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

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Baby blues

For all those new moms feeling inadequate when they measure themselves against Amazing Kate, I have one word of advice: Don’t

Did you happen to catch a glimpse of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (aka Kate Middleton), as she emerged from the hospital, having given birth to her third child? Wearing a bright red dress with a white lace collar (a homage to her mother-in-law apparently; it turns out that Diana, Princess of Wales, had worn a similar outfit when she left the hospital after having Prince Harry), Catherine held her baby boy in her arms, proud husband William by her side, and smiled and waved for the media assembled to record this moment. Her make-up was immaculate, her hair blow-dried to perfection. She wore glossy tights and – get this! – had her trademark nude stilettoes on as she sashayed out a mere seven hours after giving birth. 

Yes, you read that right. Seven hours after pushing an eight pound seven ounces human out of her body, the Duchess was ready for her photo-call, smiling and waving, and then smiling and waving some more. The only sign she had ever been pregnant was the little bump protruding through her Jenny Packham custom-made dress. But other than that, Catherine looked perfect. No swollen ankles. No back fat. No big bum. In fact, seeing her look as svelte as ever, an unworthy thought popped up in my head: Did she have a baby or a burger?

Well, she had a baby all right. Though you wouldn’t have thought it to look at her. But there were plenty of new moms online who weren’t having this bit of post-partum perfection stuck in their faces. Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel’s wife, Molly McNearney, who also had a baby recently, posted a picture of a radiantly smiling Catherine and William, tweeting alongside, “Let’s keep this real for the moms. The Duchess is wearing a diaper.” 

Molly was not the only one trying to inject a dose of reality into the proceedings. Social media was awash with pictures posted by women of how they looked hours after they had their babies. Suffice it to say, the contrast with the fragrant Duchess was rather stark. These ladies looked beautiful no doubt, with the first flush of motherhood lighting up their faces. But they also looked like they were just surfacing from a pool of pain and exhaustion. Not what anyone would think about if they saw Kate waving serenely from the doorstep of the Lindo Wing seven hours after giving birth (did I mention it was just seven hours after?).

But those comparisons didn’t exactly make sense. Catherine, a fitness freak, remained remarkably slim (except for the neat little baby bump) throughout her pregnancy. She had a natural birth and a short labour. This was her third child so she had the routine down pat. She had a dedicated team of hair and make-up people who whizzed in even as she bonding with her new-born son to perform those magic tricks on her. But even so, there was something impressive about her ‘jolly hockey sticks’ approach to new motherhood, popping out the baby, and then popping out looking all rested and ready for her close-up.

Looking at her as she performed for the cameras, though, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for the Duchess. The other women who gave birth in that hospital could spend time tucked away in a post-birth haze with their families and not worry about the world outside. They could just slip into a tracksuit or a pair of baggy jeans and a T-shirt when it was time to take their baby home. They didn’t need to bother to put on a full face of make-up or have their hair blow-dried. And they didn’t need to run the gauntlet of the international media just to take their baby back home.

Yes, Catherine did make it all look rather easy. In at 6 am with labour pains. Baby out at 11 am. Hair and make-up at 4 pm. Out of the hospital at 6 pm for a photo-call with baby and husband. Back at home by 6.30 pm. It was all in a day’s work for the Duchess. 

Maybe she really is the Superwoman she appears to be. And none of this is even remotely challenging for her. But I do feel for the other new mums who are watching and wondering just how this is possible. How is that they can barely make it to the shower on their own, while Catherine is half-way to Kensington Palace? Why do they look like they went ten rounds with Mike Tyson, while she looks as if she spent a couple of hours at a spa? 

Well, all I can tell these ladies is: just admire the woman for what she is (or at least appears to be; for all you know, she is gnashing her teeth behind that smile until she gets out of range of those cameras) and don’t set yourself up in comparison with her. She is the future Queen of England. She has all the help in the world to look like a million bucks even when she is still hurting from giving birth.

The only thing you have in common with her is that you both have new babies. Just rejoice in that fact. Breathe in the scent of your new-born. Cuddle him/her as if your life depended on it. Stuff your face with cake to celebrate. And yes, keep those diapers handy – both for the baby and for you!

Summer Reading

Now that you have some time off, here’s a list of books to keep you entertained

This is the time of year when newspapers and magazines like to recommend what they coyly term ‘beach reads’. As in fluffy, wispy books that don’t demand much of you, so you can idly read them as you drink up another Mojito or Pina Colada by the sea or poolside.

Well, the books that I am about to recommend for your summer reading are nothing like that. No, no, don’t be scared. They are not thick, dense tomes that will leave you bored or just depressed. Not at all. These are books that tell a cracking good story, that will keep you entertained and engaged until the last page, and will go perfectly well with whatever sugary drink you choose to drink as you dry off after a swim. So, read on – and then read up. And have a great summer break!

The Only Story by Julian Barnes

Yes, you’re quite right. The Only Story (worth telling) is a story about love. More specifically, it is about a May-December romance between Susan, a woman of 48 and Paul, a boy of 19, related in retrospect by the old man he becomes. The first section is related in the first person by Paul. In the second section, the narration shifts to the second person as things begin to unravel. And the third and final section segues effortlessly into third person as Paul looks back on life. As a study of young love, it is heartbreakingly accurate. As a memoir, it is unbearably poignant. And as a novel, it is quite brilliant. But then, you would expect nothing less from Julian Barnes.

