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

Sunday, May 30, 2010

So, who’s sari now?

Why do Indian actresses make such a fetish of wearing gowns at international events?

Try as I might, I can’t understand why Deepika Padukone got such a bad rap for wearing a sari at the Cannes Film Festival. The sari itself was faultless, a tasteful creamy white affair with gold embroidery, designed for her by Rohit Bal, and worn daringly low on the waist to showcase her washboard stomach. The choli was a skimpy, shimmery little thing that made the most of her perfectly chiselled arms and shoulders. And the entire ensemble looked just about perfect on the tall, willowy Deepika. She looked sexy, elegant, dignified and sophisticated, all at the same time – a feat almost impossible to pull off on the red carpet.

Well, at least, that’s how it seemed to me. But given the kind of criticism her appearance attracted, mine was clearly a minority opinion. There were those who were unhappy with the choice of sari (too drab, too understated), others who found fault with the blouse (too short, it made her torso look abnormally long), her jewellery (she had worn it for another function earlier) and the hair-do (the prim bun made her look much older than her years). But mostly, the critics couldn’t understand why she had chosen to wear a sari when she had the perfect figure of carry off a gown.

Well, call me insular or just plain jingoistic, but the sight of an Indian actress walking the red carpet in Cannes wearing a sari made me feel rather proud. What a welcome change from the usual parade of Indian stars and starlets (i.e. everyone from Aishwarya Rao to Mallika Sherawat) who insist on wearing Western-style long, clinging gowns, slit to mid-thigh, and slashed low at the neck, whenever they attend any international event.

In the case of Aishwarya Rai, the oft-cited excuse is that she appears at Cannes in her capacity as L’Oreal ambassador and that the brand decides what she should wear. Hence, the sweeping, floor-length gowns, the elaborate up-dos for her hair, and the joint appearances with American celebrities like Eva Longoria.

But everyone thought that things would change with Freida Pinto, the unlikely star of Slumdog Millionaire. Here was a sweet little girl-next-door type who had gone international. And maybe she would take Indian style international with her. No such luck. Unlike Deepika, Freida chose Galliano over Gudda, wearing Dior at most of her red-carpet appearances and for fashion magazine covers.

But perhaps when you are trying to break into Hollywood, it makes sense to play down the exotic Indian angle and play up the international beauty bit. You need to show directors and producers that you can carry off a thoroughly modern look; and you can’t do that in an Indian outfit. Hence the recourse to such labels as Armani and Chanel and the refusal to wear a sari, I guess. (And it did work for Pinto, who was signed on for a Woody Allen film.)

But that’s exactly why I would award Deepika Padukone full marks for choosing the sari over a gown. I am sure that she wouldn’t be averse to a role or two in a Hollywood project either, but did she let that stop her from going all traditional on the Cannes red carpet? No way.

And how very nice it felt to see a young Indian girl taking pride in being Indian on an international platform! To see her walk the red carpet wearing a traditional sari in the traditional way and looking absolutely smashing in the bargain.

But perhaps this little vignette reveals a bit more than just Deepika’s wardrobe choices. Maybe it suggests that the Indian stars of this generation have finally found the chutzpah to be confident in their own costumes on the international stage. They no longer feel the need to fit it by wearing identikit gowns that you can’t tell apart from all the others on the red carpet.

They are now happy to be themselves, secure in their own skins and sexy in their own saris.

Sure, they want to conquer the world, but they want to do so on their own terms. They may want to go international; but they still want to look Indian while they do that.

Think about it. While Preity Zinta and Bipasha Basu choose to wear Western designs at film events even back home in India, the younger stars are falling back on the glamour of the sari. Kareena Kapoor has made the chiffon sari with halter-neck blouse her signature look. Priyanka Chopra is happy to repeat her ‘Desi girl’ style at all award functions. And now you have Deepika Padukone strutting her stuff in a sari in Cannes.

Yes, our Indian stars are still intent on conquering the world. But this time round, they are confident enough to do so dressed as Indians. How could that possibly not make you proud?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

True to type?

