About Me

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

End of a chapter

As the year winds to a close, it’s time to update that reading list

The one thing that is as certain as one year bleeding into another, isthat it will be accompanied by a profusion of lists. You know the kind I mean, don’t you? The kind that crop up in every newspaper and magazine, on every news and gossip website, or even on TV entertainment shows, as everyone tries to sum up the year that has gone by in short, sweet listicles.

So, you’ll have Top Ten Business Personalities jostling for space with The Best Hip-Hop Albums of the year. There will be a list of natural calamities fighting for attention alongside one that cites the
political disasters of the year. And so on and on and on.

But for me, this is a time to take stock of what I read over the last one year, which new authors I discovered, which old favourites made a comeback, and which ones made the cut for the list of My Favourite Books of the Year. So, here they are, in no particular order of

•       Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult: As is always the case with Picoult, this book has at its heart a very human story. A white supremacist couple has a baby at a hospital where African-American nurse, Ruby Jefferson, has worked for 20 hours. They insist that she is not to touch their baby, and the hospital puts that instruction on the file. But when the baby suffers a medical emergency, the only person in the room is Ruby. How she reacts in that moment and the chain of events that follow give us an insight into race relations in America, a ringside view of the legal system, and how lives can turn on an instant.

•       Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz: The author has already paid homage at the shrine of Sherlock Holmes, with A House of Silk. With Magpie Murders, he worships at the altar of Agatha Christie, the queen of the whodunit genre. But the conceit with Magpie Murders is that it comes in the form of a book within a book, with each story as enthralling as the other. There is the bucolic setting, the country-house murder, a slew of suspects and a generous supply of red herrings. In other words, classic Christie territory with just a dash of Horowitz. You can’t go wrong with this one.

•       Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante: If, like me, you have devoured every word that Ferrante has ever written and are hungry for more, delve deep into this book that compiles all her letters, interviews, emails to give us a deeper perspective into what makes Ferrante the brilliant writer that she is. Best read alongside the books she refers to so that you can actually see how a writer’s mind works its magic on the page. And no, it doesn’t tell you who Elena Ferrante ‘really’ is; because all you need to know is that she ‘is’ Elena Ferrante.

•       Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: If The Boss’ songs have been the soundtrack to your life, you will love this book, which gives you the backstory and context to so many of his greatest hits. But the bits that resonated the most with me from this excellent autobiography are the parts where Springsteen deals with his depression, his complicated relationship with his father and growing up working class in America.

•       I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh: The beauty of this book resides in the mother of all plot twists. It opens with a hit-and-run accident that kills a five-year-old child, whose mother let go of his hand for only a second, and everything follows from that tragedy. I am not going to post any spoilers but suffice it to say that when things turn on their head, you will ask yourself how you could have got hoodwinked so completely. Well, that’s because Mackintosh is a master at her game, even though this is only her debut novel.

•       Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz: If you love the Jack Reacher or the Jason Bourne series, like I do, then you will enjoy this fast-paced thriller. The hero, Orphan X – so called because he was the 24th person to be inducted into The Orphan program (after the 24th letter of the alphabet, X) that turned boys like him into killers for the government – has travelled the world executing people on behalf of his country. But what happens now that the program has been shut down, and he has been cut loose? Well, I’ll leave that for you to find out; but you can be sure that there won’t be many dull moments.

•       Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder: This one is a bit of cheat, because I first read it when the first English translation came out in 1994. But I went back to it this year, plucking it out of my
bookshelves on an impulse, and before I knew it, I was down that rabbit-hole again. This is described as a novel about the history of philosophy but it is so much more than that. It is a guided tour through the mysteries of the human mind. And even after all these years, there hasn’t been another book quite like this one. If you still haven’t read it, clear a couple of days on your calendar and dive in.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

High flier

We all take them at one time or another; but how do you survive a long-haul flight?

