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

Saturday, October 25, 2014

I am getting married in the morning...

If the wedding season comes, can the Bridezilla be far behind?

Whenever the wedding season rolls around, I am always put in mind of that TV series that was aired a couple of years back in India. Bridezillas, it was called, to reference brides and Godzilla, and it portrayed what monsters some women turned into in the run up to their weddings. The to-be brides featured made insane demands of their families and friends, micro-managed things until they had run everyone mad, and in the process, spent ludicrous amounts of money that they could often ill-afford.

The series rang true with me – and no doubt, for countless other Indian viewers – because we have all been witness to a bride or two (okay, let’s make that an even dozen) going into overdrive, and then into meltdown, as she prepares for her Big Day (yes, it is always spelt with capital letters). 

And now that the season of wedding madness is upon us again, I find myself surrounded by more Bridezillas than I can keep track of. There’s the one who insists on flying down to London to buy a white lace wedding dress from Alexander McQueen – just like Kate Middleton, you know! – even though she will only get to wear it at a pre-wedding cocktail party (the wedding itself stars a Abu-Sandeep red lengha; or was it Tarun Tahiliani? I can’t really keep up!). There’s the one who is planning a bachelorette party (don’t you dare say ‘hen party’; that’s so infra dig) in Ibiza, and flying down all 36 of her close friends for that (Daddy dearest picks up the tab, of course). There’s the one who has changed the entire décor of a chateau in Champagne, so that it fits with the ivory and gold theme of her wedding dinner. And so it goes…

I don’t know about you, but it makes me want to take these young ladies aside, pour them a cold glass of water (or champagne, if that will do the trick), and ask them to calm the hell down. It is a wedding, for God’s sake, not a Karan Johar production!

But maybe that’s just the problem. We have been force-fed so many images of extravagant weddings set in exotic locales in our Bollywood blockbusters that we feel obliged to recreate them in real life as well, no matter what the expense or inconvenience involved. So, everything must be ‘designer’: from the wedding hall, the mandap, the overall décor, the outfits of the bride, groom, and their immediate families. And just like in the movies, everything must be colour-coordinated to within an inch of its life. Why, even the menu must be ‘designed’ by some celebrity chef or the other, to keep in with the overall theme!

Far be it for me to begrudge any happy bride her big day, but I wonder if perhaps she would be happier if she relaxed a tiny bit; if she went with the flow instead of playing the control freak?

Well, if any of these soon-to-be-married ladies want to take the less-stressful route to marriage, here is my two cents worth of advice to them:

Keep that wedding lengha nice and light. If you need to support it with heavy-duty suspenders, then you don’t need it. (Those bruises will be difficult to explain on your honeymoon anyway, when you are sunning yourself on the beach in an itsy-bitsy bikini.) If you need two attendants to hold it up so that you can walk down to the mandap, then walk away from it now. Be as blingy as you like; but keep the fabric and work lightweight. You should be wearing that outfit; the outfit should not be wearing you down.
You’ve probably already blown the budget on the wedding. So, at least be sensible about your honeymoon. Do you really need to buy two first class tickets to Los Angeles? Cancel that and use the money to book yourself into the best suite at the best hotel in Udaipur or Jodhpur (or even Agra; it does host the most famous monument to love, after all). People fly into these destinations from all over the world for special occasions. Don’t turn up your nose at them just because they are next door.
Keep your mom and grandmom’s jewelry just the way it is. Don’t reset it in some hideous new-fangled design. Believe me, you will be glad you left it well alone a few years down the line. And if you are buying new stuff, then choose well. Buy one heavy-duty piece if you must, but be warned that it will live thereafter in your bank locker anyway. So try and invest in pieces that you can wear for parties and dinners rather than weddings; you’ll get the biggest bang for your buck with these.
Most of all try and remember that it’s not all about the wedding; at the end of the day it is the marriage that counts. And beginning married life plain broke, frazzled, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown is the not the best of starts at all!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The lady vanishes...

Does writing about an anti-heroine make an author anti-feminist?

