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

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Domestic Goddess in a domestic…

Yes, we all feel for Nigella Lawson; but it’s time to back off and let her live her own life

Domestic Goddess. That was always how we were meant to see Nigella Lawson. Hell, she even put that helpfully in the title of her second book, How To Be A Domestic Goddess, for those of us who were too thick to get it.

And Domestic Goddess she certainly was. The voluptuous Earth Mother, cleavage quivering like the creamiest blancmange, as she bent over the stove to create one stunning treat after another. She smiled beatifically at the camera, dipped her fingers into chocolate sauce and licked them clean, rustled up amazing three-course meals for her friends in a fairy-lights bedecked living room, while her two young children, Cosima and Bruno, ran around looking absolutely adorable in the background.

Who could possibly resist? Not me. I loved her (and still do) from the moment she first hoved into view in her first TV series, Nigella Bites, cooking in her home kitchen in her London flat and making it all look so easy. By the time the second season was being filmed, though, the idyllic home life portrayed on camera was an elaborate fiction. While Nigella fried and roasted and baked and the kids romped about, her first husband, John Diamond was in the bedroom, battling the throat cancer that first took his tongue and then his life. But you could have never guessed the trauma that Nigella was going through behind the brilliance of that on-camera smile.

In that sense, Nigella was less TV cook and more accomplished fiction writer. Like the best novelists of our times, she created a perfect, rose-tinted world in which it was forever summer and drew us in with its promise of sunshine and double chocolate cake until we wanted nothing more than to be a part of it. As we watched Nigella go shopping for organic meat and vegetables, throw together a superb dinner (easy-peasy, she assured us), pour herself into a cocktail dress and greet her guests with a glass of champagne in hand, we knew that this was the life – and we wanted a part of it, if only as gawping viewers.

But the fiction served a greater purpose than mere TV ratings. The persona of the Domestic Goddess proved to be the perfect cover to hide behind as Nigella endured a third bereavement (she had already lost her mother and her sister to cancer). The second season of Nigella Bites premiered a week or so after her husband’s funeral, and watching those shows now, I can’t help but wonder if Nigella was conjuring up those images of domestic bliss on television in the hope that life may soon imitate art.

If she was, then it worked brilliantly. She found love again with art collector and former adman Charles Saatchi, and the two of them moved in together and then married to play blended families with her two kids and his only daughter, Phoebe. They have been married ten years and in this phase of her life, Nigella has gone from strength to strength (her net worth is now said to be in the range of 20 million pounds). Since her first cookbook How To Eat (the title was suggested by John Diamond) became a best-seller, she has produced nine more books, presented several TV series (Nigella Feasts, Nigella Express, Nigella Kitchen, Nigellissima) and is now going on to conquer America with a new food show, The Taste, in which she is a judge.

But if Nigella was just Superwoman – which she manifestly is – then we would just admire her; and maybe just resent her a teeny tiny bit. The reason we love her is because she is also Everywoman. She has seen loss, suffered through tragedy, wrestled with every challenge life has thrown her and emerged triumphant in the end, gorgeous smile intact.

That is the woman that all of us knew and loved. And when that picture-perfect persona was shattered before our very eyes with the publication of those pictures of Charles Saatchi’s hands around the throat of our heroine, we felt a very personal sense of betrayal. Shock was followed by outrage, and then with reams of unsolicited advice for Nigella. Get the hell out of your marriage. Dump that bully of a husband. He doesn’t deserve you. Stand up for yourself. Be a role model for other women. Don’t take this nonsense.

Yes, I know that all of us feel for Nigella Lawson right now. But let’s not forget that nobody knows how to live her life better than Nigella herself. Even if the Domestic Goddess has been turned into a Poster Girl for Domestic Violence with those photos, that is not the image that will come to define her.

If the past has taught us anything it is that Nigella Lawson is The Great Survivor. Today she may be wandering wanly around the streets of London, pale-faced and hollow-eyed, as low-life packs of paparazzi hound her every move, and the tabloids put her on Divorce Watch (her wedding ring is off! It is still off!!). But before we know it, she will be back, having re-invented herself for another stint in the sun. We just need to give her time and space to make sense of this phase of her life – and move into the next.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Notes to my younger self

Things I wish I had known when I was a teenager…

In the unlikely event of time travel becoming a reality, I really would not want to be a teenager again. Yes, I know this has become a bit of a cliché, for middle-aged folks to claim that we have never been happier and more content now that our younger days are behind us. But behind every cliché lurks an eternal truth. And in this case it is that youth is wasted on the young (oh dear, there I go with the clichés again!)

