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

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Picture perfect

We all like to exert control over our image, so why blame celebrities for their love of air-brushing?

It seems to be an immutable rule of this Internet age that if there is an embarrassing photo (or video) lurking some place in the virtual world, someone somewhere will find a way to leak it. And it is just as inevitable that these photos (or videos) will go ‘viral’; as in people all over the world will be clicking on them to view what was most certainly not meant for our eyes. Then, the chatter on social media will swirl out of control as everyone with a smartphone tries to out-smart the next guy with his one-liners. Columnists like myself will tut-tut about what voyeurs we have become (after taking a good look at the photos/videos, obviously; it’s research, don’t you know?). And then, we will move on effortlessly to the next such ‘scandal’.

And so, after Jennifer Lawrence – whose naked pictures, which she sent to her then-boyfriend, went spectacularly viral a few months ago – it was the turn of Cindy Crawford and Beyonce to suffer the ignominy of a ‘leak’ last week. And to add insult to considerable injury, unlike Jennifer who looked like a Greek goddess in her naked selfies, Cindy and Beyonce looked nothing like their usual selves in the photos that have probably been viewed a few billion times over by now.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Let’s put it this way, instead. Cindy and Beyonce looked exactly like their usual selves – but without the benefit of photo-shopping, air-brushing and sundry other techniques that glossy magazines and advertising agencies use to make women look picture perfect. So, like any other 48-year-old mother of two, Cindy – posing in black lingerie, fur coat and stylish hat – had a few stretch marks along her stomach while her thighs had a faint suggestion of cellulite to them. But that was nothing compared to poor old Bey, who had to contend with photos that showed a crop of acne under heavily-pancaked skin.

So far, so normal. That is what women look like, once they have lived a little (and pushed out a sprog or two). And acne could strike any of us any time (though it usually does just before an important party or, yes, a photo-shoot). So, what was the big deal about these photos being leaked on the net? Nothing at all, really.

And yet, when I looked at the pictures I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for the subjects. It is one thing to voluntarily release unflattering (relatively, of course, these ladies couldn’t look anything but gorgeous if they tried) photographs of yourself, either with a view to showing the world that nobody is as flawless as their public personas may suggest or to help other women who are struggling against the tyranny of perfection. But it is quite another to have such pictures released without your consent or even your knowledge, to have the control you exerted over your image for decades wrested away in a matter of seconds.

It is brave to release images of yourself to show the reality behind those glamour pictures that infest the media. But it is a violation to have pictures that show the ‘real’ you – or, for that matter, any pictures at all – released without your permission.

This is as true of celebrities as it is of ordinary folk like you and me. Which of us can say, hand to heart, that we haven’t done a bit of ‘work’ on pictures before posting them on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, or whatever other social media site we use? We all delete unflattering pictures the moment after they are taken. We all use photo-shopping and airbrushing apps to the extent our skills allow. And rare is the picture that makes the cut without the judicious application of a filter or two. If a friend or family member tags us with an unflattering picture, we untag ourselves immediately and then harangue them to take the picture down (NOW, if you please!). And if they don’t, unpleasantness usually follows.

That’s the kind of control we exert on our image in the public domain. And that’s when we are not even public figures.

So, if we feel betrayed when ‘unauthorized’ pictures of us make it to social media, how do you think celebrities like Cindy Crawford and Beyonce – whose careers are predicated, in whole and in part, on how they look – feel when their un-retouched images are released and become the subject of public debate.

The truth is that none of us is happy to show her real face to the world. We don’t leave the house unless we have our ‘face’ on; the one we display to the world, with the help of concealers, eyeliners, lipstick, and maybe just the lightest touch of foundation. We bleach, we wax, we tweeze, we pluck, in an effort to improve on Nature’s work. Some of us even go so far as to use Botox, fillers, and other cosmetic procedures to keep the ravages of age at bay.

Nobody looks as good as they do in their Facebook profile pictures of their Twitter DPs (or indeed, in their column pictures!). And that’s fine. It is our inalienable right to present our best faces to the world. And each of us has the right to control our own image, both in the private and public domain.

