About Me

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

End of a chapter

As the year winds to a close, it’s time to update that reading list

The one thing that is as certain as one year bleeding into another, isthat it will be accompanied by a profusion of lists. You know the kind I mean, don’t you? The kind that crop up in every newspaper and magazine, on every news and gossip website, or even on TV entertainment shows, as everyone tries to sum up the year that has gone by in short, sweet listicles.

So, you’ll have Top Ten Business Personalities jostling for space with The Best Hip-Hop Albums of the year. There will be a list of natural calamities fighting for attention alongside one that cites the
political disasters of the year. And so on and on and on.

But for me, this is a time to take stock of what I read over the last one year, which new authors I discovered, which old favourites made a comeback, and which ones made the cut for the list of My Favourite Books of the Year. So, here they are, in no particular order of

•       Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult: As is always the case with Picoult, this book has at its heart a very human story. A white supremacist couple has a baby at a hospital where African-American nurse, Ruby Jefferson, has worked for 20 hours. They insist that she is not to touch their baby, and the hospital puts that instruction on the file. But when the baby suffers a medical emergency, the only person in the room is Ruby. How she reacts in that moment and the chain of events that follow give us an insight into race relations in America, a ringside view of the legal system, and how lives can turn on an instant.

•       Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz: The author has already paid homage at the shrine of Sherlock Holmes, with A House of Silk. With Magpie Murders, he worships at the altar of Agatha Christie, the queen of the whodunit genre. But the conceit with Magpie Murders is that it comes in the form of a book within a book, with each story as enthralling as the other. There is the bucolic setting, the country-house murder, a slew of suspects and a generous supply of red herrings. In other words, classic Christie territory with just a dash of Horowitz. You can’t go wrong with this one.

•       Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante: If, like me, you have devoured every word that Ferrante has ever written and are hungry for more, delve deep into this book that compiles all her letters, interviews, emails to give us a deeper perspective into what makes Ferrante the brilliant writer that she is. Best read alongside the books she refers to so that you can actually see how a writer’s mind works its magic on the page. And no, it doesn’t tell you who Elena Ferrante ‘really’ is; because all you need to know is that she ‘is’ Elena Ferrante.

•       Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen: If The Boss’ songs have been the soundtrack to your life, you will love this book, which gives you the backstory and context to so many of his greatest hits. But the bits that resonated the most with me from this excellent autobiography are the parts where Springsteen deals with his depression, his complicated relationship with his father and growing up working class in America.

•       I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh: The beauty of this book resides in the mother of all plot twists. It opens with a hit-and-run accident that kills a five-year-old child, whose mother let go of his hand for only a second, and everything follows from that tragedy. I am not going to post any spoilers but suffice it to say that when things turn on their head, you will ask yourself how you could have got hoodwinked so completely. Well, that’s because Mackintosh is a master at her game, even though this is only her debut novel.

•       Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz: If you love the Jack Reacher or the Jason Bourne series, like I do, then you will enjoy this fast-paced thriller. The hero, Orphan X – so called because he was the 24th person to be inducted into The Orphan program (after the 24th letter of the alphabet, X) that turned boys like him into killers for the government – has travelled the world executing people on behalf of his country. But what happens now that the program has been shut down, and he has been cut loose? Well, I’ll leave that for you to find out; but you can be sure that there won’t be many dull moments.

•       Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder: This one is a bit of cheat, because I first read it when the first English translation came out in 1994. But I went back to it this year, plucking it out of my
bookshelves on an impulse, and before I knew it, I was down that rabbit-hole again. This is described as a novel about the history of philosophy but it is so much more than that. It is a guided tour through the mysteries of the human mind. And even after all these years, there hasn’t been another book quite like this one. If you still haven’t read it, clear a couple of days on your calendar and dive in.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

High flier

We all take them at one time or another; but how do you survive a long-haul flight?

I have always deeply envied those people who can get on an airplane, buckle themselves into their seat, and drop into a deep sleep that is broken only with the impact of the plane landing at their destination. How do they do that, I wonder, as I lie awake with the background noise of their gentle snores wafting around me. How can they possibly be so relaxed that they can nod off even before the seat-belt sign has been switched off? How is it possible that the noise of that wailing child or the hustle and bustle of the dinner/lunch service does not rouse them from their slumber?

What exactly are these people made of? Well, they are certainly made of sterner stuff than me. Despite the long decades I have spent racking up frequent-flyer miles, I have yet to master the art of sleeping through a flight. Sometimes when I am desperate to catch a few winks, I scoff a couple of glasses of champagne and lie back and hope for the best. But no, the best I can manage is an hour or so of fitful sleep before I am wide awake once again -- and now a little sore in my head for good measure.

But what all this wakefulness has meant is that I have developed some sure-shot measures of surviving long-haul flights over the years. And this Sunday morning, having just got off a 16-hour non-stop flight from San Francisco, I am going to share some of them with you:

* Try and create your own personal bubble on the airplane. I know, it's tough (and impossible if you are travelling with kids) but give it a try. The first step in this process is slipping on your noise-cancelling headphones -- buy the expensive ones; they will more than pay for themselves in the long term -- if you don't intend to watch a movie or listen to music. Not only will this insulate you from the noise in the cabin, it will also deter the man/woman in the next seat from engaging you in dreary conversation for hours on end.

* Don't depend on the in-flight entertainment provided by the airline; all too often it consists of old releases and TV series that are a couple of seasons past their see-by date. Instead, download a couple of movies or TV shows that you would really like to watch on your iPad or tablet. If movies aren't your thing, then pack a good book or two. Or do what I do to keep my hand luggage at a minimum: download the latest bestsellers on your e-reader -- there really is nothing like a long flight to catch up on your reading, without any fear of interruption. (The added advantage of e-readers is that they don't strain your eyes the way reading fine print in the less than ideal illumination provided by the overhead lights does.)

* Extend the idea of customisation to your clothes as well. Even if you are travelling in Business Class, where you will be handed a pair of socks and an eye-mask as part of the service, do your own thing. Pack a pair of cashmere socks and a cozy cardigan to slip on once the air-conditioning hits Arctic levels. I always say no to the airline blanket (mostly because nearly all of them, no matter which the airline, set off my allergies) and carry an oversized pashmina shawl instead. You have no idea how comforting it feels against my skin as I settle down to read the latest Elizabeth George on my Kindle.

* And yes, shoes. Shoes are the key. I have always looked at those ladies who think nothing of negotiating airports and airplanes in four-inch heels with a mixture of awe and pity. But believe me, you do not want to be one of those women. So, step away from the stilettos and wedges and slip on a pair of comfortable shoes. Make sure they are a loose fit because your feet are guaranteed to swell up during the plane ride, and squeezing them into shoes that suddenly seem a size too small is nobody's idea of fun.