Is it really necessary to slot people into one box or the other?

It never ceases to amaze me how quick we are to stereotype people. It could be based on how they dress, where they went to school, in which area they live, where they holiday, the accent in which they speak. In fact, almost any – and every – detail about a person is used to slot him in one category or the other.

If you went to a posh boarding school like Doon or Mayo, then you must be a child of privilege, a spoilt rich kid coasting along a path smoothed by Daddy’s millions. If you studied in an Ivy League college or in either Oxford or Cambridge, then you are an elitist snob who could never understand the concerns of common folk.

If you dress in a salwar-kameez or a sari, then you must be a behenji; if you wear a short skirt or a tight top then you must be a slut who is up for it; if you are into computers you must be a nerd; if you are fat you must be greedy; if you wake up late in the morning you must be lazy.

At one time or another, all of us resort to this kind of shorthand. Punjabi = loud and crude (I guess I can say that without fear being a loud and crude Punjabi myself). Bengali = ineffectual but intellectual. South Indian = brainy bureaucrat. Sindhi = crooked businessman. Gujarati = canny stock-exchange whiz. And so on.

Our propensity to stereotype people was brought home to me anew lately, thanks to my recent experiences on Twitter.

A couple of Pakistan-related tweets (I am as hawkish on the subject as you can get without turning into Arnab Goswami – no relation, I hasten to add) brought in such a flood of responses from rabid Hindutva types that I spent the rest of the day explaining that in my book anti-Pakistan does not equal anti-Muslim.

A series of anti-Shashi Tharoor tweets elicited much abuse on the lines of “You bloody BJP so-and-so, what do you know anyway?” as if nobody could have an independent view on the subject without subscribing to one political party or the other.

But what was far more disturbing was one lengthy exchange I had with another tweeter about a post on my blog. The piece was about my reaction to the ban on the burkha in some European countries and this lady wrote to say that she couldn’t believe that someone who wrote about Hermes scarves and Louis Vuitton bags could also write about such serious issues as the burkha.

Well, why ever not?

Why should we slot people into these little categories and take the view that they couldn’t possibly do anything else? It is possible to be interested in both fashion and finance, to have a view on both peep-toe shoes and politics, to be moved by both babies and Bach, to be a champion of women’s rights and yet oppose the Women’s Reservation Bill.

And yes, it is possible to write about both bags and burkhas.

Nonetheless, many of us find it hard to wrap our minds around the fact that every person is a sum of many parts. And while one of these parts may lust after a pair of red-soled pumps, another might want to embrace a red-hued political philosophy; one part may like the uplifting sound of a choral opera, another might be a fiend for hard-core heavy metal; one might have a strong streak of political activism while the other loves trawling glossy magazines for the latest celebrity gossip.

But few people are willing to take this idea on board. After all, it’s so much simpler to just stick people in one bracket or the other. It makes life much easier, doesn’t it?

So, those who read romantic novels must be frustrated in love and looking for the excitement they could never find in real life within the pages of a book. Detective stories and thrillers are for worthless, frivolous folk who would benefit for having their noses stuck in an improving biography or two. And classics of English literature are for those with intellectual pretensions, who like to pretend that they are too good for pulp fiction.

I should know how this goes. Over the years, I have taken a fair amount of flack over my reading habits. One former employer went into paroxysms of laughter when he saw me reading Georgette Heyer at an airport lounge. Only when no less an author than Amitav Ghose told him (much later) how great Heyer was at evoking an era, did he stop taking the mickey out of me. (Not that I cared; I am the kind who feels no shame in reading a lurid paperback in public.)

These days, some of my more politically-correct friends make much fun of the fact that among the many news sites I visit every day (Times Online, The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Huffington Post among others) is the Daily Mail’s online version. Suffice it to say that the words ‘Enoch Powell’ have been thrown around and on one occasion I was even likened to the Sikh who joined the BNP (no, seriously, I kid you not).

