About Me

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

To grey or not to grey

That is the question; and what, pray, is your answer?

I am pretty sure everyone reading this is familiar with the phrase ‘silver fox’. But to err on the side of safety, allow me to explain that it is used to refer to handsome men of a certain age who are going grey, and looking better with every strand that turns white.

The original poster boy of the ‘silver fox’ brigade was Richard Gere, who was grey even when he was young and should by rights have had a full head of black hair. Since then, the mantle has passed on to George Clooney, who has embraced grey hair (and now a grey beard) along with his sex symbol status. And over the years, such silver foxes as John Slattery (who played Roger Sterling in Mad Men) and Alec Baldwin (30 Rock and more recently, SNL) have had their moment in the sun – or should that be moon?

So what, you ask, is the female alternative to ‘silver fox’? What do we call a woman who is growing older, embracing her grey hair, and looking amazing as a consequence?

Well, the short answer to that is: there is no such corresponding phrase. And what’s even more disheartening is that it is difficult to find famous women in the world of movies, media or even politics who have decided to go grey with age and look glamorous while doing so. (All I could come up with was Theresa May, and you will agree, there is nothing remotely foxy about her.)

If you look at TV news, then on the international channels you have a fair smattering of ‘silver foxes’. Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer on CNN, for instance, have been white-haired for as long as I can remember. Back home, Rajdeep Sardesai has begun greying at a rapid pace, and now has more white hair than black (as does Karan Thapar).

But channel surf one evening and see if you can find even one female anchor who is greying with the years. There are plenty of women in their forties on news television who should – in the natural course – have a smattering of grey in their hair. But every major female anchor across channels has impeccably coloured hair, sometimes with the addition of a few glamorous highlights or lowlights.

In politics, too, the number of women who are unapologetically grey are few and far between. Sonia Gandhi has been slowly greying over the last few years, and Sheila Dikshit has had salt and pepper hair for decades now. But that’s about it, I think. Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee, Sushma Swaraj, Nirmala Sitharaman, Maneka Gandhi, Sumitra Mahajan, all of them sport a full head of black hair (natural or not, I leave it to your imagination). In the last Parliament, the only woman I can think of who sported grey hair with aplomb was Jaya Bachchan.  

That’s not to say that women are not embracing greying in the wider world. You only have to check out the hashtag #goinggrey on Instagram to see some awesome women rocking their grey, salt and pepper, or white hair. But these women are still seen as outliers, the standard being women who don’t let a single strand of white show and monitor their roots with an iron discipline, checking in for colour treatments every four to six weeks.

I have to admit that this gender disparity in going grey doesn’t really surprise me. In the world we live in, there is far greater pressure on women to look good than there is on men. And in our culture, looking good has come to mean looking young, especially for women (women with white hair=old; men with white hair=distinguished). So, making the decision to let nature take its own course where your hair is concerned takes a bit of courage.

But I am getting the sense that this is beginning to change. I see many women around me saying yes to grey hair, and loving the way it looks on them. My sister is among them, though her decision was spurred by a medical emergency that left her with shaved head. When her hitherto-dyed hair grew back in an interesting shade of salt and pepper, she decided to keep it. It’s snow white now, and she looks absolutely amazing with it.

Would I be able to rock the same look, I often wonder. I am not sure just how much grey I do have – those six-weekly visits for a ‘root touch-up’ mean that I will never know for sure – and whether it will look as good on me as it does on her.

But the reason I can’t see myself going grey is more fundamental than that. The black-haired (with just a hint of auburn highlights) image of myself that I see looking back at me in the mirror seems the best version of myself. That woman looks the way I feel. And unless that feeling changes, the hair won’t either.

I will, as the saying does not go, dye another day. And then another. And another.

Table for one

Eating out alone has its pleasures – but it’s not the only activity you can enjoy on your own

I’ve lost count of the number of people who look at my pityingly when I say that I often head out to lunch – and sometimes even dinner (shock! horror!) alone. Don’t you have any friends, you sad little loser, their eyes seem to say. Does your husband not love you enough to have a meal with you? Why can’t you manage to rustle up even one lunch companion from among the dozens of people you know? 

Of course, they don’t say any of this aloud. Instead their ‘concern’ is expressed in any one of the following ways. Don’t I feel embarrassed and exposed eating a meal on my own? How can it be any fun going out to eat without having someone to share the experience with you? Don’t you miss having someone to talk to you while you are eating? And so on and on and on.

Well, the truth is while I enjoy eating out with my husband (and do so all the time) and have great fun doing my ‘ladies who lunch’ thing with my girlfriends, I also really, really enjoy taking myself out for a meal ever so often. Sometimes, I take along a book that I am currently immersed in, and bury my nose in it as I make my way through starter, main course and coffee. Sometimes I spend my time surfing on the Internet. And then, there are times when I don’t put any barriers between me and the world and simply indulge in one of my favourite pastimes: people-watching.

In fact, I love people-watching while eating so much that I even have my own phrase for it. I call it ‘catching the cabaret’, and as a speculative exercise there is no beating it. Is the teenage couple seated to the left of me breaking up or is it just another regular fight in a volatile relationship? That middle-aged couple seated next to the window? Are they eating in companionable silence because they have been married so long that they have nothing left to say to one another? That group of loud young men having a largely liquid lunch? How many of them will leave the table sober? And why is it that the decibel level of a kitty party group is always higher than that of any other?

