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

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Stirring stuff

Hey ladies, it may be time to reclaim the kitchen!

I spent part of this weekend on the fringes of a cooking competition, watching as eager young amateur chefs tried their hands in a professional kitchen. There was an even gender divide, and quite frankly, there wasn't much to choose between the men and the women as far as skill sets went. The winner got a substantial cash prize and a cooking show on Youtube. (And no, sorry, I can't tell you whether a woman won...)

The day after the competition ended, I found myself at lunch with some friends in the hotel business. "So," I asked, fresh from my experience at the cook-off, "do your kids like to cook?"

"Oh no," replied the lady, "I told my daughter from the beginning that the kitchen is a trap. Once you get in there, there is no getting out."

I must confess to being startled, never having seen it quite like that. Is the kitchen really some sort of swamp that sucks you in, or even sucks the life out of you? Is the gas range a place where the dreams of young girls go to die a fiery death? Does roasting, grilling, frying, baking, make a kitchen slave out of you?

Well, I have been turning over this conversation in my mind ever since and while I totally get where my friend was coming from, I think we are doing a disservice to our daughters by telling them to get out of the kitchen or else...

Yes, there was a point in time when kitchen work was sheer drudgery, when women could end up spending entire lifetimes sweating behind the stove, putting food on the table for their families. There was an era in which men wouldn’t be seen dead cooking; the mark of masculinity was to be waited on hand and foot. And yes, it wasn't that long ago that women would routinely be told that their place was in the kitchen; and I can only imagine how bloody annoying that must have been.

That's probably why the first wave of feminists regarded housework as something to be rid of, why they saw the kitchen as a cage within which entire generations of women had been imprisoned, and why friends like mine advised their daughters to steer clear of this stifling jail.

If you ask me, though, those days are long gone. We now live in a world in which the kitchen has become an intensely glamorous space. It is a place where high-powered careers are forged in the fire, where celebrity chefs pout and preen, where food bloggers find their inspiration and their place in the sun. These days, it is entirely possible to get both fame and fortune from behind the kitchen range. Just think how Gordon Ramsay and Nigella Lawson have spun their cooking abilities to gain world-wide celebrity. Or even how Manish Mehrotra and Gaggan Anand have become household names in India.

Men have cottoned on to this transformation and no longer treat the kitchen as a no-go area, and cooking as something beneath contempt. They experiment with recipes, they write food blogs, they review restaurants, they publish cookbooks, they pitch for TV shows. They realise that the kitchen now represents a career opportunity like any other.

Don't you think it's time women caught on as well? Well, some do, and have made the most of the opportunities cooking represents in the modern world. But there are still too many women who view the kitchen with suspicion, as a cunning trap set to lure them in and tie them down. And that is truly a pity.

But even if we leave all this stuff about careers and fame and fortune aside for a moment, and just think of the sheer pleasure involved in making a meal for those you care about, the kitchen begins to look like a far less scary place. That's when cooking ceases to be a chore and becomes an act of love.

And just for that, it might be worth it to put on that apron, break out that recipe book your grandmum left you, and reclaim the kitchen.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Unsocial media

Tell the truth now; do you really care about your Facebook friends or Twitter buddies?

It is one of the central ironies of this age of social media. Never before have we known so much about each other. And never before have we cared so little.

Just think about it. If you are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or whatever the latest social media craze it, you know way too much about your friends, chance acquaintances and complete strangers. You know what they did last summer. You know whom they did it with. You have seen the pictures. You know what their kids look like. You know every cute (or inane) thing they ever say. You are forewarned when their birthdays and anniversaries crop up. 

And you know what? You don’t care. And you are not alone in this either. Truth be told, nobody cares. We all do the decent thing, RT a few tweets, click the ‘like’ button a few times, and post the occasional comment. But hand on heart, which one of you out there really cares about this minutiae about the lives of other people? No, I didn’t think so.

There has been some amount of theorizing in recent times about how those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time on social networking sites are narcissistic personalities who are constantly looking for approval and validation from other people. Now that’s probably true and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s just one slight problem with this scenario. For if all these ‘other people’ are also narcissistic so-and-sos who are only interested in garnering approval for themselves, then clearly this social (media) contract is not going to work except in a very limited I-scratch-your-back-you-scratch-mine sort of way.

