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

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Have passport; will travel

The pet peeves of a frequent traveller

I know that this week, as I sit down to write this column, everyone is outraging about the new tax regulations that require all tax-paying Indians to declare their travel abroad (and how they paid for it) in their annual returns. And while these would make life difficult for frequent travellers – yet another set of bills to preserve, yet more payments to keep track of – this is not what I want to talk to you about today. 

Instead, I am going to give you a rather exhaustive (and very exhausting!) list of the many things that leave me irritated at best and incandescent with rage at worst when I am travelling.

The palaver of packing: After all these decades of travelling, you would think I would have the act of packing down to a fine art. Well, you would be quite wrong. Oh, I get the essentials in the suitcase, all right, no problems there. Then, starts the internal dialogue. Should a pack an umbrella? Or is it easier to borrow one at the hotel? Overcoat or light jacket? One pair of heels or two? 
And then, after much wrestling – both figurative and literal – when I have got the suitcase shut, begin the doubts. Did I pack my charger? Did I put in my favourite pair of jeans? Scrambling around in the case doesn’t answer my questions, so what is a girl to do but unpack and repack again? 
Pinging my way through security: Being something of a pro at this (even if I say so myself) I take off everything that could conceivably ping as I go through the metal detectors. To no avail. I always ping as the metal detector band swishes across my body. The woman officer looks bewildered. Is it possible she has never heard of an underwired bra? I attempt to enlighten her, but it’s too late. I’m already being subjected to a frisking so intimate it could double as a full-body massage. 
Reeling from this unnecessarily close encounter, I go to collect my carry-on bag. But like always its been pulled over to the side for inspection. Repressing a sigh, I pull out the usual suspects: my house keys. Do they really look like an offensive weapon in the X-ray? I guess I’ll never know.
Passport checks: What is it about being at an immigration counter (even one in your own country) that makes you feel like a criminal? Is it the sinister camera pointed straight at you? Is the suspicious look of the officer as he looks at your passport photo and back at you, trying to work out if you are the same person? Or is it the Gestapo-style questioning: where are you going? (Er, it says so right there on my boarding card.) Do you have a valid visa? (Um, I just handed you my passport with the page open on the visa in question.) The harder you try to be insouciant, the shiftier you look. 
Hotel woes: What is it with hotels and their electronic keys? Why must we keep them away from mobile phones, coins, car keys, etc.? (I mean, where do they expect us to carry them? Tucked away beneath the soles of our shoes?) Credit cards seem to survive living in our wallets so why do hotels keys give up the ghost (usually in the middle of the night, when you are much the worse for wear) so often?
And don’t even get me started on bathrooms! The shower taps are so complicated that you need a tutorial to understand how they work. And since you are never given one, you end up cowering in a corner as cold water splashes all over you, trying to figure out how the damn thing works. By the time you’ve sussed out how to access the hot water, you’ve already had a cold shower by default. Brrrrr.
Plug points are the other bane of my existence in hotel rooms. They are usually placed behind cabinets or tables so that you have to crouch on all fours to access them. Or they are placed along the skirting of the wall so that you have to bend down to use them. If you have creaky joints, dodgy knees and bad backs, like most of us over 40, good luck trying to get up again!
Ditto, in-room safes. They are either placed so low down that you have to get on your knees to operate them. Or they are so high up in the wardrobe that you need to perch on a chair to check that you haven’t left anything behind. What is up with that?
And then, there’s the return: Maybe someday someone will explain to me why in Indian airports, it is not enough to get the immigration officer to stamp your passport to validate your return to your country. Oh no, that would be too simple. So, instead, the good babus have deputed an additional two officers at the exit of the immigration area to check that your passport has, in fact, been stamped. Why? Do these people have no confidence in the ability of immigration officers to perform even the simplest of tasks? Or is this just another way to create jobs for the boys (who would otherwise be unemployed)? 

Don’t ask me. I am too busy practicing my insouciant face in the mirror for the next time I head out of the country.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Kitchen politics

Do we really need to peek into the personal spaces of politicians to judge how they will perform their public duties?

