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

Monday, February 29, 2016

What's in a name?

Why it helps that we don't know who Elena Ferrante is when we get lost in her fictional world

Who is Elena Ferrante? Nobody really knows. Well, except for her publisher, her literary agent, and possibly, her best friend. For the rest of the world, Elena Ferrante is just a name. Or, to put it more accurately, just a pseudonym. The real woman behind it remains a mystery.

There are some things about Ferrante that we can guess at. She is an Italian. She grew up in Naples. She came of age around the 1960s. She has some experience of growing up poor and unprivileged. And she has struggled to play the traditional roles required of women.

But all that is pure conjecture. We don't know anything about her for certain. All we can do is extrapolate from her books to imagine what kind of life she must have led, what her life experiences were, and how they shaped her as a woman and a writer. So we imagine that she is a woman who had difficulty coming to terms with what society (and her family) demanded of a wife and mother -- or indeed a daughter. We imagine that she struggled with romantic love. We imagine that she broke some hearts and has hers broken in turn.

Despite speculation to the contrary, I for one am quite sure that Elena Ferrante is a woman. Only a woman could have mined her interior life so ruthlessly; only a woman could so perfectly express feminine angst; and only a woman could understand the complicated relationships that exist between women.

But Ferrante is not just any woman. She is one who has become the voice of an entire generation of women who came of age in a pre-feminist era, who had to fight for their education, their right to work outside the home, the right not to be reduced to their primary relationships, the right to be seen as individuals in their own right, the right not to be seen as a sum of their body parts. Sample this sentence from My Brilliant Friend: “The beauty of mind that Cerullo had from childhood didn’t find an outlet, Greco, and it has all ended up in her face, in her breasts, in her thighs, in her ass, places where it soon fades and it will be as if she never had it.”

So Ferrante's women rage. They scream (sometimes out loud, sometimes silently). They push against boundaries. They explore their sexuality. They laugh. They cry. They behave badly. They tear down stereotypes. They look at the world around them with unflinching eyes. And they are completely authentic no matter what they do. Their voice is the voice of everywoman. Their thoughts are the ones that we sometimes barely acknowledge to ourselves, leave alone give voice to. They are both light and dark, both good and evil, both sinned against and sinning.

My introduction to Ferrante came via her quartet of Neopolitan novels, which is best described as her tribute to female friendship. It is the bond between Lenu and Lila – the Cerullo and Greco quoted above, two girls growing up in the same poor, deprived, brutish neighbourhood in Naples -- that provides the central framework of a story that takes in their entire lives, beginning from the 1950s and continuing into the first decade of the 21st century. The bond between the two women sometimes chafes, sometimes grows loose, sometimes binds them close, and sometimes becomes so tight that it suffocates.

And it is through their story that we see the enormous changes that are occurring in the world around them. You see the world expand through their eyes, as they marry, birth children, make careers, deal with the betrayals of love and the treacheries of life. All of this unfolds through the books following My Brilliant Friend: The Story Of A New Name, Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, and The Story Of The Lost Child.

It was after I had devoured the entire quartet that I started on the books in which Ferrante had begun to find her voice and learnt to deploy it with devastating effect. Her first book, Troubling Love, is about a daughter’s search for her dead mother and the discoveries she makes along the way. The Days Of Abandonment plumbs the depths of the despair of a wife whose husband has left her for another woman. And The Lost Daughter tells a tale that most mothers and daughters will see something of themselves in.

It is only when you read her novels that you realise that Ferrante's insistence on anonymity is not some writer's caprice or a brilliant publicity stunt set up by a publishing house but an absolute necessity. It is her anonymity that allows her the freedom to say things that we sometimes find hard to even say to ourselves in the depths of our subconscious mind.

And what freedom it is! She can write about the first fumblings of adolescent love. She can shine a light on the resentment mothers feel towards their children no matter how much they may love them. She can examine the dark eroticism of adultery, as it lurks in shadowy corners. And she can do all this without worrying about anyone drawing parallels or seeking common ground in her own personal life.

Perhaps it is this liberty that allows Ferrante's voice to soar as high as it does. And that is what allows it to speak to us. But don’t take my word for it. From this month on, all of Ferrante’s books are available in India. Read and experience her magic for yourself.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

House Rules

If your home is also your office, here's how you can make it work for you

Everyone who has ever worked out of home will recognise that panic that kicks in around 4 pm. That's when you realise that you have spent far too much time a) pottering in the kitchen, fixing lunch, a snack, endless cups of tea/coffee b) surfing aimlessly on the Internet, checking out gossip sites, Googling yourself, stalking your ex c) chatting with your friends on the phone or on Snapchat, depending on which generation you belong to.

Then begins the mad rush to finish in a couple of hours that which should realistically take a day. And before you know it, the evening has come and gone and you are still stuck at work (even though, technically, you are at home).

So, what is the poor, distracted home-worker to do? Well, here are a few tips from someone who's been there, done that, and lived to tell the tale.

