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

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Going by appearances

It might be tempting to sort women by stereotype but it’s far more rewarding to see them as three-dimensional beings

Last week, as I was wasting too much time on the Internet (as usual), I came across a small snippet about Zadie Smith. You know Zadie Smith, of course. She is the brilliant author who became something of a literary sensation with the publication of her first book, White Teeth, written while she was still at university (Cambridge; a considerable achievement for a mixed-race kid who grew up on a council estate).

Appearing on a radio show, Smith was quoted as condemning the media obsession with her ‘good looks’, and mentioning an Italian newspaper that had carried a letter saying that she “couldn’t possibly be a great writer” because she was too attractive. Said Smith, “It is a really misogynistic and fascinating thought. Because what it means is that if you are beautiful, then you have no need to be intelligent – it is a very sinister thought actually.”

And yet, it is an assumption that we make every day. And we make it mostly about women. If a woman is good looking then she couldn’t possibly be intelligent. If she is sexy then she can’t be clever. If she is beautiful then she must be dumb.

Such is the strength of this stereotype that an entire genre of jokes has been built up around the  ‘dumb blonde’ persona, because dumb, as we know, equals blonde, and vice versa. Sample: Two blondes are in a parking lot, trying to get their car door open with a coat hanger. One says to the other, “Hurry up! It’s beginning to rain and the top is down.”

In India, we don’t have blondes so we make do with making fun of women with blonde highlights instead. You know those glamour-obsessed bimbos who spend the entire day at the hairdressers to dress up their pretty little heads to disguise the fact that they don’t have a single thought in them? Yeah, those women!

But blonde-highlighted bimbos is the least of it. There is, in fact, a stereotype for every woman, an easy category to slot her in so that you don’t have to deal with the three-dimensional reality of her. And sadly, most of the time these value-judgements are made by other women (yes, I plead guilty on that count as well) who really should know better.

It starts from school when the swots are separated from the sporty sorts. In college, those who wear short dresses and have boyfriends are dismissed as ‘fast’ while those who wear salwar kameezes are sneered at as ‘behenjis’ (those who wear saris and have boyfriends are called ‘Slutty Savitris’).

Popular culture emphasizes these divisions even further. In Hindi movies, the woman who smokes and drinks is always the vamp, while the wholesome girl who does puja and touches the feet of her parents is the heroine. And no, you don’t have to go back to the 80s or the 90s for this stereotype. It is alive and well and making magic at the Bollywood box-office. Anyone who disagrees can just watch the DVD of a movie called Cocktail, in which Saif Ali Khan is happy to sleep with the ‘modern’ Deepika Padukone but falls in love with the ‘traditional’ Diana Penty and ends up marrying her, the ideal Bharatiya naari.

Ah yes, the traditional Indian woman. A woman only qualifies to this tag if she a) wears a sari b) has a bindi on and c) spends all her time worrying about her parents, husband, kids and extended family. Which perhaps explains why every woman who wears a sari and teams it with a bindi has to deal with the stereotype of being regarded as a ‘homely’ type (in the Indian sense of someone who is happy to play homemaker rather than the Western sense of being plain). This, even though women like Naina Lal Kidwai and Chanda Kochchar have proved that you don’t need to wear a business suit to kick ass in the financial world.

Over the years, I have come up against this stereotyping in my own life. Some years ago, I remember going out with some friends and saying that I wouldn’t eat because I fast on Mondays. The shock on their faces was palpable. “Fasting?” asked one finally, once he got his voice back. “I didn’t really see you as the religious type.”

The religious type? What is that exactly? Someone who wears saffron robes, puts on a big sandalwood tikka on her forehead, dons a rudraksh mala, and steers clear of make-up? Silly me, I really should have dressed the part!

But why blame my friends alone? We all make these snap judgements about women all the time. Acrylic nails with bright red polish? A bit common. Scruffy hair and no make-up? Well, it’s a toss-up between leftie and lesbian. Primly pinned-up sari with a cloth jhola? NGO type. Sparkling diamonds on both hands? Trophy wife. Tight dress and blonde highlights? Bimbo. Oh sorry, I think I said that already.

