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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The silence of shame

There are many reasons why women don't come forward to complain about sexual abuse; don't judge them for it


As I sit down to write this column, around 25 women have come forward to accuse Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, of sexual harassment and abuse. And among the ladies who have gone on record to charge Weinstein with being a sexual predator are such A-list stars as Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Somewhat predictably, the reaction on social media has been: hey ladies, what took you so long? After all, both Jolie and Paltrow are from influential Hollywood families. What did they have to fear from a man like Weinstein? Why couldn't they come right out and condemn his behavior the moment it happened?

But I am not here to hold forth on Harvey Weinstein and Hollywood today. What I really want to focus on are the many Harveys that every woman comes up against as she makes her way through the world. And how difficult all of us find it to speak up about their behavior no matter how grown-up, mature, rich, famous and powerful we get.

I am sure that all the women who are reading this column will have their own stories, but I'll go first. Though now that I have said that, I really don't know where to begin.

Do I start with the 'Uncle' who routinely pulled me on to his lap in a show of affection when I was a pre-schooler? I was too young then to even know why it felt so wrong but it makes my flesh crawl now every time I recall it. Do I begin with the neighbor who would 'jokingly' press himself against me in the staircase if he ever found me there alone? I still can't forgive my 10 year self for never saying a word about it to anyone else.

Do I mention the many times I was groped on public transport as I made my way to and from college? And how I don't remember ever calling out the men with the grasping hands, for fear of escalating the situation further. I didn't want them following me off the bus and targeting me on a deserted road instead. So I told myself it made more sense to move away, get a different bus, choose another route. I convinced myself it was better to stay quiet rather than give voice to the scream rising within me.

Was that the wrong way to handle these situations? Perhaps it was. But that is how I felt best equipped to handle them at the time. Speaking up, making a scene, standing up for myself, none of it even occurred to me. I just wanted whatever this was -- harassment, molestation, abuse, call it what you will -- to end. I wanted to draw a discreet veil over these awful episodes in my life and move on. Maybe if I could ignore them, brush them aside, in time I would forget that they ever really happened.

So, I pretended that none of this was real and went on with my life, blocking out these traumatic memories as best I could. Not very brave, was it? No, it was downright cowardly. All I can offer in my defence is that I was scared and, yes, ashamed.

In fact, I was consumed by a sense of shame so acute that it rendered me speechless. And even today, decades later, the words stick in my craw as I try to articulate the hot mess of feelings that engulfed me in those fleeting encounters: helplessness, panic, embarrassment, the feeling that I had somehow brought this upon myself. And yes, of course, those old companions of every woman who had ever had such an experience: humiliation and mortification.

Those feelings accompanied me as life-long friends, as I went through my teenage years, passed through college, started working in journalism, and stayed close as I negotiated my 30s and my 40s.

They surfaced when the first politician I was sent to interview as a cub reporter asked if we could continue the interview while he went for his usual walk around India Gate. Alarm bells started going off the moment he tried to hold my hand and tell me how his "wife doesn't understand" him. And from then on, matters only got worse.

To my eternal shame, though, I didn't call him out on his behavior. Instead I engineered an argument -- on the Shah Bano case, of all things -- to ensure that he lost his temper and whatever sexual interest he had in me in the bargain. I felt that he would take this better than outright rejection. Because I still needed that story. I didn't want to be that girl who went off for her first interview and came back crying sexual harassment. And I certainly didn't want to enter the territory of he said-she said controversy.

Now that I am much older and wiser, I often look back on that day and wonder if I would handle things differently if that happened to me now. Perhaps I would. Or maybe I'm just kidding myself. It's always easier being wiser and braver in retrospect.

But I write this today to try and explain to people why women who are sexually harassed, molested, abused, or even raped, often don't come forward to confront their abusers. Sometimes they are ashamed. Sometimes they feel they will be blamed (what was she wearing; how much was she drinking; was she asking for it?). Sometimes they fear losing their jobs or their careers. Sometimes their self-image of being strong women prevents them from admitting (even to themselves) that something like this could happen to them.

They are a hundred different reasons why women stay silent about the abuse they suffer. Don't judge them for it. Judge the men who actually abuse them.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Save yourself!

A long weekend doesn't always need to result in a long, long, credit card bill


So, I missed seeing you last weekend. And what a long weekend it was! Between Navami, Dusshera and Gandhi Jayanti, you could take four days off to enjoy some downtime with family and friends. And I am guessing that there were many of you who grabbed the opportunity with both hands and took off for a mini-break, either in India or abroad.

Bangkok must have been a popular destination, given its proximity to India and all that scrumptious shopping and fabulous food. The wildlife resorts in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh would have been the choice of many young families, a chance for your children to see a tiger in the wild before the entire species is wiped off the earth. Some of you would have headed to the mountains to get away from the heat of the plains. Others would have hot-footed it to the beach to enjoy the sun, sand and sea.

But wherever you went, I am sure that you had a brilliant time. Your bank balance, though? Not so much. Between the price gouging that airlines indulge in during such times and the premium that hotels charge for periods of high occupancy, your savings account must be feeling rather sorry for itself.

If you are feeling a bit bankrupt as you sit down to read this, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone. There are millions of middle-class folk like you who are experiencing the same buyer remorse.

Don't despair though, as you brood about the credit card bill to come. Help is at hand. I am here to tell you about the many ways you can enjoy your next long weekend without busting your entire travel budget for the year. (And no, I am not going to bang on and on about how you should book your flights and hotels a year in advance because, honestly, which sane person does that?)

So, here, in no particular order of importance are my tips to enjoy a low-cost long weekend.

* Choose a destination that you can drive to. Not only will this help you save on airfare, the journey itself will become a fun break. Instead of queueing up for hours at an airport, disrobing down to your underwear at security (okay, I kid, but only just), sitting cooped up in a tiny seat while a blood clot travels through your arteries, and eating tasteless airline pap, you could be having an adventure on the road. You can play Carpool Karaoke with your kids as your favourite music blasts out load. You can snack on those delicious aloo parathas you packed for the journey. You can feast your eyes on an India you rarely ever see. And who knows, maybe your loved ones will finally be distracted from their mobile devices long enough to have an actual conversation with you. Or you can just enjoy the blissful silence with only your own thoughts to keep you entertained. It's a win-win, whichever way you look at it.

