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

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The substance of style

How do some people get to be so stylish, without even trying?

As you may have noticed, last week HT City gave out its annual Style Awards. The list was eclectic as always, ranging from artists (Anjolie Ela Menon), politicians (Jay Panda and his wife, Jaggi), television producers (Ekta Kapoor), TV anchors (Shireen Bhan), advertising professionals (Swapan Seth), film stars (Akshay Kumar, Sharmila Tagore) to a police officer (Hargovinder ‘Harry’ Singh Dhaliwal). But what united all of the recipients was one single theme: none of them could understand why he/she had been chosen for a style award in the first place!

All of them expressed themselves with varying degrees of bemusement (and some bewilderment). I don’t even possess a single designer garment, said one. I never ever go shopping for clothes; my mother does all my shopping for me, said another. I live in my jeans; my clothes are made by my local darzi; I wear chappals all the time; the disclaimers came loud and fast, tripping over one another as each awardee tried to explain why they didn’t deserve a style award (but were very happy to receive it all the same).

As I sat listening, all I could think of was that these modest denials showed such a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes style. 

But first off, let’s establish what style is most assuredly not about:

It is not about wearing designer clothes. Any idiot can walk into a designer store and buy up everything in sight (and alas, too many do just that) in the hope that it will make them look stylish. It won’t. They will just look like people who have too much money and not enough confidence in their own taste (hence the top-to-toe designer labels).
It is not about being a slave to the seasonal diktats of high fashion. All that establishes is that you have money to burn and time to spare. After all, how else could you update your wardrobe every three-four months, changing your look as often as shops change their window dressing? But remaining au fait with the trends is not all it takes to remain trendy. 
It is not about buying expensive things. You can buy the latest It Bag, pile on the jewellery, slip into the priciest shoes in the market, flaunt the flashiest sunglasses. But unless you have a good eye and a good idea of what works for you, style will always escape you. You may look fashionable but you won’t look stylish.

So, what does style consist of? What makes a person truly stylish? Well, let me count the ways.

1) The confidence to be completely comfortable in his/her own skin. We all know people like this in our own lives. They can slip on a simple white kurta-pyjama and an indigo-dyed dupatta, accessorise with Kohlapuri chappels and a jhola, and look more perfectly put together than that woman in a designer salwar kameez and a Louis Vuitton bag. These are the kind of people who can rock a pair of blue jeans, exude glamour in a simple cotton sari, and look as elegant in sportswear as they do in formal togs.
2) The ability to ignore fashion when it is doing you no favours. Jeggings may be all the rage, but if your legs are not your best feature, you may be better off in a crinkled skirt. Crop tops may be ‘in’ but if your stomach is ‘out’ it may be wise to step away from that shelf. If in doubt, try it on and stand in front of the mirror. If the question, “Does my bum/stomach look big in this?” pops into your head, the outfit is not for you.
3) The knowledge of what works for you; and to work with it. 
4) The talent to create a strong individual look, and stick with it through thick and thin.

So, who qualifies as stylish in accordance with the criteria listed above? Or, to put it another way, who would win the Style award if I were the only one making the decisions? 

Well, the entire list is too long to fit here but these are some names that would surely feature: Meryl Streep, who has cracked the code of how an actress of a certain age should dress; Christina Hendricks, who makes the most of her curves without worrying about what the stick insects of the fashion world are up to; Deepika Padukone, who wears her clothes rather than allowing them to wear her; Shah Rukh Khan, who can even make man cleavage work; Omar Abdullah, who can look beyond the usual politician staple of khadi kurta-pyjama. 

And how could I forget my own personal favourite: Arvind Kejriwal, who has single-handedly popularized the Gandhi topi and muffler look. Long may his version of air-hostess chic rule!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Phoning it in

Could you bear to switch off that smartphone; or are you too scared of missing out on that important work email?

Say what you will about the French – admit it, the words ‘rude’ and ‘snobbish’ are hovering close to your lips – you have to admit that they have life sorted. They eat loads of butter, cream and cheese, wash it down with red wine, smoke a cigarette afterwards, and still remain thin and healthy (the rates of heart attacks here are among the lowest; what the rest of the world calls the French paradox). They work the least number of hours in the week (35, since you ask) and yet have a standard of living that rivals the best in the world. And it is a country in which even a Monsieur Flanby (French for ‘wobbly custard’) like Francois Hollande can have the most ravishing women fighting over him. What’s not to love, right?

And now, apparently, things are getting even better for les Francais. News reports last week had it that their labour unions had negotiated a new deal with the employers associations, according to which employees would no longer be expected to answer or even look at work emails outside of office house. So, while the rest of us wage slaves are anxiously peering at our smartphones just in case the boss has mailed us about (yet another) work emergency, the French are faffing off, sitting at a café, smoking a Gauloise, sipping an aperitif and wondered what to cook for supper.

