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

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Sex, lies, and lack of videotape

It’s all very well to outrage about the Tehelka case; but let’s also try and ensure that such cases don’t recur

Over the last fortnight, the media have been ‘larcerating’ themselves over the sexual assault allegations leveled against Tehelka editor, Tarun Tejpal, by a (now former) staffer of the magazine. The account of the aggrieved journalist makes for sorry reading, but what was even more disturbing was the attempt by Tehelka to try and pass this off as an ‘internal matter’. When journalists dared ask questions of Tehelka managing editor, Shoma Chaudhury, she shot back angrily: “Are you the aggrieved party?” (Presumably, Shoma, or to call her by what we now discover is her real name, Suparna, was an ‘aggrieved party’ in the Assaram case, or else why would she chose to cover it?)

Well, you know what, Ms Chaudhury? We are all aggrieved parties in this. Not just every woman who has ever had to fend off unwanted sexual advances in the workplace; but every young girl in school and college today, who one day hopes to step into the work force. Not to mention, every unborn child who deserves to enter into a world in which women are not preyed upon sexually – and then victim-shamed when they summon the courage to speak up.

But how do we create that world? Outraging on Twitter, fulminating on TV and in columns such as this one, is a good way of venting when our rage, frustration and despair threaten to overwhelm us. But it doesn’t really change things in the real world. And nor does the constitution of sexual harassment committees in accordance with the Vishakha guidelines.

So, what will? I have spent the last week or so trying to come up with some answers. This is what I have so far:

1)    Start work on the next generation. Much as it saddens me to say this, most of the men in my generation and the one above are beyond redeeming. It was telling that the only people who were willing to come on TV and defend Tejpal were men of a certain age who had grown up in an age of entitlement. In their world, junior staffers should be flattered when men in power show sexual interest in them; and shut up and put up with sexual harassment, or even sexual assault. A mentality like that is hard to change. So, while we shouldn’t let them get away with victim shaming, let’s not nourish any illusions that their Neanderthal thinking will change.

Instead, let’s try and get the young men of today and tomorrow to see women as something other than sexual objects. In this endeavor, the mothers – and indeed, fathers – of young boys have the biggest role to play. Teach your son that a woman’s right to her bodily integrity is inviolable. Make him understand that no means no. Upbraid him when he makes sexist comments. Respect his girlfriend/wife rather than undermine her. Teach him by example. Don’t refer to women in short dresses as ‘sluts’. Don’t act as if a girl who has premarital sex is a ‘whore’. Don’t sneer at women who frequent nightclubs as ‘easy’ or ‘fast’.

2)    But while the role of parents is crucial, schools, colleges and other educational institutions can also play a vital role. Alongside classes on sex education, we also need to teach lessons about sexual behavior. We need to tell young girls and boys what constitutes sexual harassment or even sexual assault. Young girls need to be taught that it is okay to speak out against any man who violates their body. Young boys need to be taught that consent is crucial when it comes to sex. I know it seems self-evident but it is frightening how many men grow up believing that a woman’s ‘no’ means ‘not yet’ and that if they persist it will change into a ‘yes’. It bears repeating. No means no.

3)    A policy of zero tolerance. I remember going on a TV programme on rapper Honey Singh and being asked if I was just picking on him because he was a ‘soft target’. There are no ‘soft targets’ when it comes to sexual violence against women. The man who pinches your bum in the bus, the guy who makes a sexual comment on the street, the singer who raps about violence against women, the boss who acts as if sexual favours are his God-given right, the man who molests or rapes a woman. All of them need to be punished with the full force of the law

4)    No sexualisation of the workplace. And this applies to both men and women. Just as we take it for granted that it is not okay for men to watch pornography at the office, or indeed, decorate their desks with pin-ups of naked women, it is also not okay for women to sexualize the workplace by dressing like wannabe porn stars. There is a time and a place to wear a mini-skirt or a camisole top. Your office is not that place. And while I am all for the right of women to dress as they please, we also need to understand that showing butt cracks or acres of cleavage sexualizes our workplace just as much as dirty jokes do. We wouldn’t stand for it if our male colleagues dressed like that. The same standards should apply to us.