* If you're anything like me and long drives aren't really your thing, then might I suggest a staycation? This means that you don't even have to leave town. You can just choose a nice hotel in or around your city and move in. Yes, the hotel rates will still be steep given that it's a long weekend, but given that you are saving on airfare and other transportation costs (you can still use your car for instance, rather than pay for taxis) the cost won't be backbreaking. So, pack up your troubles and check in for a stress-free weekend where you don't have to fix your own breakfast or make your own bed. Carry your own liquor along, though. It will save you a fortune.

* The simplest solution, of course, is to just stay home. But only if you promise not to do boring things like catch up on your chores. This is not the time to clean out cupboards, vacuum carpets, or chuck out all the gunk that is cluttering the house. If you spend all your times doing mundane stuff like that, it will be a complete waste of a long weekend. And we don't want that, do we?
No, we don't. You should be taking this time to do all the stuff that brings you joy, but which you can't fit around your normal schedule. Try out those recipes from Nigella Lawson's new cookbook. Begin binge-watching a new Netflix series (I recommend Designated Survivor, if you haven't had the pleasure yet). Dive into all those new titles you have downloaded on your Kindle and not had the time to read. Get a therapist to come home and give you a massage or an manicure-pedicure. Invite friends and family over for a potluck supper. Or just enjoy your own company, listen to your own thoughts, commune with your own innermost feelings.

And while you're doing that, you can congratulate yourself about all the money you've just saved. You can, of course, thank me later.

Friend Zone

Just one ‘bestie’ is not enough; you need at least five kinds of friends to survive in this world

I must confess that I have never really understood the concept of a ‘best friend’, or as young people today would call it, a ‘bestie’. How can you choose one friend above all the others who are close to you and proclaim him or her to be the best? How do you decide which one of the many people you love and cherish deserves to be given top billing? And how do you justify downgrading all the others who care for you in the process?

Through all the stages of my life, I have had several sets of friends. There were the girls I grew up with (and many that I grew away from). There were the office colleagues who remained an integral part of my life long after my career had moved on. There were the friends I made when I moved town and met new and interesting people. And so on.

If you asked me to rate these friends on a sliding scale, I would fail spectacularly to do so. Yes, it would be possible to gather my social acquaintances in one group and close friends in another. But that’s about it. I would not be able to pick any one of them as my ‘best friend’. And that’s because I love all of them too much to assign ranks to them, or impose some sort of pecking order.

In any case, I don’t believe that a woman can do with one friend alone, even if she is the ‘best’. If you ask me, we need five kinds of friends (at the very least) to see us through life. Allow me to list them here, in no particular order of importance (because, as you may have gathered by now, I don’t set much score by ranks).

The Chaddhi Buddy

This is the woman who knows everything about you. How you were so nervous on the first day of school that you disgraced yourself by vomiting in class. She remembers the time you flunked maths and doctored your report card before taking it home. She knows the name of the your first boyfriend and the fact that you cheated on him with the man who is now your husband. She knows all your dirty secrets, but you know that they are safe with her. Just as her secrets are safe with you. And no matter how long the two of you go without talking, you always pick up exactly where you left off.

The Mother Figure

No, she’s not your mother. Maybe she’s not even old enough to be your mother. But her official title and age does not matter. She’s the maternal presence in your life who makes you feel safe and protected. She’s the one you go to with problems that you don’t want to take to your own mom (your penchant for bad boys, your marriage woes, etc.) because you fear disappointing or angering her. And she draws upon her life experience to give you advice that is both dispassionate and discreet, with none of the emotional baggage that mothers often bring to such exchanges.

The Protégé

Just as you need a maternal figure in your life who is not your mother, it also helps to have a daughter figure who is not, in fact, your daughter. Goddaughter, protégé, or whatever you may call her, this is the relationship that keeps you young and allows you an insight into your own children (if you have any). More importantly, it gives you a stake in the future, and allows you to pass on your accumulated wisdom to the next generation. It’s the mother-daughter dynamic without any of the angst and conflicted emotions. And while the bond may be less powerful as a consequence, it is also less constricting.

The Cheerleader

We could all do with someone like this in our lives. She’s the one who chivvies you along just as you are about to give up on your personal dream (be it writing a book, running the marathon, or giving up carbs). She’s the one you call when you’re feeling a bit blah, secure in the knowledge that the world will seem like a better place once you’ve spoken to her. She’s the one with the solution to every problem, the antidote to every poison, the cure to every illness. None of them may ever work, but their placebo affect is beyond doubt.

The Travel Buddy

This one is harder to find that you may imagine. She needs to be someone who likes to travel to the same places as you. If you are a beach person and she is one for the mountains, this simply won’t work. You must be happy to share a room – and more, importantly, a loo – with her on occasion. And you must have the same circadian rhythms; an owl and a lark do not happy travel companions make. But if you are lucky enough to find someone who ticks all these boxes, hold on to her tight. She’s worth her weight in air miles.

If you still have room in your life for one more, than I would heartily recommend The Platonic Male Pal. He could be a work colleague, the husband of a friend, or the friend of your brother. All that matters is that he is someone who would never dream of hitting on you. Once you’re sure of that, you can make him your go-to guy for insights into the male of the species. God knows, we could do with a bit of help in that department.

Heel, girl!

Are you sure you want to clamber on to those sky-high stilettoes?

I must confess that I was among those astounded to see Melania Trump perched atop a pair of vertiginous stilettoes as she departed the White House with her husband, Donald, on a trip to visit those affected by Hurricane Harvey. Was this really the right kind of footwear to wear to a disaster zone, I mused on Twitter.

To be fair to the American First Lady, she ditched the heels inflight and alighted in Texas wearing a pair of spotless white tennis shoes. But the whole brouhaha about Melania’s footwear, with social media going into meltdown and fashion glossies weighing in with their verdict on her style choices, reminded me yet again that when it comes to women, shoes are rarely simply shoes. They always carry a subliminal message within them, sending out signals with every clack of the heels or thump of the boot.

Five-inch heels don’t just tell the world that you have a high pain threshold, they also indicate that you don’t ever need to use public transport. A sensible kitten heel (like the ones the British Prime Minister Theresa May favours) marks you out as someone who values both comfort and style. A no-nonsense boot with a chunky heel tells you that its owner doesn’t mess about. And flats are the choice of a woman who stands tall in her own estimation, who doesn’t need a few extra inches to boost her self-esteem. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Shoes tell a story. Shoes are an essential part of your self-image, the narrative you are trying to establish about yourself. And the story is not just about who you are but what you want to be; it’s not just about how you project yourself to the world, but also about how the world sees you.

