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

Sunday, August 30, 2015

High fliers

Don’t envy them; they really aren’t having a good time at all

There was a time when I actually used to enjoy air travel, especially long-haul sectors. I would pack a good book, the kind that brooked no distractions, and read my way across the ocean. Or else I would catch up on my movie-watching, seeing as many as three films back to back. And I would eat and drink everything in sight, because somehow calories didn’t seem to count when you were 30,000 feet above sea level.

Those days are long gone. Now, travelling by air, even if it is the relatively short haul between Delhi and Mumbai, seems like a chore. I have to psych myself up to face the ordeal the night before as I pack my suitcase for what seems like the millionth time. And these days, I’ve taken to laying bets on how long before I lose my temper as I navigate my way to the plane through the airport (my best-ever timing is 4.5 minutes).

So, I can never understand people who go on about the glamour of air travel; honestly, haven’t they ever used an airline loo? Thus, it was with a sense of deep relief that I read an article in The Economist – ironically, on an airplane – which detailed the work of researchers at the University of Surrey (Britain) and Linnaeus University (Sweden) who recently published a study about the ‘darker side of hypermobility’.

Among the many dangers that frequent travellers face, according to this study, was jet lag (which can lead to speeding ageing and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes), deep-vein thrombosis, and increased exposure to radiation. Frequent travel also results in social isolation, taking its toll on relationships with family and friends. And, of course, those who spend a lot of time on airplanes don’t spend a lot of time in the gym, or eat healthy for that matter.

But while there is no denying any of the above, it doesn’t really cover all the things that I truly detest about air travel. So here, in no particular order of importance, is all the stuff that I loathe about flying.

First off, there’s the getting there. Unlike the rest of the world, where you can walk into an airport unchallenged, in India we encounter our first hurdle at the airport gate, which is manned by a security guy. This man will inspect your ticket in a leisurely fashion, then turn to your photo-id, which he will peer at suspiciously and then stare at your face before turning back to the photo-id, puzzlement writ large on his face. Then, just as the line behind you is getting restive, he will shrug resignedly and wave you in, and move on to the next person in the queue to repeat the same charade.

Next step: check-in. Here the queues will be even longer, and you will have to keep a sharp eye out for those trying to sneak in ahead by placing their luggage trolleys near the check-in desk. When you finally get to the desk, you will discover that the window seat you asked for specifically is no longer available. And no, the aisles are full up. It’s the middle seat, take it or leave it.

By now, you’re probably hovering on the brink of a meltdown. But you keep a tight rein on your temper, knowing that it is going to be tested even further at the next stage of your progress: the security check.

Here, you faithfully remove your shoes, belt, bracelet, watch, necklace, computer, ipad, and place them in a tray. And then you wait behind the harried family of four who seem to have two items of luggage per person and no clear understanding of how this security thing works. So, of course, they haven’t removed any electronic items. One of them is trying to sneak a water bottle through, while the other has many mysterious containers of food, which have to be put through the X-ray machine twice.

Finally, it’s your turn. You push everything on and walk through to the nice lady waiting to run a wand all over you. She swishes it over your torso, where it begins to beep alarmingly. She looks up at you inquiringly. “Er, underwire,” you say sheepishly. She looks blankly at you. Then, putting the wand aside, she gives you a thorough frisking that could double as a full-body massage. Charming.

You go through finally to pick up your bag. But it has been placed on one side, with a security officer looming menacingly over it. “You have lighter inside,” she says angrily. No, you say, that’s impossible; I don’t smoke. “You have lighter,” she repeats, more menacingly. Please open and check, you respond. She rummages through it for ages and then triumphantly brandishes a…lipstick.

You may think the worse is over once you are in your seat, but you would be wrong. If you have the window seat, the charmless guy in the aisle seat will refuse to get up if you need to go to the loo. So, you will have to slide past him, taking care not to brush against his paunch. If you have the aisle, they will put a child with the weakest bladder next to you, so there is zero chance of catching a snooze. It could be worse of course (and it often is); the child could be in the seat behind you, kicking it rhythmically for hours on end.

