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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The social contract

Is it better to embarrass people in the moment or let them be mortified later on?

Last night I was at a very fancy sit-down dinner hosted by some extremely fancy people. Ours was a round table of 12 and seated directly across me was an elegant woman of a certain age, positively gleaming with discreet jewellery. Her make up was perfect, her manners were divine, and her conversation sparkling. But I couldn’t really focus on any of this. My attention was riveted on her mouth, which revealed a substantial piece of spinach stuck between her teeth every time she spoke.

It was too large for anyone to miss, and not small enough to ignore in the hope that it would dislodge on its own. And yet everyone on the table, including me, acted as if it wasn’t there. To be perfectly honest, I did wrestle with the issue in my mind: should I draw her attention to it and risk embarrassing her in front of everyone? Or should I just ignore it and let her discover it when she was back home, in front of the bathroom mirror, getting ready to brush her teeth? Gosh, how mortified she would be to discover that she had gone through the whole evening flashing a spinach-enhanced smile at all and sundry! What was better: embarrassing her now or allowing her to feel mortified later?

I must confess that this internal dialogue quite put me off my dinner. The risotto turned to ashes in my mouth and even the finest Burgundy didn’t make the slightest impact on my palate. I could have been drinking dishwater liquid for all the pleasure I got out of it.

So, how do you think it ended? Yes, you’re quite right. I funked it. I pretended to be oblivious to the spectacle of spinach teeth, following the example of everyone else. But later that night, I was consumed with regret. I’ll tell you why.

A few years, when I worked for a Calcutta-based newspaper group, our office was in old-style office off Parliament Street, where there was a communal ladies loo in the corridor leading to the balcony. One day, as I emerged from the loo, animatedly talking on my cell phone, I heard a female voice calling after me. I turned around a little irritably, wondering why she was interrupting my conversation. “I’m sorry ma’am,” she said, “But your skirt…”

I turned around and blushed: the hem of my crinkled Anokhi skirt had gotten bunched up in my underwear. And if I had walked into my office like that, I would have had a ‘Rachel moment’ (for those freaks who never got into Friends, I am talking of the time Rachel is a bridesmaid at her ex-boyfriend’s wedding and walks down the aisle with her poufy pink skirt bunched up in the underwear at the back, with her ass hanging all the way out) of my own. And then, there would have been no recourse except to quit the job and move town.

The same thing happened more recently at an airport. This time a kindly airport ground staff person pulled me aside as I exited the loo to tell me that my kurta was wedged in my tights (Yes, now that you say so, I can see a pattern here. Note to self: check self in full length mirror, both back and front, before exiting any loo in the future.) On both occasions, my gratitude to these kind ladies was boundless. Which is why I was consumed with guilt about not having summoned up the courage to tell the truth to Spinach Lady (as she will always be to me from now on).

But sometimes the reason we don’t point out something is because of people’s fragile egos. Recently, I have having coffee with two of my female friends when a celebrity (of sorts) whom we all knew vaguely came by to say hello. He sat down to have a chat. But no real conversation was possible because all three of us were fixated on a piece of food stuck to his luxuriant moustache. None of us had the guts to say anything – though we did give each other significant glances – and the poor sod probably went through the whole day with his facial hair doubling up as a food-catching device.

Speaking for myself, I have one simple rule when I go out. I call it the lift check. This consists of baring my fangs at my bemused husband and raising my eyebrows in an unspoken query: Do I have lipstick on my teeth? Yes, sometimes he messes with me by saying that I do even when I don’t, but still, it is well worth the aggravation to prevent any embarrassment later in the evening.

But what of those who don’t have spouses, friends and families to point such stuff out. They need all our help, don’t they? For my part, I have sworn to myself that the next time I have an elegant spinach-laden lady sitting in front of me at dinner, I will bite the bullet and break the news to her. Maybe a small scribbled note sent across via the waiter will do the trick.

On the whole, however, it is not a good idea to trust in the goodwill of people like me. Instead, try this. The next time you exit the house or the bathroom, make sure the skirt/kurta is where it is supposed to be. And when you’re at the table, use the reflective surfaces of a knife or fork to make sure your teeth/moustache/chin is food-free. You can always thank me later.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sherlock or Poirot?

