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

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The heat is on...

There's much to hate about an Indian summer; but it does come with its own compensations

Yes, everyone hates a good summer. Well, at least, in India we do. And anyone who has lived through a summer in this country will know exactly why.

This is that time of year when it's so hot that it is impossible to even cool down with a cold shower. It doesn't matter that your geyser has been turned off for months. The moment you turn the faucet on, boiling water, which has been steadily heating up in the overhead tank, rains down to scald your head and shoulders. And as you emerge, all pink and red like a boiled lobster, you begin to wonder why you even bothered; you are sweaty again in a matter of seconds.

This is the time of year when the sun is so hot that even the tar on the roads melts under its assault; so what chance do we mere mortals stand? This is when tempers fray, when road rage leads to people actually killing each other, sometimes over something as minor as a parking dispute.

Yes, there is a lot to hate about the Indian summer. But funnily enough, that’s not why I detest this season with a deep and abiding passion. The reasons behind my loathing are entirely different.

The thing that really gets me got under the collar (apart from the heat, of course) is having to listen to people endlessly moaning and groaning and whining and whinging about the heat. Because whenever the mercury soars, so do the number of social media posts about HOW HOT it is! Oh my God, it really is HOT!

Well, what did you bloody expect? You are in the middle of an Indian summer. The mercury will hit the 40-degree mark and even go a tad above occasionally. The scorching sun will beat down on your mercilessly. Going outdoors will seem like stepping into an oven. And when the pre-monsoon showers hit, the humidity will add to your woes. But that is how it always was. That's how it is. And that's how it will always be. Deal with it. Or, as the saying goes, if you can't stand the heat, get out of the bloody furnace.

The only people who get a free pass on the complaining front are those who actually do spend time outdoors, doing all the jobs that we would never deign to: the security guards, the traffic cops, the drivers, the scooterwallahs, those running street-side stalls and the like, who roast in the sun all through the day. If they want to moan, they have earned the right to do so, one sunstroke attack at a time. But if you go from an air-conditioned house to an air-conditioned office in your air-conditioned car, then sorry, you really have no business complaining.

The only people who are more annoying than those who gripe ceaselessly about the heat are the once who have travelled to cooler climes to escape the hell that is the Indian summer. No, it's not enough for these people to just enjoy the balmy weather wherever the hell it is that they have decamped to. And they certainly don't have the decency to draw a discreet veil over their lovely little vacations in the Swiss Alps, the French Riviera, or whichever is the trendy summer destination of the moment.

Oh no, that would not do at all. They have to rub their privileged lives in our faces by posting pictures of all the amazing things they are getting up to while we gently roast in India. There they are, skiing down the mountains, drinking champagne at the seaside, or even dining al fresco in scenic locations. It's enough to make your head explode (and not because of the heat, either).

But that's not to say that the season is entirely without its compensations. This is the time of year when the laburnum erupts in all its bright yellow glory, brightening up the streets and bringing a smile to our faces. This is when the king of fruits fills up our shops, so that we can gorge on it to our hearts content. No silly! I'm not talking about the mango. It's the lychee that scores. (Do try and keep up!) Not that I have anything against the mango, it’s nice enough diced up neatly for dessert. Though, I must confess, the only way I can truly enjoy one is to create a tidy little puncture hole on top and suck the juice out slowly but surely. And getting my teeth stuck onto the pulpy core is an added bonus.

This is the time when you can show off your pretty pedicure in strappy sandals, freeing your feet from their months-long bondage in winter boots. This is when you can bring out your cotton saris from hibernation and use their soft waves to shelter your from the blazing sun. This is when you can go back to swimming in the pool, letting the cool water soothe your heat-wrecked body.

Yes, an Indian summer can be hard on those who have to live through it, but it has its compensations. So how about, just for a change, we count our blessings rather than our tabulate our troubles?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Head out on the highway...

The romance of the road trip is alive and kicking

Yes, I know that everyone who has seen Piku has been giggling about the constipation trope and raving about how wonderful the cast was: Amitabh Bachchan playing the hypochondriac crochety old father to perfection; Deepika Padukone bringing the bad-tempered but essentially tender-hearted and devoted daughter alive on screen; with Irfan Khan bringing up the rear with his customary understated brilliance.

