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

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Gender bender

A quick primer on how not to write about women

The Rio Olympics were groundbreaking in one aspect. These were the Olympic Games which saw the highest female participation ever, at 45 per cent. Of the 10,444 total competitors, 4,700 were women. And while that is just short of actual parity, we have come a long way from 1900, when women were allowed into the Olympics for the first time. That year, of the 997 competitors only 22 were women (making up an abysmal 2.2 percent).

But while female participation has changed the look of the Olympics in no uncertain manner, what hasn’t changed is the sexist tone to the coverage of women athletes and sports stars. In fact sexism in sports reportage is so rampant that it has even generated its own hashtag on twitter: #CoverTheAthlete. It was started last year after a commentator asked Canadian tennis player, Eugenie Bouchard to “give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit”. (No, I am not making this up. Though I wish to God I was.)

The reportage of the Rio Olympics provided us some gems of this genre as well. A BBC presenter congratulated Andy Murray for being “the first person to ever win two Olympic gold medals”. (Murray, to his credit, corrected him instantly: Venus and Serena Williams have won four gold medals each.) The Hungarian swimmer, Katina Hosszu, won gold and broke the world record in the 400-meter individual medley, but one NBC commentator instantly pointed to her coach-husband watching from the sidelines to credit him with her performance.

And then, there was the constant comparison of women competitors to their male counterparts. Ryan Lochte, now in the news for having made up a story about being robbed at gunpoint in Rio, said this about record-breaking swimmer, Katie Ledecky, “She swims like a guy…I’ve never seen a female swimmer like that. She gets faster every time she gets in and her times are becoming good for a guy.” It was in keeping then, that the day Ledecky set the world record in women’s 800 freestyle, one paper chose to lead with “Phelps ties for silver in 100 fly.” And that the Daily Mail referred to her, with a certain predictability, as “the female Michael Phelps”.

It took Simone Biles, the Golden Girl of Gymnastics, to call out this false equivalence. After winning the gold in the gymnastics all-around, she executed yet another perfect landing: “I am not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I am the first Simone Biles.”

Unfortunately, it’s not just sport that suffers from sexist reporting. Politics is no better. The night Hillary Clinton won the nomination as Democratic candidate for the US Presidency, you would have thought that she had earned the right to be on the front pages the next day. And you would have been quite wrong. All across America, newspapers great and small went with a larger than life picture of her husband, Bill Clinton. Hillary may have shattered that glass ceiling into a million little shards but it was still her husband who got prime billing (pun entirely unintended). 

Clearly, we in the media have still not got the hang of covering high-achieving women without a side-serving of sexism. So, in the spirit of helping out, here’s my ready primer on how not to write about women in the news.

Try to focus on the woman herself, without being distracted by the significant males in her life. Don’t be like the Chicago Tribune, which referred to Corey Cogdell-Unrein, who won a bronze in women’s trap shooting, as the wife of a Chicago Bears linesman. (They apologized after a backlash on Twitter, conceding sheepishly that she was “awesome on her own”.)
Don’t compare her to a man. Or announce that she is like a man, with the air of conferring a rare tribute on her. (As in: “Indira Gandhi was the only man in her Cabinet.” No, she wasn’t. She was a woman; albeit one who kicked ass.)
Set yourself this simple test: would I ask a man such a question? If the answer is no, then don’t ask that question of a woman either. (Sample: How do you manage a work-life balance? Is having kids the best thing you have ever done? Or even: When are you settling down?)
Stop hemming a woman within patriarchal constructs. She may be someone’s daughter, sister, wife, mother. But that is not her defining characteristic. So don’t act as if that is the most important thing about her. 
Don’t reduce a woman to a sum of her body parts. If she is a politician like Theresa May, it is not relevant to point out that she occasionally flashes ‘a hint of cleavage’. A woman, every woman, has breasts. Get over it. (If it’s one of the Kardashians, however, go for it; that’s exactly what they signed up for.)
Stop with the body-shaming euphemisms when describing women in the spotlight. She is flaunting her curves; i.e. she has gotten a bit fat. She is sporting a baby bump; as opposed to what exactly? Leaving it behind at home? And then, there’s that zinger: She is a ‘real woman’ (which roughly translates as: Oh my God, can you believe how big she’s gotten!).
And most of all remember, no woman is a ‘female’ version of any man. Sania Mirza is not a female Leander Paes. P.V. Sindhu is not a female Prakash Padukone. Every woman is a person in her own right, with her own identity. Try and respect that; it’s really not that difficult.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Dishing it out