Which of them deserves to be crowned the best detective in fiction?

As regular readers of this column will know, I am a huge fan of detective fiction. Give me a good murder mystery and I will shut myself up for the rest of the day, gobbling it up greedily, devouring every plot twist, chewing on each red herring, and drinking in the denouement with delight. 

So you can imagine my joy when I managed to lay my grasping little hands on the latest Anthony Horowitz. The author first brought his brand of magic to the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre with House of Silk. And now he’s dealing with the period immediately after Sherlock’s famous ‘demise’ at the Reichenbach Falls. The book is called Moriarty and that is all I am willing to say at this point, lest I be accused (yet again!) of planting spoilers.

But as I galloped across the pages at breakneck speed, I began to wonder: Is Sherlock Holmes the most popular fictional detective of all time? There must be at least four if not five generations now who have been brought up marveling at his deductive skills and intuitive insights. And yet his charm – or rather the talent of his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – never seems to fade. Re-read The Hound of Baskervilles today and you will feel that familiar chill run down your spine. But if you give Holmes first place then who else would feature in the top ten?

So this Sunday morning, here’s my list of the top ten detectives in fiction. Needless to say, this is an entirely subjective list based entirely on my own preferences and, dare I say, prejudices. Feel free to compile and share your own and we’ll take a crack at making a more universal, comprehensive one!

But speaking for myself, this is how the list would go.

1) Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle): The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was what I grew up on, cutting my detective-fiction-loving teeth on an impressively bound volume of Conan Doyle’s collected works that belonged to my grandfather. When I re-read these stories on my Kindle these days, they evoke memories of sunlit afternoons in the verandah of my childhood home, the wonder I experienced as a child at a story well told, and my absolute awe at Holmes’ many exploits.

2) Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie): His giant ego, his French-accented English, his little eccentricities, his luxuriant moustache, and those ‘leetle grey cells’ all combined to make Poirot one of the most recognizable creatures of detective fiction. (Though I must confess that these days when I think Poirot, I see David Suchet!)

3) Thomas Lynley (Elizabeth George): Lord Lynley, or the 8th Earl of Asherton to give him his full title, is the archetypal tortured genius. He is estranged from his mother, his brother has a drug problem, his rash driving has crippled his closest friend, Simon St James, who is now married to Deborah, who used to be love in Lynley. If that isn’t enough stuff for psychological drama, you have Lynley’s on-off relationship with Lady Helen Clyde and his volatile partnership with his working class Detective Sergeant, Barbara Havers. All that before you even add on a murder mystery!

4) Guido Brunetti (Donna Leon): The best part of this detective series is that it is set in Venice, and the city’s beauty is apparent at every turn. Guido Brunetti is that stranger to detective fiction: a good family man. He lives life the Italian way, going home every afternoon for a three-course meal with his wife, Paola, and their kids, Raffi and Chiara. He counts on his aristocratic father-in-law, Comte Falier, for insights into Venetian high society, and by way of light reading, dips into the writings of the Roman historian, Pliny.

5) Adam Dalgliesh (P. D. James): How can you not love a detective who is also a poet? A cerebral, quiet, thoughtful, intensely private man who brings his subtle intellect to bear on the most knotted of cases and untangles them with gentlemanly ease. If that ticks all your boxes, than Dalgliesh’s your man.

6) Aurelio Zen (Michael Dibdin): He’s a bit of a mess really. With a complicated love life, an ageing mother, and a propensity to land himself in near-death encounters in various scenic parts of Italy. This is an anti-hero you find yourself rooting for despite yourself.

7) Cordelia Grey (P.D. James): She is the one character that I wish James had made more of. Grey has so much potential. Shaped by a peripatetic childhood, she has worked at all kinds of odd jobs till she ends up in a private detective agency, which she inherits when her mentor dies. If anyone deserves another outing among fictional detectives, it is Cordelia Grey. 

8) Lord Peter Wimsey (Dorothy L Sayers): The original prototype for Lord Lynley, Lord Wimsey (later the Duke of Denver) is an amateur detective, whose whimsical, slightly foolish manner, conceal a sharp, deductive mind. Think upper-class fop crossed with Hercule Poirot.