But for me, the most memorable part of the movie was the road trip. As all the lead characters piled into a car, their luggage strapped above (with Bachchan’s ‘toilet chair’ taking pride of place on top), and drove down Grand Trunk Road to make their way from Delhi to Calcutta, the scenes took me right back to my own childhood. Come the summer, and the Goswamis would set off to visit extended family in Agra and Delhi. And that’s exactly the route our two-car convoy always took.

Of course, we had a rather more leisurely approach to the whole road trip thing. We would stop by for lunch at a scenic spot, walking along verdant fields to stretch legs that were getting cramped sitting for long hours in the back seat of an Ambassador. We would halt for evening tea at shacks that sold the most amazing samosas, pakoras, or any other deep-fried delight. Night stays were meticulously planned at the bigger cities along the route so that we could spend the night in a comfortable room, and use a somewhat clean loo before setting out again.

In a way, the journey was almost as important as the destination. I would spend days agonizing on which books to pack, stock up on my Amar Chitra Katha comics, and take a pocket transistor along for the times when it would be too dark to read. But as it turned out, boredom was the last thing I should have feared. Head pillowed on my favourite cushion, I would spend hours just gazing out of the window as the world rushed by in a pleasant whirl of colours, sights, sounds and smells, taking in every detail until it felt that my head would explode with sensory overload.

If we were stuck in traffic we played silly games to while away the time. If nobody had the patience to play with me – and all too often they didn’t – as the youngest in the family I had infinite inner resources to cope with it. I would retreat into my private dream world, spinning tales of castles and princesses and fairies in my own head to entertain myself, inventing tales of derring-do in which I was invariably the heroine who saved the day.

Of course, there were times when tempers frayed, arguments broke out, sharp words were exchanged. Everyone took turns to sulk, to throw the odd tantrum, or even to have a complete meltdown (this was the height of summer after all, and things had a way of getting heated up very fast).

But nobody ever uttered those fateful words: “Are we there yet?” Because we all knew, without anyone saying so expressly, that we were, in fact, already there. The holiday had begun the moment we accelerated down the driveway, where it went from there was only a technicality. And often, after the romance of the road trip – with its unexpected encounters, the occasional breakdown, not to mention family sing-alongs – the actual ‘holiday’ itself felt rather tame and uneventful by comparison.

It makes sense then, that a road trip is often seen as a metaphor for our journey through life itself. We start off as relative innocents, being tutored in life lessons by all that we encounter along the way. And we finish the trip infinitely wiser than when we started out. Perhaps that is why so many coming-of-age movies rely on the road trip as a plot device, a journey in which the central characters confront some central facts of life, and grow up in the process.

Zoya Akhtar, for instance, has made the road trip a sort of leitmotif of her work. In Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, three male friends head out on a road trip, driving through Spain, and rediscovering each other and their friendship. In her new release, Dil Dhadakne Do, a cruise along the Mediterranean takes the place of the road trip. The Mehras from Delhi go on a cruise with family and friends to celebrate their 30th anniversary, but end up re-examining their lives – and life choices – instead.

I have to admit that none of the road trips I’ve taken have been half as eventful. But nonetheless, I have no hesitation in recommending that you hit the road with your loved ones the next time you have some time off. There’s nothing quite like being stuck in close quarters in a car to stimulate discussion or even spark off meaningful conversations. And there’s nothing like talking to one another to bring a family (and friends) closer together.

Just be sure to lay down one ground rule. No smartphone usage allowed, unless it is to take a picture of a particularly beautiful vista (or a spectacularly silly selfie). No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Pinterest; just interest in what the other person is saying or feeling. Remember, it’s only when you take the media out of social media that you can truly be social.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Stronger than fiction

There’s something to celebrate in each fully-formed, three-dimensional female character in our favourite books

As season five of Game of Thrones debuted on television, I decided to go on a refresher course of sorts. That is, I began to read the Game of Thrones books (yes, all five of them!) in order. The first time around, I had virtually galloped through them, racing to the end, so that I could find out what happened next, and next, and next. This time around, because I already know what lies ahead, I am lingering on every page, giving myself a chance to savour the incredible skill of George R.R. Martin as a storyteller.

