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

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Fine print

The story of our lives is intricately bound with the books we read along the way

There are some people who find cooking therapeutic. They love the mechanical peeling, chopping, cutting, grinding that allows them to switch off from the work day. They enjoy the meditative process of stirring the pot and watching their labours evolve into a dish that their family can enjoy. They love the rituals involved in putting a meal together.

I am not one of these people. What I find therapeutic is rearranging my bookshelves ever so often. Well, okay, now that you mention it, I do suffer from a mild form of OCD, but that’s neither here nor there (not there! Move it an inch to the right. Ah, that’s much better!) I find joy in going through my books, cataloguing them under categories and arranging them according to size or subject matter depending on my mood.

But ever so often I find myself distracted by a book I haven’t picked up in years. I start to leaf through it, and before I know it I am engulfed by memories: of the time I bought it, where I was when I first read it, the friend I lent it to, the discussions we had about it.

See, that’s the thing about books. They don’t just tell a story, they become stories in themselves. A whole history develops around them in your mind. They spark memories, they evoke emotions, they make you happy, they make you sad. They become the stuff of nostalgia.

And that’s before you even start to re-read them. Then, there’s the pleasure of coming across a line that made such an impact on you the first time you read it. There’s the added bonus of concentrating on language, style, characterization and plotting, because you are not intent on galloping to the end (you already know how the story goes). There are those rare moments when an oft-read book yields up new gems of wisdom because you are now in a different stage of your life. And then, there’s the added poignancy of reading an author who is now dead, but still speaks to you from beyond the grave. (Picking up a P.D. James at random, I stumble upon her meditations on the best kind of death, and I start to wonder if she achieved that in her own life.)

I glance through the memoirs of Cherie Blair and am struck by the impermanence of politics; less than ten years after it was written Speaking For Myself already seems dated and of little historical relevance. I start reading Jodi Kantor’s book on the Obamas, and wonder why this collection of tittle-tattle once removed made such an impact at the time.

And then, there’s the ‘What was I Thinking’ section. Did I really pay good money to buy a hardback copy of Judith Krantz’s Dazzle? It’s hard to believe that I was so young and so stupid at any time? Why on earth do I have so many Jackie Collins paperbacks, when I have no recollection of reading a single one? I must have done so, since my motto is to leave no book unread on my shelves. But, as I glance briefly through one, I can’t comprehend why I ever wasted my time on this drivel.

But I am happy to report that I wasn’t always stupid when I was young. My well-thumbed copy of To Kill A Mockingbird stands testament to that, as do the tattered pages of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (which still reduces me to tears of laughter, no matter how many times I read it). My copy of Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s may be falling apart but the tale of Holly Golightly remains as fresh and effervescent as ever with every re-reading.

I wander into the next room to visit my collection of Agatha Christie (every book she ever wrote) and I am transported back to the high ceilinged room that was my school library, where I first discovered the queen of mystery writing. The book was The Ordeal of Innocence, and I still remember the edge-of-the-seat suspense I felt as I raced to the utterly-unexpected end, reading by torchlight in my bedroom so that nobody could tell I was up way past my bedtime.

It was my early love for Christie that led to my subsequent discovery of – and pleasure in – such suspense writers as Val McDermid, Elizabeth George, Donna Leon, Minette Walters, and yes, P.D. James. The lone copy of Dorothy L. Sayers bears mute testimony to the fact that I tried – and failed – to get into the adventures of her creation, the perfectly named Lord Peter Wimsey.

I made much the same journey with the spy thriller genre, and that is dutifully recorded on my books shelves. I came to it via John Le Carre, starting with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, written before I was born, and going on to such classics as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Smiley’s People. My appetite suitably whetted, I went on to feast on Charles McCarry’s tales of super spy Paul Christopher (if you haven’t read him yet, do read the books in order; I didn’t and still bitterly regret it), and then went on to revel in the tales of Israeli spy/assassin Gabriel Allon (though I must confess I am now beginning to tire of Daniel Silva’s increasingly formulaic take on the spy novel).

