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

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Put up, shut up, and move on...

Whatever the merits of the Preity Zinta-Ness Wadia case, it is the commentary around it that is truly troubling

First up, the disclosures. I do not know either Preity Zinta or Ness Wadia. I was not present at Wankhede Stadium on 30 May. I don't know what happened during the altercation between the two co-owners of the Kings XI Punjab franchise of the IPL. So, I can't find for either the defendant or the plaintiff (which is, in any case, a matter for the courts). But what I do find extremely troubling is the commentary that has swirled around this case ever since Zinta filed a complaint at the Marine Drive police station.

So, here in no particular order of importance, are just some of the reactions that have left me gobsmacked.

* Women who are rich and famous cannot be abused/harassed. And certainly, it would be impossible to humiliate a successful actress like Zinta in public.

Really? If you believe that, I have just two words for you: Zeenat Aman. She was abused and slapped in public by the irate wife of one of her lovers at a society party. Did anyone come to her aid? No, they looked the other way obligingly, pretending that this was not happening. And we all know this happens all across 'high society' not just in the glamorous world of the movies.

* At a time when young girls are being gang-raped and killed in villages, women of privilege should not file 'frivolous' suits like this one.

This is a bit like saying that I should not complain to the police about a burglary in my house because there are so many murder investigations that they are dealing with. The truth is that it is incredibly silly to draw some sort of equivalence between crimes, or try and grade them in a sliding scale of 'seriousness'. A crime is a crime is a crime. Each one needs to be dealt with appropriately and with the full force of the law. And maybe if all of us had the courage, the patience, and the energy to report the 'minor' abuse we put up with in our day-to-day lives, there would be less 'major' stuff to deal with.

What's even more offensive about this 'whataboutery' is that it turns crimes against women into an either-or category. There is no contradiction between standing up for rape victims in India's villages and standing up for the right of an actress to seek legal redressal for harassment. One does not negate the other, it just reinforces the policy of 'zero tolerance'. And I suspect that if this zero tolerance policy was applied in our villages as well, the incidence of rape would only decrease.

* What is the big deal if an ex-boyfriend calls you a 'f***ing b***h' or a 'w***e' in public? Get over yourself and sort it out with him behind closed doors. Or just give an interview to the media and get it out of your system. Why go to the police?

Because we all know what a breeze intimate partner violence – whether verbal, emotional or physical – is, right? Not like 'real' violence at all. And if you must air dirty linen in public, why not get some media attention why you are at it? After all, isn't that exactly what you are after?

Actually, no, it isn't. Sometimes taking a public stand is not enough. Especially if the harassment is consistent and ongoing. Naming and shaming is not enough. The only way to wrestle some control back is to take recourse to the law. And that is your right, no matter what your previous relationship with the accused.

* In any case, if you are currently in or have been in a relationship with the guy, harassment doesn't really count. This kind of thing happens between ex-lovers. Call it a lovers tiff, if you will. Or an ex-lovers tiff, if you want to get all pedantic about it.

This is the kind of language used by people who use the word eve-teasing to describe harassment and who think that stalking your ex is just a bit of harmless fun. No need to get your knickers in a twist about that! Perhaps somebody should explain to these people that today's stalking can easily turn into tomorrow's molestation, just as today's abuse can escalate into tomorrow's violence. This kind of thing needs to be nipped in the bud, and now.

* A beautiful woman of 39 years is an 'ugly, washed-up hag' who can't bear the thought that her ex – a very eligible bachelor indeed, at a mere 44 years of age – has a new, younger, hotter girlfriend.

Ah yes, the sexism and the misogyny! It's never very far away from the surface, is it? She has never gotten over the fact that he didn’t marry her. And now she's taking revenge because he has fallen in love with someone else. Her acting career is washed up, so she is trying to stay in the headlines by filing frivolous cases against her ex. Never mind that no matter how much of a 'has-been' she is, Zinta is still a far more famous and recognizable figure than Wadia. And that both parties have been in relationships after their break-up without this kind of ugliness surfacing.

In any case, just a cursory look at some of the pictures surfacing now will tell you that Zinta is still pretty darn stunning. In fact, even more so, because a woman never looks better than when she is standing up for herself – and by extension, for all of us.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Many happy returns!

Birthdays are always fun; but those that come with the big 0 are something special

Most of us would count ourselves blessed if we could get on a short-haul flight when we hit our nineties. Not so George Bush Senior, the 41st President of the United States. He had celebrated his 70th, 80th and 85th birthday by skydiving. And he saw no reason to desist merely because he had hit 90; or because he was now forced to use a wheelchair due to a form of Parkinsons. So the day he turned 90, Bush Senior jumped out of a plane yet again. His only concession to age and infirmity was that he tandem-jumped, harnessed to a former member of the armed services.

The images of the 90-year-old Bush landing awkwardly on the green of his Maine ranch and being surrounded quickly by members of his loving – and I am guessing, nervous – family, must have brought smiles to the faces of everyone who saw them (they certainly did to mine). His wife, Barbara, just a year younger, rushed up to kiss him. His children and grandchildren smothered him with hugs while his great grandchildren looked on.