* I think we can all agree that airline food is dire. Which is why I try and avoid eating on planes as much as possible. But what do you do on a flight that lasts more than nine hours? Starvation is not an option; at least not for someone like me who likes her food. And nor is packing parathas or theplas -- just too much of a palaver, if you ask me. So, I use this time to indulge in all those guilt-inducing treats that I would normally eschew on terra firma: bags of Kettle chips; snack-sized bars of Snickers; buttery salted popcorn; and tubs of ice-cream if the airline is kind enough to serve it.

* 'Stay hydrated' is the mantra that all air-hostesses follow. And I guess they know a thing or two about surviving long-haul flights without looking like complete wrecks at the end of it. So, drinks lots of water, spray some of it on your face, and slather on the moisturising cream.

* And last, but not the least, never forget to pack a pair of killer sunglasses. That way, when you step off at the other end, all bleary-eyed and puffy-faced, you can slip them on and look glamorous -- even if you don't quite feel it.

Counting my blessings

It's only when you begin to give thanks do you realise how much you have to be thankful for

I have always been slightly leery of our Indian tendency to adopt every festival from around the world and make it our own. Growing up, I wasn't even aware of something called Valentine's Day. But by the time I had attained adulthood, 14 February was a full-blown festival of love, complete with red roses, strawberries, pink champagne, guff-filled greeting cards and the obligatory, over-priced, romantic dinner for two.

More recently, I have been appalled to see that Halloween has become A Big Thing in India. Kids of a certain socio-economic class across the country have taken to dressing like witches, clowns, superheroes and what-have-you and trawling their up-market neighbourhoods pan-handling for sweets. Quite frankly, I find the whole thing preposterous in the extreme. But, as they don't say, to each their own version of cultural appropriation.

But last week, while travelling on the West Coast, I finally found an American festival I could get on board with: Thanksgiving. We spent it at the home of a friend, the most generous of hosts (here's looking at you, Ash!) and spent a total of three hours at a table groaning with food and drink of every description. The adults sat and ate while the kids ran around, being periodically chased down to be force-fed a morsel or two. And then we ended by sharing with one another what each of us had to be thankful for.

That's what got me thinking: why is it that we so rarely stop to count our blessings? Instead we seem to spend all our time complaining: about the government, the state of the economy, demonetisation, our children's bad grades, bad bosses, and mothers-in-law from hell.

We are constantly bemoaning all that is hateful about our lives and the world in which we live them. So, it seems like a brilliant idea to set one day aside on which we stop and think about what we are thankful for -- and give thanks for it.

So, it is in that spirit that I am making a short list of all the things that I am thankful for:

* My last-minute decision, made decades ago in the teeth of opposition from my parents, to turn down a job in the civil services (after clearing all the exams and the interviews; and the medical test) to stay on in the magazine job I had taken on as a stop-gap. It was a leap of faith but one that has served me well. Instead of a desk-bound life devoted to paper-pushing as a bureaucrat, I have had some of the most amazing experiences as a journalist. Over the years, I have interviewed Prime Ministers, travelled with Presidents, profiled film and sports stars, covered General Elections, and visited places that I hadn't even heard of growing up. And I have journalism to thank for all of it.

* I am thankful for the loyalty of friends. I haven't made too many, and sadly I have lost touch with a few with the passage of years. But while I have lost out in quantity, I have more than made up in quality. These women (and yes, they are mostly women) whom I am proud to call friends, are always there for me, listening to me vent, having my back when I need them, chivvying me up when I am low, and cheering me on in all circumstances. I really don't know where I would be without them.

* I am grateful for the fact that my extended family keeps extending in ever-increasing circles as I grow older. There are the cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles that I have accumulated through marriage, who have welcomed me into their lives. And then, there is my own blood family that is always expanding with the inclusion of new members, with weddings and births breathing in new life and love into our tight circle.

* I give thanks every day for the fact that both my parents passed without suffering. They died 26 years apart but in eerily identical ways. They got up one morning, had their baths, did their Puja, then went and lay down in bed -- and never woke up. Both times, the news came as a huge shock. And it took me time to come to terms with the loss. But now, overlaid with my sorrow is the hope that when my time comes, I would be just as fortunate. Now, that would be truly something to be grateful for.

* But more than anything, I am thankful for the opportunity I have had, for so many years, to speak to all of you, week after week, baring my inner-most thoughts and feelings. It feels good to share, and it feels even better when I hear back from you, sparking off some of the best conversations of my life. It is rare privilege to be able to do so, and I am grateful for it every day.

So now, even if you didn't celebrate it, I am thankful for the chance to wish all of you a happy, albeit belated, Thanksgiving. Stay blessed -- and remember to take the time to count your blessings.

Winter is coming...

And I, for one, can’t wait to make the most of it

There is something magical about this time of year. The mornings start off with a mysterious mist, the evenings get a bit nippy, and basking in the sun becomes a real option rather than an ordeal to be endured. As George RR Martin would say, “Winter is coming.” But unlike Sansa Stark, I could not be happier about its arrival.

This has always been my favourite part of the year. Growing up in Calcutta, we didn’t have much of a winter to look forward to. Yes, the days turned pleasant and a few nights were chilly enough to warrant the annual airing of our sweaters and shawls. But we still prepared for the season on a war footing.

Trunks of winterwear would be disgorged to awaken from their deep hibernation in the afternoon sun. Velvet coats, wool sweaters, pashmina shawls would be piled high on top of satin quilts on a sheet laid out on the verandah. And I still have vivid memories of rolling around on the pile, inhaling the smell of mothballs and marveling at how soft and sensuous (even though I didn’t know the word yet) the velvets and silks felt.

Winter would announce its arrival in other areas of the house as well. Pears glycerine soap would appear in place of Cinthol bars in the bathroom. The enticing smell of sarson ka saag would start emanating from the kitchen. White butter would make its appearance on our plates along with the mandatory makki di roti. And every morning, the gannawallah would stop by to sell us neatly-sliced sticks of sugarcane, and we would sit in the sunshine contentedly chewing cud all day long.

But I never really got a taste of real winter until I moved to Delhi as an adult. Working for a newspaper, all my budget ran to was a barsati, but much to my delight it came with a sprawling terrace, where I set up some wrought-iron furniture in the fond hope that I would spend my winter afternoons sunning myself like a cat that had had all the cream (or, in my case, desi ghee).

And yes, I did spend some splendid afternoons, curled up with a book, a steaming cup of coffee close at hand, enjoying the crisp beauty of a Delhi winter. But what I hadn’t bargained for was the cold.

The moment the sun went down and the wind started up, the thin roof of the barsati wasn’t much of a defence against the searing cold. And no matter how many layers I wore to bed or how many quilts I piled up on the bed, I was never really warm despite the heater valiantly dispensing a steady stream of hot air in one corner. And thus began my habit – that persists to this day; despite the fact that my bedroom is now warm and toasty thanks to an oil-based radiator – of going to bed with a hot-water bottle (which had the added advantage of making me feel like a character in an Agatha Christie murder mystery).