What I hate about eating in fancy restaurants

There are many things to love about eating in big, fancy restaurants. There are the crisp white tablecloths, gleaming with the promise of a good meal. There is the smartly-uniformed wait staff, with nary a soiled shirtfront or stained trouser in sight. There is the soft whisper of muted conversation, the discreet tinkle of wine glasses, the occasional clunk of the silverware, all of it adding up to an atmosphere of temple-like calm – all the better for you to enjoy an outstanding meal served up by the presiding deity in the kitchen.

What’s not to love, right?


But even at the risk of sounding like a churlish grump, I have to confess that there are many, many things I absolutely loath about dining experiences like the one detailed above. 

First off, is the overbearing attention. From the time you enter to the moment you depart, there isn’t a single moment when you feel truly alone, enjoying a lovely meal or a special occasion with your loved ones. There is always someone infringing into your personal space or lurking within earshot to listen in to your conversation. And it is impossible to go 10 minutes without someone asking if your dish was okay, if you’re having a good time, if you’d like something else. The much-touted concept of the dining ‘bubble’, the sacrosanct space within which no server should intrude, is something that very few fancy restaurants seem to understand or respect.

So, if anyone who runs or works in such an establishment is reading this, here’s a handy list of the many things I hate about eating out in fancy restaurants. 

Waiters who rush up the moment you are seated, unfurl the napkin lying in front of you and place it, with a flourish, on your lap. There are so many things wrong with this scenario is that I don’t quite know where to begin. There’s the assumption that you can’t perform a simple task like unfurling your own napkin. There’s the intrusion into your personal space, when your server’s hand are perilously close to your bosom/stomach/groin area. And there’s the aspect of hygiene: why would I want that pristine cloth that is about to be placed on my lap to be touched by someone else? (The last one is probably just me and my OCD speaking.)

The first question you are asked when you have been seated and ‘napkin-ed’ invariably is: “Still or sparkling?” Or, if the establishment is even more pretentious than most, the question comes coached in terms of “Evian or Perrier?” I have yet to visit an expensive restaurant that offers you tap water as an alternative. If you want tap water – which is perfectly safe in such establishments – you have to ask for it. And they are depending on the fact that you will be too embarrassed to ask (for fear of being seen as a cheapskate) to make a profit on every sip you take. Which is why I make it a point to do so.

Food served in shallow bowls or plates with a rim. As far as I am concerned, the only thing that should come in a bowl is soup, or at a pinch, a risotto. Anything that requires cutting with a knife and fork should come in a plate; because there is nothing quite as awkward as trying to cut a piece of meat or fish in a shallow bowl which wobbles precariously with each attempt. And no plates with a raised rim please. When I place my fork and knife on the plate between bites, I have a reasonable expectation that they will stay in place, not clatter off and fall on the floor. It’s embarrassing for me, and more work for the wait staff if they do. So, just stick to simple, old-style plates, and we’ll do just fine.
Upselling everything, from the aperitif to the wine to the overpriced lobster. This is especially galling when you see your host being press-ganged into ordering pink champagne as a pre-dinner drink, or an expensive bottle of red/white, even though he was looking for a bargain. And waiters/managers who push your guests towards the Beluga caviar when asked to recommend something deserve a special place in dining hell.

When I visit a restaurant what I want is a good meal without a side-order of freezing-to-death. But no matter what the season, you can be sure that the temperature in a fancy restaurant will be Arctic in nature. If you complain, three members of staff will come and offer you a shawl (“We have pashminas in every shade for our lady guests”). Surely it would be simpler to just turn up the temperature on the AC controls. But no, that seems a step too fair. It’s the pashmina or perishing in the cold. Take your pick.

Sometimes when I come out to lunch or dinner with a book, I really am looking forward to reading that book. But to the wait staff at a restaurant, I just look like a sad, lonely soul, who has been reduced to eating out alone. So, they gamely – and I am sure, with the best of intentions – try and sit in for my missing friends, making small talk as I eat my meal. And no matter how monosyllabic my replies or how discouraging my body language, they persist with their conversational gambits. But guys, I really am okay being on my own. And I really would like to read my book. In peace. With no interruptions. Though another glass of that pink champagne would be just great.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Wear your attitude

What women politicians tell us with their fashion choices

Fashion is often dismissed as frivolous. Not the kind of thing that a 'serious ' woman should concern herself with. Not for her the needless obsessing with hemlines and necklines; not for her a seasonal update of her wardrobe; not for her a closet full of high-heeled shoes.