What accounts for this propensity to sort women by stereotype? Why this inability to see that a woman can take on more than one adjective? That she can be attractive as well as brainy; sexy as well as smart; have style as well as substance.

I have to confess that I am baffled. If you have any answers, do let me know.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The show must go on...

What is it about Indians that we are never ready or willing to retire?

Over the last few decades, politics has become a young man’s game in the West. Tony Blair was 43 when he became Prime Minister of Britain. Bill Clinton was marginally older at 46 when he was inaugurated as President of the United States of America. Barack Obama, the next Democratic President of the US was 47 when he was sworn in. David Cameron was 43 when he took over as Prime Minister of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in the UK.

Small wonder then, that some doubts have been expressed about whether Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner at the next Presidential poll, is past the age of being a player. She will be 69 in 2016, and if she wins two terms, she will be 77 by the time she is ready to retire. And that, say political observers, is simply too old.

Contrast this with Indian politics. Our two-time Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turns 81 this September, so you could be forgiven for thinking that retirement would be on his mind. Not a bit of it. As he recently declared in one of his all-too-rare interactions with the press, he is not ready to call it a day quite yet. If the UPA won the next General Election, he would be happy to serve under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.

But why blame Manmohan Singh alone? At a venerable 86 this November, L.K. Advani is still not ready to walk into the sunset. Having suffered from the ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’ syndrome through his last few decades in politics, Advani wants one last chance to walk down the aisle as the main attraction. And even though the BJP has announced Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, Advani persists in hanging around the fringes just in case opportunity for that final fling at power presents itself.

Yes, I know that attitudes to age – and the respect accorded to it – are very different in India than they are in the West. There, they equate youth with vigour and value it accordingly. Here, we see an equivalence between age and wisdom and venerate both. But even so, nursing political ambitions at the grand old age of 80+ is beginning to seem a little absurd to most of us.

But the more I think about it, it seems to me that this is not just about politics in particular but about our character in general. There seems to be something about the Indian psyche that just cannot contemplate the thought of retirement.

Take our cricket stars, for instance. None of them wants to go out in a blaze of glory. Instead, they stick around as the magic fizzles out bit by bit and there’s nothing left but sheer weariness as we see them hovering at the edges, mere shadows of the stars they once were. Yes, I know, you’re thinking of Sourav Ganguly, who took years to retire: first from one-day cricket, then Test cricket, then first class cricket and finally the IPL (I am a bit hazy on the details; it all took so, so long). But even the great Sachin Tendulkar is playing to much the same strategy, rolling out his retirement plan in slow motion, as everyone speculates as to whether his 200th Test will actually be his last.

If Sachin or even Sourav had been Australian, they would have retired at the peak of their game, not when their fans were getting piqued by their lack of performance. Adam Gilchrist retired from Test cricket when he was still on top form. Ricky Ponting said goodbye to his Test career the moment his performance started flagging. But not so our Indian stars. They hold on for dear mercy, squeezing in one more series, one more tournament, one more endorsement deal…

Movie stars are no different, really. I am not suggesting that they need to retire from acting as they age, but surely it is not too much to ask that they recuse themselves from playing the young, romantic lead – especially when the girls they are harassing into submission could pass off as their daughters? But no, the audience is expected to suspend its disbelief as 40-something actors try and pass themselves off as college kids.

So, what accounts for this peculiarly Indian disinclination to move on? Why do our politicians, our movie stars, our cricketing superheroes, all cling on for dear life, having to be dragged away from centre-stage kicking and screaming?

I have to confess that I am baffled. This is the country that gave us the concept of four stages of human life. Brahmacharya: when a man leaves home to be educated and leads a celibate life. Grihasta: when he marries, starts a family and assumes his worldly responsibilities in the world of Maya (illusion). Vanaspratha: when he renounces the world to live like a hermit. And finally Sanyasa: when he concentrates on spiritual matters in an attempt to attain Moksha (freedom from the cycle of rebirth).

