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

Saturday, September 29, 2012

That Madeleine moment

We all have food memories that take us effortlessly back to the past

I don’t know about you, but I rather relish the prospect of room service breakfast at a posh hotel. There is something so glamorous about being served on a starched, white table-cloth with a red rose standing stiffly to attention on the side, while a gloved waiter pours you a nice cup of coffee. And what could be more decadent than having someone squeeze a glass of fresh orange juice and cook a nice French toast for you (note to self: must get out more!) first thing in the morning?

Though I usually go for the more sinful options when it comes to hotel breakfasts – bring on the pancakes, the waffles and the parathas – last Sunday I decided to go for the (relatively) healthy option and ordered akuri. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, this is basically Indian-style scrambled eggs seasoned with lots of onion, ginger, tomato, and green chillies, and liberally garnished with coriander. It is usually served with toast but on this occasion the chef sent it with a Bombay-style pau (the kind that makes up one half of pao bhaji).

I stuffed a generous dollop of the eggs between two halves of the pao and popped a generous mouthful in. As the buttery eggs coated my tongue and the ginger and chilli hit the back of my throat, I was instantly transported back in time. With just one bite, I was taken back to my days as a callow, young sub-editor on her first job, who kept herself fortified for the long nights of page-making with a double-roti and omelette sandwich in the ABP canteen in Calcutta.  

And even though the akuri was perfect – just on the right side of runny, creamy and unctuous, at that moment I would have killed for the sandwich of my misbegotten youth, oily junk food though it might have been.

Now, I don’t want to get all Proust – remember his Madeleine? He certainly did – on you on a Sunday morning, but it is strange isn’t it, how some kinds of food suddenly evoke a memory so strong that you find yourself going back in time? Which bring on such a craving that you can’t think of anything other than their taste, their smell, and how you can best replicate them?

Like most people, my food memories are rooted in my childhood. I still remember the taste of those tiny, pink berries that I would tear off the tree in the back garden, having slipped away to investigate the vegetation as my mother undertook her afternoon siesta. If I close my eyes and think back, I can still taste the shingara (that’s samosa to all you non-Calcuttans) and jalebi that used to be my holiday breakfast as a child. The coconut-jaggery prasad that used to be served on Janmashtami has assumed near mythic status in my mind. And nothing tasted quite as good as the churmur chaat that we used to eat during the break in school, with the chaatwallah slipping it under the school-gate like the contraband it was (having been outlawed by the nuns, like everything else that made life worth living).

As you can tell, most of my food nostalgia is Calcutta-related: the puchchkas in front of New Market; the jhaal-muri outside Loreto College; the dosas of Jyoti Vihar; the junk Chinese served up in Chung-Wah, the official canteen of all ABP employees back in the day; the biryani of Shiraz; the rolls of Nizam.  

As they say, you can take the girl out of Calcutta; but you can’t take the taste of Calcutta out of the girl. (And please don’t send me irate letters about how it is now Kolkata; it will always be Cal to me.)

But even if you discount my food memories of Calcutta, there is still a vast swathe of things that I feel nostalgic about.  The home-made idlis that a former colleague would bring to work (paired with the most divine gunpowder and green chutney); the chilli con carne I once had in a Washington restaurant;  the pad Thai served up at a roadside stall in Bangkok.

There is certain pattern to food nostalgia. Britons living abroad often long for a taste of Marmite as a reminder of home. Americans express a craving for steak or the barbeque sauce of their childhood. Italians long for sun-dried tomatoes and a good olive oil. And the French turn up their noses at any cheese that doesn’t stink like the ones they grew up on.

Ask any random sampling of Indians living abroad what they are most nostalgic about and the phrase ‘dal-chawal’ will drip off most tongues. And I can totally relate because when I come back to India after a vacation abroad, the first thing I want to eat is dal-chawl with a nice spicy pickle and lots of roasted papad and lashings of raw onion.

Within India, food nostalgia can be rather region-centric. Rare is the Punjabi who isn’t nostalgic about the kadhi-chawal or rajma-chawal or aloo-vadi that his mother or grandmother made. Bengalis tend to wax eloquent about their fish curries or shukto. Gujaratis bang on about the fluffy dhoklas and the perfect theplas that their Maharajs turned out in their ancestral homes.