But you know what? I really don’t care. As far as I am concerned, this kind of stereotyping says more your prejudices than mine. And no, I wouldn’t dream of sticking you into one box or the other.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The First Wives Club

It doesn’t really exist in Indian politics – and long may it stay that way

Who would have thought that being in London as the British chose their new government would make me nostalgic for politics, Indian style? And yet, strangely enough, that’s exactly how I feel.

I could have made my peace with the cheesy, stage-set like ambience of the electoral debates, which created a lot of sound and fury while signifying very little. Even Bigot-gate – when Prime Minister Gordon Brown was overheard calling a life-long Labour supporter a bigot on a live microphone after she quizzed him about immigration policies – seemed like par for the course in an era when non-stories are spun into pivotal media events. But in the end, it’s the wives who really got to me.

No matter which newspaper you opened – broadsheet or tabloid – or which news channel you watched, there was no escaping the First Wives Club. Here was Samantha, dutifully trotting behind David Cameron, all peachy skin, luminous smile and baby bump. There was Sarah Brown, trying hard to hide a tense look behind a rictus grin as husband Gordon did his own awkward take on man of the people. And bringing up the rear was the redoubtable Spanish spouse of Nick Clegg, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, who bravely built a dry stone wall with her bare hands before falling over in a supermarket and breaking her elbow.

It wasn’t all photo-opportunities, though. The First Wives had speaking parts as well on the campaign trail. Sarah Brown held forth on how her husband was “her hero” and how only he could save Britain from economic meltdown (barn doors, bolting horses anyone?) when she wasn’t tweeting every inconsequential detail of her day. Samantha Cameron was all about the Bump – how happy she and David were, when the baby was due, how she was feeling these days (tired but great, if you really want to know). And Miriam was all bolshy and defensive about how she wasn’t as prominent a presence on her husband’s election campaign (“I don’t have a job that I can just abandon for five weeks, and I imagine that is the case with most people in this country,” she snapped at one point, though she insisted this was not a dig at Samantha Cameron, whose job at Smythson appears to have rather flexible hours.)

And then there were the obligatory public displays of affection. Samantha and David were pictured on the tour bus, with her head nestled in his lap while he cradled the Bump (by now a supporting member of the Cameron cast). Gordon and Sarah fetched up on the GMTV sofa, sitting far too close together as Gordon held forth on how much he loved her. (“Thank you,” gushed Sarah, looking deep into his eyes even as the rest of us groped around for a sick bag.) And Clegg clung on to his wife’s arm and made inappropriate cooing noises whenever he could coax her away from her high-powered lawyer’s digs.

No detail of any of these men’s private lives was too trivial to share with the voting public. We heard about their love stories, how they met their wives, how they fell in love, how they got married, how much they loved their children; where they liked to holiday; what breakfast cereal they started the day with. And then, there were the personal tragedies: the death of the Browns’ first-born daughter, Jennifer, who had been born prematurely; the recent demise of the Camerons’ first-born son, Ivan, who was born with cerebral palsy and died at six; the fact that Browns’ younger son, Fraser, was born with cystic fibrosis.

While all of this was compelling viewing – and fascinating reading – what possible connection could any of this have with the General Election? You could argue at a pinch that such stuff goes towards building up character – which it does – but does it make a man a better or worse Prime Minister? Surely to suggest that you can only understand the problems of people in tragic circumstances if you have experienced tragedy yourself is to demean the human capacity for empathy and to diminish us all as social beings.

But while I can understand the impulse to humanise our politicians, what I simply cannot fathom is this relentless focus on their spouses – on what they are wearing; what they feed their kids; where they shop; the list of mindless tripe goes on and on.

Of course, it is all dressed up as political commentary. Why was Sarah Brown wearing a silk Erdem dress worth 600 pounds and Jimmy Choo shoes at 400 pounds a pop? Didn’t she understand that she is a Labour wife not a posh Tory bird? Did you know that Samantha Cameron’s M&S dress was actually made to measure for her because the store had run out of her size? What was she trying to prove by wearing M&S? We all knew that she was a fully-paid up member of the designer set. And why was Miriam Clegg shopping for lingerie at Rigby and Peller during her lunch hour anyway?

