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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Listen to the pouring rain...

And take time off to revel in the magic of the monsoon…

It has certainly taken its time about it this year, but finally the monsoon is upon us. And not a moment too soon, either, if you ask me. Just when we were about to wilt under the unrelenting heat and melt into a little puddle of humidity, the skies opened up and gave us the magic of the monsoon. The rain came crashing down, washing away the dirt and grime of an Indian summer, and suddenly the world looked green, clean and freshly-laundered, with the smell of petrichor filling the air.

As you can tell (and you certainly can, if you have been regular readers of this column), I love the rains. I love the sight of dark, gathering clouds. I love the fat little droplets of rain that fall on my window. I love the drama of the thunder and the flash of the lightening. I love the romance of walking in the rain, getting soaked to the skin and drenched to the bone. 

Which is why I can never understand the monsoon nay-sayers, the ones who moan and groan about the onset of the rains. Yes, I know that traffic can become a mess after a five-minute shower in some parts. I know that if a storm breaks, a power cut can’t be far behind. And that the slightest hint of rain is liable to make Tata Sky (less a DTH service; more a weather app) disappear off your TV sets.

But come on! It’s the monsoon. It’s the season to leave all your inhibitions aside and embrace the promise of the rains. It’s the time to sit on your balcony and watch, hot mug of tea/coffee in your hand, as the showers transform the urban landscape. Or just snuggle up on your couch, with a good book, and read all day long with a thunderstorm providing the perfect background score. 

Are you really going to be put off by a few puddles or even massive waterlogging, for that matter? Isn’t a traffic snarl a small price to pay for the privilege of gazing at those darkening skies, until they finally split open and shower their largesse upon us? Does kitchdi ever taste better than when it is accompanied by a light but unrelenting drizzle? And did I mention that the temperature falls by as much as 10 degrees?

Growing up, my idea of heaven was getting a ‘rainy-day’ holiday from school. During the monsoons, I would get up and run to the window to conduct a ‘rain-check’ first thing in the morning. And my joy knew no bounds if the rain was already coming down in its full glory. If it lasted for an hour or longer, the odds of school being called off because of ‘rain disruption’ were very good indeed. And then I could do all the stuff that made monsoons memorable: get down and dirty in the puddles in the garden; plug the drainpipes and create my very own swimming pool on the terrace; gorge on pakoras and other deep-fried delights.

So, my message to all the monsoon kill-joys out there is this: lighten up and embrace the season. It is going to rain – incessantly, if we are lucky; on and off, if we are not – for the next couple of months, whether you like it or not. So, why not try and get into the monsoon spirit this year? In case you’re game, here are just a few pointers to get you started:

Take a monsoon break. Kerala never looks more beautiful than during the rains. Beach destinations like Goa take on a particular charm at this time of the year. Or you could simply head to the hills for a spot of R&R. Take off for a week or even a weekend to enjoy the stunning beauty of the monsoon in these scenic locations. An added bonus: off-season rates ensure that you spend a fraction of the money you would have during high season. 
Can’t take so much time off? Or simply can’t afford another vacation after the expense of the summer holidays? Never mind. Make the most of what your neighbourhood/city has to offer. Slip into a raincoat and head out for the park, thermos of hot tea tucked away under your arm, to be enjoyed in some verdant spot. Organize a rainy-day barbeque in the backyard and call the neighbours over. Or simply walk along a sodden beachfront and watch the waves roll in, a grey symphony with the overcast skies.
Getting stuck in traffic snarls is a given. Don’t be caught out. Take along an ipod loaded with the best monsoon songs, which you can sing along to as the rain batters your windshield. Use the time to make a call to a long-neglected friend or family member. Or just chill out and clear your mind of all the clutter it has accumulated during the day. Don’t stress yourself out because of the delay; that won’t make the traffic move any faster.
Want to feel better about yourself, even if you can’t about the season? Then take this opportunity to set up a water-harvesting unit at home, in your building, your colony or your cooperative society. The water table will thank you, as will future generations. And who knows, you may even finally get the point about the monsoons!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A question of answers

Why the media need to rediscover the lost art of the interview

I can’t be the only one who mourns the demise of the art of the interview when I watch what passes for one on our television channels. The questions are often longer – and frequently far more convoluted – than the answers. The interviewers tend to be so aggressive and overbearing that their subjects shut down completely rather than open up to them. Couple this with an appalling lack of research and a complete absence of curiosity and you are left with an exchange that may have a lot of sound and fury but which ultimately signifies nothing.

