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

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 clich├ęs. 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.

A tale of two Princesses

Both Priyanka Chopra and Meghan Markle married the Princes of their dreams – and both have had to deal with the nightmare coverage that followed

The first time the world realized that Meghan Markle and Priyanka Chopra were best friends was when the Indian superstar, resplendent in a Vivienne Westwood lilac couture outfit, turned up at St George’s Chapel in Windsor, to attend the Royal Wedding. As Meghan and Prince Harry said their ‘I dos’, Priyanka was among those smiling mistily at the newly-weds. And later in the evening, when it was party time at Frogmore House, Priyanka (now rocking a spectacular sequined Dior gown) was among those dancing the night away.

Frankly, nobody should have been too surprised at this. When you consider the personal histories of both women, their friendship seems somewhat inevitable. Both of them are women of colour who have built up their careers with sheer grit and fortitude in industries in which they had no Godfathers.

In Priyanka’s case, she arrived in Bollywood as a rank outsider – the Miss World title notwithstanding – and slowly but steadily made her mark until she was one of the top actresses of her generation. And then, at the zenith of her career in the Hindi film industry, she took an enormous gamble and signed on to play the lead in the ABC show, Quantico. This brought her global fame and made her a bonafide star in the US as well – a feat that no Indian actress before her had achieved.

Meghan Markle had it even tougher as she tried to break through in Hollywood. She began with blink-and-you-miss-her appearances in such shows as 90210 and stood in as a ‘suitcase girl’ in Deal or No Deal. Then followed a few forgettable bit roles in movies before she finally landed the role that made her famous, Rachel Zane in the legal drama, Suits. As a biracial actress, she was always hard to slot, so the role of Rachel, who had a black father, was tailor-made for her – and, in turn, it made her reputation.

So, there was a certain inevitability to these two women, who had so much in common, becoming friends when they found themselves moving in the same social circles as they shot their respective shows in Toronto.

But now, alas, there appears to be another unfortunate, but inescapable parallel, that has developed between the two besties: their treatment in the media.

As women of colour trying to make their way in a world that is powered by white privilege both Priyanka and Meghan have had to deal with implicit – and sometimes downright explicit – racism in their media coverage. But while they were actresses going about their business, this was still at a reasonable level. But ever since they walked down the aisle with the princes of their dreams (and in Meghan’s case, an actual Prince), the racism, sexism, and plain old misogyny had got out of control.

In Priyanka’s case, this was best exemplified by a venomous article in New York Magazine’s The Cut that described her as a ‘global scam artist’ who had tricked dear deluded Nick Jonas into marrying her. The poor guy, the article read, had just wanted a fling with a glamorous star but was now staring at a ‘life sentence’ after being dragged into a ‘fraudulent relationship against his will’. After an international outcry, the article was taken down, but not before it’s sexist, racist and downright misogynistic tropes had gone viral.

Meghan Markle had had to face the same sort of toxic coverage ever since she married Prince Harry, but in her case, you have to magnify it to the power of a thousand. The British tabloids seem to have made it their life’s mission to destroy the reputation of the newly-minted Duchess of Sussex, spawning a hundred different negative stories about her every day.

Meghan was so ‘difficult’ at a bridesmaid dress fitting for Princess Charlotte that she made Kate (who had just given birth to Prince Louis and was feeling particularly emotional) cry. Meghan wakes up at 5 am every morning and bombards her staff with mails and calls. Meghan made the life of her personal assistant such hell that the poor woman was often reduced to tears and quit after six months. Meghan demanded an emerald tiara and got very stroppy when it was denied to her. Meghan drove a wedge between Harry and his brother William (or was it between Harry and Kate? – who can keep up with this stuff?).

The themes of the coverage are quite consistent. How did these two women of colour, these two upstarts, these rank outsiders, get so far ahead? Who did they ‘scam’ to get where they are? Why don’t they know their place? What gives them the right to stage ‘royal’ weddings, as if they were Princesses in their own right?

Well, you know what? That’s exactly what these women are: Princesses.

No, not the kind who are born in royal palaces to kings and queens. Not the kind who arrive in the world with a golden spoon in their mouth, and have everything handed to them on a platter. And certainly not the kind who have never done a day of work in their lives, gliding aimlessly through their gilded world.

