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

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Feminist? Who, me?

Whether you answer yes or no, there is no denying the debt every woman owes to those who went before

I am always baffled by young (and not so young) women who proclaim proudly that they have ‘no time for feminism’ or who declare when prodded that they wouldn’t really describe themselves as ‘feminist’. Women like this tend to say things like, “I am not really one for all that bra-burning nonsense’. Or even the risible, “I am not a feminist; I am a humanist.” And then there are those who misunderstand the concept completely and protest that they are not into all this ‘man-hating’ business.

This column is written for the benefit of women like these. Women who live in a world that grants them rights that the feminist movement fought for and won (and which they now take for granted). Women who need reminding what their lives would be like if generations of feminists before them hadn’t fought for their place in society.

So here, in no particular order of importance, are just some of the things that feminism brought us. Just so that these non-feminist ladies know that whether they acknowledge it or not, they owe a huge debt to ‘bra-burning, women-lib types’.

The right to exercise control over your own body. Hard as this may be to believe, there was a time when women had no say in whom they were married off to. They had no control over their reproductive lives. And while this may still be true of millions of Indian women in rural households, middle-class educated women in our cities today have the right to marry according to their own choice; choose the contraception of their choice; and have an abortion if it fails. The law now recognizes the woman’s right to her own body. And we have feminism to thank for that.
The right to property: While women had limited property rights the world over (control was effectively exercised by either her father or her husband) in India women who inherited property were effectively barred from disposing of it on their own. This ‘limited interest’ was abolished only in 1956 by the Hindu Succession Act, which made women the ‘absolute owner’ of any property they owned, and gave daughters an equal interest in the estate of their fathers. 
The right to your name: No longer is it taken as given that a woman has to change her surname when she gets married (or even her first name, as happened with some traditional households). She gets to decide what name she is known as; a symbolic victory but an important one nonetheless when it comes to establishing her own identity. What’s more, thanks to a long legal battle waged by author and editor Githa Hariharan, women also have the right to be named as the ‘natural guardian’ of their children, a prerogative earlier restricted to men.
The right to vote: We tend to take this right for granted in India, because women have had the vote ever since we gained independence in 1947. But this was only possible because of the suffragettes and suffragists movements – run entirely by feminists – that campaigned for years on end in Western democracies to get women the right to vote. 
The right to work: Outside the home, that is. No longer do women have to be chained to the kitchen stove – unless that’s where they want to be. They have the freedom to go out into the world and earn their own living, using the skills they have developed in school and college (and there too, it is feminism that has made it possible for women to be educated at the same level as their male peers).
The right to equal pay for equal work: You know all that brouhaha about Jill Abramson being fired as executive editor of the New York Times because she asked to be paid the same salary as her male predecessor? The story was quickly denied, but the controversy would have been a non-starter if it wasn’t for feminism. Not only would a woman never have been appointed to one of the top jobs in an organization but there would have been no question about paying her as much as a man would earn. You want to know what a pre-feminist workplace would look like? Just watch an episode of Mad Men. Do you really want to live in a world in which Joan Holloway reports to Roger Stirling and Peggy Olson to Don Draper? And all the while, combatting casual sexism – and the odd grope and grab – at the workplace? No, I didn’t think so.

So, all you ladies describing yourselves as non-feminists, unless you actually prefer being bare-foot and pregnant, slaving away all hours in the kitchen, with not a rupee (let alone a salary or a house) to call your own, and with no rights over your bodies or your children, maybe you’d do well to acknowledge the debt to those that went before and fought the good battle so that you didn’t need to.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Wear your attitude!

Decoding the dress codes on the campaign trail…

Now that the elections are done and dusted, and we have a new government in place, I thought it might be fun to look back and see how some of the most high-profile candidates presented themselves to the public. No, not in terms of policies and political statements; that’s been done to death by leader writers in all the newspapers and by anchors on every TV news channel. But in terms of visual image: how they dressed on the campaign trail, and what they hoped to subliminally communicate by their wardrobe choices.

So here, in no particular order of importance, are just some examples:

Narendra Modi: As he confessed on television recently, our newly-minted Prime Minister has a great feel for colour combinations and what works on him. And on the campaign trail he seemed to have taken a leaf out of the style book of Queen Elizabeth, who always appears in strong primary colours to stand out in a crowd. Working colour blocking like a fashion pro, Modi went from one public meeting to another, resplendent in green, orange, pink, yellow, and every other colour you could think of. And then, towards the end of his campaign, he reverted to the symbolic purity of white, wearing a large kamal ka phool on his kurta, so that his supporters knew exactly which button to press on the EVM.
Rahul Gandhi: He decided to go for the scruffy, unwashed look, with crumpled kurta pyjamas and a perma-stubble, perhaps to indicate that he was far too busy campaigning to bother with personal grooming. And his sleeveless jacket achieved international acclaim thanks to British comedian John Oliver’s spiel on the Indian elections. “Look at that vest!” exclaimed Oliver about Rahul, “He’s like an Indian Han Solo!”
Smriti Irani: Pitted against Rahul in Amethi, the country’s favourite bahu, Smriti Irani, made saffron her calling card, wearing saris in the colours of her party’s flag (though to the disappointment of many, she did not adopt the seedha pallav as her character Tulsi had done in Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, in deference to her leader’s Gujarati roots) as she went from village to village canvassing for votes, and giving Rahul Gandhi a good scare in the bargain.
Priyanka Gandhi: Running her mother and brother’s campaign in Rae Bareli and Amethi, Priyanka seemed to be channeling the spirit of her grandmother, Indira, in her handloom saris, half-sleeve blouses, and tousled, curly, close-cropped hair. Did the sartorial messaging work? Well, both candidates won, in the face of a ‘Modi wave’.
Arvind Kejriwal: I can’t have been the only one disappointed by the fact that the weather did not allow the AAP leader to sport his patented look of muffler plus cap in the style of Emirates air-hostesses. Instead, he had to content himself with playing the aam aadmi in a white shirt-brown trousers combination and the standard-issue white cap that announced that he wanted ‘purna swaraj’. But, as it turned out, the voters wanted ‘Modi sarkar’.
Mamata Banerjee: She stuck to the tried-and-tested crumpled cotton sari look which proclaimed her as a woman of the people (or peepuls, as she would have it), even as she spewed fire and venom against her opponents (read Narendra Modi). And when the votes were finally counted, the people proved to be the woman’s.
Moon Moon Sen: She put a healthy dose of glamour into the campaign, resplendent in her chiffon saris, with darkly-kohled eyes and an oversized bindi large enough to put Usha Uthup to shame. And even as everyone was dismissing her as a lightweight airhead, a complete misfit in electoral politics, she had the last laugh, winning the Bankura seat with ease.
Nandan Nilekani: True to form, the IT whizkid refused to conform. Not for him the regulation white kurta pjyama, the uniform that all politicians willy-nilly adopt. Nilekani stuck to his lightly-starched white shirts paired with loose trousers on the campaign trail. And even though he lost the election, his fresh, unconventional approach to politics won him many admirers.
Shashi Tharoor: Even though he is, like Nilekani, a recent entrant into politics, Tharoor chose to stick to the classic simplicity of a white kurta, though he teamed it with the Malayali mundu rather than the north Indian churidar in a nod to local sentiments. Topping it all was a tricolour shawl, to reference both his party colours and the Indian flag.
Gul Panag: She was my personal favourite, bravely refusing to give in to the politically correct demand of wearing traditional Indian clothes while on the campaign trail. Panag stuck to her blue jeans and short kurtas, though she did drape a dupatta around her neck occasionally to keep the more conservative folk happy. And best of all, she went campaigning on her Enfield motorbike, helmet and aviators firmly in place. What’s not to love?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What's in a name?

Whether she uses her father’s surname or her husband’s, it is the woman who matters

A fortnight ago, in solidarity with a recently-married friend who was getting grief from her in-laws about not changing her last name to that of her husband’s, I tweeted, “If a woman chooses to retain the surname she was born with, it is her choice surely? Why should anyone else get their knickers in a twist?” It is a testament to our highly politicized times that most people chose to read this as ‘spirited defence’ of Priyanka Gandhi and her decision to be known as ‘Gandhi’ rather than ‘Vadra’.

This was such a bizarre extrapolation, that I didn’t quite know how to respond. First off, Priyanka Gandhi (or Vadra, if you will) was nowhere on my inner radar when I wrote this. I was purely motivated by the irritation of my friend who didn’t quite know how to get her in-laws off her back; and by my annoyance that in the 21st century, such an absurd demand was being made of a woman. And then there was that other minor detail: that Priyanka Gandhi had, in fact, embraced the surname Vadra as her own from the moment she got married.

I was a witness to that at a diplomatic reception held soon after. Introduced to an American diplomat as “Priyanka Gandhi” she shook her head firmly and said, “It’s Priyanka Vadra now.” And that’s how she has chosen to style herself ever since. Which is why I have been mystified by the fact that Smriti Irani has been getting flak about addressing Priyanka as “Mrs Vadra” during her campaign in Amethi. Irani may well be doing it to make a political point, but my guess is Priyanka doesn’t regard being called by her married name as some sort of mortal insult.