I was reminded of this yet again as I read the British journalist and ‘celebrity interviewer’ Lynn Barber’s new book, A Curious Career. Barber has been interviewing celebrities and writing them up (and sometimes stitching them up in the process) since the late 60s when she began working for Penthouse (yes, you read that right) magazine and after stints with the Sunday Express, Independent on Sunday, Observer and Vanity Fair, now writes for the Sunday Times. Her new book is a curious hybrid creature: part memoir, part riff on journalism, interspersed with some of her most famous interviews.

Half way through it, though, I began to wish desperately that some of our own ‘celebrity interviewers’, both on TV and in print, would read it for pointers. But just in case they don’t have either the time or the inclination, here are some of the golden rules of interviewing, in no particular order of importance, some of them gleaned from Barber, others just plain old common sense.

An interview is always about the person being interviewed. It is not about the interviewer. The interviewer is only there to find out more about the interviewee, so that this information can then be passed on to the viewer/reader. So, keep the questions coming. Keep them short and sweet. And frame them to elicit the maximum information. If you are speaking more than your interviewee, then you have failed as an interviewer. 
It is the interviewee’s views that matter, not yours. We don’t need to know what your views are on the Indian economy, the Modi victory, or even the new rape laws. If you want to tell us about them, write an article about it. An interview is about the person sitting in front of you. Pay attention to him or her. And stop banging on about yourself and what you believe in.
Do your research. You need to know everything there is to know about your subject that exists in the public domain. And it would help if you knew some stuff about him/her that is still unknown to the general public. So, talk to the potential interviewee’s friends, colleagues, family, neighbours, to get a handle on their personality. Forewarned is forearmed. And since we are already in cliché territory, knowledge is power.
Found out everything there is to know about your interviewee? Now be a dear and forget about it. Don’t bang on about the same things that have been written about the subject for years on end. Everyone knows that Shah Rukh Khan was an outsider from Delhi when he made it big in Bollywood. Sachin Tendulkar’s relationship with his first coach, Achrekar Sir, is now the stuff of cricket legend. Manmohan Singh…no, scratch that, he would never ever give an interview. My point is that there’s nothing new and interesting about any of this. Try and find a fresh angle for your story. It is tough to do when the subject is a celebrity who has been written about for decades. But nobody said this was going to be easy.
Listen. This cannot be emphasized enough. You need to listen to what your subject is saying. A good interview is akin to a freewheeling conversation in which one party talks and the other watches out for cues to take the conversation into more interesting directions. Have a set of printed questions with you by all means as some sort of security blanket. But don’t just rattle them off in sequence, ignoring what the interviewee is saying. Pick up on interesting bits, push further, tease out some more information. And you can only do that if you are listening.
An interview is essentially an artificial construct. You are not there to become best friends with the interviewee. On the other hand, there is something undeniably intimate about sitting in a room with a stranger and getting to ask him/her questions about life, politics, religion, sex, marriage or family. But don’t fall into the trap of believing that you have to establish some sort of personal connect with the subject. Sure, go out for a drink, trawl the nightclubs, have dinner together, if it helps you establish a rapport with your subject. But never forget that this is a professional engagement, and you need a story at the end of it.
And finally, a ‘celebrity interviewer’ is someone like Lynn Barber, an interviewer who talks to celebrities. In India, alas, a ‘celebrity interviewer’ is an interviewer who thinks that he/she is a celebrity. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Let them eat cake!