I have always deeply envied those people who can get on an airplane, buckle themselves into their seat, and drop into a deep sleep that is broken only with the impact of the plane landing at their destination. How do they do that, I wonder, as I lie awake with the background noise of their gentle snores wafting around me. How can they possibly be so relaxed that they can nod off even before the seat-belt sign has been switched off? How is it possible that the noise of that wailing child or the hustle and bustle of the dinner/lunch service does not rouse them from their slumber?

What exactly are these people made of? Well, they are certainly made of sterner stuff than me. Despite the long decades I have spent racking up frequent-flyer miles, I have yet to master the art of sleeping through a flight. Sometimes when I am desperate to catch a few winks, I scoff a couple of glasses of champagne and lie back and hope for the best. But no, the best I can manage is an hour or so of fitful sleep before I am wide awake once again -- and now a little sore in my head for good measure.

But what all this wakefulness has meant is that I have developed some sure-shot measures of surviving long-haul flights over the years. And this Sunday morning, having just got off a 16-hour non-stop flight from San Francisco, I am going to share some of them with you:

* Try and create your own personal bubble on the airplane. I know, it's tough (and impossible if you are travelling with kids) but give it a try. The first step in this process is slipping on your noise-cancelling headphones -- buy the expensive ones; they will more than pay for themselves in the long term -- if you don't intend to watch a movie or listen to music. Not only will this insulate you from the noise in the cabin, it will also deter the man/woman in the next seat from engaging you in dreary conversation for hours on end.

* Don't depend on the in-flight entertainment provided by the airline; all too often it consists of old releases and TV series that are a couple of seasons past their see-by date. Instead, download a couple of movies or TV shows that you would really like to watch on your iPad or tablet. If movies aren't your thing, then pack a good book or two. Or do what I do to keep my hand luggage at a minimum: download the latest bestsellers on your e-reader -- there really is nothing like a long flight to catch up on your reading, without any fear of interruption. (The added advantage of e-readers is that they don't strain your eyes the way reading fine print in the less than ideal illumination provided by the overhead lights does.)

* Extend the idea of customisation to your clothes as well. Even if you are travelling in Business Class, where you will be handed a pair of socks and an eye-mask as part of the service, do your own thing. Pack a pair of cashmere socks and a cozy cardigan to slip on once the air-conditioning hits Arctic levels. I always say no to the airline blanket (mostly because nearly all of them, no matter which the airline, set off my allergies) and carry an oversized pashmina shawl instead. You have no idea how comforting it feels against my skin as I settle down to read the latest Elizabeth George on my Kindle.

* And yes, shoes. Shoes are the key. I have always looked at those ladies who think nothing of negotiating airports and airplanes in four-inch heels with a mixture of awe and pity. But believe me, you do not want to be one of those women. So, step away from the stilettos and wedges and slip on a pair of comfortable shoes. Make sure they are a loose fit because your feet are guaranteed to swell up during the plane ride, and squeezing them into shoes that suddenly seem a size too small is nobody's idea of fun.

* I think we can all agree that airline food is dire. Which is why I try and avoid eating on planes as much as possible. But what do you do on a flight that lasts more than nine hours? Starvation is not an option; at least not for someone like me who likes her food. And nor is packing parathas or theplas -- just too much of a palaver, if you ask me. So, I use this time to indulge in all those guilt-inducing treats that I would normally eschew on terra firma: bags of Kettle chips; snack-sized bars of Snickers; buttery salted popcorn; and tubs of ice-cream if the airline is kind enough to serve it.

* 'Stay hydrated' is the mantra that all air-hostesses follow. And I guess they know a thing or two about surviving long-haul flights without looking like complete wrecks at the end of it. So, drinks lots of water, spray some of it on your face, and slather on the moisturising cream.

* And last, but not the least, never forget to pack a pair of killer sunglasses. That way, when you step off at the other end, all bleary-eyed and puffy-faced, you can slip them on and look glamorous -- even if you don't quite feel it.