Speaking for myself, I always feel faintly perturbed when I see those all-pervasive images of the Trump women – Melania, Ivanka, Tiffany – always balanced perfectly on those sky-high heels, walking with almost balletic grace, presenting a picture of Goddess-like perfection that is impossible for mere mortals like us to achieve. These women are far above us – both literally and metaphorically – as they sway gently along, their feet floating five inches above the ground.  

How on earth do they do that? It must be hell on the soles of their feet, their bunions, their knees and their backs. And yet, there they are, day in and day out, walking past the cameras, working those ridiculously high heels, smiling and waving as if their feet weren’t killing them, one step at a time.

And it’s not just the Trump triumvirate either. Who can forget the sight of that Stiletto Slayer formerly known as Kate Middleton and now styled as Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, stomping through Delhi and Mumbai during her State visit to India, her feet forever encased in high heels that seemed to have been grafted on to her soles? It didn’t matter if she was visiting a slum, hanging out with school kids or trying her hand at cricket; whatever she did, wherever she went, the heels stayed on.

As if these images weren’t enough, popular culture is also teeming with women, who live their lives in their stilettoes. There’s Téa Leoni in Madam Secretary, flying off to trouble spots all over the world in her high heels. There’s Sophia Vergara in Modern Family, who slips on her stilettoes to cook breakfast for the family. And then, there’s our very own Priyanka Chopra who hunts terrorists in Quantico while working a five-inch heel.

In real life, too, I know far too many women who spend their working day balancing on high heels as if their life depended on it. Ask them why and they will explain that they find their heels ‘empowering’. Those extra inches enable them to look their male colleagues and bosses in the eye and give them an extra fillip of confidence. They feel more put together, more in control, more business-like and professional when they are in their heels.

And who knows. Maybe they are right. What does a woman like me, who lives in her ballet flats, know about stuff like that?

But when they start telling me how ‘comfortable’ they are in their five-inch heels, and how they can even run in them, I’m afraid I reach the limits of my credulity. Sorry ladies, but I’m not buying that. Show me a woman who swears that her stilettoes don’t leave her in a world of pain at the end of the day, and I will show you a liar. Even the superwoman, Catherine, slips a silicone pad into her shoes to lessen the strain on her soles as she goes through her royal engagements. So, don’t tell me those shoes don’t hurt.

But such is the insidious grip that these objects of torture have on the female imagination that even today among the first rites of passage a young girl goes through is buying her first pair of heels. She teeters around proudly while her mother (who really should know better by now) watches proudly. Her girl is finally blossoming into a woman – and part of being a woman is that your feet hurt all the time.

How I wish someone would take these little girls aside and tell them it doesn’t have to be like that. Dancing in heels may make them feel glamorous and grown-up. But running in flats, that’s what is really empowering.

Midnight run

Women across India unite to take back the night

The earliest injunction I remember my mother giving me when I became old enough to venture out on my own to visit friends in the neighbourhood was this: “Please remember. You have to be back home before dark.”

Even as a pre-teen, I was struck by the unfairness of this demand. It made no sense, I told my mother. In winters (remember this was in Calcutta) it often turned dark even before 5 pm while the summers gave me license to stay out till 6.30 or, on a good day, even 7 pm.

Why couldn’t she settle on a certain time as far as my curfew went? Why did I have to keep an eye out for the setting sun when I was playing with my friends? And why did our neighbourhood – where I knew practically everyone – turn so dangerous the moment the sun went down?

But my mother wasn’t one for reasoned arguments. I had to be back “before dark”. And that, as far as she was concerned, was that.

Imagine her consternation then, when I grew up and decided to become a journalist. In my new role as a trainee at the ABP Group (where I worked for the now-defunct Sunday magazine) I was expected to be the first one in and the last one out. This meant that on the days that we sent pages to the press, I often finished work at 1 am or even later. The office laid on a car to drop us all back home on these occasions, but even so, this was long, long after it had “turned dark”.

To say that my mother did not like this would be the understatement of the century. The first time this happened, I returned home to find her apoplectic with rage.

What kind of job was this? Why couldn’t I finish at 5 pm like all other office workers and get back home on time? Why did I need to be dropped back in the dead of the night, while the entire world slept? What would the neighbours think? What if the car broke down one day, leaving me stranded on the street in the dead of night? Could I really trust the driver?

This was not going to work, she declared. I had to put in my papers and look for a job that had more regular hours. The injunction to “be back before dark” still stood even though I was all grown up. Perhaps it was even more important because I was all grown up.

That was the first fight with my mother that I ever won. No, I said. I would not resign. I had been lucky enough to fall into doing something that I genuinely loved. There were plenty of others who would kill to be where I was. So, there was no way I was giving up all this just because she feared what would happen to me if I stayed out so late.

So, I stayed at work. I worked late whenever it was necessary. I came back home longer after dark twice or thrice a week. And my mother didn’t speak to me for months.

She only relented when my first byline appeared in Sunday magazine. It was a rather inconsequential article on the quizzing scene of Calcutta but she never tired of showing it around the neighbourhood, pride flowing from every pore.

She still wasn’t happy with my work schedule, make no mistake. But she found it in herself to make peace with it. And I realized that the day I returned home late as usual – and came back to find that she had thoughtfully placed a few post-midnight snacks in my room.

I was reminded of this ancient history last week as social media erupted with the hashtag #AintNoCinderella. This began life as a reaction to yet another boorish politician (sorry, I refuse to name-check him) asking why a woman – in this case, Varnika Kundu, who was stalked and very nearly kidnapped in Chandigarh – was out so late at night. Women who are out after midnight, he said, shouldn’t be surprised if bad things happen to them.

It was former actress and current Congress social media cell in-charge, Divya Spandana/Ramya who kicked things off by posting a black and white picture of herself in a car at 12.07 am, hashtagging it #AintNoCinderella. And just like that, the floodgates opened. Hundreds of women began using the hashtag to post pictures of themselves out and about after midnight, at restaurants, in bars, walking the streets, reporting on stories, partying, or just chilling with their (female) friends.

The night, they made clear, belonged to them as well. They did not need to be back home “before dark” so that they could be safely tucked away in bed before the bad men took over the streets. They needed no glass slippers to transform their lives, or for that matter, a Prince to rescue them. Their coaches did not turn into pumpkins at the midnight hour. And nobody could tell them what time they should leave the ball.

They were no Cinderellas. They had taken back the night. They were out there living their lives. They meant to stay there, no matter what anyone said. And it was up to the rest of the world to deal with it.

If my mother were alive today, I am pretty sure she would approve.
  