Teach your kids to treat food as a fun friend – not a mortal enemy

“No,” she said, turning away from the chocolate cake being sliced up to celebrate a friend’s birthday. “I can’t eat cake. I will get too fat.” She stopped for a second, looking stricken. “I think I already am,” she said sadly.

I would probably have thought nothing of this – my friends tend to say this sort of stuff every time we eat out – except that this young lady was all of six. Yes, six years old, and already full of self-loathing for her body and weighed down with an unhealthy relationship with food. And this, despite the fact that she was not in the slightest bit chubby (let alone fat). 

All of us present turned accusingly – as you do – towards her mother, unspoken rebukes all too apparent on our faces. She turned a bright red and stammered, “I really don’t know where she gets this from. I have never told her that she is fat. Or that she can’t eat cake.”

And you know what? I believe her. Knowing her as I do, I am pretty darn sure that she could never be so insensitive as to say such things to her daughter. And yet, that is the message that her daughter has picked up from her. 

Sometimes it’s really not about what you actually tell your children. It’s about how you behave around them. It’s about non-verbal clues that they pick up from hanging around you at the dinner table. When Mummy sticks to salad and soup for dinner because she has put on weight that tells her daughter two things. One, that it is not A Good Thing to put on weight. Fat is bad. Thin is good. And two, that food is the enemy. 

You probably know girls like this as well (yes, for some reason, it is mostly girls who fall prey to body dysmorphia). Children who have internalized the message that fat is bad and that – as Kate Moss so famously said – nothing tastes as good as skinny feels. 

How could they not? We live in a world that venerates skinniness as some sort of divine attribute. The media are awash with airbrushed picture-perfect images of thin women showing off their washboard stomachs and toned behinds. Film actresses and other female celebrities are routinely slagged off when they put on a few kilos, even if it is after a baby. 

Remember the bad press Aishwarya Rai Bachchan got when she arrived in Cannes carrying a bit of post-pregnancy weight? And the praise showered on her when she did her Cannes call last year, looking like her old svelte self? That is the kind of size-ist nonsense that passes off for media commentary these days.

There really is no way to protect our children from this stuff. It is all around them all the time. But to counteract that it falls upon mothers, much more so than fathers, to send out some positive messages. Because like it or not, girls are more at risk, and it’s their mothers they look to as they try to navigate the world.

So, for all the mothers of young girls out there, who want their daughters to grow up with a positive body image rather than eating disorders, here are some do’s and don’ts. 

Don’t fetishize food. Don’t get into fad diets in which you give up entire food groups claiming an intolerance or a food allergy. The message you pass on your child is that food is the enemy.
Instead, teach your daughter to treat food as a fun friend. Get her to help you in the kitchen, giving her age-appropriate tasks. Teach her how to lay the table. Make the dinner table a place of family conversation, laughter and the happiness of eating together; not a minefield which may blow up in your face if you end up mixing proteins and carbohydrates (no, I don’t know what that’s all about either). 
Serve up healthy food by all means but don’t restrict your menu to exclude all ‘treats’. That just turns them into forbidden fruit, which – as we all know – becomes all the more attractive for being verboten. It makes much better sense to serve up the odd sugary treat or French fries so that they seem like just another food choice.
If you must obsess about your weight, don’t do it within her earshot. She doesn’t need to know that you were ten kilos lighter before you had her. And how hard it is to get your pre-baby figure back. She thinks you look perfect anyway. Don’t tell her any different.
Don’t compliment other women by saying how much weight they have lost or how thin they look. The subliminal messaging that goes through to your daughter is that losing weight is what matters. That you can never look good unless you are thin. And that starving yourself to achieve that goal is perfectly okay.
Don’t ever use the word ‘diet’ within her hearing, even if you append it with the politically correct ‘healthy’. If you must, use the phrase ‘healthy eating’. Or better still, ‘healthy lifestyle’ which involves eating well, and getting enough exercise.
Do tell her how lovely she looks. But never make it contingent on how much she weighs. Beauty does not lie in a particular shape or size; as the old saying goes, it lies in the eye of the beholder.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Seasons of plenty

With most fruits and vegetables available through the year, are we losing out on the joys of seasonal eating?