9) Miss Marple (Agatha Christie): We’ve all known someone like her. That ageing busybody who pokes her nose in everyone business, and keeps a close watch on proceedings from behind her twitching curtain. But it’s an absolute joy to read what Christie makes of her.

10) Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell): The medical examiner as detective was an unusual conceit when Cornwell came out with her first book, Post Mortem, in 1990. But what I like best about Scarpetta is her brisk, almost brusque, take-no-prisoners attitude, which in recent novels, she has transmitted to her computer genius neice, Lucy Farinelli.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Time out

No matter how rushed the day, remember to take out some time for yourself

“What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare”, wrote the poet William Henry Davies in his Songs of Joy and Others, published in 1911. But the sentiment still holds true more than a century later. It really is a ‘poor life’, as Davies wrote, if we have ‘no time to stand and stare’.

But in our modern anxiety about making the most of our time, of making each moment count, we seem to have lost the ability to do that. We race through the day, trying to cram in as much as we can into it: family, work, kids, workout and what-not. We spend the evenings networking so that we stay ahead of the competition. We catch up on news and gossip late into the night. And then we get up the next day and go through the whole sorry cycle again.

Where is the time to ‘stand and stare’ in that kind of tight schedule let alone ‘turn at Beauty’s glance, And watch her feet, see how they dance’. We are all too busy dancing around trying to get our work assignments finished, the chores completed, the kids’ homework done, and making sure that dinner’s on the table. God, if we stopped spinning all those plates madly, our entire world would come crashing down our ears!

But wait, pause for just a minute and think: would it really? Or are you just creating needless pressure for yourself by trying to be all things to all people all the time? Would it really hurt to take some time out for yourself? Or are you doing more damage than you realize by ignoring your own needs?

If you feel tired and rundown all the time, you will not be doing be an optimal job on any of the many tasks you have assigned yourself. If you feel put-upon by the demands that the people in your life place upon you, then it won’t be long before you start resenting them. Result: nobody will be happy; neither you nor those around you.

So, in everyone’s interests, just take a time-out. And while you’re at it, take some time out for yourself. Set aside a portion of day – it could be even a measly half hour – when you do something just for yourself. Something that gives you pleasure, something that makes you happy, something that makes you forget all about the demands that life places on you. 

It’s tough, I know, to make this kind of change when you have conditioned yourself to believe that the earth would stop turning on its axis if you stepped away from the plate. And after years of considering everybody but yourself, you probably are at a loss as to what you can do with your me-time.

So, just to get you started, here are just a few suggestions. Maybe they will set you free to think up some of your own.

Take an evening off to go off and chill with your friends (no spouses allowed). Bitch about your co-workers, bosses, husbands/wives, kids, in-laws, whatever you need to get off your chest. Have a drink or two. Ditch the diet and go for the deep-fried stuff. Act as if you’re back in college, out for a good time with your mates. You’ll feel like that by the end of the evening, anyway.
Have a date night with your spouse, where neither of you is allowed to discuss a) the kids b) the mortgage c) your jobs d) old resentments. Use this time to reconnect with one another, to remember why you fell in love with each other in the first place.
If you are lucky enough to get driven around, don’t use the commute to catch up on emails or make work calls. Use that time to listen to some of your favourite tracks on your ipod or read a book. Or simply stare out of the window, take in the world, and revel in the rare felicity of being alone with your thoughts.
A friend of mine swears by this: get up 20 minutes before everyone else in the house, make yourself a cup of coffee or tea, read the papers or just stare out of the balcony as a new day dawns. This will give you the equilibrium you need to take the rest of the day in your stride.
Do one thing everyday that gives you pleasure. It could be anything: getting a manicure; reading to your children; walking in the rain; eating a cupcake; phoning an old friend; soaking in the bath last thing before going to bed; watching an old episode of Frasier; sneaking in a late-night snack once the kids are safely tucked away in bed.