Lullaby by Leila Slimani

If you are a parent of young children, you might find that this gory tale of a nanny who snaps and kills her young charges (no, that doesn’t merit a spoiler alert, the fate of those two kids is apparent from the start) cuts a little close to the bone. But if you can power through, you will be rewarded by a book that is a work of dark beauty, with the slow breakdown of the nanny – and the events that contribute to it – laid out in excruciating detail. It makes for difficult reading sometimes, but who said good literature has to be easy?

Tangerine by Christine Mangan

The best way to describe this book is as a re-fashioning of Patricia’s Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley with an all-female lead cast, as seen through the camera lens of Alfred Hitchcock. The novel is set in Tangiers (hence the title, Tangerine) that serves as the location of a reunion of two college mates. Alice Shipley is the young wife living there with her husband, when her old friend Lucy Mason (with whom she had a messy falling out) drops in unannounced. The story is told in the alternating voices of Alice and Lucy, neither of whom is an entirely reliable narrator. That sets up the shifting sands on which this novel rests, leaving the reader bewildered and enthralled in turn. 

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

As debut novels go, this one is unexpectedly assured, pulling together two narrative strands that seem entirely unconnected until we come to the very end. The first story is that of a young woman in her 20s who works in publishing and falls into a love affair with a famous writer in his 70s, Ezra Blazer (Halliday herself had an affair with the much older Philip Roth when she was around that age; so there is no escaping the autobiographical allusions). The relationship is, by its very nature, asymmetrical (hence the title, one assumes) and we can tell at the beginning itself that it won’t end well. The second story is that of an Iraqi-American who is stopped at immigration in London on his way back to Iraq, and who tells us his story in flashback. How do these two halves make a whole? Well, you’ll have to read the book and find out.

An Ordinary Man’s Guide to Radicalism by Neyaz Farooquee

The sub-title best summarizes what this memoir is about: Growing Up Muslim in India. The book is sparked by the Batla House Encounter in 2008, which took place only a few doors away from where the author – a student at Jamia University – lived in those days, and how those events affected him. It is from this starting point that Farooquee goes back and forth in time to tell us his story, which begins in a small village in Bihar, from which he is sent forth to study and live in Delhi as a small boy. Written in a simple yet lucid style, this book is required reading for those who want an insight into what it means to grow up Muslim in India.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn

This psychological thriller – as is evident from the title – owes a lot to the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock. The protagonist is yet another unreliable narrator (they seem to be highly popular these days), child psychologist Dr Anna Fox, who has become agoraphobic after an accident and spends her entire time locked up in her apartment. She spends her time taking pictures of her neighbours until one day she witnesses a murder in a facing apartment. The problem is that no one will believe her; and she is not entirely sure she believes herself. So far, so Hitchcockian you might say. But then, Finn delivers a final twist that you never see coming. And I guarantee, it will leave you winded – and wanting to read the book all over again to see what you missed.

Sometimes, life is just a walk in the park...

Actually, these days, it’s more of a photography session!

Spring is always the best time to take a walk in Delhi’s Lodi Gardens. The flowers are blooming, the trees are alive, the grass is greener than ever, and the birdsong is enough to make your heart soar. This spring though, as I walked briskly down its little winding roads, I realized that while I hadn’t been looking Lodi Gardens had turned into a photography studio rather than the neighbourhood park I remembered it as. 

To be fair, over the years, you could always find the odd couple posing for their engagement/wedding photos, looking self-conscious and embarrassed in all their finery amidst the joggers in their track pants and T-shirts. But this was something entirely different.

As I entered through the Ashoka Gate, the first thing I saw was a heavily-pregnant lady, wearing a maroon empire-line maxi-dress, posing in silhouette against one of the many monuments Lodi Gardens is littered with. Kneeling in front of her was a man who I presumed was her husband, his hand placed proprietorially on her baby bump. Immortalizing this moment for posterity (and for the progeny) was a burly bearded photographer wielding a DSLR camera like it was an offensive weapon, while his two assistants held up sheets of white thermacol at different angles to provide the best light.

I smiled indulgently at this tableau and moved on. I couldn’t have gone more than thirty paces when yet another photography session caught my eye. This time it was a couple who looked to be in their early 30s, accompanied by a whole team of hair and make-up people, who had opened their little suitcase of products and were conducting urgent repairs on the principals. Once the touch-up was done, one of the photographer’s assistants handed the couple a golden balloon in the shape of the number one. They hoisted it up between them, smiled widely and said ‘cheese’ to celebrate what I can only hope was their first anniversary. 

Fifty yards on, another love story was being memorialized on camera. This time, it was clearly a proposal, or rather, the re-enacting of one. The boy was in the now-mandatory position of being down on one knee, holding up a ring box in his right hand, while he held out his left arm in what can only be described as a Shah Rukh Khan pose. The girl was doing her best Sushmita-Sen-wins-Miss-Universe impression, holding her hands to her mouth in mock-shock and faux-awe. They held this pose for absolute ages as the photographer captured it from every conceivable angle. Given how much effort they had put into the ‘proposal’ I was sure that their marriage would be the stuff of legend.

And thus it went, photo-session after photo-session, as I tried my best to meet my target of 10,000 steps. And not just that day either; this wa pretty much par for the course every single time I went for a walk in Lodi Gardens.

As I trudged along, I tried to figure out what accounted for this sudden urge for ordinary, middle-class folk to conduct ‘glam shoots’ to commemorate some moment or the other. And then, it suddenly hit me: Instagram!