I read Gone Girl a year or so ago and was pretty much hooked from the word go. I read it in one sitting, abandoning all work and play, as I feverishly turned the pages to find out what happened next in a story in which nobody was quite what they seemed, and each narrator was as unreliable as the other. I haven’t seen the movie version as of this writing but there is no ignoring the cacophony of media commentary that has been unleashed by its release.

In creating Amy Dunne, the wife who goes missing as the book opens (fair warning: they may be some spoilers coming up!) leaving her husband, Nick, as the prime suspect, has Gillian Flynn done disservice to the sisterhood? Has she reinforced the misogynistic, anti-feminist stereotypes we all dread by creating an anti-heroine, who is – not to put too fine a point on it – a bit of a nutter?

As the articles piled up, I soon began to wonder if the entire world – okay, I exaggerate, only innumerable women columnists – had run mad. How does a single character in a work of fiction (admittedly written by a woman) come to epitomize the female condition? How can one female psychopath, as imagined by Gillian Flynn, be regarded as a judgment on every woman?

Well, the short answer is: it doesn’t; and it can’t.

A character in fiction is just that: a fictional character. It does not purport to be a realistic portrayal of womanhood; it is just the vehicle to tell us a story that emanates from the writer’s imagination. This story may well paint the woman as (spoiler alert! Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you!) a lying, evil, murdering, psycho with ice in her veins. But there is no way you can extrapolate from that that all women are like this. Or even that Flynn must hate all women to come up with a character like Amy Dunne.

It’s interesting to note that nobody thinks that the feckless, cheating, lying, weak Nick Dunne is representative of all mankind – or even an indication of Flynn’s incipient misandry – but Amy Dunne is seen as a reflection on all womankind.

Why should this be so?

Popular fiction is riddled with male characters who epitomize evil with a capital E. What could possibly be more disgusting that a psychiatrist who feasts on human flesh and announces that a human liver goes well with fava beans and a nice Chianti (that’s in the movie version; the book Hannibal prefers an Amarone)? And yet nobody thinks that Thomas Harris is a man-hating (not to mention man-eating) pervert to have come up with a character like Hannibal (the Cannibal) Lecter.

And what about Jeff Lindsay who created the darkest of dark characters in his book Darkly Dreaming Dexter. Those who have read Lindsay know that his fictional hero is much more hardcore than the suitably-sanitized for a TV audience, Dexter Morgan, of the eponymous television series. And while there have been critics who have questioned Lindsay’s mental health on occasion (and reading the books, it is easy to see why) nobody has suggested that Dexter is anything other than an anomaly. Nobody sees him as being symptomatic of all mankind.

So, why should Amy Dunne – and her creator, Gillian Flynn – have to carry that burden? Amy Dunne is just one woman, and a fictional one at that. Why should we try and see every woman in her? Why should the creation of a female psychopath – or sociopath, or whatever the word du jour is – be seen as a judgment on all women? Why is it seen as anti-feminist to create a strong anti-heroine? And why do we feel the need to tar a creative enterprise with the tag of misogyny, confusing the creator with the creation?

At one level, I think, this is because as women our default position is to be defensive. We tend to see everything as a judgment on us. If we read an article on false accusations of rape leveled by some women, we react with almost visceral anger, shouting about how it weakens the case of genuine rape victims. And how, in any case, such false accusations are so small in number as to be negligible. That may very well be so, but try telling that to men whose lives have been destroyed in the process.

Similarly, when we read about a female character who ticks all the wrong boxes, we feel outraged on behalf of our sex. And from there it is but a short journey to slagging off the author as a misogynistic, anti-feminist harpy. But before we pin these labels on Gillian Flynn, it might be worth taking a breath and seeing her book for what it is: a work of fiction, and a cracking good read at that.

And it may make sense to remember that women don’t have a monopoly on either virtue or vice. Some of them are nice; others are nasty. Some of them are good; others are evil. Some of them are angels; others are monsters. Some of them are victims; others are perpetrators. Some are psychos; others are saints.

No one size fits all when it comes to both women and men. And it is entirely up to a writer, which type she chooses to write about. And I, for one, am happy that Gillian Flynn chose to write about Amy Dunne, her Gone Girl.

Lovin' is easy...

