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

Saturday, August 30, 2014

It's your fault!


Behind every unsuccessful man we look for the woman who ‘jinxed’ him

Anushka Sharma has magical powers. Through her presence alone, she can ensure that her boyfriend fails in every innings, jinx the entire Indian Test team, and engineer two back-to-back innings defeats in the recently-concluded India vs England Test series.

Who knew? Not the BCCI, certainly, which gave Virat Kohli special permission to take his girlfriend along for the England tour. And certainly not Virat, or he would have left her behind safely in Mumbai, while he played the field (I am talking of cricket of course; what did you think?) in the balmy sunshine of an English afternoon. But he took the unlucky minx along, and now look what’s happened: we have suffered our worst defeat since that much-talked-about Summer of 42 in England!

But don’t worry, all you cricket lovers (and Virat Kohli fans). The BCCI is on the ball, revising its rules to ensure that such disaster never strikes again. The Board has now decreed that cricketers will not be allowed to take their girlfriends on tour with them. And even legally wedded and bedded wives will only be allowed to accompany their cricketer spouses for a limited period of time. This will ensure, or so the BCCI assures us, that the team is not distracted by all those pesky little women, who always want to go shopping or sightseeing (or whisper it, have sex!) and don’t allow their husbands to get on with serious stuff like practicing at the nets, working out at the gym, or even winning a match or two.

Honestly, these evil women with their wiles and their charms, seducing our heroes away from the straight and narrow path that leads to victory. These horrid witches who cast a spell on their men, turning them into a shadow of their former selves. They really should be burnt at the stake! Or at the very least, have their passports torched so that they can’t travel along with their husbands/boyfriends.

Yes, for some reason, it is always the women who bring bad luck, and the men who have to suffer as a consequence. So, if Dhoni has a bad run after he gets married, it must be his wife, Sakshi’s fault. She must be bringing him bad luck with her presence in the stands. And if Virat is back in the pavilion no sooner than he left, it must be because he can’t bear to be away from Anushka for a minute longer.

Of the two evils, wives and girlfriends, wives are just a tad more tolerable. At least their sexual allure is a little dulled by familiarity, so they don’t distract their husbands quite so much. But girlfriends? Tauba, tauba, they must be banished forthwith so that the boys can get on with the job.

So far, so sexist. Not just about the women, who are portrayed as sex-crazed and shopping-mad harpies who won’t give their men a moment’s rest. But also about the men, who are depicted as sorry stereotypes, constantly led astray by a certain part of their anatomy. This kind of scenario doesn’t just demonize women, it also infantilizes men, to the detriment of both genders.

But on balance, as always, it is the women who come off worse. They are the ones held responsible for the non-performance/bad luck of their men. Virat Kohli is playing so badly because Anushka Sharma is bringing him bad luck (or leaving him so exhausted and distracted that he can’t tell a full toss from a yorker). But nobody would dream of suggesting that Anushka’s movie flopped because her performance suffered as a consequence of being involved with Virat.

That’s how it has always been, hasn’t it? Blaming women for stuff that they couldn’t possibly be responsible for. It happened centuries ago when women who were widowed young were treated as social lepers who had to be cordoned off from society in case their bad luck infected everyone else (in some circles, this is still true even in the 21st century). We’ve all heard of cases where young brides are castigated for having brought bad luck when a family death occurs soon after their wedding (no matter that it couldn’t possibly have been their fault). And if the death is that of the husband, then all hell breaks loose.

Yes, blaming women for all the bad stuff that goes down is as old as time itself. So, what’s been happening with Anushka Sharma is pretty much par for the course. And you could argue that it is pretty harmless. After all, it just boils down to a few jokes on social media, a brief flurry of commentary pieces on the sports pages, and a couple of cartoons. It’s hardly serious enough to do her any damage; as a strong, modern, successful woman, surely she knows how to take this in her stride?

And I am sure that she does. But what a pity that we live in a world in which she has to!


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Are you being served?