That’s where all these photos were headed; to be posted on ‘Insta’ with a plethora of hashtags for their family and friends to ‘like’ and comment on. And everyone knows that when it comes to Instagram, you have to look your very best, the photo has to be professional quality, so why not hire experts to do the job? Sure, it can’t be cheap. But hey, a good photo will live on forever on Insta; and who knows, if it is striking enough, it may even go viral!

I guess this was bound to happen one day. A movement that began with everybody taking pictures of their breakfast, lunch and dinner, and the odd fancy meal at an expensive restaurant was bound to end up with heavily-curated pictures of seminal moments of our lives, all subtly highlighted and posted on Insta with a suitable filter (X-pro or Lo-fi, anyone?). After all, if you post innumerable photos showing off the beautiful locations of your summer/winter vacations, then how can you ignore important milestones like proposals, anniversaries, pregnancies, etc.? And surely, such landmark moments rate more than the usual ‘selfies’ (even if they are taken with a selfie-stick). No, you need to call in the professionals at such times.

So, I guess that’s why my favourite neighbourhood spot for long, lonely walks has been transformed into Photography Central. There are more glittery stilettoes in evidence than sturdy running shoes. There are more shiny dresses around than there are jogging pants. And there are more hair and make-up people around than actual exercise enthusiasts.

And you know what? I love it!

I love watching those young lovers making gooey eyes at one another. I love seeing the look of pride in a young man’s eyes as he cradles his wife’s pregnant belly. And, of course, I love the corny proposal scenarios that play out every day in front of me.

I don’t know how much these photography sessions cost (and I, for one, would never pay good money for them). But I do know that for sheer entertainment value alone, they are priceless. 

Homing In

It’s a house when you move into it; you have to turn it into home

What makes a house into a home? That is a question I have grappled with over the last couple of decades, ever since I moved to Delhi and began living in an endless succession of teeny-tiny apartments. 

I still retain the fondest of memories of the first house I moved into in the capital, a small barsati in Defence Colony, where the enormous terrace was more than adequate recompense for the cramped rooms. But despite my love for my first Delhi home, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of achievement when I could finally afford a ‘proper’ flat, even if it was rented. And moving into a house of my own came with its own sense of joy – and relief (as anyone who has had to shift homes every two years when the lease is up will understand only too well).

Looking back now, I often wonder what was the moment when these living spaces went from being a ‘house’ to becoming my ‘home’? Was there a magic moment when that transformation occurred? Or was it a slow and steady process that crept up on me while I was busy doing something else? And what were the elements that went into this process?

What, to go back to my original question, makes a ‘house’ a ‘home’? 

In my case, the process begins with paint. Every house I ever moved into had its walls painted that regulation, anodyne off-white. A nothing shade, it depressed me just to look at it. So, the first thing I did was splash some colour on the walls. Dusky rose pink for the drawing room. A bright sunny yellow for the den. A brooding blue for the bar. Soothing tones of grey and lavender for the bedroom. And the odd splash of lime green to add interest to a boring corner. 

Everything looks so much better once the walls come alive with colour. The house is on its way to begin looking like a home – my home.

And then, come the books. Only once I have unpacked the many cartons containing what I rather grandiosely term my ‘library’ and arranged its contents on the shelves according to my preferred scheme (thrillers in one section, biographies in another, food books in a nook near the kitchen, and so on), do I start feeling truly at home. It’s like when you are surrounded by old friends in a new, unfamiliar place; their presence alone is enough to make you feel more at ease. That’s how books make me feel in a new house.

But that is just the starting point. The circle is only complete once I have identified a favourite corner (or a favourite chair or couch) to read in. Once I’ve found that little nook, spent a day (or two) ensconced in it, a steaming cup of coffee at hand, I know that I have found another home for myself.

Next comes the kitchen, which is – when you think about it – the heart of the house. So, the third step in turning a house into a home is to get the kitchen up and running. The spice rack must be stocked with everything from fresh haldi to Herbs de Provence, from Chinese five-spice powder to Mexican seasoning, from powdered lemon grass to sachets of bouquet garni. All my pots and pans – the cast-iron ones for cooking meat, the non-stick ones for healthy sautéing, the large one for making a cassoulet, the small one for the perfect omelet, and so on and on and on – must be within easy reach. The fridge and freezer must be heaving with cold meat, Greek yoghurt, cheese (the smellier the better), and ready-to-cook frozen aloo tikkis (don’t ask!).

Once all of this is in place, and more importantly, I have used all my pots and pans and assorted ingredients to cook a meal in that brand-new kitchen, well that’s when I begin to feel at home.

The last and final step has nothing to with the house, and everything to do with the neighbourhood. Strolling on the streets to get the lay of the land; walking in the local park every evening; buying vegetables from the subziwallah around the corner; getting a takeaway cappuccino from the nearby coffee-shop. A couple of weeks of this and the area – not just the house – begins to feel like home.

Of course, the process is different for everyone. And each one of us has his or her own criterion for deciding on what makes a house a home. A friend of mine insists that it’s only when the newly-painted walls start showing a stain or two, the kids spill some stuff on the sofa and the dog chews up one end of the carpet, does she feel that she’s finally made the home her own. 

For others, making a home means having friends and family over for an evening of food, drinks and laughs. Some feel at home only after they have an elaborate Grihapravesh puja. And then, there are those who need to generate enough clutter before they can call a place ‘home’.

But whatever the process, it invariably involves putting our own special stamp on the space we occupy. At the end of the day, like all animals, we need to mark our territory to truly make it our own.

