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

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Thanking your stars

Take a moment out to count your blessings; you will feel much happier for it

I think it would be fair to say that we live in an age of outrage. And in an age of anger, resentment and fear. Outrage about the state of the world; anger about the fact people hold opinions different from ours; resentment that things aren't working out exactly as we would like them to; and fear of what the future holds.

As a consequence our daily lives are eked out amid a litany of complaints. There are too many refugees knocking at the door of our safe, prosperous societies. There is entirely too much 'appeasement' of 'minorities' (yes, we all know what that is code for). Young people no longer bother to respect their elders. And what do young women think they are doing, dressing in all those tight jeans and short skirts?

I must admit to having being caught up in the outrage machine myself. Just over the last few months I have found myself fulminating on social media on topics ranging from President Trump's now-infamous Access Hollywood tape (the one in which he talks about grabbing women by a certain body part) to the outrageous behaviour of Shiv Sena MP, Ravindra Gaikwad, who was so incensed at not being given a Business Class seat on an all-Economy flight (I kid you not) that he attacked an Air India manager, proudly boasting afterwards that he "beat him 25 times with a chappal".

And you know what? It is an exhausting business. Firing off angry tweets, writing fiery Facebook updates, posting snarky comments, and so on and so forth. And what purpose does that serve? Not only are we eaten up with negativity about the rest of the world, we also end up being angry, depressed and dissatisfied about our own lives.

Well, I don't know about you, but I am tired of living like this. So, in an effort to look past all that is awful and actively search for the good, I have decided to keep what I call a 'gratitude journal'. At the end of every day, I take five minutes to make a quick note about one thing that happened in the course of the day that made me feel grateful for my blessings.

I began this enterprise only a month ago but already reading back through my entries makes me feel better about myself, my life, and even life in general. In case this strikes you as a good idea, here's a tiny glimpse into my gratitude journal, to inspire you to start your own.

* The Tesu trees that dot my street are in full bloom. The red flowers against the brilliant blue spring sky make even the thought of the coming scorching summer seem bearable. And yes, they are so eminently Instagram-able. (Not to mention, they remind me that the Laburnum season is just around the corner. Joy!)

* An unfamiliar number flashes on my phone screen. Am tempted to ignore it. Must be another telemarketer, I tell myself. But some instinct makes me take the call. It's an old friend, who I met on my first job. She has since moved to America and is in India for a couple of days (though not in my town, alas!). We chat, we laugh, we catch up on our lives, we make plans to see each other soon. And I feel so much better when I hang up. Old friends. Something to be truly grateful for.

* Clearing out my cupboard, I stumble upon an envelope of old pictures. My two young nieces on a visit to Calcutta. There we are, perched on one of the many branches of the famous Banyan tree at the Botanical Gardens, laughing our heads off at some long-forgotten joke. And just like that I am carefree college kid again, with not a care in the world. You really can't put a price on that.

* Sunday mornings are the day to experiment with breakfast options. This week, it will be a besan ka pura (or chilla, or whatever you call it in your parts) like my mom used to make. I put together the ingredients from memory, try and get the exact degree of crispness that she managed so effortlessly. And guess what? It's absolutely perfect. The taste of my childhood in every delicious mouthful. Somewhere up there, my mother must be smiling.

* After laying off my Pilates/Yoga routine for a couple of months (bad back, with an old injury flaring up, since you ask), I have been easing myself back into it slowly. It's been hard going. The flexibility that takes months to build up can disappear in a matter of days. So, you can imagine my delight when this morning, for the first time in weeks, I managed to go from cat stretch to downward dog to cobra pose without having to pause for breath. I know it doesn't sound like much to all you exercise freaks out there. But for me, it was a moment of celebration.

At the end of the day, I have come to believe, it is in these tiny moments of joy that true happiness lies. And I am so grateful for each such moment in my life that I have decided to document it. For me, this is like creating a little piggy bank of happiness that I can dip into whenever I am feeling depressed or dejected. And I could not recommend it more highly.

You are what you wear

Or as that old saying goes: clothes maketh the man (and the woman)

We've all heard that old chestnut: clothes make the man. The proverb was first recorded in English in the 15th century (though there is an earlier saying in Greece that roughly translates as 'the man is his clothing'.). The idea duly turned up in William Shakespeare's writings (as things tend to do) with Polonius declaiming, "For the apparel oft proclaims the man" in Hamlet. And more recently, Mark Twain proclaimed, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."

Well, that may well be the case. But certainly there is no denying that our clothes say a lot about us: who were are, what we believe in, where we come from, and sometimes, even what we do.

There is the obvious stuff of course. The hijab, for instance, which is now as much a religious injunction as it is a political statement. There are women in certain parts of the globe who are fighting for their right to throw it off because they see it as symbol of female subjugation. And then there are those in other regions of the globe who are fighting for the right to keep it on to assert their adherence to the Islamic faith. But whether you are in Teheran or Paris, whichever side of the divide you are on, the hijab is always a highly visible marker of identity.