So, why deny Cindy and Beyonce the control that we take for granted?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Homing in

Moving house may be the most stressful thing, but it does have its up-sides

You know what they say about moving house, don’t you? That it is one of the most stressful things in life, right next to divorce and losing a loved one. And as someone who spent the better part of her youth moving from one apartment to another, I have to agree that there is some truth to that. 

It’s not just the sheer physical inconvenience of packing up all your belongings and then unpacking them at the next stop (and mourning all those that get damaged in the process). It’s also the emotional upheaval of leaving behind a place where you made memories with your loved ones, where you laughed and cried, where you lived a part of your life, no matter how brief the period. Put all this together, and it is completely understandable why it is such a wrench to move out and move on, even if you are moving to a better address, a bigger house, or a nicer place.

Which is why I have great sympathy for those of you who are currently struggling with a move. I know what a pain it is to pack away your entire life in an endless series of cartons, with the knowledge that in a few days (or weeks) time you will have to undertake the same process in reverse. I know the sense of loss when you can’t wake up to the view that you got so used to. I know that strange, unsettled feeling when a house doesn’t quite feel like home, even though all your possessions are in it. I know the pain of trying to adjust to new neighbours all over again. Not to mention the agony involved in getting a new wifi connection, installing new phone lines, and cable for your TV. It’s enough to drive anyone bonkers.

So yes, I do agree that moving house is one of the stressful experiences in life. And once you’ve made yourself at home in the new place, it’s completely understandable to swear to yourself: never again! 

But don’t be so hasty. Hard as this is to believe when you are drowning in a sea of cartons, there are a few upsides to moving house. And sometimes, they make up – if only partially – for all the hassle involved in moving.

For starters, this is the best way to de-clutter. There’s nothing like the thought of packing up all your possessions to scare you into re-evaluating if you really need all this stuff. Those jeans that you haven’t worn since before you had the baby; the boots that have seen better days; the tat that people keep sending you for Diwali and Christmas; those dog-eared copies of cheap thrillers that you will never read again; the stack of DVDs that you’ve already watched; those pots and pans that have had the Teflon coating cooked right out of them; the list of the junk we all tend to accumulate goes on and on. 

The rule in these circumstances is: if in doubt, delete. As in, chuck out with the garbage. If you think that someone else can get some use out of some of this stuff, then make a bundle and cart it to a charity shop (or a lending library). But be ruthless now. Get rid of all the junk. I can guarantee that you won’t miss it in the next place; in fact, you’ll barely notice it’s gone. What you will feel is infinitely lighter, as you reclaim those empty spaces that we all need in our lives.

Ah, an empty space. A clean slate. A bare canvas. That’s what a new place is. This is your opportunity to try something new, to create a new ambience for a new you. Experiment with colours: if you’ve always gone for light, inoffensive pastels, try a bolder colour scheme (if you’re too scared, limit yourself to one wall out of four). Paint a mural on the ceiling. Jazz up dark corners with some snazzy wallpaper. It’s too much of an investment to buy new furniture, but it is quite cost-effective to give it a new look. Change the upholstery, or just buy new slip covers. Accessorize with new throw cushions, or a brand new set of curtains, and you will have updated your interiors without breaking the bank. 

But more than the opportunity to de-clutter and re-decorate, what a new house brings with it are the possibilities inherent in new beginnings. Maybe this is the place where you will finally reinvent yourself, becoming the person you were always meant to be. This could be the setting that inspires you to write the novel you always wanted to. This may be the house where you get around to starting a family. This could be the place where you finally find peace and contentment. 

And if you’re lucky, and it is meant to be, then this could be the home where you live happily ever after. What more could you ask for? (Apart from never having to move again, of course!)