* Establish a routine. When you are working at home, with no office to punch into, or a boss to report to, the temptation to slack off can often overwhelm. What is the harm, you ask yourself, in getting up an hour later? Or even taking a long break in the middle of the day? Don't fall into this trap. When there is no routine imposed on your workday, it is imperative that you create one -- and stick to it. Get up a certain time. Carve out a finite amount of time for lunch or tea breaks. And stop working at a certain hour.

* Have a clear demarcation between your work day and your leisure time. Don't start the day by checking mails over breakfast. And don't take your smartphone to bed with you. Create a ritual that indicates that you are ready to start/stop working. It could be fixing yourself one last cup of coffee before you get down to business. Or taking the dog for a walk when you are done, or even hitting the gym. But unless it is an emergency, don't let your work day bleed into your time off - and vice versa.

* Don't neglect to get dressed. No, I am not for a moment suggesting that you are into Naked Typing. Just that when one works out of home, it often seems pointless to get dressed as you would if you were setting out for work. Believe me, it's not. Just the act of getting out of your pajamas/shorts/sweats and wearing proper going-out clothes will make you feel more professional and put together. You will feel that you are working, rather than just faffing around at home.

* Carve out a space in your home that you treat as your work place. It doesn't have to be a room, even a small area in it will do. At a crunch, even a work desk will suffice. But having a specific place within the home where you do your office work is a good aid to concentration. Sitting down there, in front of your computer and surrounded by your work product, is a handy way of proclaiming to yourself that you are now at work.

* Don't always be on call. When you don't work at an office, those who deal with you professionally tend to think that 'office hours' don't apply to you. They expect you to take calls, answer mails, be available around the clock. Make it clear that this is not acceptable. The same rules that apply to office workers apply to you. Just because you work out of your home, doesn't mean you don't need downtime like everyone else.

* No daytime television ever. It doesn't matter what is on. It may be the finale of Downton Abbey or Modern Family that you missed the night before. There may be a great news story breaking (journalists get a pass on this one). Or you may crave a half hour of entertainment while you eat lunch. But whatever the justifications jostling in your head, don't switch the TV on. Or, before you know it, you will be neck-deep in reruns of Friends, and half the work day will be over.

* Stay offline unless you need to use the Internet for your work. If you don't trust yourself, use a laptop that is not connected to your wifi network or chose a spot in your house where the network doesn't work (shouldn't be too difficult given the quality of broadband available to us). That way, the distractions available to you via the Internet will be reduced if not entirely removed.

* Get out of the house at least once a day. Those who work at home, with no social interaction with co-workers, can often go stir-crazy. That's when the temptation to check your Twitter feed, update your Facebook status, glance through Instagram, kicks in. One way of dealing with this is to leave the house at least once during the day. Go grocery shopping. Get a cup of coffee at the neighborhood cafe. Or just go for a walk. That is often the best way of clearing your head and going back to work afresh.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Listening in...

Sometimes all you need is a couple of overheard sentences to get a glimpse into someone's life

Shaming though it undoubtedly is, I have to confess that I am one of the world's eavesdroppers. I go through the day, snatching up fragments of other people's conversations, trying to get a glimpse into their lives through that snapshot in time. Truth be told, I treat the people around me as performers who are putting up a private cabaret, entirely for my entertainment and amusement -- or even as inspiration for my next column. As the late great Nora Ephron once said, everything is copy.

There was a time when I used to practice my craft in restaurants. I loved listening in to awkward conversations of people on first dates. I giggled on the inside as ladies who lunched tore into one of their absent friends. I eavesdropped on the silences that marked long-married couples dining together; more telling than any words could have been. I squirmed as I overheard a couple breaking up messily at the next table. And yet, I kept on listening.

Those days, alas, are long over. No, I still go to restaurants. And yes, I still love to eavesdrop. But sadly, these days restaurants don't offer much in the way of conversations that can be listened to. Everyone is far too busy taking pictures of their food and Instagraming it, posting pithy food reviews on Twitter or updating their Facebook to do anything as mundane as talk to one another. 

Thankfully, however, the voyeur in me has found a different venue to feed my habit. Actually make that several different venues; basically anywhere where I go walking in the evening, whether it is Lodi Garden in Delhi or Marine Drive in Mumbai.

Unlike almost everyone I know, I don't listen to music when I go walking. Nor do I keep my eyes glued to my phone, scrolling down sundry social media sites, messaging a friend or emailing the office. No, that's not for me. I keep my eyes peeled and ears on alert to catch the conversations happening around me. And trust me, it's great entertainment. 

Let's take last evening, when I went on a walk down Marine Drive. There were the usual sights that we all take for granted. The pairs of lovers sitting on the railings, secure in their own invisibility because their backs were turned to the milling crowds on the streets. The sun making a spectacle of its everyday task of sinking into the dark blue waters of the Arabian Sea. And the evening walkers, marching determinedly on, white earphones peaking out of their ears.