Love may be a universal emotion; but all of us express it differently

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” That’s how Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous sonnet begins. It goes on: “I love thee to the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach…I love thee freely, as men strive for right. / I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.”

It’s a beautiful poem (you really should read it in its entirety if you haven’t already) that sends a shiver up my spine every time I revisit it. Not least because love is such a universal emotion that it unites us all. And yet, all of us express it in so many different ways. We may not be able to articulate our feelings with the felicity that Barrett Browning manages so effortlessly. But in our own bumbling, mumbling way, we express the love we feel for family and friends every day of our lives.

We all know of mothers – and increasingly, fathers – who express their love through food. They find the greatest pleasure in feeding their children. They coax them to eat when they are infants, each mouthful an accomplishment, every clean plate a personal triumph. They harangue them to finish their greens and go easy on junk food as they grow into stroppy teenagers. They stock up on their favourite foods when they come back from college. And even after they have grown up and have kids of their own, the fattening of the prodigal daughter or son never ceases. And thus, the cycle goes.

At the other end of the parental spectrum are the proponents of what they like to call ‘tough love’. Their love is expressed through the exercise of discipline: get up on time, get your homework done, get better grades, get a good job, get it together. Those at the receiving end may find these constant exhortations annoying – and who can blame them for that? – but there is no denying that they come from a place of love. These are the actions of people who want good things for you; even if their way of ensuring that is less than endearing.

When it comes to romantic love, the world is divided into two categories. In the first are those who go in for the big romantic gesture. They shower their loved ones with flowers, extravagant presents, exotic holidays, and the like. These are the people who spend weeks thinking up the best way to propose marriage, splash enormous amounts on money on getting the perfect ring, and then take months to plan their over-the-top weddings.

Yes, George Clooney, I am looking at you. The erstwhile ‘committed bachelor’ who organized a ‘dream wedding’ for his lady love, human rights barrister Amal Alamuddin, in the impossibly romantic location of Venice, because they had first met in Italy. The four-day wedding extravaganza, with A-listers flying in from all over the world, cost between 10 to 15 million dollars (depending on who’s counting). And that’s not accounting for the 750,000 dollars that George paid for Amal’s engagement ring, a seven carat emerald cut diamond, or the cost of the many couture outfits the bride and groom wore every day.
So, that’s George Clooney for you. On the other hand, there are those who just pitch up at the wedding registrar’s office, say their vows, exchange their rings, and save their money for the honeymoon of their dreams, or even more practically, a deposit on a house. That’s not to say that these couples are any less in love than George and the luminous Amal. It’s just that their love is expressed in a different way: in spending quality time with one another, buying a house in which they can build their life together, creating a home they can grow old in. For them, the romance lies not in the wedding but in the marriage.

These are the people who specialize in showing their love for others in practical, everyday ways. We all have friends like these (at least, I hope you do!). They are the ones who show up unannounced to accompany you for that MRI you have been so dreading. They remember which colours/designers/authors/singers you like when it comes to buying your birthday presents. They send you fruit rather than flowers when you are recovering from an illness. They will talk to you for hours on end if they feel you are feeling low. They will take you out for lunch, dinner, a movie, or even a walk, if they sense you need cheering up. In fact, their mere presence in your life is chicken soup for your soul (and they will send some over for good measure when you have a cold).

Speaking for myself, I must confess I am not the one for extravagant gestures. For me, the best measure of love is to share the things I love with the people I love. It could be a book that I treasure, a family recipe, a movie that moved me, or a comedy show that reduced me to tears. And it is those kind of gestures that smack of true love as far as I am concerned. (Though that’s not to say I would turn up nose up at an emerald-cut diamond!)

But no matter how it is expressed, we should all be grateful for the love we have in our lives. So, as the festive season begins, let’s all hear it for love. Express it every day in ways both big and small. Keep yourself open to it in whatever form and shape it may come. And sing along with Bill Nighy, “So if you really love me, Come on and let it show…”

Sunday, October 5, 2014

She ain't heavy...

