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

Friday, January 27, 2017

Take a walk

Trust me on this, it will do you much good; and not just by way of exercise

This is the only time of the year when it is a pleasure to take a walk in the park. The worst of the winter in over (in those parts that do, in fact, have a winter) and the searing heat of the summer lies in the hazy distance. There is a cool breeze wafting, the sun radiates its mild benevolence on all, the flowers bloom without the slightest sense of modesty, and the smell of roasting peanuts comes rolling in from around the corner.

How can you not enjoy a walk through the park when the whole universe is conspiring to please you at every turn?

Well, as you may have guessed by now, I can and I do enjoy it tremendously. I try and keep my afternoons free so that I can ramble through Lodhi Garden, taking care to stay away from the jogging track with its aggressive, Lycra-clad bullies who take particular pleasure in shoving slower souls like me off the path. Instead, I veer off on to the smaller pathways, some of them enclosed by bamboo trees, some bound by flowering beds, and yet others bordered by a quietly sparkling lake, where ducks and geese majestically paddle away, scarcely disturbing the calm surface of the water.

I turn my phone on silent and slip it into my pocket. For the next hour or so, I don't want to hear from anyone. I don't need music blaring through my earphones. I don't care for the distraction of my Twitter timeline or my Facebook feed. I don't want to take pictures that I can later post on Instagram.

This is my quiet time. A time when I need to hear myself think. And I find that I never think quite so clearly as when I am taking a walk.

This is the time when I work out the kinks in the plot of the novel I am halfway through writing. This is when I think of the topic of my next column. This is when I plan the menu if I am having people over for dinner. This is when I think of the cutting responses I should have used in the argument I had with a friend last night (I know, I know, it's too late, but even so...).

But most of all, I use this time to simply let my mind wander where it will. If it chooses to go back and examine a childhood memory, I follow it right there. If it wants to puzzle over why dog owners never pick up after their pooches, I allow it to do so. If it feels like ruminating over the book I've just finished reading, I let it. If it wants to examine the meaning of life, then I indulge it.

And I can tell that my mind really needs this because at the end of my perambulation I find myself feeling much lighter, more energised, and far less stressed than I was before I began my walk. And it's not just the physical exercise that makes me feel better about myself, it is also the mental stimulation.

It now turns out that I am far from being the only one who feels this way. A recent article in the New York Times detailed a University of Birmingham study that examined if people did feel better after a walk. The subjects were divided into two groups, one of whom walked for half an hour in their lunch break (they could pace themselves as they saw fit; going as slow or fast as they liked) while the other didn't. Those who did walk were asked to rate their state of mind afterwards on a specially designed app. At the end of 10 weeks, the first group had significantly higher rates of mental and physical satisfaction than the group that didn't walk. They felt better about themselves, were less stressed, felt more equipped to deal with problems and were far less overwhelmed by life.

After 10 weeks, the second group -- which had, until then, served as the control group -- was asked to walk during their lunch break as well. And -- you guessed right! -- they started feeling better about themselves as well after taking a half-hour lunchtime stroll. They felt refreshed, rejuvenated and ready on take on the world (I paraphrase, of course, but that was the gist of it).

Frankly, I am not surprised. My own experience has told me over the years that going for a walk leads to a sense of well-being that has nothing to do with aerobic exercise itself. A walk is much more than that.

For me, it is a period of quiet reflection, a time to switch off and spend time with myself. For others, who treat it as a communal activity, it may be a time to bond with friends, exchange gossip, or just a laugh or two. And then, there are those who treat it as an opportunity to listen to the latest music or even listen to an audio book, something that they don't otherwise have time for in their fractious lives.