Now imagine going through this routine every week/fortnight for the next ten years. Doesn’t seem like much fun, does it?

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The rich list

Luxury is not the same as conspicuous consumption, no matter what the big brands tell you

Over the last six months, I have probably attended more 'Luxury Conferences' than I have had cooked breakfasts. And at each of these, no matter who the speakers or the attendees, the message seems to be the same. Luxury equals money. Actually make that big money. As in Big Money.

So, we have sundry examples thrown at us to illustrate the point. There is the iconic Hermes handbag with a waiting list as long as Jane Birkin's legs. There is the perfectly-cut yellow diamond with no visible inclusions, available exclusively from Graff. There is the private jet which comes with a jacuzzi and power shower, and a four-poster bed in the master bedroom (and if you don't like the fixtures you can always have them customised to your taste). And so on and on and on.

I watch goggle-eyed at all the high-value items projected on the big screen. But no matter how hard I try, I can't quiet the little voice inside my head that tells me that this is just conspicuous consumption. Luxury is an entirely different animal. And while it helps to have money to feed it, there is more to it than just filthy lucre. Or, at least, that's the way I see it.

So what, you ask, is my definition of luxury. Well, it it hard to pin down in a sentence or two, so I will do the next best thing. I'll give you a few examples of what qualifies as luxury in my book (and that's an actual hardback book not one of those Kindle editions).

* Being time-rich: There is nothing quite as luxurious than having all the time in the world to achieve what you want to. That feeling when your entire life lies before you like a blank slate, waiting for you to fill it with a wealth of experiences. Alas, like youth itself, this luxury is wasted on the young. But if you are still on the right side of 50, don't forget to luxuriate in this sense of being time-rich. And if your daily life is too fraught to allow you to do so, then rope off some vacation time, where you are not scheduled to within an inch of your life. Laze away the morning, have a leisurely afternoon, relax in the evening, read late into the night. Rinse and repeat.

*  Getting enough sleep: This is the one luxury that I simply cannot do without. Not because I am a spoilt so-and-so. But because if I don't clock up seven hours or more I am a complete wreck the next day. I can barely keep my eyes open, I can't think, and I most certainly cannot write. Sadly, we don't recognise sleep as a luxury until we run up a significant sleep-deficit. Ask any mother of kids below the age of one what she would rather have: a Kelly bag or a week of unbroken, eight-hour sleep, and you will discover just how much of a luxury sleep is. (Now, even more so, given that medical research has it that sleep deficit can lead to serious illnesses and even reduce mortality.)

* Room to breathe: Space is not just the final frontier; it is also the biggest luxury of all in our over-crowded cities and our increasingly tiny apartments. Just check with any teenager who fantasises about having her own room, where she can hang out with her friends, while a sign outside the door growls: "No entry for adults". Or the young, newly-married couple who have to live with their parents because they can't afford a home of their own. Or even the ageing parents who have to move in with their kids because they can't look after themselves. If they could have one thing in the world, they would ask for a space that was entirely their own.

* The freedom to make your own life choices: It's not just the big stuff like where to live, what to study, how to invest your money, whom to marry, where to work, that matters. It's also the small stuff like what to eat for breakfast (or to skip it entirely), what colour to paint the walls, where to go on holiday, what to watch on TV. The feeling of being empowered to do all (or most) of the above is what luxury is all about.

* The ability to say no: It may not seem like a big deal to those who have the freedom of choice, but it is nothing less than a luxury for those who don't. If you have to tow the line laid down by your boss, if you have to marry the man your parents chose for you, if you have to have sex whenever your partner desires it no matter how you feel, then the ability to say no seems like the best gift ever.

* Experiences rather than purchases: Given a choice between buying a piece of jewellery and going on holiday to a hitherto-unknown destination, I would always choose the experience over the purchase. Things don't add value to your life or, for that matter, bring you closer to your loved ones. But shared experiences do that every single time. And that, to my mind, is the biggest luxury of all.