As for me, I still fantasize about the double-roti omelette, the shingara-jalebi, and the puchchkas of my youth. And I often wonder if they would taste just as great in real life as they do in my dreams. Or whether remembrance has given them a flavour that they never possessed in reality.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


There really is no respite for celebrities in a world where everyone has a camera-phone at the ready

You have to feel for Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Here she is, on holiday in Provence at a secluded chateau (owned by her cousin-in-law Lord Linley) with her husband, Prince William. This is their personal time together before they set off on an official tour of the Far East. So, the couple do what most young people do on holiday. They nap, they eat, they go for walks, they swim, and yes, they sunbathe on their terrace.

C’est normale, as the French would say.

What the royal pair do not know is that a kilometre away from their idyllic retreat is a public road. And that a paparazzo has taken up residence at the bend – from where you can see the chateau at a distance – with the biggest tele-photo lens known to mankind. So, a camera is clicking away as Catherine takes her bikini top off to get an even suntan; as she lowers her bikini bottom for William husband to smear sunscreen on her; and as the husband and wife cuddle each other, as people in love are wont to do when they think they are alone, away from the prying eyes of the public.

The story explodes weeks later, as Catherine and William are touring Singapore and Malaysia, when a French magazine called Closer (the puns just write themselves, don’t they?) publishes a topless picture of the Duchess on the cover, along with several others inside. The headline screams ‘Oh My God’ as readers are exhorted to take a look at Catherine as she has never been seen before – and will never be seen again.

Not surprisingly, William is incandescent with rage at his wife’s privacy being invaded in this manner and releases a statement saying that this brings back memories of the worst paparazzi excesses during his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales’ lifetime (it is no secret that the Prince blames the paparazzi pack for the death of his mother in a Paris tunnel 15 years ago). The couple file criminal charges against the magazine and the photographer in a French court, seeking jail time for those who have violated Catherine’s dignity.

Worse is to follow. Another tabloid, the Irish Daily Star, publishes the same photographs in Ireland with the editor defiantly announcing that Catherine was not going to be their queen, so they were going to treat like any other celebrity (Rihanna and Lady Gaga were the names he picked, even though these ladies have made their careers on the basis of being partially undressed – unlike the Duchess who has always been a model of propriety in her public appearances). And then, the Italian magazine, Chi, came out with a 19-page spread of the Duchess’ topless snaps, with a cover headline that read ‘La Regina e nuda’ (the Queen is nude) which was evocative without being strictly accurate while the story inside speculated on whether Catherine breasts were completely natural.

But what is the justification of publishing these intimate pictures of a woman enjoying some private time with her husband? Well, according to the editor of Closer, Laurence Pieau (who is a woman, despite all evidence to the contrary), she used them to show a young, modern couple in love. There was nothing shocking about the pictures, blustered Pieau – which begged the question: why the breathless ‘Oh My God’ headline, then? Chi editor Alfonso Signorini too insisted that the pictures did not violate Catherine’s dignity even though the magazine headline chortled: Scandalo a corte (Scandal in court).

So far, so hypocritical. But all the bluster about press freedom and the inoffensive nature of the pictures notwithstanding, where does the law stand on paparazzi photos of celebrities? Well, the short answer is that it depends on where you are. In France it is illegal to shot anyone on private property even if you are on public property at the time. But in Italy the law states that you can shoot people on private property so long as you are in a public space at the time.

But whatever the local law, the damage to Catherine’s image is already indisputable. The pictures have already appeared in three print outlets and they have proliferated on the Net. All that the Cambridge litigation may achieve is to prevent any further hounding of the Duchess by paparazzi out to make a quick buck. On the other hand, it may not. There is simply too much money to be made from carrying such intrusive shots (as they joke goes: I am so outraged by these topless photos that violate Catherine’s modesty that I can’t wait to Google them and have a good look). And even if the French court comes down heavily and hands out jail sentences in this case, there is really no respite for celebrities in an era in which everyone has a camera-phone at the ready.

Privacy laws are all very well, but what we really need is responsible media. The British press – which is self-regulated and adheres by a self-imposed code – has behaved impeccably in this respect, whereas media outlets in Europe (where privacy rights are enshrined in law) haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory. But then, what do you expect when two of the titles in question (Closer and Chi) are owned by that old rogue Silvio Berlusconi.