Do you know what Narendra Modi’s kitchen in his Race Course Road residence looks like? Or even the one he left back home in Ahmedabad? Have you any clue what brand Sonia Gandhi’s kitchen stove or mixer-grinder is? Have Arun Jaitley or Rahul Gandhi ever given you a tour of their kitchens? Has Sushma Swaraj invited the cameras in as she rustles up a mean phulka?

Of course not. Our politicians would never dream of doing any such thing. You may well argue that this is because our politicians on the whole don’t have much to do with kitchens (unless you’re talking of kitchen cabinets). As is common in most Indian homes, the kitchens are probably the preserve of cooks and maids. And the reason they don’t show off their pots and pans is because they have no clue where they are stored.

And you are probably right about all of that. But that said, it is also true that private lives – and personal spaces, for that matter – of politicians are still treated as off limits by the Indian media. We may ask an actress or a model to cook spaghetti Bolognese for the benefit of the cameras. We may request a sportsman to pose with an energy drink in front of his refrigerator. But we hardly ever seek to peer into the homes of our politicians.

Well, consider yourself lucky. In the run-up to the UK elections, the poor British electorate has had more kitchens thrown at it than it knows what to do with. Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader David Cameron kicked off proceedings by inviting the cameras into his kitchen at Downing street, where he was photographed combing his daughter’s hair to get her ready for school, while wife Samantha bent fetchingly over the kitchen stove in the background. He followed this up with an interview conducted in his constituency home, as he rustled up a salad and some cold cuts for the family.

So, what could the Labour leader do but follow suit? Except that, being Ed Milliband, he couldn’t help but start a controversy in the process. Ed and wife Justine Thornton were pictured standing awkwardly in a tiny, forlorn kitchen, bare surfaces all around, sipping on mugs of tea. Cue, much chortling about how Milliband’s characterless kitchen was a metaphor for his own personality, not to mention his campaign. To add injury to insult, it was then revealed that this was not the main kitchen of the Milliband home, but a tiny kitchenette used by their live-in nanny. Cue, many jokes about ‘Two-kitchens Ed’!

With Cameron and Milliband in the fray, how could Nick Clegg be left behind? The Liberal leader dutifully turned out for kitchen duty with his Spanish wife, Miriam Gonzales Durantez, each of them clutching a glass of white wine, while a pot of paella simmered away in the background. Probably not the best subliminal messaging but then this is Nick Clegg we are talking about.

To be fair to the British media, they have entered the personal spaces of politicians only by invitation. And that’s because every politician worth his sea salt wants to prove to the British public what an ‘ordinary Joe’ he really is. So, they all line up to show how they can fix meals in the kitchen, get their kids ready for the school run, supervise their homework, and then relax with a glass of wine just like any other knackered parent. I guess this is supposed to make people like them, to see them as ‘one of us’, to appreciate that they perform the same ordinary chores like everyone else. Except that they also run the country (or would very much like to run the country, if only people would see the light).

Honestly, are these staged photo-opportunities the best way to decide who is the best man for the top job? Does David Cameron become a better candidate for PM because he knows how to comb his daughter’s hair into a high ponytail and stick a scrunchie on it? Does Ed Milliband think he can endear himself to his Labour base by preening in a tiny kitchenette that they could presumably identify with? And does Nick Clegg… Actually, scratch that. I have no idea what Clegg thinks he’s trying to achieve – and it’s beginning to look as if he doesn’t either.

But what all of this malarkey does achieve is make me so very thankful that I live in India, where I don’t have the kitchen sink thrown at me every time a politician stands for election. I would much rather judge politicos on the basis of the soundness of their ideas rather than the softness of their idlis. I don’t need to know what kind of pressure cooker a politician uses to decide if he can stand up to the stresses of a high-pressure job. And I really don’t need to peek into his personal space to judge how he will perform in the public sphere.

As the saying does not go, if you can take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Medicine Man

The humble ‘family doctor’ is now extinct; this is the age of the specialist who doesn’t know your name

If you are of a certain age, you will remember a regular visitor to your home who was referred to as the ‘family doctor’. He was, nearly always, a nice middle-aged man (in movies, he was often played by the avuncular Ashok Kumar) who came carrying a black bag, with a stethoscope slung around his neck. He had treated you since you were a baby and knew exactly what ailments you had (or had not) suffered. He knew which bones you had broken. He knew what you were allergic to. He knew that you had trouble swallowing tablets, so he would get his compounder to make up a sweet mixture into which he would dissolve that bitter pill.