But while eating out on my own is a fun thing to do, so too are a whole host of other activities.

Shopping, for one. Most of my friends enjoy going out shopping in a group so that they can have the benefit of other people’s opinions on the things they try one. And they have a point: you can’t really ask a shop attendant, “does my bum look big in this,” and expect an honest answer. But frankly, if you feel impelled to ask that question, then take it from me, your bum does look big in it. As far as I am concerned, my eye is the only one that matters when I go shopping.

I am also one of those people who find browsing in shops and window-shopping a complete waste of time. My modus operandi when I go shopping is to make a list of what I want, make a beeline for it, make my choice, pay up and head home. Spending hours looking at merchandise I am never going to buy – which is what inevitably happens while shopping with a group – is my idea of hell. So, solo shopping trips are what work best for me.

The same goes with exercise, whether it is a yoga or Pilates session or a walk in the park. With both yoga and Pilates I prefer to set my own pace, rather than try to slow down or speed up to keep up with a group of people. And when I am out for a walk, I like the idea of spending some time in contemplative silence or just listening to my own thoughts rather than chattering away with a friend or two.

I also find solitude restorative when I am in the kitchen so cooking, for me, is always a solo activity. After spending the whole day with people, there is something therapeutic about finding yourself alone in front of the stove at the end of the day. There is a certain meditative quality to mindlessly chopping vegetables, stirring a curry or a risotto, or even getting ingredients together to bung into the oven. Turn on some music, pour yourself a glass of wine, and suddenly cooking seems like fun rather than just another chore to get through.

The one thing I haven’t tried my hand at yet is watching a movie alone, though those who do so swear by it. There is no distracting chat from those accompanying you, and nobody steals your popcorn after refusing to order their own. But somehow I don’t think this would work for me. For one thing, a cinema hall is always full of people, even if you have ventured out alone. And for another, these people are always doing annoying things like taking phone calls, or texting or even chatting to one another. So watching a movie in a hall can never truly be a solitary activity.

Which perhaps explains why I have become such a fan of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, which give you the movie experience in the privacy of your home and the comfort of your sofa, where you can binge away to your heart’s content. And where the popcorn is far, far cheaper.

Game On

As winter comes to Westeros, only four women are still standing – but will one of them occupy the Iron Throne?

As I sit down to write this column, there are still three days to go for the release of the first episode of the last season of Game of Thrones. By the time you read this, you’ll already have seen it and will have a glimmering of an idea of where the final season of this show is headed. Though given how Game of Thrones works, whatever you may think in the beginning will end up being turned on its head in the finale. (Warning: this column contains spoilers galore if you still haven’t watched the first seven seasons, so proceed with care.)

But one thing is indisputable. After all the wars and skirmishes and Machiavellian dramas of the previous seasons, only four leading ladies are still standing in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. In Kings Landing, the Ice Queen Cersei Lannister, has taken the Iron Throne for her own. In the North, the two Wolf Sisters, Sansa and Arya Stark, have combined their strength to defeat their enemies (and kill Littlefinger). And the Mother of Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, has crossed the Narrow Sea to assert her rightful claim to the Seven Kingdoms.

So, which of these four women do you think will survive till the end of the final season? Which one of them has the best chance of winning the right to sit on the Iron Throne? And, more importantly, which one are you rooting for?

My personal favourite has always been Arya Stark, the plucky little girl who fashions herself into a stone-cold killer to survive all that life throws at her. I took a long time to warm up to Sansa Stark, the spoilt rich girl of the early episodes, but her resilience and strength as she dealt with two monsters – Joffrey Baratheon and Ramsay Bolton – have earned my respect.

But despite my admiration for the Stark girls, it is quite obvious by now that the odds-on favourite is Daenerys Targaryen, with most fans betting on her to win the battle for the Seven Kingdoms. After all, who can resist a silver-haired queen who is fierce enough to ride a dragon, and tender hearted enough to free slaves in her sojourn in the East?

At the other end of the spectrum is Cersei Lannister, whom only her twin brother, Jamie Lannister, could love. Her only redeeming quality is her fierce love of her children (even if we let the small matter of their being born of incest slide). But with all three of her kids dead, that tiny nurturing part of her is gone as well, leaving an ice-cold killer behind.

So, with all this in mind, let’s see what are the chances of each of these ladies to become ruler of the Seven Kingdoms:

Daenerys Targaryen

As she never tires of pointing out, Daenreys is the rightful heir to the Iron Throne, the Targaryens having been deposed by the ‘Usurper’ Robert Baratheon. But even leaving her blood claim aside, Daenerys is the strongest candidate in the battle for Westeros. She has a wild Dothraki horde backing her; she has the wily ‘Imp’ Tyrion Lannister as her main advisor; and most importantly, she has dragons that can lay waste to all her enemies. There is just one glitch: one her dragons has been turned by the Night King, so the battle will not be so one-sided after all. But good money is still on Daenerys ending up on the Iron Throne.