But I wasn't interested in any of them. It was the people who were walking in twos, talking animatedly to one another, that interested me. 

There was the young couple, clad head to toe in Lycra, the mom pushing a buggy with a sleeping child in it, the dad carrying baby supplies in his backpack. Mum: "...I don't care what your mother thinks. This is my child, not hers." Dad: "She's only trying to help. You keep saying that no one helps and then when she does..."

That's all I caught as I walked briskly past them. But in those two sentences I could hear their entire story. First-time parents working long hours in office, the doting grandmother filling in as unpaid babysitter, the insecure young mom scared that she was losing control of her child, the harried young father caught between two strong maternal forces. Shorn of its details, it was a story as old as time itself. 

A little further on, I fell into step with two 50-something ladies, walking with the companionable air of old friends. Lady one: "You know that he's gone into rehab, na?" Lady two: "I know. I don't understand why her parents don't just call off the engagement." Lady one: "Arre, he used to spend nights there..." Lady two: "Sorry, but I don't approve of all this nonsense!"

There you have it: the culture clash that characterizes today's India. Two young people, engaged to be married, indulging in a bit of pre-marital sex, leading to shock-horror all around. Mix in a bit of recreational drug-taking and you have the making of a society scandal. Will the rehab take? Will they live happily ever after? Sadly, I'll never know.

As I turned around to retrace my steps to where my car was parked, I found myself behind a couple who were done with necking at the sea's edge and were now walking arms entwined, hips joined, whispering sweet nothings to one another. The phrases 'love you' 'love you more' floated happily in the air, until with a loud gasp, the girl disentangled herself, and whispered agitatedly to her boyfriend, "Stay away, that's my chacha in front." 

We may tell ourselves that we are living in a modern, liberal society. But when two teenage lovers come face to face with a family elders in public, they still experience the same panic that generations before them know all too well. Clearly, the more things change, the more they remain the same. 

That's just one of the life lessons I've learnt on my evening walks. Stay tuned for further updates in the months ahead.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

No country for...

We pride ourselves on being a tolerant society; but does that claim really stand up?

I can't get the image of that Tanzanian student in Bangalore, who was stripped and beaten by a raging mob, out of my head. How scared she must have been as she was pulled out of her car, with dozens of hands violating her body. Her terror as the one person who offered her a T-shirt to cover up was also set upon by the mob. And her utter despair when the police, who were supposed to protect her, simply looked the other way.

And then, to add insult to already grievous injury, came the comments of the state home minister. This was just an instance of road rage, he said, set off by the death of a local woman who had been run over. It had nothing to do with racism.

Really? Why would a mob attack the occupants of a car that came upon the scene long after the accident had occurred, if it wasn't for the fact that both cars were carrying African students? They couldn't tell a Sudanese from a Tanzanian; all they saw was the colour of their skin. And that was enough to spark a murderous rage in them.

If that isn't racist behaviour, then I really don't know what is.

And while attacks like the one on the Tanzanian student are rare, they are far from unknown. We can't have forgotten the midnight 'raids' conducted by Somnath Bharti in Delhi, when he led an angry mob, which went on a rampage, attacking and harassing several African women, accusing them of being sex workers and drug dealers. Bharti has since been prosecuted in the case, which is now slowly winding its way through the justice system, and will continue to do so over the next decade.

There are probably many other incidents of racism against Africans residents in India that never come to light. And even when they do, we never consider them worthy of discussion. It is hardly a secret that African students find it next to impossible to rent houses, that they are often referred to in perjorative terms as they go about their daily business. That the women are routinely stigmatized as sex workers and the men as drug dealers. We all know this, but for some reason, it doesn't bother us in the slightest. Perhaps, because we are far too busy denying that we are racist (who me? Don't be silly!).

It is not just the Black Africans who bear the brunt of our racism, though. Even our own countrymen from the north-eastern states suffer, simply because they look a little different. The term 'Chinki' is used routinely when referring to them; the thought that it might be offensive doesn't even occur to those throwing it about. That we can't tell a Naga from a Khasi, a Meitei from a Mizo is bad enough. What is even worse is that we can't tell an Indian from the north-east apart from a Chinese, Korean or Japanese person. And so, we end up treating them as foreigners in their own country.

Sadly, racism is not the only taint on our so-called 'tolerant' society. Ours is also not a country for women, whatever their color, racial type, religion or socio-economic status. We can't walk down the street without being harassed, can't travel in public transport without being groped, or even work in an office without suffering some kind of sexual harassment. The girl child is killed in the womb, the young adult is denied the same education as her brother, and the professionals come up against the glass ceiling sooner rather than later. And that's before we even go into the sexual violence women are subjected to, both in the home and outside, and the dowry deaths that go on unabated.