But despite all these minor inconveniences, I loved the Delhi winter. And I loved Delhi in the winter. The central roundabouts ablaze with purple petunias, red salvia, and chrysanthemums that covered the entire range of the colour spectrum. The subtle beauty of the flowering Alstonia tree. The smell of freshly-roasted peanuts being sold at street-side stalls. The sweetly-astringent taste of the first oranges of the season. The festive barbeques my friends set up in their backyards and front lawns. The bonfires around which we gathered as the temperatures dropped even further. I loved it all.

And yes, decades later, my love for the Delhi winter remains undimmed. In a recreation of long-gone childhood rituals, I still tip out all my winterwear to give it a good airing in the sun (though I stop my inner child from rolling around in it). I change my skincare regime in a nod to the season of chapped lips and cracked heels. I start my annual hunt for the tights and stockings put away after the last winter, before giving up the chase and buying a new lot – which I know I will inevitably lose by the next winter. And I carefully stagger my travel plans so that I don’t miss too many days of Delhi winter, because sadly, it is over in the blink of an eye.

How do I make the most of the season, you ask?

Well, let me count the ways. I schedule all my lunches – business and otherwise – in open-air restaurants so that I can make the most of sunny afternoons. Instead of staying cooped up in the gym, I go for long walks in Lodi Gardens (the flowering verges are a bonus). And I stock up on all my favourite winter treats – peanut chikki is my own Kryptonite – squirrelling them away for a chilly day spent in bed.

But most of all, I long for the barsati that was my first home in Delhi. It has long since been pulled down to make way for an international bank and a fashion design outlet, as part of the commercialization of that part of Defence Colony. Nevertheless, every time I drive past, I am reminded of lazy afternoons past, and boozy dinner parties that made up my misspent youth. And that chill that never quite went away from my bones during that entire season.

And I am reminded once again why I fell in love with the Delhi winter. And I fall in love with Delhi in winter a little bit more.

The Great Escape

When the world gets too much to bear, it’s time to retreat to your ‘happy place’

Yes, I know exactly how you feel. It seems like the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. And you don’t know how you’re going to get through the next month, the next year, let alone the rest of your life.

You’ve spent days trying to live off the loose change you’ve scrounged from around the house. Or you spent endless hours queuing at the bank or at an ATM to get access to your own money. Donald Trump (Donald Trump!) is the new President of the United States. Leonard Cohen died. The list of misfortunes and tragedies seems endless.

So how do we survive in this world, which has begun to seem like such a nasty, brutish place?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I try and do so by going to my ‘happy place’. Which is often not a place at all but a state of mind I achieve by doing what pleases me best.

Here are just some of the things I have been doing over the last week or so to achieve ‘happy place’ status.

·       If you can’t stand the heat, get back in to the kitchen: There is something therapeutic about stirring a pot of rice on the stove to make a comforting risotto for dinner. Or carefully measuring out the ingredients of a gooey chocolate cake and concentrating on getting the mixture just right. Or even using the first meethi of the season to make theplas for breakfast. If all this seems like too much work to you, then crack open a few eggs, add a dash of double cream, salt, pepper, herbs, and stir slowly over very low heat. Pile the mixture on to hot, buttered toast. The world’s troubles will recede with every mouthful.

·       Get lost in the pages of an old book: There is nothing like comfort reading to make you feel better about yourself and the state of the world. And when the horrors of the world threaten to overwhelm, I retreat to the books of my childhood. I just finished re-reading Black Beauty, a birthday present from a young friend who knows me too well. And now I have started on Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series, in the hope that the adventures of Darrell Rivers and gang will keep me from obsessing over President Trump (yes, yes, I know he’s not my President; but that doesn’t make it any easier). Word of caution: may be a good idea to stay away from the Harry Potter series. All those Voldemort references might come crashing back.

·       Out of the mouths of babes: Spend time with children. Read them stories. Listen to what they got up to in school. Ask them to tell you the latest jokes they heard in class. Get them to share their worries and fears; if nothing else, that will put your worries and fears in perspective. If you don’t have any kids of your own, don’t worry. This is an emergency and you are allowed to borrow them from friends and family. There is nothing like listening to the inconsequential chatter that emerges from children to make you forget the cares of the grown-up universe. (Note: if there are no children handy, just head for the nearest park and watch the kids at play. Their screams and shouts of pleasure will make you feel better about the state of the world.)

·       Schedule a digital detox: If you can’t stay offline during the day because of the nature of your work, that’s fine. But once you get home, put away the smartphone and tune out the constant chatter of the outside world. Don’t peek in to review your friends’ status updates on Facebook. Don’t keep trawling twitter to see (and outrage about) what’s happening in the world. Don’t even check into Instagram to see those carefully-filtered images of perfectly-curated lives. Let the outside world fade away while you listen to music, read a book, or just talk to your loved ones.

·       Watch re-runs of your favourite feel-good TV shows: My own go-to show when depressed is Friends, which I have now seen so many times that I know entire episodes by heart. Modern Family, with its blended families and cute kids, serves as another emotional retreat. And of late, I have taken to binge-watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix as well, while sneaking in a few episodes of Will and Grace. There is certain comfort in retreating to a parallel universe where nothing really bad happens; and there are no nasty surprises because you know exactly what’s coming next.

Well, that’s just a small sample of the many things I did to try and stay sane while the world seemed to run mad. But if none of them work for you, then you could always go to your actual ‘happy place’ and recover your equilibrium. Walk down the flower-edged paths of your favourite park. Take a day trip to the beach with a picnic basket of your favourite treats. Or retreat to the mountains for a weekend of quiet and calm.

And take comfort in the thought that whatever happens, the sun will rise again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. It may seem like the world has ended; but you will soon discover that the reports of its demise were vastly exaggerated.

Bully for you!

How to deal with the hotbed of hatred that goes by the name of the Internet

Cyber bullying has been much in the news of late. And it spawned a fresh set of stories after the wife of the Republican contender for the US Presidency, Melania Trump, gave a robotic stump speech to announce that she would work on combatting cyber bullying if she ever became First Lady. Once we had stopped pointing and laughing -- and asking her if she had ever met her husband, the Insulter-In-Chief, Donald Trump -- it was difficult to disagree with the substance of what Melania said.

You only have to spend ten minutes on the Internet to realise what a hotbed of hatred it has become. Clearly the anonymity that the net offers does something strange to people. It brings forth their worst instincts. It encourages them to spew abuse and insults from their safe havens in front of their keyboards. It turns otherwise rational and sane human beings into a raging mob spitting expletives and vomiting bile. It makes them think nothing of throwing stuff at you that they would never dream of saying to your face.

So, yes, Melania had it right when she spoke about how "We have to find a better way to talk to one another, to disagree with each other, to respect each other."

But she is quite the wrong messenger to put out this message. After all, every night she lies down to sleep beside Donald Trump, who is prone to go on vicious tweet storms in the early hours of the morning, asking people to check out (non-existent) sex tapes of former Miss Universe, Alicia Machado. So if Melania really wants to fight cyber bullying then she should start with the bully snoring gently next to her. Confiscating his phone and deleting his Twitter account would be a good start.