Cersei Lannister

It would be a complete inversion of all the rules of natural justice if Cersei Lannister retained her control of the Iron Throne. Conventional wisdom dictates that Evil, as personified by her, is always defeated by Good, at the end of any fantasy story. But as we have seen, Game of Thrones is no ordinary fantasy. Here the rules are overturned with scant consideration for the feelings of fans (remember Ned Stark’s beheading and the Red Wedding?). So, it wouldn’t surprise me unduly if Cersei did end up being the last one standing even though one fan theory has it that she will end up being killed – by her twin, Jamie Lannister, no less.

Sansa Stark

The character arc of the elder Stark sister has been quite remarkable, her life trajectory taking in everything from being betrothed to Joffrey, married to Tyrian, escaping the clutches of her mad aunt, being married to and abused by the despicable Ramsay Bolton, to being reunited with Jon Snow and ruling the North alongside him. But frankly, for Sansa to get the Iron Throne, too many people have to die. But then again, when has that ever been a problem with the Game of Thrones?

Arya Stark

This one is a very, very long shot. But there are two reasons why I would love to see Arya Stark on the Iron Throne. First, her bravery is breathtaking from the time she holds her own against the Hound to the moment when she slits Walder Frey’s throat. Two, she is the ultimate survivor, navigating the harsh world with just her own fierce courage and a tiny little sword she calls Needle. And the world needs a Queen like that.

Of course, it is entirely possible that none of these women will get within sniffing distance of the throne. And that Jon Snow will turn out to be the Prince That Was Promised.

But that seems like the most predictable end of all. And we all know that George R.R. Martin just does not do predictable.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Earthly reasons

Saving the planet seems like a huge task - but start small and do your bit anyway

The one thing that annoys me no end about the election campaign in India is that nobody even bothers to talk about the environment. Climate change doesn’t even get a look in. Air pollution is not an issue for any political party. And not one political leader feels remotely concerned that we are destroying the planet on which our children and grandchildren will one day live - assuming that they can cope with the rising temperatures, water shortages, and such natural disasters as floods and hurricanes.

But after fulminating for weeks I have decided that there is no point beating myself up about this. Instead, it is better to take a constructive approach and do my little bit in my own life to leave the world a better place - or at the very least, as a place worth living in.

So here, for what it’s worth, are my top tips to do your bit for the environment. If you can think of any more, please feel free to add to the list.

  • Carry a cloth bag with you when you go shopping for groceries or vegetables. By the end of the year, you will have ensured that there are hundreds less plastic bags in circulation.

  • If you do end up taking plastic bags homes, make sure that you dispose of them responsibly. Don’t just dump them on the street or even in a roadside bin from which they could fly out and potentially be eaten by a cow or a dog. Not only is this disastrous for the health of the animal, you will also end up introducing more plastic in the food chain. And like karma, it will find it’s way back to bite you in the posterior - or more accurately, it will come back as you bite your food ten years down the line.

  • Look for brands that do minimal packaging. And choose them every time over those who pack their products in layers and layers of plastic.

  • Throw out all those plastic water bottles from your kitchen. Invest in a set of glass water bottles. This will be good not just for the environment but for you as well. There is evidence to suggest that drinking out of plastic bottles - especially those that have been left out in the sun - can lead to your water being contaminated with dangerous compounds. And that’s quite apart from the fact that a plastic water bottle takes 450 years to degrade. (Yes, you read that right: 450 years.) And that a substantial number of them end up in our oceans where they endanger marine life for decades to come.

  • If you are eating out in a restaurant where you know the water is safe, don’t order bottled water. Even one less plastic bottle in circulation is a plus.

  • Unless you have a medical condition or a disability, say no to straws. Plastic straws make a disproportionate contribution to environmental waste, taking up to 200 years to decompose. Many food and drink outlets in India have made the move from plastic to paper straws. But even though these are biodegradable they are still a drag on the environment. So just say no to straws if you don’t really need them.

  • In the Delhi winter, when it gets bitterly cold outside, give the guards a heater. Pool your resources and make sure that your Residents Welfare Association (RWA) gives all the colony’s watch staff some shelter and heating. Not only is this the humane thing to do, it is imperative to ensure that there are not a hundred bonfires raging all across your neighbourhood, further contributing to air pollution.

  • Reduce your carbon footprint by eating local as much as possible. Choose apples from Kashmir rather than New Zealand; cherries from Himachal rather than Japan; melons from Punjab rather than Bangkok. And yes, eat seasonal as much as possible.

  • It is said that the mark of a great society is when old men and women plant trees whose shade they will never sit under. So, put aside a little bit every month for planting trees. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a garden or even a small patch of green. There are many reforestation efforts being waged in our villages and hills. Find one such campaign that you can get on board with and make them a generous contribution. This is one of the best ways to offset your carbon footprint.

  • If that seems a huge ask, then start small. Invest in potted plants that are proven to improve air quality and place them in strategic areas around the house and in your balcony. It may not amount to much, but in crisis situations every little bit helps.

  • Most important of all, cut down on your water consumption. I am not saying you need to revert to the days of bucket baths but taking a shower rather than a bath will save tons of water every year. Not using a hose pipe to clean your car will do the same. And don’t forget to recycle the run-off water when you use your RO machine. Store it in buckets and use it for cleaning the house or watering your plants. As the saying goes, waste not, want not. Let that be your mantra as you go about saving the world, one drop of water at a time.