No, the 'serious' woman is not supposed to pay much attention to her clothes. She should ideally have a utilitarian 'uniform', the kind she can step into every morning with the minimum of fuss and then go out and conquer the world.

But what of the women who have, in effect, conquered their world? How much attention do they pay to clothes? And what do their fashion choices tell us about them?

This is an interesting question to ask at this time when the world is teeming with women leaders, all of them with a distinctive style of their own. A style that has been honed over the years to project an image. This image may portray anything from power to humility, femininity to feminism, style to practicality. But every image sends forth a strong message about the women behind it.

Let's take a quick trip around this picture gallery to see what it tells us about  those featured?

Hillary Clinton

It makes sense to start with the woman who will soon (fingers crossed!) be the leader of the free world. At the Democratic convention, where Hillary accepted the party's nomination to run for President of the United States, she appeared in a dazzlingly-bright white suit, set off by blonde hair blow-dried to within an inch of its life. This was an image calculated to send out subliminal messages of power, control, perfection. This was a woman confident enough to find her style -- pant suits in a single block of color, set off with a discreet neckpiece -- and stick to it. Yes, it was a uniform, but it was entirely of her own making. A nod to fashion and yet a complete repudiation of it. Very Hillary, in other words.

Theresa May

Reams of newsprint have been dedicated to May's love of shoes, which takes in every style from thigh-high PVC boots to animal print kitten heels. And now that she is Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, her shoes attract more attention than ever before, signaling -- as the media never tire of pointing out - the fun and frivolous side of this otherwise 'serious' person. But it is her tightly-structured and perfectly-tailored jackets that tell us about the essential woman: always poised, always in control, the grown up in any room. And just when you think you have figured her out, May throws you off balance yet again: with a statement necklace that hints at hidden depths behind that icy exterior.

Angela Merkel

Frau Merkel doesn't care what anyone thinks of her. And nothing says that more clearly and loudly than her wardrobe choices -- or more accurately, the lack of them. She is always dressed in an ill-fitting suit, which makes no concessions to the German Chancellor's figure. The message is clear: this woman has more important things to think about than the fit of her clothes. And that is, in itself, a style statement of sorts.

Sonia Gandhi

From the time she entered politics, Sonia has based her look on that of her famous mother-in-law. It probably helps that she inherited Indira Gandhi's amazing collection of saris, a veritable treasure trove of handlooms accessed from all parts of India. And Sonia wears them well, always well starched and pinned into place, loose enough around the pleats so that she can take the same long strides that were an Indira trademark, head covered by her pallu when she heads into rural parts. She is the Gandhi bahu, the repository of the family legacy, and there is never a moment when she doesn't look the part.


In her person, she embodies the dream of Dalit empowerment. So, it is no accident that Mayawati is the only female Indian politician who is seen in public carrying a designer handbag; or that she sports diamonds in her ears that look straight out of J. Jayalalitha's collection. Or even, that she wears smart salwar kameez ensembles of the kind that upper middle class urban women live in. Her image conveys a strong message to her followers: expensive tastes are no longer a preserve of the upper castes. Dalits have as much right to them as anyone else.

Mamata Banerjee

Her crumpled cotton saris and flip-flops have become her signature style ever since she descended on the streets of Calcutta to fight the Communists. And now that she is chief minister of the state, it serves to signal that Mamatadi is the same as ever: power has not gone to her head, or indeed infiltrated her wardrobe. She remains the same simple woman who lives in a one-bedroom apartment and devotes her life to her 'peepul'. A woman like that has no time for an ironing board, even if someone else is doing the ironing.

Priyanka Gandhi

She is the chameleon of Indian politics. And just as she keeps the country guessing about her political intentions, she also tends to mix it up as far as her sartorial choices are concerned. In the city, she dresses like any other 40-something mother of two (albeit one with a better figure than most) in jeans and T-shirts. When she heads for the family constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli, she drapes herself in a handloom sari, just like her mother and grandmother before her. In that, she is like Superman or Batman, changing into costume before charging into battle. I guess the Uttar Pradesh elections will show if she really is Wonder Woman!