Counting my blessings

It's only when you begin to give thanks do you realise how much you have to be thankful for

I have always been slightly leery of our Indian tendency to adopt every festival from around the world and make it our own. Growing up, I wasn't even aware of something called Valentine's Day. But by the time I had attained adulthood, 14 February was a full-blown festival of love, complete with red roses, strawberries, pink champagne, guff-filled greeting cards and the obligatory, over-priced, romantic dinner for two.

More recently, I have been appalled to see that Halloween has become A Big Thing in India. Kids of a certain socio-economic class across the country have taken to dressing like witches, clowns, superheroes and what-have-you and trawling their up-market neighbourhoods pan-handling for sweets. Quite frankly, I find the whole thing preposterous in the extreme. But, as they don't say, to each their own version of cultural appropriation.

But last week, while travelling on the West Coast, I finally found an American festival I could get on board with: Thanksgiving. We spent it at the home of a friend, the most generous of hosts (here's looking at you, Ash!) and spent a total of three hours at a table groaning with food and drink of every description. The adults sat and ate while the kids ran around, being periodically chased down to be force-fed a morsel or two. And then we ended by sharing with one another what each of us had to be thankful for.

That's what got me thinking: why is it that we so rarely stop to count our blessings? Instead we seem to spend all our time complaining: about the government, the state of the economy, demonetisation, our children's bad grades, bad bosses, and mothers-in-law from hell.

We are constantly bemoaning all that is hateful about our lives and the world in which we live them. So, it seems like a brilliant idea to set one day aside on which we stop and think about what we are thankful for -- and give thanks for it.

So, it is in that spirit that I am making a short list of all the things that I am thankful for:

* My last-minute decision, made decades ago in the teeth of opposition from my parents, to turn down a job in the civil services (after clearing all the exams and the interviews; and the medical test) to stay on in the magazine job I had taken on as a stop-gap. It was a leap of faith but one that has served me well. Instead of a desk-bound life devoted to paper-pushing as a bureaucrat, I have had some of the most amazing experiences as a journalist. Over the years, I have interviewed Prime Ministers, travelled with Presidents, profiled film and sports stars, covered General Elections, and visited places that I hadn't even heard of growing up. And I have journalism to thank for all of it.

* I am thankful for the loyalty of friends. I haven't made too many, and sadly I have lost touch with a few with the passage of years. But while I have lost out in quantity, I have more than made up in quality. These women (and yes, they are mostly women) whom I am proud to call friends, are always there for me, listening to me vent, having my back when I need them, chivvying me up when I am low, and cheering me on in all circumstances. I really don't know where I would be without them.

* I am grateful for the fact that my extended family keeps extending in ever-increasing circles as I grow older. There are the cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles that I have accumulated through marriage, who have welcomed me into their lives. And then, there is my own blood family that is always expanding with the inclusion of new members, with weddings and births breathing in new life and love into our tight circle.

* I give thanks every day for the fact that both my parents passed without suffering. They died 26 years apart but in eerily identical ways. They got up one morning, had their baths, did their Puja, then went and lay down in bed -- and never woke up. Both times, the news came as a huge shock. And it took me time to come to terms with the loss. But now, overlaid with my sorrow is the hope that when my time comes, I would be just as fortunate. Now, that would be truly something to be grateful for.

* But more than anything, I am thankful for the opportunity I have had, for so many years, to speak to all of you, week after week, baring my inner-most thoughts and feelings. It feels good to share, and it feels even better when I hear back from you, sparking off some of the best conversations of my life. It is rare privilege to be able to do so, and I am grateful for it every day.

So now, even if you didn't celebrate it, I am thankful for the chance to wish all of you a happy, albeit belated, Thanksgiving. Stay blessed -- and remember to take the time to count your blessings.

Winter is coming...

And I, for one, can’t wait to make the most of it

There is something magical about this time of year. The mornings start off with a mysterious mist, the evenings get a bit nippy, and basking in the sun becomes a real option rather than an ordeal to be endured. As George RR Martin would say, “Winter is coming.” But unlike Sansa Stark, I could not be happier about its arrival.