But women, at least, still have recourse to the law. In that, they are still better off than same-sex couples who are criminalized by Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, simply for the act of loving whom they do. It beggars belief that a colonial-era law that makes homosexuality a criminal act is still on the statute books of independent India -- even after the British themselves made homosexuality legal in 1967 and legalized gay marriage in 2014. And, sadly, even if the curative petition accepted by the Supreme Court does result in gay sex being decriminalized, it will be a long time before homosexuals and lesbians in India can live their lives without being stigmatized or harassed in some way.

But then stigmatizing and harassing people seems to have been honed to a fine art in our country. Men can be lynched to death on the suspicion that the meat in their fridge is beef. And instead of condemning this unreservedly, we say, 'What a shame! It wasn't beef at all, it was mutton', as if he deserved his fate if he had, in fact, eaten beef.

The sad truth is that we are rapidly exposing ourselves as a people who can't stand the Other. Men who are threatened by strong women use every tool at their disposal to keep them down. Hindus and Muslims regard one another with suspicion at best and hatred at worst. Dalits and high-caste Hindus are caught in a perpetual battle. Straight people can't stand homosexuals. And nobody has any love lost for people of another color.

I don't know what word best describes a nation like this one. Except that 'tolerant' is not the first one that comes to mind.

Back where I once belonged...

Nostalgia tastes rather sweet on a trip back to my old home town

Nearly three years ago now, I wrote a column on how folks like me who can't go back home -- because that home is now long since gone -- are destined to re-create it in their imagination, populate it with their memories and make it the stuff of their dreams. I had confessed my dread of revisiting past haunts for fear that they would have changed beyond recognition; my terror of subjecting my memories to the harsh test of an ever-changing reality.

Which explains why I have stayed away from the stomping grounds of my childhood and youth, choosing to remember them they way they were, rather than come to terms with how they are now. Until last month, that is...

That's when I went back to Calcutta, or Cal as it is always affectionately abbreviated by those who love the city (sorry, but I am only going to call it Kolkata when I speak Bangla), after nearly a decade of staying resolutely away.

But the moment I landed at Netaji Subhas Chandra Airport, it felt as if I had never been away. There was the same air of nonchalant chaos, the same good-natured jostling, and the noise of a hundred-odd people bellowing into their phones to call their drivers ("Kothai achho? Ato deri lagche kano?").

Our own driver, sent by the literary festival that was hosting us, took his time coming. When he finally pulled up, he gave our luggage a disgusted look and muttered, "Baba, koto bhari bag!"  The two young people who were there to receive us went a bit red in the face, and helped with the luggage, while he continued to grumble discontentedly. Oh, the joys of being back in Cal!

Only it wasn't the Cal I knew and loved that whizzed past my rolled-up window. Instead of the sleepy road bordered by little huts and corner shops, there was a busy, bustling highway, flanked on both sides by glittering high rises that housed everything from malls to cinemas to hotels to up-market residences. If I didn't know better, I could have sworn I was in Gurgaon; there was even signage for DLF, for crying out loud.

Talking about loud, our extremely disagreeable driver was venting his frustration about being stuck at a red light by honking incessantly. "What is the point of using the horn?" I wondered aloud, "It won't make the lights change, will it?" His response was immediate and pithy. He rolled down his window and spat vigorously through it. Ah, that famous Bengali temper. How I had missed it!

It was sheer serendipity that our hotel was just a quick stroll away from my old college. So, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to walk down to revisit it between sessions. A million memories ran through my head as I made my way down Middleton Row and saw the familiar green gate of Loreto College before me.

I made my way down the curved driveway, entered through the side gate and went up to the first floor library that had been my sanctuary for three years. It looked a bit smaller than I remembered it, and my favourite desk which I had stockpiled with books, now had an ugly computer sitting on it, but the smell of books was just as intoxicating.

A few deep breaths later, I walked down the staircase and got the biggest surprise ever. There on a big black board were the names of all the gold medal winners over the years. And half-way down the list was mine: glittering in gold letters. My husband, who was even more excited than I was, insisting on taking many pictures, even as groups of bemused college students walked past us.

By then, I was quite sold on this nostalgia thing. So, we walked across the lawn and through the back gate to get to Jyoti Vihar, the venue of many a cheap and tasty lunch during my college days. The idlis, vadas and dosas were just as excellent as I remembered and even passed the test of the foodie husband.

All went swimmingly until we asked for paper napkins. No, said our smiling waiter, they did not provide any. We pointed to the next table, which had paper napkins. Ah, he said, they had brought in their own. Then, clearly taking pity on us, he walked across to the cashier's desk, tore off a bit of newspaper and presented it to us with a flourish. The gesture just about summed up the spirit of Cal for me.

The next day was devoted to revisiting familiar ground. The Bata store on Chowringhee where I had bought my school shoes at the beginning of every new academic year was still stationed to do duty by the next generation of students. The National Museum looked better than ever with a fresh lick of whitewash. And then there was the timeless beauty of Victoria Memorial, soaring majestically at the fringes of the Maidan.