Well, okay, I exaggerate. Like all things French, there is a bit of hyperbole and myth making going on here. (And yes, French women do get fat and their kids do throw food around.) It turns out that this ‘agreement’ only applies to people who don’t work the 35-hour week, and they are required to steer clear of work emails for 11 hours at least (the 6 pm deadline beaten to death by the media was a figment of the over-active imaginations of some reporters and columnists).

But all of this begs the question: if you were asked – indeed, required by law – to put away your smartphone for 11 hours and not even sneak a peak at it to check if something had gone catastrophically wrong at work, could you do that? Or would a part of you always be nervously wondering about what you were missing? What would be more stressful for you at the end of the day: staying connected with work or cutting yourself off completely for a period of time?

Speaking for myself, I have to admit (a bit shame-facedly) that the first thing I do every morning, and indeed, last thing at night, is check my emails. And the very thought of being parted from my smartphone, even for a couple of hours, makes me panic just a little.

And I suspect that it is much the same for most people in our hyper-connected generation. Staying in touch, staying connected, and remaining available for work throughout the day (and night) has become a part of life for us. And even if we resent the hold our workplaces have on us thanks to our smartphones, like Pavlov’s dogs, we have become attuned to clicking on to every email that pops into our inboxes, and typing out a reply right away. Anything less, and we feel that we are slacking off.

There are those who maintain that being hyper-connected actually allows them to take more time off than they could in the pre-email and pre-smartphone era. Now at least it is possible to leave office early enough to take your kids for a game in the park and deal with out-of-work-hour emergencies on the phone. It is easier to go off on holiday for a couple of weeks without worrying about what will happen in your absence, because you can always check in virtually every day. And working from home is now a genuine option in a way that it never was before.

But in a world where work is only an email away, is there any way to genuinely switch off and relax? Is there any way to enjoy some real downtime without worrying about what’s going on at the office? It is even possible to carve out some personal space when it is impossible to get away from the professional sphere?

Well, there is only one way to find out. Switch your smartphones off before you start dinner with the family. And switch them on only after breakfast the next day. If you still have a job by the end of a week, then you may be on to something!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Poll fault

Sexist attacks seem to be par for the course if you are a woman standing for election

You must have read the news reports last week. The Election Commission has decreed that all women candidates standing for election will get an extra PSO (Personal Security Officer) to escort them on the campaign trail. This PSO will be female to ensure that close proximity protection is not a problem.

The order came soon after the travails of film star, Nagma, the Congress candidate in Meerut, had become fodder for news headlines across the country. First, a Congress politician was filmed pulling her towards him and appearing to kiss her (or whisper into her ear, depending on which version you believe). Then, she was groped as she made her way through a public meeting; to her credit, Nagma planted a stinging slap on the face of the offender.

Not that Nagma is the only one to suffer such indignities as she campaigns for the Lok Sabha elections. Other women candidates have had similar problems, more so if they are glamorous and high profile. Across the political divide, Hema Malini, the former Dream Girl of Hindi movies and currently BJP candidate from Mathura, has refused pointblank to leave the safety of her car as she tours her constituency for fear of those wandering hands in the crowds.

But while an additional female PSO may well make campaigning a little more secure for these women (though I have my doubts about that) what on earth can protect them from the blatant sexism that they face from political opponents, the media, and the public at large?

Sexist attacks on female politicians are nothing new. (Indira Gandhi, for instance, was routinely referred to as the ‘only man’ in her Cabinet by men who didn’t seem to understand just how offensive this description was.) But they seem to have increased in intensity as female candidates get younger, more attractive, even sexy, and less easy to typecast in the traditional avatar of the woman politician: the ma, behan, beti, bahu mould of yore.

Take the case of Gul Panag, the AAP candidate from Chandigarh. The moment her name was announced as a Lok Sabha hopeful, media outlets vied with one another to post ‘revealing’ pictures of her – quite oblivious to the fact that all this achieved was to ‘reveal’ their own misogynistic, sexist mindset. On Twitter, trolls took to posting morphed pictures of her, wearing lingerie and an AAP cap, to portray her as a mindless bimbo. Even that noted non-feminist Madhu Kishwar tweeted disparagingly, “Gul Panag is cute but not politically astute!” A few days later, critiquing Panag’s performance on a TV show, Kishwar snorted that it did less harm “teaching women to be Barbie dolls”. To her credit, Panag didn’t let any of this throw her off her stride, eschewing the conservative salwar kameez look to campaign in jeans and on a mobike.

Rakhi Sawant faced the same sort of sexism when she announced that she would stand as the candidate of her own political party, the Rashtriya Aam Party (RAP). The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) candidate in her constituency of Mumbai north west, Mayank Gandhi, sneered, “Rakhi Sawant ko maja maarne wali janta vote degi.” (No, it doesn’t sound much better in English, either.) The irrepressible Sawant wasn’t taking this lying down. She filed a complaint against Gandhi at the Oshiwara police station for using ‘filthy language’ against her and a non-cognisable offence was registered against the AAP candidate.