And let’s be honest here. It clearly isn’t working for most of us. When it comes down to it, none of us is really interested in what the other had for breakfast, lunch or dinner. We don’t care if your car broke down on your way to work. We don’t find your attempts at pithy humour at all funny. We are not going to click on that link and read your blog. We don’t care how much you scored in some silly game. And we definitely don’t want to watch your Facebook movie!

In that case, why on earth are we wasting our time on these sites, pretending to be engaged when we are, in fact, bored senseless? It is simply down to a fear of missing out, of being left out of this great social media experiment? Are we getting sucked into this ephemeral world that we don’t really care about merely because everyone else seems to live in it? 

But let’s pause for a moment and think. If we even don’t care about this parallel universe, does it make any sense to linger on within its boundaries? And if we are going to stay, doesn’t it make sense to, at the very least, change the rules of engagement? 

I, for one, am rapidly coming around to the view that some amount of recalibration is required. One way to go would to tighten our social circle, expelling all those whom we don’t really give a damn about, and concentrate on that tight group with whom we do have meaningful relationships, those with whom we interact frequently, both in the virtual and the real world.

That means a certain amount of cleaning up. So, if you can’t be bothered to type ‘Happy B’day’ for a Facebook ‘friend’ even though you have been ‘alerted’ about his or her birthday well in advance, then maybe it is time to ‘unfriend’ them. If just the sight of someone’s handle on your Twitter timeline begins to annoy you because of the gibberish they spout, it might be a good idea to ‘unfollow’ (or, if you are too soft-hearted, hit the ‘mute’ button). 

Maybe once we have done that, we can begin to restore a certain balance in our online dealings. We can create an environment that mirrors our real lives, in which we make time for, and pay attention to, those we care about no matter what else is going on in the world. And then maybe, just maybe, social media can begin to become truly social.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The path to serenity

There will always be stuff in life that you can’t change; so just make your peace with it

“Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” This verse, attributed to St Francis of Assisi and later adapted by the American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, is now widely used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes, with the word ‘strength’ replaced by ‘serenity’ and called the Serenity Prayer. But you don’t need to be an alcoholic – or even a Catholic – to benefit from the sentiments expressed in this prayer. 

All of us would be better off if we could see the difference between the things that we can change and those we can’t. And we would be much happier if we could make our peace with all the stuff that comes in the ‘can’t’ category. Because let’s face it, there are some things in life that none of us have any control on. And the sooner we come to terms with that fact, the more content we shall be.

So, what are the things you need to make your peace with? Allow me to list, in no particular order of importance, just some of them.

Some friendships will run their course. This is not anybody’s fault. It is just the way things are. Sometimes people grow apart for one reason or the other. And when that happens, there is no point breaking your head over what went wrong. Or even trying to recapture that lost intimacy. The only option is to accept the inevitable and move on without any bitterness or regret. Tell yourself that it was good while it lasted – and yes, that nothing lasts forever.
Your teenage kids will hate you. They will act as if your very presence is an embarrassment. They will fob off public displays of affection. They will treat your every pronouncement with derision. They will spend ages in the bathroom, sulking and yes, hating you. Until suddenly, one day, they won’t. They will want to hang out with you again, they will ask your advice, and cuddles will once again be welcome. Just stay the course. Normal service will be resumed soon.
You will turn into your parents. It is only a matter of time. It’s not just that one day you will look into the mirror and find your mother/father staring back at you (though that will happen as well). But also that you will find yourself telling your kids the very things that your parents used to say to you (and which you swore you would never tell your kids). Come home before it gets dark. Get up early and study. Wrap yourself warm before you go out. Eat something, for God’s sake!
There will be more ‘doorway moments’ as you get older. If you are in your 40s, you probably know what I mean. Yes, the times you go through the doorway of your bedroom or living room, looking for something. But the moment you cross the threshold you forget what you were looking for. Recent research done by Professor Gabriel Radvansky of the University of Notre Dame has it that the act of passing through a doorway causes memory lapses. But we know different, don’t we? It’s the act of passing through several decades of our lives that really does the trick. You’ve just got to live with it.
The music of the day will begin to seem like senseless noise to you. And you will turn into the kind of music bore you always made fun of: the sort who listens to the same bands and singers over and over again because he or she grew up with them. As they don’t say, familiarity breeds contentment.
You will always have regrets. No matter what choices you make in life and no matter how right they seemed at the time, there will come a day when you start to wonder about the road not taken and whether you took a wrong turn along the way. Don’t freak out. This is a part of growing up and even – dare I say it? – growing old. And anyone who tells you otherwise is a lying sod.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