And what a storyteller he is! The plot twists and turns in ways you could scarce imagine, aided by the fact that Martin is not afraid of killing off some of our favourite characters. As the immortal line goes: Valar Morghulis (All men must die).

But what I like best about Martin is that he has given us some of the strongest female characters I have ever met in fiction. You may well carp and moan about the excessive sexual violence and the ‘objectification’ of women, but I am loath to impose modern standards of feminism and gender justice on a fantasy set in what most closely resembles medieval times. 

I would much rather rejoice in the strength and complexity of the women in Game of Thrones. They are smart, they are cunning, they are brave, they are good, they are evil, they take no prisoners (except, of course, when they do), and they stand up for themselves in a hostile and frightening world. 

There is no easy black-and-white study here, every character is delineated in shades of grey. Lady Catelyn Stark may be earth mother to her children but is the stepmother from hell, who cannot bear to even lay eyes on Jon Snow, her husband Eddard Stark’s bastard. Cersei may be an adulterous, incestuous, harpy with an alcohol problem but there is no doubting her unconditional love for her children (yes, even the monstrous Prince Joffrey). Sansa Stark may have lost her moral moorings momentarily in her infatuation for Joffrey but she recovers to show true courage and quiet grit in surviving in a court full of intrigue and malevolence.

As I read my way through the books, though, I began thinking back to the other delightful female characters I had encountered in fiction, those women/girls who had shared my growing-up years, who had served as role models, life lessons, even witty companions as I negotiated my journey from child to teenager to adult. So, here is no particular order of importance is my top five list of my favourite fictional characters.

Arya Stark: This was a close-run thing, because with Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, in the mix, it is tough choosing any one single character from Game of Thrones. But in the end, Arya made the cut, because of her indomitable spirit, her soaring courage, her refusal to stay within the confines of gender stereotypes, her water dancing, and of course, her proficiency with her tiny little sword called Needle. When it comes to dealing with life’s villains, “Stick them with the pointy end” is a philosophy I can get fully on board with.
Scout Finch: She begins the book at five years and is only eight when it ends, but the entire story of To Kill A Mockingbird is told from her perspective. The view of the adult universe as seen from a child’s eyes brings with it a particular poignancy, as we see her struggling to understand how the world works and trying to cope with her dread of the unknown, as symbolized by the mysterious Boo Radley. If life is all about confronting one’s demons, then Scout Finch could teach us all a lesson or two.
Elizabeth Bennet: Intelligent, spirited, lively, Elizabeth is a young lady who is convinced of her own worth. And such is her self-esteem that even the pompous Mr Darcy, with his obsession with class and station, can’t destroy it. In the modern world, I am sure that Liz would go on to have a fabulous career as a writer, make her own fortune, and live happily ever after alone. In Austen’s world, she has to make a good marriage, but she manages to do so on her own terms. And in that era, that was victory enough.
The Grand Sophy: The heroine of Georgette Heyer’s eponymous Regency novel, Sophy is a woman to gladden every feminist heart. She rides a horse better than any man, she thinks nothing of confronting an evil money-lender with a lethal little pistol, she handles her own finances, she match-makes like the best of interfering mamas, and she does all this looking like an Amazonian vision. And best of all, she brings her young cousins the greatest present of all: a monkey called Jacko to grace their nursery. How can you not love her?
Barbara Havers: The working-class detective in Elizabeth George’s novels, Havers is prickly, defensive, angry, and very conflicted. She is torn between the demands of her career and caring for her aged mother who is suffering from Alzheimer disease; between her class hatred of her boss, Thomas Lynley (also the Earl of Ashteron), and her recognition of his innate decency. But somehow, despite her chaotic private life, her disastrous eating habits, her very questionable fashion sense, and her hostility to all authority figures, Havers manages to make that detection gig work quite brilliantly. Full marks for that.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Oh, how I hate Masterchef!