Sometimes a food memoir doesn’t just whet the appetite; it provides food for thought as well

Last night, I devoured Pamela Timms’ food memoir of Five Seasons in Delhi, evocatively if enigmatically titled Korma Kheer & Kismet, in one hungry gulp. Yes, it is a cracking good read, and Pamela’s adventures on the food trails in the grubby bylanes of Purani Dilli will have your gastronomic juices flowing (they certainly made me long for chole bhature at the unearthly hour of 3 am!) in no time at all. But that’s not the only reason I galloped through the book, like a hungry mare racing for the next expanse of green that she could get stuck into. It was also because, despite the many years I spent in the capital, the world that Pamela writes about seemed like a foreign land to me.

Like most New Delhi denizens I have rarely ventured into the chaos of Chandni Chowk. I certainly don’t know where the best Daulat ki Chaat is found, leave alone made (in highly unsanitary conditions; there’s a surprise for you!). I haven’t eaten the korma made by the Ashok and Ashok; in fact, I hadn’t even heard of the shop until I read the book. As a fully-certified jalebi lover, I am ashamed to confess that I haven’t tasted the ones served up at the somewhat literally-named Old and Famous Jalebi Wala. And while I have done the regulation rounds of Paranthe Wali Gali and eaten chaat on a couple of occasions from the roadside stalls in Old Delhi, I would be hard put to tell one food vendor from another.

I suspect that this is true of most New Delhi residents, if you discount those hardcore ‘foodies’ who go on things like ‘food walks’ in their neighbourhoods and beyond. But for the rest of us, Old Delhi is another country. We may pitch up there for some wedding shopping. We may make the occasional trip to show visitors a slice of ‘authentic’ Delhi. And we may drop in to Karims for some korma and biryani during Eid. But that’s about it.

Which is why it seems a little shaming that the person to show us the many delightful faces and places of Old Delhi should be an ‘outsider’ like Pamela Timms, a Scottish journalist, who accompanied her husband, Dean Nelson, as a ‘trailing spouse’ on his assignment as a foreign correspondent in India, and ended up making Purani Dilli her own (and like a canny Scot, got a book out of it, for good measure).

But I guess this is the way of the world, isn’t it? We traverse the globe looking for beauty, adventure, and yes, amazing food, all the while ignoring the treasures that are staring us in the face right where we live.

We save up for years to make a special trip to Florence to gaze at Sandro Boticelli’s masterpiece of Renaissance art, The Birth of Venus, in the Uffizi gallery, but we don’t take a bus ride to the National Museum in Delhi to see the magnificence of Mughal miniature paintings. We spend hundreds of Euros eating at Michelin-star restaurants in France, but we turn our noses up at the delights of regional cuisine available in our own country. We spend a fortune skiing on the slopes of Aspen and Gstaad but we ignore the beauty of Gulmarg, just a few hours away by plane. We marvel at the Grand Canyon in the States, gawp in astonishment at the Niagara Falls, but have probably never heard of the Valley of Flowers in the Himalayas or the Gersoppa or Jog Falls in Karnataka. We romp through the ruins of Pompeii, astounded by the picture of ancient Roman life it represents, but are unaware of the sites of the much older Harappan Civilisation in Gujarat, just a short train ride away.

It is a peculiar sort of tunnel vision, isn’t it, that allows us to obsess about faraway delights while being blind to the beauty all around us?

Not that I am one to talk. I have managed the singular feat of living in Delhi for decades on end without ever having seen the Humayun’s Tomb, the Bahai Temple, or even Dilli Haat. I have spent years in Mumbai without visiting the Elephanta Caves, and the only reason I have seen the Gateway of India is because it is handily situated right in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel. And in Calcutta, where I grew up, the only reason I visited the Indian Museum, was because of obligatory school trips.

And yet, even as I ignored the marvels situated in my neck of woods, I have visited an active volcano in New Zealand, gazed in wonder at the geysers of Iceland, gone truffle hunting in the Piedmont Valley in Italy, huffed and puffed my way up to Machu Picchu in Peru, gone on a safari in Africa, wine-tasted my way through Burgundy, and much, much more.

No, I don’t mean to boast, but just to point out that I know much more about the world at large, than I know about my own city, leave alone my own country. And it took Pamela Timm’s paean to Old Delhi to bring that home to me. She didn’t just give me a sniff of the delicious food on offer just a few Metro stops away; she also provided me with much food for thought. Korma Kheer & Kismet served up with a side of Contemplation; dig in.