Love stories

The grand passions of the last generation of stars seem to be a thing of the past

So, Jennifer Aniston is single again – a few weeks ago she and her husband Justin Theroux put out a joint statement to say that they have decided to separate. Cue, a hundred thousand violins screeching sadly across the globe, to provide a musical counterpoint to our collective cry of ‘Poor old Jen’. 

Yes, again. Poor old Jen! The phrase that first reverberated through the world when Brad Pitt left her for Angelina Jolie; the words that were used to describe her as she went from one doomed love affair to the other; they were pulled out yet again as another Aniston marriage came to an untimely end.

And close on the heels of the ‘Poor old Jen’ pity-fest came the ‘Jen and Brad forever’ narrative. After all, the argument went, both Aniston and Pitt were single now. He had been dumped by the femme fatale he left his wife for. So, what better ending for their love story than that they reunite – this time for good.

It mattered little to media outlets and fans on Twitter that Jen and Brad have long since moved on from their starter marriage. It’s been more than 12 years since they were last together and in that time period they have (between them) notched up two spouses, six children and three – or is it five? – boyfriends. 

But who cares about that? As far as the world at large is concerned, the Jen-Brad love story is one for the ages. And it seems blatantly unfair that it should end as it did. (Of course, there are as many people who feel the same way about the ‘Brangelina’ story and are waiting with bated breath for a reconciliation. But that, as the saying goes, is another story.)

What is it about some relationships that they capture the public imagination so vividly? Or, in other words, why do we get so invested in some love stories, though the principals are strangers to us and likely to remain so? Why do some lovers inspire us so that we cannot let them go, even long after they have left one another? 

I first remember asking myself these questions when that great screen and stage actor, Richard Burton, passed away in 1984. When he died, he was married to his third and last wife, Sally, and it had been eight years since he broke up with Elizabeth Taylor, his former wife (twice-over; they married, divorced, remarried, and divorced yet again). But if you had gone by the media coverage alone, you would have thought that it was Liz Taylor, not Sally, who was the grieving widow. 

Much the same thing happened when Taylor herself died in 2011. She had been married eight times to seven men, and had acquired and lost two husbands after she divorced Burton the second and last time. But her obituaries concentrated not so much on the many husbands or her four children, but on the great love of her life, Richard Burton, who wrote her those amazing love letters, bought her the most spectacular jewelry, and loved her to his last, dying breath.

Closer home, you can see the same phenomenon at work. Catch any film awards show and you will find that as surely as night follows day, the camera will pan to Amitabh Bachchan in the audience when Rekha is on stage (and vice versa) to get a ‘reaction shot’. Sometimes it will pan a little further to focus on Jaya Bachchan, as she sits poker-faced, knowing full well that the slightest grimace or frown will launch a thousand gossip items.

Watching these shows, it seems hard to believe that the Amitabh-Jaya-Rekha love triangle ended about two decades ago (at least) given the iron grip it still has on our fevered imagination. 

It says something about how fleeting and ephemeral the relationships of today’s stars seem by comparison that we really don’t feel too strongly about any pairing. Does anyone really care that Deepika Padukone had moved on from Ranbir Kapoor and is now dating Ranveer Singh? Does anyone even remember that Katrina Kaif and Salman Khan were once an item? And despite the media’s best efforts to whip up some hysteria about ‘Saifeena’, the Kareena and Saif Ali Khan coupling didn’t exactly set the world on fire.

The only love story that has come close to capturing the public imagination in recent years is the one between Anushka Sharma and Virat Kohli.  And that may well be because between the two of them, they covered the two great passions of Indians: movies and cricket. So, their star power expanded exponentially when they came together, and set the world aflame. 

But that’s as far as grand passions go for this generation. Other than that there’s really not much to get too excited about, with the same names hooking up and unhooking from one another in an endless round of romantic musical chairs. 

So, what explains the difference? Is it that the celebrities of today no longer have the same oversized love stories like their predecessors did, so they fail to light up our collective cerebral cortex? Or have the stars themselves lost their lustre in a world that moves on far too quickly to the next glittery thing? 

I really don’t know what it is. But I do know it is something I will be thinking about – especially once the award season gets going, with its hardy perennial of the ‘Amitabh-Rekha-Jaya watch’. 

The book's the thing

The story behind my first novel – a thriller set in the world of Indian politics

You know how the joke goes. Everybody has a book inside them – and in most cases that is where it should stay.

Well, it’s too late for me now. My book is already out, rolling hot off the presses, and available on Amazon and at all good bookshops near you. As for whether it was better inside me or out in the world, well, there’s only one way to decide that question. Buy a copy and make up your own mind!

Sorry for that bit of shameless self-promotion but perhaps you can indulge me just this once. I am still giddy with delight, having unpacked the box containing the first hardback copies of my novel, Race Course Road (Aleph Book Company). Since you ask, it’s a thriller set in the world of Indian politics and deals with the aftermath of a Prime Minister’s assassination. Most of the action centers around Lutyens’ Delhi and the Prime Minister’s residence on Race Course Road – hence the title. (Yes, yes, I know, it’s now called Lok Kalyan Marg; but you have to admit that doesn’t have the same ring when it comes to book titles.)

So, here I am, with a silly grin that refuses to move off my face, and a mind that refuses to think of (let alone write about) anything other than my book. Did I mention it was called Race Course Road?

Over the last week or so, ever since the book went on sale and I began the never-ending process of trying to flog it, I have been asked the same questions both in real life and on social media by those who have picked up a copy. 

The first one inevitably is: why did I decide to write a thriller set in the world of Indian politics? 

