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

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Words of wisdom

Never mind what you would tell your younger self; what advice would you give to your teenage daughter?

It was about two years ago that I did a column about all the things I would tell my teenage self if I could travel back in time. I thought about it again this week because a Twitter thread started by @genderlogindia on the same subject threw up some interesting, and some rather surprising responses.

But as I read through all the stuff that women would have told their younger selves, I began to wonder whether we would not, in fact, be better off if we gave those bits of advice to those that need it most: our teenage daughters, or simply teenagers who could be our daughters. The things we wish we had known when we were young are exactly the things that young women out there could benefit learning from.

So, this Sunday, here is a random scattering of the wisdom (such as it is) that I have gained through my many decades on the planet, for the benefit of all the younger ladies out there.

 * First off, repeat after me: Nothing matters very much; and very little matters at all. Memorise the phrase. Internalise it. And say it back to yourself every time you feel overwhelmed by life. It doesn't matter what the current crisis is. It could be anything from your first love dumping you to not getting into the college of your choice to gaining a few kilos. Just repeat the mantra to yourself, and in time you will realise how true it is. In a few years, you will struggle to put a face on the first frog you kissed; none of your work colleagues will give a damn about which college you attended; and when you look at your younger photos, you will marvel at how amazing you looked (if only you'd had the sense to realise it at that time!).

 * It is better to be clever than to be cool. Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against cool girls. They have the best clothes, the funkiest haircuts, the most rocking accessories, and the most amazing swagger ever as they float through life, surrounded by admirers of both sexes. So, if you are a cool girl, then good luck to you. But if you are a clever girl, you will make your own luck. You are the one who will get the coolest jobs, you are the one who will end up with the most interesting career, you are the one who will have the best ideas. Your cleverness will last even as their coolness fades (and sadly, it always does). So, please, be clever enough to see that.

 * Focus on female friendships. Yes, I know, those raging hormones are making boys look very attractive indeed at the moment. But don't ever turn your back on your girlfriends. Take time out to have all-girl lunches or dinners, if you can't quite manage all-girl holiday trips. Bond over Gossip Girls (or whatever your generation's equivalent of Friends and Sex And The City is) or Gone Girl, or The Girl On The Train, or even the Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. And never ditch your female friends just because a boyfriend asks you out at the last moment. It is these female friendships that will survive and sustain you long after that boyfriend is history.

 * This is the time to embrace all the possibilities of life, to try your hand at different things, to experiment and explore. So, don't be in a hurry to settle down, both in your personal and professional life. If you can afford it (or, more accurately, if your parents can) take a year off and do exactly what pleases you. Go trekking in the Himalayas. Teach in a village school. Intern with a newspaper or advertising agency. Go backpacking through Europe. This is probably the only time in your life you can do this sort of thing. After that, it will be time to get a steady job with a decent paycheque that allows you to pay your own bills. And then, will come marriage and babies to curb your freedom (and whatever you may think now, they will do exactly that). So enjoy your time as a free agent; it will be over in the blink of an eye.

 * And finally, don't be too hard on yourself. Don't set yourself impossible standards and then punish yourself for failing to meet them. Push yourself to do better and be better, by all means. But also, be realistic about what your body and brain can accomplish. Not everyone is a natural size 10 (and nor should they be; what an incredibly boring world that would be to live in!) so focus on being healthy rather than on being skinny. (Supermodels like Gisele Bundchen or accredited beauties like Deepika Padukone are genetic freaks. Judging yourself against their standards is plain stupid.) And not everyone has it in them to win a Nobel Prize for literature or physics. The best way to get the most out of life is to make the most of what you have, instead of mourning all that you don't. So, stay positive, stay sane, and stay blessed. And treat each day as the first day of the rest of your life.

Shop till you drop?

It may not be such a good idea when holidaying abroad

The first question my friends ask me whenever I return after a trip abroad is: "So, what did you buy?" Over the last few years, though, my answer has never varied: "Nothing."

And no, that's not because I have given up on the material world, and decided to eschew shopping altogether. It is because there really is nothing you can buy abroad that is not also available in India. And when that's the case, shopping abroad makes no sense at all. You don't have to worry about going over your luggage allowance on the trip home. You can pay in rupees. And you don't have to run the gauntlet of customs when you fly back into the country.