In India, we now have a chief minister, Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh, who wears saffron, traditionally the colour of renunciation in the Hindu faith (yes, the irony is not lost on me either), as he goes about the task of running his state. And even though he makes all the right noises about not discriminating against any faith, his clothes proclaim quite proudly where his heart lies.

So, while clothes may not necessarily make the man or woman, they nonetheless tell us a lot about them. And that applies not just to overtly religious markers but also to more, shall we say, 'secular' choices.

Take a walk through your neighbourhood market or mall. Or just sit in a cafe or restaurant and do some people watching. You can tell a lot about those passing just by looking at what they are wearing, because even though we often don't realise it, all of us inadvertently send out signals about who we are by the way we dress.

There are the yummy mummies having a quick bite while their kids are at school. They sport oversized diamonds on their fingers and in their ears, each one carefully calibrated to show off the size of their husband's annual bonuses. Their designer bags are either 'this season' or old enough to qualify as 'vintage'. Their hair is all high-maintenance highlights and super-sleek blow-dries. And their pastel clothes and high heels a sign that they never ever need to take public transport as they go about their 'ladies who lunch' lifestyle.

Their husbands, meanwhile, only do business lunches. They wear beautifully-tailored, made-to-measure shirts but leave off the ties to indicate that they are not middle management. Their accessory of note is an oversized designer watch, that they glance at ever so often to indicate just how important their time is. If they are meeting with bureaucrats, it is easy to tell the government servants apart. They are the ones with the cheaper looking suits and expressions of grave condescension.

And that's just the five-star hotels. If you go a little downmarket -- or even mid-market -- you can play the 'tell the journo apart from the NGO wallah' game. It's a little bit tricky because both sets prize themselves on being slightly scruffy. But while the media guys pair their faded jeans with shirts and T-shirts, the NGO brigade sticks to Fabindia kurtas and cloth jholas. But it is easy to get this wrong because some journos pride themselves on their 'ethnic chic' too (think tie-dyed saris, handloom kurtis or even, Ikat shirts).

The ones who are dead easy to pick out are the start-up guys and girls. They are the ones looking self-important as they sit in the corner of a cafe they have colonised to hold meetings, tapping away distractedly on their laptops or tablets, dressed in their uniform of designer jeans and T-shirts that are always one size too tight and accessorised with lots of facial hair and black-rimmed glasses to add gravitas to their look.

Politicians are equally easy to identify, with their penchant for white kurta pyjamas, paired with a waistcoat or a tricolour scarf. Off duty, they try to blend in with the rest of us by wearing 'civilian' clothing. But more often than not their air of entitlement -- not to mention the bristling security guards -- give them away.

You can tell fashion designers (or even fashion journalists, for that matter) by their self-consciously trendy, even eccentric, mode of dressing. They will be the ones wearing dhoti trousers with a singlet, tweed skirts with lace camisoles, onesies with giant pink pigs embroidered all over them and so on (and so weird). Pearls and chiffon saris (especially with the head covered) is the patented look of feudals and erstwhile royals (most often spotted at the polo). While anyone who is wearing an old school tie is guaranteed to be a bit of a saloon bar bore (I exaggerate, of course, but only a little).

And thus it goes. So, what do your clothes say about you? Or would you rather not say?

No sex please, this is an office

How to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace

How do you know what sexual harassment is? Short answer: you know it when you feel it. When that colleague brushes against your breast while trying to 'help' you with your PowerPoint presentation. When the guy on the opposite desk stares openly at your cleavage and tells you how sexy you are looking today. When your boss keeps asking you out for dinner even though you turn him down repeatedly. When the men in your office circulate porn clips on group messages and berate you as a prude when you object.

If you are a woman and you have ever worked in an office, the chances are that you have your own sexual harassment stories to tell. God knows I have my own. But it's not about our stories today. It's about how to deal with sexual harassment, whether you are the target, a witness or the person in charge. So, here is my handy -- though far from comprehensive -- guide. 

* When an act of sexual harassment occurs, don't dismiss it in the hope that it is just a "one-off" transgression, an aberration that will never occur again. That may well be the case, but don't assume this as a fact. You may be inclined to give a first-time offender the benefit of the doubt. Do that if you want to. But make your feelings clear while you are at it. 

* Keep the exchange as neutral as you can. Say something like, "I am sure that you don't mean to, but your standing so close behind my desk makes me feel uncomfortable." Phrase your  pushback in a way that allows him an honourable out, if he chooses to take it. Give him the space to make an apology or even express regret. And if he does so, accept it graciously. If he reacts with outrage at the accusation, stand firm. Say that you're sorry that you misunderstood him. But it's only because you value your personal space and can't bear to have it invaded. Surely he understands?

* If the harassment persists, then the time to play nice is over. Tell him exactly how you feel, as vehemently as possible. The tone to aim for is polite but firm. "Those Whatsapp messages you have been sending me are inappropriate. I do not appreciate getting sexual-innuendo laden jokes. Please stop."

* Save all the inappropriate and sexually charged messages and share them with a trusted circle in real time. Take at least one senior colleague into confidence. Ask them to have a discreet word with the harasser. Try and resolve the issue informally if possible.

