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

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Climbing the ladder

How you define success depends on the kind of person you are

Success. One word; with a hundred different ways to define it. Some measure it in terms of money: how much they take home every month or how much their business is worth at the end of the financial year. Others find it in the quality of life they have managed to create for themselves: how often they can take their kids on holiday, the kind of cars they drive, or even the size of the home they live in. Some define it in the context of happiness, in how much pleasure they have managed to extract from everyday, humdrum living. And others see it in more intangible terms; in whether they have succeeded in living life on their own terms, and enjoyed themselves while doing so.

How you define success in the end depends on the kind of person you are. If you are the kind who sees the world in purely materialistic terms, then you measure success by money and all the stuff that it can buy. And the more money you earn, and spend, the more successful you feel. But if, on the other hand, you define success on the basis of emotional, even spiritual well being, then you only feel truly successful if you achieve some measure of it in your own life.

And then, there are those people who are so driven that they never feel truly successful no matter how much they achieve. In their view, success is an ever-moving goal post that recedes further and further away the more they try to close the gap. And no matter how far they get down that road, they can never quite grasp that glittering prize.

Just take a good long look at L.K. Advani. Anyone else would feel that his was a life well spent. Here is a man who single-handedly revived the fortunes of his party with his Rath Yatra and the Ayodhya movement. He stepped back at the crucial time to allow A.B. Vajpayee, a more conciliatory figure, to form the government, but became the second-most powerful man in the country nonetheless. After the NDA was voted out of power, you would have thought that he would accept that his time in the sun was over and make way for a new generation. But no, the dream of being Prime Minister survives even a decade later, because anything less than that seems like an anti-climactic end to a political career.

Not that Advani is the only one to measure his success in terms of the top job. Narendra Modi, his erstwhile protégé and current bête noire, is also not content with just being a three-time chief minister of Gujarat – quite an achievement in itself for a man who began his political life as a humble RSS pracharak. But no, Modi too will only feel truly successful if and when he becomes Prime Minister of India.

So, in that sense, success is linked to ambition. The more ambitious you are, the more it takes for you to feel like a success. Lesser beings may be content being chief minister or home minister. But for some nothing less than being sworn in as Prime Minister will spell success.

Ambition, though, is only part of the story. Your peer group also plays an important part in determining what you see as success. If the rest of your friends are high-powered corporate honchos, then you probably won’t feel much of a success if all you’ve achieved is a middle-management role. If your college mates are being courted by the best companies with six figure compensation packages, you won’t be content with any less. If you are surrounded by two-car households, then one car – no matter how fancy – won’t feel like a totem of success.

Which is why I often feel for the friends of high achievers like Shah Rukh Khan. No matter how hard they work, no matter how much money they make, no matter how high they clamber up the ladder of achievement, can they ever feel truly successful when they measure themselves against their superstar friend? I think not.

Unless, of course, they have mastered the art of contentment, the ability to be happy in their own skin and find pleasure in their own lives, no matter how ordinary, and resist the temptation to judge themselves by the achievements of others. Now that, as far as I am concerned, is the true definition of success.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Like a boss

Why ban the word ‘bossy’ when you can own it?

So, Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t like the word ‘bossy’. The Facebook COO explained why in an op-ed piece she recently co-authored with Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez for the Wall Street Journal. The word ‘bossy’, she wrote, is used disparagingly to describe girls who exhibit leadership qualities, while the boys who lead are described as ‘strong’ and ‘determined’.

Sandberg herself grew up being called ‘bossy’ and the use of that adjective made her feel bad about herself. So, she is now using the might of her non-profit organization Leanin.org to push for a ban on the use of that word so that girls like her can grow up feeling better about themselves.

To put her message out to the world, Sandberg also recorded a video starring such female role models as Condoleezza Rice, Diane Von Furstenberg, Jennifer Garner and Jane Lynch. This public service announcement ends with musical megastar Beyonce staring into camera and saying, “I’m not bossy. I am the boss.”

Well, in that case, just what is so wrong about being called ‘bossy’? All it really means is ‘like a boss’. So, why treat it like a dirty word? You can bet that if young boys were called ‘bossy’ they would wear the label like a badge of pride and not treat it like an insult. Why should young girls, then, treat it as some of sort of slur?