But I am guessing that is not going to happen any time soon. And even if we try and take comfort in the hope that after November 8 we won't have to bother very much about what Donald Trump has to say (am writing this before America goes to the polls, so knock wood) cyber bullying will still be a clear and present danger.

Like most women who have an online presence I have been subjected to my fair share of cyber bullying over the years. The abuses remained much the same. They were always some variation on calling me a 'prostitute', wishing that I would be 'raped' (except that I was too unattractive for any man to bother), calling me fat or ugly (or both), ah well, you get the drift. But over time my way of coping with the steady stream of vitriol did evolve and change.

My initial response to all the sexist abuse on such platforms as Twitter was to hit back hard. I would reply to every abusive tweet and tie myself up in futile exchanges that did nothing other than exasperate, infuriate, and even debilitate me. After a few months of this, I realised that what they say about wrestling with pigs is true: you both get dirty but only the pig enjoys it.

All I was really doing with my instant responses and cutting repartee was feeding the beast. I was just encouraging bad behaviour instead of cutting it off. I was giving cyber bullies the space to function and thrive instead of cutting off their oxygen supply.

So, I decided to change tack. Now, instead of replying to these angry cyber warriors I would just draw attention to their illiterate rants in a suitably high-minded manner. Thus began a brief phase when I would retweet the most vile tweets with a pithy comment like "Your mother would be so proud of you". The hope was to name and shame the most vicious offenders so that they thought twice about using language like this again.

I know, silly me. What was I thinking? All I did achieve by retweeting the messages of these trolls, who sometimes had less than a hundred followers, was allow them access to a larger audience on my timeline. And boy, did they revel in the attention this got them!

It was time to roll out another strategy -- and this one has served me well to this day. It's called Zero Tolerance. I block anyone who is abusive towards me. I block those who bully and abuse others. I block those who spout communal nonsense on my timeline. I block those who retweet this kind of nonsense. It is an endless process; block a dozen trolls and a hundred others spring forth to take their place. But despite the occasional moments of despair, I keep at it.

Is it a viable solution to cyber bullying? Of course not. But it is a good start to keeping cyber bullies out of my space. My logic is simple: I would not tolerate this kind of behaviour from people in real life; so why should I tolerate it on the Net? Anyone who behaved like that in my home would not be invited back. So, why would I allow such louts on my timeline, which is my virtual drawing room?

Which is why I don't have much use for Melania Trump's claims of combatting cyber bullying. If she can't deal with the bully in her bed, what hope is there for her taking on those hiding in the dark shadows of the Net?


Friday, November 11, 2016

Mid-life crisis?

No, it’s not that bad; but this may be the time to ring in some changes

There is something to be said about multiculturalism. For one thing, it allows me to celebrate New Year thrice every year. There’s the regular New Year on the 1st of January, when I party along with the rest of the world. There’s the Baisakhi New Year in April that I get to enjoy because I was born into a Punjabi family. And now, there’s also Diwali, which is celebrated as New Year by Gujaratis, a community I belong to by marriage.

This Diwali, though, as I did my puja, praying to Ma Lakshmi for prosperity, I realized with a start that I have more New Years behind me than I have New Years to look forward to. Without even realizing it, I have tipped beyond the halfway point in my life. And from now on, I’m going to be counting down rather than adding up.

Yes, like Bill Clinton said so memorably at the Democratic National Convention, I too have more yesterdays than tomorrows.

But while I am not in the throes of a mid-life crisis quite yet (well, I think so; my friends and family may well disagree), I have come to the realization that time is not on my side. In fact, it is the enemy, racing past even as I struggle to play catch up.

So, from this year on, my motto is that immortal line that has stayed with me since my days as a student of English literature: ‘Carpe diem’. Seize the day. Make the most of every moment because it will be over before you know it.

As is my wont at such times, I began by making a list of all the things I should and should not do to get the most out of the days, weeks, months and New Years I have left. Here is a small sampling:

·       No more revisiting of favourite destinations. I’ve been there and done that. There is an entire world out there to explore. And I should do it while I can still explore – as in walk on my own two feet without the aid of a Zimmer frame. London and New York will still be there when I am old and decrepit. But I may not be able to do justice to the mountains of Switzerland and the beaches of Croatia when I need to stop and catch my breath every 10 minutes.
·       Sit right down on my desk and write that book. No more procrastinating. No more endless revision of chapters that I have written already. No more displacement activity masquerading as ‘research’. No more endless trawling of the Internet. No more excuses about lack of time or mind-space. It is time to sprint to the finish line. And when I’m done with the book I’m currently working on, it will be time to pick right up where I left off the novel I abandoned three quarters of the way through.
·       Prune that reading list. Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that I no longer have the time to waste on airport bestsellers and other junk reads. From now on, I will only invest time in authors whom I love and books that show potential. And no more feeling like a failure because I can’t finish a book – if that is a failing, then it is the author’s, not mine. (Also, if I intend to re-read the classics that I last studied in college – just to see if they speak differently to me – then I need to get on with it. Middlemarch awaits…)
·       No to endless socializing with people I don’t even particularly care for. No to large parties where no conversation is possible (mostly because you have nothing to say to fellow guests). Yes to small dinner parties with friends and prospective friends, where we can actually hear ourselves talk and listen to those speaking to us.
·       Declutter my life: not just of things that no longer bring me joy but also of people who only bring me down. A ruthless cull is in order, so that I can both simplify and sanitize my life. By the end, I hope to be left with a pared-down existence that allows me to appreciate what I have rather than bemoan what I don’t.
·       No more taking health and fitness for granted. From now on, sadly, it will be a slippery slope downhill. And the only way to make a controlled glide down is to invest time and energy in eating well and exercising right.
·       Ah no, you misunderstand. That doesn’t mean I am going to survive on salads and soups and turn away from dessert. Life is too short to eat rabbit food. Or to drink water rather than wine. But it will get shorter if I forget that magic word: moderation. So, I’m going to keep repeating it to myself in the hope that it sticks even when that pesky memory loss kicks in.

So, that is my magic formula for getting through the rest of my days. Read, write, travel, play. And yes, eat, drink and be merry…Well, you know how that one goes.

And a belated (or early) Happy New Year to you all, whichever one you choose to celebrate.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Eat, Pray, Love

Let's mark Diwali as a Festival of Lights, not a Celebration of Excess

My childhood memories of Diwali revolve around (no, not shopping, crackers or mithai) cleaning. Yes, you read that right: cleaning. As a child I rapidly came to recognize that the first sign that the Festival of Lights was around the corner was that industrial-scale cleaning would commence in the Goswami household.

Entire rooms would be cleared out so that they could be washed and swabbed and swept until the floor was clean enough to eat off. The 'special crockery' that lived in the cupboard all year long, and was never used for fear of breakage, would be brought out ceremonially to be given a good scrubbing before it went right back on the shelves. The silver would be polished, the bronze given a good seeing-to. And all the Gods and Goddesses that presided over the Puja room would be ritually bathed and clad in brand-new clothes.

