in fact, offending anyone. (Arre, what’s a 15 or 20-minute delay between friends, was the most common response.)

So when it comes right down to it, what are good manners? And is there a bare minimum that we can all agree on in an effort to keep the wheels of social discourse running smoothly?

Well, first off, good manners dictate that you don’t make people around you feel ill at ease, gauche, awkward or plain ignorant. It is perhaps best illustrated by the famous – and possibly apocryphal – story of Queen Victoria who was entertaining an African chief (or the Shah of Persia, depending on which book you believe) at a royal banquet. When the finger bowls were laid out at the end of the meal, for the diners to wash their fingers in rose water, the visiting potentate picked up the bowl and started drinking from it. Completely unperturbed, the Queen followed his lead, gesturing to all the other guests to follow suit, so that he wasn’t embarrassed about having done the wrong thing.

Now that is what good manners are all about: making the other person feel at ease at all costs. And we will all be better people if we assume them in our everyday life.

Don’t snicker when the shop assistant mispronounces the name of a French label. If you really want to correct her it’s much nicer to just repeat the name with the correct pronunciation. Do it a couple of times – with a straight face please – and she will get the message. You really don’t need to humiliate her in the process. If one of your dinner guests appears uncomfortable using cutlery to eat such tricky stuff as crab on the shell, start eating with your hands so that he can follow suit without feeling he has committed some sort of social solecism. If you can tell that the mother of a colleague is not too fluent in English, switch to Hindi halfway through the conversation. If the parents of a young child are mortified when he spills his drink on your pristine carpet, tell them it doesn’t matter; you were bored of that colour anyway.

Making other people feel small is the height of bad manners; don’t do it. Be gracious; be charming; be kind. And don’t grudge the odd white lie you have to utter in the process.

And while you are at it, don’t forget that the essence of good manners is treating other people’s time with the same respect as you accord your own. If you have made an appointment keep it; if you are running late, phone and apologise. If you have accepted an invitation to a sit-down dinner, turn up. And be there on time; don’t saunter in when the main course has been served and then depart before dessert can be wheeled out. A lot of effort has gone into putting the meal together. It won’t kill you to sit down and appreciate it.

If you are with people, pay attention to them. If you are expecting an urgent call that you can’t possibly miss, apologise in advance. When it comes through, keep it short. Or else excuse yourself and conduct it in private. Don’t keep messaging, tweeting or Facebooking when you are in company. It is just a non-verbal way of telling those you are with that they are not important (your social media presence is). So, stop fiddling with your Smartphone or staring at your Ipad; invest in some face-time instead.

But most important of all, don’t forget that basic courtesies go a long way: saying ‘sorry’ when you tread on someone’s toes instead of just brushing past; an ‘excuse me’ when you are intruding into a conversation or someone’s private space; peppering your speech with ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. This politesse costs you nothing and buys you an enormous amount of goodwill. (And it’s even better if you can throw in a winning smile for good measure.)