Cold comfort

Enjoy the winter while you can; the sun will be scorching down before you know it

It’s that time of the year again. When the days get a little longer; the mornings a little brighter; and the sun a little stronger. But while most people are getting all excited about the coming of spring, I have to confess that I am mourning the passing of winter, which always seems to end too soon for me. It’s almost as if one moment I am airing my sweaters and coats in preparation of the cold to come, and the next I am wrapping them away until next year…

I guess it is true what they say: time flies quickly when you’re having fun. And how much fun the winter is! It’s the only time when you can actually enjoy the great outdoors, whether it is for a meal, a drink, a picnic, or just a walk. This is the time to savour the tart goodness of oranges, to gorge on the wholesome greenness of meethi, to overdose on peanut chikki, and eat your fill of this season’s staple, sarson da saag and makki di roti. And this is the only time you can actually wear those gorgeous boots and jackets you spent a fortune on, and which have been gathering dust at the back of your wardrobe for months.

Honestly, what’s not to love about winter? The days start off all misty and foggy, so that you can pretend for a couple of hours that you live in the mountains and not in the middle of urban sprawl. And when the sun does come out, it brings with it a welcome warmth, not the searing heat of the summer that burns you to a crisp. The evening sets in quickly, so that you can hurry home and huddle with your loved ones, or head out to party with your friends. And then, it’s time to snuggle down in bed, weighed down by soft, downy blankets. Bliss!

But most of all, there’s the cold. The lovely, lovely cold! The kind that turns the tip of your nose a delicate pink. The kind that makes your breath fog up every time you breathe out. The kind that hits you with a blast when you venture outdoors and makes you feel glad to be alive. The kind that ensures you appreciate the warmth of your home and hearth even more.

How can anyone not love the cold? How can the words ‘Winter is coming’ not make your heart sing? (With due apologies to George R.R. Martin!) And how can its departure not make you a little sad?

Well, if you are anything like me and are mourning the imminent demise of winter, here are some suggestions to make the most of its final days.

Host a terrace party: There’s only a couple of months in a year that your terrace is usable; at all other times it is either too hot, too cold, or too wet. So, before it becomes inhabitable once again, call your friends over, set up a bar, pop some corn, serve up some snacks and enjoy the last of the good weather.
Gather around the bonfire: There’s something infinitely comforting about sitting around a blazing fire, strumming a guitar, chatting with friends, having a drink (or four) and letting the warmth – of both the fire and the company – envelop you. I guess the Punjabis knew a thing or two, or else they wouldn’t have invented the festival of Lohri!
Enjoy a lie-in: Winters and lazy days go hand-in-hand. So, take a day off work, have breakfast in bed, sun yourself on your balcony, curl up with a good book and a piping hot cup of masala chai, and just chill (sorry, the pun was entirely fortuitous). There’ll be time enough for work once summer descends upon us.
Go for a nice, long walk: This is the only time you really need to work out to work up a sweat (as opposed to the weather doing your work for you). So, head out to a leafy park to stretch your legs, or simply pound the pavements in your neighbourhood. If that seems like a pointless exercise (these puns are really getting out of hand) you can always undertake a walk with a purpose. Go on an art walk to see the many treasures of your city; a historical walk to feast your eyes on the monuments you never knew existed; or a food walk to simply feast.
Organize a wedding: If you, or a loved one, is getting married, this is the time to do it, or forever hold your peace (or, at least, until next winter). If we must get trussed up in Banarasi saris and three-piece suits, then we’d really much rather do it while there is still a nip in the air. Or else we’ll just be sweating into our silks and trust me, you really don’t want that.
And did I mention parathas? If they are not the staple of your winter breakfast yet, then you are missing a trick. Gorge on the gobhi and mooli (aloo you can have all around the year) ones while these vegetables are still in season. And before it gets too hot to even think of food. 
Go on, what are you waiting for? Seize the Sunday, for before you know it, it will be summer!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Poll fault

There’s nothing quite like an election to make politicians show their true colours

The best time to observe the idiosyncrasies of Indian politics is in the run-up to an election. So, it wasn’t in the least surprising that the election campaign for the Delhi Assembly gave us some fresh insights into the behavior of that strange creature: the Indian politician. In case you have been (very understandably) hiding underneath your blanket until the electoral coast clears, here’s a brief summary of what we learnt over the last fortnight – or indeed, over the last decade.