All of this was, of course, a communal activity, with the entire household pitching in to do their bit. Even the kids who were too young to be of much help would be handed a dusting cloth and sent forth to do their best.

I know it doesn't sound like it, but it was enormous fun. So much so that even now, when the weather starts to change and the air begins to hint at Diwali, my thoughts go back to my childhood home in Calcutta and our annual Diwali clean-out. I flash back to the vision of all the household furniture piled up high in the verandah to be given a little lick and polish, while the rooms were flushed of the dust accumulated in corners over the year. Which perhaps explains why to this day, to me, nothing says Diwali like the smell of soap-suds and bleach.

Growing up, it was made abundantly clear to me that it was only after the house was squeaky clean -- and sparkling enough to pass inspection by Ma Lakshmi -- that the task of celebrating Diwali could begin.

Of course, it was a different Diwali in those days. For one thing, communities were more integrated, and not only did we know the names of all our neighbors, we also thought nothing of dropping in on them unannounced. In fact, we weren't just in and out of each other's houses, anybody who was around at mealtimes would be asked to tuck in as well (and even expected to help clear up!).

Not surprisingly, Diwali also used to be a more communal (in the positive sense) affair. Kids would pool their resources to buy crackers and then get together in the evening to set them off while the entire neighborhood watched. Card games were more laid-back, with low stakes so that nobody could lose a fortune no matter how hard they tried. And it was enough to take a box of mithai to the neighbors to wish them Happy Diwali; you didn't need to put together an extravagant hamper full of luxury chocolates, wine, whiskey or cheese.

But as you may have noticed, things are very different these days. Instead of a home-style festival focused on family, friends and feasting, Diwali has been turned into a celebration of conspicuous consumption.

On Dhanteras it is not enough to buy something useful for the kitchen. No, the ads tell us that it is imperative to splash out on some gold. It is not enough to just buy one new outfit for the Diwali day itself. No, you must invest in a whole new wardrobe so that you never repeat a dress as you make the rounds of the endless 'card parties' that precede Diwali. It is not enough to just light up the house with diyas on the day of Diwali. No, you must get garish lights hung on the facade of your house for weeks on end to properly get into the 'festive spirit'.

Well, even though I have made my peace with the modern, more mercenary Diwali, sending out and receiving hampers with the best of them (keeping up with the Junejas, as I like to call it) there are times when I find myself longing to go back to a simpler time. A time when Diwali was truly a Festival of Lights not a Celebration of Excess. A time when we worshipped the Goddess of wealth instead of just spreading our wealth around.

So this year round, I made a resolution. I would try my best to recreate the spirit of the Diwalis of my childhood and teenage years. Here's a tiny little sampler of how I went about it.

* No to electric lights. Yes to earthen oil-filled diyas with homemade cotton wicks. (If that seems much too fiddly to you, go with beeswax candles.)

* No to heavy-duty hampers that take in everything from macaroons to Darjeeling tea to premium champagne. Yes to eco-friendly gifts like potted plants which will flourish and grow rather than be consumed and forgotten.

* No to splurging on household goods that I don't need (and scarcely have the space for). Yes to taking a collection of goodies and presents to the local orphanage and seeing the kids' eyes light up.

And, on the cheerful note, here's wishing all of you a very Happy Diwali. Stay blessed.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The concept of consent

The Donald Trumps in all our lives simply don't get it

Like everyone else on the planet, I have an opinion on the US election. And yes, you're right, if I had a vote, it would go to Hillary Clinton. Because, you know, the other guy is a sexist, misogynist, self-confessed serial groper.

We all knew this stuff about Donald Trump anyway. So why did every woman across the globe have such a visceral response to his words on that infamous Access Hollywood tape? Why did they send a shiver up our collective spine? Why did First Lady Michelle Obama confess that it shook her 'to my core'?

Why did all women take the Donald Trump tape so personally?

Well, because all of us have had a Donald Trump rub up against us -- quite literally -- at one time or another.

The truth is that if you are a woman - no matter what shape, size or colour you may be, or where in the world you grew up - you will have come up against a Donald Trump at some point in your life. Or even several Donald Trumps at different points in your life.

The uncle whose 'cuddles' always made you feel uncomfortable as a child but you couldn't figure out why until you were all grown up. The neighbour who regularly brushed up against you on the common stairwell and didn't even bother to look apologetic. The faceless man who felt you up on a crowded bus, his marauding hands all over your body. The boys who stood at the street corner to shout out loud comments about parts of your body and what they would like to do with them. The work colleague always 'accidentally' touching parts of your anatomy that should remain inviolate. The boss whose eyes undressed you every time you walked into his office.

We have all known these men, these Donald Trumps, who feel entitled to grab a woman, kiss her, molest her, objectify her, treat her like a piece of meat rather than a human being. Because even in the 21st century, the medieval, feudal concept of 'droit du seigneur' -- the right of powerful men to make free with a woman's body without her consent -- is still kicking ass and grabbing female genitalia with complete insouciance.

What that Donald Trump tape did was to bring back to all women every buried memory of being violated, of having their bodily integrity breached, of being treated with disrespect, of being reduced to a sex object, of having sexual assault 'normalized' in social discourse. That was why it felt so personal.

Small wonder then that it inspired such Twitter hashtags as #NotOkay started by Canadian author Kelly Oxford, who shared four stories of her own experiences with sexual assault and encouraged other women to speak up. In less than a week, Oxford tweeted later, 30 million people had read or contributed to the #NotOkay stories while a million women had shared their stories over the course of one night alone.

But for every woman sharing her story, there were probably ten others who remained silent about past assaults on their bodies. And there was another Twitter hashtag that explained why: #WhyWomenDontReport.

Not that any woman needed that explained to her. We know all the myriad reasons women don't report sexual assault all too well: because we are embarrassed, ashamed, afraid of creating waves, terrified of being disbelieved, and mortified at the thought of being known ever after as 'that girl'.

It seems so much easier to just brush it off as just another drawback of being a woman in a man's world, to shrug it away as one of those things that women have to 'deal' with and carry on with our lives. Because if you started complaining about every such event, you probably wouldn't have the time or energy to do much else.

The more important question is why men commit sexual assault. Why do they feel entitled to feast on our body parts? And why do believe that they can get away with it?

Well the short answer is because they can. And they do. Time and time again. And one of the reasons they get away with it again and again is that women are too ashamed, too humiliated, too traumatised to call them out on it.

And because they know that even if we do, we will not be believed but blamed. What were you doing there? What were you wearing? Did you lead him on? How much had you drunk? Why were you alone with him? How come you were out so late at night? Why are you speaking up now? Why didn't you complain at the time? Why didn't you try to fight him off?

Why? Why? Why?

The questions pile up until the accuser ends up feeling like the accused. And she starts to believe that she would have been better off if she'd just shut up and put up.

Well, you know what. It is time to tell her that that's #ItsOkay to speak up. And to listen hard when she does.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Face off

Why the unmasking of Elena Ferrante makes us all so uncomfortable

It was in the February of this year that I last wrote about Elena Ferrante. The English translations of her books were being launched in India, and it seemed as good an opportunity as any to write about one of my favourite authors.