Put a ring on it!

Now that Jennifer Aniston is married, will we finally stop treating her as a 'poor old thing'?

Finally, we can all breathe easy. Jennifer Aniston is once again safe within the holy bonds of matrimony. A decade after her divorce from Brad Pitt, and after a series of failed relationships, Aniston married fiancée Justin Theroux in a private ceremony at their Bel-Air home last week. And in the process, she managed to cock a snook at all those nasty tabloids who made millions by speculating over her 'single' status and child-free womb for years by keeping her nuptials entirely private -- or 'secret', as the disgruntled hacks harrumphed in their copy the next day when the news finally broke.

So, I guess we now have permission to stop feeling sorry for 'poor old Jen' who was dumped by her husband for the sultry temptress Angelina Jolie, and who could never really find 'true love' after that, despite searching for it in the arms of men as diverse as Vince Vaughan and John Mayer.

There is just one problem with this scenario. And that is: I never felt sorry for Jennifer Aniston to begin with. Not remotely sorry. Not mildly sympathetic. Or even slightly regretful about the way her life had turned out.

I mean, seriously, how can anyone in their right minds feel sorry for someone like Aniston? She is bright, beautiful, famous, successful, rich, fit, and healthy. She won a place in our hearts as Rachel in Friends, and since then has resolutely refused to vacate it. She may have made some bad movies, but she was always good in them. She dated some of the best-looking and talented men on the planet. She may have kissed a few frogs along the way, but hey, what makes you think she was looking for a Prince? She didn't need to. She was a Princess in her own right, a prize catch, a trophy girlfriend/wife, whom any man would be lucky to get to call his own.

But no, that narrative was never going to sell any tabloids or trashy magazines. So Jen had to be cast as a sad, forlorn figure who was still pining away for ex-husband Brad Pitt, even as he moved on with Angeline Jolie and their ever-increasing brood of children. No matter how many times Aniston insisted that that chapter of her life was over and people needed to turn the page, the media refused to listen. Instead, entirely fictitious stories about her obsession with Pitt (and Jolie) and her sadness about her childless state continued to make the headlines.

Even when she announced her engagement to Justin Theroux and emerged with a rock-like diamond on her finger, the 'poor old Jen' narrative continued. Now, it was about how Theroux was not exactly an A-grader like Pitt, but then Aniston didn't have too many options on the wrong side of 40, did she? And even if this relationship didn't stutter to an end like all those others, she was probably too old to have kids anyway, wasn't she? Poor thing! Life hadn't really worked out too well for her, had it?

Such was the intensity of the womb-watch that ensued that even Aniston, who usually laughs off the incessant baby speculation surrounding her uterus, was pushed to respond in an interview that she even though she hadn't had children, she did not feel unfulfilled because she had 'birthed' several other things, like movie projects, etc. And that, I must confess, was the only time I felt truly sorry for Jen. Why should she -- or any other woman, for that matter -- have to justify her reproductive life to anybody else? It really is no one's business but her own.

Of course, it never works out that way, because that is what being a woman is all about, isn't it? Finding the right man. Getting him to marry her. Settling down to cosy domesticity. Pushing out a couple of sprogs before her eggs go completely off. And then, making a success of marriage and motherhood.

Seriously? How is this narrative even a thing in the second decade of the 21st century? Why do we still buy into this drivel and treat any woman whose life deviates from this Grand Plan as a failure, no matter how beautiful, rich, happy, famous or successful she may be? Why do we apply criteria that wouldn't seem out of place in the 19th century to judge the woman of today?

I have thought long and hard about this. And I still don't have an answer for you. All I know is that no matter what their other talents and attributes, at the end of the day women are still judged on the basis of their personal lives. Just how great a guy did she manage to 'ensnare' into marrying her? How good is she as a baby machine? Is her marriage still intact? Do her kids do well at school? Does she run an efficient household? And so on and on and on.