But whatever the motivation, there is no denying that taking a stroll, no matter how gentle, is good for your general well being. So, what are you waiting for? Go on. Take a walk. You can always thank me later.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Maid in India

It won’t be long before she disappears from our homes; so it’s time we learnt to look after ourselves

Do you remember those Hindi movies of yore, in which the domestic help was always called ‘Ramu’ – or perhaps ‘Ramu Kaka’ if he was a tad older. This man would run the entire household for his ‘Bibiji’, filling in as cleaner, cook, gardener, housekeeper and general factotum. But the family he served never saw him as a ‘servant’. Instead, they regarded him as one of the family (hence the honorific ‘Kaka’) and a valued member of the household.

But ‘Ramu Kaka’ wasn’t just a fictional character. Ramu Kakas existed in real life as well, attached to families for generations on end, serving father, son and then grandson, until they were finally pensioned off to the villages they came from, and their own sons and grandsons took their place.

Those days are long gone, of course. Now, rare is the family that can boast of a ‘family retainer’ who thinks nothing of devoting his/her entire life to serving one particular household. These days you consider yourself lucky if you can persuade your domestic help to stick with you for a couple of years, not a couple of generations. And those familial ties that were created by long years of service have disappeared entirely.

These days our relationship with our domestic help is strictly transactional. We agree to pay a certain amount of money for certain services performed over a certain number of hours. The arrangement lasts only as long as both parties are happy with it. And that is as far as this social contract goes.

There is no special bonding over cooking breakfast or cutting the vegetables for lunch. There is no gossip exchanged as you watch the saas-bahu soaps in the evening. In fact, women who work outside the home hardly ever even meet the women who help run their houses. They just hand over a copy of the key and hope for the best.

I was reminded of this last week as I began reading a collection of short stories by Renee Ranchan, titled To Each With Love. In one of the stories, The Fiefdom, Ranchan writes about the torturous relationship between a ‘Memsahib’ (or ‘Ma’am, as she is deferentially called) and her ‘maid’. How a relationship that begins with the ‘Memsahib’ wielding all the power gradually transforms into one in which the ‘maid’ is in control. So much so that the lady of the house even willingly turns a blind eye to her domestic help’s pilfering, so dependent is she on her services.

As I read the story, which takes a rather dark turn half-way through – I won’t tell you more; you can read it for yourself and find out – it suddenly occurred to me that ours will probably be the last generation that can tell these stories. By the time our daughters and nieces are grown up and running their own homes, they will be lucky if they manage to score any domestic help at all.

Things are already changing in the big cities. Young women who even a decade ago would enter domestic service as a matter of course now have several other options that can exercise. They can work in beauty salons and spas, if not as operators then as attendants. They can be hired as sales staff in the retail sector. They can become attendants at petrol pumps. If they learn how to drive, they can aspire to become Uber or Ola taxi drivers. And if they know how to read and write and speak a smattering of English, the possibilities are endless. 

It’s not surprising, then, that the domestic help sector in the metros is now populated by young women from less developed areas like Jharkhand or Orissa, most of whom arrive in the big city with one single objective: to make enough money to put together a respectable dowry so that they can go back in a few years time, marry and live happily ever after. In the long run, they want to raise their own families; helping you raise yours is just a short-term objective, the means to an end.

So, it’s only a matter of time before the supply from these areas can no longer meet our insatiable demand for domestic help.

And if you ask me, that is a good thing. It is about time that we spoilt middle-class folk learnt to look after ourselves.

I mean, how hard can it be? Everyone in the West seems to manage fine. Even those who are relatively well-off are perfectly happy cleaning up after themselves. They cook their own meals, wash their own dishes, clean their own toilets, make their own beds, do their own laundry, even iron their own clothes.

So, why can’t we do the same? We now have the same labour-saving devices these folks rely on: dishwashers, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, and what have you. All we lack is the will to look after ourselves because it is so much easier to dump all those nasty chores on someone else less fortunate than us whom we pay to do all our dirty work.

Well, that option may not be available to most of us for much longer. So, let’s get acquainted with the many attachments that come with a vacuum cleaner and learn to stack a dishwasher the right way. It’s time to learn to deal with our ‘maid-less’ futures, one laundry-load at a time.