Post-dinner, we decided that a spot of live music was in order. So, off we went to Someplace Else, to sit and wait for the band to show up. Finally a group of middle-aged hipster-types turned up and began playing blues standards from the 50s (circa Muddy Waters). A couple of youngsters in the front asked for a Beatles number. "Sorry," said the band leader, sounding anything but repentant. "We are stuck in a time warp here."

Which is, in the nicest possible way, also a good way to describe Calcutta itself. And long may it stay that way.

The book's the thing...

Unless, of course, you are at a Literary Festival, where it is often, quite incidental 

If winter comes, can Literary Festivals be far behind? Of course not. One follows the other as surely as summer follows spring. And much like the heat of the summer, these Lit Fests - to give them the fond diminutive they go by in chatterati circles -- tend to take over the world. 

They are held in locations as far apart as Chennai and Chandigarh. Major cities like Delhi, Calcutta and Mumbai score more than one. But it is scenic locations like Jaipur that really rock, with literary stars flying in from across the world to participate in panel discussions, do some book readings, drink some bad wine, and with luck, flog a few copies.

I have done my fair share of schmoozing (what other, more elevated, souls call networking) at such events. And sometimes it has been entirely worth the effort. Listening to Ben Okri recite his poetry in the central courtyard of that splendid edifice, the National Museum in Calcutta, was a somewhat surreal experience. And seeing authors like Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood, whose writing you have worshipped from afar, in the flesh is always a pleasure. 

And yet, despite my passion for books and a serious reading habit that often leads me to ignore real life for the imaginative world of fiction, I end up declining many more invitations to Lit Fests than I accept. And there's a good reason for that. With a few honourable exceptions, Literary Festivals have turned into tamashas, where books tend to get lost in a whirl of socialising and an epidemic of air-kissing. 

In a sense, Lit Fests are to this decade what fashion shows were to the last one. People turn up to be seen and heard, nobody really cares about the main event, but nonetheless, they all scramble to be seated in the first row.

I guess that's fair enough. Everyone finds entertainment where they can, and if Lit Fests are now the places to be seen and photographed at, well then the Beautiful People are bound to throng to them.

You know the kind I mean, don't you? The women are manicured perfection, every hair in place, wafting around in chiffon and pearls or rigged from top to toe in Fab India. The men are doing their best to blend in with the 'literary types' in their kurtas and waistcoats, pairing their designer blazers with well-worn jeans. And all of them are secretly hoping that one of the many photographers snapping away will get them on to Page Three so that their friends can see what well-read, literate types they are.

But these are not the only specimens you find at Lit Fests. There are plenty others who are much in evidence, as they flock from one session to another. Here, in no particular order, are just some types you can be sure to come across:

* The Poseur: You can't miss The Poseur even if you try. He's the one who rushes to occupy the front row at every session. She's the one who grabs the mike the moment the session is declared open, to make a speech masquerading as a question. You can recognize them by the librarian-style spectacles they wear, regardless of whether they need them or not. 

* The Intellectual: He's the quiet one at the back, taking copious notes in a tatty notebook. She's the one quoting from books that nobody else has heard of, let alone read, in the belief that conclusively proves her intellectual superiority. Steer clear of them once the drinks start flowing, or (fair warning!) they will bore you to death with their Existential musings and their Copernican theories.

* The Wannabe Author: This one is ubiquitous. No matter where you go, you will bump into him. If you are a publisher, he will hack you mercilessly for a book deal. If you are an author, she will unabashedly ask for writing tips, and pointers on how to get published. And if you are a journalist, you will be asked for an email id so that they can send over the manuscript for you to have a look at (just give me honest feedback, yaar!).

* The Selfie-Seeker: He doesn't have the slightest interest in books; it is, in fact, doubtful if he has even read one. She couldn't tell William Dalrymple apart from William Boyd if her life depended on it. But both can tell who the most famous person is in every gathering, and they inexorably head for that hapless soul to press-gang him or her into a selfie (duck face entirely optional).

* The Free-Loader: This one is a familiar figure. We've all seen them at fashion shows, book launches or, indeed, any other event that has an open bar. So, it is no surprise that they are out in force on the Lit Fest circle, where the booze is always plentiful and free (thank you, kind sponsors!) and the canap├ęs are substantial enough to stand in for dinner if you manage to scoff enough of them in the course of the evening. Thankfully, they can't talk with their mouth full, so you will, at least, be spared all that cant about Kant. 

The kids are all right

In fact, the only thing wrong with them is their parents

Question: Do you know what's wrong with kids today? Answer: Their parents. I can't quite remember where I read this, but I remembered it afresh last week. 

I was checking out the sales at the local mall when an urgent mail landed in my inbox. I stepped outside on the balcony and had just begun typing out a reply when a little cannonball came hurtling out of the store, headed straight for me, wrapped his chocolate-smeared hands around my legs, nearly toppling me over in the process. 

I tried to disengage myself gently but he held on with all the strength in his five-year-old arms, crying lustily all the while. I tried to comfort him even as I looked around anxiously for his parents/caregivers. But no one in the store seemed the slightest bit interested in him. 

