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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.