Words do matter. But what matters more is what we make of them. Treat the word ‘bossy’ as if it was an insult and soon it will come to mean just that. Accept it as a compliment and it will soon become one.

There is this one episode in Friends that comes to mind. Monica is complaining to Pheobe about how her mother makes her feel bad about herself. Every time I do something wrong, she explains, my mother calls it ‘pulling a Monica’. Well, why don’t you change that, asks Pheobe. The next time you do something right, call that ‘pulling a Monica’.

That’s exactly what we should be doing with words like ‘bossy’. We should be embracing them as something positive, a validation of our leadership skills, rather than a negative comment on our assertiveness.

Sandberg clearly doesn’t see it that way. For her and Rachel Thomas, co-founder of Leanin.org, the use of the word signals the beginning of a slippery slope. “We too were called bossy as girls,” they write, “Decades later, the word still stings and we remember the sentiments it evoked: Keep your voice down. Don’t raise your hand. Don’t take the lead. If you do, people won’t like you…As girls become women, the childhood b-word – bossy – is replaced by the b-word adult women face – along with aggressive, angry and too ambitious. The words change but their impact doesn’t. Women are less well liked when they lead, and all of us are affected.”

Aha, see, right there is the problem. And it’s not the word ‘bossy’. It is the fact that women want to be ‘liked when they lead’. Men, on the other hand, don’t give a damn about how much they are liked or disliked so long as they get to lead. And that, in itself, gives them an enormous advantage over their female counterparts. On one hand, you have a gender that has a take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to wielding power. On the other, or so Sandberg would have us believe, is a gender that is so fragile that just the use of a single adjective is enough to make its members curl up and die.

It is this sub-text that I find truly troubling: that even powerful, successful, ambitious achievers like Sheryl Sandberg feel the need to treat young girls like fragile flowers who must be protected from the hails and storms of a misogynistic world. And the belief that women are somehow still wary of taking the lead on things because they fear being seen as less feminine and more of a threat.

The only thing that gives me cause for optimism is that I suspect little girls are not half as fragile as Sandberg seems to think. Well, let’s take Sandberg’s own case. She tells us that she grew up being called bossy, and those memories still hurt. And maybe they do. But take a good look at her now: the little girl who grew up being called ‘bossy’ is the woman who’s now the big boss at Facebook. So, what harm did that b-word do to her? None, as far as I can see.

I suppose this is where I confess that I grew up being called ‘bossy’ as well. And, truth be told, I still have the b-word thrown at me by most of my friends and family. Does it hurt? Not a bit. Would I like it banned? Not a chance. I would much rather own it.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Are you wearing that?

Celebrating the women who found style by forgetting fashion

Is it just me, or has the fashion world gotten completely out of hand? Every four months or so, we are presented with a new look and asked, in all seriousness, to overhaul our entire wardrobes if we want to stay on trend. I am sorry, but who has the money, the time, the inclination, or even the energy to do this sort of thing, year in and year out? 

Ah, yes, of course, the professional fashionistas. You know the kind of women I mean, don’t you? The ones who dutifully ditch their skinny jeans when ‘boyfriend’ jeans come back into fashion. Who go monochrome when the catwalk does, and rush out to buy animal prints when the glossy magazines sternly instruct them to update their look. Who strap on the stilettoes when they are in fashion, slip on the ballet flats (heaving a sigh of relief, I imagine) when they come back into vogue, and veer between platforms, wedges, kitten heels, and God alone knows what else, depending on what’s ‘in’.

Speaking for myself, I can’t think of a bigger waste of time, energy and money. If something works for you, then surely, it makes sense to stick with it, no matter what the fashion world is currently salivating over. But given how women are beginning to dress like identikit versions of one another, right down to matching handbags, I guess it requires courage, and even a certain bloody-mindedness, to ignore the ‘latest’ fashions and stick to the same wardrobe year after year.

Which is why I can’t help but admire those ladies who resist the tyranny of fashion, ignore all its diktats, find their own style, and then stick to it, come bell-bottoms or high heels. As that old cliché goes, fashions may change every season but style is eternal. So here, in no particular order of importance, is my list of stylistas, who, in my reckoning, out-class the fashionistas in our midst, without even trying!

