About Me

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

Saturday, April 30, 2016

And quiet flows the Ganga...

The chaotic but holy ghats of Haridwar play host to both life and death…

If you want to observe a slice of life in all its joys and sorrows, its hopes and triumphs, its pride and pathos, you really can’t do better than visit the ghats of Haridwar.

Those who visit, do so for a number of reasons. There are the goggle-eyed foreign tourists out for a taste of exotic India, with its chaotic public spaces, its long-haired sadhus, its colourful mandirs, the dilapidated dhabas, and the endless opportunities for that fabulous Instagram shot. There are the devout Indian visitors who have come for a holy dip and perhaps a front-row seat at the evening aarti, when gleaming diyas in leafy containers float across the Ganga carrying with them the prayers of all those present. There are groups of youngsters who are just out for a good time, for whom Har Ki Pauri is nothing more than an improvised swimming pool, or the backdrop for that perfect selfie for Facebook.

And then there are those who are here for a specific religious purpose.

There are the happy families who have brought their infants for their mundan ceremony. The babies look all cute and cuddly – if a tad bewildered; and sometimes a bit weepy – with their heads shorn bare and a swastika in bright-red vermillion drawn on them. The proud moms and dads, and a plethora of relatives (this is India after all, where it is all about loving your family), fuss around them, kissing their bald pates and chubby cheeks, as if to make up for the loss of their hair, force-feeding them laddoos and halwa, the prasad from the nearby temple.

And then there are those who are here to mark the end of a life rather than celebrate the beginning of one. You can tell them apart by that sack of ashes they are carrying across the bridge, straining under its weight and the knowledge that this is the last duty they will ever be able to perform for a loved one. You can recognize them by their quiet desperation as they wander the narrow lanes to try and run down the family priest, even as mendicants pester them with endless requests for alms. You can see them take a ritual dip in the holy Ganga after immersing the remains of their loved ones, right next to those celebrating a mundan ceremony for their infants.

If you ask me, it is in that single image that the beauty of Hinduism resides. This is a religion that treats birth and death as part of the same karmic cycle, celebrating both ritually in the same space. The joy that emanates from the mundan of a young one about to embark on the journey of life exists side by side with the melancholy satisfaction that resonates with the departure of a dear one, who has finally, we hope and pray, broken free of the endless rounds of birth and death and attained a higher state, becoming one with the divine.

After all, when it comes right down to it, no matter which religion you believe in or practice, birth and death are inextricably linked. Each birth carries with it intimations of mortality, with every day lived taking us nearer the inevitable end. But if you believe in reincarnation, one of the central concepts of Hinduism, every death carries in itself the seed of another birth, and the possibility of doing better this time round on the karmic scales – a karmic do-over, if you will.

And so, the wheel of life turns on and on, with its endless rounds of births, deaths, rebirths, deaths, and then, with a bit of luck and lots of good karma, the attainment of moksha.

Moksha: quite literally, liberation or release. A deliverance from the cycle of birth and death as the soul (atma) becomes part of divinity (Paramatma). When a soul has finally tallied its debit and credit ledger and arrived at a zero sum that will free it from the dreary dross of earthly matters.

It was perhaps this principle of karmic deliverance – or Mukti, as it is called in our scriptures – that our social order was founded on so many millennia ago. Do good deeds in this life and you will be rewarded in the next one. Do bad deeds this time around and you will pay for it in your next life.

Even from a purely pragmatic, agnostic point of view, there aren’t many better ways of keeping people on the straight and narrow. Flout the rules of dharma and you will be punished by being born a beggar (or maybe even a monkey or a cat). Follow the rules of dharma, and you will be reborn a king (or even a Brahmin, which was the highest level of achievement in those days).

Of course, we all know it’s not quite so simple. But sometimes it is comforting to believe that those who perished having lived an honest, simple, devout life, will get their reward in this world or the next. And that immersing their remains in the holy river will give them a head-start on that journey.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Royal Progress

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have departed to balmy Britain; but here's a list of what we learnt from their visit

So, that much-awaited Royal Visit (so important that it must always be capitalized) is now over. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have come to India, pressed some flesh, posed for some pretty pictures, made a little detour to Bhutan, performed the obligatory photo-call at the Taj Mahal, and gone back to their country home in Norfolk to cuddle their bonny babies. But their short visit was long enough to give us some insights into both the Royal family and the world's (not to mention, the media's) reaction to them.

And this, in no particular order of importance, is what we learnt.

* Prince William is always Prince William. At a pinch he is the Duke of Cambridge. Sometimes, for novelty's sake, he is referred to pithily as HRH. And headline writers seem to prefer the affectionate diminutive, Will. But Catherine, his Duchess, is routinely described as Kate Middleton. It makes no difference that she no longer uses her maiden name. It is of no consequence that she was never called Kate -- not by her family nor by William -- but always Catherine. As far as the media are concerned, the commoner who overreached and acquired the title of Her Royal Highness must be reminded everyday that she is, at the end of the day, just plain old Kate Middleton (you know the one they used to call 'Waitey Katie').