Perhaps in this case, a bit of tat-for-tit revenge may be in order. Maybe some patriotic paparazzo from Britain can take it upon himself to get a few nude shots of the old goat, Silvio himself. I know, it won’t be a pretty sight. But there are times when you just have to open your eyes, fire up the camera, and think of England.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Urban tribes

They are quite easy to spot; and each one has its own distinctive look

Having lunch with my girlfriends is always an excuse to indulge in our favourite group activity: people watching. Which is, of course, followed by a little gentle bitching about the people being watched. (Now, don’t get all judgemental on me; you know you do that too.)

Last Saturday, as we fetched up to eat at our favourite restaurant, we were particularly intrigued by a group of young women – all in their early to late 30s – who had taken over the private dining room to celebrate some sort of special occasion, judging by the champagne resting nicely on ice. As they trooped past our table and into their glass-encased bubble – decorated with balloons and streamers; and an oversized cake occupying pride of place – we couldn’t help but notice just how similar they all looked.

They all had suspiciously smooth skin, with bright, shiny foreheads, with nary a wrinkle in sight. They all had blonde highlights in their hair, which they all wore down below their shoulders. They all had their slim, exfoliated legs on display, wearing either short dresses or short skirts. All of them sported skinny belts around their impossibly-tiny waists, which were nicely set off by their oversized (and overpriced) designer handbags. Hell, they even had the exact same pout (or, as one of my friends sniggered, the exact same plastic surgeon).

It was almost as if they had come straight out of Central Casting: ladies who lunched a lot; and then threw up promptly afterwards so that they could fit into their size zero wardrobes (which were so alike as to be virtually interchangeable).

I would have liked to scoff at them, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the ladies on my table were also dressed in a manner that was strikingly similar to one another. We were all in the regulation journo-wear of blue jeans paired with Anokhi or Fabindia style kurtas. We all had on chunky platform heels to give us height with minimum discomfort and were carrying totes large enough to lug our laptops/Ipads around in. Okay, we didn’t have identikit hair, with lengths varying from crop-top to below the waist, but nonetheless there was a strong common aesthetic binding our look together.

All of which got me thinking: so, which comes first? As in, do women who have the same aesthetic tend to bind together? Or do women who stick together tend to develop the same aesthetic sense?

Or, to put it more simply: do the blue-jean ladies come together because of their love of denim? Or do they infect one another with their love of casual chic as time goes on? Ditto, the short-dress brigade.

I haven’t quite figured that one out as yet, but there is no denying that no matter where we go, we are surrounded by urban tribes, who stand out because of their shared tastes. And that these tribes come in all ages, shapes, sizes and genders.

There are the stroppy teenagers who skulk about in oversized jeans that reveal their knickers (and sometimes, a generous dose of bum-cleavage as well). There are the gym rats (both male and female) who squeeze themselves into body-con clothes to show off the pectoral muscles honed over months of diligently working weights. There are the young professionals who wear their tailored suits like a badge of pride. There are the middle-aged ladies who personify the phrase ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. And then, there are the men who cope with their mid-life crises by dressing like their teenage sons (think lots of denim, leather and sneakers).

In offices, everyone seems to follow the non-verbal cues sent out by the bosses. So, if the man or woman in charge has a relaxed, casual vibe, then everyone else down the food chain tends to adopt that as well in their style of dressing. And if the boss lady or man is a stickler for formality, then even without being explicitly asked to do so, everyone else dresses very ‘proper’ too. When it comes to the professional world, discretion is the better part of valour. And what could be more discreet than following in the footsteps of the boss (you know what they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery).

But then, almost every profession itself has its own default look. The NGO sector can be recognised by the profusion of khadi kurtas, handloom saris, large maroon bindis and the oversized jholas that have spawned the phrase ‘jholawallah types’. The banking sector has made the boring grey suit its own. And media people have become known for a certain innate scruffiness, turning up defiantly in jeans and T-shirts even when attending formal functions.  

That said, quite the best place to observe the phenomenon of urban tribes is a university campus, where every clique and gang has its own uniform, so to speak. There are the ‘artistic’ lot, who tend to wear a lot of block-print and vegetable dye, teamed with cloth bags and scuffed kohlapuris. There is the ‘nerd’ corner, where everyone wears loose, faded jeans and T-shirts and the accessory of choice is a pair of black-rimmed spectacles. There are the ‘cool’ kids, who flaunt all the latest designer labels, right from their trendy sunglasses to their leather loafers. And so on.