Vidya Balan: Come rain or shine, Cannes or Kanpur, you can depend on Vidya to roll up in a sari, with three-quarter sleeve blouses, and her hair cascading down in unruly curls. You can call her a behenji or an aunty – and many people do – but does she care? Not a jot. And more power to her.
Sonia Gandhi: You may disagree with her politics but her styling is always impeccable. Handloom saris (many of them hand-me-downs from her redoubtable mother-in-law, Indira) impeccably draped and pinned into place, sensible shoes, and no handbag, ever. This is pared-down dressing at its best, and it works like a charm.
Rekha: The original diva. Her Kanjeevarams are the stuff of legend, the bright slash of sindoor is flaunted like a red rag to the media bulls and is a perfect match to the matte lipstick, and when it comes to jewellery, this actress clearly believes that nothing glitters quite like gold.
Naina Lal Kidwai: The boring uniform of a black trouser suit is not for this financial powerhouse. She prefers the soft drape of a sari to camouflage those killer business instincts, her version of the iron fist in a velvet glove.
Michelle Obama: Fashion designers from across the world may be lining up to dress the First Lady of the United States but they have to work with her own aesthetic. That means no sleeves (to show off those toned arms); empire waists to emphasise the thinnest part of her body, and hems that hover around the knee.
Harsimrat Kaur: There is a certain charming insouciance to a modern Sikh woman whose public persona is built around a wardrobe of salwar-kameezes, with a dupatta draped firmly over her head. Stereotype her at your own peril.

And no, I don’t think it is a coincidence that all these stylistas are women of a certain age. Rare is the woman in her teens and twenties who can summon up the courage to go her own way when it comes to fashion. You need the confidence and self-knowledge that comes with age to make your own rules and stick to them, no matter what the world may say. And to know that style trumps fashion every time.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Comfort food

It’s whatever you want to eat first thing when you finally come back home

Whenever I fly back to India after a long trip abroad, the first thing I do after I have checked in is call home and order dinner. It's always the same menu: khichdi and aloo chokha with a side of onion raita. That, to me, is the authentic taste of home. And that's what I long for after a week or so of eating Thai, Italian, Chinese, or generic Continental food.

I guess it is true what they say: your taste buds are set by the food you grew up on. And in my case, it was bog-standard, fairly bland, vegetarian fare, the kind that Ayurvedic buffs would classify as satvik food. And that is the food that I always long for, after my palate has been over-stimulated by spicy, exotic, even esoteric fare.

I assume it’s the same for all of you reading this. It is the tastes of your childhood that you miss most as you grow up and travel far from home. For some it may be a simple dal-chawal and subzi; for some it may be an aromatic biryani; for others it may be a masala omelet wedged between buttered toast; or some curd rice with pickle and fried papad. But while the choices may vary, the idea remains the same. We long for the food we cut our milk teeth on.

Speaking for myself, I still fantasize about the singada (samosa to all those who grew up in north India) I ate at my Calcutta home. The highly spiced potato mix, encased in the most delicate pastry, and dunked in an unctuous sweet-sour sauce. Bliss! Over the years, I have eaten samosas all over the length and breadth of India but nothing ever comes close. And each time I experience a little pang of disappointment as I take my first bite.

The jhaal-moori sold outside the school gates, all the more special for being contraband; the orange-stick ice-cream lollies which left our tongues a lurid colour; the kanji my grandmother would make each season; the sambar that was the Sunday special at home; all these tastes still linger in my mouth, all the more flavorful for being infused with nostalgia.

No matter how much we grow up or how far we travel, the taste of home is always comforting. Brits who are exiled across the pond, whether in New York or Los Angeles, long for a jar of Marmite (no, I don’t get the appeal either). Australians are a bit mental about Vegemite, which tastes pretty ghastly to the rest of us. Italians hunt out the local pizzeria the moment they hit a new city. The Japanese think nothing of spending a minor fortune on eating sushi and sashimi on their travels. And we all know of those Gujarati/Marwari groups who go everywhere with their own Maharaj (that’s cook, not king) so that they can get their fill of theplas, undhiya, gatte ki subzi, raj kachoris and other deep-fried delights no matter where in the world they are.