But however you dress it up, all this focus on the wives is just trivia. And it makes me grateful that we don’t have to endure it in Indian politics. We don’t really know or care what the wives of Manmohan Singh or L.K. Advani wear. And long may it stay that way.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Switching off

Why can’t we bear to be out of touch with the world for even a nano-second?

What is the first thing that you do when the wheels of your plane touch down on the tarmac? Do you send up a silent prayer for having arrived safely at your destination? Do you hastily scramble around to collect your reading glasses, shawl, book, magazines or whatever detritus you have strewn around you? Do you rummage in your purse for a lipstick so that you can repair your face before facing the world?

Or do you dig out your mobile phone/Blackberry and switch it on even before the seat belt sign is off?

I’m guessing most readers will be ticking the last option. Going by my own experience on flights this is what everyone does the moment the plane lands, defying the airline staff’s plaintive request that no one should switch on their mobile until the aircraft doors are open. So, even as you are taxiing down the runway, the air is abuzz with messages, emails, and phone calls coming through the ether.

Some are self-importantly scanning their Blackberries for all those crucial emails they missed while in transit. Others are calling their drivers to tell them to drive up to the exit gate so that they don’t have to wait even a couple of minutes for their cars. And then there are those inveterate social animals who can’t wait to get off the aircraft to firm up their dinner plans for the evening.

But every single passenger is on his or her phone, checking smses, the list of missed calls, tapping out messages, scanning e-mails, or making phone calls.

What is so important that can’t wait even for the five or ten minutes it takes to disembark from the aircraft? I am guessing here, but I wouldn’t mind betting that it’s nothing at all.

It’s just that we have become so used to the idea of being plugged into things at all times that we begin to suffer withdrawal symptoms when we are out of touch with the world for the few hours we are in an aircraft. So like a junkie craving a quick fix of his drug of choice, we reach for our phones with a certain desperate urgency the moment we are on terra firma.

What did we miss, we wonder as we switch on our lifelines. Was the boss looking for me with an urgent message? Did the sentence on Ajmal Kasab come through while I was mid-air? Did the sales and marketing team manage to swing that new contract? Did some new controversy break out on Twitter? Did my daughter do well in her exam? Did the stock market recover from that setback earlier in the day? Did India win that T-20 match against South Africa?

Yes, the questions are just bubbling over in our heads and we simply cannot wait for the answers that are lurking in the electronic memory of our phones. So, the first thing we do is switch it on to reconnect with the world. And as the screen comes alive with messages, e-mails and phone calls, in a very real sense, we come alive as well.

See, that’s the thing about modern living. We simply cannot stand the thought of being out of touch – with the news, with our friends, with the office, with social networking sites. No matter where we go, what we do, we must be plugged in. It’s the information age after all; so who could bear to be deprived of information?

Even if we are on holiday, when you are supposed to get away from it all, we want to stay in touch. What do you think is the first question most people ask when they check into a hotel? No, it’s not about what treatments the spa offers. It’s not about what time breakfast is served in the coffee shop. It’s not even about what speciality restaurants there are in the hotel.

No, what people want to know right away is how they can access wi-fi in their rooms. And this is as true of business hotels in big cities as it is of resort hotels in far-flung corners of the world where you should be enjoying the natural beauty all around you instead of surfing the Net. And yet, there we are, logging on to access our mail, check the news sites, and upload photographs on to Twitter and Facebook so that everyone knows exactly what we are up to (and we know what they are up to as well).

If there’s one thing that we can’t bear to do it is switch off – from the mad whirl of events that make up our world; from the constant thrill of the 24-hour news cycle; from the incessant pressure of our workplaces; and from the over-sharing that is such a defining feature of social media.