And then, just as I was about to approach the shop manager, a young woman who had been intently examining the 70 per cent off rack, looked around, saw the child, marched up, dragged him away by the arm, and then, calmly resumed shopping. I assume she was his mother, given that he went without demur, even though she didn't quite fit the description of a parent as I understand it. 

I must admit that I was very tempted to have a few sharp words with her. First, for being completely oblivious of her child in a public place. Two, for just rushing off without even a word of apology. And three, for neglecting to upbraid her child for his behaviour, which wasn't just a nuisance for everyone else but an active danger to himself.

But I counted slowly to ten in my head, took a few deep breaths and then walked away. Because, seriously, what would be the point? And, more importantly, where would it end? I see dozens of examples of this kind of indifferent parenting every single day, extending all the way from benign neglect to senseless spoiling to criminal negligence. 

Just over the last week, I have seen children riding the baggage carousel at the airport while their parents tap away distractedly on their mobile phones; kids running around crowded restaurants without the slightest attempt by their parents to control them; and of course, kids having complete meltdowns in stores because they didn't get what they wanted (in the end, of course, they always do).

I accept that children can be a handful, especially if you have two under five, and I have every sympathy with harried parents who are having a hard time of it. What I cannot understand is why parents feel it is ever acceptable to abdicate all responsibility for their kids in public. It is not the waiter's job to keep your children safe from knives and forks in restaurants any more than it is the air hostess's job to tackle your kid as she runs up and down the aisle.

Honestly, what is up with parenting these days? Why are mums and dads so afraid to lay down the law for their children? Why are they loath to draw boundaries between what is acceptable behaviour and what is not? Why do they live in thrall to the demands of their children? And why are they so terrified of their temper tantrums? 

It is almost as if power has shifted in the family structure from the parents to the children. It is the kids who are in charge not the adults. Not quite the lunatics taking over the asylum, but close.

One reason for this is, of course, that parents have less time to devote to their children. Both mother and father usually work, seeing their kids only in the evenings and on the weekends. In the circumstances, it is perhaps understandable that they want to spend that time doing fun things, and are more willing to overlook bad behaviour or even bad manners.

But more than that, it is also that these days, parents have become devotees of the Cult of the Deified Child. In this cult, the child is the object of worship, the whole world revolves around him, his every wish is treated as a command, and he can simply do no wrong. (I use the pronoun 'his' advisedly because it is usually the male child who is worshipped that way; though pampered daughters are fast catching up.)

This leads directly to the propensity of modern parents to treat their children as minor miracles. They flood their Instagram accounts with cute pictures of their kids; they tweet all day about the absolutely adorable things they say; they Facebook their birthday parties and school concerts; and so on and on and on.

Small wonder then, that these children grow up believing that they are the centre of the universe, that rules of good behaviour or social niceties don't apply to them, that they can do just as they please because even if they screw up there will never be any consequences. Because that is exactly what their parents have taught them.

So yes, the only thing wrong with kids today is their parents. It really is time that they grew up.

The year ahead

A quick look at the social trends that will come to define 2016

This week, I intend to stick my neck out and risk a task fraught with danger. I am going to look into my crystal ball and tell you what 2016 will bring. The danger, of course, is that I may well be completely wrong, and there will be much pointing and laughing around the same time next year. But what can I say? As far as I am concerned, this is the year of living dangerously. And as for the rest of the world, this is what (according to me, at least) it has to look forward to.

* A new sense of environmental consciousness: Not just because Delhi --always held up as an example of an uncaring, unfeeling city -- has shown intent by adopting the odd-even plan as its own in the hope of beating air pollution, but because across the world people are finally waking up to the dangers of climate change. While both Chennai and parts of England have had to cope with floods, winter seems to have gone missing in India. And the polar cap seems to be disappearing almost as fast as the snow from the ski slopes of Europe. This is the year, I believe, that citizens across the globe will begin to work on improving our environment, even if governments across the board continue to dither.

* The sharing economy will come of age: This will be, in part at least, a spin-off of our increased sense of environmental consciousness. But it will also owe something to an increasing desire to be less wasteful of our economic resources. So, while office-goers will increasingly opt for the car-pooling feature on such cab apps as Uber, more and more parents will decide to let their kids go to school in the school bus rather than dropping them off in their cars (thus doing their bit for air and traffic pollution as well).

* More people will decide to stay in rather than go out: This year will see the 'staycation' become more popular than ever. As air travel becomes more of a pain than a pleasure, with the torture beginning at the security queue and ending at the baggage carousel at the other end, the idea of vacationing in the city where you live will become more attractive. With the money you save on travel you can check into a swish hotel, enjoy the delights of room service, chill out at the pool and get your pampering at the spa. And those monuments you never got around to seeing because, you know, they are just around the corner from where you live, this would be the ideal time to schedule a visit.