The only way to create a sisterhood is by becoming a good sister to other women

It is tempting to dismiss that old adage about women being each other’s worst enemies as a cliché. It is easy to see it as the kind of sexist claptrap that gets tossed around to give feminism and feminists a bad name. But take a good look around you? Do you really see a supportive sisterhood at work? Or do you see snarkiness, bitchiness, rivalry, and plain old spite? If you are among the lucky ones, you will experience a mix of both. But speaking for myself, I must confess that I see much more of the latter. 

Let’s conduct a little experiment this Sunday. Trawl the Internet and list the first ten stories you find that body-shame, slut-shame or fat-shame women. If nine of these ten stories don’t have a woman’s name on the byline, I will eat my own ‘spare tire’. 

For some reason, women seem to take particular pleasure in dissing their own sex. She has fat legs. She shows too much cleavage. She is a slut. She has a muffin top. She slept her way to the top. She has too much cellulite. She is a bad mother. She hates kids because she can’t have any of her own. She is old. She is ugly. It’s all dressed up in pretty words, and sometimes with faux concern, but that’s what it all boils down to.

And then, of course, there are the double standards. George Clooney is the most eligible bachelor at 53. Amal Alammudin, that undeserving wretch of a barrister at law, is lucky to have snared him (how on earth did she manage that?). Jennifer Aniston, at 45, is a washed-up old hag who has been reduced to dating B-list stars like Vince Vaughan and Justin Theroux after she was divorced by Brad Pitt. And do you think the poor thing will ever have a baby? (With those shriveled up ovaries? Are you kidding?)

And that’s just the media. But in real life, too, the ones taking the most pleasure in this sort of stuff will be other women. They will be tut-tutting in fake sympathy when a friend gets dumped by her boyfriend (“Poor thing! I never did think he would marry her!). They will be the ones going nudge-nudge, wink-wink when a colleague gets promoted (“Didn’t I tell you she was sleeping with the boss!”) And they are the ones who will make you feel bad about your body (“Wow! Aren’t you brave to wear that!”)

Kelly Valen wrote about this in her book Twisted Sisterhood: Unravelling the Dark Legacy of Female Friendships, which created quite a stir when it came out in 2010. Valen conducted a survey among a random sampling of 3020 women from the ages of 15 to 86, and came up with some startling results: 84 per cent of the respondents felt they had “suffered terribly” at the hands of other women while 88 per cent had felt currents of “meanness and negativity emanating from other women”. But what gave me hope was this: 96 per cent of respondents said they wanted “something better for girls and women”.

But that ‘something better’ can only come if we better ourselves. The only way to create a genuine sisterhood is to be true sisters to one another. If you want to be one of that number, then here’s a ready primer of do’s and don’ts for you (feel free to write in with your own!):

Don’t treat younger women in the workplace as a threat. If you can’t bring yourself to mentor them, fine. Just treat them the same as you would male co-workers. No special favours, but no snide comments either.
Do try and create safe spaces where women can share their stories, lean on one another for support, and learn from each other’s experiences. This doesn’t have to be a formal forum; in fact, it could even be a virtual chatroom. But it helps immensely to have a platform where you can speak honestly with one another, even if you do so anonymously.
Don’t be judgmental. What works for you may not necessarily be the best choice for someone else. Everyone’s life plan does not have to look like yours. Some women will choose to work; others will want to devote themselves to their families; and yet others will try and achieve a mix of both. Some will revel in being career women; others will find their purpose in being earth mothers. Every one of these choices is as valid as the other. Try and respect that.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you feel the urge to say something bitchy, imagine it’s being said about you and the urge will pass. (And if it doesn’t, bite your tongue!)
Don’t try to be ‘one of the boys’ if it involves the objectification of women colleagues at work. It may be tempting to laugh along, but remember it could (and probably will) be you at the receiving end one day – if it hasn’t happened already behind your back.
And finally, do try and be kind. Pay a compliment. Praise a colleague. Offer practical help where needed. Be supportive with words if you can’t with deeds. Be there. Be a sister.

Murder, she wrote

The spirit of Agatha Christie lives on…in a new Hercule Poirot book by Sophie Hannah

It probably marks me out as irredeemably middle-brow, but I am a complete and utter devotee of Agatha Christie. The queen of the intricately-plotted murder mystery, Christie is a past mistress of setting the scene just so, littering the story with red herrings, before pulling together all the clues (and false clues) together in a denouement that I never ever saw coming. I read my first Christie when I was still at school, and ever since, I pull out her books every couple of years or so to re-read them, just so that I can experience once again the thrill that I felt when I first came upon them. And Christie, bless her dear departed soul, never disappoints.