That one’s easy. As all those advice manuals keep telling you, ‘write what you know’. And, for better or for worse, this was what I knew. I first started writing about Indian politics way back in the late 80s and early 90s, when India was going through a political churn like no other, with one unstable coalition taking over from the other. 

Despite the fact that I was straight out of college, with no real experience of either journalism or politics, I found myself thrown into the deep end, being sent off to interview Prime Ministers (VP Singh and Chandra Shekhar) on their first day in South Block, resulting in page-one bylines that I cherish to this day. I followed such stalwarts as Madhavrao Scindia on the campaign trail, driving with him in a rickety Ambassador car through dusty villages and sleepy small towns, feasting on the stories he regaled me with. And I interviewed everyone from Atal Behari Vajpayee to Kamal Nath to Uma Bharati, as I climbed up the ranks at work.

As luck would have it, I developed a certain familiarity with the Race Course Road complex over the years as well, visiting it both in a professional and personal capacity. The workings of the place fascinated me: the security set-up that ensured that no guest was ever left unaccompanied; the many different channels of entry in place for people with different levels of clearance (a ‘green-channel entry’, for instance, meant that no record was ever kept of your visit); the air of inviolable privacy it exuded. 

It was this fascination, in part, that led me to base most of my book in RCR (and to name it Race Course Road). It seemed a bit odd to me that most Indians have no idea how RCR is actually laid out, even though so many Prime Ministers have lived and worked there. Unlike the White House, that conducts tours so that ordinary citizens can walk through the seat of government in America, the RCR complex is out of bounds for most of us. 

Very few people even realize that 7 Race Course Road, the official address of the Indian Prime Minister, is not where he actually lives; it’s the office complex where his secretariat is stationed, where meetings are conducted, where the Cabinet sometimes meets, and where foreign dignitaries come to call on him. Over the years, Prime Ministers have lived in either Number 3 or Number 5 Race Course Road, while Number 9 has been taken over by the SPG, and Number 1 by a helipad. 

But while the book is set squarely in the real world, none of the characters in it are based on real life people – to answer the second most frequently asked question. Yes, I know that’s not going to deter those who are determined to find parallels with real life but for what it’s worth, here’s my disclaimer: all the characters are figments of my imagination, and have no existence outside of my own mind. 

And as for that perennial query: how does one keep going at writing a book when the end doesn’t appear in sight? Well, the answer is pretty simple. Take things one day at a time. Make sure you get at least 500 words down every day. Write even if the words are not coming (you can always edit – or even delete – the day after). Read good books to get inspired. Read bad books to feel better about your own writing. And write, write, write, until the damn thing is done!

Face Off

Grooming routines seem to be getting more extreme by the day; how does yours match up?

I am always intrigued by the grooming habits of the female characters on our TV shows and movies. They wake up with lashings of mascara in place and perfectly plumped-up lips, with a sheen that owes nothing to nature. Even when they are pottering around in the house, their lipstick is perfectly applied, their cheekbones are impeccably contoured and their hair is all swishy and shiny.

Every single time I sit down to watch one of these shows – Modern Family, Divorce, Life in Pieces, This Is Us, McMafia, to give you just a random sampling – I wonder if any woman in real life ever resorts to such extreme grooming within the confines of her own house, on a trip to the supermarket or pharmacy, or even while dropping off the kids at the school gates.

Well, if such women do exist, we clearly move in entirely different social circles. Most of my friends think that running a brush through their hair is a pretty big ask if they are not stepping out of the front door. A dash of lipstick and a slick of kajal is all it takes to make them ready to face the world. Mascara and eyeliner are only pulled out for big life events like an anniversary or birthday celebration. And only wedding parties merit full-on foundation and blush-on (yes, they still call it that).

My own grooming routine tends to vary depending on the kind of the day I am having. There are some things that I just do on auto-pilot, like slathering on sunblock after my shower. It doesn’t matter if I am going to spend the entire day writing at my desk. The sunblock still goes on, even though my face will never see the sun in the course of the day. Ditto, with my kohl pencil. It doesn’t matter that nobody other than me is going to see it; I still slash a thin line on my upper eyelids. Why do I bother, you ask? Well, it’s because my face looks naked to my own eye without it.

If I am headed out of the house, then a dab of concealer to hide my dark circles is mandatory. There have been occasions when I have forgotten to do so before leaving the house and been shocked at suddenly catching sight of myself in a mirror. So, I can only imagine what a fright I look to others on these occasions. That’s when those sunglasses come in handy, no matter what time of day it may be.

How much of an effort I make also depends on whom I am meeting. If I am having lunch or dinner with my low-maintenance girlfriends, then I don’t bother glamming up. I am quite happy to go along with their uniform of jeans and a shirt with just a dash of red lipstick to liven things up. But if I am meeting some of my more glamorous mates, then without even realizing it, I end up focusing a bit more on my own appearance, falling in line behind them with a professional blow-dry, a light dusting of powder over the tinted moisturizer, though I draw the line at mascara during the day.

Similarly, if I am meeting my husband’s male friends at dinner, I don’t really bother to dress up. But if any of the wives are also putting in an appearance, then I try a little harder. And that’s only because they do, and it seems faintly insulting to not make a similar effort when I meet them. So, that’s when I bestir myself to wear a nice sari, stick on a matching bindi, and even eschew my usual flats for a pair of heels.