* The home will emerge as a hub of entertainment: A rather natural corollary of the desire to 'stay in', rather than venture out in search of a good time. With TV screens getting bigger and better, and international TV shows like Homeland, Downton Abbey and The Newsroom being released almost at the same time as they are abroad, staying at home in the evening and channel surfing from the comfort of your couch will never seem more attractive. And if you do crave some company other than your family, if only to discuss the plot or even send out spoilers, well then, social media is only a couple of clicks away on your smartphone.

* The rise of binge watching: The DVD box-set had already changed the way we watch television. Instead of watching an episode every week, we now tend to wait until the series is released on DVD (or just download illegally from the Internet; naughty, naughty!) so that we can swallow it in one greedy mouthful. Now, with Netflix (and its culture of dumping entire seasons of its own shows like Grace And Frankie and Master Of None in one go) being launched in India, the propensity to binge-watch all our favourite shows will only increase. So, here's to all-nighters, as you take in the shenanigans on Game Of Thrones or House of Cards.

* The triumph of the home cook: Now that everyone is watching such food competitions as Masterchef and cookery shows like the ones hosted by the gorgeous Nigella Lawson, the kitchen no longer looks like the place where drudges go to steam in their own sweat. Instead, cooking has taken on a rather glamorous glow and everyone from the harried career woman to the overworked stay-at-home wife and mother to the man who couldn't do more than boil an egg wants to try her/his hand at rustling up an exotic, three-course meal. Of course, this is special occasion cooking, and all the more special for that.

So, there it is. My forecast for what 2016 will bring. And here's looking forward to bouquets/brickbats from all my gentle readers a year from now.

Fun free

Top ten ways to enjoy Delhi, without paying a paisa

It struck me first when I spent a week in London late last year: there were so many fun things you could do in that city without spending a penny. There were all those amazing parks you could walk or jog through, or simply picnic in. And if you chose St James Park for your constitutional and timed your visit well, you could take in the colourful spectacle of the Changing of the Guard in Buckingham Palace. If you felt like watching a bit of performance art, you could stroll through Covent Garden.

I guess that's the thing about the great cities of the world. There is so much on offer that you can enjoy without spending any money at all. Which is why, this year, I have decided to start an occasional series: the top ten fun things you can do for free in the great cities of the world. And where better to begin than in the national capital.

So, here's my list of fun, free things to do in Delhi. Do feel free to write in with your own suggestions:

* Take a walk through Lodi Gardens. You could always power your way through on the jogging track that runs along the periphery, but I recommend a leisurely stroll through the 90-acre park. Take in the glories of the trees, foliage and flowers. And stop to explore some stunning monuments which date back to the 15th century. There are tombs of the rulers of Lodi dynasty, an old mosque, and two domes that are perfect examples of the architecture of the period.

* Pay homage to Gandhiji at Rajghat: This is a mandatory stop for every dignitary visiting India. But there's no reason why ordinary mortals like you and me can't enjoy the serenity of the samadhi of the Mahatma. If you have the time you can stop by at the memorials to Pandit Nehru (Shanti Van), Indira Gandhi (Shakti Sthal) and Rajiv Gandhi (Veer Bhumi) as well.

* Marvel at the Jama Masjid: Built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between 1644 and 1656, this adjoins that other great Mughal wonder, the Red Fort, in old Delhi. But you don't have to pay an entry fee to gaze on the splendid mosque, with its three domes and two towering minarets, but it will cost you if you want to climb one of the minarets and enjoy the breathtaking view below. And yes, photography costs extra, so if you don't want to stump up, leave your camera and smartphone behind.

* Sample the delights of Chandni Chowk: A short walk from Jama Masjid is this bustling market that epitomises the best of old Delhi. This has the best of street food, old-style perfumeries, textile shops, silversmiths, jewellers and more. So long as you exercise self-control and restrain yourself to window-shopping, this jaunt won't cost you a rupee.

* Feast your eyes on Akshardham: Built on a grand scale with intricately-carved sandstone and marble, this temple of the Swaminarayan sect is both a visual delight and an oasis of peace in the middle of a bustling metropolis. There is no charge for visiting the temple or enjoying the grounds, but there is a fee should you want to catch one of the exhibitions or perform a special puja.

* Wander through the Huaz Khas Complex: You can start off at Deer Park, a wild expanse of greenery that is named after the deers that frequent it. Then, walk through the newly-gentrified Hauz Khas Village, with its plethora of designer shops and quirky restaurants, until you reach the historical tank (hauz) for which the area is named. Its banks are dotted with historical monuments dating back to the 13th century Delhi Sultanate (Khiljis) period, which are an absolute joy to explore.

* Breathe in the wonder that is the Baha'i temple: Shaped like a lotus (a flower that has holy connotations in many religions), this is one of the seven major Baha'i temples in the world. An architectural triumph, this is open to people of all religious denominations, who are free to worship here in their own way (but no musical instruments can be played on the premises).