Alas, in the India of today, nobody is willing to let go. And Maya trumps Moksha every time.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Kitchen Confidential

Why is the woman who cooks dismissed as downtrodden while the man who cooks is seen as emancipated?

Growing up, I never once saw my father enter the kitchen. He did not know how to cook; in fact, I doubt if he even knew how to make a cup of coffee for himself. The kitchen was always the exclusive preserve of my grandmother, my mother, and the other ladies of the household. The men never ventured inside; no, not even to fetch themselves a glass of water.

It may sound strange now, but this was pretty much the state of affairs in every home. Women did the ‘womanly’ things like cooking, cleaning, serving, fetching; yes, even the ones who held down jobs outside of the home. And men did ‘manly’ things like go out to work and bring back the daily bread (to be toasted and buttered and served up to them with a strong cup of tea). Men were very much the hunter-gatherers. And women remained nurturers and carers.

There were some men of our acquaintance who knew how to make a decent mutton biryani or a chingri malai curry, but their excursions into the kitchen were treated as momentous events that were marked down in the calendar months in advance. And even then, they were assisted by a flock of women who did all the dirty work Рpeeling, chopping, cleaning Рfor them. Once the mise en place was set, the men would sweep in to do the frying, saut̩ing, roasting or whatever else. And then, they would sweep out leaving the kitchen in an absolute shambles, to take their place at the dining table to be served like the kings they were.

I am glad to say that things have changed since then. Men no longer treat the kitchen as alien territory. Nearly all of them know enough cooking to be able to feed themselves in the absence of a mother or a wife. And many of them actually enjoy cooking, and take pride in their achievements behind the stove. But even so, based on purely empirical evidence, the bulk of the cooking in most households is still done by the women (either the lady of the house or the hired help).

What intrigues me, though, is how cooking has become another battleground of sexual politics. New-age feminism seems to think that a working woman who still cooks (or is expected to cook) at home is downtrodden, the victim of an age-old patriarchal system that decrees that the kitchen is a woman’s preserve. She is buying into sexual stereotypes and letting the sisterhood down with every perfect chapatti she rolls out.

On the other hand, a man who works outside the home and comes back to cook for his family is seen as an enlightened being. We even have a name for him. He is called the New Age Man. He is confident of his masculinity and not afraid of being in touch with his feminine side. He does not buy into any kind of sexual stereotyping. He is equally at ease in the boardroom as he is dexterous at the chopping board. We should all be so lucky as to end up with someone like him!

So basically, a woman who loves to cook for her family is a sell-out. But for a man, cooking for his family is a unique selling point. Can you figure this one out? No, me neither.

Why should the same impulse – to nurture and feed your loved ones – be seen through two such different prisms depending on the gender of the person concerned? Why should a woman be mocked for doing something that a man is congratulated for?

Clearly, as we enter into the second decade of the 21st century, gender stereotyping has come full circle. But while men are admired for stepping out of their gender-defined roles, women are pilloried for staying within them.

I can still hear the jeers that greeted Sunanda Pushkar Tharoor when she admitted on national television that she enjoyed being a housewife and cooking dinner every night for her husband. How could she possibly say something like that, her critics tut-tutted. Didn’t she know that women were expected to be emancipated from housework now? Being a woman of substance meant having a career outside the home. Admitting to being a homebody, and worse, confessing to cooking for your husband (and actually enjoying it!), was a complete no-no.

And yet, I am sure if the tables had been turned, the public reaction would have been quite different. If Shashi Tharoor had said in an interview that he loved going back home after a hard day at the office and rustling up a nice meal for his wife, he would have been hailed as the epitome of the New Man, an ideal that every male should aspire to.

What is going on here? Why is Sunanda’s goshtaba or tabak maas bad while Shashi’s meen moily or avial is good? Why this double standard when it comes to appraising a primal desire: the impulse to cook for those we love?

The truth is that all of us are good at some things and rubbish at others. Some women enjoy the prospect of cooking for their families while others wouldn’t be caught dead before a stove. Similarly, some men love the idea of cooking while others steer well clear of the kitchen.

So, here’s a novel idea. Why not allow each one of them to do as they please – and what pleases them – without any value judgement? That’s not asking for much, is it?