In other words, take time out for yourself. Or, to quote one of the best poets of our age, the songwriter Paul Simon,  “Slow down, you’re moving too fast, You’ve got to make the morning last. Just kicking down the cobble stones, Looking for fun and feeling groovy.” 

Say this much for poets; whether it is Davies or Simon, they get it right every time.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Age cannot wither...

What do you see when you look at all the old people around you?

“So, you are very into pottery,” she said, as I walked her to the front door, pointing to the many terracotta pots and figurines that lined the hallway. “Not really,” I demurred. “These were all made by my mother-in-law.”

I could see her do a double take as I said this, though she was polite enough to disguise it. And sadly, I could understand why. These days, my mother-in-law is confined to her bed – bar the occasional whirl on the wheelchair – with round-the-clock nursing care. So, all that those who visit her now see is an old, frail woman who needs to be cared for as you would a small child.

And that is true, as far as bare facts go. But what is also true is that there is so much more to the woman lying in bed than her fragility and helplessness. But most people can’t really look beyond appearances to see this essential truth. They find it easier to deal with her reality by infantilizing her. And in seeing her as an infant (“it’s like a second childhood, isn’t it?” they smile indulgently) they wipe out her entire history, reducing her to a cipher instead of the three-dimensional woman she is.

But even though her visitors can’t seem to look beyond the obvious – an aged, helpless woman lying in bed, with nurses hovering solicitously around her – what I see is something very different indeed. When I sit by her bedside, I see a whole lot more.

I see the bright young student, the first woman of her family to go to university in America to study industrial psychology (a subject that most people in India didn’t even know existed). I see the defiant woman who eloped with the man of her choice in the face of parental opposition. I see the radiant bride in Paris, in her Patola sari and her bouquet of flowers, basking in the glow of her happy-ever-after love story. I see the working mother, juggling office and a baby. I see the dreamer who gave it all up to become India’s leading pottery artist. I see the untimely widow, left to rebuild her life, coping with adversity as best she could. I see the doting mother, the loving mother-in-law and the indulgent grandmother.

I see a person. A person with a history, a person who led a fun, full and fulfilling life, who loved, lost and then found peace and contentment in whatever circumstances life thrust upon her. I see stories in her wrinkles, laughter in her eyes, joy in her smiles.

What do you see when you look at the aged people all around you? Do you regard them as objects of pity? Do you see them as a waste of time? Do you find them to be a drain on your resources? Do you resent them for growing old and infirm when you weren’t looking? Do you feel anger because they are casting a depressing shadow on the best years of your adult life? Do you feel ineffably sad to see what they have turned into? Do you feel guilty because you feel you don’t do enough? Does that, in turn, make you feel angry at them for making you feel this way? Or do you just feel toe-curling fear at the thought that one day you could be just like them?

I guess at some point or another in our lives, we have felt all or most of these emotions. And given how universal they are, we should not feel ashamed for feeling this way. And yet, more often than not, shame is exactly what we feel. And it is that shame that makes us back away from the elderly just when we should be hugging them even closer.

Maybe one way of coping with this is to look beyond the wrinkles, the sagging flesh, the clouded eyes, and the sparse hair. Instead we should look for the rich histories that live behind them, the complicated tapestries of a life well lived, which would keep us entertained for days if we only knew even the half of it.

But the sad truth is that most people have to pass on before we are willing to grant them their histories, not to mention their stories. That’s when we sit down and giggle about the time grandmom nearly burnt the house down or how grandpa turned into such a rogue when he drank a little. We giggle about that family trip where mom lost all her clothes at the riverside when she went for a holy dip. We tell each other funny stories about family weddings and annual picnics, starring the recently departed. We pull out old picture albums, which make us both laugh and cry.

That’s when we remember the old as the people they were. Ironic, isn’t it? We are only willing and able to give them their lives back once they depart them. What a pity it is that we can’t seem to accord them that dignity and respect, not to mention affection and remembrance, when they are still around to appreciate it.

I know it’s hard, but surely, it can’t hurt to try?