Which is why I have a sneaking suspicion that we are not done with Aniston as yet. No sooner is she back from her honeymoon, then the baby babble will start. Is she pregnant? Can she get pregnant? Is she going the surrogate route? Or will she simple adopt, like Angeline Jolie? Because, you know, she never really got over losing Brad to her!

And the media circus will roll on with the 'poor old Jen' narrative, selling millions of newspapers and magazines. As they saying goes, plus ca change.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The new normal

What seemed strange just a few years ago no longer causes any raised eyebrows

It struck me first a few months ago when I was away on holiday. No matter which restaurant I went to, expensive or cheap, formal or informal, trendy or old-fashioned, the diners seemed to be more interested in photographing their food than eating. The moment a dish was placed on the table, everyone would whip their smartphones out and begin clicking away. If the restaurant was badly-lit, the pictures were taken with flash, which annoyed me immensely, but left everyone else unmoved.

That’s when it hit me. This is the way diners are expected to behave in restaurants. Because if you don’t take a picture of that exotic new dish you ordered, can you really be sure that you actually ate it? For that matter, can we? So, everyone clicks away while the food grows cold. And nobody thinks that this is at all odd. This is, in fact, the new normal. 

And that got me thinking. How many things that we earlier considered decidedly strange do we now regard as completely normal? The selfie is the first thing that comes to mind. The days when taking pictures of yourself pulling duck faces was seen as a sign of a serious narcissistic personality disorder are gone. Now, the selfie has become so commonplace that nobody even comments on it, leave alone give you strange looks when you take one.

It is that other new-fangled contraption that attracts odd looks when you use it. Yes, I am talking about that plague on human civilization, called the selfie stick, that is rapidly conquering every tourist spot, every museum, every historical palace, one picture at a time. But how long do you think it will be before we start seeing this as entirely normal as well? Going by the selfie experience, not very long at all.

So, what are the other things that best embody the new normal? Well, it is a long list, but here are just a few things off the top of my head.

Cosmetic work: There was a time when those who resorted to plastic surgery or cosmetic intervention of any kind were seen as vain, even deluded, for trying to interfere with the work of nature. No longer. These days, getting Botox and fillers is seen as being as commonplace as getting a facial or a manicure/pedicure. Nobody raises an eyebrow (possibly because they can’t) if you confess to having had your face ‘done’. Most women who can afford it have their dermatologist on speed dial, scheduling a Fraxel laser treatment or a Thermage session. And nobody thinks anything of it.
The mainstreaming of porn: The arrival of the Internet made porn readily accessible to anyone who knew how to use a search engine. But there was still a stigma attached to it; people made sure to delete their search history every time they ventured online for a little titillation. Those days are long gone. With the runaway success of books like the Fifty Shades of Trilogy and much else, porn has gone mainstream. (It helps that reading it on a Kindle or any other hand-held device makes it embarrassment-proof as well.) One of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend is Sunny Leone, the porn star who has now been embraced by Indian audiences as a mainstream star.
Blended families: The era of the nuclear family is over. With divorce rates mounting and re-marriages becoming increasingly common, the blended family is what it is all about these days. Ex-husbands, ex-wives, new wives, new husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, live-in partners, step-kids, half-siblings, step-siblings, all jostle each other around the family table on occasions like Diwali, Holi, Onam or Lohri (or even, this being India where we celebrate every festival we can get out hands on, Christmas and Easter). They eat, they drink, they laugh, they squabble, they sulk, they make-up, they eat and drink some more. It is a beautiful sight.
Start-ups: Just as in my generation, everyone you spoke to was writing a novel (or thinking about writing one), in the new generation that has just been decanted from college, everyone is working on a start-up (or at the very least talking about working on a start-up). Names like Amazon, Flipkart, Snapdeal are thrown about along with figures that make my mind boggle as everyone talks up the valuation game. All I know is that if I had a dollar for every start-up that I hear about, I would have enough money to launch a start-up of my own.
Over-sharing: As the joke goes, in the old days you put all your inner-most thoughts and feelings into your personal diary and got seriously annoyed if anyone read it; these days you put all your inner-most thoughts and feelings on to social media, and get very upset if no one pays attention. This is an age of putting it all out there. Your holiday pictures go on Facebook and you wait anxiously to see how your friends react. Every stray thought makes its way on to Twitter, and you measure your self-worth by how RTs (that’s retweets in case you are still living in the 20th century and have not discovered Twitter) it notches up. And then, of course, there are all those food pictures cluttering your phone, which duly do duty on Instagram to tell people what a charmed life you lead. What’s not to ‘like’?