* If that doesn't work, it's time to up the ante. File an official complaint. Every office that has more than 10 employees is required by law to have an Internal Complaints Committee headed by a senior female officer. If your office doesn't have one, there is a government body called the Local Complaints Committee that deals with such complaints. Present all the evidence you have stacked up, ask your colleagues to bear witness and stand up for your rights.

* Be prepared to lose. Too many of these cases come down to a "he said-she said" impasse and  more often than not the benefit of the doubt goes to the man, who is, by definition, the more powerful of the two. And yes, the temptation to do nothing and just walk away -- which is always your right -- and take another job is strong. But remember you are leaving behind a predator, who is now more emboldened than ever to prey on other women.

* At the end of the day, however, dealing with sexual harassment is not just up to individuals. Companies have to step up and ensure a healthy work environment for women. And just constituting an ICC is not enough. Companies also need to invest in gender sensitisation training so that everyone learns just what is permissible within the workspace and what kind of behaviour is beyond the pale. (You would be surprised how many people simply have no clue.)

* Most important of all, companies must provide a safe space for women to speak out, and create an environment that imbues them with the confidence that their stories are worth listening to -- and taking action on. And yes, while it is crucial to investigate before dubbing anyone guilty, it is vital that women who summon up the courage to file an official complaint be given the courtesy of belief. That doesn't mean always taking a woman's word against a man's. It just means taking her words seriously. 

* As for those who are on the fringes of the drama, looking on with voyeuristic curiosity, I have just one line of advice: if you see something, for God's sake, say something!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Big Little Bestsellers

And can they make a seamless transition to our TV screens?

I discovered Liane Moriarty (what a splendid surname for a writer of murder – well, sort of – mysteries to have, by the way) rather late in the day. Somehow, her major breakthrough novel, The Husband’s Secret, passed me by when it released in 2013. It was only after I read her 2014 book, Big Little Lies, that I was intrigued enough to go back and see what else she had written. Suffice to say, I was not disappointed. And then, last year Moriarty released her latest novel, Truly Madly Guilty (yes, she is rather prolific that way) and I was well and truly hooked. And like most newly-converted people, I went around recommending her to all my friends and acquaintances (“Yes, yes, I know, you’ve never heard of her; but believe me, she’s fantastic!”).

Well, it now turns out that Liane Moriarty will no longer be such a tough sell in these parts. And that’s because Little Big Lies, far and away her best book so far, has been made into a television series starring such A-list stars as Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, with a cast that includes Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Alexander Skarsgard and Zoe Kravtiz, and is playing on a TV screen right in your living room every week.

Of course, it’s much more fun to watch if you haven’t read the book – and don’t worry, this piece contains no spoilers at all. But even those of us who know how it all ends, can’t help but get caught up with the twists and turns of the plot. And it doesn’t hurt that both Witherspoon and Kidman are rather easy on the eye, as are all the lush shots of rolling beaches, with their full complement of sun, sea and surf.

So, how does the TV series compare with the book? Well, I was prepared to be all sniffy about it, but as it turns out, the TV version captures the novel rather well, with its mixture of domestic drama, dark comedy, schoolyard (yes, I kid you not!) politics, sexual tension and, of course, suspense thriller. There is a murder at the heart of it, but that’s just the hook on which to hang a great story on. And the story survives the transition to a different medium rather well.

As I watched the latest episode this week, I started to wonder which other book had made the transition to TV series quite so successfully. And here, just off the top of my head, is my entirely subjective list of the top three:

Pride and Prejudice: The BBC adaptation of the Jane Austen novel aired more than 20 years ago, with Colin Firth playing Mr Darcy to Jennifer Ehle’s Elizabeth Bennet. But even two decades on, the show lives on in our collective memory thanks to that one scene of Firth emerging from a lake in a wet white shirt and bumping into Elizabeth. It is a tribute to Andrew Davies, who wrote the screenplay, that even though this scene never occurs in Austen’s book, it has become a seminal moment in popular culture.

But leaving wet shirts aside for a moment, this was a show that captured the intelligence and spark of Elizabeth Bennet, the constrained lives of women of that era, and raised an elegant brow at the snobbery and elitism that prevailed in the England of that day. Quite brilliant.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: Anyone who has seen the TV series that came out in 1979 (do get a box set if you haven’t) will remember this because of Sir Alec Guinness’ star turn as legendary spymaster, George Smiley, who is brought out of retirement to hunt for a mole buried deep into the heart of the British secret services. Guinness was brilliant in this adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel of the same name, so much so that the author admitted that, “If I were to keep one filmed version of my work, this would be it.”

And it is easy to understand why. The plot unravels with the same stately pace that Le Carre brings to his own writing. Each character is fleshed out into three dimensions. The mechanics of spycraft are brought to light in intricate detail. And then, there is the quiet but unmistakable presence of Guinness’ Smiley, all repressed passion and suppressed feelings. An absolute masterpiece.