Ladies first

Young girls these days are spoilt for choice when it comes to role models

There is not much about the young that arouses my envy. I don’t grudge them their top-notch metabolism, their wrinkle-free complexions, their insouciance that all will turn out okay, or even the fact that life is full of endless possibilities for them. That’s because I was young once myself, and I know what a tortured time this can be for most of us.

This is an age when we are yet to get truly comfortable in our skin, no matter how firm and unpigmented it may be; when we are tortured by the spectre of failure as well as dreams of success; when we feel things so deeply and viscerally that it marks us for life. This is a time when the best of us are often reduced to emotional wrecks, tossed on the waves of our hormones and the moods they induce.

These are only some of the reasons why I wouldn’t want to relive my youth, for all the money and anti-ageing face-cream in the world.

But there is one thing that I do envy about the young girls growing up right about now. And that’s the fact that they have so many positive female role models in the world they live in. Growing up, my generation had to be content with such stock figures as Indira Gandhi and Mother Teresa. But while these were towering and inspirational personalities in their own right, they were not relatable in quite the same way as the female role models of today are.

And they are everywhere: from sports to arts; from politics to business; from the movies to the media. Wherever you look, there are strong, brave women taking on the world – and winning.

Let’s take sport, to begin with. Yes, we had P.T Usha and Ashwini Nachappa, both leading track stars of their time. But that was about it. There were no tennis or badminton stars on the international circuit who looked like us. And few of us even knew what our female cricketers looked like, though we may have been familiar with Diana Edulji’s name.

How things have changed since then! Sania Mirza has been a bonafide international tennis star for nearly a decade now, winning international titles and endorsements deals with equal elan. Badminton champion Saina Nehwal has won over 20 international titles, an Olympic bronze medal, and attained number one ranking in the world. Somewhere along the way, she has managed to find the time to become brand ambassador for a range of companies as well as for the Government of India campaign to promote the girl child.

And now we have a new stable of stars in the Indian women’s cricket team, all of them with inspirational stories behind them. There’s Mithali Raj, best-known for reading Rumi on the sidelines before she lights up the green with her fiery shots all across the field. And keeping her company are such stalwarts as batting wizards Harmanpreet Kaur and Punam Raut, all-rounder Deepti Sharma, and fiery fast bowler Jhulan Goswami (no relation, alas!).

A quick look at the movie business also gives us hope. Gone are the days of heroines who hid behind Mummy’s pallu or depended on their ‘Godfathers’ to shore up their careers. Today, the film industry is full of independent women, who have succeeded by dint of their own efforts. These are women who make their own rules rather than play the roles prescribed for them. Whether it is Deepika Padukone and Priyanka Chopra, who left the security of Bollywood to make a splash in the West, or Kangana Ranaut and Anushka Sharma, who revel in their ‘outsider’ tag and create their own opportunities, the landscape is heaving with female stars who are not just strong and confident but also secure in their self-belief. And these are qualities that every young girl can aspire to, whatever career she chooses.

The banking sector is as rich in female role models as it is in term deposits. The largest bank in the country, the State Bank of India, is headed by Arundhati Bhattacharya, the first woman to be appointed to that role. Chanda Kochchar is the managing director and CEO of ICICI Bank, the second-largest bank in India (and the largest in the private sector). Shikha Sharma is the managing director and CEO of Axis Bank. Naina Lal Kidwai is the country head of HSBC India. Kalpania Morparia is CEO of J.P. Morgan, India. I could go on, but you get the picture.

The media landscape is also dotted with strong female figures. While NDTV gets the credit for producing the largest number of female stars – Barkha Dutt, Nidhi Razdan, Sonia Singh – others news channels are now fast catching up. Navika Kumar rules the airwaves at Times Now while Mirror Now’s Faye D’Souza is fast carving out a place for herself in the overcrowded media landscape. And then, there’s my friend, Priya Sahgal, whose discussion programmes on NewsX are an island of sanity in this era of outrage-fuelled TV.

Publishing is also rapidly being overrun by women bosses: Meru Gokhale at Penguin Random House; V. Karthika and Sudha Sadanand at Amazon Westland; Diya Kar Hazra at HarperCollins India; and Chiki Sarkar, who heads her own start-up, Juggernaut.

So, if you are a young girl growing up right about now, what do you see around you? You see strong, capable women, following their dreams, working hard, creating their own path, and enjoying the journey. And it gives you hope – even the certainty – that you can do just that in your own time.

How I wish I had had that when I was growing up!
  

Friday, August 11, 2017

Red Wedding

Does it really make sense to spend so much on a wedding that you feel bankrupt the day after?

It's official. The Big Fat Indian Wedding is out of control.

I should know. Whenever the wedding season rolls around I end up getting inundated with invites to attend the nuptials of people whom I have never heard of, let alone met. And my! What invitations they are!

They come in elaborately carved wooden boxes, they feature paintings by celebrated artists, and are accompanied by such goodies as hand-made gourmet chocolates, silver mementos, or even little figurines of gods and goddesses. And the only thing I can think of (as I puzzle over who these people may be) is: if the card is so pricey, how expensive will the wedding be?

And the answer to that question is: very.

For starters, it will be held in some scenic location or the other. If the budget is tight (I speak relatively, of course) then it will an exclusive beach resort in Thailand or an opulent palace in India. If money is no object then the map will expand to include Florence, Venice, Vienna, or any other historic European city. Each event will be held at a different venue, and the venue of each event will have a different decor.

The wedding party will be flown down in chartered planes, the most expensive suites in the best hotels will be booked, chefs will be hired from all over the world to cater to the myriad tastes of the guests, champagne and first-growth wines will be on tap, and there will be hairdressers, make-up artists and manicurists galore so that everyone can look their absolute best.

And that's before we even start on the expense of outfitting the bride and groom for the many, many functions they will attend before and after they get hitched. There will be couture lenghas for the bride with matching jewelry and accessories for each outfit. There will be made-to-measure suits and custom-made shoes for the groom. And there will be designer watches for both.

Then, there's the small matter of the trousseau -- or dowry, or whatever you want to call it -- which the bride will be expected to bring with her. Furniture for the house, diamonds for the mother-in-law, designer bags for the sisters-in-law, a luxury car for the husband. And so on, and so extravagant.

And if the wedding is so over-the-top, then the honeymoon must also be suitably stratospheric. A week's skiing in Switzerland or a road trip through French wine country will simply not do. No, this has to be the break of a lifetime, involving private planes, Michelin-star meals, and something truly spectacular, like being given a tour of the Louvre after hours.