'Tis the season to be jolly...

Christmas means presents; and this is what I would like to find under my tree this year

I know, I know, being a Hindu and all that, Christmas should not mean that much to me. But what can I say? It does. It always has.

Not in any religious sense, of course, even though I went to convent school where I was educated by Catholic nuns. But as a time of celebration, a time for family and friends to come together, a time to show generosity to one another, a time to embrace the world, the day makes perfect sense to me.

Which is why, ever since I was a child, I have always embraced Christmas. It helped that the city I grew up in, Calcutta, lit up like a bride in the run-up to Christmas, and it was hard not to be infected with the spirit of the festival. And even though we never had a tree at home or even a tradition of Christmas presents, we still marked the day in our own way.

Sometimes it was a friends-and-family picnic in Botanical Gardens. At other times, it was a visit to the zoo. And sometimes it was just a lunch with friends at their home. But no matter where we celebrated, the day always involved lots of food, fun and festivity. And yes, since you ask, we did wear red Santa hats to get into the spirit.

Perhaps that explains why, even decades later, I take a particular delight in the advent of Christmas. It helps that my Christian friends are kind enough to invite me to their parties. And that mince pies, rum cake and eggnog go down a treat this time of the year.

This time around, for some reason, I suddenly felt the need to have a Christmas tree of my own. And once it was installed, sparkling away in a corner of the living room, I began imagining what presents I could put under it for members of my family. And that, inevitably, led to thoughts of what I would like for Christmas.

Well, since you ask, this is what I would like under my glittering fir tree this Christmas.

·       A time machine: That way I could travel back in time and undo all the horrific stuff that happened this year. First stop would be Syria, where countless children have been murdered in their beds by bombs that rain down every day in Aleppo. Next would be the UK, where the Brexit vote seems to have sparked off a fresh wave of racism. And then, there would be the USA, which lost its collective mind and elected Donald Trump (the putative Groper-in-Chief) as its President. (Though perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on those Americans; Hillary Clinton is ahead by nearly 3 million popular votes as I write this.)

·       A load of empathy: So that I could share it with all those who seem to squandered their own stash, judging by their complete indifference to the plight of those less fortunate. Never has this lack been more striking than after the government’s demonetization announcement. It doesn’t matter how in-your-face the suffering of poorer people is; it makes no difference how many people die queuing up for hours to withdraw a few thousand rupees; it is of no consequence how many jobs have been swallowed up by the monster of demonetization. No, it’s just a minor inconvenience. And in any case, aren’t these people used to queuing up for stuff? What’s the harm if they do so for their own money? As I said, empathy. Loads of it, so that there’s enough to go around.

·       An Internet connection that actually works: And by that, I mean a connection that runs at the speed at which it is actually supposed to, instead of slowing down inexplicably every time I am trying to watch a Netflix show late at night. A connection that doesn’t disappear when I am in the middle of downloading a movie, so that I have to start all over again when it reappears – only to see it disappear yet again before the download is complete. And yes, for a 4G connection that isn’t actually a 3G connection in disguise.

·       A brand-new metabolic system: Am afraid the one I have currently has sadly been run to the ground. In fact, there are some days when it is barely functional. So much so that I seem to gain 10 pounds just by driving past a bakery. As to what happens when I actually ate the chocolate croissant; well, let’s not go there. So I could really use a brand-new system, or even a system reboot, to kick-start my way to good health (and minimal cholesterol).  

·       A new liver: This one is showing signs of wear and tear after a lifetime of eating and drinking a bit too well. Actually, if I am asking for body parts, here are a few more that could do with a replacement: my dodgy back, which has never been the same since I took a spill down the stairs more than a decade ago; my wonky knees that twitch every time I climb up a flight of steps; and of course, my neck, which no amount of anti-ageing moisturizer can restore to creaseless glory.

I’m not greedy or unreasonable, so I am not holding out for all of these gifts this year. But even two out of five would be marvelous. I do hope Santa is listening…