Actually if you think about it, the university campus is like a metaphor for the world itself, with its collection of urban tribes who band together on the strength of both shared interests and a shared aesthetic – no matter which one comes first.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Eat, play, love

That’s my idea of a perfect weekend; what’s yours?

So, it is Sunday morning. And you’re sitting at the breakfast table, maybe taking a desultory look at the papers as you sip your tea or coffee. It’s a nice feeling isn’t it, not to have to worry about getting dressed and heading out to work. To be able to just take your time and enjoy the morning.

I know, it seems rude to interrupt your reverie, to intrude into your leisure, but would you mind terribly if I asked you a question? Nothing complicated, I promise. It’s as simple as it gets.

What is your idea of a perfect weekend?

It’s a question that I posed every week to one hapless celebrity or another when I edited a supplement called Weekend in a previous incarnation. But it’s not nostalgia for an earlier life that has brought on my current interrogative mood. I only ask because I recently endured a weekend from hell – in the company of friends who, to be fair to them, were only trying to show me a good time.

Only it didn’t seem like that to me. I had to drag myself out of bed at some unearthly hour, get dressed while it was still dark outside, then drive for what seemed like forever along pot-holed roads which rattled bones that I didn’t know existed, and then, a hair-raising speedboat ride later, arrive at a pebbly, thoroughly depressing stretch of sand they rather optimistically designated as the ‘beach’.

There was some desultory attempt at swimming; there were some token efforts to get the kids to give up on their Ipods and enjoy the sound of crashing waves; there may even have been the odd singalong. But quite honestly, I was too exhausted to care. All I wanted was to curl up and go back to sleep in a shady corner.

But no, there was still the small matter of the picnic basket to negotiate. So, we spread out a large blanket, opened up the hampers and obediently cooed over their contents. As we chomped on our sandwiches and drank wine that turned lukewarm in minutes, the humidity turned my hair into a crinkly mess, sweat ran down my face and the sand got everywhere. Then, after assuring one another about how wonderful it had been to enjoy the great outdoors, we got back into the car and drove back another couple of hours, being jolted and jostled all the way.

I have to admit that the other members of my party were delighted with the excursion. I was the only one longing to get back home, get under the shower, wash away the sweat and sand, climb into my pyjamas, and hit the couch for a bit of mindless television viewing before the workday week began again.

But then, I guess everyone has their own ideas of a perfect weekend. Young parents dream about dumping their two under four with the grandparents for a couple of days and taking off for a romantic getaway far away from dirty nappies and night-time feeds. Grandparents long for weekends when the snotty-faced mites are deposited on their doorsteps. House-bound homemakers look forward to a night out on the tiles with their better halves. Harried careerists want nothing more than just to sleep, sleep, sleep away the weekend, catching up on a week-long deficit.

There are perhaps as many perfect weekend scenarios as there are people. There are some who like to party hard right into the early hours of the morning; sleep off the hangover and head out to a late boozy lunch. There are others who want to get up early enough to take a walk in the park before breakfast. There are some who want to take off for a scenic spot with their loved ones. And then, there are those who don’t even make it past the front door.

Speaking for myself, I like to ease myself into the weekend with a late-night movie on Friday (dinner is, of course, industrial quantities of popcorn and Diet Coke). Saturdays are for girlie lunches, with lots of white wine, loads of gossip and the odd bitchy outbreak, and dinners are at home with friends with everyone pitching in behind the stove. Sundays are for large, lavish brunches – either at home or a favourite restaurant – which last late into the afternoon and are followed by a long siesta. Sunday evenings are a time to recuperate for the week ahead; so it’s simple ghar ka khana with a good book or a DVD box-set to provide entertainment.  

That’s pretty much an ideal weekend as far as I am concerned.

My weekends from hell involve driving miles and miles to get to a place that isn’t even worth the fuel cost; and then spending a nano-second there before having to head back. If I want to spend time at a beautiful resort over the weekend, I’m going to save both energy and time by flying not driving, thank you very much. Other no-nos are wasting entire evenings at large parties, trying to make small talk with people I’ll never see again in my life.

When it comes to weekends, I like to keep it as simple as possible, involving only family and close friends, and lots of downtime. Which brings me back to my original question: what is your idea of a perfect weekend. Tweet replies to my twitter handle please!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Listen to the falling rain...