This has always been my favourite part of the year. Growing up in Calcutta, we didn’t have much of a winter to look forward to. Yes, the days turned pleasant and a few nights were chilly enough to warrant the annual airing of our sweaters and shawls. But we still prepared for the season on a war footing.

Trunks of winterwear would be disgorged to awaken from their deep hibernation in the afternoon sun. Velvet coats, wool sweaters, pashmina shawls would be piled high on top of satin quilts on a sheet laid out on the verandah. And I still have vivid memories of rolling around on the pile, inhaling the smell of mothballs and marveling at how soft and sensuous (even though I didn’t know the word yet) the velvets and silks felt.

Winter would announce its arrival in other areas of the house as well. Pears glycerine soap would appear in place of Cinthol bars in the bathroom. The enticing smell of sarson ka saag would start emanating from the kitchen. White butter would make its appearance on our plates along with the mandatory makki di roti. And every morning, the gannawallah would stop by to sell us neatly-sliced sticks of sugarcane, and we would sit in the sunshine contentedly chewing cud all day long.

But I never really got a taste of real winter until I moved to Delhi as an adult. Working for a newspaper, all my budget ran to was a barsati, but much to my delight it came with a sprawling terrace, where I set up some wrought-iron furniture in the fond hope that I would spend my winter afternoons sunning myself like a cat that had had all the cream (or, in my case, desi ghee).

And yes, I did spend some splendid afternoons, curled up with a book, a steaming cup of coffee close at hand, enjoying the crisp beauty of a Delhi winter. But what I hadn’t bargained for was the cold.

The moment the sun went down and the wind started up, the thin roof of the barsati wasn’t much of a defence against the searing cold. And no matter how many layers I wore to bed or how many quilts I piled up on the bed, I was never really warm despite the heater valiantly dispensing a steady stream of hot air in one corner. And thus began my habit – that persists to this day; despite the fact that my bedroom is now warm and toasty thanks to an oil-based radiator – of going to bed with a hot-water bottle (which had the added advantage of making me feel like a character in an Agatha Christie murder mystery).

But despite all these minor inconveniences, I loved the Delhi winter. And I loved Delhi in the winter. The central roundabouts ablaze with purple petunias, red salvia, and chrysanthemums that covered the entire range of the colour spectrum. The subtle beauty of the flowering Alstonia tree. The smell of freshly-roasted peanuts being sold at street-side stalls. The sweetly-astringent taste of the first oranges of the season. The festive barbeques my friends set up in their backyards and front lawns. The bonfires around which we gathered as the temperatures dropped even further. I loved it all.

And yes, decades later, my love for the Delhi winter remains undimmed. In a recreation of long-gone childhood rituals, I still tip out all my winterwear to give it a good airing in the sun (though I stop my inner child from rolling around in it). I change my skincare regime in a nod to the season of chapped lips and cracked heels. I start my annual hunt for the tights and stockings put away after the last winter, before giving up the chase and buying a new lot – which I know I will inevitably lose by the next winter. And I carefully stagger my travel plans so that I don’t miss too many days of Delhi winter, because sadly, it is over in the blink of an eye.

How do I make the most of the season, you ask?

Well, let me count the ways. I schedule all my lunches – business and otherwise – in open-air restaurants so that I can make the most of sunny afternoons. Instead of staying cooped up in the gym, I go for long walks in Lodi Gardens (the flowering verges are a bonus). And I stock up on all my favourite winter treats – peanut chikki is my own Kryptonite – squirrelling them away for a chilly day spent in bed.

But most of all, I long for the barsati that was my first home in Delhi. It has long since been pulled down to make way for an international bank and a fashion design outlet, as part of the commercialization of that part of Defence Colony. Nevertheless, every time I drive past, I am reminded of lazy afternoons past, and boozy dinner parties that made up my misspent youth. And that chill that never quite went away from my bones during that entire season.