If you or any other family member had a fever, a bad cough and cold, or even a sprained ankle, he was always just a phone call away. And there was never a more reassuring sight than his entering your bedroom, the legendary black bag in hand. If the ‘family doctor’ was in the house, all would soon be well with the world.

Younger readers will, of course, have no idea what I am talking about. Because the family doctors that readers of my generation grew up with are now an endangered species. Actually, scratch that. They are virtually extinct. I don’t know any household that can boast of one; and I am pretty sure, you don’t either.

These days if you fall ill, you have to head to the nearest clinic in the neighbourhood, register your name with an ill-tempered (sometimes downright rude) receptionist, and then settle down in an over-crowded waiting area with dozens of other sick folk for an interminable wait until the Great Man (sadly, even now, it is mostly a man) summons you inside. (A doctor’s ‘appointment’ should really be called an ‘approximation’.)

Unlike the family doctor of yore, this chap has no idea who you are. Even if he has treated you a couple of times before, he has no recollection of that. And frankly, he doesn’t have the time to go through your entire medical history (haven’t you seen how many people are waiting outside for the benefit of his wisdom?). So, feeling suitably intimidated (and even sicker, for good measure) you quickly rattle off your symptoms, he makes a cursory check of your vitals, writes out a prescription and sends you on your way, adding to your retreating back that there’s really no need to come back unless you absolutely have to. The implication is clear: he is a Very Busy Man and has no time to waste on malingerers like you. You should be grateful for the five minutes he’s spent on you (while you, on the other hand, have spent Rs 2,000!).

Hospitals are even worse, making the neighbourhood clinic look like a centre of compassion and care. Here the doctors are specialists, so of course, they see themselves as Gods of their domain. You have to beg for an appointment, sit outside their offices for hours hoping to get a look-in, and even then you may end up going home disappointed (‘Emergency surgery’ is the usual excuse).

I guess all of us have our hospital horror stories, but the time I last consulted a ‘super-specialist’ was in a different league altogether. After a wait that lasted exactly one hour and 17 minutes, I was ushered into his presence. As I was taking out my latest reports to show him, a middle-aged couple walked into the room and sat down in the two chairs facing him. They needed to discuss the surgery of a family member, they said.

Just wait, the doctor told them, as he began riffling through my reports. Then turning to me, he asked, “So, what are you exact symptoms?”

I looked at him, then looked at the two strangers in the room watching avidly, and turned back to stare at him incredulously. There was a short silence, as he waited impatiently for me to answer.

“Perhaps,” I ventured, “You could finish with these people before you begin with me.”

“No, no, that’s okay, they can wait,” he said, in the manner of someone bestowing a rare honour on me.

“Actually, I would prefer it if you finished with them…” I started. But before I could even finish my sentence, he had a blood pressure cuff on my arm, and was taking a reading.

By now, I was incandescent with rage, but he seemed completely oblivious to it. Ignoring the smoke coming out of my ears, he said, “Your blood pressure seems a little high.”

No s***, Sherlock!

As soon as the cuff was off my arm, I made my excuses and left. But I am pretty sure that the good doctor still continues with his version of medical multi-tasking, dealing with two or three patients at a time, with nary a thought about the violation of privacy this entails. In any other country, he would be brought up before an ethics board; in India, he is a revered as a ‘super-specialist’.

But then, why blame him alone? Most hospitals in this country have become little more than commercial enterprises, in which doctors are rated on how well they meet ‘corporate targets’ (that’s new-fangled medicalspeak for ordering up needless tests, procedures and surgeries on hapless people, so that the bottom line of the hospital looks healthy – even if the patients don’t).

Give me a good, honest, down-to-earth ‘family doctor’ instead. But sorry, I forgot, that creature doesn’t exist any longer.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The show must go on...

Until it finally doesn’t; and leaves all its fans in mourning

So, it’s official. The sixth season of Downton Abbey, which is currently being filmed, will also be the final season of the show. NBC Universal, which owns the production company that produces Downton, has sent out an internal memo to staff to say that the drama is ‘approaching its natural conclusion’. So the ‘difficult decision’ to ‘wrap up production while the show is still at its peak’ had been taken.