It was certainly wasted on me. When I wasn’t fretting about the numbers on my report cards I was moaning about the ones on the weighing scales. I was constantly worried about fitting in rather than focused on standing out. And then, I went effortlessly from worrying about how I would fare at a job interview to obsessing about how I would interview all those larger-than-life celebrities once I had landed a job with the most popular newsmagazine of the day.

Only now that my youth is oh-so-definitely behind me, do I realize that I really did not have very much to worry about at all – if only I had the sense, and the perspective, to see that at the time.

So here, for the benefit of my younger readers (and maybe the odd older one), are some notes that I scribbled down for my younger self. Read on…they may stand you in good stead for the next 20 years.

* Don't envy the cool kids in school/college. They may seem very with it now, with their designer clothes, their dewy complexions, their overweening confidence on the sports field, their talent on the stage. But fast forward 25 years and you won't be envying them at all. Believe me, I've seen the pictures. And suffice it to say, they're not pretty.

* Don’t obsess over your grades. The difference between a first-class and a second-class degree seems insurmountable now. And it seems that your life will end if you don't score that magic 60 per cent (what would now be a magic 98 per cent). Trust me, it won't. In fact, in another five years or so, when you're finally excelling in the job of your dreams nobody will even ask you what you scored in our graduation papers. In fact, most people won’t even care if you graduated at all.

* Don’t knock the way you look. Yes, I know, when you stand in front of the mirror now, you feel as if a) you could stand to lose a few pounds b) zap those inflamed pimples on your chain that no amount of concealer could camouflage c) gain a few more inches in height and d) get a brand-new wardrobe. But when you gaze at pictures of your younger self, 20 years down the line, you will be astounded by just how amazing you looked. And you will wonder why that never occurred to you at the time.

* Don’t be too focused on putting money aside for a runny day. A bit of cash stashed away is always useful. But don’t shy away from spending money on experiences that will give you a lifetime of memories. Backpack through Asia. Take a rail trip through Europe. Climb a mountain. Go deep-sea diving. The memories will be priceless; the money, if saved, will only be a fraction of what it was worth when you earned it.

* Don’t ignore your emotional life because you are too busy focusing on your professional one. Reach out and make friends. Make time for family. Spend time nurturing your bonds with those whom you love and cherish. Stay in touch with your feelings. It is relationships that will sustain you in the long run; not that bright, glittering career you are so proud of.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Suicide is painless…

Only if you don’t count the pain left behind; so why do so many people attempt it?

Death is always hard to cope with but never more so than when it visits someone young and with everything to live for. Which is why even though I never knew Jiah Khan (no, I hadn’t seen any of her movies either) her suicide left me shocked. What is it that makes a beautiful young girl, with her whole life ahead, want to kill herself?

However much we quiz her mother or pore over the last exchange of text messages with her boyfriend, the sad truth is that we will never really know what led Khan to take that extreme step. Was it because her career had hit a dead end? Was it because her love life had become bumpy of late? Or was it something else entirely? Well, we can speculate all we want but we will never know for sure.

The only thing that is beyond doubt is that it must have been black despair that made Khan hang herself in her Juhu home late one night. The world must have seemed like an impossible place to negotiate; reality must have gotten too much to bear; and the black hole that is depression must have swallowed her whole.

Depression. It’s not something we ever talk about, is it? Or even acknowledge as a medical condition that needs serious treatment. Oh yes, we all complain now and then about being ‘depressed’. As in, I’m so depressed about the way Indian politics is going. God, that movie was really depressing. Or even, how depressing is this weather?

But that’s not what depression, in the clinical sense, is. This descends on you like a black fog, which obliterates all reason, and leaves you feeling as if everything is pointless. That is what led British actor Stephen Fry to attempt suicide last year. He tried to kill himself with an overdose of pills and vodka in his hotel room on location and was saved only because his producer found him in time.

Paris Jackson, the teenage daughter of Michael Jackson, was also recently rushed to hospital after a suspected overdose. In her case, though, she herself called the suicide helpline after slashing her wrists, because she wanted to be saved. So while this will be called a ‘cry for help’ rather than a serious suicide bid, there is no denying the pain and grief that causes such behaviour (even if we dismiss it as an obstreperous teenager acting out).

But to deal with depression, we first have to recognize it when it reveals itself in our midst. And then, we have to de-stigmatize it so that those who suffer from it feel no shame in coming forward and asking for help. It really doesn’t help to dismiss mental health issues as being ‘all in your head’. Yes, they are all in the head, but that doesn’t make them any less real, or less life-threatening.