Saturday, August 16, 2014

Wear your attitude


And anything you damn well please…that’s the whole point of personal style

When I was growing up, there was an infallible way to tell when a woman had gotten married. She gave up on childish things like frocks and dresses, put away her jeans and skirts, and adopted the salwar-kameez or the sari as her uniform of choice. Okay, perhaps it wasn’t always by choice. Sometimes it was dictated by conservative in-laws, on occasion it was the husband who didn’t want her to dress ‘Western’ now that she was married, and at times it was just unspoken societal pressure. That was how married women were supposed to look: all wrapped up decorously in a sari, or a salwar-kameez at a push. And most married women complied, no matter what their private feelings on the matter.

I am happy to report, however, that this is no longer the case. Marriage no longer spells the end of edgy or even sexy dressing. Women, or at least urban women of a certain class, can continue to wear what they like even after they have that ring on that finger (or the mangalsutra around the neck). Nobody looks on with shock/horror if a married woman accessorizes her chuda with tight jeans or a short skirt. In fact, nobody so much as bats an eyelid.

Never was this brought home to me more forcibly than when my newly-wedded niece was taken shopping by her mother-in-law. My niece gravitated towards the churidar-kurtas, thinking this was an appropriate choice given that mum-in-law was paying. But even as she was riffling through them, she felt an urgent tug on her shoulder. It was her mother-in-law, who had found an outfit she thought would look amazing on her new daughter-in-law. It was a short, sleeveless, patterned dress with a halter neck. 

But it’s not just young, newly-married women who are dressing differently these days, eschewing conservative choices for more modern ones. It is women of all ages, all social classes, all shapes and sizes, and from all over the country. It is no longer unusual to see a young mother in a short dress or even a grandmother in trousers. Jeans have become a great equalizer, being worn by women young and old, with every body type, from all income brackets, and from every region. 

In my case, I have made quite the opposite journey. In my teenage years, I could not wait to get into the sari. Even the act of draping it in front of a full-length mirror made me feel ineffably grown-up. As a young professional in my first job, the sari’s natural grace and elegance helped me negotiate the new and tricky world of the workplace from within the security of its folds. It made me look like and act like a responsible adult even when deep down inside I didn’t really feel like one. The perfect camouflage, in fact, for faking it until I finally made it.

Now that I can class myself as a ‘woman of a certain age’, I still wear the sari. But now it is when I want to have fun and play dress-up, having tired of my everyday uniform of jeans and shirts. And sometimes I treat the sari like a secret weapon in the armoury of my wardrobe, to be deployed when I particularly want to impress. It is pulled out on special occasions, like formal dinners, weddings, or at important professional engagements when I want to feel the same security I felt as a young journalist starting out.

But for the rest of the time, my wardrobe has actually gotten younger as I have gotten older. These days I live in fuss-free, knee-length, crush-proof dresses that I can pull out of my closet (or increasingly, my suitcase) and step into without all that starching and ironing that cotton saris, or even churidar kurtas, require. There is none of the palaver of figuring out what goes with what, none of that nightmare called colour coordination. It’s simplified dressing at its best: pull on a dress, slip on a pair of flats, stick on the sunglasses, a slash of eyeliner, a dab of lipstick, and you are good to go.

Did I hear you mention the words ‘mutton dressed as lamb’? Ah yes, I thought so. But you know what, the best part of growing older and becoming comfortable in my skin (not to mention my dress) is that I no longer care what you think of me, my clothes, my sense of style, or for that matter, my bare arms. I will wear what I like, thank you very much. And in the famous words of Rhett Butler, I really don’t give a damn (what you think about it).

And I am rapidly coming around to the view that, no matter what your age, this is the key to personal style: it has to be a personal choice (not made on the basis of the diktats of some fashion magazine); and you have to own it, no matter what other people may think (or say) about it. Feel like wearing a sari? Do it. Want the comfort of a pair of lived-in jeans? Knock yourself out. You’d rather live in a dress? Go right ahead. 

