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

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Family matters

We may rave and rant about dynasty in politics: but we think nothing of building up our own

Are you in the mood to conduct a little social experiment this Sunday? Well, if you are, I have something for you. Ask your friends and family what they hate most about Indian politics. If I am guessing right, then most of the respondents will answer: dynasty.

Strange, isn’t it? There are so many things wrong with Indian politics and our system of governance. There is an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. We claim to be a putative superpower but plead helplessness when it comes to feeding our starving millions with grain that is rotting away in government godowns. Both the Kashmir imbroglio and the Naxalite problem seem to rage on without an end in sight.

Our politicians make money off everything from the Commonwealth Games to arms purchases to the IPL. But it seems that corruption is now so endemic that it does not even occasion comment. So, our politicians are corrupt. Well, yes, and the sky is blue. No need to hold the front page then.

But dynasty? Now, that’s different. That’s the one thing that we middle-class folk can get all worked up about. Why is it that every politician’s son and daughter regards it as his or her god-given right to enter politics? Why do political parties treat parliamentary seats as something that can be passed down from one generation of a family to the other? Isn’t it a shame that we the electorate keep voting in members of the same family again and again? India has always had a slightly feudal mind-set, but frankly, this is ridiculous.

If this goes on for much longer, we mutter ominously, all political power will soon be restricted to a few hundred families who will control all our resources and rule over us with impunity. And soon no outsider will be able to breach the system, no matter how good he or she is. How on earth will our system throw up a Barack Obama-type figure, we wail, when it restricts entry to family members only?

All of this is entirely true. And none of this is good for India. But, as always, there is more to this story.

It is a measure of our hypocrisy as a people that even as we moan and groan about dynasty in politics, we see no contradiction in building up dynasties of our own in our own backyards. In fact, we actually thrive on it, draw pride from it, and treat it as a measure of our success as parents.

Look around you. Chances are that if your friends are lawyers, their children are studying law as well (and will inherit the practice in due course). If they are doctors, then the kids will probably follow them into medicine (and yes, inherit the practice). In the media, too, children tend to follow the lead of their parents, becoming journalists either in print or in television – though, unfortunately, only a handful are lucky enough to inherit a media empire.

And that’s just the professionals. In the world of business, things are even worse. Even if families own a minuscule fraction of the company, it is taken for granted that the children will take over as CEO or MD in due course. With privately-owned companies, the sense of entitlement is even worse. Rare is the Narayan Murthy or Nandan Nilekani, who builds up an empire and does not leave it to his kids.

But dynasties flourish in other areas as well. Films are the most visible example where every hero of yesteryear treats it as matter of macho pride to launch his son in a blockbuster movie (somehow the same macho pride does not extend to the daughters, though).

Look at the film industry today. With the exception of Shah Rukh Khan, every other leading actor is a filmi kid. Salman Khan’s father is Salim of Salim-Javed fame; Hrithik Roshan’s father is former hero Rakesh Roshan; Ranbir Kapoor is the son of Rishi and Neetu Kapoor; Bobby and Sunny Deol are the sons of Dharamendra. Even among the heroines a fair proportion of them are filmi kids: Karisma and Kareena Kapoor, Esha Deol, Kajol, etc.

So, what’s wrong with that, you say. Everybody has the right to choose the profession of their choice. And if it happens to be the profession of their parents as well, so what? They still have to make it on their own terms don’t they?

In the case of the doctors and lawyers, they have to work hard for their qualifications. Journos have to go out looking for jobs like everybody else (though conceivably their parents’ contacts would help – though, if you ask me, it is more likely that they would it hard to find someone Dad hadn’t rubbed up the wrong way). And the industrialists are just leaving what they had built up themselves to their kids.

But if you are going to put forth justifications, you could equally argue that politicians too have to earn their stripes like everybody else. It doesn’t matter how big a minister your Daddy is. You still have to win an election to get into Parliament. It doesn’t matter for how many generations your family has held the same seat. The voters still have to vote for you.

So, honestly speaking, what is the difference? It might be something to think about the next time you feel inclined to rage on about dynasty.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Truly pointless research

Why does anyone bother to conduct it; and who on earth is mad enough to pay for it?