As I declined an invitation to one such affair last week, I started to wonder how much this Big Fat Indian Wedding would actually cost. I must confess that I began to feel a bit faint when I totted up the sums, and had to go for a little lie-down. This much money on a wedding? Am sure the Instagram posts and Facebook videos will be awesome. And the neighbors will be totally jealous. But really! Is all that expense really worth it?

Well, I guess it all depends on much spare cash you -- or more accurately, your parents -- have lying around underneath those cushions. But just to put things in perspective, here's a small sample of what you could do with the money instead of spending it on a week-long jamboree.

* Buy a nice apartment so that you can start married life in a home of your own. There will be no interfering in-laws, no pesky house rules to follow, and no mortgage to pay off. And you know what they say about real estate; it always appreciates.

* Already have a lovely home in the best part of Delhi or Mumbai, thanks to Daddy and Mummy? Well then, splash out on buying a holiday home by the sea or in the mountains. How does a chalet in Verbier or a villa in Tuscany sound? Not only could you vacation there for the rest of your life, it could even double up as a venue for the party you throw for your first anniversary.

* Put the money away in a safe investment and use the annual interest to fund a luxury holiday (or three) every year. It should be enough to pay for a cruise around the Mediterranean in a private yacht. Or hiring your own private island in the Caribbean during the winter. Or both.

Just one more thing: Don't touch the principal. That's your nest egg just in case your kids are foolish enough to want a Big Fat Indian Wedding of their own. You don't want to be caught short when -- and if -- that happens.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mid-life crisis

You know you are well and truly middle-aged when...

You know you're getting old when a historic anniversary comes along and you realize with a start that you remember the event itself like it was yesterday. Well, that's certainly how I felt when I read that Princes William and Harry were planning to celebrate their late mother's memory by installing her statue at Kensington Palace. This was where Princess Diana had lived and brought up her boys, and the brothers believed that this would be a fitting tribute to their mother on her 20th death anniversary.

It was the phrase '20th death anniversary' that took my breath away. I still have crystal-clear recollection of the morning Princess Diana died. I remember sitting on my purple polka-dotted wrought-iron chair to take a call on the landline in my little barsati in Defence Colony. It was my office calling from Calcutta to tell me that a) Princess Diana had been killed in a car accident in Paris and b) they wanted a feature story on her life and times by 5 pm latest.

I remember the utter shock and disbelief I felt when I first heard the words "Princess Diana is dead." I remember lurching to the TV to see for myself if this unbelievable news was true. I remember spending the day glued to BBC and CNN, breaking away just long enough to file my piece.

Was it really that long ago? Can 20 years really have passed by so quickly?

On a rational level, of course, I know that they have. Prince William is now practically middle-aged himself, loyal husband to his wife and loving father to two kids of his own. And Prince Harry is, well, still Prince Harry. So, yes, the death of the Princess took place a lifetime ago. And yet it doesn't really feel like that. And every time I think about the fact that two whole decades have passed since that horrific car crash in Paris, I can't help but feel terribly old myself.

Nor is it world events alone that make me feel every one of my years. There are many other things in daily life that conspire to make me feel more middle-aged every day.

Last night was a good example. I walked into a new, trendy watering hole in Delhi, with my husband, looking for a post-dinner drink. And the first person we bumped into was the daughter of a friend, a lovely young woman whom we have known since she was a child. We said hello, hugged her, and then exchanged a speaking glance. When you're called 'Uncle' and 'Aunty' the moment you walk into a bar, it may be the universe telling you that this place is not for you, after all!

Of late, these epiphanies pile up every day, telling me that I am now well and truly middle-aged. Here's just a random sampling:

* Watching the controversial Netflix show, 13 Reasons Why, with one of my young nieces, I was astonished to discover that she had never used a cassette tape in her life. When did they go out of fashion? Did nobody make 'mixed tapes' any more as presents for their boyfriend/girlfriend? Will this new generation just see them as a vehicle for a suicidal teen to send a message from beyond the grave? For some reason, that makes me very sad.

* Matters have improved since Donald Trump became President of the United States (now there's a sentence I never thought that I would write) but when Barack Obama was in the White House and David Cameron in Downing Street, I always felt that there was something wrong with the world. These people were my generation, for God's sake! How did they get to be in charge? Where were the real grown-ups? And then came the sobering realization that we were now truly the adults in the room. What a scary thought!

* I guess there is a first time for everything, but I never thought that the day would come when I would turn down champagne on a long-haul flight because it was too early in the afternoon. No, I said to myself, as the drinks trolley rolled up. If you drink that now, you will be ready for bed when you land. So pace yourself and hold out for a nice glass of red with dinner. Clearly, my days of irresponsible drinking and flying are well and truly over. Now, it's going to be middle-aged moderation all the way. (What a bore!)

* And then, there is the small stuff. When staying in sounds like a far more attractive proposition than going out; when you choose the elevator rather than the stairs even if you're only going up one floor; when a gentle walk seems more do-able than a full-throttle jog around the park; when a pair of ballet flats seem more enticing than vertiginous stilettos; when you need those glasses to actually read rather than just work the librarian-chic look; well, that's when you know that middle age has struck.

If any of this sounds remotely familiar, then I have bad news for you. No matter how glossy your hair, no matter how trim your waistline, no matter how trendy your playlist, no matter how exciting your social life, your youth is well and truly behind you.

You, my friends, are now middle-aged. Acknowledge it; accept it; and, if you can, embrace it.



Take a break

But not you, though. You're a politician!

Poor old Rahul Gandhi. The chap simply can't catch a break. Actually, scratch that. The man does take breaks. And entirely too many, judged by the sanctimonious chorus of protest that always breaks out whenever he heads abroad for some time off.

Initially, it was the secrecy and the lack of information that people (well, mostly hyperventilating media people) objected to. Why couldn't he just tell us where he was going, for how long, and what he intended to do while he was there? What did the man think? That he was entitled to privacy when it came to his private life? Honestly, was there no limit to his sense of entitlement? (No, don't answer that. The questions are purely hypothetical.)

Well -- perhaps as a reaction to all that criticism -- the Gandhi scion has become more forthcoming about his travel plans. He now tells us why he is travelling though there is still no information about his exact destination (apparently the secrecy is a precautionary measure because he forgoes SPG security when he is abroad). Now he is off to escort his mother back after her medical check up abroad. Now he is heading out to spend time with his 93 year old grandmother. Now it's time for a little light meditation and a spot of Vipassana.