For a truly equal, sexual harassment-free workplace, men and women need to work together. And that work needs to start now.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

Instead of focusing on our flaws, how about we appreciate our bodies for all that they do for us?

What do you see when you look into a mirror? Dark circles under your eyes, a legacy of too many late nights followed by early mornings? Laugh lines that bear testimony to the good times you have had? The first flash of grey at the temples that strikes terror in your heart? A slimmer waist, the results of a no-carb diet regime? Or middle-age spread that no number of abdominal crunches can banish? Do you see your father (or your mother) staring back at you? Or do you see the features of your first-born in your own crumpling face?

Speaking for myself, I must confess that I don’t dare look too closely. Well, not first thing in the morning anyway. And even after a shower and lavish applications of moisturizer, it is best to maintain a safe distance till the kajal and lipstick are in place. Only then, with a mask of make-up (okay, minimal make-up I grant you, but you’d be surprised by the difference it makes) to hide behind can I bring myself to look my reflection straight in the eye and not wince. And even so, I never allow my eyes to wander below my chin; yes, like Nora Ephron, I too feel bad about my neck.

These days, of course, the mirror has been replaced by the camera phone, as the absolute deluge of selfies on social media makes clear. The world seems to be full of people staring at themselves in their phone screens, making the requisite duck face (chin down and elongated, cheeks sucked in to create hollows, and lips pushed forward in a trout pout) and going ‘click’. The judicious application of a few filters on Instagram, and voila, you have a new image to send out into the ether that is the virtual world.

But while camera phones have their uses, there is nothing quite like a mirror to get to grips with your own image. Donna Karan, for instance, famously designs while seated naked in front of a mirror. According to her, this brings into focus all the many flaws that her body – and by extension, the body of every woman – possesses so that she can work around it.

Because let’s face it: that’s what we see when we look in the mirror, don’t we? All our many flaws, some real, some that exist only in our own imagination. And then, we duly beat ourselves up about it. If only I had bigger eyes, better teeth, a trimmer waist, longer legs, bigger (or smaller) breasts, life would be so much better.

But here’s a novel idea. How about we get naked in front of the mirror. And instead of focusing on all the flaws that our bodies possess – and in our minds, there are hundreds of them – we try and see the beauty instead. That instead of beating our bodies up for being fat, flabby and flat-out useless, we treasure them for all the value they add to our life.

Let’s start from the top, shall we? Never mind the thinning hair; people start losing hair from their 20s onwards. And if the grey really bothers you, there’s always hair dye. It’s what lies underneath that you should be grateful for. The brain that helps you remember both the big stuff and the minutia of your life: the first time you fell in love; the date of your wedding anniversary; the moment your baby thrust its way into the world; the last day to file tax returns; where you left the car keys. Imagine, for a second, that it didn’t work. Yes, you’re not worrying about your receding hairline now, are you?

And then, there’s your face; what the world judges you by. But no matter what you think, nobody else is focusing that much on the wobbly double chin or even the lines on your forehead. It’s the expression in your eyes that matters; and whether your lips are drooping down in a scowl or curved upwards in a smile.

But you know what? Never mind what the world sees and makes of you. There’s plenty here to be grateful for. The eyes that allow you to appreciate the beauty of a flowering rose; the nose that lets you take in the delicious smells emanating from the kitchen as your mom cooks your favourite dish; the mouth that makes it possible for you to appreciate fine wines, good food, and the fruits of the season.

Instead of obsessing about how your breasts don’t look like that French lingerie model, just be grateful that they work well enough to make food for your baby. That while your stomach may not have washboard abs holding it in, it can take all the junk you throw at it and still keep you healthy (well, okay, kind of healthy). Never mind the bingo wings they have acquired of late, your arms can swing the ball a long way on the golf links. Your legs may sport a bit of cellulite but they can still take you up that mountain top to witness a sunset like no other. And your feet may not look pretty but they can soak up the warmth of a beach and make you sigh with contentment when you soak them in a hot tub.

There’s really a lot to be grateful for; so just take a moment and say thank you to your body. It’s the only one you’ll ever get, so make sure that you cherish it.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Happily ever after...