Game of Thrones: My chronology is a little off when it comes to the Game of Thrones books by George RR Martin. I was introduced to him by the first two seasons of the TV show, which I binge-watched while on vacation. Appetite appropriately whetted, I came back home to download all his books and devoured all five of them in one greedy gulp. So, when season three launched, I was prepared to be disappointed. After all, I knew what was going to happen, so how much fun could it be? Short answer: a lot!

The TV series brought the fantasy to life with such panache that it mattered little that I knew how things were going to turn out. I knew what was coming in the Red Wedding, how the dragons would save the fireproof Daenerys Targaryen, and how Arya Stark would hit rock-bottom. But seeing it on screen still brought a fresh thrill. It helped, of course, that as the series moved along, Martin and the screenplay writers shook things up by varying the endings of various storylines, to give us smug readers a bit of a jolt.

Be Indian, see India

Don’t want to deal with hostile immigration officers in foreign countries? Take a break in your own instead!

Late last year, we had planned to visit America, home to our extended family, with New York as the first stop. But that was before Donald Trump’s infamous ‘travel ban’ and the news that immigration officers in the US now had the right to scroll through your phone and laptop before letting you into the country. (And if they asked you for the passwords to your social media accounts to check that you were not an undesirable alien, you were supposed to hand them over or risk being flown right back to your point of origin.)

Not my idea of fun. And I suspect, not your idea of fun either. After all, who in their right minds would want to vacation in a country in which even valid visa-holders are treated as potential criminals/terrorists who must prove their innocence before being let in?

But while America presents its own peculiar challenges, the rest of the world isn’t a much better bet at this moment. Turkey (another destination we had been toying with) seems a bit dicey after a spate of terrorist attacks. Paris has seen terror wreak havoc on its streets. And we keep being told that London is next on the jihadi hit list.

So, if you are a scaredy-cat like me, and don’t fancy the idea of taking your life into your hands every time you venture out on holiday, then here’s a plan for you. This year, stick to vacationing in India. There’s so much to see and do in this vast sub-continent of ours that you won’t miss going abroad at all. And what you save on airfare, you can spend on experiences.

If the idea appeals to you, then here’s a handy (though far from comprehensive) list of all the things that you can do and the places you can visit without ever leaving our borders.

* Go temple-hopping:

No, I don’t mean a pilgrimage necessarily, though I always find a trip to, say, Vaishnoo Devi or Tirupati, very invigorating. You can always do the religious thing, if that floats your boat. But even if you are a non-believer, a trip to such destinations as Khajuraho, Varanasi, the sun temple at Konark, the ancient Martand temple in Kashmir, is an amazing experience in and of itself. The sculptures, the magnificent architecture, the patina of the ages, all of it makes for stunning visual beauty and a sense of how far back our civilization extends.

Such ancient cities as Mahabalipurum in Tamil Nadu with its rock reliefs that date back to the 7th century and Hampi in Karnataka which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site are well worth a visit. And if you are up to climbing around 700 steps, then head up the hill at Shravanabelagola to get a close look at the Gommattesvara Bahubali statue, which dates back to the 10th century, the biggest sculpture ever to be hewn from a single piece of rock.

* Be a beach bum:

Speaking for myself, I find Goa to be a crashing bore, with overcrowded beaches and murky water. If you want a beach holiday in India, the best place to go is the Andaman Islands, where the white sand beaches are pristine and bordered with the clearest blue water. Head out there before the hordes discover it.

* Hit the mountain trails:

No matter which part of India you live in, a hill station is never too far away. From Calcutta, it is easy to access Sikkim and Bhutan. If you are in Delhi, then the ski slopes of Gulmarg are a short plane ride away, as are the picturesque peaks of Uttarakhand. In the South, you can head to Ooty, Munnar, Kodaikanal or Coorg. And those who live in the West of India, can visit Mount Abu, which has an added attraction in the shape of the Jain Dilwara temples built between the 11th and 13th centuries.

* Go healthy and holistic:

If you are feeling a bit rundown and in need of some rejuvenation, take a spa break. In India, you are spoilt for choice when it comes to this category. You can go all fancy and spend a fortune at such upmarket resorts as Ananda in the Himalayas. Or you could go in for a more earthy and intense experience at such Kerala spas as Kairali, which bills itself as an Ayurvedic healing village and offers treatment for such diverse conditions as arthritis, bronchitis and hypertension. Or you can simply drive to a ‘spa resort’ near your city for a weekend break, involving lots of massages and heaps of indolence.

* Answer the call of the wild:

When it comes to wildlife, India has a virtual embarrassment of riches. Want to catch a glimpse of a tiger in the wild? You can visit Ranthambore in Rajasthan, Bandhavgarh and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh. If you live down south, then the Kalakad Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu and Periyar National Park in Kerala are good options. Kaziranga National Park in Assam also has enough tigers to qualify as a tiger reserve even though its main claim to fame is as a rhinoceros sanctuary – it houses two-thirds of the world’s great one-horned rhinoceros (along with a large population of elephants) and is classed as World Heritage Site. If bird-watching is your thing, then you can’t go wrong with the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, now restyled as the Keoladeo National Park.