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Raindrops keep falling...

When the monsoon comes calling, it's time to fall back on those rainy-day rituals

Whenever the rain comes pouring down, I remember my grandmother. She was a true believer in the magical properties of rain water. So, even as the skies darkened, she would be ready with buckets, tubs, steel pans, and whatever other container she could lay her hands on. They would all be lined across the verandah, carefully positioned in the places where she knew (from her vast experience) the most rain waiter would fall.

When the skies finally opened up, she would press us kids into service. The moment a bucket/tub/container filled up, it was our job to pick it up and jog across to the large water tank next to the kitchen, empty it in and come back for more. The higher the water level in the tank at the end of the downpour, the happier my grandmom.

Then, until the next shower, this water would be rationed out carefully to all the women in the family (men really didn't rate in my grandmom's world; the feminist before her time). Not to bathe in; that would be a criminal waste. The rain water was only used to wash our hair. And I have to admit that, in that pre-conditioner era, it left our tresses silky smooth and shining.

It was only after my grandmother passed on that I developed a rainy-day ritual of my own along with my best friend in the neighborhood. The moment it started raining, we would run to the terrace and block all the water outlets with balled up pieces of cloth. Then, the two of us would get soaked to the skin, fairly screaming with joy, even as the terrace slowly transformed into a swimming pool (admittedly, a very shallow one!). Once the water was a few inches deep, we would 'swim' or more accurately, skid along the smooth concrete, having the time of our lives.

When we were a little older, we incorporated a bit of arts and crafts into this routine. Once we had satiated the thirst of our animal spirits, we would settle down in the shade, piles of old exercise books by our side. We would carefully fashion paper boats and sail them across our miniature ocean, keeping close tabs on whose boats made it the farthest.

But by far, the best part of the monsoons was the 'rainy-day holiday'. In Calcutta, where I grew up, you were guaranteed at least four days off due to torrential rain. So, every morning I would get up and run hopefully to the window to see if the rain was coming down in gallons. And you cannot imagine my delight on the rare occasions that we were in fact given a 'rain holiday'.

That day, breakfast would not be a glass of milk and a couple of slices of buttered bread. It would be milky tea, teamed with steaming hot singaras (what you would call samosas in the north) and jalebis from the neighborhood 'mishti dukaan' (sweetshop). Then, I would grab my favorite book - an Enid Blyton when I was younger and a Georgette Heyer when I was a little older - settle down in the window seat and prepare to read the day away while glancing occasionally at the grey skies outside, fortified by many cups of chai.

And then there were the rainy-day menus, all unified by the theme of deep frying: fluffy puris for breakfast with aloo subzi; steaming bowls of kitchdi served with begun bhaja; pakoras made with everything from fiery green chilies to soft creamy paneer for evening tea; and if we were still hungry at the end of that, another helping of kitchdi for dinner.

I think it is fair to say that as I got older, rainy-day rituals became a spectator sport rather than a full-on, immersive experience. Rare was the occasion that I allowed my inner child to go forth and frolic in the rain. Instead, in keeping with my new grown-up status, I would watch indulgently from the sidelines as my nieces did much the same thing, playing out my childhood in front of my own eyes.

But no matter how old I get, I find it hard to eschew rainy-day rituals altogether. So now, when I am in Mumbai, my rainy-day ritual extends to taking the day off, keeping a pot of coffee on the go and just sitting on the balcony, watching the rain slash down into the Arabian Sea.

One of my favorite weekend breaks is to head to Goa during the monsoons, when the grey of the sea and the skies is set off to perfection by the verdant green of the vegetation. And suffice it to say, if you haven't walked down a soggy beach, being pummeled by the rain, the salty sea spray, and the buffeted by the winds, you haven't lived at all. If I have a little more time off, Kerala is my 'rain destination' of choice, with egg roast and parottas taking the place of  singaras and pakoras, and coffee standing in for milky tea.

And if I am stuck in Delhi, not the best place to enjoy the monsoons admittedly, then it's off to Lodi Gardens to take a walk in the rain and get soaked to the skin. It's hard to resist the temptation to fashion a few paper boats to float down the water that collects in large puddles as I dawdle along the jogging track. But now that I am no longer that little girl who would try so hard to transform her terrace into a swimming pool, I try my best to resist.

The book's the thing...