Fifty shades of grey

It took two women – Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti – to give us three-dimensional female characters with complexity and nuance

I grew up on Hindi cinema that only allowed women to exist in broad stereotypes. There was the teary, all-sacrificing mother, usually a widow, who worked herself to the bone to provide for her kids. There was the adarsh Bharatiya nari who lived only in service of her husband, her kids, and most importantly, her in-laws. There was the glamorous vamp who announced her evil intentions of luring the hero away from the heroine by smoking and drinking copiously and wearing very skimpy clothes. There was the spoilt rich girl who would be tamed by the poor but masterful man she fell in love with. There was the poor little girl who would find her life transformed by the love of a rich but good man.

I could go on, but I am sure you too have seen all those movies.

As I grew into adulthood and then teetered into middle age, I hoped that Hindi cinema would begin to reflect the changes that I saw all around me. They may have only existed in a privileged sliver of the urban middle class, but there were strong, empowered women everywhere I looked. Women who didn’t just take their own decisions, but owned them. Women who faced the challenges life threw at them head-on and lived to tell their tales. Women who were, in the immortal words of the late, great Nora Ephron, the heroines of their lives.

But, much to my disappointment, the heroines of Hindi cinema remained pretty much confined to the broad stereotypes in which they had always existed. There were a few cosmetic changes but the broad brushstrokes remained the same. Ma was now called Mom, and she had a corporate job rather than a sewing machine; but she still expected her son to bring home a good bahu. Both the Good Girl and the Bad Girl were now allowed to wear revealing clothes but only the one with good Indian values would land the man of her dreams.

And so on, and so clichéd.

But just when I was in danger of being bored into a despondent stupor, I was jolted awake by not one, but two, complex female characters over the last fortnight.

The first was Saifeena, the female lead of Gully Boy, played by the incandescent Alia Bhatt. In the movie, you first see her through the prism of her hijab. So, even if it is at subliminal level, you expect her to portray a traditional Muslim girl who prays five times a day and ends up marrying the man her parents chose for her. But before that thought can even coalesce in your mind, the character springs a surprise on you. She has been in a relationship with a young man in the neighbourhood for years now – conducting her affair with admirable sneakiness and breathtaking chutzpah, spinning tales even as she looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.

There is much to admire about Saifeena: her passion for her boyfriend; the canny pragmatism with which she navigates her life; her ferocity when it comes to defending her corner; her ability to get her own way no matter what. This is no little girl who follows the rules set down by her parents. This is a grown woman who makes her own rules – and then breaks them when she feels like it. Because this is her life. And she is determined to live it on her terms.

Tara Khanna, the female lead of the Amazon Prime series, Made In Heaven, is a slightly different creature. Again, you start off by seeing her as a young socialite playing at being a businesswoman, backed by her husband’s money. But as the story develops, it reveals hidden depths in her character. Tara, played by Sobhita Dhulipala in a career-defining performance, may be on top of the heap today, but she has clawed her way there, while making sure that her manicure stays immaculate. The journey hasn’t always been pretty, and she’s done some awful things along the way. But such is the nuanced portrayal of her character that you can’t really condemn her for what she’s done, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.

And that is down to the brilliance of the writing. It is not a coincidence that both Saifeena and Tara have sprung from the imagination of two female writers, Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti – ably assisted in Made in Heaven by a third woman, Alankrita Shrivastava. It is thanks to them that we finally have women characters who are not two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs but fully fleshed-out women who live their lives – like most of us do – in shades of grey.

It is that complexity, that nuance, that makes these characters come alive – and take residence in our hearts and minds.

Monday, March 11, 2019

It's only words

Want to write that book that’s bubbling up within you? Here are some tips to get going

Last month my book, Race Course Road, turned one. And never before have I been quite so excited by an anniversary. So, like all proud parents, I have been planning special events to celebrate this landmark, everything from giveaway contests, to social media campaigns and book events across the country.

But as things settle down, and I look back on the year past, I finally begin to appreciate what a wild ride it has been. This was the year I turned into an interviewee from an interviewer. This was the year I topped the bestseller list – a first for me. And then there was the novel sensation of having film production companies reach out to me for the movie and digital rights to Race Course Road.

Through all this, though, there was one question that kept cropping up wherever I went. What are your tips for writing a book?

I usually replied with whatever inanity that popped into my head at that moment. But as I sit down on my desk again to work on the sequel to Race Course Road, I have been thinking hard about the answers to that question. Real answers, that is, that would actually help those sitting down to write their own novel.

And here, for what it is worth, is what I came up with, based entirely on what worked for me.

There is nothing more terrifying than a blank page. So before you sit down to write your book, spend some time in preparing for that venture. Make notes about where you want your story to go, think about crucial plot twists. If you are organized enough, then doing chapter break-ups is a good idea because it allows you to pace yourself. And it always useful to flesh out your characters in your head before you sit down to write.

