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

Friday, August 16, 2019

Checking out

When it comes to ‘stealing’ from a hotel, none of us is innocent

So, what was the last thing you ever ‘stole’ from a hotel? You can wipe that self-righteous smile off your face because you know that you did. It may have been something as innocuous as a mini-bottle of shower gel or conditioner or something as guilt-inducing as a bathrobe (yes, yes, I know it had your name embroidered on it; and you were never coming back to the hotel, yada, yada, yada) but you did take something that you were not really supposed to.

I ask this because that viral video of an Indian family caught stealing stuff from their Bali hotel has got me thinking. And while I would like to believe that most of us would refrain from such obvious thievery, there is no doubt in my mind that those of us who stay frequently in hotels often help ourselves to stuff that, strictly speaking, should not leave the premises.

I know this is true, because I am among those guilty as charged, as are most of my friends and family (who I polled hastily before sitting down to write this column). Of course, none of us have actually stolen hairdryers and artifacts like that now infamous family in Bali did, but all of us have helped ourselves to stuff as we packed to check out.

In the interest of transparency, here is a comprehensive list of all the things I have ever filched from hotel rooms: 

It is almost taken for granted that guests will take some toiletries with them when they check out. Those mini-bottles of shampoo and shower gel are just the right size for airline carry-on bags, and some of the body lotions are quite divine. So, it should come as no surprise to you that I have pilfered my share of toiletries and snuck them into my wash bag. But my particular weakness, I have to confess, is shower caps. I always pack away a couple of extras in my bag for emergencies, as in when I am ready to step into the shower and realize that housekeeping hasn’t replaced the shower cap I used the day before.

If a hotel places nail clippers, tweezers or nail files in my bathroom and I use them during my stay, I will pack them in my toilet bag when I leave. They are not going to reuse these (I hope!) and I would rather get more use out of them than let them fill some landfill somewhere. It’s my own personal contribution to the environment (I am just kidding; please don’t send me irate mails about how I am trivializing climate change.)

Bathroom slippers made of that awful terrycloth fabric? Never. Beach chappals made of coir and weaving and just perfect for walking on the sand? Many a time. My reasoning is simple. The hotel is not going to recycle these beach chappals for their next guest. They are just going to throw them into the trash heap and they will be left to fester in some garbage dump for years. Much better then to take them home and use them on my next beach holiday.

Most hotels these days will provide you with a kettle and a coffee maker in your room. And I think it goes without saying that you should not take the coffee capsules (even if they are just the right size for your machine back home) and tea bags home. But I have a confession to make. I do steal a few sachets of Splenda or Stevia and stash them in my handbag, especially if I am in a small town either in India or abroad. Not because I am greedy but because I am diabetic. And all too often I find myself in establishments that don’t serve artificial sweeteners with tea and coffee. That’s when those ‘stolen’ sachets turn into literal life-savers for me. 

Personalised amenities are a minefield as far as I am concerned. Most luxury hotels these days take great pride in placing amenities in your rooms that are meaningful to you in some way. So, the dilemma when I check out is should I take them with me or leave them for the hotel to reuse on my next stay.
There is no good answer to this one. A few years ago, I stayed at a hotel that placed an ink portrait of mine by my husband’s bedside. It was a beautiful – and very flattering – picture and I was very tempted to take it with me when I left. My husband demurred; they would use it on our next stay, he said. We should not take it with us. Well, we have been back to that hotel many times since and that portrait has never made a re-appearance. (And yes, I still berate him about it.)
Which goes some way to explain why I chose to pack two teeny-tiny cushions that another hotel had personalized for me with the names of my last two books: my novel, Race Course Road, and my first non-fiction title, Woman On Top. Nobody else could have the slightest interest in them. And I didn’t want to run the risk of never seeing them again.

Does any of this count as ‘stealing’? Yes, strictly speaking, it does. Does any of this make me a ‘thief’? Well, I would like to think not. But the jury is probably out on that one.

