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

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Bucket List

Here’s a list of 15 things to do before you turn 50

Unlike most of my friends who like to celebrate milestone birthdays with the mother of all parties (here’s looking at you Sam!) I tend to treat them a little differently. I tiptoe around them gingerly, backing off ever so slightly as they approach, and ignore them completely when they arrive, in the hope that everyone else will do the same (nope, never works!).

But there’s nothing like a big birthday to make you aware of the inexorable passage of time, and how it is time to start working seriously on that Bucket List.

So here’s my slightly-different version this Sunday: 15 things to do before you turn 50. You can accomplish them in any order you like.

1) Vocalize your feelings; don’t keep them dammed up for fear of giving offense. If you hate something, say so. If you are annoyed, explain why. If you are angry, don’t stick a smile on and pretend all is well. (And if you are happy, make sure everyone knows it.)
2) Acquire a new skill. Take piano lessons. Sign up for French language lessons. Learn to salsa or scuba dive. It doesn’t matter what you do so long as it is completely new.
3) Spend some alone time. Take a few days (or weeks) off and go on a solitary vacation. It will give you time to think, to clear your head, to decompress, and to prove to yourself that, actually, you are quite good company.
4) Do something that scares the bejesus out of you. Go paragliding. Try deep-sea diving. Or if you really want to get into the spirit of things, take a parachute jump out of a plane. There’s nothing like flirting with danger to make you feel truly alive.
5) Do one thing – well, at least, one thing – that changes someone else’s life for the better. Pay for the education of your domestic staff’s children; make sure the girls get the same chances as the boys. Contribute towards a night shelter that takes in the city’s homeless. Or, when winter sets in, just set out with a car full of blankets and distribute them to those living rough.
6) Take charge of your health. It doesn’t matter if you have never exercised in your life. Or if deep-fried is your favourite food group. Start making incremental changes to live healthy. Give up parathas for rotis. Ditch the butter for olive oil. Start walking up the stairs rather than taking the lift. Indulge in a little gentle yoga. And accelerate from there on. If you wait any longer, it may well be too late.
7) Look up an old school friend with whom you lost touch with over the decades. Catch up on her life, tell her about yours, see if things turned out the way you thought they would. Bring alive the memories of the days when you thought anything was possible.
8) Make new friends. I know it sounds hard. And you probably think you have all the friends you could possibly need. But infusion of new blood in your social circle can only do you good. So reach out to the colleague you’ve never paid attention to, the neighbour with whom you have only a nodding acquaintance, the solitary walker you see in the park every day. The connections you spark may end up breathing fresh blood into your life.
9) Learn to say no. Life is too short, and it is getting shorter every minute. So, don’t waste a minute of it doing something you don’t want to just because you feel pressured by friends and family. Never mind whom you end up offending; just say no. 
10) Spend time with your kids, while they still want to spend time with you. Soon they will get busy with work, and acquire families of their own. And then you’ll be lucky if you see them once a year.
11) Cultivate your inner resources. It is a given that the older you get, the more the social isolation. Children will move away. Friends will pass on. And then you will be left to cope with your own solitude. So, make sure that you learn the art of enjoying living with yourself. Instead of constantly craving company learn to live with your books, your music, your inner thoughts. It is a skill that will come in useful in the twilight of your life.
12) That rock star you have worshipped all your life? Make sure you attend at least one of his/her concerts, no matter how far you have to travel. The experience will stay with you forever and keep you entertained for years to come.
13) Reconnect with your inner child. Re-read all those Enid Blytons that kept you entertained through the school holidays. Giggle endlessly while watching Tom and Jerry DVDs. Ditch jogging for skipping. Lunch on an ice-cream cone. Eat popcorn for dinner. 
14) Take a hike. Yes, I mean that quite literally. Go on holidays that are physically challenging in one way or the other, while you still can. Climb up to Machu Picchu. Go skiing in Gulmarg. Try trekking in Ladakh.
15) And most important of all, take stock of your life. Take a good, hard look at all that you have accomplished; and all that you have failed to do. And then, start the journey of your life afresh.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Gender bender

Is every attack directed at a woman necessarily misogynistic?