And then, when you finally sit down to write, be prepared to junk all of it if necessary. This is just a way to settle your nerves, to muster up the courage to make that first keystroke. This is not a masterplan that you must follow at all cost. If the story wants to go in a different direction, allow it to do so, and see what happens. If some characters surprise you on the page, don’t clamp down and put them back in their fictional straitjackets. Just like real-life people, characters in a book have a life of their own. Let them live it as they see fit.

Don’t wait for the muse to strike. If you do that you will be waiting forever. Just sit down and start writing. It doesn’t matter if it seems like heavy going. Don’t worry if every single word on the page seems wrong. You can always go back and re-write or edit – or even junk it altogether. But it is essential that you start the process. Because unless you start you can never finish.

And then persevere. The best way to do this is to set yourself a deadline. It could be 500 words a day. It could be a chapter in a week. Or even an entire book in 14 months. Once you have set this internal deadline, try your best to stick to it. But if you miss out on a particular week’s target, don’t beat yourself up over it. Just try and make up in the following fortnight.

If there is one thing I can promise you, it is this: it won’t be easy. There will be times when the words will refuse to come. There will be times when you will tempted to delete everything you’ve written and just give up. Don’t do that. Take a deep breath, step away from the computer for a bit until you calm down. And then reevaluate when you are feeling less emotional.

Most important of all: give yourself a break occasionally. Treat yourself to some time off when you have finished a chapter or negotiated a particularly tricky plot twist. You can use this time to go on a mini-break or just chill on the sofa all day long. But time off is vital to come back to your manuscript refreshed and with a fresh eye. 

Don’t stop reading just because you are writing. Read a good book to get inspired. Read a bad book to feel better about your own writing. Reward yourself with a page-turner when you’ve met a deadline. And stick to serious non-fiction while writing so that you don’t get distracted by the thought of what happens next.

Stay off the internet while you are writing. Switch off the wifi in your home, put your phone on airplane mode. And see the difference it makes to your productivity.

Writing is a lonely business. So it always helps to have a book buddy, someone you can rehash plot points with, who can be your first reader and give you unbiased and honest feedback. In my case, it was my husband but I wouldn’t recommend that to everyone. Frank criticism can place some strain on the happiest of marriages; so make sure yours can bear up under that weight.

And with that load off my chest, allow me to wish you “Happy Writing”. I look forward to reading that book that currently resides within you.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Fear factor

Living life as a woman means being constantly aware of your own vulnerability

“Do you ever think about the fact that women live in fear for most of their lives?” That was the question I posed to some of my male friends last week as we discussed just how much freedom they could – or should – accord to their teenage daughters.

They all looked rather startled when I asked them this, so it was clear that this was not something they had ever given much thought to. But after ruminating for a minute or two, one of them asked tentatively: “Do all women live in fear? Even someone like you?”

Once I had stopped bristling, I realized that question had some merit. By any standards, I live a rather privileged life. I live in an area that is relatively safe and well-policed. My apartment is in a building that has private security. I have my own car. And those are just some markers of my privilege.

So, I should – by any reckoning – be able to go through life without feeling scared or threatened in any way. And yet, not a day goes by when I am not aware of my own vulnerability as I go about my everyday life.

Every man who has got this far will be unable to relate (just like my aforementioned male friends) or even understand how this feels. But every woman who is reading this will instantly identify with my feelings of fear and dread.

Every woman, no matter how privileged, will always have that one moment in her day or week or month in which her heart leaps into her mouth with the fear that things could go completely wrong. She could be in the wrong cab, in the wrong city, in the wrong area. She could make one bad choice and find her life altered in a moment.

Just thinking back over the last week, I can think of three different instances in which I felt that creeping fear as I went about living my life.

It was a cold and cloudy day in Delhi and I was late for my daily walk through Lodi Gardens. The darkness fell as I was halfway through. But there were enough people around for me to feel reasonably safe. Or so I thought. But as I turned around to make my way back to my car, I decided to take a short cut. This meant crossing an empty stretch. As I slowed down to catch my breath, I heard some loud voices over the song playing in my ear.

There was a group of high-spirited young men behind me, jostling and pushing one another. They probably didn’t even notice me, but for a few seconds, my heartbeat accelerated as I wondered if I had the right decision by getting off the jogging path. Memories of all those stories I had heard of women getting molested or attacked in public parks came gushing back as I fell back to allow them to overtake me. They walked past me, completely oblivious to my momentary panic. But it was a while before my heartbeat returned to normal.

Then came the afternoon when I was alone at home. The doorbell rang. There were two burly men outside flashing their ID cards. They had come to take the meter reading for the gas connection. They were totally legit and completely harmless. And yet, I hesitated for a moment before I let them in, my mind going to dark places as I speculated how easy it would be for the pair of them to overpower me.

Of course, I told myself not to be so silly. I invited them in, they did their work and were out in a few minutes. But the moment of doubt and fear reminded me yet again of my vulnerability. And how I relied on the goodness of others to move unscathed through life.

But never did I feel more at risk than when I was driving back home after a late night. I am fortunate enough to have a driver so I was not alone. But as the car came to a halt at a red light and was surrounded by many insistent young men asking for alms by banging on the glass window, I experienced that flash of panic yet again. We were only stationary for about 30 seconds but it seemed like a lifetime to me as I tried to ignore the sharp raps on the car window and struggled not to focus on how easy it would be to break into the car and do me harm.