The central theme of that column was how it helped that we didn’t know who Elena Ferrante actually was when we got lost in her fictional world. And how the author’s decision to hide behind pseudonymous anonymity was not just a writer’s caprice or a brilliant publicity stunt set up by her publishing house. Ferrante’s anonymity had a purpose: it allowed her the freedom to write about stuff that we struggle to acknowledge to ourselves, let alone say aloud to the world. And it was this liberty that allowed her voice to soar as high as it did; and to speak to the rest of us.

Well, today it is my unhappy duty to inform you that the veil of anonymity that Ferrante wrote behind has been rudely ripped apart by an ‘investigative journalist’ called Claudio Gatti, who discovered her true identity or, more accurately, invaded her fiercely-guarded privacy by rummaging through her financial and property records. And that he ‘outed’ the author in no less authoritative a journal than the New York Review of Books.

Well, be that as it may, I am not going to play Gatti’s game. I am not going to refer to the author of the Neopolitan Quartet of novels as anything other than her chosen nom de plume, Elena Ferrante. That is how she wishes to be known to the world. And it is not for us to decide otherwise.

Nor is it necessary to know the ‘real’ woman to appreciate what an enormously talented writer she is. That kind of autobiographical detail actually detracts rather than adds to an author’s mystique. The relationship between a writer and a reader is essentially one of imagination and a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. Sordid reality plays no part in this social contract. If anything, it takes away from the reading experience rather than add to it.

So I, for one, am not going to enquire too closely into who Elena Ferrante ‘really’ is. I don’t want to know where she grew up. I don’t care about her romantic life. I am not interested in whether she is married, divorced or single. It doesn’t bother me if she identifies as straight, gay or bisexual. And I certainly don’t need to know whether her political beliefs verge to the hard right, the liberal centre, or the extreme left.

This is not a decision I make lightly. No, it is a decision born of bitter experience. Over the years, I have lost count of the number of authors whose books stopped speaking to me when I found out too much about their personal lives or even political beliefs.

It all began when I made the decision to study English literature in college. Once I had signed up, it was not enough to just read texts – poetry, prose or drama – and appreciate them for what they were. No, we also had to learn about the author’s, their lives, their beliefs, and all that had influenced them in the course of their literary careers.

Well, given that I was the bookish, nerdish type, I entered into the enterprise with all the enthusiasm at my command. I had no idea how badly this would go.

It began with T.S. Eliot, a poet I had always admired, some of whose passages constantly played in my mind like the lines of a much-loved song (“I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”). So you can imagine my despair when my research into the person led me, somewhat inevitably, to the discovery that he had been something of an anti-Semite.

I thought I would be okay with Philip Larkin, the writer of such immortal lines as “Sexual intercourse began in Nineteen Sixty-Three (which was rather late for me). Between the end of the “Chatterly” ban And the Beatles’ first LP”. And yes, it all seemed to be going rather well until the 1992 publication of The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin.

That’s when the essential banality of Larkin’s existence was laid bare, with its judicious mix of racism, classism, sexism and misogyny. Sample quote: “The lower-class bastards can no more stop going on strike now than a laboratory rat with an electrode in its brain can stop jumping on a switch to give itself an orgasm.” Ah, quite.

Since then, I have steered clear of getting too up close and personal with writers I admire. But I thought I was on safe ground when I picked up a biography of one of my girlhood favourites, Georgette Heyer. This was a woman who had made her reputation with Regency Romances that I had read so often that I knew the punchlines and plotlines of each by heart. And what do you know? She turned out to be a fan of Enoch Powell (yes, he of the “rivers of blood” fame)!

So, thanks very much, but I am not taking any chances with Elena Ferrante. All I need to know about Ferrante, the author, lies within the covers of the many books she has written. Everything else belongs to the private person behind that name; and that person is entitled to her privacy, keeping it safe from the rapaciously prying eyes of the world.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Splitting image

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt provide us with the perfect example of how not to conduct a divorce

Remember the time when Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin issued a joint statement on Paltrow's website, Goop, to say that they were 'consciously uncoupling'? Oh, how we laughed!

'Conscious uncoupling'? Seriously? Which asinine psychiatrist came up with this particular bit of psychobabble? And what on earth did it mean?

Well, in the 'uncouple's' own words it meant that though "in many ways we are closer than we have ever been" they had come to the conclusion that "while we love each other very much we will remain separate". And so while they would still co-parent their two children and remain a family, they had decided to end their romantic (and sexual) relationship. 

At the time  Paltrow did not know the originator of the phrase, American psychotherapist, Katherine Woodward Thomas, who would go on write a book with the same topic (Conscious Uncoupling; 5 Steps To Living Happily Even After), telling the world about her "proven process for lovingly completing a relationship that will leave you feeling whole and healed and at peace". According to Thomas, a divorce doesn't need to be a painful, bitter experience. Instead, we should treat it as an opportunity to turn our pain into "a catalyst for making a breakthrough in the way you show up in your life … and in your next relationship".

Nevertheless, Paltrow and Martin incorporated these lessons into their pre and post-divorce dealings. And as a result, they -- and their children -- have come through on the other side relatively unscathed. They still holiday as a family, they introduce each other to their new partners, hell, they even go together to award nights (Paltrow used one such occasion to praise Martin as the best dad ever). 

So, guess who's laughing now?

I was reminded of this as the car crash that is the Angelina Jolie-Brad Pitt breakup unfolded in front of a fascinated world. It was as if the two of them had taken cognizance of the principles of 'conscious uncoupling' and decided to behave in the exact opposite way.

First off, there was no joint statement. In fact, it wasn't even a joint decision. Jolie blindsided Pitt by filing an hour before the court was about to close (and after the glossies had closed their pages). Pitt had known that his marriage was in trouble, but was completely unaware that he was in for the chop so soon.

Jolie said in her statement that she had taken this painful decision for "the health of the family". Pitt countered by asking for privacy because this was a tough time for their kids, who were his first priority.

So far, so intriguing. 

Then came the leaks. Camp Jolie maintained that Pitt had a problem with alcohol, marijuana and anger issues. He had been abusive to his eldest son, Maddox, on a flight from France to America. He could not be trusted with the kids so Jolie was asking for sole physical custody. 

Camp Pitt insisted that Brad had just 'yelled' at his son. And he was cooperating with the authorities on the charges of child abuse, confident that he would be cleared. Once that happened, he would fight for joint custody. 

Meanwhile Jolie moved out of the marital home with all six kids into rented digs (which, it turned out, she had arranged long before the plane incident) and cut off all contact with Brad, blocking all his phone numbers and denying him access to their children. Amidst all this, there were suggestions tossed into the media that Pitt had cheated on Jolie with co-star Marion Cotillard (denied by all parties) and that Angeline herself was being 'consoled' by Johnny Depp. 

And before you could say 'pre-nup', the Jolie-Pitt divorce had turned into the stuff of tabloid dreams, a public spectacle that left the whole world gawping and gasping.

