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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

One and only

Are only children happier than those with siblings? A recent survey appears to suggest so

Some of my friends who have chosen to restrict themselves to a single-child family are often disconcerted by the kind of reactions they elicit from family, friends, acquaintances, hell, sometimes even passing strangers. Their decision not to extend their family always evokes shock, horror, amazement, even a smidgeon of pity.

The questions come hard and fast. Are they really sure about this? Don’t they realise that their child will grow up lonely? How on earth will he learn to get along with other kids or even share his toys? Who will be there to support her after they are gone? Maybe they should change their minds about this before it is too late. And so on and on and on.

Well, all those friends of mine who have been so exasperated by these demands over the years can now heave a sigh of relief. For a recent survey suggests that only children are far happier than those with siblings.

Well, I guess, at a certain level it makes some sense. Only children never have to compete with someone else for the love of their parents. Their parents can lavish more money, attention and praise on them because there is no other child around to make demands on them.

They don’t have to cope with bullying by an elder sibling or make concessions for a younger one. There are no invidious comparisons to be drawn between them and a brother who is so much better at maths or a sister who can write so well. They never have to share either the bathroom or their books.

And when it comes to their inheritance, the whole caboodle will come to them in the fullness of time.

Hey, maybe my friends with single-child families are on to something here. Perhaps they are actually doing better by their kids than those who bring two or even more children into the world.

Okay, so these kids don’t have the ready-made companionship of a brother or sister with blood ties to bind them. But they can go out and make friends of their own choosing. At least, that way they will be sure of getting along with them. With siblings there is always the danger than you will drive each other up the wall or be at one another’s throats before Mom and Dad charge in to break up the brawl. And sometimes these childhood – even childish – rivalries fester well into adulthood, poisoning relationships and ruining family gatherings.

Certainly there are enough grown-ups around who profess to be quite happy with their single-child upbringing. They enjoyed the feeling of being at the centre of their parents’ universe. They loved the idea of being the sole focus of attention. And they really didn’t miss the give-and-take that comes with a sibling relationship.

Of course, you could call them selfish, self-centred or even self-absorbed with no interest in anything other than themselves. And there may even be some truth to that. But they prefer to describe themselves as self-contained. Having grown up in isolation they are used to being by themselves. And as a consequence, they have developed enough inner resources to cope with being on their own.

You may see them as lonely but actually they are just alone – and no, it is not that same thing.

But just as some people are content with their single-child status, others are actively unhappy. As children they probably pestered their parents for a sibling, as grown-ups they feel as if they have lost out on an essential part of the human experience. Some of them try and make up by creating big families of their own in an attempt to re-write history. Others content themselves with berating others who are disinclined to extend their families.

I guess at the end of the day, it all comes down to personality. Some people are essentially loners, who thrive on their only-child isolation. Others long for social contact and meaningful inter-familial relationships, and they can never quite make peace with their sibling-less status.

But even though the survey says otherwise, I can’t help but feel that only children do tend to lose out – sometimes in ways which they don’t even comprehend. Sure, they may not have to contend with sibling rivalry. But they have no opportunity to enjoy some sibling revelry either.

And I have a sneaking feeling that they are the poorer for it. The rich web of human relationships that are formed between siblings are lost to them forever. They may not have had to share their parents’ love, but there will be no one to share the burden of their care in old age either. And once they are gone, they will never be able to share the memories of their parents with anyone else. And there will be no one around with the same shared history of growing up.

They will never experience the special bond that forms between aunts and nieces. They will never have the pleasure of playing indulgent uncle. They will never enjoy the sight of their kids playing with their cousins, all of them united by a certain family resemblance. And they will never be able to fall back on the unconditional support that only a sibling can provide in a time of crisis.

But I guess, you don’t miss something that you never had in the first place. Perhaps that explains why only children profess to be quite so happy.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

That sinking feeling

To be human is to be disappointed – and vice versa

So, it is official. President Barack Obama is a disappointment. He is a disappointment to those who believed in his message of change and turned out in droves to vote him into the White House. He is a disappointment to the Democratic Party which has lost its dominance of the US House of Representatives under his watch. He is a disappointment to Rajiv Pratap Rudy who wanted him to denounce Pakistan as a terrorist state from the terrace of the Taj Mahal Hotel. He is a disappointment to those Indian media commentators who would have liked him to order a nuclear strike against Waziristan during his Indian visit. And he is certainly a disappointment to all those school kids who now know that Obama can’t dance, sala (unlike his wife Michelle – Oh Yes, She Can!).