Priyanka and Meghan are Princesses of a different order. They are women who have conquered the world with their own grit, courage, determination, and yes, talent. They have earned the right to wear that crown – or at the very least, that tiara – that proclaims their Princess status through their own efforts. And long may they reign over their detractors!

Breathe easy

This winter, treat yourself to some clean air – even if it is just over a short break

There was a time when I spent the entire year looking forward to the time when winter would finally come to Delhi. There was a special pleasure in melting some white butter on the first sarson da saag of the season, and scooping up all that creamy loveliness with a makki di roti. There was something magical about lighting a tiny little bonfire on the terrace and gathering around with friends and family. Or even just going for a long walk in Lodi Gardens, secure in the knowledge that you would not return home soggy with sweat.

Those days are long gone. Now the moment the mornings begin to get a little cool and the sun sets a little earlier, I begin to worry about just how bad the pollution will be this winter. Will the air purifiers, sprinkled liberally all through the house, be enough to ward off those almost-inevitable asthma attacks? Will I make it through the season without having to invest in another N99 mask, to slip on every time I step out of the house? And how many years will this particular winter take off my life?

Which is why the moment the weather starts to turn I begin to think of winter getaways that will whisk me away to healthier, less polluted climes. I dream of destinations where I can breathe in fresh air, where I can put my inhaler away and forget about it, and where my wheezing becomes a distant memory. 

If you are beginning to feel the same way, and can think of nothing better than to escape the gas chamber that is this city – and most others; Kolkata is just as polluted, and Mumbai only marginally less so – then here are a few suggestions to start you off on your winter destination hunt.

If you are heading for the mountains then steer clear of overdeveloped and busy hill stations like Shimla and Nainital. You will be much better off going to smaller, less crowded places like Sattal, Bhimtal or even Ranikhet. What you lose in terms of quality of the accommodation, you will more than make up in the quality of the experience. You will finally be able to fill up your lungs with sweet mountain air, breathe in the freshness that blooms all around you, and exhale with relief.

If you don’t mind travelling further, then the south has some stupendous hill stations that are worth exploring. Ooty is a perennial favourite with honeymooners, but my personal favourite is Munnar, with its verdant green and almost toy-town like beauty, though some of my friends are big fans of Coorg and Kodaikanal. 

If beaches are your thing, then I would steer clear of Goa. This gets awfully overcrowded at this time of year and is horribly overpriced as well. You would be better served heading to the south. Your best bet would be Kerala, where you could squeeze in some Ayurvedic treatments as well as walks on the beach (though I myself am partial to the backwaters). Or you could head to Tamil Nadu, where the entire shoreline is dotted with lovely beach resorts where you can revive your tired lungs with those moisture-laden breezes from the Bay of Bengal. If you are willing to look beyond domestic beach destinations, then you can have your pick of Thai beach resorts, some of which may actually be cheaper than those in our own country. (If money is no object, then head to the Maldives.)

If you prefer the buzz of city life to communing with nature, then there are several options in our immediate neighbourhood that won’t break the bank. Head out to Singapore, where you can shop to your heart’s content, eat the most marvelous food, and then dip your toes in the sand at Sentosa. If your budget stretches further afield, then this would be a good time to visit Portugal, which is warmer than the rest of Europe. Base yourself in Lisbon and then make day trips to explore Sintra, Cascais and other smaller towns. (If you’re a creature of habit who would rather head back to London or New York, then you can do that too; though, really, wouldn’t you want to expand your horizons?)

If you’re a nature lover, then this is best time to head for the wild life reserves in India. Go in for a spot of tiger-watching in Ranthambore or Corbett National Park, try your luck at sighting the one-horned rhino in Kaziranga in Assam. The Bandipur National Park in Karnataka is a good place for elephant watching. And if birds are your thing then head to the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan. December is also a good time to hit Tanzania’s northern circuit where the Serengeti’s Great Migration is in full swing. Or you could head to Kenya, where the rains are just over and the scenery looks lush and green. 

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter which destination you pick. The important thing is to get away from Delhi and its awful air at this time of the year. 