 Let me count the ways…

I’ve always been a fan of food shows on television. There is something infinitely comforting about sitting down for half an hour or so and watching someone cook a lovely meal on the telly. You can lose yourself in the colour of the ingredients, the gleam of the kitchen utensils, and the expertise of the TV cook. Everything comes together seamlessly as she – yes, I know you’re visualizing Nigella Lawson now, as one does – peels and chops, roasts and fries, and then serves up a delicious spread to friends and family. You can almost taste the roast lamb and potatoes, hear the satisfying crunch as a crab claw gives up its succulent meat, and smell the vanilla scent rising from the bread-and-butter pudding. It’s a food feast for all your senses, even if it’s one step removed from reality.

And then, there’s the Anthony Bourdain school of food telly. Here, you get taken to one exotic location after another, shown the kinds of dishes that you’ve never ever seen, heard of, or even dared to imagine. You go from the street food of Bangkok to the tapas bars of Barcelona, from the backwaters of Kerala to the sushi bars of Tokyo, from the brassieres of rural France to the gritty streets of New York’s Chinatown. And you get a vicarious taste of the world, thanks to your intrepid host, as you watch open-mouthed from your couch.

In shows like these, it is the dishes that are centre-stage, the meals which are the stars of the show, and the entire point of the exercise is to appreciate food in all its infinite variety. The hosts are just there to tease out the flavours, the colours and the aromas, and of course, to eat on our behalf. What’s not to love?

And then, there are shows like Masterchef, which take food in all its life-affirming glory and transform it into an instrument of mental torture; which take the art of cooking and suck all the joy out of it so that rather than being an act of nurture it turns into an exercise in humiliation. What Masterchef does, one cook-off at a time, is snatch away all the pleasure that you derive from feeding others, leaving gut-wrenching anxiety in its wake. It is less a food show or even a cooking contest and more a gladiatorial smackdown in which only one winner will be left standing in a field of cooking casualties. Seriously, what’s not to hate?

Food should be infused with the love you cook it with, not contaminated by tension and stress. It should be served up with smiles of pleasure, not with a side order of the tears you shed because you feared elimination from a competition. And it certainly shouldn’t lead to ritual humiliation if you don’t hit exactly the right spot.

As if this was not enough, there’s the generous lashings of emotional manipulation thrown into the mix. Nearly every participant has a hard luck story: there’s the single mother cooking on a budget for her daughter; the recent immigrant who can only rely on his culinary skills to get ahead; and thus it goes.

I am sure that all of them are very worthy people who deserve to make it big. But, to tell the truth, I am not terribly interested in their backstories. And all that hyperventilating about how nervous they are in a professional kitchen and how scared they are of elimination: frankly, it leaves me cold. When I tune in to see a food show, I’d like it to be about the food, thank you very much.

Ah, the food! There is something soul-destroying about the poncy little plates that are served up to the judges, weighed down as they are by gimmickry and artifice. Give me a good, honest dish any day, with clean flavours, fresh ingredients simply cooked, and served up with the minimum of fuss. Instead, we get ten kinds of fiddly garnishes, complicated sauces, all of it peppered by pretension.

And that’s before we even get on to the ‘experts’ on the panel. There is something risible about such chefs as Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White lecturing the participants about calmness and communication in the kitchen. These are men who have built their reputations on their abusive behavior in their own kitchens. During their careers, they have turned the air blue in every kitchen they ever worked in, with their extensive vocabulary of four-letter words. They have turned bullying into a fine art. Their kitchens are hothouses of tension, stress and full-on fear. And then, they turn up on our TV screens, holding forth on the virtues of ‘calm’. Give me a break.

But leaving everything else aside, you know what is the saddest thing of Masterchef? It’s the fact that it makes cooking appear stressful and scary rather than fun and relaxing. Watching the participants fret and fume, or go into full-on meltdown mode, doesn’t really inspire us to get cooking. And that, at the end of the day, is the real pity.