You would think that the timely disclosures would help. And you would be quite wrong.

Even when Rahul tells us in advance when he is heading abroad and why, he gets little joy from his critics. Doesn't he know that the Assembly/municipal elections are on? Doesn't he realise that there is a farmer's agitation raging in Madhya Pradesh? And so on and so outraged.

Which brings me to my question of the week. Are politicians entitled to any time off? Can they take holidays like the rest of us to attend to family matters, recharge their batteries, or just chill? Do they have the right to a vacation without having the wrath of a self-righteous public descend on them?

Well, if you were to ask me, the answer to all of the above questions would be a resounding yes. But going by the outcry every time Rahul goes on vacation, I am clearly in a minority.

Not that it's Rahul alone who gets flak for indulging in too much downtime. Donald Trump famously attacked Barack Obama for spending too many days on the golf course when he was President. It is another matter that, in a delicious irony of fate, President Trump is now being ridiculed for playing too much golf (though on the bright side he can do relatively less damage when he is on the golf course as opposed to when he is hard at work at the Oval Office).

Over in the UK, David Cameron was routinely accused of 'chillaxing' when he headed for his summer/autumn/winter break when he was Prime Minister. What on earth was he doing on a beach in Cornwall/Ibiza/insert destination of choice when the world was going to hell in a hand basket? The poor chap even tried to deflect criticism by a) holidaying in the United Kingdom and b) flying budget airlines like Ryanair. But it was a lost cause. "Cameron away on vacation while the world burns" (I exaggerate, but only a little) remained a perennial headline that could be reliably pulled out and recycled every holiday season.

Clearly, no matter where in the world you are, nobody likes the sight of politicians heading out on a vacation. Where do they get off just taking off when the world is in the state it's in? There is a terrorism alert on; elections are coming up; the economy is in a mess; and here are our leaders just packing their bags and skipping off into the sunset with nary a care in the world. It beggars belief, doesn't it?

Those who maintain that politicians should forget about holidays and buckle down to work 24/7 all 365 days of the year often hold Narendra Modi up as an example. Ever since he became Prime Minister three years ago, Modi doesn't seem to have taken a single day off. Even his jaunts abroad are work trips rather than vacations, with the PM keeping up a punishing schedule that would put much younger men to shame.

But while we can all take pride in the fact that our Prime Minister is a superman, who thrives on a 18 hour day and doesn't need a holiday to recharge his batteries perhaps we can also accept that that is not necessarily true of lesser mortals. While the supermen of the world can go on and on and on (much like the Duracell bunny) the rest of us tend to flag at some point or another. That's when the cares of the world get too much to bear, when our everyday routine gets us down, and when we need a change of pace, of space, and of routine.

There comes a time when all of us need to get away from our quotidian lives so that we can come back reenergised, recharged and rejuvenated. We all need to step off the treadmill occasionally to catch our breath so that we are fresh and raring to go when we clamber right back on. We all need to take that break, to go off on vacation when it all gets a bit too much.


So why do we assume that politicians are any different? And why don't we cut them some slack when the holiday season comes rolling by once again?

Child's play

George Clooney is a first-time dad at 56; how would we react to a first-time mom of that vintage?

It’s time to uncork the champagne and pass the cigars around. Amal and George Clooney are now proud parents of twins. The Clooneys released a statement to announce their arrival, which declared: “This morning Amal and George welcomed Ella and Alexander Clooney into their lives. Ella, Alexander and Amal are all healthy, happy and doing fine. George is sedated and should recover in a few days.”

Oh how we laughed! George Clooney, the Hollywood A-lister who spent his entire adult life telling us that he had no intention of getting married and zero interest in having children, was now the father of twins. Twins! Imagine that!

Isn’t it amazing and wonderful how life turns out? The lifelong commitment-phobe who really didn’t want kids at all, was now happily married to the hyper-intelligent and super-beautiful human rights lawyer, Amal, and was now a father at the grand old age of 56. And a father to twins, no less. And despite the jokey press release to mark their birth, he was completely on board for the thrills of late-life parenthood.

“We are really happy and really excited. It’s going to be an adventure,” George was quoted as saying earlier. “We’ve sort of embraced it all with arms wide open.”

Cue indulgent smiles and sighs and cries of “Awww, that is so sweet.”

And I agree entirely. It totally is.

But let’s pause here and conduct a little thought experiment. Let’s assume, for the purposes of this argument, that George Clooney is a woman called Georgina. And that Georgina spent her 20s, her 30s, her 40s, and the first years of her 50s, telling anyone who cared to ask that she really didn’t want to settle down. No marriage and children for her, thank you very much. Yes, kids were awfully cute and all that, but they really weren’t for her. She would much rather adopt a pig (yes, quite literally) than have a child.

Fair enough. That would be Georgina’s choice, and more power to her. Motherhood is not for every woman. And it takes a brave woman to announce that she is happy in her child-free state, and sees no reason to change it just because society expects her to go forth and multiply.

But then, life throws her a curveball. As she enters her 50s, Georgina meets an amazing young man in his mid 30s, who sweeps her off her feet. Suddenly marriage seems like the natural culmination of this relationship and children seem like a logical end-game.

Unlike George, who has a faithful buddy in biology, Nature is not Georgina’s friend. At her age, assisted reproduction is the only way to go, so we will draw a discreet veil over proceedings at this stage. Let’s just say that a year or so after their wedding, 56-year-old Georgina becomes mom to a pair of adorable twins.

Cue indulgent smiles and sighs and cries of, “Awww, that is so sweet!”

Right? No, I don’t think so.

The world and its mother would be excoriating Georgina for her utter lack of responsibility, her complete selfishness, not to mention her disgusting disregard for the laws of Nature.

Where did she get off thinking that it was fine to have a child when she was in her sixth decade? What kind of mother could she possible make at that age? Instead of indulging her selfish needs, she should have been thinking about what would be the best for her children – and that would be not to have them at all.

She would not have the energy to run around her kids as they grew into active little toddlers. She would embarrass them by being mistaken for their grandmother at the school gates. She would be an old woman by the time they went off to college. And she would be lucky to be alive to see them married or even with kids of their own.

How utterly irresponsible of Georgina to waste her entire reproductive life avoiding pregnancy, only to forcibly embrace motherhood in her menopausal years. How selfish to condemn kids to being brought up by an elderly mom who wouldn’t have the energy to cope with their childish demands. How awful to give birth to children she may well not be around to see grow up.