I know, I know, you’ll have to come back soon and breathe in those noxious fumes all over again. But at least the worst will be over (we hope!) and your lungs will have had a bit of a respite. And you will have had a reminder of what clean air looks and feels like.

The book's the thing

How to turn your child into a reader

Last week, my eldest niece’s daughter turned 13 (in case you’re wondering, my sister is 16 years older than I am!) and all our thoughts turned to buying her the perfect present to mark her transformation into a teenager. After being presented with a plethora of choices – Handbag? Shoes? Earrings? Clothes? – Hitee made her decision. 

All she wanted for her birthday was books. And not just the kind that you can download on Kindle. She wanted actual, physical books made of paper and glue, the ones that come with beautiful covers that you can gaze at admiringly, and the smell that transports to mythical worlds far away from your everyday reality.

So, that’s what all of us gave her: books. And her joy as she laid eyes on each one was quite something to behold.

Truth be told, it took me back to my own childhood and teenage years, when I lived for the times when I could get hold of a new book. In my case, the few books I owned were supplemented by the school library, and those in turn were supplemented by the lending library that my mother had signed me on for. So, it felt good to see that the Goswami reading gene had been transmitted to another generation, even if it had skipped one generation in the process (the only reading my niece does is Whatsapp forwards; I exaggerate, of course, but only by a bit). 

But more importantly, it made me delirious with joy to see that at least some young people were still into books and treated reading like a pleasure rather than a chore. I can only hope and pray that their tribe increases year after year.

But that increase won’t happen in the absence of effort on the part of the responsible adults in the lives of these children. The joy of reading needs to be inculcated at an early age, and then fed on a steady diet of good books if it is not to die out by adulthood. And parents and family members can play an important role in this regard.

So, what should you do if you want the child in your life to grow up to be a reader? Well, here are a few pointers that have stood me in good stead all these years. Maybe they would work for you as well.

Start them young

And by that, I mean very young indeed. Read to your baby even if it seems as if she doesn’t understand anything at all. Sing aloud to her from books of rhymes. Introduce her to the different animals in the books you read. As she grows older, this routine will be so familiar to her that she will regard books as an integral part of playtime. And she will soon be clamouring to be read to, not just at night as a bedtime ritual, but also during the day. 

Make reading fun

When your kids are younger, you can keep them amused with pop-up books, so that they can physically touch the castles they are reading about and gaze at the princesses who live within them. When they learn to read themselves, make them read one page while you read the next. As they grow older, you can involve them in the storytelling itself. Break off at an interesting point one evening and ask them to come up with their own version of what happened next by the morning. That will not just make them more invested in the stories but will also boost their imagination and enhance their creativity.

Bond over shared favourites

Half the pleasure of reading to your children stems from the joy of rediscovering your own childhood favourites – and seeing how they speak to you now that you are all grown up. There will be plenty of books from your own childhood that will not make the cut in this era of political correctness, but some perennial favourites are just the thing to bond over (as in, if Noddy seems too racist, then stick to the Five Find-Outers). There is no greater satisfaction than seeing your kids fall in love with the fictional characters that were your own best friends growing up. And in seeing them immersed in the same stories that were the staple of your childhood reading. 

Broaden their horizons

That said, the world has now expanded far beyond Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew (yes, yes, I know, one is an author, the other a fictional character) and there is an entire new universe of children’s fiction out there. Explore that along with your child, discover new worlds together, marvel at the plethora of diverse characters that exists in kids’ fiction today. Introduce them to mythological tales from all across the world. Buy them translations of children’s books from other countries and cultures. It is never too early to teach them that we live in a big, wide world, in which people of all shapes, colours, creeds and beliefs exist. But that, no matter what their differences and however diverse their stories, they are all united by the universal themes of love, peace and acceptance.

Happy Diwali!

It’s the festival that is celebrated all across India – but in many different ways

No sooner did the Supreme Court of India declare that firecrackers (and only the ‘green’ variety – whatever those might be) could only be let off between 8 and 10 pm on Diwali than the protests began. Most of them emanated from outraged firecracker enthusiasts who could not understand why they had to restrict their passion within a narrow two-hour band. (Pollution? What pollution? Don’t you know it’s caused by all those pesky cars and trucks? Not to mention the burning of agricultural waste in neighbouring farmland.)