Even hardened soldiers who go out to war do so while kitted out with their home staples because – as Napoleon Bonaparte so famously said – an army marches on its stomach. We recently got a good look at the pre-packed meals of the soldiers of different countries serving in Afghanistan when they were served at a charity dinner organized by The Guardian newspaper.

Here are just some of the items in the kitty. The Brits get Typhoo tea and Tabasco; the Italians get minestrone and a tiny measure of alcohol (coyly called cordiale); the French get (no surprises here) cassoulet with duck confit and venison pate; the Americans get peanut butter and spiced apple cider; the Germans get liver-sausage spread for their rye bread; the Singaporeans get a pack of Sichuan noodles and soya milk; and the Australians get steak and (you guessed it!) Vegemite.

Because at the end of the day – whether you spend it on the warfront or in a boring conference room – everyone longs for a taste of the home they grew up in. And that’s why even Michelin star-quality Chinese food doesn’t hit the spot quite like your Mom’s Maggi noodles.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Spoiler alert!

No matter how much you hate them, there is no avoiding spoilers in this age of social media

Like much of the rest of the world, I was hooked by the TV series, Game of Thrones, from the word go. I swallowed the entire first season in one greedy gulp, rushing back home every evening to get my fill of Ned Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Khal Drogo and the evil Lannister twins, Cersei and Ser Jaime. The wait for the second season seemed interminable and once that was done the only thing that kept me going was the thought of season three and so on...

Only now that I have started on the original books written by George RR Martin, I am beginning to wish that I hadn't seen the TV series at all. The books are a cracking read (I have finished the first in the series and am nearly through the second) but only half as much fun as they might have been now that I already know what is coming next.

It's a bit like that old chestnut. What came first: the chicken or the egg? Only in this case, the question is which one should you dip into first: the book or the TV series based on it? And there really is no good answer. Because no matter which route you choose into the story, there will be spoilers galore.

And like the President of United States – and I am guessing, most of the free world – there is nothing I hate more. (Barack Obama famously tweeted on the day that season two of House Of Cards was released on Netflix, “'No spoilers please" to his many million followers.) So, whenever a brand new show is released, I force myself to stay off social media, avert my eyes from TV reviews and magazine articles, so that some spoilsport can't spoil my fun by giving the plot away.

But no matter how vigilant I am, there is always that one annoying idiot who reveals the big surprise and ruins it all. I remember being incandescent with rage when a friend casually let drop that Brody was hanged at the end of Homeland while I was still on the first episode. (And I don't think I have been forgiven by another friend to whom I thoughtlessly revealed that Matthew Crawley dies in the Christmas special of Downton Abbey. In my defence, I thought she had seen the episode when she said she was done with the second season.)

Even as I write this, I am trying my damnedest to stay away from every article, tweet, review, or even passing mention of Breaking Bad because I haven't seen the final season and I really do want to be surprised by what everyone assures me is a super-twisty end. (So, all of you who've already seen the damn thing, do shut up until I catch up.)

But to come back to the chicken-and-egg conundrum, what should you do? Read the book and then watch the TV series? Or vice versa?

Well, speaking for myself, I would much rather begin with the book. Every time a see a new remake of Pride and Prejudice or Emma, I am ever so grateful that I read Jane Austen's original before I came to the TV version. So it is with the Inspector Lynley mysteries on TV; the Elizabeth George books are so much more nuanced than the spin-off television series. And then, there are the endless Poirot and Miss Marple remakes, which lose none of their suspense and wonder even if you have the read the original book a hundred times over.

Sometimes of course, it is the TV series that sparks off interest in the books. I read Darkly Dreaming Dexter only after watching the series. But this was so much darker than the television version (for instance, Dexter kills off Lieutenant LaGuerta in the first book itself, whereas she survives much later in the TV series) that reading it was an entirely different experience.

Actually, come to think of it, I would never have picked up a George RR Martin book if it hadn’t been for a TV series called Game of Thrones. And the loss would have been entirely mine.