Of the two staples of her fiction, I always preferred Hercule Poirot, the quirky, eccentric, French-expostulating, terrifying bright, and brilliantly (or should that be Brilliantined?) moustachioed Belgian detective, to the English spinster, Miss Marple, whose inquisitive disposition and propensity to meddle made me feel positively squeamish on occasion. So, you can imagine my delight when I read that Hercule Poirot was being brought back to life by the Christie estate, with his new adventure being assigned to the British writer, Sophie Hannah, who is quite the dab hand at writing psychological crime thrillers.

I have been a fan of Hannah as well, though she doesn’t inspire the same devotion as Christie, but I wasn’t quite sure if she could bring the spirit of Christie and the personality of Poirot come alive once again on paper. Well, I have just finished reading The Monogram Murders (as it always is with every ‘Agatha Christie’, in one greedy gulp) and I am happy to report that, for the most part, Hannah succeeds very well indeed.

The turning-and-twisting plot is worthy of Christie herself, the portrayal of Hercule Poirot is dead-on (is it just me who can never read the name without conjuring up the image of David Suchet in my head?), and Hannah – a big Christie fan herself – does a splendid job of conjuring up the atmosphere of England between the two wars, a society in flux in which the old moral certainties are fraying rapidly. Where she fails is in replicating the classic simplicity of a Christie whodunit. The devices are all intact but the plot is much too convoluted and the denouement stretches credulity a tad. That said, I was glad to have read the book and sad when it finished – which is sometimes all you can ask of a novel.

But would the story have worked just as well if the detective had been an Italian called Gianni Pirelli? And if the only author credited was Sophie Hannah? Yes, it would. And perhaps it would have worked better because the reader wouldn’t constantly be referencing Agatha Christie in his or her head.

Which brings me to this week’s question: does it make sense to rework old classics by having them reinvented by new authors? Or should we leave them well alone?

Speaking for myself, I always believed that classics were best left well alone. If you needed to tell a story, why not do it with through characters that you had dreamed up? Why cannibalize those that had their birth in other people’s imaginations?

What made me change my mind was P.D. James’s homage to Pride and Prejudice, a murder mystery called Death Comes to Pemberley. This opens six years after the protagonists of Jane Austen’s magnum opus, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, have married and settled down to blissful matrimony in their sprawling Derbyshire estate, Pemberley. They are all set to host the autumn ball when an ugly, violent death intrudes upon their perfect ordered world.

Like all P.D. James’s suspense thrillers, this one was immaculately crafted as well, but what brought particular pleasure to an Austen fan like me was the glimpse into the married life of Mr and Mrs Darcy, now the proud parents of two young boys. For all of us who wonder what happens after the happily ever after, this was a big bonus, indeed.

For some reason, of all of Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice is the one that exercises the maximum hold on our hearts. But even so, it took particular guts and an amazing leap of imagination for Jo Baker to write Longbourn, the book that tells us the story of the servants who served the Bennet household. And it worked because Baker didn’t just indulge in Upstairs-Downstairs conceit, but instead fleshed out the staff as living, breathing characters with stories of their own (though I still haven’t forgiven her for the needless calumny heaped on poor, old Mr Bennet – no sorry, I’m not telling, you’ll just have to find out for yourself!)   

But while these may be triumphs of imagination over hope, do all such recastings of old classics work? I have never been a fan of Ian Fleming – or James Bond, for that matter – but those who love the spy with a license to kill tell me that William Boyd’s recreation of James Bond is immeasurably superior to that of Jeffrey Deaver’s.

For my part, I have just discovered Jill Paton Walsh’s resurrection of those legendary characters of detective fiction, Lord Peter Wimsey (later the Duke of Denver) and Harriet Vane, created by the inimitable Dorothy L Sayers. And I have a horrid suspicion that they are going to keep terribly busy in the foreseeable future.