But there was a time when things were very different. That was when before any kind of foreign travel, for work or pleasure, all of us would meticulously draw up a list of must-buys. In the bad old days, the list included such items as Levi's jeans and perfume. In my own case, it ran to skin care creams, lingerie, and of course, shoes (and shoes, and many more shoes).

These days, however, you don't need to travel any further than your friendly neighbourhood luxury mall to make the same kind of purchases. There is a Sephora for all your make-up and cosmetic needs (though the one in Delhi has had serious service issues every time I visited). Every skin care range from Clinique to Estée Lauder has its own outlet here. Chanel stocks make-up that actually works for Indian skin tones here, which you never find in their stores abroad. And M.A.C. Cosmetics stores are a dime a dozen (though the brand has an annoying habit of discontinuing every lipstick shade you take a shine to).

If designer brands are your thing, then nearly every one of them is present in the metros. And often it is cheaper to buy a Bottega Veneta bag or a Canali suit in India, because the mark-ups are much lower than they are at some stores abroad. Best of all, you can hit the sales on the first day and get the most amazing bargains (here's a little tip: visit the store the evening before and mark out the things you fancy; saves time and effort when the shop is heaving with the sales-crowd).

It wasn't too long ago that you had to stock up on your artisanal extra virgin olive oil, your Japanese soya, or your Sriracha and Chipotle sauces on your trips abroad. Now the longest distance you have to travel is to the nearest Nature's Basket (though, here again, service can be an issue at times) and you can buy every variety of pasta, gluten-free food items, cheese, cold meat, and choose from a range of a gazillion condiments and sauces.

So, what does one buy abroad? Well, the only thing that still survives on my list is (you guessed it!): shoes. Yes, you have your Christian Louboutins and Jimmy Choos at the high end here, while Next and Charles and Keith occupy the mid-market space. Even Furla is now open for business in India, as is Steve Madden (great for winter boots, by the way, if you are looking). But alas, my own personal favourite, L.K. Bennet, is still fighting shy of establishing an Indian presence. On the bright side, though, this allows me to go shoe shopping on holiday, which is always a pleasure.

Apart from this one indulgence, however, I have quite given up on shopping while abroad. It makes no sense to waste time and money on going into the same brand stores abroad to buy the same merchandise that I could so easily purchase in India. Which is why these days, when I venture abroad, instead of focusing on things, I make a conscious decision to invest in experiences that I could never get in India.

So, a visit to Thailand turns into a culinary adventure as I eat on the streets, in food courts, the occasional fancy restaurant, and then sign up for cooking classes to replicate some of the dishes I have enjoyed so much at home. The hot and humid afternoons are given over to Thai massages (stop sniggering, these are not the kind that have a 'happy ending') and foot reflexology. If you are into this kind of thing, do visit the traditional massage training centre at the Bangkok temple called Wat Pho. It is an experience you will never forget.

In Europe, I spend my time and money on booking guided tours to much-in-demand museums as the Uffizi and the Louvre. Not only does this save me from the horrendous queues, it also means that I get the benefit of being shown around by an expert in art history, who knows all the high spots and hidden gems of the collections, and can separate the Great Masters from the Also Rans for me.

And in great cities like London, New York, Paris, Florence or Rome, I simply spend my time roaming the streets, marvelling at the architectural wonders around every corner and in each city square, stopping occasionally for a coffee or a glass of wine depending on the time of day (or night). There really is no better way to get to know a city, to plump its depths, to touch its soul, than to trawl its streets.

So, the next time you travel abroad, don’t bother with the shops. Just focus on the country/city instead. You can always thank me later!

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Half the sky

Is it really too much to ask for gender parity in Indian politics?

One of the nicest moments in recent politics unfolded in faraway Canada. The newly-elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, introduced his new Cabinet to the media, a nice round number of 30, evenly divided into 15 women and 15 men. This led one of the journalists at the press conference to ask, "Why is gender parity so important to you?"