But whatever my current views on authors and books, I could never bear to give away a single title. These books don’t just tell the stories that the authors wrote; they are also the story of my life so far.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Colour me red

We claim to be modern and enlightened; so why do we continue to ghettoize widows?

You know what annoys me more than the insistence that women sport some sign – bindi, sindoor, mangalsutra – of their ‘married’ status? It is the insistence that widows should not be allowed to sport any of these signs. That they should put away their red saris and bangles, and restrict themselves to sober colours, which are in keeping with their new status. The subliminal message is clear: a woman’s life revolves around her husband; she derives all her status in society through him. She dresses up for him; she pretties herself for him. Once he passes, her life is over as well. So, what use can she possibly have for the ‘shringar’ that is the preserve of married women?

Well, I am happy to report that some women are now summoning up the courage to say no to this kind of obscurantist nonsense. Over the last month or so, I have had the pleasure of meeting many such women, who refuse to be defined by their widowhood. Some of them are old, others heartbreakingly young, while others are middle-aged. Some of them are careerwomen; others are housewives. Some of them are rich, others middle class, and some struggling to make ends meet.

But whatever their surface differences, all these ladies have two things in common. One, all of them loved their husbands immensely and miss them enormously. Two, they see no value in the ‘tokens of widowhood’ that the rest of the world sets so much store by.

Take Hema Deora, for instance, who lost her husband, the politician Murli Deora, a few months ago. When I met her recently, she was still wearing her trademark  red and white ‘shakha and paula’, traditionally worn by married women. She still had her bindi in place. This is the way her husband loved to see her, she said to me. And to change her appearance after his passing would be a discourtesy to his memory.

Meeting her put me in mind of Kavita Karkare, the widow of 26/11 martyr, Hemant Karkare, who recently passed away, six years after her husband. In all her appearances in the media after her husband’s death, Kavita always had her bindi and mangalsutra in place. Her personal bravery aside, with that single gesture, she sent out a message to every widow: her personal loss may be immense but a woman’s status should not change just because she no longer has a husband.

And yet, even modern, educated, enlightened folk seem to expect widows to withdraw from the world, to retreat into their private world of grief, and let others get on with the task of living. And such is the societal pressure that most women feel compelled to give up on all the small pleasures of life rather than be seen as transgressing the norm. It takes a special sort of courage to step up and reclaim the life that you had, and to ignore all those looking askance.

Namita Bhatia, a media professional who lost her husband a couple of years ago, told me of the time when she first put on a red sari and a bindi to attend a family function after being widowed. As she emerged from her room, her always-supportive mother asked if she was sure about going out like that. “What will people say? What will they think?” she asked her daughter. Namita’s reply was clear: it did not matter what anyone else thought or said. Her husband would have been happy to see her like that. And that’s all that mattered to her. Her mother, to her credit, immediately saw the point.

The good news is that more and more widows – both young and old – are beginning to think like Namita. The bad news is that not everyone is blessed with such a supportive environment.

And sadly, the conventional wisdom still remains that widows are not entitled to look attractive or even (God forbid!) sexy. Once their husbands have passed on, they should put away the ‘shringar’ that is the mark of the married woman, and remain in mourning for the rest of their lives.

We may pat ourselves on the back as to how modern and liberated we all are. But scratch the surface and the old obscurantism raises its ugly head. We may not send the widows of our families to Vrindavan – where it becomes a big story is they are even ‘allowed’ to play Holi with colours – to languish in ashrams, where they remain out of sight and out of mind. But we still ghettoize them in subtle but insidious ways: don’t wear bright colours; don’t wear a bindi; don’t laugh too loudly; don’t dance at weddings. Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t. The list just goes on and on.

