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

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Big Fat Punjabi wedding

Sometimes the best way to capture its essence is through selfies that capture the most candid moments

Like any other good Punjabi, there is nothing I love more than a Big Fat Punjabi wedding. Over the years, though, my extended Big Fat Family has run through nearly all the marriageable young adults in its ranks. So, you can imagine the excitement and joy when my youngest female cousin announced she had found Mr Right.

If you have ever attended a Punjabi wedding, you will know that it rests on three pillars: food, drink and dancing. And this one was no different. There was lots of food and drink, followed by hours of dancing (I swear if I hear 'Chittyan kalayan' one more time, I will dunk my drink on the deejay) until we all collapsed in a puddle of sweat.

There was one difference, though. Whereas earlier all of us cousins, meeting after other after years in some cases, would have spent our time catching up, sharing each other's news and gossiping about other relatives out of earshot, this time conversation was not part of the equation (perhaps it was down to that loud music we all love so much).

In the place of stories, what we had were selfies. As I scrolled through my phone after the festivities were over, I was struck by how many pictures we had taken of one another and ourselves. There were the obligatory silly-face selfies, the hilarious duck-face versions, and those in which we tried to look our glamorous best in all our wedding finery.

Then began the flurry of mails flying back and forth, as we exchanged pictures, and discussed each one of them. And finally, with a certain inevitability, we posted them on social media and discussed them some more.

I must confess to some perturbation when I dawned on me that I hadn't actually even spoken to some of my relatives properly, so busy was I taking pictures of everything and everyone in sight. But the more I thought about it the better I felt. It wasn't as if I hadn't made connections with the members of my extended family. It was just that I had done it through pictures rather than words.

I guess this is just how we do it these days. And, you know what? It's perfectly fine with me.

Because the conversations and connections the pictures sparked off were way more exciting than any stilted conversation (struggling to be heard over 'Hookah  bar' and 'Radha on the dance floor') at the event itself could have been.

We giggled over the picture an over-enthusiastic photographer took of the backs of one niece and aunt combination, focussing on their backless cholis. We got a little teary-eyed over the candid shots we had taken of the bride as she dressed up for the wedding, all red and gold and glowing with joy. And the pictures of us caught in the most awkward poses on the dance floor provoked much hilarity all the way from Chandigarh to Hyderabad.

But it was the selfies that really captured the essence of the occasion for me. Cuddling together with my assorted nieces and cousins, with everyone contorting themselves to get into the frame, so that we could document the mehendi on our palms, will raise a smile years from now. As will the picture in which our best sultry expressions are effortlessly trumped by my youngest nephew photo-bombing us from the back, sticking his tongue out to indicate what he thought of us silly girls.

Conversations are all well and good when it comes to making connections after years spent apart. But the selfies we took were the perfect aide-memoirs, to keep and cherish after the event, to pull out and chortle over decades later.

Like all weddings, this one too will be immortalised in the official album, done by professional photographers, who will produce perfectly-staged pictures and the most amazing candid, behind-the-scenes shots. And I am sure that it will be lovely to look at and cherished by all of us.

The bride will be beautifully lit and perfectly framed as she walks down the aisle for the jaimala, a sheet of flowers held over her by her brothers. But no matter how perfect this picture, it won't have the same impact as the shot I took of her from the sidelines as she turned to look at me and flash the most mischievous grin, as if only the two of us were party to some delicious secret.

There will be the obligatory family portrait, with all of us, uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, bunched around the happy couple on the stage, smiling awkwardly as we wait for the photographer to get the frame just right.
But no matter how good the official pictures, they won't have the immediacy of the candid shots we took of one another, goofing around at the edge of the ceremonies.

It is those selfies, and the moments they immortalise, that will live on long after the mehendi has faded from our hands, and the newly-
married couple is over the honeymoon stage of the relationship. And when you think about it, that seems just right doesn't it?