And we certainly can’t bear to switch off our mobile phones without suffering pangs of anxiety about what we are missing out on.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Because I like it

Why are we so loath to offer that as a reason for what we do?

A few months ago, when it was a pleasure rather than sheer torture to sit basking in the Delhi afternoon sun, I had lunch at a friend’s farmhouse. The lawns looked lovely, the fuchsia was in full bloom, and the kebabs and beer were going down a treat. There was a sharpish nip in the air if you stayed in the shade. But out in the open, with the heat of the sun on the top of your head, it was heavenly.

But most of the women stayed huddled in the shade, hiding behind factor 40 sunscreen and outsize sunglasses. Perhaps they were wary of sunburn or afraid of skin cancer – or a bit of both. But either way, there was no way they could be coaxed out into the open.

Finally, as the sun began to dip towards the horizon, one of them took her courage into her hands and stepped into the sunlight. In answer to the reproachful looks cast at her, she laughed nervously: “I need to get my Vitamin D fix for my bones, you know.”

In that instant, all that was wrong with our modern mind-sets became searingly clear to me.

We can no longer admit to doing something simply because we want to and because it brings us pleasure. No, everything needs to have a purpose, it must do us some good, it must be a virtuous choice that will improve our life in some tangible way.

So, you could not possible venture out into the sun simply because you like the feel of its warmth on your cheeks. The only valid reason to do so is that your body needs Vitamin D to strengthen your bones. And to produce Vitamin D you need to expose your body to direct sunlight. So, if you don’t want to get osteoporosis in old age (or even in middle-age) then you must spend some time in the sun.

Clearly, we are no longer comfortable doing anything unless we can take all the joy out of it, turning it into yet another cheerless chore among the countless others that make up our maddeningly busy lives.

But while this epiphany struck only on that winter afternoon, this realisation had been hovering at the edge of my consciousness for quite some time now.

A few years ago, when I began taking French classes in the evening, nobody I knew could understand why. What good could learning French possibly do, given that I was editing the features section of a English-language newspaper? How would it improve my life? What was the point of spending my evenings learning a new language when I could be working out/going out with my friends/watching TV?

The same questions cropped up when I began studying Italian soon after. Why Italian? It wasn’t even spoken anywhere in the world apart from Italy. Why not study Spanish which was spoken in so many countries in South America as well? Was I planning to study opera? Er, no. Did I plan to go live in Italy? Not a chance. So why Italian?

I tried long and hard to explain that I studied these languages because I had always wanted to; because I loved the way they sounded; because learning to speak them brought me pleasure. But the only person who seemed to understand was my Italian teacher as she worked her way through the class asking why we were studying the language. When I answered hesitantly, “Perche mi piace” – which translates, quite literally, as ‘because it pleases me’ – she nodded gravely as if it made perfect sense.

Which, when you think about it, is perfectly right. After all, what better reason could there be for doing something other than the fact that it gives you pleasure? And yet, that is the one reason that we are most loath to offer for any of our actions or choices.

At a dinner party, people will ask for a glass of red wine while virtuously pointing out that it is good for your cardio-vascular health to have a couple of glasses every day. What about the fact that sometimes it just feels good to have a glass of red at the end of a long day? That it tastes nice, relaxes you and goes perfectly with the lamb chops? Oh no, that couldn’t be possibly have anything to do with it. It’s those lovely little anti-oxidants that are so good for your heart that we are after.

Reading Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall late into the night? Could it be because Mantel tells a cracking good story and the book is hard to put down once you’ve started? Perish the thought. You are just trying to keep abreast of popular culture by reading the book that won the Man Booker prize.

Booking yourself in for a pedicure? Could it be because it feels great to have your feet pumiced and pummelled into shape and then slathered with luxurious cream? Oh no, it’s just that you need to be well-groomed for that business meeting, you understand?