I’m sure you’ve noticed it as well – the sudden plethora of utterly useless information being thrown at us in the name of scientific research. Just over the last fortnight, the papers have carried reports of a study that proved that women are more attracted to men who move their torsos and heads on the dance floor (apparently, we don’t really care what you do with your arms and legs). Then came news of research that showed that fat men were better in bed because they could last longer (can this really be a good thing for the women labouring, er, under them?) because they had a female hormone, estradiol, which delayed climax.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg. The results of truly pointless research are all around us, in case you care to look. The following, for instance, is what a cursory search on the Internet revealed, when I typed the magic words ‘pointless research’ into the Google search engine.

• Lap dancers get higher tips from punters when they are ovulating. You can just imagine the rigours of research involved in that particular project. (And the queues of enthusiastic men willing to sacrifice themselves in the cause of scientific research.)
• You can cure hiccups by a ‘digital rectal massage’. Okay, I concede this wouldn’t seem like pointless research if you were the one suffering from hiccups but it does make one wonder how the researchers stumbled upon this particular cure. On second thoughts, let’s not go there.
• Older men chasing younger women and having babies with them is good for the survival of the species and for our general longevity. That doesn’t mean, alas, that Rod Stewart and Rupert Murdoch will live longer as a consequence of fathering children well into their dotage but that in the long run, most of us will.
• Women are aroused by the sight of monkeys having sex. Evidently, this was proved by a study which examined the responses of a group of men and women to pictures depicting both human and primate sex. Apparently, while the men were only aroused by depictions of heterosexual human sex, the women also responded to the monkey business. Go figure.
• Fat kids are more likely to be targets of bullies than average-sized children. Yes, yes, I know, this is an undeniable fact of life in the school-yard but apparently someone found it necessary to carry out some scientific research to establish this.
• And then, there’s my special favourite. More people are killed by donkeys every year than die in plane crashes. Needless to say, this isn’t true mostly because nobody has ever compiled figures for how many people are killed by donkeys (and why would they?) but this ‘fact’ is routinely thrown around in articles that try to establish how safe air travel really is.
• And then, there’s this particular gem. In the Twitter world as many as 40.55 per cent of tweets are ‘pointless babble’ (i.e., as pointless as the research that established this.)
You may also be interested to know (or not) that dog fleas can jump higher than cat fleas; suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio; washing your hands without using soap is pointless; and eating less calories will lead to weight loss.

Honestly, do we really need research to establish these facts? Leave alone the fact that most of them are self-evident, we are really none the wiser for having such information at our finger-tips.

But what really intrigues me is this. Who are these people who spend many years of their professional lives working on such projects? And how do they decide on their increasingly surreal topics of research?

More to the point, who on earth is mad enough to pay for this kind of truly pointless research? Don’t universities and research institutes have better things to spend their money on? Can these resources not be deployed to search for a cure for cancer, AIDs or even the common cold?

If you think that these questions deserve an answer, perhaps you can set up your own research team to investigate these matters. But if it’s truly pointless research that motivates you, then there are some other enduring mysteries of life that you may like to enquire into.

• Why is the traffic lane in which you are travelling always the slowest. Ditto, immigration queues, lines at the bank, etc.
• Why do you always encounter a series of red lights when you are running late? When you are not in a hurry, you get a green signal all through.
• Why do you get invited to expensive restaurants only when you are on a diet?
• Why do you always get caught in the rain on the day that you have had your hair washed and blow-dried professionally?
• Why do taxis disappear off the road when it is pouring?
• Why is your wife always right?
Going by the kind of pointless research that is published every day, it shouldn’t be too difficult to swing the funding. And it would certainly be more fun than seeing what a ‘digital rectal massage’ could achieve.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Is privacy dead?

Or is it just that nobody respects it any longer?

Okay, even if it makes me sound like something of a cliché, I must admit that I enjoyed reading Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s sometimes self-deprecatory sometimes self-indulgent account of the time she spent in Italy, India and Bali, recovering from a traumatic divorce and a rebound affair gone bad. But as the movie version, with the ever-lovely Julia Roberts in the lead, hits screens all over the world, I can’t help feeling a teeny-weeny bit sorry for the erstwhile Mr Gilbert aka Michael Cooper.

