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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The silence of shame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

Save yourself!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friend Zone

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

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

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

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

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

The Chaddhi Buddy

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

The Mother Figure

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

The Protégé

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

The Cheerleader

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

The Travel Buddy

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

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

Heel, girl!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midnight run

Women across India unite to take back the night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ladies first

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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