Yes, there is no sweeter sound than that of the Indian monsoon pouring down

As I sit down to write this, the skies have darkened outside and the rain is pelting down. There is something intrinsically hypnotic about its rhythmic cadence. And despite my best efforts to stay indifferent to its charms, the downpour draws me in.

I find myself staring at the raindrops like one mesmerised, tracking the progress of each fat droplet, watching as it splatters down on my window-sill. I watch fascinated as the areca palm on the balcony gets wiped clean of all its dust and grime, emerging from this cleansing looking greener than ever. And that evocative smell of petrichor – as the rain hits parched ground and releases the scent of the vegetable oils absorbed by it during the heat of summer – brings back memories of monsoons past.

As you can probably tell by now, I love the rain. I love its sounds, its smells, and its sights. And I love the fact that it comes around faithfully every year, bringing us respite from the dusty, dry heat of the Indian summer.

Even if you are a city-dweller who is no great fan of Nature, you cannot deny that there is something ineffably reassuring about the arrival of the monsoon. Its annual visit, at roughly the same time, give or take a week or two, tells us that the world is still spinning around nicely. It signals the end of summer and takes us through to the balmy nights of autumn. And no matter how sparse or bountiful the rain, it lifts our spirits, which have been wilting under the incessant, unrelenting heat of the sub-continent.

It’s no surprise, then, that nobody gets the romance of the rains quite like we do in India. Almost everywhere else in this sunshine-obsessed world, a rainy day is always a matter of some disappointment. Generations of British children have grown up on the nursery ditty, ‘Rain, rain, go away; Come again another day...’ In America, people aspire to retire to the sunshine states of California and Florida. And in the cold climes of Europe where warmth is always at a premium, the arrival of rain is not something that is ever celebrated.

Not so in India. In part, this is because of our peculiar climate conditions. Summers are hot, dry and punishing. And then, just when you think that you simply can’t take even one more day of that scorching heat, the monsoons come with their dark clouds, their thunder and lightning, their sharp showers, and their gift of lower temperatures. How can you not dance with joy at their arrival?

But that’s just part of the story. Far more important is the fact that there seems to be something unique in the Indian psyche that responds with blissful ardour to the sight of those grey, gleaming clouds that come bearing rain.

Our literature bears witness to that love. Probably the most famous Sanskrit poem ever, Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, is about a cloud. A Yaksha who has been exiled importunes a passing cloud to carry a message to his wife on Mount Kailash. He tries to convince the cloud to take on the task by describing the many beautiful sights it will witness on its way.

Ever since, clouds and the rains have been a recurring theme in our history, literature and legend. Emperor Akbar’s court musician, Miyan Tansen is widely credited with performing the Raga Megha Malhar to bring the rains down (he is also supposed to have sung Raga Deepak to make the candles light up spontaneously – but that, as they say, is yet another apocryphal story).

More recently, Hindi cinema has done its bit to shore up the tradition of ‘rain songs’, celebrating the arrival of the monsoons with an obligatory sequence of a curvaceous heroine in a sari getting soaked to the skin. But the most iconic scene ever remains that of Raj Kapoor and Nargis in Shree 420, nestling under one black umbrella in the pouring rain as they look deep into each other’s eyes and sing, ‘Pyar huwa, ikrar huwa hai; pyar se phir kyun darta hai dil’.

The rain gods were evoked to great effect by Dev Anand in Guide, with the S.D Burman number, ‘Allah megh de, paani de’ becoming something of a classic. And that same tortured longing for rain and the joy when it finally arrives was portrayed decades later in Aamir Khan’s Lagaan with the haunting A.R. Rahman score of ‘Ghanan ghanan ghir ghir aaye badraa’.

And now, in the days of social media, my twitter timeline comes alive with tweets extolling the rain as soon as the first drops fall. My friend, the journalist Smita Prakash, has a particularly evocative phrase for it; she calls it ‘Clooney weather’ in honour of her heartthrob George Clooney. Former RAW chief, Vikram Sood, crows about how his ‘gulmohur is singing’ in the rain. Even Pamela Timms, food writer and a Brit – not a people generally not known for their love of wet weather – tweets a link to a Bollywood rain song as the skies pour down.

As for me, I can’t quite explain why (or how) but a rain shower has the power to transform me back into the little girl who would strip down to her chemise and run up to the terrace to get a good old dousing the moment the first drops hit dry ground. Of course, being all grown up now, I desist from such childish antics – but God, how I wish I was six again!