So, what is misogyny? I only ask because someone who couldn't tell the difference between a dictionary and thesaurus tried to teach Sonam Kapoor the meaning of the word in a twitter exchange recently. And also because I suspect that most of us are a little bit hazy on the concept. We know it exists. We know it when we see it or feel it. But the boundaries between what is misogynistic and what is simply a gender-neutral insult seem to lie on constantly shifting sands, so it sometimes difficult to nail down what exactly is misogynistic and what is not.

First off, let's make one thing clear. Every attack on a woman is not misogynistic by default. For instance, if you pillory Indira Gandhi on the imposition of the Emergency and the human rights abuses that followed, you are not being misogynistic. You are criticising her in terms that would apply equally if she were a man. If, however, you laud her as 'the only man in her Cabinet' then you are effectively saying that a woman is only praiseworthy if she behaves and acts in a 'manly' manner, and that squarely hits the misogyny mark.

Let's take a more recent example from Indian politics. Smriti Irani, the union minister for human resources development, gets her fair share of criticism from the media. She is attacked for interfering in the running of independent institutions; she is blamed when certain worthies resign from important educational posts; she is accused of taking directions from the RSS when it comes to the running of her ministry. But whatever the merit of these charges, not one of them is inspired by misogyny. These are accusations that would be made even if Irani were a man.

Misogyny only rears its ugly head when sexist specimens like Sanjay Nirupam refer to her in disparaging terms in television discussions, sneering that “Kal tak toh tum paise key liye TV pey thumke laga rehi thi, aaj neta ban gayi…Pata hai tumhara character.” The sub-text is clear. Irani doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously because she was an actress who used to perform on television, a lightweight who is only good for lagaoing a few ‘thumkas’. How dare she presume that she can debate with serious politicians like Nirupam (huh?) on equal terms?

Women politicians have become so innured to this kind of sexual innuendo, of being objectified, that they probably don’t even take much notice of such things. After all, if you stopped and protested every misogynistic remark thrown at you, there would no time and energy left to deal with anything else. Not Irani though, she sued Nirupam for defamation; and more power to her.

But all women in the public eye have to deal with this stuff at one time or the other. Take, for instance, such female sports stars as Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal who have notched up as many victories as they have controversies. But it is hardly misogynistic to criticise Nehwal for being a bit of sore loser when she pointed out that she had been ignored for the Padma awards while wrestler Sushil Kumar got one (though you could make the case that Nehwal was a victim of the inherent misogyny of the sports establishment that values male sports stars over the female ones). If a male sporting hero had cribbed publicly about being overlooked, he would have faced much the same sort of reaction. But when you start slamming Sania Mirza for the hemlines of her skirts when she plays tennis then your attack is aimed directly at her gender identity. You don't need a dictionary (or even, dare I say, a thesaurus) to brand this as misogynistic.

Were the attacks on Aishwarya Rai when she didn't lose her baby weight fast enough an example of misogyny? Some of us in the media certainly thought so, arguing that no leading man would be targeted for weight gain in quite the same manner. Perhaps. But those who maintained that the rules for film stars – of both genders – were different, also had a point (see what I mean about shifting sands?). Aamir Khan has had to cope with jibes when he appeared looked a few kilos heavier recently. So did Hrithik Roshan, who quickly stepped away from the carbs and hit the gym, so that he could release before-and-after pix to prove that he was back in shape.

So then, what qualifies as a misogynistic attack? And what doesn’t?

Well, first, there are the no-brainers. If you insult a woman using sexual innuendo, imagery or abuse (‘slut’, ‘whore’, ‘bitch’ or the newly-minted ‘presstitute’) then that is straight out misogynistic. If you bring in her gender in any way while criticizing her work, that is misogynistic. If you objectify her, or reduce her to a sum of her body parts, that is misogynistic.