After all, what makes a family if not the memories that stitch us together over time and space. If we didn't have those, we wouldn't really be family at all, would we?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The writing is on the wall

The e-book may be here to stay; but the physical book is alive and well, and doing better than ever

So, were the rumours of the death of the physical book greatly exaggerated? You remember them, don’t you? All those articles in the media bemoaning the fact that people were switching over to digital reading devices, and that the sales of actual books were declining year on year. It was inevitable, these doomsdayers assured us, that the book as we know and love it – rustling paper, beautifully crafted covers, and that ineffable smell of print and ink – would soon become a novelty item. Instead all of us would adapt to digital devices and do all our book-reading on one kind of screen (e-readers like Kindle) or another (smartphones and tablets with an e-reader app).

Well, the facts would seem to belie that assertion. According to a recent article in the New York Times, e-book sales fell by 10 per cent in the first five months of 2015 in America. And a Nielson survey showed that the portion of people who read books primarily on an e-reader fell to 32 per cent in the first quarter of 2015 from a high of 50 per cent in 2012.

In the UK, its largest book retailer, Waterstones, announced that it would cease to sell Kindles in its stores, because the sales were ‘pitiful’. It would use the space freed up to display physical paperbacks and hardbacks instead. The move makes sense, given that the sales of physical books in Waterstones rose by 5 per cent in December 2014. The Guardian reported that figures released by Nielson Bookscan showed that sales of print books for the first 36 weeks of 2015 rose by 4.6 per cent when compared to the same period in 2014, the first time such growth had been reported since 2007.

Amazon was quick to read the writing on the bookstore walls. It moved to open its first physical bookstore in November 2015 in Seattle’s University Village neighbourhood (though, of course, there was a designated space for e-readers as well), with the most popular books that week displayed behind the checkout counter. Prominent signs assured customers that the prices in-store were the same as they are on Amazon online, so nobody need fear missing out on a good bargain.

I couldn’t help but smile with quiet satisfaction as I read these stories. It felt good to see that the physical book was pulling its weight in the battle between digital platforms and real-life reading. Except that in my experience, it isn’t so much an either/or situation, but a bit of both.

Speaking for myself, I was a late convert to the pleasures of digital reading. I still don’t own a Kindle but I do have the app on my Ipad. And over the last few years, I have built up quite a library on it, with titles ranging from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (I couldn’t find the physical copy the night I watched the movie; hence the impulse purchase) to all five books of the Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (downloaded before I went on holiday so that I could read those ‘heavy’ tomes without weighing down my suitcase).

But my new-found fondness for the Kindle doesn’t mean that my love affair with the physical book is over. Not by a long measure. I may ‘cheat’ on my first love from time to time, guiltily dipping into the Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazalet Chronicles or my favourite Dorothy L. Sayers mystery late at night, as I read undisturbed on my IPad without disturbing the slumbering household. But after this late-night straying I always slink back home in the light of day, suitably chastened and eager to make amends to my physical read of the moment. Since you ask, it is All The Light We Cannot See, a brilliant book by Anthony Doerr; do pick up a copy or download.

My brain now automatically sorts books between those that I wish to possess physically and those that I am happy to have stored electronically. So, favourite authors like Donna Leon and Daniel Silva are bought in bookstores, and then propped up on my bookshelves to be dipped into as and when I fancy. Books that I am unlikely to want to re-read are downloaded on the Kindle: Jodi Picoult, Robert Galbraith, Harlan Coben, Lee Child are among this list.

Then, there are those authors who enter my life through Kindle and then push their way on to my bookshelves through sheer persistence. I first read Gone Girl on Kindle, but was sufficiently moved to track down and buy physical copies of all the previous books of Gillian Flynn. I discovered Elena Ferrante (the writer not the woman, who still hides behind her pen name and her anonymity) when I downloaded My Brilliant Friend on a whim. But such was the power of the writing that it leapt off the screen and took possession of my nightstand. Since then, I have bought physical copies of all four books of her Neapolitan quartet.