And thus the excuses roll on. But seriously, why do we bother? What is so awful about admitting that we do something because we like it, it makes us happy, it brings us joy. What could be a better reason for doing something than that it simply pleases us?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The dichotomy of the burkha

It turns women into highly potent symbols of the faith even as it renders them invisible

The incessant coverage of the Ban-the-Burkha row that erupted after President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke in favour of outlawing the offending garment in France and the decision of the Belgian Parliament to outlaw the burkha in public, put me in mind of an email that a friend forwarded to me a few months back.

There was a photo attached to it, featuring a group of eight women, standing in front of a shopping mall, while a young man crouched in front of them with a camera, all set to take their picture. All the women were wearing black burkhas so the only thing you could see of them was their eyes peering out from behind the nikab.

The caption of the photograph read: What is the point of this picture?

Call me politically incorrect – or something stronger, if you will – but I must confess that the mail made me chuckle.

I mean, seriously, what is the point of clicking someone’s picture if you can’t even see who it is in the photograph? And given that there was no way to tell who the women were behind the burkhas, why bother with a picture at all?

Surely, the point of holiday snapshots is that we can look at ourselves later and relive the memories of days spent on vacation. But is there any point of taking a picture in which you can’t identify anyone in the frame?

See, that’s the thing about the burkha.

It robs a woman of her identity the moment she puts it on. In a sense, it turns her into a non-person, cloaking her in anonymity, rendering her all but invisible in society.

But that’s just on one level. On another, it also makes a woman more visible than ever. She may be obscured from our view as an individual but as a symbol she becomes more evocative than ever.

And as a symbol she evokes myriad responses. To some, she is a vision of the purity of Islam. To some, she is an embodiment of the medieval obscurantism that plagues that religion. And to some others, she is simply a victim of gender injustice.

The image she presents is more political than it is personal. And that’s because in a very real sense, we don’t actually see the woman beneath the burkha – she is devoured by the imagery that her dress conjures up in our minds.

And that, in some ways, is the central dichotomy of the burkha. On the one hand, it bestows anonymity on women and on the other it turns them into visible and potent symbols.

There are many layers to the burkha debate. Muslim women may claim – as many do – that they wear it out of choice. That they feel safe behind its all-enveloping embrace. That it is their choice to cover themselves just as many Western women choose to reveal themselves in public. But for every woman who says and believes all this, there are many who are forced into wearing it because of parental or societal

So, should a government ban this garment from public life so that those women who do not desire to wear the burkha don’t have to?

There really are no easy answers to that one. There are feminists who will argue for one position and liberals who will make a convincing case for the other. And both will have compelling arguments to buttress their beliefs.

But even though at a visceral level I believe that no government should legislate what women should or should not wear, I have a sneaking sympathy for Sarkozy’s view of the matter.

Because what the French President is talking about has as much to do with women’s rights and gender equality as it does with the right of a nation state to define its own cultural mores and its societal values, to create its own distinct identity which all citizens are expected to conform to.

Calling the burkha a sign of subservience rather than a sign of religion, Sarkozy told the French Parliament: “It will not be welcome on French soil. We cannot accept in our country, women imprisoned behind a mesh, cut off from society, deprived of all identity. This is not the French Republic’s idea of women’s dignity.”

And quite frankly, I can’t see much wrong with that statement. Shouldn’t France have a right to stand up for the cultural values it believes in and which are enshrined in its Constitution?

Think about it. If a French woman were to be seen in a sleeveless blouse or even with no headscarf in such Islamic states as Saudi Arabia and Iran, she would be arrested by the religious police and thrown into jail.

The rules in these countries are very clear. If women want to visit or live here they have to follow these rules – or else. Even the intrepid Christiane Amanpour has to cover her head with a scarf when she is reporting from Iran.

Everyone falls in line when it comes to respecting the cultural mores of Islamic states. So, why this hue and cry if Western countries try to impose their own cultural ethos on immigrant communities that have made their home in their midst?

After all, rather than being stigmatized as outsiders, these communities are being asked to assimilate, to respect the host culture, to become one with it rather than flaunt themselves as the Other.

What could possibly be wrong with that?