Proving that sexism is an equal opportunity offender that doesn’t discriminate between parties, AAP women candidates faced similar sexist attacks as well. Shazia Ilmi of AAP, who is standing against General V.K. Singh in Ghaziabad, for instance, is routinely dismissed as a ‘pretty face’, the implication being, of course, that there is nothing of any substance behind that lovely façade. Because we all know that attractive equals dumb, right? The good General himself dismissed her as ‘childish and immature’ though it must be said in Shazia’s defence that no matter how childish she may be, at least she knows how old she is. Which is more than you can say about our former Army chief.

Sadly, when it comes to making sexist remarks, women politicians can be both targets and aggressors. But even so, Maneka Gandhi probably hit a new low when she attacked Sonia Gandhi at a public rally. Drawing attention to how affluent her estranged sister-in-law had now become, Maneka wondered how this was possible given that she had not brought a single paisa as dowry when she got married (“Dahej mein toh ek paisa bhi nahi layi thi”). Small wonder then, that women are often considered to be the biggest enemies of other women.

So, what is the best way to cope with such blatant, even casual, sexism? I guess, in this context, winning the election may well be the best revenge.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

On the campaign trail...

In this election season, some free and unsolicited advice to our politicians

Election season is upon us in all its maddening glory. Newspapers are heaving with poll-related news, telling us the caste breakdowns of constituencies, how they voted the last time, and what chances the principal political leaders have this time round. TV news channels have suspended regular programming to bring us live speeches from Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal whenever they speak at party rallies (which is pretty much every day). And even in the real world, all conversation seems to revolve around the elections, and what kind of result they will throw up.

In this season of poll-mania, it is hard not to get caught up in the madness. And so yes, I have succumbed as well, mainlining the news reports, following the social media accounts of politicians, and yes, watching the endless reports on the electoral fights in Varanasi, Vadodara, Amethi, Rae Bareli, Amritsar, Gandhinagar, Bhopal, and other key constituencies.

Which is why, this Sunday morning, I feel compelled to offer some free and completely unsolicited advice to all the candidates in the fray. 

First off, a quiet word for the men. No matter what the provocation, do keep your shirts on. Or your kurtas. Or even your banians. Nobody needs to see those man boobs or jiggly bellies even if you are taking a ‘holy dip’ in the Ganga (yes, Arvind Kejriwal, I am looking at you). This nation has suffered enough. It doesn’t deserve to be traumatized any further. 
Ladies, please be advised to post a cordon of heavies around you to keep away the gropers, especially the ones that belong to your own party. Congress candidate from Meerut, the film star, Nagma, learnt this the hard way. She was first filmed being manhandled by a Congress MLA, who later claimed that he was only trying to say something in her ear above the din of campaigning. Nagma brushed that off but a few days later was seen slapping a man at a rally when he got too close for comfort. Maybe next time, she should keep the pepper spray handy. (As indeed should all the women candidates out there.)
Remember, this is the era of electronic media and social media. You may be making a speech in one state but it is heard across the country. So, don’t use arguments that don’t travel well. Narendra Modi, for instance, made a vow at a rally in Jammu to free the state of J&K from dynastic rule. Chief minister Omar Abdullah was quick to respond. “I dare Namo to make exactly the same speech against dynastic politics in Punjab or Maharashtra. Come on, money where your mouth is,” he tweeted. 
This should really go without saying, but it makes a complete mockery of the election process if you make speeches threatening to kill your political opponent. This is an election. You are supposed to beat him by the ballot not the bullet. But nobody sent that memo to Imran Masood, the Congress candidate from Saharanpur, who was filmed making a speech in which he threatened to chop Narendra Modi to pieces. He has since been booked for hate speech. And we can only hope that this serves as a salutary example to others.
Say one controversial thing every day to keep in the news. Better still, time your statement so that it makes the primetime TV news bulletin. There is no better, or cheaper, way of staying in the limelight. Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP colleagues have perfected this art. It’s time other political leaders played catch-up.
Use social media to bypass traditional media and get your message across to the voters without any intermediaries. Shashi Tharoor has first mover advantage in this regard. But since then, other politicians have also seen the endless possibilities of this strategy. Narendra Modi, Shivraj Chauhan, Sushma Swaraj, Digvijay Singh and RPN Singh have accounts on Twitter, and Arun Jaitley is fast becoming a presence on social media as well. 
It may be a good idea to hire stand-up comics to write your lines for you because – let’s face it – you are really not that funny or witty on your own. There are, of course, exceptions like Arvind Kejriwal who came up with this classic: “If Advani wants Modi to listen to him, he should drop the ‘v’ from his name.” 
And if you do make a witty remark in the course of an interview, then don’t get too over-excited. And for God’s sake, don’t look off camera and smile proudly at your support staff, even if they are applauding you from the sidelines. (Yes, Amar Singh, I do mean you!)