But the kind of responses that my tweet elicited got me thinking about the politics of changing surnames after marriage. On the whole, women from famous political families don’t tend to do that. Benazir Bhutto may have tagged on Zardari after her name but she would always be known by the name of her famous father. The Aung San in Suu Kyi’s name comes from her father; the Burmese leader has never been known as Mrs Aris (after her English husband, Michael). Chelsea Clinton is still known as ‘Clinton’ rather than by her married name of ‘Mezvinsky’. And no matter how many times Priyanka may say she is ‘Mrs Vadra’ the only people who refuse to address her as ‘Gandhi’ are her political rivals.

But even outside of the sphere of politics, the politics of name-changing rules. Adopt your husband’s surname when you get married and the feminist brigade looks down upon you as a traitor to their cause. Keep the surname you were born with and the traditionalists frown upon your choice. (Both Hillary Rodham and Cherie Booth were forced by the demands of electoral politics in USA and the UK to restyle themselves as Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair.) If your birth surname is a famous one (like Bhutto or Gandhi, for instance) you are accused of trading on your lineage. If your husband’s last name is more famous than yours (Murdoch rather than Deng) then your name change is put down to opportunism.

No matter what choice you make, which name you adopt, or which one you keep, there will always be someone on the sidelines cribbing about it, and sidling up to tell why you have got it completely wrong.

Actually, now that I think about it, that’s a pretty darn perfect metaphor for being a woman, isn’t it? There is always a ready supply of people to tell you how you should be living your life: when you should get married; at what age you should have children; how long you must breast feed them; how to best balance work and family; how to please your husband; how to keep the in-laws happy; and so on.

The only way to retain your sanity in the midst of this avalanche of (often contradictory) advice is to let it wash over you, and then go ahead and do exactly as you please. And that applies to name changes as well. Stick with your maiden name if that’s what works for you. Take your husband’s surname if that feels right to you. Add his surname on to yours to make a double-barreled name of your own. Call yourself Bananahammock if you like. Work with whatever works for you.

I don’t think retaining your birth surname is the equivalent of making some sort of feminist statement. Equally, I don’t think taking on your husband’s last name is a blow to the feminist cause. Either way you are adopting a man’s name as your own: either your father’s or your husband’s. But what you need to remember is this: no matter which name she goes under, at the end of the day, it is the woman who matters.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Summer reading

Heading out on holiday? Don’t forget to take a good book – or three – along 

Last week, I stuck my neck out and gave you the anti-glossy magazine guide to preparing for a vacation. But while I did say that the only thing you absolutely must pack is a sense of adventure, I forgot about another holiday essential without which your summer break would not be complete: books.

Given the high-octane lives most of us lead, the only time you can crack open a book and sink deep into it is when you are on holiday. It doesn’t matter where you go: frenetic cities; sun-bleached beaches; exotic resorts; mountain getaways; insert the destination of your choice. But no matter where you end up, a good book is always a boon companion. You could read it by the poolside, dip into it last thing at night, or just keep it handy for car and plane journeys. 

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been compiling my own wish list for my summer reading. Here are just a few of the choices I have made. (And do feel free to share your own!)

For interminable plane, car and train journeys: You need something light and undemanding in these circumstances, a book that doesn’t ask too much of you but still keeps you absorbed by telling a cracking good story. My favourites are crimes writers like Harlan Coben and Lee Child. Their books are page-turners and keep the ennui of long journeys at bay with a rapidly moving plot. You could also try Val McDermid, though be warned, her stories can get a tad gruesome – not the best start for a holiday.
Beach reads: Top of my list is Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh, sweaty, sexy, sticky and ever-so-slightly icky story of a woman’s lust for her step-daughter’s boyfriend, who comes on holiday with them. It is just the right blend of disturbing and disgusting, evoking the atmosphere of fraught family vacations and leavening it with lots of sexual tension.
City reads: Before I head out to any destination, I like to read up on it. But not the usual travelogues; I find that fiction set in that city serves my purpose much better. It allows me to immerse myself in the atmosphere of my destination even before I get there. 
So, if you are planning on visiting Bangkok this summer, do stock up on John Burdett, the bestselling author of Bangkok 8 and its many sequels. Its lead character is the half-Thai, half-farang detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the plots take in everything from the Bangkok sex industry to themes of reincarnation and Buddhist philosophy. You could also try Jake Needham who was famously described by the Bangkok Post as “Michael Connelly with steamed rice”.
If it’s Italy, then it must be Sarah Dunant. Her trilogy, The Birth of Venus, In the Company of the Courtesan, and Sacred Hearts, is set in Florence, Venice and Ferrara and brings the Renaissance alive as no academic tome could. If you are looking for a more modern take on Venice, then you can’t go wrong with Donna Leon, who uses the device of crime stories to write love letters to her adoptive home city.
Similarly, if it’s Provence, it must be Peter Mayle. If it’s Spain, it must be Ernest Hemingway (Death in the Afternoon, a non-fiction book about the bullfighting tradition and his classic For Whom the Bell Tolls about the Spanish civil war). And if you’re bound for England’s Lake District, dipping into the poetry of the Romantics (Wordsworth in particular) may not be a bad idea.
If you’re travelling with kids and want a book that would keep all age groups entertained, look no further than Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. It is laugh-out-loud funny and brilliant as a bonding exercise. The perfect counterpoint to this is Clare Balding’s My Animals and Other Family, about growing up in a horse-mad and dog-crazy posh English household. 
Looking to get your teeth into something more substantial while you holiday? Then, John Keay’s India, described as A History: From the Earliest Civilisations to the Boom of the Twenty-First Century, may be just the thing for you. You could also try Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, which reveals fresh insights with every new reading, or her more recent The Case for God. Also worth a look is Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire.
If spanking new releases are your thing, then here are my picks: The Target by David Baldacci, The Collector by Nora Roberts, Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen, and yes, Missing You by Harlan Coben.