But you simply cannot extend the use of the term ‘misogynistic’ to attacks that while directed at a woman do not arise from the fact of her being a woman. Deriding Sonia Gandhi for her Italian birth is racist but not misogynistic. But comparing her to ‘Monica Lewinsky’, as the late Pramod Mahajan did during an election campaign, hits the misogyny mark dead centre. It is important that we learn to tell the difference.

If we are going to battle misogyny we first need to identify it. Then can we recognize it when it hits us square in the face. And only then can we fight back.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Family matters

They can either make you or break you; or maybe do a little bit of both

Families. They are the best, aren’t they? The one bunch of people bound together by ties of blood or marriage, who stand by you no matter what.

The mother, who forgives her son his decades of neglect, because in her eyes he can do no wrong. The father who thinks nothing of liquidating his life savings so that his daughter can go to university abroad. The wife who stands silently by her husband in the worst of times because it would never occur to her to bail and run. The husband who spends months planning a surprise party for his wife as a landmark birthday approaches. The aunt who steps in when mom has passed on and the children need a mother figure in their lives. The kids who patiently explain how email and facetime works to their grandparents so that they can keep in touch even though they live thousands of miles apart. 

Oh yes, families are the best. Except, of course, when they are the worst.

And we know that they can be all kinds of worst. At the moment of this writing we seem to be gripped by the saga of the Mukerjea-Bora clan, peopled by absconding fathers, abandoned children, marriages, non-marriages and re-marriages, half-siblings, step-children, step-siblings, and more dysfunctional relationships that you can shake a stick at. And that’s before we get to the murder/disappearance of a beautiful young girl, poised at the cusp of what could have been a wonderful life full of love and happiness, with her mother/sister cast as the prime suspect. It’s heart-breaking stuff, no matter how the case actually pans out.

So, is it any wonder than no matter how hard we try, we simply can’t drag our eyes away from the car crash of a murder investigation that is re-run in slow motion every night on our TV screens? As we stare with horrified fascination at the sorry spectacle that unfolds before us at prime time, I am sure that all of us, in some corner of our hearts, are thanking our stars for our own relatively-uncomplicated family ties.

But as Leo Tolstoy wrote in the famous opening lines of Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And when you look around – among your friends, neighbours, relatives, colleagues – it is hard to find even a dozen families that are really and truly happy.

Sure, they all tick the usual boxes. Dad has a great job. Mom works but not as hard as Dad, so that she can be home for the kids in the evening. Lovely house, sparkling with the care and attention bestowed upon it. Big cars to go on driving vacations. Kids who do well at school, and are good at tennis/piano/drama (take your pick). Parents who are part of the happy mix, shielded from the social isolation that often comes with old age. On the face of it, all of this builds up to a pretty picture.

But scratch the surface and – barring a few exceptions – the veneer of perfection cracks all too easily. Dad is coping with his mid-life crisis by having it off with the secretary (“You are only as young as the woman you feel,” he guffaws to his mates at the club). Mom is turning a blind eye to it in the hope it goes away, going through her days and nights anaesthetized with a combination of prescription pills and copious amounts of red wine. The kids, who in the manner of kids everywhere, see all but say nothing, seethe with a helpless anger against both parents. Oh, and as for the big house, Dad and his sister are locked in a deadly battle to ensure that the other sibling doesn’t end up inheriting it, though you’d never guess it from the lovely Rakhi messages they send to each other on their Facebook walls.

Unhappy families abound and each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. There is the daughter who resents the fact that she always comes second-best to the son simply because she is a daughter, and carries that hard knot of sorrow/anger in her heart throughout her life. There is the mother-in-law who loathes the new daughter-in-law for the hold she has on her son. There is the wife who is fed up with her husband for his unquestioning obedience to his mother. There is the husband who can’t understand why his wife is always running home to Mummy at the slightest sign of trouble. There are parents who abandon their children. There are children who abandon their parents. And thus, the sorry circle goes.