This will be the last year that we will be able to follow the fortunes of the Crawley family, headed by the somewhat wishy-washy Earl of Grantham. Maybe we’ll finally find out if his eldest daughter, the widowed Lady Mary Crawley, succeeds in her quest for true love (the second time round). Or if the eternally star-crossed couple below stairs, Mr and Mrs Bates, will get a happy ending of their own. As for myself, I will just be happy if Julian Fellowes desists from killing off the formidable Dowager Countess of Grantham – played to perfection by Maggie Smith – who is the best thing about the show. I still bear the emotional scars from seeing Matthew Crawley brutally dispatched in the Christmas special some years ago. (Christmas, I tell you! Is nothing sacred any more?)

Yes, I agree, the show is mostly sentimental hogwash, with its rosy-eyed view of post-Edwardian England, where the upper classes are always honourable and decent and the working classes know their place (well, mostly). But such lovely hogwash it is to watch! Those beautifully-lit interiors, the lush English countryside, the perfect recreation of the period around the Great War; it is no wonder that the show has become something of a global phenomenon (of course, the Americans persist in calling it Downtown Abbey; but then, they would, wouldn’t they?).

But that said, I will be sad to see it go, with its idealized evocation of a gentler age. It was escapist fare, but escapist fare at the best; and which of us doesn’t enjoy a bit of respite from the realities of life?

I feel just as sad about the imminent end of yet another – but very different – period drama. Mad Men is as different from Downton Abbey as it is possible to get, set in the urban landscape of Madison Avenue in New York. But what both have in common is the faithful recreation of a certain point of time when society was in flux, depicted through the stories of its characters.

In Downton, the passage of time in the political world is marked by such events as the sinking of the Titanic, the break-out of the First World War, the post-war period, with references thrown in to such cataclysmic events as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. In the domestic sphere, we see Mrs Patmore struggling to cope with new-fangled kitchen contraptions and Mr Carson trying to make do with just the two footmen. Social flux is marked by Lady Sybil marrying a chauffeur and Lady Rose marrying a Jew (both social calamities at the time!).

Mad Men, for its part, documents the end of the 50s, when the certainties of American society with its commuting husbands, its Stepford wives, its 2.5 children, were gradually breaking down and the spirit of the Swinging Sixties was beginning to infect the land. So, Don Draper who starts out as the resident genius at his ad agency in the 50s is beginning to look a little ‘square’ by the time the Beatles invade America. Robert Sterling – true to form – is getting into the spirit of things by experimenting with LSD. And both Joan Holloway and Peggy Olson have managed to carve out independent careers, despite the misogyny and sexism prevailing at their work place, heralding the shape of things to come.

But now it’s time for Don Draper to smoke his final cigarette and walk off into the sunset, looking as moody as ever. And I will miss him just as much I will the extended Crawley family. Or indeed, as much as I have missed Walter White ever since Breaking Bad went off our screens. The only bit of good news in all this is that Julian Fellowes is said to be working on a prequel to Downton Abbey, set in America, which will tell the story of Robert and Cora, who we know as the Earl and Countess of Grantham. And that a spin-off of Breaking Bad, titled Better Call Saul, is here to tell us the back story of that archetypal sleazy lawyer, Saul Goodman.

What is it about certain TV shows that they exert such a powerful force on our imagination? Why do we get so hooked on some series as if we were in the throes of a real addiction?

I still remember staying awake till 5 am watching the early series of 24, because I simply could not wait until the following evening to see what happened next. Homeland was another show that induced a serious attack of binge-watching as did House of Cards (it helped that the entire season was dumped on Netflix in one go). And I wasn’t the only fanatic; the whole world appeared to be in the grip of an edge-of-the-seat excitement. Why, even the President of America, Barack Obama, pleaded on Twitter that nobody should post any spoilers until he had watched the show.

I’ve thought long and hard about it, but I can’t put my finger on what exactly makes these shows so special. Maybe if I binge-watch the latest series of Homeland, I will get some ideas. I promise to get back to you if inspiration strikes.