There is no one you need to please but yourself. Tell yourself that the next time you go shopping. It will make things so much simpler.


Saturday, August 9, 2014

Picture perfect


Could there be anything more annoying in the world than full-on perfection?

Go on, admit it. Isn’t there something just a tad annoying about perfection? Okay, make that very annoying indeed. You know what I mean, don’t you? All those picture-perfect images of celebrities in the media, without a hair out of place. The slickly-designed homes that feature in style magazines, colour-coordinated till the sofa springs squeak. Those food shows that serve up glossy, glammed-up food, on gleaming crockery, to equally gleaming people.

Well, whatever you may think about it, I have to confess that I am fed up with being fed these images of perfection day in and day out. If anything, these tableaux of perfection make me long for a world which is a bit messed up, a tiny bit ragged around the edges, or even just plain old ugly. 

It’s not just the media, of course. It’s also real life. And of course, some people, who are so darned perfect that the only response to their po-faced perfection is to punch them in the face (not that I actually do that; but consider yourselves warned). 

I have a sneaking suspicion that some of them are just playing the part and are secretly as flawed and imperfect as the rest of us. But true to form, they play the part so perfectly that they have the rest of us convinced – and bloody annoyed. Or is that just me?

Well, for what it is worth, here is a ready reckoner of all the things that I, in all my glorious imperfections, find very, very annoying indeed.

Those people who decorate their houses in shades of beige, taupe, ivory, cream, or even stark white, and then manage to keep them looking pristine for years. Don’t these people have kids? Or even guests? Don’t they themselves eat dinner, drink red wine, or sneak in a quick ice-cream late at night? And if they do, how come their d├ęcor remains spill-free and immaculate? Do they secretly execute renovations in the dead of night so that the rest of us don’t know what they are up to? I think the world deserves to know the truth about this Beige Brigade.
Perfect moms who send their kids to school with perfectly-ironed uniforms, perfectly-brushed hair, and with tiffins that contain only organic, free-range, thingummy jigs, with not a trace of added sugar. You know the ones I mean, don’t you? The kind of mums who treat your kid like a terrorist because he or she is packing a cupcake in his/her goody bag. And who send a long list of instructions of what their child can or cannot eat if you ever invite him or her over for a play date (even as you mutter “never again” to yourself under your breath).
Talking of kids, don’t you hate those smug parents whose kids never put a foot wrong? These perfectly-reared monsters never have a meltdown in a supermarket aisle, never smear chocolate on other people’s furniture/clothes, and never ever run around terrorizing hapless diners in fancy restaurants. Oh no, they listen to Mummy and Daddy all the time, obey all instructions, say ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ without being prompted, and generally do all they can to make other children (and their parents) feel totally and utterly inadequate.
The folks who can wear linen or starched cotton the whole day long without every throwing up a single crease (if you don’t count the ones they had achieved by the efficient press of an iron). How do they do it? Do they never sit down all day long? Or do they carry discreet little travel irons around in their handbags to affect repairs as and when needed? The mind truly boggles!
Those people with iron self-control who never cheat on their diets, not even if a three-star Michelin chef is in the kitchen. They stick with cheerless severity to their lettuce salad (hold the dressing), poached fish with steamed vegetables on the side, and a fruit platter for dessert. These are those ‘virtuous’ creatures who are never tempted by a plate of French fries, a gooey chocolate desert, or a juicy hamburger with cheese and bacon, and then look down from the moral high ground of their dietary superiority on the rest of us mere mortals. What’s not to loath? 
And last of all, there is a special place in hell reserved for people who manage to get off long-haul flights looking as good (if not better) as when they got on. I can just about forgive the Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, who has a hairdresser, lady-in-waiting and God alone knows who else, travelling with her to ensure that the future Queen of England never steps off a plane looking less than immaculate. But what do you make of the likes of Victoria Beckam and Jemima Khan, who stroll through airports with bouncy hair and immaculate make-up even after a 12-hour flight. Or, for that matter, Angelina Jolie, who in addition to looking as glamorous as ever, manages to pull off the Earth Mother routine as well, dragging along all six of her children for the perfect photo-opportunity. What is wrong with these women? And why doesn’t static strike them like it does the rest of us?
Honestly, there really is no justice in this world!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Who is an Indian?