Needless to say, break-ups of lesser beings like us would not unduly trouble the world like this one did. But nonetheless, we can learn some lessons from the Jolie-Pitt divorce from hell:

* Keep private stuff private: When you are angry and hurt, you want to lash out at your partner. You want to tell the whole world how terrible he/she was and how miserable you were in the marriage. Well, take a deep breath and don't. If you can't do that, then keep your moaning within a circle of trust. The entire universe doesn't need to know your business.

* Don't use the children as pawns: No matter how much you loathe your spouse, don't let that hate percolate down to the kids. They need both parents in their life; they need to be able to love both their mother and father. Be sensitive to their needs. And never ever allow them to believe (as Maddox probably does) that the divorce is somehow their fault. They are probably blaming themselves anyway. Don't make it worse.

* Don't cut off all lines of communication: If you can't bear to talk directly, then communicate via a go-between whom both of you trust. Because just as you got into this marriage together, you have to negotiate the choppy waters of divorce together as well. And a modicum of civility will ensure that you come out whole on the other side.

* Take a leaf out of Paltrow and Martin's book and give 'conscious uncoupling' a chance. It's really not as daft as it sounds.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Neighbourhood watch

Not only are we not the same people, Pakistan and India seem to inhabit parallel universes these days

As a child (and grandchild) of refugees from what is now Pakistan, I was weaned on tales of the halcyon days of our  pre-Partition life. Needless to say, all these stories had a certain fairy-tale element to them, recounted as they were through the prism of nostalgia. 

My grandmother, who had grown up in the North Western Frontier Province, never tired of recounting the many military victories the men of her village had been part of, the reminiscing growing bloodier with each retelling. And my grandfather, without fail, would point out with a sneer that while these men may have been brave they were also rather stupid. 

Why? Because when the British granted them one wish after one such spectacular victory, guess what they asked for? 

No, they didn't think it was important to get drinking water to the village where women still had to trudge to the river to get supplies for their families. Oh no, that would have made too much sense. So instead they asked that a cannon be installed at the entrance of the village because then everyone would know what brave warriors they were!

My mother's memories revolved around large bungalows with sprawling gardens where she and her five siblings would run wild. They took particular pride in infiltrating the houses next door and stealing mangoes off their neighbours' trees without ever getting caught (a theme that resonates even now in the India-Pakistan story). And what do you know? The mangoes were always sweeter on the other side. 

Of them all, only my father managed to salvage something of his pre-Partition life. He stayed in touch with the best friend of his college days in Lahore. And every year, we kids would look forward to Masood Uncle's annual visit to Calcutta. He timed his visit around Eid so that his wife could spend time with her family in the city and his kids could get to know their Indian cousins. 

Given these circumstances, it was only natural that I would grow up thinking of Pakistanis as people who were just like us. To me, they were not The Other. They were just like Masood Uncle who came to visit us laden with gifts and uncomplainingly ate the vegetarian food served by my grandmother's kitchen (which remained an onion and garlic free zone till she died). They spoke the same language (Punjabi) that we spoke at home. They wore the same kind of clothes. Hell, they even looked like us, if just a little bit fairer and prettier. 

After the Masoods departed, I would often daydream about the time when I would go to Pakistan. When I would get to walk down the street that bore my family name. When I would explore the rooms of the house we had left behind. When I would get to revisit all those haunts that my parents talked about incessantly: Shalimar Bagh and Lahore Fort (from where Maharaja Ranjit Singh ruled Punjab) to name just two. When I would be able to get in touch with my roots. 

Well, as it turned out, I did get to go to Pakistan once I had grown up, as part of the media party accompanying Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee on his historic bus journey across the Wagah border to Lahore in 1999. But sadly, this was not the Pakistan of my dreams, the Pakistan in which I believed I would fit right in, the Pakistan that would have seemed a home away from home.

Instead, from the get go, I felt like an outsider. Yes, everyone did speak Punjabi. But it was littered with so many high-flown Urdu words that they may just as well have been speaking a foreign language. And when my colleagues were introduced to some of the Pakistani media corps, they were completely befuddled by their names, trying them out gingerly as if expecting them to explode in their mouths. You see, one of them explained to me, they had never heard these 'Hindu names' before (my name they had no problem with, because it was also a Muslim name). In fact, none of them had even met a Hindu before, so we were like an exotic species which provoked both curiosity and wariness in equal measure. 

This was not the Pakistan of Masood Uncle, who had had emotional and familial ties to India. This was a new Pakistan that had no fond memories of the pre-Partition days. This was a Pakistan that identified with the Islamic Middle-East rather than with 'Hindu' India. This was a Pakistan that regarded Indians (read Hindus) as The Other. This was the Pakistan that had been brought up to regard us as the enemy.

Clearly, we were no longer the same people. And frankly, looking back, I had been foolish to imagine that we would still be. 

But over the last couple of weeks, as the Uri attack has dominated the news cycle, and various Pakistani talking heads have popped up on prime time Indian news TV, I have come to realize that, far from being the same people, we actually occupy parallel universes. And while we live in a world in which Pakistan is a failed state which uses terror as an instrument of state policy, in their world-view India is an aggressive neighbour, who bullies and terrorizes its own people and then blames Pakistan for it.

No matter how much we try, it is hard to see how we can reconcile these two positions. And so we are doomed to conducting an eternal dialogue of the deaf, talking at, rather than to, each other.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Superwoman complex

It’s time to make sure that a new generation of women doesn’t fall prey to it

Having it all. It has become such a cliché, hasn’t it? Growing up, that was the phrase that was thrown at us all the time by our female teachers and mentors. They may not have had it all, held back as they were by the constraints of a highly patriarchal, traditional society. But my generation could change all that. We could grow up to fully rounded lives, with flourishing careers, well brought up kids, happy families, and perfect homes.

Oh yes, we could achieve all this – and more. We just needed to fix our sights on our life goals, keep a razor-sharp focus, be prepared to work harder that we had ever thought possible and we would be rewarded by the Golden Grail called ‘Having it all.”

Since we didn’t know any better, we fell for that spiel. So, we played by all the rules. We worked hard. We aimed high. We did our best at the workplace. We tried to run model homes. We dutifully helicoptered around our kids. We stayed in shape. We went on ‘date nights’ with our spouses. We looked after elderly parents and grandparents.

And we tried – oh God, how we tried! – to tell ourselves that we did ‘have it all’.

It was only after our bodies began wilting under the combined pressures of sleepless nights, early mornings, long days at work, punishing fitness regimes, endless hours at the stove, and the relentless demands of childcare that we realized that we had, in fact, been conned.

We didn’t really ‘have it all’. What we had was the dubious privilege of ‘doing it all’.

But even after that realization dawned, were we willing to give up on the ‘having it all’ dream?

Not a chance. The conditioning of a lifetime is hard to overcome. So, we pushed through the bone-breaking exhaustion. We struggled to overcome our guilt about not paying enough attention to our jobs/children/spouses. We doubled down on trying to create a ‘work-life balance’. And, in the process, we created the cult of the Superwoman.

