About Me

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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!