I could go on, listing instances like these. But while each incident is different in its details, the feelings it provokes are the same. There is the same jolt of panic, that same flash of fear, that same sense of vulnerability. And every woman reading this will have experienced these feelings as they move through the world.

But however much we may explain this to the men folk in our life, they will never really get this on an intuitive level. They may claim to understand how we feel, but they will never really know what it means to walk in fear through life.

To understand how that feels, you have to live as a woman for a day.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Tidying up

Do you want to “Marie Kondo” your life and home? I am not so sure about that…

You know what doesn’t “spark joy” in my heart? The thought of emptying out my closets and dumping every item on my bed so that I can touch each of them and see if they “spark joy”. If anything, the very thought of undertaking such an enterprise strikes terror in my heart.

In case you have been living under a rock (or more likely, don’t have a Netflix subscription) this is, apparently, the litmus test to determine whether you should keep an item of clothing or toss it. And while the rest of the world seems to be going a bundle on this method of de-cluttering and tidying up, I can’t help but think that’s too much pressure to put on an inanimate object – let alone its owner.

An outfit can do many things. It can help us project a professional image when we set out to go to work. It can be a marker of our personal style. It can take us from day to evening with a few key changes of accessories.

An outfit can have emotional heft. A pair of skinny jeans that you no longer fit into becomes a talisman of sorts as you promise yourself to go on a diet so that you can wear it again. You may never slip on that short skirt again now that you are past 50; but discarding it seems too much like bidding goodbye to that youthful version of yourself. The saris you inherited from your mom make you tearful rather than joyous; and yet you can’t bear to put them someplace you’ll never see them.

But how many outfits in your wardrobe can really “spark joy”? Maybe I am turning into a crusty old curmudgeon in my middle age, but I can’t summon up that sentiment for more than half a dozen pieces. And all of them are special occasion outfits that have sentimental value to me. I certainly couldn’t devise an everyday wardrobe around these choices.

So, if I went by the “spark joy” motto, I would end up with some beautiful occasionwear that had special meaning for me. But I would have nothing to wear every day as I set out to work.

But that’s not how the new guru of tidying up, Marie Kondo, sees it. According to her, if an item – not just clothing, but any household item ranging from kitchen utensils to decorative items to books – does not “spark joy” when you hold it in your hands, then it is time to let it go. Once you have administered this test to all the stuff in your household you will be left with a pared-down house that is cleaner, tidier and less overwhelming to live in. And while I remain a sceptic, there are many people across the world who have bought into this message.

A tiny doll-like figure with a porcelain complexion and a 1000-watt smile, Kondo is the personification of the tidy houses she likes to create. She embodies the aesthetic of less is more; of pared-down perfection that allows no room for mess and clutter. And it doesn’t exactly hurt that she is from Japan, the land of curated interiors and landscaped exteriors, that exerts a strong hold on the popular imagination with its refined culture and eye for detail.

So, it’s only fitting that Eastern mysticism also plays a part in this de-cluttering process. The “cleaning” sessions begin with Marie leading the residents of the house in an impromptu meditation session in which they thank the house for looking after them. And before you can discard a single item from your household, you have hold it and thank it for its service over the years.

I am pretty sure that if a new-age American guru from San Francisco tried this, he or she would soon become a figure of fun, but because Marie Kondo carries the weight of Japanese mysticism on her slender shoulders, the entire world seems happy to play along.

But if this was just about tidying our living spaces, throwing out the junk that we all tend to accumulate and hold on to over the years, I could understand the appeal. What I can’t get on board with is the equivalence that is drawn between de-cluttering your space and de-compressing your mind.

Kondo maintains that letting go of things and making your surroundings less cluttered will make you feel better about yourself and more in control of your life. That a tidy space will have a calming effect on you and allow you to function better. Declutter your home, she says, and you will automatically declutter your mind.

Well, I have my doubts about that.

I find that it is the people who feel that they have no control over the rest of their life who try and impose some sort of order on their immediate surroundings. They try to create an ordered universe around them precisely because they can’t deal with, or are overwhelmed by, the messy world that exists outside their door. They try and deal with the chaos inside their heads by trying to create order in the physical realm that surrounds them.

The true test of a de-cluttered mind is that it can exist peacefully with a bit (or a lot) of clutter.

Or, at least, that’s what I tell myself as I sit here, writing this column surrounded by the clutter that I call my life. Marie Kondo would be appalled, but I find that a little bit of a mess makes me feel right at home.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Attention, please!

Listening to a book is not quite the same as actually reading one

It all started because of a walk in the park. Winters in Delhi are really the only time you can indulge in this pleasure. And I was determined to do just that this year (air pollution be damned!), chalking up my daily 10,000 steps as I meandered through the paths and crooked lanes of Lodi Garden. And just like everyone else, I carried my phone along so that I could pop my earphones in and listen to some music.

That worked for a while but then I got a bit bored. And I began to wonder if it would make more sense to download an audio book and listen to it as I made my ritual perambulations of the park. After all, there is nothing I love more than reading a good book. So, listening to one would make good sense.

Well, gentle reader, I did just that. I downloaded a crime thriller by a writer who came highly recommended on the Audible app and headed out for my walk, confident that the story would keep me enthralled and one hour would pass in the blink of a second.