So, happy holidays to you all. And happy reading!

Saturday, May 3, 2014

We are going on a summer holiday...

You know what the best kind of planning for your vacation is? None!

When summer comes along, can gratuitous advice on how to plan your vacation be far behind? But while I am as happy as the next person to get some tips on the best travel destinations and the cheapest way to get there, there is one annual pre-holiday ritual that makes me break out in hives. And that is the flurry of ‘summer special issues’ from the glossy magazine stable, all of them vying with the other to tell us how to ‘get the best bikini body’, where to buy our ‘holiday wardrobe’, and the ‘best way to pack’ our suitcases before we head out to the airport (‘in a comfortable tracksuit’, of course, silly!).

If you must know, the packing tip du jour involves ‘rolling your clothes around tissue paper’ so that they emerge wrinkle-free at the end of their journey. And packing ‘lots of accessories’ so that you can go ‘from day to night’ effortlessly. But wait, before you tackle the suitcase, you need to go on a shopping spree to pick up the latest ‘resort wear’ in the stores. And remember to buy ‘one size too small’ so that you are incentivized to go on a new diet-and-exercise regimen to fit into your new clothes by the time your vacation begins. That means no carbs-no-alcohol-no sugar to shift those stubborn pounds; endless crunches and squats to tone up that tummy and bum; and you do know that a little light exfoliation never hurt anyone?

Well, I don’t know about you but this avalanche of advice makes me want to go and lie down in a darkened room and not emerge until the sun has set on summer. Let alone head out on holiday, I can’t even summon up the energy to leave my bed, so overwhelmed am I by the endless instructions of the stuff I ‘simply must do’ before I even think of booking a ticket or making a hotel reservation.

And it is for people who feel like this that I have decided to draw up my very own anti-glossy magazine guide for ‘preparing for a summer holiday’. 

Ditch that diet. And never mind the squats and crunches. Eat what you like. Exercise when you feel like it. It doesn’t matter if your stomach is flat or your ass curvy. Nobody cares if you have cellulite on your thighs or upper-arm wobble. Everyone on the beach will be too busy holding their own tummies in to bother about your wobbly bits. Enjoy the feel of the sand under your feet, the splash of the waves on your non-exfoliated body, the warmth of the sun on your back, and have another beer.
Don’t bother with careful folding and inserting tissue paper (see above) between your clothes. Throw them all in that suitcase and let the law of physics do their worst. Yes, your clothes will be wrinkled at the other end. But you are on holiday. Nobody is judging you by the crease on your linen trousers. (And those who are need their heads examined, anyway.) Embrace the crumpled, lived-in look and make it your own. Life is too short to carry a travel iron or steam your clothes surreptitiously in the shower.
Shopping for a ‘new holiday wardrobe’? You have to be kidding. The thing about being on holiday is that nobody knows what your ‘old holiday wardrobe’ looks like. They have never seen you before, let alone your tried-and-tested one-piece swimsuit and floral chiffon dress. If there is any place where you can recycle your old clothes, it is on holiday. Added benefit: you won’t care if you spill red wine or tomato sauce on your clothes (as you inevitably will). 
No, you don’t need ‘comfortable flats’ for the day, ‘sparkly shoes’ for the evening,  ‘one pair of heels’ when you go to fancy restaurants, and ‘sneakers for the flight’. Or, for that matter, endless quantities of costume jewellery to ‘brighten up your outfit’,  ‘scarves that can double as sarongs’, and a ‘day bag’ and a ‘night bag’. You are going on holiday, not participating in a fashion face-off. The only thing you absolutely must pack is a sense of adventure. The rest is strictly optional.
Did you say ‘detox’? As in giving up all food groups (not to mention the will to live) and embracing the ‘goodness of vegetable juice’ so that you are fighting fit for your holiday? Don’t be so silly. The only detox you need this season is from glossy magazines and their fatuous advice. For the rest, drink up, eat well and be merry. For tomorrow, you go on holiday!