But there were some who had an entirely different problem. These people were from the south of India, where it is customary to celebrate the festival during the day. In the south Indian tradition you mark Diwali by having an oil bath in the morning, getting dressed in new clothes, doing a puja, and then setting off all the firecrackers you can lay your hands on. How could these communities possibly celebrate according to their traditions and not fall afoul of the Supreme Court ruling? Especially considering that they celebrate Diwali the day before north India does.

And those are not even the main differences between a north Indian and south Indian Diwali. For starters, it is called Deepawali (not Diwali) in south India. And it marks – no, not the victory of Lord Ram over Ravana – the day Lord Krishna killed the demon Narakasura after a fierce battle. It is believed that after Lord Krishna vanquished the demon, he had an oil massage and then a hot bath. So, in emulation of the Lord, south Indians begin the day by oiling their bodies – or ritually anointing their heads – and then having a bath just as Krishna did. Only after this ritual Ganga Snanam is over, and they have donned new clothes for that day, do the festivities and fireworks commence. And yes, they take place over the daytime. Surely, the Supreme Court could have made provision for that?

The truth is that while popular culture revolves around the Diwali rituals and celebrations of north Indian communities, there are as many different ways to mark the festival all over India as there are different communities.

In Maharashtra, for instance, we see an interesting amalgamation of south Indian and north Indian traditions. The day before Diwali is celebrated as Narak Chaturdashi to mark the defeat of Narakasur by Lord Krishna (just like they do in the south). The day starts with an oil massage but here a special ubtan (scrub), made from sandalwood, camphor, rose, orange skin, turmeric, etc., is used before the ritual bath (called the abhyang-snan here). On Diwali day, however, Maharashtra falls in line with the rest of north India to worship the Goddess Lakshmi, and then set off some – you guessed it! – firecrackers.

In Bengal and some other parts of Eastern India, however, the goddess who is worshipped on this occasion is not Lakshmi but Kali. In fact, the festival is described as Kali Puja rather than Diwali in these parts, and is dedicated to the fierce goddess who killed all the demons in her path (and used their heads to fashion a garland she wears around her neck). When the gods wanted to stop her killing spree, they sent her husband, Lord Shiva, who lay down in her path. In her fury, Kali stepped on him too before realizing her mistake. Which is why she is pictured with her tongue out and her foot on Shiva’s chest. It is this fierce incarnation of the Devi who is worshipped here at midnight, not the benign Lakshmi.

In Gujarat, on the other hand, it is the Goddess of Wealth who reigns supreme on this day. For Gujaratis, Diwali marks the end of the year and the next year is celebrated as Bestu Varas, or New Year’s Day. So, while Diwali is marked with a Lakshmi Puja in the evening, in which the whole family gathers to propitiate the Goddess, the following day is devoted to welcoming in the New Year. It is heralded by the bursting of firecrackers at 4 am (wonder what the Supreme Court will have to say about that!) because of the Hindu belief that the new day begins as dawn. And then begin the endless greetings of ‘Saal Mubarak’ as Gujaratis across the world call to wish each other a Happy New Year.

In Punjab, while the Hindu community follows the standard north Indian pattern of celebrating Diwali with Lakshmi Puja, the Sikhs mark this date because this was when Guru Hargobind, the 6th Guru, was released from prison by Emperor Jahangir in 1619 along with 52 other princes whose release he secured. The occasion was marked by lighting up the Golden Temple in Amritsar, and that tradition continues to this day. So, when you see the Golden Temple all lit up, remember it’s not Diwali they’re celebrating, it is Bandhi Chhor Diwas (Prisoner Release Day), yet another example of the triumph of good over evil.

But no matter which community is doing the celebrating, fireworks seem to be mandatory on this occasion. So, will the Supreme Court ruling make any difference to how people mark the festival of lights – and increasingly, noise – all over India?

Well, give it a few days and we’ll find out one way or the other. Until then, I wouldn’t hold my breath – unless, of course, I am forced to by all the pollutants in the air.