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

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.

Fifty shades of pink

Yes, that's right; we Indians are not afraid of colour and we have the wardrobes to prove it

I still have crystal clear recollection of my first encounter with that strange beast known as a fashion designer. I was just out of college, working on my first job at a weekly magazine (now sadly defunct) called Sunday, when I sent off to work on a story on the burgeoning design revolution in India. This was in the late 80s when fashion design was a concept largely unknown in this country. But there were a few early pioneers who were trying to sell us the concept of designer lenghas and couture kurtas.

So, there I was, on a hot summer day, at the south Delhi house of the late great Rohit Khosla. I entered his office -- set up in the garage of the family home -- to find him hard at work behind his desk. "Ah," he said, looking up to greet me, and flashing the most dazzling smile that has ever been bestowed upon me, "I'm glad to meet a girl who is not afraid of colour!"

Quite frankly, until that moment I hadn't realised the colour was something to be afraid of. But as I looked down at my parrot green kurta, paired with a bright orange churidar and a psychedelic dupatta that took in all colours of the rainbow and some that didn't even exist in nature, I had to concede that the man had a point.

I was a girl who was not afraid of colour.

But that was not some act of conscious bravery. It is just that, growing up in India, I had never seen colour as something to be afraid of. It was just a part of life, and I embraced it as matter of course as I went about my daily business.

On that day, however, I realised that this was something of an Indian peculiarity. We were the only ones who were not scared of wearing something in searing red or brilliant yellow. Or, as Khosla explained kindly to me, quoting the legendary fashion doyenne, Diana Vreeland, "Pink is the navy blue of India."

Or, to put it less pithily, just as the West regards navy blue as a safe colour, a neutral shade that works best in all circumstances, we in India regard bright shocking pink in much the same way.

Vreeland apparently made this observation based on the clothes worn by the women of Rajasthan, they of the bandhini ghagaras and lehriya duppatas coloured in shades of crimson, saffron and, yes, magenta. But frankly, this is as true of the rest of India as well.

Wherever you travel in our country you will find men and women who are not afraid of colour. Who, like me in more innocent times, don't even realise that colour is something to be afraid of. They just routinely pick up that turquoise sari or that orange shirt in the morning as they are getting dressed and go about their business without worrying about how brightly coloured their clothes are.

Travel in Punjab and you will find that the turbans of the men are as colourful as the salwar kameezes of the women. Go down south and you will be blown away by the brightly patterned lungis and the high contrast saris of the women on the street. Both Gujarat and Rajasthan use the most colourful dyes in their bandhej techniques. And then, of course, there's Bengal, with its jewel-hued tants, Tangails and Dhakais, where all the women seem to believe that red blouses go with everything (hey, what do I know? Maybe they're right!).

These sights are so common, the colours so much a part of our daily life, that we don't see them as something out of the ordinary. Colour is something that we do quite effortlessly and without giving it much thought. We will pair a red churidar with a purple kurta. We will wear a green sari with a pink blouse. We will wear purple from head to toe. We will stick on an orange bindi for good measure. We are not afraid of colour.

Which is why I am always surprised when I come across fashion features in foreign publications titled: "Scared of the bold colour palette of this season? Here's how to wear it!"

The feature nearly always dispenses mealy-mouthed advice like "just stick to one strong statement piece and pair it with a neutral shade" (which roughly translates as "if you're wearing a bright yellow jacket, make sure you pair it with cream or black trousers; or maybe blue jeans if you are really pushing the boat out"). Or even "start off with an accessory and then gradually ease yourself into the big-ticket items" (in other words "buy a green pair of shoes or an orange bag if you're too much of a wuss; and then try and work your courage up to get into that stonking pink overcoat!").

Well, if you ask me, these colour cowards should just take a leaf out of our brightly-coloured book and go the full Monty. Ditch those dark trouser suits and go in for a strong burgundy. Throw out the safe monochromes and explore the possibilities inherent in strongly-contrasting shades. Eschew those pale pastels and embrace the strength of reds, blues and pinks. Go on, do it already. You have nothing to lose but your boring beige and grey.

Pink may or may not be the navy blue of India. But colour certainly is the very soul of India.