So, put away that passport for now. And go the Swadeshi way when it comes to travel. I promise you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Write on

Here are some tips to keep distraction -- and boredom -- at bay

I guess by now the whole world knows that J.K. Rowling was a single mother on benefits when she wrote the first Harry Potter book, the series that would later turn her into a billionaire. But did you know that in those early days she would bundle up her daughter into a stroller and settle down at a cafe, Nicolson's in Edinburgh, to write all day long? And over endless cups of espresso and glasses of water -- all that she could afford at the time -- with her daughter asleep beside her, she would write the words that would resound across the world in the years to come.

Sounds amazing, doesn't it? But if you are writing a book, or even an article or a blog, this approach may not work for you. How do I know? Because when I turn a bit stir-crazy sitting and writing at home, I have tried this whole working-out-of-a-cafe malarkey and take it from me, it does not work for anyone who is not called J.K. Rowling.

First off, this is India. So, there is the noise factor. There will be people bellowing away into their phones. There will be a couple breaking up or making up noisily at the next table. There will be children running around madly, playing some mysterious game of chase. So, it will be impossible to concentrate on the words you are writing given that you will not be able to tune out the word soup sloshing around you.

And then, there is the fact that no self-respecting barista in India will allow you linger all day long if all you order is expresso and water.

So, what is the best way to settle down and write, write, write?

Well, some would say, set off for some scenic location. Hire a place that has a room with a view and get started. But that would never work for me. I would just end up getting distracted by all that beauty.

But there are some writing tips that have worked for me. And here are some of them, in the hope that they help some of you as well.

* Sensory deprivation. Choose a place that has no view. Where there are no books arranged seductively on shelves, tempting you to delve in. And no paintings to distract you with their power. Ideally, position your desk so that it faces a blank wall. You need your imagination to focus on the blank page in front of you to the exclusion of all else.

* No distractions. Make sure that there is no TV in the room. Turn off the wifi on your laptop. Disable social media apps on your phone when you work. Or better still keep your phone in a different room. You can check in on your mail every hour or so. But that's it.

* Don't keep going back to reread and edit what you have already written. Once a chapter is written, print it out and put it in a folder. Only go back to it if you need to double check something as you are writing. Otherwise onwards and forward.

* Put your thoughts down on paper as they occur. Because often, when you pause to rephrase them in a more felicitous manner, you lose your chain of thought altogether. Just write it all down; you can always dress it up later.

* Inspiration can strike any time. Always keep a notebook handy so that you can scribble down your ideas as they pop up. If a notebook isn't your style, then just jot down notes on your phone and mail them to yourself. Save them in a special folder which you can consult at a moment's notice.

* Don't give in to writer's block. There will be days when words simply don't come. Don't get up and walk away from the desk. Get your word count in even if you end up deleting it all the next day.

* Keep to a realistic word count limit per day. Many authors keep themselves down to 500 words, which seems rather paltry when you think about it. But as anyone who has wrestled with a book will tell you, it can be struggle getting 1000 words down every day. So don't get too ambitious because you will only get depressed when you don't meet your unrealistic target. It's better to aim low and hit your target than aim high and end up feeling like a failure.

* Set up a writing routine, depending on what time of day you feel at your best. There are some writers who like to wake up at dawn when the rest of the world is asleep so that they can write in peace. There are others on the opposite side of the spectrum who stay up late when the rest of the family had retired and do their finest work then. And then, there are those who like to carve out chunks within the day when they can work undisturbed.

* Devise a ritual to separate your writing time from the rest of the day. Go to the gym, take the dog for a walk, meet a friend for coffee, leaf through a magazine or just watch a TV show. You can do anything so long as it is not connected to your book. Your brain needs that respite so that you can come back refreshed to your work.

* And most importantly, set aside some time for reading a book that is completely different from what you are writing. Reading a good author is not just inspirational, but aspirational as well.

The Big Fat Indian Wedding

Is it time to slim it down to more manageable proportions?

We are all familiar with the Big Fat Indian Wedding. We’ve attended gazillions of them in the course of our lifetimes. We have gorged on the multi-cuisine buffets. We have danced to the tunes played by a ‘celebrity DJ’. We have goggled at the bride’s jewellery. We have gawked at the over-the-top decorations. Hell, some of us have probably even played a starring role in one of these extravagant odes to wealth and conspicuous consumption.

But we may not be able to do any of this for much longer if Congress MP, Ranjeet Ranjan (wife of the controversial Bihar politician, Pappu Yadav) has anything to do with it. Ranjan has introduced a private member’s bill in the Lok Sabha – Marriages (Compulsory Registration and Prevention of Wasteful Expenditure) Bill -- that seeks to limit the number of guests invited to weddings and the menu served to them. The Bill also proposes that anybody who is spending more than Rs 5 lakh on a wedding should declare this in advance to the government and contribute a tenth of that amount to a fund set up to help poorer family host weddings.

Asked about the rationale behind introducing this Bill, Ranjan explained, “These days, weddings are more about showing off your wealth and, as a result, poor families are under tremendous pressure to spend more. This needs to be checked as it is not good for society at large.”