But the title matters too, especially if it has the key word ‘Girl’ in it

It all kicked off with Steig Larsson, author of the Scandi-noir trilogy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Lisbeth Salander, the dark and damaged ‘Girl’ of the books, became a cult heroine with her Goth make-up, elaborate tattoos, fiery intelligence, and take-no-prisoners attitude. Such was her popularity that even after her creator, Larsson, had passed, Lisbeth got another outing in The Girl In The Spider’s Web (written by David Lagercrantz). 

Gillian Flynn was next up with the groundbreaking thriller, Gone Girl, with its unreliable narrator and bewildering shifts between points of view. Amy Dunne, the ‘Girl’ of this book, sells herself to us as the perfect girlfriend and wife before being revealed as a cold-as-ice sociopath. (No, I am not playing the spoiler alert game with this one; if you haven’t bothered to read the book or see the movie yet, I am assuming that you are never going to get around to it!)

Then came Paula Hawkins, with The Girl On The Train, with another unreliable narrator in Rachel, whose life is falling apart. Her marriage is over, she has lost her job and she’s drinking too much. So, she amuses herself on the commute to and from the office she no longer works in by spying on the backyards of the houses that run by the train line – one of which used to be her own.

Such has been the success of the ‘Girl’ books that it now seems impossible for a thriller/suspense/murder mystery novel to get on the bestselling list without including that word in the title. Apparently, while you are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, getting the title right – with that key word nestled somewhere in there – is crucial to capturing eyeballs.

Perhaps, it just comes down to subliminal association. You liked The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest? Then, maybe you will love Gone Girl? Are you a fan of Gone Girl? Then, perhaps, The Girl On The Train is just the ticket for you. And so on and on and on…

This sudden proliferation of ‘Girl’ titles makes me wonder if this is not (at least part) cynical marketing ploy to lure readers in. But even if it is, I am not complaining. And that’s because the ‘Girl Books’, as I have taken to calling them, are great reads in themselves. In fact, some of them are terrific reads, gripping you with their intricate plot twists and false narratives, and strong if damaged female characters (the ‘girls’ of the titles). 

So, here, in no particular order of importance, are some gems of the ‘Girls Genre’ of popular fiction. 

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll: The ‘Girl’ in this assured debut novel, is TifAni FaNelli, editor at a women’s magazine and writer of sex columns, who seems to have life all worked out – until we discover the secret she is hiding. She was gang-raped, and then slut-shamed, in high school, and has carried the scars ever since. The book is the story of her coming to terms with her past and confronting the demons that have plagued her ever since. For me, the story became even more poignant in hindsight, when Knoll wrote an essay (a year or so after the book came out and became an instant hit) revealing that the book drew heavily on her own experience of being gang-raped and slut-shamed in high school.

The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood: The ‘Wicked Girls’ of the title are Bel and Jade who meet one fateful summer day and end up being charged with the murder of a child – even though they are really children themselves. This novel, written by the British journalist, Serena Mackesy, under the pseudonym Alex Marwood, is loosely based on the murder of James Bulger, who was just short of three years when he was tortured and murdered by two 10-year-old boys (Robert Thompson and Jon Venables) in 1993. But at its core, this is more than a crime story. It is more an investigation into child psychology, the randomness of events, the criminal justice system, and the tabloid culture. It is difficult reading at times, but well worth the effort.

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica: When Mia Dennett leaves a bar with a stranger (because her boyfriend is a no-show), she doesn’t realize that she is signing up for more than a one-night stand. The story alternates between the past and the present, the narrative unfolds from the perspective of differing characters, and the reader often feels that she is negotiating shifting sands, not entirely sure where they are leading her. I won’t say more because, you know, spoiler alert. But, as Amazon would say, if you loved Gone Girl, you might enjoy reading The Good Girl too.

The Good Girl by Fiona Neill: Yes, that’s right. This title is so popular that it has two books attached to it. The Good Girl in Fiona Neill’s version, is the teenager, Romy, whose family has just relocated from London to the countryside. This morality tale for the new millennials gets its impetus from a sexting scandal but uses it as a starting point to explore both the fragility and the strength of family bonds. The harried mom and dad of this book, Alisa and Harry Field, will strike a chord with parents of rebellious teenagers everywhere, and young adults of the porn-again generation may well see something of themselves in both Romy and her boyfriend, Jay.