And does marrying a Pakistani make you any less of one?

So, what makes an Indian an Indian? Or to put it another way, what turns an Indian into a foreigner? Or, for that matter, what turns a foreigner into an Indian? I only ask because, as I sit down to write this, a controversy has broken out about whether Sania Mirza deserves to be appointed brand ambassador of the newly-minted state of Telengana.

In case you have been living on a desert island for the past decade or so, Sania Mirza is India’s first bonafide female tennis star, who, at the peak of her playing form, had a world ranking of 27 in singles and five in doubles. In the course of her checkered career, she met, fell in love with, and married a Test cricketer called Shoaib Malik (and the two appear to be living happily ever after, thank you very much).

So, nobody should have been too surprised when K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the chief minister of Telegana, held a ceremony to appoint Sania as Telegana brand ambassador. After all, she is the pride and joy of Hyderabad, where her family have lived for generations (since 1908, since you ask). What better brand ambassador could a state possibly have than a local girl who became an international star through a combination of sheer talent, hard work, and a ferocious desire to succeed?

Ah, but here’s the rub. You remember the husband I mentioned, don’t you? A decent sort of chap who plays cricket rather well. The problem is that he plays cricket for Pakistan. And even though the couple currently lives in Dubai, Shoaib is a Pakistani citizen.

Cue, angry BJP legislators like K. Laxman queuing up to denounce the decision to appoint Sania the brand ambassador of Telengana. How could the state government possibly give the gig to a woman who was the ‘daughter-in-law of Pakistan’? Never mind that Sania has retained her Indian citizenship, still plays for India, and has announced proudly, “I am an Indian, who will remain an Indian till the end of my life.”

But for sexist, misogynist, traditionalists like the BJP member and others of his ilk, a woman is defined by the man she weds. Once she is married, she takes on the identity and nationality of her husband, and ceases to be herself, or even a person in her own right. Sania married a Pakistani; so, she is Pakistan’s daughter-in-law. Ergo, even if she is still an Indian passport holder, she can no longer call herself an Indian.

That’s how the argument goes…at least that’s how it goes until the woman in question is Sonia Gandhi. Then, the argument is turned right on its head. Like Sania, Sonia too met a man of a different nationality, fell in love and got married. She left her native Italy at the age of 22, to come and live with her husband, Rajiv, whom she married in 1968. So, she has now spent 46 years in India as opposed to the 22 she spent in Italy. She took on Indian nationality in 1983 so she has been a citizen of this country for more than 30 years. And even after her husband was brutally assassinated in 1991, she chose to stay on in India, which she regarded as her natural home.

So, by any reckoning, if anyone has earned the right to be referred to as ‘India’s daughter-in-law’ it is Sonia Gandhi. And yet, when it comes to being counted as Indian, she still doesn’t quite cut it. Her ‘foreign origin’ is like the proverbial Damocles sword hanging over her head.

Which brings me back to my original question. Who is an Indian? And who is not? And on what basis is that decision made?

Well, if you ask me, it all comes down to one word: choice. If you choose to be Indian, no matter where you were born, where you currently live, or whom you are married to, then you are an Indian. If you choose not to be Indian, no matter if you were born in India, are married to an Indian, and live in India, well then, you are not an Indian. It really is as simple as that. That is what the ‘idea of India’ is all about.

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen may have lived almost his entire adult life abroad, may be married to a foreigner, but still holds on to his Indian passport. So he indubitably is an Indian. Ditto steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who lives and does business abroad but has refused to give up his Indian passport. The late K.R. Narayanan may have married a Burmese lady while still in the foreign service, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming President of India. But while we have no problem with identifying these men as Indian, women often encounter a grey area when it comes to establishing their identity and their nationality.

Which brings us back to where we started: why this fuss about Sania and Sonia? And why the double standards? Is it because the patriarchy is unwilling to grant these women – and others like them – what men take for granted: the freedom to choose? It should be up to a woman to decide which country she wishes to belong to: the one she was born in or the one she married into. And it is for us to respect that choice.