Well, she has a point there. The competitive spending on weddings has bankrupted many a middle class family and pushed poorer ones into debt. And yes, people do spend more than they can afford on weddings in an effort to keep up with (and to impress) their friends, neighbours and extended families.

But is a Bill – which will, most likely, never get passed, even if comes up for discussion in the next session of Parliament – really an answer? Can you really have a legal solution to what is essentially a societal problem? Does the government really have a right to legislate on how and where we spend our hard-earned, tax-paid money? And do adults really need a nanny-state to decide how they should celebrate their weddings?

As far as I am concerned, the answer to all of above questions is a resounding no.

That said, I think we all have to admit that the Big Fat Indian Wedding is getting out of control. Yes, it is a multi-billion rupee industry which creates many jobs and is a major driver of the economy, especially the luxury sector. But sometimes this growth comes at the expense of ordinary hard working folk, who drain the savings of a lifetime to celebrate one day. And that makes no sense at all.

So, how do we encourage people to spend less on extravagant weddings, without trying to corral them in by some intrusive law or the other? Well, I guess we could start with Hindi films, which have done the most to popularize large, expensive weddings in their song-and-dance Bollywood extravaganzas. If we could have a little less of the opulence of Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! and a few more homespun Monsoon Weddings, perhaps young couples would learn to value intimate, home-style celebrations over gaudy displays of wealth.

Or we could take our cues from two communities who know how to keep their wedding madness under control. The first are the Parsis, who go to the same wedding caterer to order basically the same set meal, so nobody feels obliged to do any more. (And their guests, who know down to a rupee how much the meal costs, give an envelope containing the same amount to the bride and groom, so nobody is out of pocket.) And the second are the Sikhs, who organize their weddings in the neighbourhood gurudwara, serve a simple vegetarian meal and the most delicious kada-prasad, and are home and dry before the sun sets.

But while you can keep the expense down with a bit of effort, how do you cut down on guest lists without offending extended families, business contacts, office colleagues and prickly neighbours? It’s tough because everyone expects an invitation no matter how nodding your acquaintance and takes mortal offence when the card doesn’t turn up.

Well, there is one solution, though it’s not exactly cheap. You could go with the two words that strike terror in the heart of the father of the bride: destination wedding. But while this will push up the expense of housing and feeding guests, the upside is that you can keep the guest list to a closed circle of people who actually matter to you (and who don’t mind paying for their tickets to your destination of choice). And if you keep things light and casual – like a beach wedding, for example – your expense on décor will be minimal.

Of course, you could always do one better and simply elope with the love of your life. Tell your parents to throw one joint party for your reception when you return. And ask them to put the money they would have spent on your Big Fat Indian Wedding on a down payment on a Small Slim Indian Apartment that you can live in Happy Ever After.

The Big C

It’s a word most of us tiptoe around; and when we do deal with it, we usually get it wrong

You expect gurus to give gyaan on how to live our lives and perhaps, how to prepare for the afterlife. What you don’t expect them to do is to hold forth on medical science and tell us how to remain disease free. So, you can imagine the consternation when the ‘Yogi, Mystic and Visionary’ (that’s his Twitter bio; I kid you not) who goes by the name of Sadhguru tweeted this to mark World Cancer Day: “#Cancer is no disease but unknowingly touching the Self-Destruct button. Needs deeper exploration…”

Needless to say, accusations of insensitivity and ignorance flew around and among the most offended were people who had survived cancer and could not believe they were being told that their ill-health was because they had ‘unknowingly touched the Self-Destruct button’.

Intrigued by this throwaway remark, I went on to the venerable Sadhguru’s website to read more about his theories on cancer. And among the reams of prose about the ‘energy body’ the ‘food body’ and the ‘mental body’, I found this little gem about breast cancer: “Today, some women do not conceive at all, or for most women, childbearing is over before they are 30 years of age…the necessary hormones and enzymes are still being produced but are not made use of…that part of the body becomes low energy, which attracts cancerous cells and becomes a place for them to accumulate.”

So, there you are, ladies. You better push a couple out before the Big C gets you.

I’m kidding, of course. But the worrying thing is that many people are probably taking this as gospel truth. And God alone knows how many women are now berating themselves for getting breast cancer because they didn’t take their reproductive duties seriously.

But while this is sad and troubling enough, what is even worse is that it is not just ‘visionaries’ like Sadhguru or the miracle-cure touting Ramdev who indulge in this kind of talk. The rest of us don’t cover ourselves in glory either, when it comes to speaking about cancer or dealing with those who suffer from it. It’s not that we are necessarily insensitive or even wish to give offense. It’s just that we tend to be a little tone-deaf when it comes to this subject.

Let’s just take one phrase: ‘cancer survivor’. We use that to describe those who have overcome the disease. But what does that make those who haven’t? Are they ‘cancer victims’?  

And then, there’s our propensity to say stuff like “She battled bravely against cancer and beat it.” Which sounds very upbeat and lovely but what is the sub-text here? That those who ‘lost’ to cancer did not ‘fight’ hard enough? That it is their fault that they are dead? Clearly not. But it does seem like we are blaming them for not being good enough to beat the Big C.