Without missing a beat, Trudeau replied: "Because it is 2015." And then, with a supremely Gallic shrug, he moved on.

It was the matter of factness of Trudeau's response that really appealed to me. It was almost as if he couldn't believe that in the second decade of the 21st century, someone could be asking him such a lame question.

Except, of course, that this not a lame question. And gender parity is not something that any of us can take for granted, no matter where in the world we may live. Forget about the Middle-East or the Third World, where women are often seen as lesser beings, even in the so-called enlightened and progressive West, gender parity is far from a given.

I'll take the example of politics, because that's where we started. The US Senate has 20 women members out of a 100 while the House of Representatives has 84 women members out of 435. So, in the leading democracy of the world, the representation of women stands at an abysmal average of 18 per cent.

In the UK, things are only marginally better. There are 191 women in the House of Commons, whose total strength stands at 650. This brings the representation of women up to 29 per cent, which is an improvement over the previous House, in which women accounted for only 22 per cent.

Germany may have a female Chancellor in Angela Merkel, but the representation of women stops at 37 per cent. Even Scandinavian countries, with their emphasis on gender equality, stop short of gender parity. The representation of women is 40 per cent in Norway and 45 per cent in Sweden.

Canada is alone in the world in having a government that has 50 per cent representation of women in its ranks. (And Canada alone has a Cabinet that looks like Canada itself, with every culture, every ethnic minority represented. But that's another story, for another day.)

So, how does India hold up when put to the gender parity test? Well, as you may have guessed, not very well at all. Out of the 543 members of the Lok Sabha, only 66 are women. But at just above 12 per cent, this is still the highest representation of women in our entire Parliamentary history. (The previous Lok Sabha only had 59 women members.)

And how do individual parties do?

The Trinamool Congress performs the best, with 12 women MPs out of 34, scoring a very respectable 35 percent. The West Bengal state government, though, is a disappointment – despite being led by a female Chief Minister in Mamata Banerjee – with only four women ministers out of a total of 42. But not if you compare it to the Delhi state government, where Arvind Kejriwal didn't see it fit to appoint a single female minister when he swept to power on a virtual landslide.

The ruling BJP may have some strong female leadership in its first string, with Sushma Swaraj serving as external affairs minister, Smriti Irani as Human Resources Development minister, Nirmala Sitharaman as Commerce minister, but its tally of women MPs in the Lok Sabha is far from encouraging: a mere 32 out of 280 members. The only silver lining is that the Speaker of the Lok Sabha remains a woman, with Sumitra Mahajan taking over from Meira Kumar.

The Congress also falls damnably short, even though the party itself is led by a woman, Sonia Gandhi. Of its 44 members in the Lok Sabha only four are women. That really isn't good enough for a party that has always maintained that there should be 33 per cent reservation for women in legislative bodies.

I think I know what all of you are thinking right about now. How can we possibly compare ourselves to European democracies, or even to Canada, when it comes to women’s representation? These countries have progressive societies with strong women's rights movements, while we are struggling to emerge from a feudal mindset, especially in the rural parts of our country.

Fair enough. We have a long way to go before women can even dream of equal representation in politics. But if Canada seems a stretch too far, perhaps we should let the success story of Rwanda be a lesson to us all.

This African nation has a whopping 64 per cent representation of women in its Parliament, the highest in the world. One reason advanced for this is that the male population of this country dropped to 30 per cent after the worst genocide in recent history. But the other explanation is that Rwanda introduced quotas mandating a 30 per cent representation of women in Parliament and government. The women elected under this proviso proved so successful that the gender ratio gradually improved to stand at the current 64 per cent. And soon, it is argued, Rwanda may no longer even need quotas to ensure proportional representation of women.

Surely, if a nation just emerging from a violent past can achieve this, what excuse can we possibly have to fall so short? I have never been a votary of women’s reservation in Parliament, believing that it pushes women into a ghetto, but I am now inclined to say: bring it on!

Who dunnit?