How utterly amazing to be alive at such an age! And what’s more, to have this kind of zest for life in what are usually called your twilight years. We should all be so lucky.

But just in case you are not the kind to jump out of an airplane no matter how significant the birthday (yeah, me neither!), here are just some of the best ways to make merry on a birthday with the big zero in it.

Sorry, young ones, 20 just doesn’t count. So, let’s skip ahead to 30. This is a tricky one. It creeps up on you when you are busy doing other things and taps you on the shoulder to announce that you are now all grown up. Thirty. The word is enough to strike terror in the hearts of those who still haven’t figured out how this life thingey works. So, how do you cope with a birthday that says that you’ve already lived through nearly half of yours?

Why, you throw a party of course! The mother of all parties, a party would put all the parties of your 20s to shame. A party that would announce that you are still young, still with it, still fun. And with a bit of luck, still standing at the end of it.

If thirty can come as a dreadful shock, forty steals upon you like a familiar friend. You notch up a relationship or two, have a couple of kids (or not), settle into cosy domesticity, start clambering up the career ladder, all with a wary eye on the passing of time. And then it is upon you. The big Four O.

No, a knees-up won’t cut it this time round. You need something more elegant, more sophisticated, and just a bit more sedate. Pick a Sunday and host a brunch. Keep the food simple and easy. Keep the drinks circulating. The adults can relax without worrying about bedtimes (or hangovers). The kids can run around and wreck havoc. Enjoy this time before they turn into surly teenagers and refuse to speak to you for a decade.

By 50 you will be fortunate indeed if even 50 per cent of your friendships survive. So, thank your stars for the ones that do, and take all ten of them for a weekend away. It doesn’t have to be Paris, the Maldives or anywhere exotic and expensive. Just choose a place where all of you can spend quality time together, reminisce on the days gone by and raise a glass to the future.

Sixty calls for a trip away with the spouse, to rediscover one another now that the kids are all grown up and producing kids of their own. Do something fun and adventurous before the knees begin to give way and the backs start acting up. Go trekking in the mountains. Take in a walking tour of Switzerland. Try a spot of white river rafting. Live a little.

I do hope that by the time 70s rolls along you will ticked off most things on your bucket list. In case you haven’t, then mark this anniversary by doing at least two of those things. It could be going on a cruise along the Mediterranean. It could be visiting the Great Barrier Reef. It could be praying at Tirupati. What works for you.

At 80, it will probably be your family’s turn to throw a grand knees-up for you – even though you will probably have to stick to nimbu pani at the doctor’s advice. Take my advice. Sneak in a glass of champagne anyway. You deserve it; if only for having made it this far.

And so finally we come to 90. Don’t worry if you are clean out of ideas by now. If all else fails, there’s always skydiving!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Slow down...you're moving too fast

Sometimes the best way of doing something is to do nothing at all!

Admitting to a love of anything Italian these days tends to lead to accusations of being 'Congi' 'sickular' 'paid media' but I am going to stick my neck out anyway and fess up to just that. I love Italy. The small villages, dotted like shining gems all around the gleaming countryside. The tiny towns, with their amazing piazzas and dazzling duomos. The big cities, heaving with life, and drowning you in unexpected beauty around every corner. The seaside with its deep azure waters, the mountains with their verdant landscape, every corner of the country has something stunning to offer.

And then, of course, there are the Italians themselves. Okay, I am prepared to concede that they may not be the most organised or even the most industrious people on the planet. But what they lack in terms of a work ethic they more than make up with their sense of style, their natural elegance, and their love of 'bellazza' (beauty) be it in their clothing, their houses, or even their food and drink.

There is something magical about sitting at a roadside cafe in Italy and watching the world go by. Both the men and the women - no matter what their age, shape, size or social status -- have a certain individual flair to their dressing, a je ne sais quoi (sorry, can't think of a suitable Italian equivalent) that makes them look both stylish and elegant. (If you do find the odd graceless creature trotting by, you can rest assured that he or she is -- like me! -- a tourist.) I could spend entire days just feasting my eyes on the pictures of everyday life they conjure up as they rush to work, take their dog for a walk, play with their kids in the park, or simply enjoy an al fresco meal with their friends.

And what is even more magical is that the Italians have a special phrase to describe all this sitting around and watching the world go by. They call it dolce far niente. Or, loosely translated into the far more mundane English, the sweetness of doing nothing.

Over the years that I have spent studying Italian and travelling through Italy, this has become my favourite phrase. It perfectly sums up my state of mind when I am on holiday. I want to experience the sweetness of doing nothing. Of just wandering around and soaking in the atmosphere. No taking pictures. No obsessive checking of phone messages or emails. No dipping into social media to check what's happening in the world (or to tell the world what is happening with me). No peeking into guide books to check what are the must-dos and must-sees for every city.

No, I simply revel in the sweetness of doing nothing. Dolce far niente. What an absolutely marvellous way of flushing your mind of all the toxins that the stresses of day-to-day life produce and recharging your batteries for the time when you must inevitably return to the day job.