Oh yes, families can be the absolute worst. Except, of course, when they are the best. There is the niece who turns up to keep vigil at the bedside of her childless uncle. There is the grandson who relocates so that he can spend time with his grandparents in their twilight years. There is the mother-in-law who donates her kidney to her daughter-in-law (don’t sneer; I have actually seen that happen).

I know which kind of family I would rather be a part of it. But alas, we all seem destined to have a little bit of both kinds in our lives. And, given the alternative, perhaps that’s not so bad.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

On your knees!

When the chaos of the world threatens to overwhelm, it is time to count your blessings

My guess is that this Sunday morning, as you sit down with your first cup of chai/coffee, you are a wee bit fed up of all the bad news that seems to be playing out on surround sound in our world. The Sensex has crashed, Pakistan persists in sending terrorists across to India, onion prices keep soaring into the stratosphere, the monsoon is failing, and murder mysteries get murkier and murkier with every re-telling. 

But in case the universe seems to have stopped making sense, pause for a minute, breathe in, exhale, and take a minute to count your blessings. For that’s what I intend to do this morning: tot up all the many things that I have to be thankful for. Feel free to join in; trust me, it will make you feel much better about yourself and the world we live in.

Okay, first up is health. If you are on the wrong side of forty, you may have a few niggling worries on that score. Your cholesterol count may be high, your blood pressure may be elevated slightly, your knees and back giving you a bit of trouble, and sore on and sore forth. But step back and look at the bigger picture. You are still alive and kicking. You haven’t lost the use of your limbs or indeed your brain. The rest of it is just detail, which can be ironed out with a new fitness regime. So render thanks for the fact that you are still around – and still standing (if only just!).

A close second comes family. It doesn’t matter how big or small this is, whether it is extended or nuclear, dysfunctional or perfect, related by blood or marriage. As long as there are people in it who love you and are, in turn, loved by you, there is a lot to be thankful for. You may be in daily touch with them; or you may not have spoken to them in months. But so long as you know that there are people out there who care for you and will drop everything to be by your side if you need them (as you would for them) then you are blessed indeed. 

Next up are your friends. No, not the ones you list on Facebook, whose status updates and pictures you faithfully ‘like’ every time you log on. Not the ones on Twitter who respond to your every sally with a smiley face emoji. Not the ones you meet on the cocktail circuit, all air kisses and false intimacy. Not the ones who are cultivating you for whatever benefit they can leech off you, all the while telling you how absolutely amazing you are. No, not those ‘friends’.

The friends you should be grateful for are the ones who see you for what you are, accept you with all your flaws, and love and support you regardless. These are the ones who will answer truthfully when you ask if you ass looks enormous in these jeans. They are the ones who will pick up the phone at 3 am in the morning if you find yourself in a spot of bother. They are the ones who will attack you to your face and defend you behind your back (rather than the other way round). If you have even one of those then consider yourself truly blessed.

That’s the big stuff. But there is also a lot of small stuff that makes us feel truly blessed, if only we would stop to think about. In my case, the list goes something like this:

A room of my own: That was something I longed for growing up as the youngest in a joint family. The ability to retreat into a space that was completely my own, where nobody could intrude without my express permission. A place where I could be alone with my thoughts, my books, my music, or simply with myself. When I finally moved to another city to live on my own, the sense of freedom I felt was something quite indescribable. Even today, when I no longer live alone, it feels like a blessing to be able to retreat into my own space when I want to.
Books, books, and books: I often think that if I were ever to wash up on a deserted island, I would be quite content so long as it had a stash of my favourite books and a soft pillow to rest my head on! But more seriously, while I could easily cope without a TV or even an internet connection, even the thought of living in a world without books sends a shiver up my spine.
An evening at home: The social whirl is not for me. My idea of the perfect evening is pottering around in the kitchen to make something simple for dinner, eating it with family as we chat about the day, following up with some quality time with a box set of one of my favourite TV shows, and then reading myself to sleep. And, of course, counting my blessings, as the lights go out.