Of late, however, I have noticed that there has been a significant uptick in grooming standards in the different worlds I inhabit. Women turn up for early morning flights with a full face of make-up, perfect manicures and pedicures and hair blow-dried to perfection. Wine dinners are awash with ladies who have had their maquillage applied by professionals, complete with false eyelashes and hair extensions. And weddings have gone mental, with everyone and her aunt going full-on Kim Kardashian with extreme contouring, glow-in-the-dark make-up, fake hair, fake lashes, and fake just about everything else.

I am not sure what exactly is going on here. Are we reverting to the 1950s when extreme grooming was expected of all women, both within and outside the house? Is the Stepford Wives model of dressing up being revived, incongruously enough, by younger women in the 21st century? Or else how do you explain the pains young women take these days over extreme depilation, with every stray hair on the body being attacked with every weapon at their disposal? Their obsession with exfoliation and moisturization, the twin pillars on which their beauty regime is built? Their insistence on a full face of make-up before they step out to face the world?

There is a reason why all those make-up tutorials on YouTube knock up so many hits. Extreme grooming is at an extreme high these days. So, maybe I shouldn’t be scoffing at all those actresses in the TV shows I watch. Maybe these ladies were just ahead of the curve, and now everyone else is busy playing catch-up.

Just say no

For a man to hear a ‘no’, a woman has to actually say it

No means no. That cannot be said often enough. No means no. 

But if you mean ‘no’ then it follows that you also have to say ‘no’. If you want someone to hear your ‘no’, then you need to say it out aloud. Non-verbal cues do not cut it. Nor do verbal cues. Nor does less than ‘enthusiastic’ participation. 

That’s because all of the above relies on someone else to receive a message that you have not actually articulated. It requires your sexual partners to intuitively pick up on a discomfort that you have not voiced. It enjoins them to be mind readers (trigger alert, all you ‘woke’ millennials!) even when they may not know you well enough to be able to read your mind.

And that is putting a lot of responsibility for your safety and well-being on the shoulders of someone else. 

Yes, I know, this is where a lot of you will pause reading to shoot off tweets asking me to stop ‘victim blaming’. To tell me that I am putting the onus on women not to get raped or sexually assaulted or abused instead of putting the men who rape, assault or abuse them on notice.

But no, I am not blaming the victim. Mostly because I don’t see women as disenfranchised victims with no agency of their own. I don’t see them as passive participants who have no control over what happens to them. And any movement, feminist or otherwise, that seeks to turn women into hapless creatures who cannot stand up for themselves, who cannot speak for themselves, does not have my support. 

As you can probably tell by now, this column was triggered (there’s that word again!) by the Aziz Ansari case. (No, I’m not going into that whole controversy; I’m sure you’re fully up to speed by now.) So, what I am writing about today applies only to urban, educated, emancipated, sexually-active women with jobs and lives of their own – like the woman, dubbed ‘Grace’ to grant her anonymity, who sought Ansari out and went on a date from hell with him.

I am on the side of the generational divide that does not believe Ansari’s awful sex moves amounted to sexual assault or even sexual abuse. And I have difficulty understanding my millennial friends who insist that ‘Grace’ was coerced by Ansari. Her own account of the evening, in my reading, suggests otherwise.

But what is clear to me is that in this age of Tinder, when casual hook-ups with people you barely know are the rule rather than the exception, women need to be empowered to navigate this sexual minefield instead of being infantilized and told that they bear no responsibility for their own actions.

It goes without saying that consent is essential in every such encounter and that it is the responsibility of men to ensure that they secure it before initiating any kind of sexual contact. (And yes, ‘enthusiastic’ consent is the very best.) But I balk at the thought of casting women as helpless creatures who cannot even say ‘no’ when they mean it.

Sex, like much else in human life, is about communicating your desires, your needs, and yes, your reservations. But if we want men to listen then we must also empower women to speak up so that they can be heard. Women need to be active participants with a voice in the proceedings, not passive objects to whom things happen without their having any control over it.

I have lost count of the number of women who have told me over the past week that women don’t say no because they are afraid of the consequences. As in, they may meet with violence or even death if they say no. And yes, that is true in some cases. 

But here’s where those ‘verbal’ and ‘non-verbal cues’ come in handy. It’s not just incumbent on men to pick up on these cues. It’s imperative that women read them as well. If you feel you’re not being listened to during your date, being rushed into things at a pace you are not comfortable with, then maybe you should say ‘no’ sooner rather than later. Split the bill, call a cab and get the hell out of there.

Most adult women have a well-honed instinct for sniffing out the bad boys from the good. Trust those instincts. They will stand you in good stead. And if that voice in your head is telling you this is not going to end well, then end it right then. 

Of course there will be times when men you thought were honourable and ‘safe’ will surprise you. When a ‘friend’ you have known for years will suddenly turn into a monster. We’ve all been there. It’s truly awful and hard to negotiate, especially when your ‘no’ is heard but not acknowledged. But to conflate sexual assault or even sexual abuse with bad or awkward sex does a disservice to both men and women.

Yes, there are many men out there in the dating pool who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Who will push, push, push, until you’re well into sexual assault territory. And it is often difficult to see them coming until you’re right there in bed with them.

But there are plenty of good guys too, who are primed to look for your consent. Sadly, very few of them are actual mind readers. Which is why it’s imperative to remember that for a man to hear a ‘no’, a woman has to actually say it. 

Happy New Year!

Instead of New Year resolutions, here's my to-do list for 2018

I decided a few years ago that I wasn't going to bother with New Year resolutions any longer. And I find that the decision has served me well. No longer do I psych myself to achieve goals that I inevitably give up on a few months into the year. And nor do I feel that crushing sense of failure when I can't live up to my own expectations. 