Sadly, it didn’t work out like that. The story began well enough but I was barely through the first few pages when my attention began wandering. My gaze fell on a flowering hedge, then moved on to a monument gently lit by the setting sun, and then to the pair of lovers entwined behind a looming tree. And before I knew it, I had tuned out the voice in my ear and was neck-deep in real life.

By the time I tuned back into the book, I had completely lost the thread of what was going on. If I had been reading a book, I would have just flipped the pages to get back to where I left off. But it’s not quite so easy unwinding back to the right bit in an audio book, so I ended up listening to the same bit all over again.

Pay attention now, I said to myself as I finally found my place in the book. And I did just that – for the next ten minutes or do. And then, yet again, my mind began wandering. What do I write about for my next column? What should I make for dinner? What present should I buy for my niece? 

So, it was back to rewinding yet again to catch up on what I had missed. After I had done this half a dozen times, I switched back to music. Walks were too distracting to listen to audio books, I told myself. I will listen to it in bed, hearing my bedside story as if I were a child again. 

But as I settled down under the covers and let the story wash over me, I found myself getting increasingly irritated by the narrator who kept – in my mind, at least – stressing the wrong words in every sentence. And when she began adopting the strangest nasal and high voices for the teenagers in the narrative, I decided to give up.

This was never going to work. Audio books clearly weren’t for me. Or, perhaps, just this audio book wasn’t. Maybe I would have better luck with another one (all recommendations gratefully accepted). 

But as I switched the bedside lamp back on to read a book, I began to wonder why listening to a book wasn’t quite the same thing as reading one. And these are just some of the conclusions I came to:

Reading is a more active pastime than listening – for me, at least. When I am reading, my brain is completely engaged with the book. I am making sense of the plot, working out the undercurrents and subtexts, making my own judgments of the characters (and how they sound!) and interpreting the nuances of dialogue for myself. I don’t have a narrator inserting himself/herself between me and the book and distorting the experience for me. 
Reading a book allows for far greater flexibility. You can go back and forth as you wish. If you want to check something that was said in the first chapter that seems more significant now that you are half-way through, no problem. You can flick back and find what you are looking for. Want to reread a particular passage because it has more resonance now that the twist in the tale has been revealed. No problem, go right back. Try doing that in an audio book without going quite mental in the process!
Reading a book is a far more immersive experience. You can shut out the world and just concentrate on the written word. And sometimes those words can transport you to a different world altogether. Listening is not quite the same thing. Your eyes will wander, and in due course, so will your brain. And you won’t be able to sink into the story, like you would if you were reading it.

That said, I am not ready to give up on audio books just yet. I am going to persist in the hope of training myself to be a better listener. To make the task easier I have just downloaded Poirot’s Finest Cases by Agatha Christie. If Christie can’t keep me engaged, then nothing can!

It's a New Year

But it’s still the same old me – and you know what? That’s okay!

It is traditional, I know, to spend the first month of every year thinking of how you are going to spend the next 11 months. Most of us make what we fondly call New Year resolutions, even though we know – based on past experience – that they won’t even last for a few months. And more often that not, these ‘resolutions’ are all about transforming ourselves: becoming thinner; getting fitter, learning new skills, finding a new job, making more money, spending more time with the family, and so on and on and on.

There are very few people who enter the New Year feeling entirely happy about themselves and their lives. Nearly everyone thinks that they could have done better. And so, they swear that this is the year that they will be the best ever version of themselves.

I guess this is the bit where I break it to you that I am not really the one for resolutions, New Year or otherwise. In fact, the older I grow the more absurd I find this universal tendency to treat the 1st of January as some sort of landmark, a red letter day if you will, which marks a new beginning. And one that we have to mark as some kind of turning point in our lives.

Well, frankly, it doesn’t feel like that to me any more – if it ever did. I am as happy as the next person to party on New Year’s Eve. Or, if I am lucky, take off for a quiet break with my husband during the Christmas/New Year holiday. But I certainly don’t feel like a new person when I wake up on the first day of the New Year. And I most certainly don’t feel the need to reinvent myself as a new person for the New Year.

In case I am coming off as a bit too pleased with myself, let me hasten to assure you that I do not think that I am so perfect that there is no room for improvement. On the contrary, there are so many ways in which I could be a better person that if I listed them all, I would have to carry this column over to the next page (and the Brunch editor, Jamal Shaikh, would never allow me to do that).

So, I’ll just list a few of my shortcomings, just so that you know that I am not a smug so-and-so.

First off, I could do with being a little more even-keeled. I don’t lose my temper very often, and when I do, I recover it rather quickly. But when I do lose my cool, I lose it quite spectacularly, and it’s not a pretty sight. There is a lot of foaming at the mouth, smoke spewing forth from my ears, and my decibel levels would put some of our North Korean anchors to shame. This storm doesn’t last long but while it does, it can seem life-threatening. So, that’s one area I could definitely improve on.