And I am reminded once again why I fell in love with the Delhi winter. And I fall in love with Delhi in winter a little bit more.

The Great Escape

When the world gets too much to bear, it’s time to retreat to your ‘happy place’

Yes, I know exactly how you feel. It seems like the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. And you don’t know how you’re going to get through the next month, the next year, let alone the rest of your life.

You’ve spent days trying to live off the loose change you’ve scrounged from around the house. Or you spent endless hours queuing at the bank or at an ATM to get access to your own money. Donald Trump (Donald Trump!) is the new President of the United States. Leonard Cohen died. The list of misfortunes and tragedies seems endless.

So how do we survive in this world, which has begun to seem like such a nasty, brutish place?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I try and do so by going to my ‘happy place’. Which is often not a place at all but a state of mind I achieve by doing what pleases me best.

Here are just some of the things I have been doing over the last week or so to achieve ‘happy place’ status.

·       If you can’t stand the heat, get back in to the kitchen: There is something therapeutic about stirring a pot of rice on the stove to make a comforting risotto for dinner. Or carefully measuring out the ingredients of a gooey chocolate cake and concentrating on getting the mixture just right. Or even using the first meethi of the season to make theplas for breakfast. If all this seems like too much work to you, then crack open a few eggs, add a dash of double cream, salt, pepper, herbs, and stir slowly over very low heat. Pile the mixture on to hot, buttered toast. The world’s troubles will recede with every mouthful.

·       Get lost in the pages of an old book: There is nothing like comfort reading to make you feel better about yourself and the state of the world. And when the horrors of the world threaten to overwhelm, I retreat to the books of my childhood. I just finished re-reading Black Beauty, a birthday present from a young friend who knows me too well. And now I have started on Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series, in the hope that the adventures of Darrell Rivers and gang will keep me from obsessing over President Trump (yes, yes, I know he’s not my President; but that doesn’t make it any easier). Word of caution: may be a good idea to stay away from the Harry Potter series. All those Voldemort references might come crashing back.

·       Out of the mouths of babes: Spend time with children. Read them stories. Listen to what they got up to in school. Ask them to tell you the latest jokes they heard in class. Get them to share their worries and fears; if nothing else, that will put your worries and fears in perspective. If you don’t have any kids of your own, don’t worry. This is an emergency and you are allowed to borrow them from friends and family. There is nothing like listening to the inconsequential chatter that emerges from children to make you forget the cares of the grown-up universe. (Note: if there are no children handy, just head for the nearest park and watch the kids at play. Their screams and shouts of pleasure will make you feel better about the state of the world.)

·       Schedule a digital detox: If you can’t stay offline during the day because of the nature of your work, that’s fine. But once you get home, put away the smartphone and tune out the constant chatter of the outside world. Don’t peek in to review your friends’ status updates on Facebook. Don’t keep trawling twitter to see (and outrage about) what’s happening in the world. Don’t even check into Instagram to see those carefully-filtered images of perfectly-curated lives. Let the outside world fade away while you listen to music, read a book, or just talk to your loved ones.

·       Watch re-runs of your favourite feel-good TV shows: My own go-to show when depressed is Friends, which I have now seen so many times that I know entire episodes by heart. Modern Family, with its blended families and cute kids, serves as another emotional retreat. And of late, I have taken to binge-watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix as well, while sneaking in a few episodes of Will and Grace. There is certain comfort in retreating to a parallel universe where nothing really bad happens; and there are no nasty surprises because you know exactly what’s coming next.

Well, that’s just a small sample of the many things I did to try and stay sane while the world seemed to run mad. But if none of them work for you, then you could always go to your actual ‘happy place’ and recover your equilibrium. Walk down the flower-edged paths of your favourite park. Take a day trip to the beach with a picnic basket of your favourite treats. Or retreat to the mountains for a weekend of quiet and calm.

And take comfort in the thought that whatever happens, the sun will rise again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. It may seem like the world has ended; but you will soon discover that the reports of its demise were vastly exaggerated.