Friday, August 2, 2019

Who's (in a) saree now?

With trending hashtags celebrating it, the saree has become more fashionable and popular than ever

Over the last fortnight one hashtag has been trending on twitter. It’s called #sareetwitter and is used by women from across the world to upload pictures of them wearing sarees. So, how could I possibly resist? The moment I saw it, I went scrolling through the pictures on my phone to pull out some shots that I could upload as my contribution to #sareetwitter. As did most of my friends and the days passed in a pleasant blur of mutual admiration that left us feeling all warm and fuzzy. (Anybody who has ever been on Twitter will recognize this as a novel feeling.)

But all those lovely pictures of women of all ages, shapes, sizes and, indeed, ethnicities, left me marveling about the saree all over again. It is such a versatile garment that it suits every single woman who drapes it. It can be made to look sexy. It can be turned into something conservative and staid. It can be used to play dress up. And it works perfectly as a utilitarian everyday garment as well. There are as many ways to drape the saree as there are to love it.

That was a lesson that I learnt pretty early in my childhood. Growing up in a joint family I was always intrigued by the fact that my mother and grandmother (both Punjabis who were brought up in Pre-Partition Punjab) draped the saree differently. While my mom draped her pallu over her left shoulder – what we would call the modern drape, I guess – my grandmother favoured the ‘seedha palla’ in which the pallu went over her right shoulder and then fanned across her torso in a concertina style. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the ladies to explain this difference. The only answer I got from my mother was a short: “This (pointing to herself) is how we wear the saree now. That (pointing to my grandmother) is the old style.”

Of course it wasn’t as simple as that. Even today, many decades on, there are Indian communities, like the Gujaratis for instance, who still swear by the ‘seedha palla’ style. Though, ironically enough, my mother-in-law, who was a Gujarati, never favoured that style. (Maybe she too thought it was old-fashioned, because that was how her mother wore her sari.)

But the style of saree-wearing that really intrigued me as a child was the one favoured by the grandmother of one of my Bengali friends. She wore her saree Bengali style, with an absence of proper pleats and with the pallu draped almost toga-style, and held in place with a bunch of keys tied to the end of it. To my childish eyes, that looked like the most elegant style of all.

So glamorous did the saree – and all that you could do with it – look to our young eyes and I would spend entire afternoons with the best friend of my childhood experimenting with the drape. It wasn’t easy. We were so short that we had to first fold the width of the saree in half before it would fit us. But once we had done that, we would spend hours trying out different styles. With one drape, we were matriarchs ruling the domestic roost. With another, we were modern women heading out for our first jobs. And so on.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait for my first job to get my first saree. That happened when I joined Junior College (or Plus Two, as we used to call it in those days). I was studying in Loreto House, where the normal school uniform was a nice blue midi-length skirt matched with a no-nonsense white blouse. But somewhere along the line, the nuns in charge decided that we girls needed a saree uniform as well. After all we were growing up into young ladies; and young ladies needed to know how to wear the saree.

So, all of us were assigned light-blue georgette sarees, that we were enjoined to wear to school at least one day a week (we could wear it more often of course; but once a week was compulsory). Many of my friends complained bitterly but I have to admit that I loved it. In no time at all, I was wearing it through the week, comfortable enough in its folds to walk the streets and even run after buses (and board them).

That early training has stood me in good stead. Even today, I am never more comfortable than when I am in a saree. I can drape it in a matter of seconds, I don’t need a pin to keep my pleats together (or even my pallav in place), and I can do anything from light up a dance floor to cook a meal in it.

Not that there’s anything especially amazing about that. Millions of Indian women have been doing the same through the millennia. And I can only hope that millions of us, and those who come after us, continue to do that. And if hashtags like #sareetwitter make the saree seem more accessible – even glamorous – to young women everywhere, then I for one hope that it trends for all time to come. The saree deserves nothing less.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Helping hands

These days it is easier than ever to outsource your life

Growing up in Calcutta as a little girl, the high point of my year was the annual visit of my aunt who lived in London and could be relied upon to arrive laden with presents. But as I grew up, I came to realize that this was the high point of the year for my aunt as well. Not just because she loved us and missed us – which, of course, she did – but because this gave her some much-needed respite from domestic chores.