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Ageing gracefully

That may well be the ‘ideal’ – but there is something to be said for ageing disgracefully as well

In all the shock-horror coverage of Renee Zellweger’s new face (don’t worry, I am not about to add my two-bits to the raging debate) the one phrase that popped up the most was that old cliché: ‘ageing gracefully’. The implication here, of course, was that Renee was ‘ageing’ but not at all ‘gracefully’. Instead, she was resorting to every trick in the book – tanning lotions, Botox, fillers, plastic surgery, and God alone knows what else! – to keep the depredations of Nature at bay (never mind that the actress herself put her new look down to being in a happy place in her life.)

I don’t know about you but if there is one phrase that is guaranteed to raise my hackles it is this one. ‘Ageing gracefully’. As if there is some societally approved standard of how every woman – and it is nearly always women who are discussed in this context – must age if she doesn’t want to fall foul of the Look Police.

She must not have had any obvious ‘work’ done. She must have a few wrinkles in place and her forehead should actually move. Any dyeing or primping must be so subtle as to be practically unnoticeable. It helps if she is the same size at 60 that she was at 30. But even so, she must not frighten the children by wearing short dresses, leather trousers, tank tops or (the ultimate transgression) bikinis at the beach.

‘Ageing gracefully’. You see it used in the media all the time. But it can’t be a coincidence that it is always used in the context of drop-dead beautiful women, who remain attractive despite the ravages of age. Leading the pack is the effervescent Meryl Streep, who wears her laugh lines and crows feet as a badge of pride. Following closely is Helen Mirren, who can still rock a red bikini at 60-something. Diane Keaton is another name that crops up on this list. Susan Sarandon was always given an honorable mention before she went and let the side down with a subtle facelift. Back home, we have our own icons of ‘ageing gracefully’ but the one who gets the most name checks is the late Gayatri Devi.

Whenever there is a shock-horror story about an ageing (by that I mean anyone on the wrong side of 30) star’s cosmetic surgery gone wrong, you can be sure that these women will be dragged into the narrative as examples of the ideal that all of us should aspire to: ‘ageing gracefully’.

Really? While I bow to none in my admiration of these ladies, they are hardly representative of our sex, are they? What they are is freaks of Nature, one born every 10 million or so, who are destined to be effortlessly beautiful, and remain so no matter how old they grow.

The rest of us? Not so much. We need help to look even marginally attractive when we are in our prime. So, what is wrong with trying a little harder as time goes on? Nobody blinks an eye at monthly waxing and bleaching appointments, fortnightly manicures and pedicures, six-weekly root touch-ups, and quarterly highlights: the minimum standard required for grooming these days. So what is wrong with pushing the boat out a little further when you feel you need a little more help? What’s the harm in trying to look like the best version of ourselves?

Do you look (and feel) permanently angry because of that frown line that glowers furiously from your forehead? Do you think a little Botox might make you feel better about yourself? Go right ahead and do it. Does the face looking back at you from the mirror look older and more tired than you feel? Will a few discreet touches of filler make a difference? It’s entirely your call. Do you (like Nora Ephron and millions of other women) feel bad about you neck? Get a little nip and tuck if that’s what you want. It’s your face, your body, your life, your choice. Do what makes you happy. And pay no attention to the naysayers around you.

On the other end of the spectrum, do you want to ‘age disgracefully’ in an entirely different way altogether? Give yourself permission to do so. Cancel the gym membership, fire the personal trainer, and junk that hideous diet regimen you’ve signed up for. Go for a walk in the park or do a little light yoga instead. Or just lie in bed and eat chocolate. It’s your life. And you’ve earned the right to live it as you wish.

As for me, I am determined to age as disgracefully as possible. Here, in no particular order of importance, are just some of things I intend to do as I get older:

Cut my hair really short (think GI Jane) and dye it purple. (Grey is such a boring colour.
Wear red leather trousers to all my business meetings.
Tell it like it is – no more mealy-mouthed platitudes.
Throw out all my high heels and live in ballet flats.
Lie on the sofa all weekend watching endless reruns of Friends/Frasier/Modern Family.

I intend to do what I like, when I like, and to hell with the rest of the world. And while I’m at it, I’m going to retire the phrase ‘ageing gracefully’ from my vocabulary. Instead, I am going to celebrate ‘ageing disgracefully’. Now that has a nice ring to it!