So, how does one negotiate the minefield that surrounds the disease? Well, here’s a list of some do’s and don’ts.

·     *  Don’t bombard patients with clichés like “Stay positive” and “Stay Strong”. The last thing someone coping with chemotherapy and intimations of mortality needs is some gormless creature chirping: ‘Always look on the bright side of life’. Or even blithering on about how important it is to ‘fight hard’ against the disease. It’s not just annoying, it’s offensive. Especially because it puts the onus of recovery on the patient. Not getting any better? That’s because you’re not fighting hard enough. Cancer not responding to treatment? You really need to work on that positive attitude. Surely, you can see how infuriating this kind of stuff can get?

·     *  Don’t come armed with anecdotes about other people who had cancer and how they coped with the disease when you visit. It’s really not helpful to know that your aunt was diagnosed with the very same disease and how she found this wonderful doctor who cured her. It is even less helpful to be told about your neighbour’s mother who was diagnosed too late for help (“the tumour was just too big and too awkwardly positioned for surgery”) and passed away peacefully at home. We all have stories about people in our lives who suffered from this dreaded disease. But we must learn to keep them to ourselves and focus on the unique experience of the person sitting before us.

·     *  And whatever you do, please don’t talk about miracle cures. Don’t suggest a pilgrimage to some saint’s shrine. Don’t offer magic water from some scared lake. Just don’t. It amounts to insulting people’s intelligence or giving them false hope. And it does no good.

·    *   Do try and offer practical help. If there are young children in the house, offer to take them off for a special treat so that the mother/father can have some time off. Set up a team of volunteers, who can help with cooking dinner and lunch on a relay basis. Accompany the patient to hospital when he/she goes for chemotherapy and distract them with idle chat – or even just sit in companionable silence.

·     *  Do try and remember that this is your friend/family member/loved one, a person with an identity that goes beyond their cancer status. Ask about their health if you must but don’t dwell upon it. Nobody wants to feel as if the only interesting thing about them is the disease they are suffering from. They’d much rather you treated them just like you did before. So laugh, joke, argue, and yes, fight. Because that’s the only way you can make them feel like their normal selves. And they’d give anything to feel like that for even one fleeting moment.

Will you be my Valentine?

Save yourself! Say no to the commercialisation of romance that is Valentine's Day

It's that time of year again. When we are exhorted to up our game when it comes to gourmet dinners, expensive gifts and mushy greeting cards. When we are asked to break out the fancy chocolate and those overblown hothouse flowers. When we are encouraged to go for the extravagant gesture that translates as excessive expense.

Yes, Valentine's Day is around the corner and suddenly we are required to see life through the rose-tinted glasses of romance. Whisk your girlfriend away for a romantic mini-break. Surprise her with a diamond. Book a band to serenade her over dinner. (Sorry guys, but this is one time when you are expected to do all the heavy lifting while your better half sits back and prepares to be pampered!)

As I may have mentioned before in these pages, there is nothing I hate more than all this palaver. It's bad enough to suggest that one day should be set aside to celebrate romance (if you ask me, given the hate we see all around us, we should celebrate love and lovers every single day.) But it's even worse to take that day and commercialise the living bejesus out of it.

And that's exactly what has happened to Valentine's Day. Schmaltzy greeting cards flood the shops in the run up to V Day. Flower shops push up their prices to absurd levels to take full advantage of young (and sometimes middle-aged) love. And restaurants ditch their regular menu to come up with Valentine Day specials that always involve such 'aphrodisiacal' ingredients as oysters and asparagus (this seems borderline insulting to me but then I've never been to one of these 'special V day' dinners, so what do I know?) paired with dodgy sparkling wine that they pass off as champagne.

Growing up when I did, I was fortunate enough to go through my teenage years without worrying about whether I would score a Valentine card of my own. There was certainly no pressure to find a date for Valentine's Day -- or be considered a loser forever. And nor was it considered mandatory to waste an enormous amount of money on this day to prove just how romantic you were.

Young people these days are not so lucky. Being home alone on Valentine's Day is likely to reduce your status to that of social pariah. But if you are going out, guys, then be prepared to shell out the big bucks to prove just how devoted a lover you are. Bring on the roses, pop the champagne, and prepare for an evening of conspicuous consumption made tolerable by some mandatory canoodling.

Speaking for myself, I can't think of anything more soul-destroying -- or romance-ruining, or even bankrupt-making -- as participating in this commercial exercise that goes by the monicker of Valentine's Day. So my way of registering a protest is to stay at home, cook a simple meal, open a bottle of wine and then settle down on the couch to watch a good movie or TV series (which, to be honest, is what I do most days).

But if you want to push the boat out on V Day, don't let me put a damper on your enthusiasm. By all means, spend a fortune on overpriced flowers, max your credit card out on buying the most expensive set meal ever, and surprise her with the stone of her choice. If you want to be a chump, then it is hardly my place to stop you.

If, on the other hand, you want to Just Say No to V day and its vanities, then here's a handy guide to what you can do instead with the money you have saved:

* You can buy a bottle of champagne -- the real thing, not all that sparkling wine nonsense -- and invite your date over to pop it open ceremonially. Drink it in the privacy of your home (or your room if you still live with your parents), pairing with a simple meal of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and buttery toast. I am not sure if any of this stuff is 'aphrodisiacal' but I am pretty sure it will put you in the right mood.