While in London, she had to do the cooking and wash up afterwards, make and unmake the beds, vacuum the house, and even give the toilets a good scrubbing, in Calcutta all these tasks were the responsibility of cooks, maids and cleaners. So, for the month that she was here, she could sit back and relax while the endless work that is involved in running a house, was delegated to paid help.

You don’t know how lucky you are in India, she would constantly tell my mother. And my mother, with her gift for pessimism, would grimly reply that it was only a matter of time before India went the way of England as well. By the time I grew up, she informed me, it would be impossible to get household staff. People of my generation would have to do what my aunt did; take care of the household chores ourselves.

Well, in a way, my mother was right. It is getting increasingly difficult (and much more expensive) to get help these days as social mobility kicks in – and that’s just how it should be. But strangely enough, even though domestic help is getting harder to find, people like us are doing less and less for ourselves. In fact, as I look around at my peer group the thing that strikes me the most is how we have managed to outsource most of the drudgery associated with everyday living, taking advantage of two-job families and the disposable income that comes with it.

The most visible symbols of how we have outsourced our lives are such taxi services as Uber and Ola. Even those of us who have cars, don’t bother to take them out every day (or, for that matter, hire drivers to lessen our burden). Who wants the hassle of maintaining a car, battling road rage as you try and negotiate traffic, finding parking space wherever you go, and renewing insurance every year, when you can tap into an app on your phone and get a chauffeur-driven car at your location in a matter of minutes? There can’t be a more fuss-free way of going to work, heading out for the evening, getting back home, or even running errands.

Except, of course, that even those errands have become fewer and fewer over the years. There is, for instance, no need to go shopping for groceries or fruits and vegetables. Yes, you guessed it, there is an app (or rather several) for that. And if you don’t want to go digital, you can simply phone your neighbourhood store and get all you want delivered at your doorstep at no extra cost (though it’s always a good idea to tip the delivery guy).

If you are fond of cooking, you don’t need to do the drudge work of prepping your ingredients. There are apps that will source all the ingredients for the meal of your choice, clean them, chop them up, and send them to you in a pretty little box. If you are on a diet, there are apps that will deliver healthy meals for all days of the week.

And if at the end of a long day the last thing you want to do is toil in the kitchen, there is always Swiggy, which will bring the cuisine of your choice to your doorstep. No need to employ a cook, whose repertoire is necessarily limited. Now, the whole restaurant world is your virtual kitchen and you can order anything you like at any time. Serve yourself on paper plates and you won’t even need to do the washing up.

In fact, given the kind of services that are available to us these days there is very little reason to put ourselves out at all. You can download tutoring programmes that will help your kids with their homework when you can’t. There is no need to leave the house to catch a movie; you get the best of programming on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar, which you can enjoy from the comfort of your couch.

There may be a dearth of household help in the market, as young men and women opt out of domestic service. But that gap had been filled by such housekeeping services as Urban Clap (disclaimer: I have never used them and have no idea how good or bad they are) that will, for a reasonable sum send over a team of workers to your house to give it a good going over. You can choose the frequency  and the range of services and have a spanking clean house without the palaver of managing domestic staff.

So, I guess in a way, both my aunt and mother were right. My mother, when she pronounced the imminent death of domestic help. And my aunt, when she claimed that we in India had no idea how lucky we were.  

We may no longer have in-house staff like we used to, but we still manage to outsource our lives quite efficiently – and cheaply. Though how long that will last is anybody’s guess.

Counting down

If age is just a number, then mine is up!