Yes, I can already hear the clacking of keyboards as countless columns saying just this sort of thing are dashed off in newspapers and magazines across the world. Bad Georgina. What was she thinking?

But luckily for Georgina, she is not, in fact, a woman. She is a man called George Clooney. And George gets to change his mind about having kids no matter what age he is. Nature is on George’s side; even in his mid 50s, he can step up and have a biological child (make that two at one go; with or without the help of IVF). And nobody would dare suggest that George would make a bad father because he is in his sixth decade.

George is handsome. George is rich. George is virile. George is strong. George has boundless energy. George can cope with twins. Hell, you could even throw quintuplets at him, and he wouldn’t blink.

That Georgina woman, though? Not so much!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

School's out!

This summer break, grant your children the gift of boredom

I still remember the giddy joy I felt as I made my way home after the last day of school before the summer holidays began. True, there was a ton of ‘holiday homework’ weighing down my knapsack, but even that was not enough to dampen my spirits that soared sky-high as I contemplated the month-long break that lay ahead of me.

There were four – yes, count them, four! – whole delicious weeks in which I could do as I pleased. I could stay up late at night, reading my favourite mystery novels. I could get up when I pleased and have a leisurely breakfast. I could spend the entire afternoon getting up to no good at with my neighbourhood friends. I could visit the Botanical Gardens or the zoo (as you can probably tell, I grew up in Calcutta) and deepen my acquaintance with the natural world. I could station myself in my favourite lending library until I practically blended in with the furniture.

But most important of all, I would have all the time in the world to do nothing at all: to remain absolutely idle; to just sit around and daydream; to let my mind wander where it would; and yes, on occasion, get utterly and thoroughly bored.

Looking back now, I realize that that was the most precious gift of all: the opportunity to court boredom, and to learn to cope with it.

And learn to cope with it I did. Sometimes it was by inventing unlikely scenarios in which my future adult self would save the world. Sometimes it was by exploring deep in the recesses of my mother and sister’s wardrobes to play dress-up with their glamorous, grown-up clothes. Sometimes it was by badgering my grandmother or grandfather to play Ludo with me. And sometimes it was by press-ganging my father to watch the latest dance moves I had learnt from the last Hindi movie I saw (no, we didn’t call it Bollywood in those innocent days).

In retrospect, I must confess that boredom and learning to deal with it made me a better person. It helped me develop interpersonal skills (you have no idea what tough negotiators my grandparents were), which came in useful in later life. It helped me discover those inner resources lurking within me that would have remained buried forever if it hadn’t been for those dull-as-ditchwater afternoons. Boredom taught me both to spend time with myself (without always looking for external stimuli) even as it helped me build up my social skills.

So much so, that I often wonder if I would have, in fact, become a writer (of sorts) if it hadn’t been for those enforced periods of boredom in which I had only my imagination with which to entertain and regale myself. Somehow, I think not.

Which is why I am often troubled by the fact that the generations that came after me seem to be raising children who don’t quite know what to do with themselves when – and if – they are granted any downtime. Kids of today have become so used to being ferried from tennis lesson to maths tuition to dance classes, or even special ‘learning camps’ during the summer, that they seem to be at a complete loss when left to their own devices. Or, more accurately, when the devices (smartphones, tablets, game stations, and whatever else they are into these days) they rely on so completely are denied to them.

And, in my view at least, that is a terrible thing. The best way to help children develop their imagination or to create any sort of inner life is to leave them on their own for a bit, without a structured activity to participate in or an electronic scene to gaze into. It is imperative to allow them some breathing space so that they can hear themselves think. And more important, to leave a fallow field on which they can plant their own imaginary seeds, without any help from the significant adults in their lives.

There will be challenges. And yes, there will be pushback. And there will be times when your child – used to being overscheduled to within an inch of his/her life – comes crying to you with that eternal complaint of all kids: “I’m bored!”

And when that happens, I would suggest you respond the way my mother did all those decades ago. “Good,” she would say, with quiet triumph. “Now go and find something to do.”

And you know what? I did. And I was much better off for it.

So, this summer break, instead of booking some insanely overpriced camp, or organizing a series of outings for your kids, or even signing them up for endless classes, give them (and yourself) a break. And instead of endless, organized, enforced activity, grant your children the gift of boredom. They may complain for a day or two, but a couple of years – decades even – down the line, they will thank you for it.

I certainly do.

Bright lights, big city

All great cities have one thing in common – a character of their own

Over the last few months, a series of events have taken me back to a place that I last visited in my childhood. As a young girl, I spent many holidays in the city that Le Corbusier built, at my aunt’s house, roughhousing with my cousins, taking scooter rides down the perfectly-perpendicular streets, shopping in the quiet neighbourhood markets, making the obligatory visits to the Rock Garden and Sukhna Lake.

It was a fun time, but we had to make our fun ourselves. Chandigarh contented itself with being its usual quiet, well-behaved, matronly self, allowing us the space to indulge our high-energy selves but offering next to no encouragement to any boisterous behavior.

But that sleepy, laidback Chandigarh now lives only in my childhood memories. The Chandigarh of today, as I discovered recently, has thrown off that slumber and reticence and emerged as a sleek, sophisticated city that offers everything from trendy restaurants to shopping malls to swanky five-star hotels that would do any metropolis proud. And, more to the point, the once-silent city has found its voice. It still has the quiet, tree-lined streets with the most polite traffic I have encountered in India. But now, it also speaks of prosperity, energy, and a certain can-do spirit at every turn.

The best parallel I can think of is former Test cricketer-turned-TV performer, and now Punjab minister, Navjot Singh Sidhu, who – by all accounts – was a nice quiet chap who barely spoke two words during his cricketing days, but is now impossible to shut up. (Though, to be fair, Chandigarh is a tad more restrained.)

As I drove down its impeccably-clean roads, I started to think about how all great cities have a personality of their own – which may or may not change over the years – an identity that belongs to them alone and which makes it impossible to mistake them for another.

I grew up in Calcutta, feasting on its faded glory of crumbling colonial buildings, run-down infrastructure, over-crowded streets and dilapidated markets. But for all its decrepitude, there was a certain grandeur to the Calcutta of my childhood and youth: the vast expanse of the Maidan, the looming visage of Victoria Memorial, the shabby but beautiful Strand where we went for boat rides down the Hooghly, with the magnificent Howrah Bridge providing the most spectacular of backdrops.