I can never understand why people wax eloquent about mangoes at a time when litchis are flooding the market. Mangoes are all well and good: juicy flesh, voluptuous sweetness and whatever other nonsense that people spout about them.

But how can you possibly compare them to the loveliness of a litchi? The prickly skin that comes off in a tantalizingly thin layer to reveal the beautiful ivory flesh underneath. Flesh that is so full of juice that it’s an art in itself to leave it unscathed when you peel the fruit. The rush of sugar that goes straight to your brain as you take the first bite.

Litchis. There can’t be a better fruit in all of creation. Well, at least, I think so. And putting my mouth where my money is, while the litchi season lasts my dinner consists of a large – well, okay, very large – bowl of litchis which I consume slowly over the course of the evening to make the sweetness last just a little bit longer.

If there is one bad thing about litchis, it is that the season is so brief. And even before you have had anywhere near your fill of them, they disappear from the market without so much as a by your leave.

So while they last, I look for them wherever I go; but without much success. Hotels will send a fruit platter to your room with every exotic fruit from Thailand or even New Zealand. But litchis, that are available in such profusion locally? Perish the thought. Ask for litchis instead of mangoes as a dessert option in restaurants and waiters will look at you as if you are mad. Or worse, they will produce a plate of the tinned variety, which is to the real thing what Styrofoam is to blue cheese.

Partly of course, it is that the litchi is such a fiddly little fruit. It takes a lot of effort to cut up and serve. But partly it is that we have lost the art of eating seasonally – both in our homes and outside. Yes, I know, we all make much of the ‘mango season’. But such is our impatience that we try and pre-pone the season as much as possible by artificially ripening the fruit (no, it doesn’t taste anything like the real thing). And then, when by the laws of nature the mango season should be long over, we keep flooding the market with a late-ripening crop (yes, they taste pretty rubbish too).

It is the same with such seasonal vegetables as methi (fenugreek to all you Masterchef afficianados). It tastes best during the winter when it is in season; and that’s when you are supposed to have it: for breakfast, lunch and dinner if you are as much of a methi enthusiast as me. If you still pine for the flavor during the off season then you should pick the leaves, dry them and stock up in airtight containers for use during the rest of the year.

Well, at least that’s how it should work in a world that believes in seasonal eating. But alas, we no longer live in such a world. Methi now seems to be available pretty much the year around, if you are willing to pay more money for poor quality. As, indeed, are most other seasonal vegetables and fruits.

The times when our menus changed seasonally are over. Now, if you feel like it, you can pretty much serve the same menu throughout the year (and most hotels and restaurants do just that). The produce may cost a little (or a lot) more when it is sourced from other continents, indeed other hemispheres, but the same dishes can grace your plates come rain or shine. You can start your day with a methi thepla. You can have gobhi-mutter for lunch. You can feast on strawberries and peaches at tea-time. And you can have mangoes or litchis for dessert.

Yes, you can eat whatever you like whenever you like. But where is the pleasure in that?

You will never know the happiness of sniffing the aroma of the first aloo-methi of the season. You will never experience the joy of biting into the first tender mooli of the year. Or, indeed, of biting into the succulent flesh of the first mango of the summer, if that is your thing.

The truth is that everything tastes better when it is in season, when it arrives on your dinner table at a time that nature intended. And you appreciate it much more when you are eating it after a while.

An orange tastes most delicious when you are eating it after a gap of months. Apples are at their best when they are fresh off the tree. If it’s summer it must be watermelons, mangoes and, of course, litchis. If it’s winter, then nothing hits the spot quite like an orange.

It’s all about delayed gratification in the end. And the ineffable joy of seasonal eating. There is a reason why the Italians make such a fuss about porcini mushrooms and the English about green asparagus when they are in season. A pity we don’t treat the luscious litchi with the same respect.