There is nothing that makes me feel my age more than a long haul flight. Gone are the days when I would look forward to spending nine to 12 hours in an airplane, getting stuck into the champagne and watching one crappy movie after another until it was time to land. The length of the queues at immigration never succeeded in getting me down. And the moment I checked into a hotel, I was pulling clothes out of my suitcase to head out for a fancy meal.

That, suffice to say, is no longer the case. Now, much as I enjoy going on holiday, the very thought of a long-haul flight is enough to strike terror into my heart, which I try to quell by preparing for every eventuality. I put together an in-flight medicine bag full of anti-histamines and other sleeping aids – which I consume with the only glass of champagne I allow myself (drinking any more than that plays havoc with my sugar levels). I carry my own blanket so that I don’t get allergies from the ones provided by the airlines. And I pack a neck pillow to keep my neck supported while I read a book or watch a movie in an attempt to fall asleep.

But no matter how hard I try to have a restful flight that will allow me to hit the ground running at the other end, it never works out that way. The tiredness starts hitting me half-way through the flight and just gets worse and worse with every passing hour. By the time the flight lands, my back is hurting, my legs are cramping, my nose is stuffy, and I feel like a hundred years old.

By the time I have negotiated the horrors of the airport and got to the hotel, all I can do is collapse weakly on the bed and whisper, “Room service?” to my husband (who, annoyingly enough, is raring to go out and explore some restaurant he has checked out on the Internet). It takes one good night’s sleep in a normal bed before, well, normal service can be resumed, as far as I am concerned.

Sadly, this is not the only instance of my age finally catching up with me. These days, my life is littered with these daily indignities of ageing, all of them designed to make me feel every one of my decades and remind me that old age will be upon me sooner than I dared hope.

Here is just a random sampling of the age markers that are a part of my life now. If any of them sound familiar, well then welcome to the Club of Creaking Middle-Agers. (If they don’t, enjoy your youth while it lasts!)

I visited a gurudwara after a long time recently, and as is the custom, did what we Punjabis call ‘matha teko’. That went off reasonably well, but trying to get upright afterwards was another story altogether. It took about five tries, my muscles creaking protest all the while, before I could get up from all fours. All of this rendered all the more horrific by the pile-up of people waiting behind me and the sympathetic eyes of those who witnessed my pitiful attempts.

Low chairs and sofas have turned into my mortal enemies while I wasn’t paying attention. Now, they suck me into their contours so efficiently that more often than not I have to ask for a helping hand (or two) to get out of them. The same humiliation awaits when the seating has squishy cushions, the kind you sink into thankfully when you arrive and struggle to get out of when it is time to leave. 

Stairs are no longer my friends. Instead they have morphed into a torture device that I attempt at my own peril. I am breathless after two flights (it’s the asthma, I tell myself reassuringly) and every flight after that brings me closer to that state when your heart is beating so loudly that you think it will burst out of your chest. And the way down is no easier, with my knees twinging with every step.

My days of drinking like a fish and eating like a pig are over. Oh okay, I exaggerate. The truth is that I still go on binges and benders once in a while. But I no longer wake up fresh as a daisy the next day. Instead, it takes me a week to recover from a day’s excesses, and every single time that happens, it seems less and less worthwhile to indulge myself in the first place.

Then, to add insult to injury, there is my slowing metabolism. No matter how many calories I cut from my diet and how many steps I add to my Fitbit, the stubborn bulges around my body simply refuse to budge. And while it gets easier and easier to put on weight – even an extra piece of toast at breakfast does the trick – it has become nigh impossible to lose it. 

And finally, there is the insomnia that keeps me tossing and turning until the early hours of the morning, and makes me wake up tired every day. But this cloud, at least, has a silver lining. I can get a lot of reading done while the rest of the household sleeps, and somehow that makes it all worthwhile.

Got a ticket to ride

But should it be free, if you are a woman travelling in the national capital?