Surely it’s bad enough to suffer through a bad marriage and an acrimonious divorce. But then, to have all those private details of your personal life become public property through first a best-selling book and then a blockbuster Hollywood movie – well, that must be a very special kind of hell to suffer through.

Of course, Cooper is now re-married and has the children (two boys) that his first wife was so loath to grant him. But surely it must rankle that he will forever be known as that feckless so-and-so who chased Gilbert for every penny he could get out of her, even – wait for this – a share in all her future earnings.

Yes, though Gilbert is a bit hazy on the reasons for her divorce in the book (did she fall out of love with her husband; did she fall in love with someone else; we don’t quite know) she is generous enough to share the details of her divorce with her. So, we know that her ex-husband fought her every step on the way, laid claim to the marital home, asked for lots and lots of money, etc. etc.

Now, here’s the thing. The truth is that almost everyone behaves badly in a divorce – especially if they don’t want one in the first place. In fact I can’t think of many people whose behaviour in these circumstances would stand up to scrutiny. But not everyone has their financial wrangling brought into the public domain in so spectacular a manner. So, yes, I do feel a bit sorry for the first Mr Gilbert (especially since he failed to get a slice of his ex-wife’s rather fabulous future earnings and his own personal memoir, Displaced, was cancelled by his publishers because it wasn’t revelatory enough).

You could say, of course, that this sort of stuff is par for the course; it comes with the territory when you marry a writer. After all, isn’t that what writers do? Don’t they all mine their own lives for a good story to tell? And in Gilbert’s case, her life was the story.

Well, I guess so. But surely, anyone in a marriage – or any kind of relationship, for that matter – should have a reasonable expectation of privacy? Everyone should be entitled to keep their private lives private, to keep their personal life to themselves, if they so choose.

And yet, how do you accomplish that when everyone around you seems to be in such a confessional mode? Forget about celebrity sportsmen like Tiger Woods and Wayne Rooney who have to deal with mistresses/girlfriends/escort girls selling their stories for massive amounts of money. Even ordinary folk these days tend to deal with a break-up by venting on Twitter or starting a blog recounting their heartbreak in every excruciating detail. It matters little to them that they are not just invading their own privacy but also of their partners.

And this sort of compulsive over-sharing has become near chronic now. Just look at the recent slew of political autobiographies to hit the market. Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man and Tony Blair’s The Journey are just the latest in a series of books that show scant respect for the tradition of keeping political confidences. Private conversations are recounted verbatim, personal correspondence is quoted liberally, and everything that was off-the-record is placed on record without the slightest trace of embarrassment.

Needless to say, not everybody is happy with the consequences. Alastair Campbell was incandescent with rage when Cherie Blair revealed in her autobiography, Speaking for Myself, that he had once dismissed her hair stylist as “only a f__king hairdresser”, even writing in to newspapers to deny ever having said so. Cherie, for her part, sent in a legal notice to Peter Mandelson for quoting from a letter she sent him after his exit from the Cabinet in which she vented against Gordon Brown (“My only consolation is that I believe that a person who causes evil to another will in the end suffer his returns.”) Which, frankly, is a bit rich coming from a woman who cheerily recounted private conversations with everyone from Princess Margaret to the Queen in her own book.

While the art of the candid political autobiography is yet to come to India – somehow I can’t quite see A.B. Vajpayee or even Brajesh Mishra recounting their difficulties with L.K. Advani with the same reckless disregard for political niceties – a confessional culture is certainly creeping in. Journalists think nothing of tweeting about off-the-record encounters with ministers. Actors share candid details of their relationships with fans on social media networks. And even ordinary folk are getting in on the act, sharing private details in public spaces.

So, is it fair to say that privacy is dead? Or is it just in terminal decline, waiting for a miracle that would bring it back to life?