* Bollywood is now officially Indian royalty. So the first engagement the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge attended (after paying tribute to those who died during the 26/11 terror attack at the Taj) was a fundraiser attended by Bollywood's biggest and brightest. Everyone from Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai to Alia Bhatt and Parineeti Chopra turned up to break bread with William and Catherine. And true to form, the Bollywood royals effortlessly out-blinged the blue-bloods; even the Duchess's royal blue dress couldn't quite win that battle.

* The Duchess' stylists were clearly confused between India and Saudi Arabia. So even in the sweltering heat of an Indian spring that felt more like summer, poor Catherine had to wear ankle-length dresses and full sleeves in keeping with the 'modest dress code' prevalent in these parts. The poor woman must have been thoroughly confused seeing the midriff and cleavage revealing outfits the actresses wore to the ball (oops, sorry, fundraiser).

* It doesn't matter if you are British royalty, a movie star, a minor celebrity or a standard-issue woman, the tabloid press -- and sadly, even some broadsheet papers -- will treat you as a collection of body parts. So your legs, your derrière, your breasts, will be subjected to constant scrutiny and held up to some media-mandated standard of beauty. And yes, if you suffer a wardrobe malfunction, if that demure skirt flies up momentarily at a public function, then that's the image that will be broadcast all over the world.

* No royal visit (or any other kind, actually) to India is complete without a mandatory reference to Slumdog Millionaire. This time, the phrase was pulled out when William and Catherine paid a visit to underprivileged children in a Mumbai slum. And no, it never occurs to the British press that calling 'little brown children' slumdogs is incredibly offensive, not to mention rabidly racist.

* The Raj may have ended decades ago but Indians are still suckers for British royalty. So the best and brightest of Delhi's high society turned up at the British High Commission to greet the Duke and Duchess, even if it was from behind a velvet rope line. Wonder if any of them used that magic phrase of the Queen's on her grandson: "Have you come far?"

* No matter how minuscule your Kingdom, if you are King and Queen you get to lord it over those with lesser titles. So it was that King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema of Bhutan granted Prince William, heir to the heir to the throne of the United Kingdom, and his wife, a royal audience in their Golden Throne Room. It is not clear if William and Catherine were required to bow/curtsy before the more senior royals. But going by past precedent (William's mother, Princess Diana, had to curtsy to Emperor Akihito when she visited Japan) it is not entirely beyond the realm of possibilities.

* The ghost of Princess Diana lives on and will continue to haunt William and Catherine for years to come. And not just in that famous sapphire engagement ring that the Duchess wears on her finger. No, their every public engagement will be held up to comparison with how the Prince and Princess of Wales conducted themselves in their time. And that famous photograph of Diana, sitting wan and lonely on that bench in front of the Taj, will be pulled out to contrast her sadness and loneliness with the picture of marital bliss her son and daughter-in-law law present five years into their own marriage

* Though she is constantly compared to Diana, the woman whom Catherine most clearly resembles is the one whom her mother-in-law dismissed as the 'Rottweiler'. She has the same no-nonsense, jolly-hockey-sticks, Home Counties charm that Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, exudes on her public appearances. There is the same ready laugh, the enjoyment of a good joke and the ability to put people at ease. And more importantly, there is the same discretion. Just as Camilla has never put a foot wrong after joining the Royal Family, Catherine has conducted herself just as impeccably. Makes you wonder how history would have turned out if Charles had been allowed to marry his own 'Kate' just like William got to marry his 'Camilla'.

Blooming glory

The Japanese make such a fuss about their Sakura; why don't we do the same with our Chinar, Laburnum and Shiuli?

It has been on my bucket list for the longest time ever: visiting Japan during the Sakura season. It is trickier than it sounds. There is never any guarantee when the Sakura will bloom, though forecasters try their best to nail a period down. And once the Sakura does flower, the cherry blossoms have a very short life expectancy: a week if you are lucky. And the Sakura season itself lasts about a fortnight or so. So, unless you time your visit just right -- and have the luck of the Devil -- it is hard to be sure that you will catch the cherry blossoms at their finest.

Well, I am happy to report that even though I planned my trip last year, I was lucky enough to arrive in Tokyo and Kyoto at peak viewing time. And what a view it was! Sprawling trees of all shape and size overladen with blossoms that went all the way from pristine white to cherry pink, taking in every shade in between for good measure. The Sakura proliferated in the parks, it blossomed on every street corner, it lined the roads in its majestic glory, it even popped up along the rails of the bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. It was a sight that will live with me forever.

But what I found even more amazing was how Sakura viewing was a family activity for the Japanese. They even have a name for it: Hanami, which literally means 'flower watching'. And when you do your flower watching at night, it is called Yozakura, which literally translates as 'night Sakura'.