As I write this, every single TV channel is discussing just one thing. Arvind Kejriwal’s announcement that the AAP government in Delhi would, in a matter of months, make travel on the Metro and state transport buses free for all women in the capital. Women will now ride for free and the loss will be made up by the state government, which will pay for this subsidy. This, Kejriwal announced, was being done so that women are more safe and secure on public transport

There are many, many things wrong with this scheme. For starters, it makes no sense to make travel free for all women, no matter what their income levels, while withholding this perk from men who are economically worse off (Kejriwal did say the scheme was optional; but honestly, do you see many women refusing to avail of this facility if it is, in fact, available?). So, an income cut-off would make more sense, so that only those who actually need this subsidy get it – and that should include men. 

Two, getting a free ride doesn’t equal getting a safe ride; even if the number of female riders increases exponentially, women will still be travelling in an environment where they are outnumbered by men and their wandering hands. Then, there is the problem of overcrowding; more and more women will avail of the scheme, increasing the load on a public transport system that is already near breaking point because of lack of capacity and excess demand. 

I suspect that Mr Kejriwal is well aware of all these problems, but doesn’t really care because he knows that the scheme will never reach fruition anyway. The Metro system, for instance, is run in partnership with the Central government, which will never agree to it.

But I guess the AAP leader believes that there is no harm is selling this dream to women in the capital, even though he knows it’s destined to be dashed. That way he can claim victim status, complain yet again how nobody allows him to do any work, and if he is feeling particularly perky, even sit on a dharna to showcase his angst for TV cameras.

On the off-chance, though, that the AAP leader is actually serious about making Delhi safe for women and is willing to spend around 700-1000 crores (which is what the scheme to make bus and Metro rides free would cost) to make that happen, here are just a few of the measures that he can implement.

Let’s start with the Metro, just like Mr Kejriwal. The biggest problem right now for women who use the Metro network is last-mile connectivity. They may have a safe, secure and comfortable ride on the Metro, but it doesn’t deposit them to their doorsteps, either at office or home. For that they have take a two-wheeler, a rickshaw, or simply walk. This is where these funds can come in useful. Set up a network of rickshaws or scooters that do the run from Metro stations across the city to the destinations of passengers. Make sure that at least 50 per cent of them are driven by women, so that ladies feel more secure using them. And yes, make them free for all passengers if you so desire, and subsidy that cost. 

Make sure the Metro runs later into the night, which is when women really need a safe ride home. As of now, the Delhi Metro starts at 5.30 am and the last drop-off is at 11.30 pm. So, women who work late hours, or those who are out having a night out with friends, or even those who are on a date, don’t have the option of taking the Metro home. They have to rely on two-wheelers or cab riding services, which can often be unsafe. What would it cost to extend the working hours of the Metro so that it runs until, say 1 am? And while you’re at it, to increase the numbers of women-only coaches, or even increase the number of trains available.

Improve street lighting across the city. There is nothing more frightening that walking down a dark street at night, not sure what dangers lurk in the shadows. Installing streetlights – and making sure they work – would make a huge difference to women who have to walk home from the bus stop or Metro station.

Hire more women as drivers and conductors in DTC buses. Make it mandatory to have women marshalls in all buses and Metro coaches, and empower them to crack down on any misbehavior against female passengers.

And most important of all, increase the number of women constables in the city. At present, women account for just over 8 per cent of the work force in the Delhi Police, which is quite abysmal by any standards. There should be a push to make have at least 30, if not 50, per cent women among the police officers who patrol our streets, ride in our PCO vans, and preside over the local thanas. It is this, more than anything else, that will make the women of Delhi feel more secure. 

As for those free bus and Metro rides, employ a means test, have an income cut-off, and give them to all those who need them – irrespective of gender. That is the only way for an equitable society to function.  


What better way to spend your summer break than with some cracking good reads?

Like most dedicated Game of Thrones (GOT) fans, I must confess that I felt completely let down by the finale of the series. I mean, seriously, what was up with that?