Then, there is my inability to forgive and forget. Yes, yes, I know all those clichés. Carrying a grudge against someone is allowing him/her to live rent-free in your head. You should forgive people – not because they deserve it, but because you do. But while at a rational level, I recognize the truth of this, I find it impossible to forgive those who have let me down or wronged me over the years. I guess I could try and fix this – or I could just forgive myself for being the brooding, vengeful person I am. I am still debating this one in my head.

But my most annoying (to me, at least) personality trait is my propensity to procrastinate. No matter what the task, I find a way to put it off to the last possible minute. When I was writing my book, Race Course Road, I had printed out a schedule for when I would finish every chapter, generously giving myself a couple of weeks to do that. But every day I would look at the calendar, feel a shiver go up my spine as the deadline grew nearer, and then settle down to do something else entirely. It was only when I had absolutely minimal time left did I get down to doing any work. (By the way, this column too is being written just hours before deadline!)

Could I change all this stuff about me? Perhaps. Should I work on being a better person? Maybe. Or should I just carry on being myself and to hell with the rest of the world? Well, that sounds like a plan.

But what does the New Year have to do with any of that? That’s just an arbitrary line in the sand, drawn by a world that is forever looking to celebrate ‘special’ days. Life doesn’t change – and nor do you – just because a New Year dawns.

If you want to change your life or yourself, you can do that any time you wish to. But if you are happy with your life and at peace with yourself, why let the New Year make you feel otherwise?

Story time

Here’s a list of my best reads of 2018 – happy reading!

This is the last time I get to talk to you this year. The next time I appear on these pages, we will be into 2019. But before I wish you a Happy New Year, I would like to share some of my happier moments of 2018 with you. And – as some of you may have guessed – they revolved around reading.

So here, in no particular order of importance, are some of my best reads of 2018. If you haven’t read them already, pick up a copy and enjoy them over the holiday season. And Happy Reading to all of you!

Becoming, Michelle Obama

This is, quite simply, a brilliant book. By now, everyone knows the highlights of Michelle Obama’s life. But what this elegant, evocative, and extremely frank autobiography gives us is the real woman behind the image. The young girl who grew up with so little and yet managed to go to Princeton and Harvard. The high-flying lawyer who gave up her big-bucks job to do something more meaningful. And then there is her love story with Barack Obama, the man who would change the course of her life, told with a sometimes startling honesty.

The Other Woman, Daniel Silva

Gabriel Allon, one of my favourite fictional spies, is back in the centre of action in this new thriller. The plot will seem familiar to dedicated readers of spy fiction. There is a mole (a double agent) ensconced in the higher ranks of the British intelligence service. And the only way to identify this mole is by raiding the memories of an old woman who is the key to the mystery. But Allon is more than equal to the task, though it does take its toll on his tired and ageing bones.

Lethal White, Robert Galbraith

While this book could have done with a little editing given that it runs to some 600-odd pages (but then, who would dare take a pencil to the work of the great JK Rowling, writing here as Robert Galbraith?), it still qualifies as a great read. The novel-like spread allows the characters of Cormoran Strike and his partner Robin Ellacott to develop in complexity and scope. So much so that you don’t really mind that the murder mystery at the heart of the story takes a long time coming.

Lullaby, Leila Slimani

This is not an easy read. The book opens on a murder scene. Two children are dead, at the hand of their nanny, their bodies discovered by the mother. The novel then goes back in time, tracing the events that led to this bloody, macabre scene. How did a nanny who seemed devoted to her charges end up killing them? What were the petty humiliations and snubs that turned her against those she was meant to love and protect? You will be chilled to the core as you read on, but this is not a book you can put down no matter how much it breaks your heart.

The Wife Between Us, Greer Hendrcks and Sarah Pekkanen

On the face of it, this is a book about a jealous ex-wife who is obsessed with the fact that her ex-husband is in love with and about to marry a much younger women. But as you read on – and I will post no spoilers here – you will discover that nothing is quite as it seems. And the twist in the tale is guaranteed to take your breath away.

Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler

Delia Grinstead seems to have a great life with a doctor husband, three children, and a lovely home (even though it is being rather noisily renovated). And the family is going off for a beach holiday, along with her sisters and nieces. So, why does Delia walk away from the beach – wearing just a swimsuit and robe, carrying a tote bag with 500 dollars in it – and keep going till she reaches a small town where she can start a new life? You are going to have to read this one to find out.

Broken Ground, Val McDermid

This book marks the return of one of my favourite female fictional detectives, DCI Karen Pirie. The book opens with Pirie still in the depths of grief about her dead lover, which she attempts to walk off every night by tramping the streets of Edinburgh. That’s before she’s drawn into a cold case, when a body is dug up in a remote spot in the Highlands. But, of course, as is usual with McDermid, things soon take an unexpected turn. And Pirie had to use all her wits to come to grips with not one but two killers.

Remnants of a Separation, Aanchal Malhotra

We have had many books that tell the story of India’s Partition through the lived memories of people. But this is the first book that tells that story through the medium of the objects that people carried with them as they made the often-bloody crossing to India from what is now Pakistan. Malhotra draws out these stories with ease and retells them with the empathy that owes something to the fact that she belongs to a Partition family herself.

I could go on but as you can see, I have run out of space. So, here are just a few honourable mentions: The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz; Fear by Bob Woodward; and Anatomy Of A Scandal by Sarah Vaughan.