And do you think that miracle will come about in our time?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Loss of faith

To feel betrayed, you need to have trusted in someone to begin with

How do you think the average Pakistani cricket fan reacted when news of the latest scandal to hit their cricket team broke? When the British tabloid, The News of the World, ran a sting operation on a bookie who boasted on camera that he could get the Pakistani team to do anything he wanted? And when the next day’s play – when two Pakistani bowlers bowled no-balls in exactly the same overs as he had predicted – proved that he wasn’t lying?

Well, the words ‘shocked’ ‘grieved’ ‘embarrassed’ ‘saddened’ or even ‘angered’ come to mind. But do you think that any of the fans really felt ‘betrayed’?

I think not. To feel a sense of betrayal, you need to have had a feeling of trust to begin with. And while I am sure that the Pakistanis love, admire, hell, even idolise their cricket team, I am not sure that they trust any of their players as far as they can throw them.

I mean, honestly, how could they? Even the most naive Pakistani cricket fan is well aware by now that there is something rotten in the world of Pakistani cricket. Allegations of match-fixing have become routine over the last couple of decades. Charges of ball-tampering crop up every year or so, with such senior players as Shahid Afridi at the centre of the storm. And spot fixing – in which a player tries to oblige his bookie friends by influencing a particular period of play by throwing away his wicket or dropping a catch or, as happened in Lords on that fateful day, bowling a no-ball – is so common as to barely occasion comment.

None of this is such a well-kept secret that the Pakistani cricket fan has no idea that this stuff really happens. So, while I am willing to accept that Pakistani fans may be upset and annoyed, I don’t really think that they really feel let down by their national team. As far as they are concerned, all of this is pretty much par for the course.

See, that’s the thing about betrayal. It only hits you like a sledgehammer if you have no idea that it is headed in your direction at the speed of light.

Ask Elin Nordegren. The Swedish ice-blonde wife of Tiger Woods had no idea that her husband was cheating on her – let alone that he was doing so with an assembly line of busty babes. When she finally found out, it was as if her world had collapsed around her. As she said in an interview to People magazine after her divorce was final, she didn’t suspect him for a minute, so when the mistresses began to crawl out of the woodwork she felt very betrayed – and very stupid indeed.

That’s exactly how Victoria Beckham felt a few years ago, when Rebecca Loos sold the story of her affair with David Beckham, complete with accounts of sexually explicit text messages and raunchy phone calls. The Beckhams had built their brand on being a devoted, wholesome couple who only had eyes for each other and it must have come as a complete shock to Victoria to see hard evidence of her husband’s involvement with another woman. But the ones who probably felt the most betrayed were David’s fans who had bought into the myth of Beckham the family man.

It’s only when the world buys into a particular myth that a sense of betrayal kicks in. We all believed – or at the very least, we wanted to believe – that Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were made for each other. She was our favourite Friend, America’s corn-fed sweetheart; he was the blonde God of good looks, the pin-up idol of every girl (and at least some of the boys). Theirs was a marriage meant to last.

So, when Brad Pitt fell for the dark, dangerous beauty of Angelina Jolie on the sets of Mrs and Mrs Smith (though they swore till they were blue in the face that no actual impropriety occurred until Pitt had left Aniston – yeah, right!) you could hear the sound of a million hearts breaking all over the world. Jennifer was, as expected, devastated and heart-broken, but all of us felt just as betrayed on her behalf.

It was that sense of betrayal that turned us against Shashi Tharoor when the IPL controversy broke. Tharoor was our middle-class hero, the squeaky-clean Malayali boy made good who had come back home to do his bit for his country. He was going to clean the system, making it as honest and incorruptible as himself. He was a politician with a difference; and he was going to make a difference if it was the last thing he did.

So, imagine the shock when it was revealed that Tharoor’s then girlfriend and now wife, Sunanda Pushkar, had been granted sweat equity worth about Rs 70 crores in the Kochi team that won the IPL bid, with minister Tharoor standing as mentor. You could argue that this was nothing compared to the blatant corruption that some of Tharoor’s fellow ministers indulged in.

But that wasn’t the point. The truth was that we expected better of Tharoor. And when he let us down, that sense of betrayal could only be assuaged by his resignation from the government.

I guess the moral of the story is: the higher we build them up, the harder they fall. The more the trust; the greater the sense of betrayal.