I guess, that’s the thing about being built up into some kind of demi-God. No matter what you do afterwards, no matter how you behave, no matter what you say, you will always be a bit of a disappointment. Try as hard as you like. But you will never be able to measure up to the picture that people have built up of you in their heads.

That said, I have to admit that I was distinctly underwhelmed by the Barack Obama we saw in India. Maybe it was the drubbing he received in the recent US by-elections, maybe it was jet lag after a long trans-Atlantic flight, but the American President seemed curiously unengaged, even distracted, during his sojourn in India. There wasn’t any of the eloquence that we have come to expect from him; his address at the memorial to the 26/11 victims was rather pedestrian by his standards. There was none of that razor-sharp wit and blazing intelligence in evidence; in fact, he waffled quite embarrassingly when asked the P (yes, that would be Pakistan) question by a Mumbai student.

But why blame poor Obama alone when disappointment is really endemic to life; a part, if you will, of the human condition. From the time you are old enough to identify an emotion for what it is, to the time you die, disappointment is destined to be a regular feature of your life. In fact, if you ask me, to be human is to be disappointed – and vice versa.

It all begins in early childhood, when you start to realise with dawning horror that the entire world does not revolve around you. The epiphany could strike when a cousin comes visiting and gets far more attention from your grandmother than you. Or when the arrival of a younger sibling means that you are no longer the centre of your parents’ universe. Or even at your first day at school, when the teacher praises the girl sitting next to you, while ignoring you entirely.

As a child, you look on the world with a certain innocence, even insouciance. Everything seems possible; all things appear well within your grasp if you would only reach out for them. But as you grow up and the realities of the world intrude, the realm of the impossible grows bigger and bigger. And from then on, you seem to be whizzing downhill at an ever-increasing speed as the disappointments pile up hard and fast.

There’s the moment when you finally come to terms with the fact that you are not going to grow up into a bona fide beauty like your mom. When you realise that with the best will in the world – and many, many hours of back-breaking practise – you will never become another Sachin Tendulkar on the cricket field. And that no matter how much you wish for it, however hard you pray, that boy/girl down the street is never going to take much notice of you.

Once you have got over the disappointment of realising that you really are not as special as you were led to believe by your parents, life kicks in with its own set of special let-downs. You can’t get into the college of your choice though you topped your school in the board exams. You will never be able to fulfil your dream of being a neurosurgeon or nuclear physicist. You can’t even get an interview – let alone a job – at the company you always wanted to work for. Your boss doesn’t appreciate you; that raise is simply not good enough; and no, you’re not going to make it to the board after all.

It doesn’t get much better in your personal life either. Your girlfriend isn’t the supermodel you dreamt of when you were an adolescent boy (and the boyfriend isn’t quite the Greek God, for that matter). Your spouse simply doesn’t understand you as well as that charming co-worker in the next office. Your kids aren’t budding geniuses who will fulfil all the dreams that died young in your case.

But worst of all, is the sense of being disappointed with your own self, the feeling that you have failed to achieve your full potential. There’s nothing worse than the disappointment that ensues from knowing that you have made mistakes along the way. And that there is no one to blame but yourself for the way your life has turned out.

Well at least, that’s how ordinary folk like you and me feel about themselves. But I can’t help but wonder if the rich, the famous, the powerful, also feel the same way.

What do you think? Is Obama as disappointed in himself as the rest of the world seems to be?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Food for thought

Why does the sight of an attractive woman enjoying her food
make us think of sex?

I've read her books, tried her recipes, and devoured the results with lip-smacking delight. I've followed her career from the time she was a food writer at Vogue to now that she has become a global food brand in her own lunchtime.

But through it all, I've never understood all that palaver about her sundry television shows. Why did everyone get their knickers in their twist about what they termed `food porn'? What exactly did Nigella Lawson get up to with a carrot as the camera lovingly panned in for a close-up? What unspeakable acts did she commit with a rack of lamb? To
what evil end did she use dark chocolate?