So that resolution stands: no more resolutions for the new year. 

This January, however, I have decided that I will mark the advent of 2018 by compiling a to-do list of all that I hope to achieve - or at least work towards - this year. It is a suitably idiosyncratic and wildly varying list, so it may not make the best sense for all of you. But for me, this is just the ticket to make sure that 2018 trumps 2017 by a good margin. 

So, here goes, in no particular order of importance: 

* A couple of bereavements over the last two years have taught me an important lesson: it is never a good idea to leave your stuff behind for other people to deal with. So, with that in mind, I have resolved that this is going to be the year of giving away. Books that I am never going to re-read. Clothes that haven't seen the light of day in 12 months. Costume jewellery that is now too young for me (shoes and bags, ditto). DVDs, knick-knacks, mementos from trips long-forgotten. It all goes. By the time next January rolls around, I hope to have decluttered completely. 

* Of course, all of the above would be useless if I kept on buying more stuff to take the place of what I have given away. So the next item on my to-do list is to buy less. No more shoe-shopping orgies in which I notch up a dozen shoes without even realizing what I am doing. No buying another winter coat when the ones I have in my closet barely get any wear. No more buying physical books unless they're the kind I will want to read again and again (for the rest, the Kindle is a good enough home). And for every single item I buy, I have to get rid of one thing I already possess. That should put a dose of discipline into the proceedings.  

* Talking of books, this is the year when I read more and tweet less (and spend less time on Internet generally). Even those who finish a book a day can only read around 25,000-odd books in their entire lifetime (give or take 70 years). And with every birthday, the number of books that I can realistically read before I depart for the great library in the sky gets less and less. So, it's time to hunker down and devour all the books I always meant to read - but never got around to starting. 

* The year 2017 will always be special to me because I finished my first novel, Race Course Road, in its closing months (it will be released in February this year). And I am hoping I can make 2018 count as well by going back to the manuscript I abandoned half-way to work on this book and getting that across the finish line as well. 

* For the past couple of years, I have been keeping my sugar levels under control by taking long walks when the weather and pollution permits or by joylessly toiling away on my cross-trainer with one eye trained on the television. But that was only until I discovered that I could notch up many more calories burnt and achieve a much higher heart rate if I slipping my earphones in and danced the hour away instead. So, that is going to be my fitness motto for this year: walk less, dance more. (And have much more fun in the process!)

* But while cardio is great for the body, I also intend to nourish my mind. And that's where yoga comes in. No, not the kind in which you push yourself into all kinds of contortions in overheated rooms in the hope of losing weight. But the kind that teaches you to breathe right, shows you how to relax your racing brain, helps your stress levels with the right meditation techniques and allows you to become more in tune with your body and mind. You know the kind that our forefathers used to practice, where you listen to your body and let it lead you instead of trying to beat it into submission. Yes, that's the kind of yoga I am going to immerse myself in this year.

* And then, with a bit of luck, I will be in the right frame of mind to embark on my final - and hopefully, most rewarding - adventure of the year. My own personal rediscovery of Hinduism and the philosophical constructs at the heart of my faith. Given the virulent strands of Hindutva that engulf our public life these days, I think it is more important that ever to do a refresher course in all that Hinduism actually stands for. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. The world is one family. That seems like a good place to start. 


As the year comes to a close, here's a list of the best books I read in 2017

Yes, it's that time of year again. When newspapers and magazines begin doing their year-end round-ups. The political highlights of the year. The top ten people of the year. The twenty best places to eat at. The highest-rated holiday destinations. And so on and so forth.

So, in that same spirit of year-end nostalgia, I present to you my own list: the top five books I have read through the year. Needless to say, this is an entirely subjective list, far from comprehensive, and does not include many superb books that came out in 2017. But it is stuff that I read and loved -- and I hope you will read and love too. 

* Little Fires Everywhere: This is Celeste Ng's second novel and it is even more assured than her first, Everything I Never Told You. Set in American suburbia, the story starts with a fire that burns down the home of Richardson family. But the fire is not at the heart of the book, family is. Or rather, families. There are the Richardsons with their picture-perfect house, home to four teenagers. There is peripatetic single mother Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Mia who have a mystery at the centre of their lives. And then, there is a third plot line that involves a custody battle for a baby whose birth mother returns to claim her. It's takes a rare talent to sew all these multiple strands together without losing control of the plot. But Ng is that rare talent, so you are in safe hands.

* Ties: I have to confess that I downloaded this book by Domenico Starnone for ulterior motives. No, not because it has been translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri (who has also written a foreword). But because Starnone is married to Anita Raja who was recently 'outed' as Elena Ferrante, one of my favorite writers and there had been some speculation that the Neapolitan Novels I so loved were actually the work of Starnone. Well, having read Ties, I have my doubts about that theory. But that said, this book stands up on its own merits, sketching out the life of an ageing couple, with all the indignities of growing old, juxtaposed brilliantly with flashbacks of their young selves. 

* A Legacy of Spies: All the pre-release publicity revolved around how John Le Carre was bringing back George Smiley in this book. But frankly, that was a bit of a red herring. Smiley is referenced constantly through the book but remains offstage, emerging for a cameo at the very end. But that doesn't make this spy thriller (in the loosest sense of the term) any less enjoyable. You have to be a Le Carre aficionado to truly appreciate how the back story is woven in. But even if you are coming to Le Carre for the first time ever, you will be caught up in the sheer skill with which he swings from past to present. Speaking for myself, I was a bit disappointed with the end, but you can read and make up your own mind.