It’s time to change that. It’s time to accept that a woman’s life does not end just because her husband’s has. She still has the right to look good and to feel happy. She can still rock a red sari and a big bindi. She can wear whatever jewellery she pleases. She can both look and feel sexy. And no one has the right to tell her any different.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Big Ban Theory

If banning stuff is the new ‘in’ thing, then here’s my own wish list

In case you haven’t noticed, this is the season of bans. Beef has been banned in Maharashtra; anyone found in possession of it or selling it will be jailed for five years and fined Rs 10,000. The Central Board of Film Certification issued a list of all the ‘bad’ words that would henceforth be banned in the movies (though there has been some furious back-pedalling on the issue since). The movie, Fifty Shades Of Grey, based on the best-selling erotic novel of the same name, has been banned as well, in case it corrupted our morals. And, most famously, the Government of India has banned the documentary, India’s Daughter, made by Leslee Udwin, on the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi (though a defiant BBC went ahead and aired it anyway, and millions have since seen it on the Internet).

On a visceral level, I am opposed to the banning of anything, whether it is The Satanic Verses or M.F. Husain’s nude portraitures of Hindu goddesses. Freedom of expression is meaningless if it does not come with the right to offend. That is why even those who did not necessarily agree with the views of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists chose to march the streets with placards proclaiming Je Suis Charlie. The fact that you disagree with a point of view – as expressed in a painting, a cartoon, a book, a movie, or a documentary – is not reason enough to ban it. Look away if it offends you; but defend the rights of those who choose to do otherwise.

But given that bans seem to be the flavor of the month, I decided to follow that old maxim: if you can’t beat them, join them. So here, for the kind consideration of the Government of India, are just some of the things I would like banned. I would be much obliged if the same could be taken under its kind consideration (that’s proper bureaucratic-speak, in case you’re wondering, so that the babus can do the needful!).

Let’s ban all netas from commenting on rape. That way we would be spared such gems as: “How can you hang someone for rape; boys make mistakes sometimes” (Mulayam Singh Yadav, SP leader). Or “rape cases are on the rise because men and women interact with each other more freely now” (Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal chief minister). Or “If a girl is dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the way wrong way. If they (women) want freedom, why don’t they just roam around naked” (Manohar Lal Khattar, Haryana chief minister). I could go on, but this is depressing enough.
A ban should also be imposed on all those who would interfere with women’s reproductive rights. So, no more Sakshi Maharajs telling us that Hindu women should produce at least four children. Or Shymal Goswami (BJP leader from West Bengal) increasing the count to five. And certainly, no raising the limit to ten kids, as the Shankaracharya of Badrikashram, did recently. How many kids she has is up to every individual woman; whether the count is 0 or 10 is entirely up to her.
If you are going to ban beef then you have a moral obligation to ban tofu too. It’s Chinese in origin, tastes of nothing, destroys every dish it comes into contact with, and did I mention that it is Chinese? No good can come of tofu; let’s get rid of it from our shops, our tables, our restaurants, our shores. Let’s give paneer a chance, instead.
Ban cell phones in movie theatres. No, turning on the silent mode is not enough. The odds are that some self-important sod will neglect to do so, and his phone will emit a shrill ring just as a crucial scene of the movie is playing. Then, he will take ages to answer, ignoring all the baleful looks cast in his direction, until he finally picks up to stage-whisper, “Sorry, can’t talk now. Am watching a movie.” And sorry, but even phones that have been silenced are a complete nuisance. They flash incessantly through the movie, with new messages and calls coming through, quite ruining the theatre-going experience.
High heels must go. They are just instruments of torture, inflicted on women for centuries now. And alas, we are such suckers for punishment that we have clasped them to our soles and refuse to let go, never mind those aching backs and painful knees (not to mention the bunions). If you tried to sell men shoes that made walking – let alone running – an exercise in pain, they would laugh in your face. So, why don’t women just say ‘no’ when it comes to high heels? Well, never mind. Just ban the horrid things already. 
Ban all fairy tales that teach young girls that they need rescuing. That their only salvation lies in a handsome young prince who will come riding up on a shining white horse and save them from an unhappy fate. And that they will then live happily ever after. Stop telling them these stories; you are just setting them up for disappointment.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Ladies Special

Let’s celebrate Women’s Day by celebrating the women we admire and love

As you may well have noticed, today is International Women’s Day. Yes, yes, we’ve all heard that tired old refrain: Every day is Women’s Day. And no, it wasn’t funny a decade ago, and it’s not funny now. Nor are the annual fulminations of how Women’s Day is a farce because we really haven’t come a long way (baby) very helpful.