Promises, promises: There is nothing that politicians won’t promise in the run-up to an election. Here’s just a random sampling of all the stuff we’ve been dazzled with: Rs 15 lakhs in the bank account of every Indian (our share of all the black money that was going to be brought back to India); free water and electricity; ‘safety kits’ for women which would include pepper spray and whistles; free wi-fi for everyone; free television sets; dowry for your daughters; education loans for your sons; and so on and on and on.
When in doubt, delete: That’s the first thing that entrants to any political party – or those who have defected to another – do. They scour their social media accounts to scratch out all the offensive things they once said about their then-opponents and now-allies. Unfortunately, the Internet has a very long memory; too many people have discovered the art of capturing a screenshot; and television clips tend to live on forever: so good luck with that.
Be still, my beating heart: If the CBI comes calling, then a ‘heart attack’ or, at the very least, ‘palpitations’ are never far behind. The more committed manage to stage a dramatic collapse before the cameras. The more retiring content themselves with looking pale and wan, and exiting their houses on a wheelchair to portray an image of vulnerability. But then, given that their only choice is between jail and a nice hospital bed, who can blame them for that Oscar-worthy acting? 
It’s cold out there: There’s nothing like a spell in political Siberia to help people discover that they have such a thing as a ‘conscience’. Maybe it’s the icy winds of adversity that strip away those layers of arrogance, corruption and venality, leaving a quivering mass of regret at the core. Or maybe it’s just the desire to bask in the sunshine of public approval. But, whatever the reason, being exiled from the corridors of power tends to bring on a powerful bout of ‘introspection’, followed by abject ‘apologies’ to the people for having let them down.
The law of the letter: You can be sure that if one politician has written an embarrassing letter to another, it is only a matter of time before it mysteriously materializes on the front page of a leading national daily. Both the sender and the receiver will feign incredulity and outrage that such a ‘personal’ missive became public, even though it is amply clear than one or the other must have leaked it. And both will take great pleasure in bashing the media over their ‘intrusive’ ways. As for the media, well, they will devote hours of prime time to ‘debating’ the letter in question: why was it written; who leaked it; who gains; who doesn’t? And each media organization will claim to be the ‘first’ at ‘breaking’ the story.
I was only following orders: No matter what a politician says or does in the execution of his or her ‘duties’, nothing is ever his or her fault. It is either the media that are blamed for a ‘witch-hunt’ or for ‘misquoting’ or ‘quoting out of context’ (this, even when the offending quote has been recorded for posterity on television cameras, and is thus, indisputable). Or the blame is laid at the door of the party ‘high command’, which ‘forced’ its will on the hapless politician in question. What was that you asked? Why didn’t the politician refuse to carry out a flawed order? Ah but you see, he/she hadn’t spent a spell in the political wilderness yet, so he/she was not in touch with his/her conscience (see above).
Nothing is secret; nothing is sacred: If you are planning to stand for election, then be prepared to have every aspect of your life scrutinized. Nothing is off limits. Not your family life, not your medical history, not your business interests, not your bank balance, not your financial assets, and certainly not your service record. So, if you have been fibbing all your life about having towed the Prime Minister’s car, then you will have to come clean on who actually did the towing (and if it turns out that it wasn’t you, who has been dining out on the story for decades on end, then be prepared to be roasted on prime-time television). 
Lies, damned lies, and opinion polls: It is almost a truism of Indian politics that no political party will be happy with the results of the opinion polls. Those who have been written off will complain that the sample size was too small, and that the questions were loaded against them in the survey. Those who fared better will insist that the numbers don’t really do justice to the massive support they have garnered. And everybody will insist that it’s no point discussing opinion polls, because opinion polls never get it right, even as they discuss them threadbare night after night in television studios. Clearly, if there’s one thing our politicians – across party lines – have in common, it is an irony deficit.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

An affair to remember

Why do certain celebrity relationships continue to engage our attention long after they are over?