Prince Charles and Camilla: a love story for our times

Last week, Prince Charles brought the house down at one of his many engagements in India by referring to his wife, Camilla, as his ‘Mehbooba’. No, he wasn’t inspired by the iconic song of the same name from Sholay. The word had been gifted to him by some of his Indian friends back in the UK, who had explained that it meant ‘beloved’. So, that’s how Charles presented Camilla to the assembled guests, “My wife…my Mehbooba” even as Camilla blushed and then flashed her trademark jolly-hockey-sticks grin. And the audience lapped it up; this unabashed display of middle-aged love.

And indeed, looking at the many images of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall on their recent trip to India, one thing shines clear. Camilla is clearly Charles’ ‘Mehbooba’. The pair of them look as loved up as a newly-wedded couple, exchanging complicit glances, the odd giggle, and touching each other with the ease of long intimacy. They share asides, gaze adoringly at one another, laugh easily and often, and seem to take enormous pleasure in each other’s company. Not bad going for a couple which first met and fell in love in their 20s, and then made their way back to one another after two failed marriages and much rotten publicity. But clearly, all those scandals are long forgotten as the British heir to the throne readies to take over from his mother, with the woman he has loved for most of his adult life firmly by his side.

They were together on the banks of the Ganga in Rishikesh, performing a ritual aarti; they visited the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun; they did the rounds of Asha Sadan, a home for abandoned and homeless children in Mumbai; they were the star attraction at a party hosted by Mukesh and Neeta Ambani for the Prince’s British Asian Trust; and then they headed off to Sri Lanka, where Charles was standing in for his mother, Queen Elizabeth, at the meetings of Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

For us in India, the contrast to the way things had unfolded when Charles visited with his first wife, Diana, were too stark to miss. There was the famous kiss-that-wasn’t when Charles bent down to kiss Diana on the cheek as she handed him a polo trophy only to have her turn away, leaving him red-faced with embarrassment and fury. And who can forget that haunting image of the Princess posing forlorn and alone in front of that monument to eternal love, Agra’s Taj Mahal, while her husband busied himself with engagements in Delhi? They may have been joined together in what was billed as a fairy-tale wedding, but their strained expressions and public unhappiness made it clear that they were rapidly building up to a nightmare divorce.

Who could have predicted then that Charles would one day be back with a new wife, Camilla – then widely reviled as the mistress who had been the third person in the Wales marriage and had, in the Princess’ memorable phrase, made it a ‘bit crowded’ – the memories of the Diana years finally exorcised? Gone was the miserable git who looked perennially pensive and glum. In his place, was a man finally happy in his own skin, who had found the contentment and peace he had always been looking for in his second go-around.

I know that this is an unfashionable view, but I have long believed that the saga of Charles and Camilla is the love story of our times. Theirs is the commitment that has stood the test of time, taking on vicious attacks in the media and the derision and anger of the British public to emerge bloodied but unbowed. And you only have to look at the relaxed body language of the Prince and see how he lights up in the presence of his ‘darling wife’, to know that he is finally in the kind of supportive and loving relationship that he always craved.

But what I like most about the images of Charles and Camilla on their Indian adventure is how they tell us is that even if you screw up big-time the first time round, you are not fated to eternal loneliness. Their shining faces and brilliant smiles teach us that it is possible to find happiness the second time round.

Second marriages have, of late, become a hot topic of discussion in India, not least because of that now-famous Tanishq ad which features a single mother getting married again (Is she single? Is she widowed? Is she divorced? The answer to all these questions is: Who cares? Or even: How does it matter?) I have to confess that it left me touched and a little teary-eyed. Yes, I know it is cheesy (“Aaj sey Daddy bulaoon?” asks the young daughter) and designed to tug at your heartstrings. But it is moving for all that, with its promise of new beginnings and a brand-new love story.