Sometimes this process works in reverse. I discovered Sarah Dunant in print and still treasure the physical book I bought (The Birth of Venus). But the last book (Sacred Hearts) didn’t really resonate, so her latest (Mapping The Edge) has been consigned to my Kindle. Ditto, with Sophie Hannah and Kate Atkinson.

And so it goes, as the e-reader and physical books continue to co-exist happily in my life; as I am sure they do in yours.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Keep it simple

Why do hotels insist on investing in TV systems that their guests find impossible to master?

So, among the list of demands the Rolling Stones lay down when they go on tour these days is that the hotel staff must leave detailed written instructions on how to work the TV system. I couldn't help but laugh when I read this.

How the mighty have fallen! (Or do I mean just grown old?) There was a time when the only use the Rolling Stones had for a TV set was to wreck it completely as they trashed hotel room after hotel room on their many tours around the world.

But now that all of them are either in or approaching their 70s, those days of drugs, sex, and rock and roll are long gone. Now it's just rock and roll, and a few hours of downtime in front of the television, watching the news or their favourite series, or maybe even a bit of sport, to calm down after the adrenalin rush of playing large stadiums full of roaring fans.

You can just picture it, can't you? Mick Jagger comes back to his hotel room, all hot and sweaty, having done his best Tina Turner impression yet.  His slips into the shower (avert your eyes discreetly now!), comes out in his bathrobe, and picks up the remote hoping to catch the news on the BBC.

The TV comes on. But instead of showing one of the channels, it says Menu, with a bewildering array of options listed underneath. He finally scrolls down to TV and presses what he thinks is 'Ok' on his remote. Nothing happens for a few excruciating minutes. The the TV begins to show him all the movies that he can order and charge to his room. He presses 'Exit'. Nothing happens.

By now I am guessing that Mick is ready to revert to his bad old days and trash the TV along with the room. But he draws on the restraint his 70-plus years on the planet have taught him, picks up the phone and asks for some help. A few minutes later, a young whippersnapper arrives in the room, supercilious contempt writ large all over his face, and shows the mighty Stone just how it's done.

It is at this point in my fantasy that I stop chortling and start steaming. Because the scene I have just described is exactly what happens to me in four hotels out of five on my travels.

It seems to me that the golden rule of hoteliering is that the more fancy the TV system, the more difficult it will be to navigate. I last encountered one such system a week ago at a very swanky hotel, which was perfect in all respects but the TV technology.

The television system was controlled through an Ipad that seemed to have a mind of its own. It took me a good ten minutes before I could crawl through all the clutter of options to access the TV channels to watch a bit of news.

Later that night, as I settled down to watch a DVD before going to bed, I came up against an unexpected obstacle. I could not find the DVD player.

And yet, I knew that it did exist, given that its remote control was lying right in front of me. I looked high and low, opening drawer after drawer of the TV console. But no luck.

After 10 minutes of this fruitless search, I finally gave up and called for help. A smiling young lady arrived a few minutes later. I explained that I could not find the DVD player. Ah, she said, walking across to the writing table in the opposite corner of the room, and opening the bottom drawer, "Here it is!"

And how would I operate it from the couch in front of the television, I asked. I could hardly jog across the room every time I wanted to press pause.

Oh, you don't need to do that, she said. In fact, you don't even need to use the remote control at all. You can just operate it with the Ipad from anywhere in the room.

With the same IPad that had driven me insane an hour ago? No thanks. I made my excuses and went to bed with a book.

So, why do you think hotels do this? What is the point of investing millions in a TV system that just drives your guests bonkers every time they try and use it. Any system that requires someone to give you a 20-minute tutorial on how to operate it, is simply not the best choice for a hotel chain. (Their guests really do have better things to do than try and master a system that they will only use for a couple of days.)

At the end of a long day, when you are looking forward to unwind by watching an episode of The Good Wife or the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the last thing you want is to have to summon help to get the TV working (especially since, more often than not, help will arrive long after your show is over). And that is just as true of us ordinary mortals as it is of the Rolling Stones.

So, Sir Mick, sorry about taking the mickey out of you. "Detailed written instructions on how to use the television system" sounds just about right to me.