Cormoran Strike is the latest in a long line of damaged detectives in fiction

I know it is probably blasphemy to admit this, but the first J.K. Rowling book I ever read was not written by J.K. Rowling. Sadly, The entire Harry Potter hoopla passed me by entirely, but as a dedicated fan of detective fiction, I downloaded a novel by a certain Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling, the moment it became available on Kindle. So, I was among the fortunate few who came to the conclusion that this was a cracking good read, long before the world discovered that Robert Galbraith was, in fact, J.K. Rowling by another name.

Since then, I have devoured the entire Galbraith oeuvre, racing through The Silkworm at record speed and then devouring the latest, Career of Evil, in one greedy gulp, even though it left me a little cold.

I have been wondering ever since why this should be so. Career of Evil was just as good a story as the other Galbraiths, there were all the requisite plot twists we look for in detective fiction, and the writing was vintage Rowling. So, why didn’t the book work for me?

Well, there is a simple, two-word answer to that: Cormoran Strike. Or rather, the lack of Cormoran Strike.

Unlike the first two books in which the strong, surly, glowering and occasionally growling presence of Strike – the private detective with a prosthetic leg and a tortured personal history – was the focal point of the story, Career of Evil shifts the focus to his female assistant, Robin Ellacott. Her backstory is compelling enough (I won’t say more for fear of spoilers!) but I struggled to care about her romantic life in quite the same way I had cared about Strike’s dysfunctional personal relationships.

I guess, what made the Galbraith series work for me was the character of Strike, the damaged but undaunted survivor of a life that only J.K. Rowling could have made up. And the fact that he was only a pale shadow of his former self in Career of Evil, left me disappointed with the book as a whole.

In a sense, of course, Strike is only the latest in a long list of tortured, damaged fictional detectives, whose shambolic personal lives serve as a counterpoint to their sharp analytical skills while investigating a crime. And whose personal failings and foibles make for the most compelling reading.

The original of the genre is, of course, the most famous of them all: Sherlock Holmes. His character has been suitably toned down recently for television and movie audiences, but Holmes, as written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was an anti-social recluse who dabbled in such drugs as cocaine, had difficulty negotiating real life, coming alive only when an insoluble problem presented itself.

Ever since Holmes established his hold on our imagination, our appetite for the damaged and tortured detective has only grown. We fell in love with P.D. James’ creation, Adam Dalgliesh, the quiet and reflective poet-detective who lost his wife and his only son in childbirth, and seemed destined to go through life alone. We couldn’t get enough of Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus, the rumpled policeman teetering on the verge of alcoholism as he tried to make sense of his tangled personal life. Elizabeth George’s Thomas Lynley (the Earl of Asherton to give him his full title) tugged at our heartstrings with his doomed love life, which was blown apart just when it seemed to be coming together nicely.

One reason why Scandinavian detective fiction has established such a hold over the market is because of its damaged, off-kilter heroes. There’s Henning Mankell’s Inspector Kurt Wallander, who drinks too much, eats too much, exercises very little, has anger issues, struggles with his relationships with both his father and his daughter, but brings an incisive eye and intuitive brilliance to his job as investigator. Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole has the same sort of problems with alcohol and people, but makes up for it with his formidable analytical skills.

When it comes to dysfunctional heroes, however, there is no beating Val McDermid’s creation: Dr Tony Hill, a clinical psychologist who works as a profiler for the police and helps them hunt down serial killers. He brings his experiences of an abused childhood to the cases he deals with, which gives him a sort of special insight into the psycopaths and sociopaths that he deals with. The danger, of course, is that the line between the observer and the observed often gets very blurred indeed.

It is in this context of damaged heroes, that we have to see Cormoran Strike. Here is a man who grew up in the squalor of squats with his super-groupie mother, Leda, whose rock star father refused to have anything to do with him. He pulled himself out of poverty by his bootstraps and made a career for himself in the army. But an explosion blew up his leg and his military prospects, and Strike found himself ejected into civilian life, complete with a prosthetic leg. His career as private investigator progresses only by fits and starts, and his love life is a bit of a shambles.

Is it any wonder then that we want to hear more about Strike? That we want to see him come into his own, to cheer him on as he fights crime and finds love with equal felicity?

We like our detectives to be brilliant. But we identify with them a little more when they are also a bit damaged.