My mind boggled as I thought of every deviant act that a grown woman behind a kitchen counter could perform on food objects for the delectation of television audiences worldwide.

I finally had the chance to get some answers when channel-surfing idly I came upon a programme titled Nigella Feasts (Discovery Travel and Living). My first thought as I watched the splendidly upholstered Nigella throw in cups of full-fat cream and ladlefuls of butter as she whipped up a humungous quantity of eggs was that the show's title was grossly misleading. It was less Nigella Feasts and more Nigella Serves
up a Heart Attack.

Suddenly, the secret behind that bounteous cleavage was all too evident. It glistened and gleamed, quivered and bounced with such life and verve because of the copious amount of animal fat, red meat and sugar it had been brought up on. Clearly, Nigella took her duties as self-anointed Domestic Goddess seriously enough to gobble up all the
high calorie treats she cooked on her show.

For the life of me, however, I couldn't understand all that fuss about `food porn'. Or `gastro porn' as some of the more literary critics dubbed it. Sure, Nigella has a rather tactile approach to cooking, touching – even caressing – her ingredients, kneading and pounding with feeling and slurping everything up with lip-smacking approval.

And unlike most curvy women who hide behind shapeless dresses, she does this while proudly showing off her assets in a tight sweater.

But `food porn'? Seriously! Anyone who thought that there was anything even remotely pornographic about a full-figured woman enjoying her pudding needed their head examined. And as for that well-worn cliché about how food is like sex, those who believe that cannot have had much experience of either.

I have to say, though, that the show got me thinking. What was it about Nigella that made people immediately think `porn' even if it was in the context of food? Sure, she is sexy in a Mother Earth sort of way, with soft, flowing tresses and a mouth that was made for licking batter off a bowl. And it can't hurt the ratings that her cleavage
shows off to best advantage when she bends over the stove to taste her spoils. But to go from there to pornography is rather a stretch.

Part of the problem may well be that we are simply not used to seeing women of Nigella's shape as sexual beings. The media is flooded with images of stick-thin women with plastic breasts and collagen-enhanced smiles. So the sight of a normal sized woman who (to the best of our knowledge) has not been cosmetically enhanced, looking sexy and
sensual throws us completely.

We see women like this around us every day but they become imbued with a certain fetishistic appeal when they appear in their full-bodied glory on television. There is almost a shock/horror element to seeing them showing off their bits on screen without the slightest trace of embarrassment.

What makes Nigella's performance even more unnerving, I think, is that she doesn't apologise for way she looks – she celebrates it. And instead of dishing out slimming recipes or offering low-fat options, she delights in all manner of fattening foods. As she once wrote, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, "I have nothing to declare but my greed".

And in her persona as foodie femme fatale, her appetites are to be indulged – not dulled by a regimen of sensible eating. Perhaps the reason why people find something sexual in her blatant enjoyment of food is because it implies that she will not shy away from feeding her other senses.

Padma Lakshmi, the former Mrs Salman Rushdie, who also hosts a food show, doesn't evoke quite the same feelings. Even though the former supermodel has a fabled appetite (for food, I hasten to add), you can't help feeling that she had to have thrown up everything she ever ate to look this emaciated. And while her first cookbook, Easy Exotic, listed a model's low-calorie recipes from around the world, Nigella's
How to Eat embraced every food group, no matter how `unhealthy'.

Maybe, that's what accounts for all this nonsense about `food porn'. In our shape-obsessed world, food has become forbidden fruit, a guilty treat best sampled in secret. The act of tucking into a big meal – or looking as if we enjoy it – in public has acquired a tacit taboo at a time when self-deprivation is all the rage. And maybe that's why Nigella's performance smacks of illicit pleasures rather than an honest appreciation of good food.

Which begs the question, food porn anyone?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Playing ‘favourites’

There really is no good answer to any question that contains that word

There’s nothing that stumps me more than a question that begins: “What is your favourite...?” It doesn’t really matter what word or phrase completes the query. It could be something as innocuous as ‘colour’ or ‘restaurant’ or as deep and meaningful as ‘time of life’ or even ‘religious text’. But no matter how it ends, any question that contains the word ‘favourite’ within it strikes terror in my heart. I stumble, I stutter, I flail around searching desperately for an appropriate response – and in nine cases out of ten, I come up empty.