Just like Chandigarh, the Calcutta of my childhood no longer exists. Now, when I go back to the city, I am overwhelmed by the new construction, the bustling malls, the endless network of flyovers (not to mention the one-way system that I have yet to master). Even the colonial structures I grew up with no longer look the same, now that they have been blue-washed by Mamata Banerjee’s government.

But strangely enough, the spirit of the city survives. Once I look past the gleaming skyscrapers and the sprawling hypermarkets, I can see that Calcutta (sorry folks, it is always going to be Calcutta to me; Kolkata is for when I speak Bangla) is still the same City of Joy, one of those rare places where a live culture can survive outside of a bowl of mishti doi.

Most people who move from Calcutta to Delhi seem to spend their days bemoaning their loss. They miss the easy charm of Cal; they hate the hard-headed, cold-eyed indifference of Delhi. Well, I am an exception to that rule.

From the moment I moved to my tiny little barsati in Defence Colony, I fell in love with the city. I loved its changing moods through the seasons: the flowering roundabouts heralding spring; the blooming laburnum announcing the arrival of summer; the parks bursting with green as the monsoon hit; the trees shedding their leaves in preparation of winter.

I also loved the fact that Delhi allowed me to be. This was the big tent I had been looking for all my life. This was where I could be whatever I wanted to be. If I wanted to immerse myself in theatre, art and culture, there were enough museums, galleries and artistic hubs to do so. If history and antiquity was my thing, then I could spend every weekend exploring historical monuments dating back to medieval and Moghul times. If I just wanted to let my lungs expand in some green spaces, then they too were available to me.

The space granted to me in Delhi was not just literal but metaphorical as well. And it allowed me to grow in ways that I could not even have imagined when I first moved here.

Yes, I know what all you folks in Bombay (oops, sorry, Mumbai; though like Calcutta, this will always be Bombay to me) are thinking right about now. Delhi? Really? You love Delhi? But surely, you know that Mumbai is much better? This is the city of dreams, the city of endless possibilities, the city that never sleeps, the city that, oh well, never mind!

Well, you know what, guys? It is possible to love both. I can enjoy the beautiful, tree-lined boulevards of Delhi just as much as I cherish the sea views along Marine Drive. I can embrace the Staid Dowager that is Delhi just as fondly as I hug the Brash Bruiser that is Mumbai.

Because while cities have personalities of their own, identities that are theirs alone, people like us have the luxury of embracing them all and making them our own. And why settle for less, when so much more is on offer?

Channel turfing

Why I have given up on Indian TV news channels 

There is now a gaping hole in my evenings. No, not because I have turned into an anti-social recluse – I have, in fact, always answered to that description. It’s because I have finally sworn off my addiction to TV news. 

There was a time when I would channel surf through the evening and late into the night, going from one news channel to the other. I watched the headlines as I ate my dinner, I tuned in for a news programme as I did my 30 minutes on the cross-trainer, hell, I even kept the news on mute as I worked on my book.

That is no longer the case. These days I have eschewed the pleasures (using the word very loosely indeed) of TV news, choosing to spend my evenings with Netflix or a good DVD box-set. And when I get tired of fiction and need a news fix, I steer clear of the Indian channels, and dip into CNN International, the BBC or Al Jazeera instead.

Why, you ask? 

Seriously? You really need to ask? Have you not been watching these channels yourselves? Well, okay, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and tell you why. So, here, in no particular order of importance, are some of the many reasons I hate prime time TV news:

First off, there is the fact that it is rarely, if ever, news. You hardly ever hear about all the newsworthy things that happened in the course of the day across the country (as you would if you read the next day’s newspapers). Instead, our news channels (yes, yes, I know there are honorable exceptions, but you could count them on one finger) land on the most controversial story of the day – which is guaranteed to attract the largest number of eyeballs – put together a short video package, and then organize a ‘debate’ around the issue. There’s the evening sorted with minimal effort and maximum ease.

The ‘debates’ themselves can best be summed up by paraphrasing William Shakespeare: they are all ‘sound and fury signifying high TRP ratings’, shedding next to no light on the subject being debated. All you hear is cross-talk, people shouting over one another, the anchor shouting even louder to shut them up, and more cross-talk. You can spend a good half-hour watching (assuming you are a glutton for punishment) and not learn a single thing about the issue in question.

When it comes to inviting guests on their panels, news channels tend to  ‘round up the usual suspects’. So, on any given day, most channels will be discussing the same story with the same people, often at the same time (thanks to that miracle called ‘sim-sat’ – go on, Google it), with all of them saying the same things over and over again. If there is a better recipe for ennui, I haven’t yet gotten hold of it. 

The anchor is rarely ever a neutral party, who elicits the views of his panelists without revealing his own biases. On the contrary, his introduction makes it all too clear which side he is on. Even that would be acceptable (you know all the stuff they say about ‘truthful not neutral’) if only he would let those who disagreed with him finish a sentence – never mind an actual argument – without interrupting to tell them how they are ‘wrong, wrong, wrong’ (and anti-national, for good measure). 

Staying with news anchors, why is it that so few of them can ask pithy questions? Instead, most of them preface their queries with long, rambling statements that go on and on without really driving the discussion any further. What’s worse is that after taking minutes of airtime, they instruct their guests to give quick answers because “I have only 60 seconds left”. Well, in that case, you shouldn’t have taken 120 seconds to ask the damn question.

Nobody who appears on news TV – not the anchors, not the reporters, not the guests – seems to be familiar with the workings of a microphone. Or perhaps they are unaware that there is one placed directly in front of them. Why else would they ignore its presence and bellow away, as if they need to shout out loud to be heard across the country?

There is nothing that annoys me more than to see a phalanx of former Pakistani Generals and ISI hands sitting in on our TV shows, tearing into India on a satellite link. Why do we pay these old codgers to come on our news programmes so that they can insult our country, our soldiers, and our intelligence? And strangely enough, it is the ‘nationalistic’ channels that do this most often. I must say, this is a rather inventive way of showing their patriotism. (Or perhaps, more to the point, bumping up their ratings.)

But most troubling of all is the propensity of TV news to give fringe voices the oxygen of prime-time publicity. It doesn’t matter how minor an Islamist cleric you are, or how much of a Hindutva nonentity. As long as you make an outrageous enough statement, you will be guaranteed your 15 minutes of fame on our news channels, as anchors hyperventilate about how you are completely beyond the pale (but, clearly, fit and proper to inhabit their TV studios), quite ignoring the fact that they are only helping to mainstream the fringe.

Given all this, are you really surprised I have given up on Indian TV news? Frankly, I am amazed that more of us haven’t.