Bully for you!

How to deal with the hotbed of hatred that goes by the name of the Internet

Cyber bullying has been much in the news of late. And it spawned a fresh set of stories after the wife of the Republican contender for the US Presidency, Melania Trump, gave a robotic stump speech to announce that she would work on combatting cyber bullying if she ever became First Lady. Once we had stopped pointing and laughing -- and asking her if she had ever met her husband, the Insulter-In-Chief, Donald Trump -- it was difficult to disagree with the substance of what Melania said.

You only have to spend ten minutes on the Internet to realise what a hotbed of hatred it has become. Clearly the anonymity that the net offers does something strange to people. It brings forth their worst instincts. It encourages them to spew abuse and insults from their safe havens in front of their keyboards. It turns otherwise rational and sane human beings into a raging mob spitting expletives and vomiting bile. It makes them think nothing of throwing stuff at you that they would never dream of saying to your face.

So, yes, Melania had it right when she spoke about how "We have to find a better way to talk to one another, to disagree with each other, to respect each other."

But she is quite the wrong messenger to put out this message. After all, every night she lies down to sleep beside Donald Trump, who is prone to go on vicious tweet storms in the early hours of the morning, asking people to check out (non-existent) sex tapes of former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado. So if Melania really wants to fight cyber bullying then she should start with the bully snoring gently next to her. Confiscating his phone and deleting his Twitter account would be a good start.

But I am guessing that is not going to happen any time soon. And even if we try and take comfort in the hope that after November 8 we won't have to bother very much about what Donald Trump has to say (am writing this before America goes to the polls, so knock wood) cyber bullying will still be a clear and present danger.

Like most women who have an online presence I have been subjected to my fair share of cyber bullying over the years. The abuses remained much the same. They were always some variation on calling me a 'prostitute', wishing that I would be 'raped' (except that I was too unattractive for any man to bother), calling me fat or ugly (or both), ah well, you get the drift. But over time my way of coping with the steady stream of vitriol did evolve and change.

My initial response to all the sexist abuse on such platforms as Twitter was to hit back hard. I would reply to every abusive tweet and tie myself up in futile exchanges that did nothing other than exasperate, infuriate, and even debilitate me. After a few months of this, I realised that what they say about wrestling with pigs is true: you both get dirty but only the pig enjoys it.

All I was really doing with my instant responses and cutting repartee was feeding the beast. I was just encouraging bad behaviour instead of cutting it off. I was giving cyber bullies the space to function and thrive instead of cutting off their oxygen supply.

So, I decided to change tack. Now, instead of replying to these angry cyber warriors I would just draw attention to their illiterate rants in a suitably high-minded manner. Thus began a brief phase when I would retweet the most vile tweets with a pithy comment like "Your mother would be so proud of you". The hope was to name and shame the most vicious offenders so that they thought twice about using language like this again.

I know, silly me. What was I thinking? All I did achieve by retweeting the messages of these trolls, who sometimes had less than a hundred followers, was allow them access to a larger audience on my timeline. And boy, did they revel in the attention this got them!

It was time to roll out another strategy -- and this one has served me well to this day. It's called Zero Tolerance. I block anyone who is abusive towards me. I block those who bully and abuse others. I block those who spout communal nonsense on my timeline. I block those who retweet this kind of nonsense. It is an endless process; block a dozen trolls and a hundred others spring forth to take their place. But despite the occasional moments of despair, I keep at it.

Is it a viable solution to cyber bullying? Of course not. But it is a good start to keeping cyber bullies out of my space. My logic is simple: I would not tolerate this kind of behaviour from people in real life; so why should I tolerate it on the Net? Anyone who behaved like that in my home would not be invited back. So, why would I allow such louts on my timeline, which is my virtual drawing room?

Which is why I don't have much use for Melania Trump's claims of combatting cyber bullying. If she can't deal with the bully in her bed, what hope is there for her taking on those hiding in the dark shadows of the Net?