I am sure you’ve heard of this mythic creature. She excels at everything she puts her mind to. She is the quintessential Career Woman. She is the archetypal Earth Mother. She is the sexy smoldering girlfriend. She is the devoted wife (who can also do sexy and smoldering on demand). She is the perfect daughter/daughter-in-law. She runs an impeccable home. She can run in stilettoes. And she can do all this while looking like a million bucks (which, of course, she has earned herself).

We may have come a long way from when legendary Cosmo editor Helen Gurley Brown popularised the phrase ‘having it all” in 1982 with her bestselling book, Having It All: Love, Success, Sex, Money…Even If You Are Starting With Nothing. But the phrase still exerts an insidious hold on our minds. And it is exacting an unacceptable toll on both our bodies and our minds.

I was reminded of this yet again last week when I met an old friend for coffee. No, she couldn’t take time off for lunch, even though we had so much to talk about. She could only manage a hurried coffee before she disappeared right back into the swirling vortex that was her life.

Sample this: a typical day in her life. She wakes up at 5.30 to fix breakfast for the family and send the kids off to school with their tiffin. There’s barely enough time for a quick shower before she sets off for work. She works in a large corporation where eyebrows are raised if you come even 5 minutes late – but you are treated as a laggard if you clock out at 6. She gets back home around 8 pm, dead tired, with barely enough energy to eat dinner, let alone make it. And she does this six days a week.

In this, she is far from atypical. Most women of her generation are doing the same insane juggling act, with more balls in the air than they can possibly keep in play. And the saddest part of this scenario is that they believe – despite all evidence to the contrary – that this is the only way to get the most out of life.

Well, if you ask me, we have allowed ourselves to run ragged (in high heels, natch) for far too long. And we have paid the price for it in flagging energy levels, constant guilt, and the feeling that somehow we are still failing.

But while it is too late to save us, it may be time to cut the next generation of women a little slack. Yes, yes, I know that they’re supposed to Lean In and all that (thanks Sheryl Sandberg!). But sometimes it makes sense to lie back as well, and take stock of your life.

Perhaps it is only when we grant ourselves a little down time that we get to understand that there is only one way in which you can really ‘have it all’ – by not having it all at the same time.

So, let’s not burden our daughters with the weight of expectations that we carried on our shoulders. Allow them to make their own rules. Let them choose between family and career if they want to. Give them time off after babies to enjoy motherhood; but provide them enough opportunities to get back on the career track after a break. Encourage them to choose husbands who support them at home and work. And don’t let them feel guilty for putting themselves first on occasion.

Let’s change the meaning of ‘having it all’ for their generation. And let’s quietly kill off Superwoman while we’re at it.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Shooting star

The story of Rekha continues to fascinate us; but the woman herself remains a mystery

I first encountered the glamorous world of Hindi cinema when I was around eight years old. It happened thus. We had set off on a picnic with family and friends to the Botanical Gardens in Howrah. As we headed for our usual spot under the overarching banyan tree, we saw a flurry of excitement just off to the right. There was a small crowd gathered, held behind a roped-off area by a posse of policemen.

How could we possibly resist? We veered off from our normal route to check out what was happening. "Shooting cholche," explained one excited man, while everybody around shouted "Omeet da, Omeet da!"

The 'Omeet da' in question was none other than Amitabh Bachchan. There he sat on the top of a tiny hillock, a white towel arranged around his neck, checking out his reflection in the mirror held up by one of his assistants.

But my eyes swept past him to zero in on another figure: a statuesque sari-clad lady standing in the shade of a tree, her eyes fixed -- like the rest of us -- on Amitabh Bachchan. Even as a child, I could sense the intensity of that gaze, even though I couldn't really make sense of it. Who was that woman, I asked my sister. That was the heroine of the movie. Her name was Rekha.

I hadn't yet been exposed to the pleasures of Stardust or Cine Blitz, so I had no idea about the rumors swirling around the lead actors of Do Anjaane (the shooting of this movie was apparently when their affair started). But as we persuaded them to pose for a picture with us, and the two of them stood together in the middle of our little huddle, it was Rekha I couldn't take my eyes off.

She was simply the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on in my short, uneventful life. Her hair pulled tightly back from her face, her heavily-kohled eyes sparkling like two jewels, her bow-shaped lips a perfect study in red, she was a vision for the ages. But why, I wondered from my vantage point of somewhere around her knees, were her hands five shades darker than her face?

We soon wandered off to have our little picnic, but the image of Rekha stayed with me. The next time I raided my mother's make-up bag, I used her red lipstick to curve a bow-string around my mouth as well. Needless to say, that did not make me look like Rekha.

But our paths were to cross nearly two decades later. By then I was a journalist, working with Sunday magazine, and Rekha was one of the brightest stars of her generation. So, you can imagine the consternation when she married an unknown Delhi businessman called Mukesh Aggarwal, who then committed suicide seven months later, hanging himself from a fan using Rekha's dupatta.

As stories go, this couldn't get any bigger. And I was put on it to provide the Delhi input.

My first interview was with Mukesh's therapist and friend, Akash Bajaj, who lived in a tony colony in Delhi. It took some persuading to get her to talk but she finally relented. As I was ushered into her dimly-lit drawing room and laid eyes on her beautiful but drawn face, grief etched deep into every perfect feature, I realized in a flash that while Rekha may well have been the wife, I was now face-to-face face with the virtual widow.

Bajaj's pain was impossible to fathom; her dignity almost unbearable to watch. And as she spoke, her voice straining under her sorrow and bewilderment ("All I want to ask is why?") the idea of Rekha that I had carried in my head began to take an altogether uglier shape.

Of course, everyone knew even then that Mukesh Aggarwal had been a chronic depressive. And that it was nobody's fault that he had decided to end his life. But in moments of anger and anguish, it is only natural to lash out at somebody. And Mukesh's family and friends lashed out at Rekha, the woman who had 'bewitched' him and then cruelly abandoned him to his fate.

It was after that episode that Rekha turned into the recluse she is today. Walled up behind the gates of her bungalow, her only link to the world appears to be her long-time secretary, Farzana, who, bizarrely, always dresses like Amitabh Bachchan (circa 1980s) whenever she escorts the actress to public events. Even the new biography of Rekha published by Juggernaut is based on interviews with people who know her. Rekha herself remained incommunicado during the entire process.

Speaking for myself, I only saw Rekha in the flesh once after that childhood encounter. We were both leaving an awards function in Mumbai, waiting for our cars to arrive. Not wanting to stare goggle-eyed like everyone else on the porch, I just risked a sidelong glance. Her kohl-rimmed eyes still shone like jewels but her skin was stretched tight as a drum, so much so that those bow-shaped red lips could no longer relax naturally into a smile. Rekha was now the caricature of the woman she had once been, with her rictus grin, her immobile forehead, and paper-thin skin.

Only one thing hadn't changed. Her hands were still five shades darker than her face.