What is it about some love stories that they simply refuse to fade from public imagination? I asked myself this question yet again last week as Jennifer Aniston began doing the usual round of publicity interviews for her new movie, Cake. Actually, make that ‘poor old Jen’ who lost her husband, the great love of her life, Brad Pitt, to the evil machinations of that sultry siren, Angelina Jolie. Poor thing, she never found love again, moving from relationship after relationship, grasping for the same magic she had with Brad. But no, that wasn’t to be.

Watching Aniston answer the same questions (about Brad, Jolie, their many kids, her striking lack of them), you could be forgiven for thinking that Brad and Jen had split a year ago. Actually, it’s been ten years. And still the same questions keep cropping up in every interview Aniston does.

She and Brad may have moved on, but we are unwilling – or unable – to do so. We seem more committed to the eternal love triangle of Jen-Brad-Jolie than Brad ever was to Jennifer, trying to tease out some meaning from it, puzzling over what went wrong, and sighing about what could have been. So, every couple of months, a fresh crop of stories surfaces in the media. Brad is back in touch with Jen. Jolie is livid because she doesn’t trust Jen. Brad is so unhappy with Jolie. Jen is going to break up with her fiancĂ© Justin Theroux (because she never ever got over Brad, you see). And so on…

Why should this be so? I must confess that I am stumped. Yes, all three protagonists are A-list celebrities so some amount of media attention on their relationship (and lack thereof) is inevitable. But this sort of obsession about something that happened a decade ago? Does it make any sense? Of course not. Nonetheless, the breathless media coverage goes on.

But even if we can’t really work out why this should be so, there is no denying that there are some star pairings that live on in our imaginations, more vividly than ever, even though the couple in question has long since ceased to exist. And we continue to obsess over their relationship – why did it end; who was to blame; whose side are you on? – decades after it has been dead and buried.

If our generation had Brad and Jen (and Jolie), then the one before had those eternal star-crossed lovers, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Their coming together on the sets of Cleopatra was a bit like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Sparks flew, passions were ignited, and a very public affair began despite the fact that both were still married to other people. They divorced their then-spouses in a spectacular blaze of publicity, and generated even more headlines when they got married to one another. The fiery relationship saw them get divorced, get off with other people, and then with a certain inevitability, gravitate back towards one another. Another wedding followed, and then, another divorce.

After the final split, Taylor went on to re-marry twice even as Burton notched up two marriages of his own. He was married to Sally Hay when he died in 1984. But as far as the media were concerned, it was Liz, not Sally, who was the rightful Burton widow. All the coverage was about Burton and Taylor: the passionate letters he had written to her through their long and complicated relationship; glamorous pictures of them on set or dancing the night away at some club. And much the same thing happened when Taylor passed away in 2011. It was the tragic, tumultuous love story of Burton and Taylor that dominated the obituaries, with her six other husbands meriting merely a passing mention.

In India, there is really only one celebrity couple that I can think of who has attracted this sort of obsessive coverage: Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha. Even though their ‘relationship’ (always rumoured; never confirmed, despite the many coy hints Rekha threw around about ‘Him’ in her many interviews) allegedly ended in the 80s, the myths around it continue to circulate.

The two have never worked together in a movie after Silsila, which was released in 1981, but even more than 30 years later, the presence of them both at any film function is bound to create a frisson. If Rekha is giving away an award, the cameras will focus closely on Amitabh’s face to see how he reacts (with a poker face, if you must know). If Amitabh is on stage and Rekha in the audience, then it is her reaction that the camera will look for (adoring look, paired with mysterious smile). And so, the dance continues even though both are getting a bit long in the tooth now.

Now, of course, there is a new angle to explore in this ‘triangle’ for the ages: Rekha and Jaya in the Rajya Sabha. Both women are members of the same House of Parliament, so their paths are bound to cross at one time or another. And the media are lying in wait for just such a moment. When Rekha takes her oath, the camera pans to Jaya; when Jaya makes an intervention in a debate, the camera closes up on Rekha. And thus, it goes.

Why do these love stories that ended decades ago continue to engage our interest? What is it about these people that makes their ‘relationships’ the fodder of gossip columns, years after the event? Why are we so obsessed with these triangles for the ages? If you can work it out, do let me know.