As Stephen Fry explained in a recent interview: “Now, you may say, why would someone who has got it all be so stupid as to end it all? That’s the point, there is no ‘why’; it’s not the right question. There’s no reason. If there was a reason for it, you could reason someone out of it, and you could tell them why they shouldn’t take their own life…”

No, you can’t reason someone out of a suicidal spiral, but you can treat them. It could be with psychoanalysis – what used to be called the talking cure – or with medication to treat such conditions as bipolar disorder. But to do that, you first have to acknowledge that depression is, in fact, an illness. Only once you have identified the problem can you treat the symptoms.

So, the question to ask when a young woman like Jiah kills herself is not ‘why’ she did it; but ‘how’ she could have been persuaded to choose life instead.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The bucket list

The most mundane of everyday objects can double up as design elements in interior decor

Very rarely do hotel bathrooms surprise me (if you discount the increasingly complicated shower attachments that take hours to figure out). The way they are designed epitomizes the term ‘cookie-cutter’. There’s a bathtub on one side, a sink on the other. If the hotel is particularly posh, there will be a bidet beside the loo. And if there is space enough, the designer will try and squeeze in a shower stall. So far, so regular.

Which is why I was surprised into a smile at the Royal Monceau, Paris. Designed by Philippe Starck, this had all the quirky eccentricities that he is famous for. But what took my fancy was the trashcan below the bathroom sink. This was not your standard dustbin with a pop-up cover that all hotels buy in bulk. No, this one was a gleaming stainless steel bucket, an Indian-style balti that is a regular fixture in our homes (and our bathrooms).

Yes, that’s right. The humble steel balti that we use for bucket-baths and washing clothes back in India had been converted into a design element in a hotel in Paris. And I have to say that it looked very fetching and just a touch exotic as it glistened beneath the sink.

Two thoughts struck me. First, why was it that no interior designer at an Indian hotel had thought of doing something like this? It would be easiest thing in the world to buy a few hundred baltis, paint them with interesting patterns perhaps, and place them in the loo or even in the rooms as a waste receptacle. It sounds like a low-cost, minimal-effort way of jazzing up an interior. And yet, as far as I know, nobody in the Indian hotel business had done anything like that. (If you have seen something like this in India, do write in and let me know.)

And then, a moment later, I wondered if this balti would have looked quite so quirky, even cute, if I had seen it in a bog-standard (pardon the pun) Indian hotel rather than at a fancy Paris one? Was it because it was outside its usual milieu that the bucket looked like a design element rather than an everyday object? I’m still not sure what the answer to that one is.

I do believe, however, that we couldn’t do better than incorporate some of our everyday objects into our design schemes at home. And as it turns out, I’m already doing that, purely by accident.

A couple of years ago, some friends sent me a birthday hamper in an old-style steel trunk – the kind that we would pack clothes in or travel on trains with as kids – painted a vibrant red with bright and cheerful yellow flowers stenciled on it. Ever since, it has lived in my living room, storing everything from old magazines, DVDs, newspaper clippings, books, pens, and other assorted bric-a-brac that tends to clutter up any space I am inhabiting for any length of time.

But storage is not the only use an old trunk could be put to. You could spruce it up whichever way you fancy, stick a glass-top on it, and use it as an occasional table or even a coffee-table. If it nice and long, push it against the wall, pile some cushions on, and it could double up as a seating option. Or you could just use it to create some installation art of your own, a conversation piece for when guests drop in.

Old saris are another element that can be incorporated into your interior design scheme with minimal effort. You can turn them into interesting curtains, use the borders to embellish cushions, drape them around your four-poster bed to create a dreamy bower to sleep in. The possibilities are endless.

My favourite way with old chanderis or muls is to use them as transparent drapes. White and cream are always safe choices but sometimes a golden yellow or a bright orange or even a lime green work very well, allowing the sunlight through and imbuing it with their own colours. Old brocade borders can be stitched together to make cushion covers; embroidered garas can be used to make lampshades; and filmy chiffons can be used to frame doorways.

Winters are the time to play around with shawls. I love to keep a nice, snuggly pashmina at the bottom of the couch so that I can warm my feet as I watch TV. And it looks rather nice too, the deep blue of the shawl contrasted beautifully with the taupe upholstery. In fact, a good way to give your old, battered sofa a new lease of life is to drape a paisley shawl over it. This serves as not just embellishment but a practical nod to the season, when it’s good to have a leg-warmer within arms reach.

And that’s just for starters. You could hang your costume jewellery off tiny ceramic hooks on the wall to jazz up a dull corner of the room; you could frame an interesting piece of embroidery to liven up the entrance to your house; or better still, create a collage of memorable family moments and devote an entire wall to that.

When it comes to converting everyday objects to design elements in your interior décor, the only limit is the one set by your own imagination.