* Book a spa break for you and your loved one over the weekend. Sleep in late, have a nice brunch, get massaged. Rinse and repeat. Bliss!

* Create a bespoke experience for your significant other. Buy the best bath products in the market and stock up on scented candles. And when she/he gets back from work, surprise her/him with a lovely bubble bath (bottle of bubbly and back scrub optional).

* Eschew cliches like jewellery and designer bags and find a present that is meaningful for your loved one. Find a first edition/signed copy of a book she adored as a child. Buy a piece of art that he admired as you walked past the art gallery. Or better still, if you are up to it, write him/her a love poem of your own, have a calligrapher copy it down, and set it in a beautiful frame.

And most important of all, don't wait for Valentine's Day to do all this stuff. Love is worth celebrating every day of the year.  And lovers, even more so.

Sexism rules, ok!

Don’t sweat the small stuff; it’s the big picture that really matters

When it comes to sexism and misogyny in politics – or indeed in public life – I can’t help but feel that we tend to miss the wood for the trees. We are so busy protesting and outraging against the slings and arrows of everyday political discourse that we completely miss the big-ticket discrimination right under our noses.

Take the recent brouhaha over Vinay Katiyar’s sexist comments about Priyanka Gandhi. Asked what he thought of Priyanka as a star campaigner in the UP Assembly election, Katiyar scoffed that there were much prettier stars campaigning for the BJP. To her credit, Priyanka retorted with good humour: “He’s right, they do!” But then she added for good measure: “If that’s all he sees in my colleagues, who are such strong, brave, beautiful women, who have battled through all sorts of hardships to get where they are, then he makes me laugh even more…”

Priyanka may have laughed it off, but the media were not amused. No sooner were Katiyar’s remarks reported than social media skirmishes began clogging everyone’s timelines as those attacking the BJP leader came up against the full fervor of the Bhakt Brigade. That evening’s prime-time news bulletins devoted hours to debating how awful these sexist remarks were and how Katiyar should be forced to apologise. (True to form, Katiyar refused to do so and even walked out of Nidhi Razdan’s show on NDTV when he ran out of excuses for his behavior.) And the next day’s newspapers headlined the Katiyar remarks, and Priyanka’s retort, asking other women politicians to weigh in on the issue.

All of it left me asking myself some tough questions. Did Vinay Katiyar’s comment offend me? Yes, it did. Should he have objectified both Priyanka and his own party’s women leaders in the way that he did? Of course not. Was it really that big a deal that every TV channel should lead on it? Well, I was not so sure about that one.

Sexist man makes sexist remark. Should we allow that stray remark to dominate the headlines? Or should we go with that old saying: “Dog bites man is not news; man bites dog is.”

Yes, sexism and misogyny are woven into the very fabric of our public life. And it behoves us to call them out whenever we can, as loud as we can, and as often as we can. But should we continually get distracted by the ‘dog bites man’ spectacle and talk of nothing else? Or should we look past these incidents to focus on stuff that really matters?

So, what does matter? Is it that women are constantly being objectified and commodified by male chauvinists? Or is it that women are so rarely seen and heard on our political scene (unless, or course, they are related to male politicians)? Is it that people are too focused on their looks? Or that they are, at the end of the day, virtually invisible?

Let’s take a quick look around. As of this writing, as Uttar Pradesh goes to the polls, of the 324 candidates that the SP has announced so far, only 24 are women (and one of them is Aparna Yadav, Mulayam’s daughter-in-law). The BJP has 36 women among the 304 candidates it has announced. The Congress has announced the names of 43 candidates, of which only two are women. And even the BSP, which has a woman leader in Mayawati, has only 18 women among its 401 candidates.

In Punjab, the number of female candidates in the fray is also abysmal. The Shiromani Akali Dal has five women among its 94 candidates. AAP, which is contesting 112 seats has only nine women candidates. And of the Congress’ 117 candidates, only 11 are women.

The absence of women is, if anything, even more marked in Goa. Here, AAP is fielding five women, the Congress has three female candidates while the BJP has just the one.

Now, here’s an issue that I would like to see debated in prime-time TV news shows. That is the headline that I would like to see in my newspaper. Where are the women? Why are they missing in action? Why do we see so few female faces on the campaign trail?

I really don’t care whether they are pretty or not. Or how Vinay Katiyar – or any other male politician, for that matter – rates their looks. These are minor irritants. Let’s not allow them to distract us from the things that really matter. Men commenting on women’s looks is small stuff; men depriving women of opportunities is what we should be outraged about.

And no, don’t go waving the red rag of the Women’s Reservation Bill at me. You know as well as I do that it will never get passed. But there is nothing preventing political parties from reserving a third of their seats for women off their own bat. So why don’t they put their candidate list where their mouths are, and show us the tickets?

I don’t think this will happen any time soon. But until it does, let’s outrage about it as loud and clear as we can.