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The art of the apology

It is much harder to master than you would think

I have never been a great fan of either Taylor Swift or Nicki Minaj. But even so, it was hard not to get drawn into their 'Twitter feud' given that it more or less 'broke the Internet' (kids these days, I tell ya!).

Disappointed by not getting a VMA award for Anaconda, Minaj tweeted about how "If your video celebrates women with very thin bodies, you will be nominated for vid(eo) of the year", adding later, "Black women influence pop culture so much but are rarely awarded for it". Swift thought this was an attack on her and responded angrily (on Twitter, where else?). Other celebrities weighed in on either side of the debate. Columns were duly penned standing up for either Swift or Minaj. So far, so normal.

But where the narrative veered off-track is in how the contretemps ended. A day or so later, Swift sent out a tweet: "I thought I was being called out. I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke. I'm sorry, Nicki." Minutes later, Nicki tweeted back, festooning her reply with little red heart emojis, "That means so much Taylor, thank you."

A misunderstanding. An exchange of barbs. A quick, heartfelt apology, quickly accepted with grace and affection. Don't you wish it always went like this? But the sad truth is that it hardly ever does - both in real life and on the Internet.  And that is because the art of the apology is the hardest ever to master.

Let's take a quick look at Swift's Twitter apology, a master of the genre. She began by explaining how she felt ("I thought I was being called out"). She went on accept how she went wrong ("I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke"). And she ended with two simple words: "I'm sorry."

There was no attempt to dissemble or fudge, to evade responsibility, to lay blame on someone else, or to do that whole mealy-mouthed thing which involves 'regret' rather than an apology. Or even do that non-apology apology that always drives me up the wall and goes along the lines of: "I didn't do anything wrong. But if you think I did, well then I am sorry."

Instead, Taylor Swift accepted that she got it horribly wrong and said a straight-up sorry. And because there is nothing quite so disarming as a heartfelt apology, Nicki Minaj accepted it with equal grace. End of story.

If only all fights -- both in the real and virtual world -- ended this way. But alas, they seldom do. And that's because we seem to have lost the ability to apologise with sincerity and humility.

Instead, when we err, our first instinct is to dig our heels in and defend the indefensible. We insist that we were right all along and the other person is just a big baby who refuses to see reason. If that doesn't work, we fall back on detailing the many instances where the other person has hurt us, implying that he can't complain when he has been equally guilty in the past. When that fails too, then we try that age-old trick called escalation: calling the entire relationship into question just so that we can draw attention away from the one incident which we need to apologise for.

As the song goes, sorry does seem to be the hardest word. But if you are going to say it, then the least you can do is say it right (and, of course, mean it -- though that is not always mandatory!). So, here are the three golden rules to remember when making an apology

1) An apology should never include the word 'but' (as in: "I am sorry but you started this" or "But you do this all the time and I never complain"). If you have done something wrong, if you have hurt someone, or even angered them, then it doesn't matter what went before (or what comes after). You need to say sorry, no ifs and buts allowed.

2) An apology should never be conditional (as in: "If my words pained you then I am sorry that you are hurt"). This implies that it is actually the other person's fault for being so damn hypersensitive in the first place. And that you are so high-minded that you are apologising to make them feel better, even though it is quite clear that you are not at fault.

3) Once you have apologised/been apologised to and the apology has been accepted, treat the matter as closed. Don't bring up the subject again and again, especially when you are feeling aggrieved about something else entirely. Don't use the apology to make the other person feel small, either in private or in public. Turn the page. Close the chapter. And move on.