Last week, as I sat around in an Italian coastal town thinking about ideas for this column after days of doing absolutely nothing at all, I couldn't help but wonder why we have lost the ability of switching off and losing ourselves in the moment. One reason of course is the hyper-connectedness of the world we live in. The office is always an email away; social media means you can never really get away from it all. And thanks to the way our brains have been rewired by the Internet, our attention spans have been shot to hell. So, not only can we not concentrate on anything for too long, we cannot focus on nothing for any length of time at all!

But that's only part of the story, I suspect. There's also the fear of missing out that impels us to never stand still, to keep moving, to look out for more, to snatch the most out of any experience. We want it all, we want it now, and we fear that we will miss out if we don't keep striving for more every moment of our lives.

So deep is our fear of missing out that we have even infected our children with it. No longer are they allowed to just relax and enjoy themselves during their vacations (or even during term time for that matter). Instead we schedule swimming lessons, tennis camp, science tuition, guitar classes, and God alone knows what else, to make sure that they never experience a single moment of delicious idleness (the kind we revelled in when we were kids).

But you know what? It's okay to stand still some time. It's okay to slow down and watch the world go by. It's okay to lose yourself in the moment. And it's okay to indulge in a bit of dolce far niente. The sweetness of doing nothing: you really should try it some time.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Wage-ing war

Why does the concept of ‘dignity of labour’ escape us completely?

I don’t quite know why, but for some reason most Indians seem completely unacquainted with the concept of ‘dignity of labour’. It could be because we are so used to paying other people a pittance to do our dirty work for us. It could be a hangover of the caste system, in which manual labour was the province of those way down on the sliding caste scale. But whatever the deep, sociological or even anthropological reason, the truth is that most of us have scant respect for those who do menial jobs, and certainly no intention of granting them any dignity as they try to earn a decent wage.

You only have to see how even the most educated Indians behave with their domestic staff to know this to be true. Or just observe how people behave with waiting staff in restaurants or even with flight attendants on an airplane. There is no attempt at even minimum courtesy; instead there is an imperial insistence on being served, and right away if you please (and no, there is no question of appending a ‘please’ to that demand).

It is hardly surprising then that the same attitude has spilled over into our public discourse where the worst insult you can throw at someone is to accuse them of having performed some sort of menial job in the past.

It started off with Sonia Gandhi, who was dismissed as a ‘waitress’ and an ‘au pair’ by right wing trolls. The suggestion was that while she was a young student in Cambridge, studying languages in a college, she had supported herself by working as a waitress or an au pair (depending on which version you believed). And how could such a woman – who had been a waitress for crying out loud! –  expect to rule over a billion people? Surely, India could do better? After all, why would we want someone who worked hard for a decent wage to put herself through college as a leader? Right?

That kind of rhetoric was all the rage until a certain Narendra Damodardas Modi came on to the national political scene. He announced proudly that he had grown up selling tea at his father’s stall near a railway station, and told us what an enormous tribute it was to Indian democracy that a simple ‘chaiwallah’ could aspire to become the Prime Minister of the nation. Of course, he was completely right. And from the moment he made this statement, the right-wing attacks on the ‘waitress/au pair’ avatar of Sonia Gandhi began to die down.

But then, it was the turn of the Congress to get into the act. The charge was led by the redoubtable Mani Shankar Aiyar, who proclaimed grandly at a Congress session that while Modi would never get to be Prime Minister of India (talk about famous last words!), the party would be glad to set up a tea stall for him so that he could sell chai to all the Congress delegates. Of course, this boomeranged on the Congress when Modi, embracing his chaiwallah past, announced that he would be holding ‘Chai pe Charcha’ meetings all over the country to get to understand the needs and aspirations of the people.

You would think that by now everyone would get with the programme and understand that there was nothing wrong with working at a menial job if that was what it took to raise yourself out of poverty or to get yourself an education. But clearly expecting that people would begin to appreciate and value the dignity of labour was asking for far too much.

And so, we had the sorry spectacle of the national media and the Congress party attacking the newly-appointed Human Resources Development minister, Smriti Irani, for working in a MacDonald’s during her early youth. Flipping burgers, they sneered, could not be a qualification for a job that involved overseeing the education system of our country. It is a different matter entirely that Irani never did, in fact, flip burgers. From interviews she gave at the beginning of her television career, I remember her saying that she swept the floors to get a minimum wage that would pay some of her expenses.

If anything, we should be crediting Irani for having the spunk and grit that got her from a job of sweeping floors to becoming the best known television actress of her generation; for taking a plunge into politics and shining brightly as a star spokesperson in record time; for taking on a no-hope constituency in Amethi and giving the entrenched MP, Rahul Gandhi, a run for his money; and now becoming the youngest-ever Cabinet minister in charge of a high profile portfolio like HRD.

But no, we can’t see beyond the ‘flipping burgers at a MacDonald’s’ image. And instead of appreciating it as a measure of Irani’s guts and determination to make it on her own, we deride it as a symbol of her inherent mediocrity. In our eyes, only the inferior take on menial jobs. And once they do so, they should just stick with them instead of trying to get above themselves.

Well, that’s not how things work now. And the sooner we come to terms with this change the better.