As far as I am concerned, the cynics can carp all they want about second marriages being a triumph of hope over experience. But sometimes – actually most times – hope is all you need when it comes with lavish lashings of love.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A walk in the park

Sometimes, that’s the best way to see what life is all about…

Sometimes life is just a walk in park. And sometimes a walk in the park can show you what life is all about. I came to this realization late because until recently I would always walk with an iPod clipped to my pocket, its loud music drowning out every thought, blanking out the rest of the world. But one day, entirely by accident, I left my iPod behind and had to make do with listening to birdsong instead – and taking in the life that was unfolding around me. And you know what, it was a darn sight better entertainment than the loud rock and cheesy pop that I had been listening to until then.

The first thing I noticed were the many different species of walkers that exist in this world. Those most in evidence, of course, were the speedsters who streaked past the dawdlers on the jogging track, looking faintly exasperated at the existence of such laggards in the world. They wore top-to-toe Lycra to indicate just how seriously they take their running. There was a pedometer in place as well to record their daily achievements. And of course, a lot of sweat, which they sprinkled liberally on those they powered past, almost as if it were fairy dust. Charming!

Then, there were the rest: office workers who had stopped by after a quick change of shoes to put in their mandatory 45 minutes of exercise; young mothers pushing prams and enjoying the respite from being stuck at home with the baby; middle-aged ladies in salwar kameezes who seemed to regard gossiping as another aerobic exercise. There were the budding sports stars who get their heart rate up with a bit of jogging and then contort themselves into all sorts of impossible positions on the grass, all in the name of toning up; young children who have the good sense to eschew a brisk walk for a spot of volleyball, cricket, football, or even hide and seek; old white-haired gentlemen who end each perambulation by settling down on the park benches to reminisce about the old days.

But what I enjoyed most, as I veered off the jogging track to ramble aimlessly around the park, were those vignettes of urban life that exist all around us if only we ever bother to look.

There’s the old grandmother, recovering from an injury perhaps, dragging herself along on a walker. She’s accompanied by a young maid, who keeps a wary eye on her, just in case she were to take another spill. The two of them walk along in silence, together and yet apart, each lost in her own world. The image tells the story of a family, doesn’t it? The high-achieving couple who are too busy to supervise the rehabilitation of an ageing parent themselves. So, they outsource it to paid staff, telling themselves that it is all for the best. The ageing parent who knows that her kids are doing their bit to look after her, but is beset by loneliness nonetheless. And then, there’s the other story; of the other family. Of the maid, who has left her own parents behind in some village in Jharkhand or Chhatisgarh, to come to the big city and look after strangers, in exchange for a small wage, regular meals and a roof over her head.

Oblivious to all this human drama being played out around them are the assorted pairs of young lovers, looking to create a moment of intimacy for themselves in the most public of places. They position themselves strategically behind bushes or tree trunks, turn their backs on the watching world, and whisper sweet nothings to one another. The bolder among them go a bit further, until their furtive gropings attract the unwelcome attention of passers-by. One couple doesn’t seem to care who’s watching, though. They sprawl on the dewy grass, the man resting his head on the woman’s lap. Her hair brushes his cheek as she leans forward to say something to him. They giggle, dissolving into one another. And for that moment, the park – indeed, the world – ceases to exist for them. Young love.

And then, their little bubble is shattered as a terrifyingly large Labrador comes crashing down upon them, his owner in hot pursuit. The woman screams, the man starts shouting at the dog owner for letting his pet off his leash. And in the time-honoured tradition of all dog owners, the Labrador’s master announces loftily that they have nothing to fear from the animal; he’s harmless, yes, he really is.

What is it with dog owners anyway? Why don’t they realize that while they may regard their pets as overgrown babies, they seem like large, dangerous creatures to the rest of us?

I walk on briskly, trying to put as much distance between me and the frisky Labrador as I can. And as I amble to the exit, I am kept entertained by the snatches of conversation that waft past me. The two young ladies out on a power walk, weights attached to their ankles and wrists, fantasizing about the first ‘carb’ they would eat once they hit their target weight. A couple in their 70s (he with a walking stick, she with a knee brace) gently bickering about what to get their grandkids for Diwali. A harried woman in her 40s barking instructions to her office about some papers that must be mailed tonight.

You know what, I think I’ll leave the headphones off the next time as well. Much more fun, this way.