* What Happened: The title doesn't have a question mark at the end but I always hear one as I imagine Hillary Clinton saying in plaintive tones, What the (expletive deleted) Happened? Maybe that's because the author's voice comes through so strongly and clearly as she dissects all that went wrong in her 2016 presidential bid. Many critics have scoffed at the fact that Clinton blames everyone but herself for her electoral loss in this book. But that wasn't how I read it. To me, the book portrayed a woman, who had nothing more to lose, coming clean on how the mistakes she and her campaign made changed the course of American history even as she acknowledged the damage misogyny and sexism had done to her cause. In another decade or so, this will be essential reading for all students of politics. 

* House Of Spies: If you haven't read The Black Widow by Daniel Silva, then drop everything you are doing and read it now. Because Silva's latest, House of Spies, takes off from where The Black Widow left off. The central character is, as always, the legendary Israeli spy, Gabriel Allon, now ensconced at the head of his country's secret service. But even the demands of that job can't keep the intrepid Allon off the field, as he tries to track down and destroy the lynchpin of ISIS, a shadowy character who goes by the name of Saladin. After a momentary dip, when his novels became a tad formulaic, Silva is on top form again, weaving suspenseful stories that will have you up till the early hours of the morning, telling yourself, "Okay, just one more chapter!" Remember, you have been warned. 

Eat, drink and be marry!

How to survive the endless round of parties to celebrate everything 
from weddings to Christmas to the New Year

Yes, it’s that time of the year again. The time when, between
weddings, Christmas and the looming year-end, life turns into one big
party. Which sounds all nice and lovely when the party season has just
about kicked off, and there is a certain novelty value to getting all
blinged up and heading out for an evening of drinks, dance and (a very
late) dinner. But after about a fortnight or so (or a week, in my
case) this whole festive whirl thing begins to pall. And the very
thought of dressing up yet again, putting on a full face of make-up,
and slipping on those high heels for another evening of negotiating
mad traffic, loud music and indifferent food strikes terror in your

Well, at least, it does in mine. So, if you are anything like me,
here’s a ready primer for getting through this season and surviving to
party yet another year.

•       First off, eat before you leave the house. And I don’t just mean a
quick snack to take the edge off your hunger. I mean a proper meal
that will keep you going till around midnight when your hosts will
deign to serve dinner. That way you won’t be tempted to stretch a hand
out for all those deep-fried monstrosities being served up as canapés
to accompany the drinks. (I have a friend who actually downs a whole
glass of Isabgol so that her stomach is so full that she can’t eat one
unhealthy morsel when she’s out. But frankly, I wouldn’t go so far.)
Then, when dinner is finally on the table, you can tuck in with a
clean conscience.

•       Pace yourself when it comes to drinks. It is tempting to keep
knocking them back as you struggle to make yourself heard above the
thumping beats provided by the DJ. But do try and resist. You don’t
want just as thumping a hangover the next day. If you’re drinking
wine, have a glass of water for every glass of wine you down. If
you’re drinking spirits make sure to dilute them with lots of ice and
mixers. And if you don’t want to drink at all but don’t know to repel
all those “Arre yaar, have one whiskey, na!” there’s a simple way to
do it. Get a glass of water, add lots of ice and lemon and claim that
you’re drinking vodka. Nobody will care enough to take a sniff of your
drink to confirm.

•       Have a buddy system going with your friends, in which each of you
pledges to rescue the one who has been pinned down by a party bore for
more than ten minutes. It helps if you have worked out a few ‘Help
Me!’ gestures in advance instead of just looking around wildly for
rescue. If you don’t have anyone you can depend on (because they are
all getting steadily sloshed in the corner) fall back on the
tried-and-tested ‘startled look, smile and wave’ technique. This
involves taking a quick look beyond your torturer’s shoulder, widening
your eyes in surprise, smiling delightedly, waving wildly to someone
in the distance, and excusing yourself with, “Sorry, but I must say
hi…” Scamper off quickly before the bore follows you across the room.

•       At wedding receptions you couldn’t do worse than adopt a technique
that I have perfected over the years. Get there early so that enough
people can register your presence. Grab a drink if you must. And then
queue up to greet the newly-wedded couple as they stand on stage. Once
you get there, hand over the envelope/present, pose for a picture
(thereby leaving photographic proof of your attendance), bounce off
the stage, do one whirl of the party greeting everyone you know and
head straight on home. On a good day, you can be in and out of the
reception in 20 minutes flat.

•       If small talk isn’t your thing and the prospect of making inane
conversation with social acquaintances strikes you as a mind-numbing
waste of time, well then, treat parties as your own personal workout
session. Hit the dance floor as soon as you can, and then stay there
all night long, jiving away until it is time for dinner. (Wear your
fitbit if you want to know just how many steps you have notched up and
how many calories you have burned; you can then go to bed in a
self-congratulatory haze.)

•       And that brings me to the most important survival trick of all:
comfortable shoes. That doesn’t mean you need to wear flats. It just
means that you should steer clear of those vertiginous stilettoes
(which have a way of sinking into the wet ground at every outdoor
event, pegging you in place in the most embarrassing of ways).
Instead, opt for platforms or wedges or even a block heel that wont
make your feet ache by the end of the evening. If it makes you feel
any better, remember your shoes are not visible beneath that sari or
lengha anyway. And even if they were, in that crush nobody would even

So dance the night away; and survive another day in the mad scramble
that is the annual party season.