Because, to tell you the truth, I really don’t get this concept of a ‘favourite’ something or the other.

Take colours, for instance. How could anyone possibly choose one over the many that are on offer? And yet, there are people who don’t even have to think about it. “Red”, they reply confidently. “Purple”, say some others. “Black” is another frequent response.

Well, you know what? I love all of the above. And on occasion, I’m fond of a dusky pink, a flaming orange, or a deep indigo. But I couldn’t possibly choose one over the other, no matter how hard I tried. There are times when I love the crisp monochromes of a black and white graphic print. There are times when the deep blue of a monsoon sky overwhelms me. And there are times when a palette of beiges, like an undulating desert landscape, soothes and calms.

Choose one over the other as an absolute ‘favourite’? Sorry, I couldn’t possibly.

It’s much the same story with restaurants. I am sure that many of you have a ‘favourite’ restaurant, but I couldn’t pick one if you held a gun to my head. Sure, I have many favourite haunts, where I return time and again. I love the cafes in Khan Market where I hang out over lazy lunches with my friends. But I love the chaat joints in Bengali Market just as much. I love the earthy flavours and huge portions at Bukhara, the mod-Jap vibe of Wasabi, the buzz at Set’z, the butter and garlic flavours of Swagath.

Well, I could go on, but I guess you get the general point. When you are as promiscuous as this about eating out, how could you possibly pick one restaurant – or even two or three – as a ‘favourite’?

Or pick a ‘favourite’ cuisine, for that matter. I love parathas and pickle as much as the next Punjabi, but there are times when a nice Chinese stir-fry just hits the spot. Sometimes you need a spicy Thai curry to get your gastric juices flowing; at others, it is the wasabi flavour of Japanese food that does the trick. Choosing one over the other is just a matter of convenience and mood. And it changes every day – well, it does for me, at least.

The other ‘favourite’ question that gets asked all too frequently is: “What is your favourite holiday destination?” Huh, what? Just the one? You have got to be kidding!

How could anyone pick just one place in the whole wide world as a ‘favourite’ place to holiday in? Surely, urban breaks in London, New York or Paris are as much fun as adventure holidays in New Zealand or Australia. Beach resorts are just as relaxing as mountain getaways. And holidaying in India has its charms just as taking off abroad is a special pleasure.

After much soul-searching, I have managed to narrow my choice down to one country: Italy. I’d much rather holiday here than anywhere else. After all, where else could I go from a beach resort on the Amalfi coast to verdant vineyards in Tuscany to the mysterious beauty of Venice to a pizza-eating orgy in Naples to a shopping blitz in Milan – all in the space of a single week? But there is no way I could narrow it down any further.

Books is another area in which I am utterly unable – hell, even unwilling – to choose a ‘favourite’. No, I don’t have a favourite book, let alone a favourite author. There are many books that I like enough to re-read from time to time, but they are written by authors as diverse as Jane Austen and Dominick Dunne, as far apart as Agatha Christie and Bill Bryson.

But most annoying of all is the ‘favourite’ person question. I can just about cope with the ‘Who is the best person you have ever interviewed’ question by pulling a random name out of my head. But the “Who is your best friend” question leaves me rather puzzled.

Best friend? Seriously? What, are we in Class I again? Because, this really is the kind of question that only makes sense in primary school. I don’t know anybody who has a single best friend as they grow up to adulthood. Speaking for myself, I have several ‘best friends’ whom I have gathered over several stages of life.

There is the old school buddy, whom you catch up with occasionally, taking up seamlessly from where you left off. There are my work friends, with whom I have shared office space at one time or another, who are always great for a good down-and-dirty gossip session. There are friends with whom I can share my passion for fashion, friends who are part confessors and part therapists, and friends who are always ready for a late-night coffee (and never mind the caffeine rush).

Honestly, how could you possibly choose a ‘best friend’ among them? But then, as you can probably tell, I’m not very good at all this ‘favourite’ stuff.