Daenerys, the ‘Breaker of Chains’ transforms into a ‘Destroyer of Cities’ quicker than you can say ‘Dracarys’? The big reveal that Jon Snow is actually Aegon Targaryen, the true heir to the Iron Throne, is all for nothing as the poor man is again shunted off to the Wall (maybe he really did ‘know nothing’). Arya Stark is sent off on a Columbus-like quest to discover what is west of Westeros (couldn’t she just have asked Bran to warg into a raven and find out for all of us).

And Bran – honestly, Bran?! – is made the King of Six Kingdoms (Sansa Stark becomes Queen in the north, after announcing her decision to secede as if she were giving her order for lunch) even though we were assured earlier that he couldn’t even become Lord of Winterfell because he was now the Three Eyed Raven. So, presumably, he was just holding out for a better job, or maybe the Three Eyed Raven gig became a bit tedious after a while. You know, teenagers…

Anyhow, the TV series is done and dusted. And as you can probably tell, I am a tad disappointed at how things turned out. So now my hopes are pinned on George R.R. Martin giving us a better denouement in the two final books in the series than what we were served up on television. And while I wait – and wait, and wait, Martin is taking his time about writing the damn thing – I have decided to go back and re-read the first five Game of Thrones (A Song of Fire and Ice) books. I am now nearly at the end of the first book (which came out in 1996) and am looking forward to making my way through the next four volumes over the next few weeks.

So, that’s my summer reading sorted out then. But if, unlike me, you don’t fancy ploughing your way through a series of books you have already read before, then here are some recommendations that should take you through your summer vacations and maybe even a month or so beyond.

Here, in no particular order of preference, are my top summer reads:

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

I fell in love with Harper’s writing when I read her first book, The Dry. Set in the Australian outback, it was ostensibly a murder mystery, but as the layers peeled away, you realized it was so much more. Much the same is true of Harper’s latest novel, The Lost Man. It begins with the discovery of a dead body in mysterious circumstances but the investigation reveals much more than the name of the murderer. It also lays bare the inner lives of the family at the heart of the story and the community that surrounds it. An atmospheric novel, it brings the landscape alive as much as it does its characters. Clear the day in advance when you begin reading – you won’t want to put down the book any time soon.

The Winters by Lisa Gabriele

This is a marvelous re-working of Daphne Du Maurier’s novel, Rebecca, which turns the original story on its head by the time it is finished with it. The parallels with Du Maurier’s tale are all too clear. Rebecca is the dead wife who haunts the life of the new Mrs Winter. And yes, we never find out what the second Mrs Winter is called in this book either. The Mrs Danvers character in this book is played by the Winter daughter, called Dani. But just when you think this is just a re-telling of a story you are all too familiar with, Gabriele turns things around with a flourish you will never see coming. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat

If you have some time off and want to experiment in the kitchen over your summer break, look no further than this book. Most cookbooks focus on cuisines or sell on the basis of some celebrity chef’s reputation. Rare is the book that is cuisine-neutral and concentrates on technique. The great thing about Samin Nosrat’s book is that it has something for both accomplished chefs and beginners because it focuses on the basis of all cooking. If you understand the effect of heat on ingredients, for instance, you can cook pretty much anything. When the book came out, Nosrat, an Iranian who cooks in California, was largely unknown. But after its spectacular success and the Netflix series of the same name, she has now become a celebrity chef in her own right. Don’t let that put you off, though. This is really the only cookbook you need, as you potter around in your kitchen. After all, technique is everything.

If you are anything like me, though, and long for some comfort reads to tide you over the holidays, then you can’t go wrong by falling back on some classics. My own personal favourites are such Jane Austen novels as Pride and Prejudice or even Emma, or any of the Regency Romances of Georgette Heyer, which I can read over and over again. Some of my friends swear by the delights of P.G. Wodehouse. Others fall back on such spy novelists as John Le Carre.

But no matter what the genre or who the author, do be sure to read a book or two over the summer. I will be waiting for your recommendations.

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 clich├ęd.

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.