A tale of two women

Sunanda Pushkar and Valerie Trierweiler; and the many parallels between their stories

Two women have dominated the headlines over the last couple of weeks. One of them is Valerie Trierweiler, the now former First Lady of France, whose first public appearance post her separation with Francois Hollande at a charity event in Mumbai created quite a stir. The other is Sunanda Pushkar, the tragically deceased wife of Union minister Shashi Tharoor, who graced the columns of page three while she lived and was splashed all over the front pages after being found dead in a five-star hotel room days after she had ‘outed’ what she believed was an affair between her husband and Pakistani journalist, Mehr Tarar.  

But while their stories played out many thousands of miles apart, the parallels between the two women are all too apparent.

Both had been married twice before, had kids from their second marriages (three sons for Valerie and one for Sunanda), before finding love a third time around. Both were strong independent women who took pride in being successful professionals, Valerie as a senior journalist for Paris Match magazine and a television presenter and Sunanda as a businesswoman (her declared assets included several flats in Dubai valued at 93 crores; and that was just part of her wealth). Both resented being perceived as arm candy for their powerful husbands. When Paris Match put Valerie on the cover calling her Hollande’s ‘charming asset’ she tweeted her outrage “Bravo Paris Match for its sexism. My thoughts go out to all angry women”. Sunanda, for her part, ascribed the IPL scandal in which she became embroiled as an emblem of the sexism and misogyny of the Indian media.

Both wanted a strong identity for themselves in public life. When Hollande was elected President, Valerie declared that she was not going to be ‘une potiche’ (French for trophy wife) and would have her own agenda in the ‘Madame Wing’ of the Elysee Palace. Sunanda, too, didn’t believe in mincing her words while going against the declared position of the Congress party on such contentious issues as Section 370, which she maintained discriminated against Kashmiri women, both Hindu and Muslim, on property rights.

Unfortunately, the central irony of the lives of these women was that despite their best efforts to project themselves as public entities in their own right, both found fame only because of the men they married/lived with. It is hard to believe that national TV channels would have interviewed Sunanda Pushkar and sought her views on political issues if she hadn’t been married to Shashi Tharoor but was just another attractive, successful, late entrant on the Delhi social scene. And certainly, Valerie Trierweiler would not have been invited to Mumbai to promote a charity if she was just another French journalist and not the partner of the President of France.

Another striking parallel is how both suffered, albeit in different ways, because of Twitter. Valerie sent out that now-infamous tweet, supporting a rebel candidate in a French election against Francois’ previous partner, Segolene Royal, because of her pathological jealousy of her former love rival. Segolene lost the election but Valerie lost in the court of public opinion, and many now believe that may have marked the beginning of the end of her relationship with the President.

Sunanda’s indiscretion on Twitter was even more explosive. She sent out a series of messages on her husband’s Twitter account to ‘expose’ his alleged affair with a Pakistani journalist, Mehr Tarar, whom she dubbed an ‘ISI agent’. Tarar responded in kind. Tharoor hastened to clarify that his account had been hacked. Sunanda was having none of that. She gave interviews to insist that she had sent out the tweets in question. And a messy situation got messier and messier.

Sadly, both Sunanda and Valerie found their private lives unraveling in a spectacularly public fashion around the same time. But while in Valerie’s case, it was Closer magazine that revealed that her partner had been cheating on her with a French actress, Julie Gayet, Sunanda’s privacy was invaded by Sunanda herself. And while Valerie survived her heartbreak despite being rushed to hospital after ‘taking one pill too many’ (according to some reports in the French media), Sunanda was found dead in the Leela Hotel of what was described (as I write this) as a possible drug overdose.

What lessons can we draw from the lives of these two women, who lived, loved, rose and then fell dramatically in the public gaze?

Well, first off, don’t hitch your wagon to a man, no matter how much you love him (as Valerie insisted to the end that she did) or how much he worships you (as Tharoor clearly did). Relying on or reveling in the status you derive from a relationship is a dangerous business, no matter how glamorous and desirable it may seem at the time. So, don’t sacrifice your career for a ‘job’ from which you can be fired at any time without any due cause.

And secondly, remember that it’s called ‘private life’ for a reason. It is not supposed to be for public consumption. Because while people may express faux sympathy for you, once your back is turned they will be pointing and laughing. Until, of course, the laughter turns into tears.