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Internet Addiction?

Oh yes, that’s a thing now; and what’s more, the Internet will help you beat it!

So, it is finally here. The cure to Internet addiction. Okay, maybe I exaggerate. But it may well be around the corner. A hospital in Pennsylvania has become the first to offer an inpatient detox programme for those who are suffering from an addiction to the Internet. Starting this week, the Bradford Regional Medical Center will offer a 10-day programme devised by experts in others forms of addiction. Those who sign up will be given classes in digital detox and will participate in group therapy sessions much like those addicted to alcohol, drugs or even sex, do.

Some medical experts, of course, insist that there is no such thing as Internet addiction. Some people are over-dependent on the use of digital technology and social media (same difference, if you ask me) and may need intervention to disengage from the virtual world. But calling this an addiction is over-egging it a bit.

Whatever you may call it, however, there is no denying that too many of us have become obsessive about our use of the Internet. We are constantly dipping into social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram to check out what’s happening with the world and to tell the world what’s happening with us. We can’t eat a meal without first taking a picture and sharing it with all our virtual friends. We can’t go on holiday without documenting every single moment on social media. Hell, we even live-tweet miscarriages, births and (more creepily) deaths.

And such is our obsessive desire to remain updated and plugged in that we can ever disengage and just enjoy the moment. We take videos of live concerts rather than immerse ourselves in the music. We take pictures of a beautiful sunset instead of letting its beauty wash over us. We spend all our time on our smartphones when we should be engaging with the real-life people around us.

In such technology-driven societies like Japan, it is estimated that as many as half a million children in the age group of 12 to 18 are addicted to the Internet. So serious is the situation that the ministry of education has started ‘fasting camps’ to help these kids disconnect from their digital devices. These camps are held outdoors where the children (after their touchscreens are wrestled away from them presumably) are made to interact with one another, play games, participate in team sports, have conversations and group discussions. Or, in other words, experience those childhood joys that we took for granted growing up in a pre-Internet world.

That’s not to say, though, that only kids who were born into the new technology age have a problem disconnecting from the virtual world. Even ‘grown-ups’, who really should know better, find themselves wasting time in ever more inventive ways on the Internet. The office worker who has Facebook open in a side window as he replies to emails. The journalist who can’t stay off Twitter even if she is on a deadline. The young mother who joins chat groups to escape the isolation of being housebound with a baby and ends up hooked.

And these are just the benevolent ways of wasting time on the Internet. There is a dark, malevolent side to the Internet too as those who get addicted to gaming or gambling sites know all too well. And then, there’s the whole murky world of cybersex and on-line porn. But given that this is a family publication, we will draw a discreet veil over that.

So, why do we all get so hooked on the digital world even though we know at a rational level that it is doing us no good? And that we really should be getting some work done instead?

Well, psychologists say that we get a high from the anonymity that the Internet grants us, allowing us to be whatever and whoever we want. And that we get a sense of self-validation when we engage with people in the virtual world; especially if we feel isolated in the real world.

Which is, perhaps, why people who work from home are more susceptible to digital addiction. There you are, sitting alone at your desk, staring at a computer when a ping tells you that you have received a tweet, email or even a Facebook update. The temptation to click on the link is too hard to resist. You decide to take a little peek. And before you know it, you’ve wasted an hour and a half of your life that you are never getting back.

I felt a little better about my own digital addiction when I read that Monica Ali, of Brick Lane fame, had written about her gratitude to Self-control and Freedom in the foreword to her new book. Yes, I use upper case advisedly. These are the names of the apps that you can download to treat your Internet addiction. Self-control and Freedom allow you to set up a period of time – say three hours – when your browser will behave as if you are offline, allowing you to concentrate on your work without any distractions. If that’s too hardcore for you, there are apps like Anti-Social (a kind of Freedom-lite) that allows you to block off those social media sites on which you waste most time.

Yes, I know, using Internet apps to treat Internet addiction; the irony doesn’t escape me either. There has to be an easier way, right? There is actually. It’s called self-control, with a small s this time. We really should give it a try.