* Soak in the history of the Sikh faith: You could start with Sis Ganj Sahib in old Delhi, a historical Sikh temple, marking the place where the ninth Guru, Tegh Bahadur, was beheaded in 1675 on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb because he refused to embrace Islam. Also worth exploring is Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, near Connaught Place, which is associated with the eighth guru, Har Krishan, whose central lake (Sarovar) is credited with having healing properties.

* Make a tryst with history at Teen Murti Bhavan: This used to be Pandit Nehru's residence when he was Prime Minister of India and his private quarters have been preserved just as they were while he was alive. You can see his book-lined study where he would spend his evenings, his spartan bedroom with the single bed on which he breathed his last, and then go through the rest of the museum dedicated to his life and work.

* Hang out at the capital's favourite hangout: If you want the quintessential Delhi experience, you can't do better than Khan Market. Set up by refugees who came to Delhi after the Partition, this has effortlessly transitioned from a typical neighbourhood market to a trendy shopping area, teeming with restaurants, caf├ęs, designer boutiques and the odd store selling fruit and veg. Explore for free, but be prepared to spend big if something takes your fancy.

It's that time of the year again...

And instead of New Year Resolutions, here's my wish list for 2016

Last year, for my first column of 2015, I had gone all contrary on you and compiled a wish list instead of listing my New Year resolutions. Re-reading that piece, before I sat down to write this one, was a rather depressing experience though. My wish list, in retrospect, read like a triumph of hope over experience. And like a beach bully who demolishes sand castles almost as a matter of principle, 2015 had done a marvellous job of quashing all my hopes and desires.

I had hoped that every child who set out for school would come back caked in the mud of the playground rather than his own blood. That women would feel safe in public spaces, that they could walk the streets without being groped or harassed. That we would realise that Swachh Bharat was about more than mere optics (and photo-opps with broom in hand). That harmony would prevail among religions, and peace would reign on earth.

Of course,  not one of these things happened. Instead, we watched in horror as terror took over the streets of Paris, we wept as we saw refugees drowning off the beaches of Europe as they tried to reach a safe haven from war and mayhem, and we mourned the many lives lost to the marauding, murderous gang called Daesh.

Back home in India, the loonies continued to run amok. The rise of Hindu majoritarianism meant that anybody who raised a voice against growing intolerance was asked to go off to Pakistan. Such was the frenzy created around the issue of cow slaughter that baying mobs thought nothing of breaking into a man's home and beating him to death in front of his horrified family, simply because they thought he had beef in his fridge (it is another matter that it turned out to be mutton). And violence against women continued apace, with as many as six rapes and 14 molestations being reported every day in the city of Delhi alone.

So, I have learnt my lesson; and this time round, I am keeping my ambitions very limited, in the hope that this year's wish list has a better success rate than the last.

That said, what do I wish for 2016? Well, here's just a teeny-tiny sampler

* A woman in the White House: It is about time, wouldn't you say? It has been half a century since India had its first Prime Minister in Indira Gandhi and 37 years since Britain put Margaret Thatcher in 10 Downing Street. So it is time that the leading democracy of the world caught up and elected a female President. It helps that voting for Hillary Clinton is a no-brainer if (as looks increasingly likely) she is pitted against Donald Trump, the current front-runner in the Republican field. America surely deserves a President who promises results rather than one who simply delivers insults (and bizarrely finds bathroom breaks 'disgusting').

* More news, less noise: An entirely unscientific survey among my friends and colleagues shows that they are tiring of the current news television formula of prime-time programming, where anchors choose one issue to outrage about through the course of the day and then invite a phalanx of guests to 'debate' it. That is, if 'debate' means to shout at deafening sound levels at one another, even as the anchor ensures that nobody can complete an entire sentence, let alone a complete argument. My hope is that the rest of India will also begin to tire of this shouty format -- full of sound and fury, signifying nothing -- and vote with their remotes. Maybe then we can finally get some news -- rather than endless views -- from our news channels.

* A clean, green India: Actually, at this point, I am prepared to settle for a slightly cleaner, greener India. Even the smallest improvement in this area will leave me deliriously happy. Delhi has been the first to show some intent on this front. And no matter what your views on the odd-even formula that Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal is experimenting with (as of this writing, at least) during the first fortnight of the year, there is no denying that some sort of beginning has to be made before the air we breathe kills us all. Maybe 2016 will see more cities and states take similar initiatives; if not for our sake then for the sake of our children and grandchildren.

* Civility in our political discourse: Remember those innocent days when leaders across the political divide insisted that they were 'rivals' not 'enemies'. Well, they are only a fond memory now that the political discourse has been cheapened to the extent that political foes think nothing of spewing abuse at one another in public and on social media. I can't be alone in praying that better sense prevails in 2016, and a measure of decorum is restored to public life.

* On a more personal note, I fervently hope that I finally get the push to finish my book, that has been hanging fire for years now (don't ask), and see it on the stands -- and hopefully on your shelves -- before the end of 2016.

And on that note, a very Happy New Year to all!