So, this year, I decided to celebrate the day by listing some of the women I think are worth celebrating.

Nora Ephron

Her most famous saying was: “Be the heroine of your life, not the victim.” But I have to confess that Ephron is the heroine of my life, and has been ever since I first read her in college. She had the brilliant knack of tapping into her own life to come up with universal truths that every woman could identify with (take the title of her book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck”, for instance). So, her story became our story, and our stories became hers. There could be no greater tribute to any writer.

P.D. James

There is much to admire in Phyllis Dorothy James’ fiction: her intricate plotting, her mastery of suspense, her writing style, and her ability to create characters (Adam Dalgliesh, Cordelia Grey) that we fell in love with. But there is even more to admire in James’ life. A civil servant whose husband died early of a drug and alcohol overdose leaving her to bring up their two young daughters, she published her first book at 42, having written it while working full time. And then, there was no stopping her. She wrote 14 books featuring Dalgiesh, two featuring Grey, and wound up her writing career with a Jane Austen tribute novel, Death Comes To Pemberly, at ripe old age of 91.

Smriti Irani

If a fiction writer made up a story like that of Irani’s, she/he would be accused of over-egging the pudding. She left the family home after finishing school, heading to Mumbai to make a living (where she famously worked at McDonalds). She participated in the Miss India pageant, and then hit the big time with her role as Tulsi in the TV serial, Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. In 2003, she joined the BJP, and had such a meteoric rise that 11 years later, at 38, she became the youngest Cabinet minister, in charge of the crucial portfolio of Human Resources Development. That’s an impressive resume by any standards. But what is even more impressive is Irani’s amazing ability to shrug off the many unpleasant personal attacks on her and concentrate on doing her job.

Mamata Banerjee

I can hear those gasps of disbelief all the way from Calcutta to Delhi. But bear with me a moment and let me tell you the story of a young woman, born in the most humble of circumstances, who took on the might of the Communists in a state which they had ruled for decades, without a thought for her own personal safety. She stuck to the task until she had driven them out of office. But even after assuming office as West Bengal chief minister, she never forgot where she came from. She still lives in her old, two-room house, wears the same crumpled cotton saris, and has the same fiery zeal that she displayed as an activist.

Mary Kom

It takes a special talent to excel in a sport at an international level. And Kom’s achievement is even more special because of the many obstacles she had to overcome to become a champion boxer: her early life in the disturbed area of Manipur, the lack of training resources, the paucity of support for her chosen career. But not only did Kom triumph, she also made a comeback to boxing after having twins, shutting up all those who had written her off.

Sania Mirza

Her achievements in tennis are there for everyone to see, but what I admire most about Mirza is the way she has chosen to live her life completely on her own terms. She wore short skirts on the tennis court despite the attacks by Muslim conservatives. She stood firm by Shoaib Malik, the Pakistani cricketer she fell in love with, marrying him amidst a swirl of controversy. And she showed both grace and courage, standing up to the bullies who would deny her Indian identity post her marriage.


What an absolute trouper she is! She took a tumble down the stage at the recent Brit awards, landing on her head and shoulders with an almighty thwack. Lesser beings would have been rushed straight to hospital after that. But not Madonna: she stood up, shook off the dust, and carried on with her act as if nothing had happened. No wonder the Material Girl has been a star longer than most pop stars of today have been alive!

Farah Khan

Say what you will about Farah Khan’s school of filmmaking (yes, it’s full on escapist masala fare, but so what?) but there is no denying that she is one of the most bankable names in the movie business now. Her last release, Happy New Year, was the biggest grosser of 2014, raking in a record-breaking Rs 350 crores. And with it, Khan proved that while it may be hard to gain entry into the Big Boys Club that is Bollywood, it is not impossible to beat them at their own game.