So, as the trees in all the parks in Tokyo and Kyoto bloom, entire families set out with a picnic basket to spend the day under the shade of the cherry blossoms. They lay down their plastic sheets on the green, and settle down to eat, drink and yes (this is Japan after all), use those ubiquitous selfie sticks to take selfies against the backdrop of the blooming Sakura. Not that I can afford to act all superior; I was doing just that as well (though without the obligatory selfie stick).

But as I clicked what turned out to be hundreds of pictures of the cherry blossoms, I couldn't help but wonder why we in India don't celebrate our seasonal marvels with quite the same passion, panache and elegance. It's not as if we don't have the same kind of natural beauty that flashes forth for brief periods to dazzle us before disappearing all too soon. And while we do appreciate it as we go about our everyday life, we don't treat these interludes like an 'event' to be savoured and enjoyed.

Take Kashmir's Chinar, for instance, which changes color to a spectacular russet and then a brilliant crimson in the autumn. The spectacle lasts only for a few weeks before the tree sheds its leaves and shuts down for the winter. This should be as special for us as the Sakura is for the Japanese. And yet, we don't see people from the rest of India descending on Kashmir to view this superb sight. Indeed, it barely registers with most of us, as we wait for the snowfall to descend so that we can plan a winter vacation.

Closer home, in Delhi, the roads and parks come alive in spring with the yellow gleam of the Laburnum (you may also know this as Amaltas) and the bright red of the Semal tree. The flowering period lasts only a few weeks but while it is on it turns the city into a vision of natural beauty. But we hardly spare the blooms a glance before going on about our day. At the most, we click a couple of pictures to upload on social media, but there is none of the overwhelming wonder that the Japanese experience with Sakura.

Sad, isn't it? Wouldn't it be wonderful if we too could engage in a spot of Hanami, taking our kids, our parents, our friends for a day out in the park, to just sit in the shade of a Laburnum or Semal tree and take in their beauty? If we could just lay down a blanket on the grass and bring out a picnic basket, and spend the day marveling at the beauty of nature? (Of course, it would be even better if we could emulate the Japanese in yet another way: in clearing up and carrying back our own garbage, leaving the area as pristine as ever.)

Growing up in Calcutta, I was as excited as the next child about the advent of Puja. But in all that excitement about shopping for new clothes and making plans for pandal-hopping, none of us paid much attention to the flowering Shiuli (it is called Harshringar in north India) which heralds the arrival of the Goddess every year.

The white blooms with a peach/pink centre carpet the floor every morning, spreading their sweet scent through the neighborhood. And then even before you had fully registered their beauty, the Shiuli flowers would vanish, reappearing only the following year as Durga Puja drew near.

The flowering of the Shiuli should have been as special to Bengalis as the flowering of the Sakura is to the Japanese. But I have zero memories of anyone making an almighty fuss about it. Everyone just took its beauty for granted and went on with the festivities. And I can't help but think that we missed a trick there.

Well, the spring is almost gone but how about this Puja, we have a special week of just celebrating the Shiuli in all its colorful and fragrant glory as a precursor to the main festivities. I am pretty sure that Ma Durga would approve.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Love's labour lost...

A tale of two 'break-ups'; and the life lessons we can learn from them

"Shame" read the stark slogan engraved on the wall. That was the image that Virat Kohli, India's newly-anointed Cricket God fresh from his triumphant innings against Australia in the World T20 tournament, posted on Twitter with a tweet that read: "Shame on people for trolling @AnushkaSharma non-stop. Have some compassion. She has always only given me positivity."

The same image turned up on his Instagram account with an even more searing message: "Shame on those people who have been having a go at Anushka for the longest time and connecting every negative thing to her...Shame on blaming and making fun of her when she has no control over what I do with my sport..."

Yes, I know, Virat also made it clear in this message that he didn't need respect. And that instead people should respect Anushka, and have some compassion for her. But it is hard not to respect a man who stands up so firmly and so publicly for his ex. (Well, she is his ex at the moment of this writing, but who knows what the next week may bring; there is already fevered speculation that they are 'just on a break' and may get together again. But I digress.)

There are some who would dismiss Kohli's public defence of his former girlfriend as the very least he could do ("It's just basic human decency, yaar, what's the big deal?") But to the rest of us, used as we are to the sight of messy celebrity breakups with both parties washing their dirty designer jeans in public, it was a sight for sore eyes.

Here, at last, was a man who didn't rubbish his ex the moment she was out of his life. Au contraire, he was taking on those who would rubbish her, most of whom purported to be his 'fans', and telling them where to get off.

But then, Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma never really played by the rules of celebrity relationships. They didn't give gushing interviews about how much they loved each other; but equally they did not hide the fact that they were together. They would travel on the same plane, Anushka would applaud her boyfriend enthusiastically from the stands, and he would tweet proudly about her new releases.

Together, the couple taught the prying Indian public the difference between secrecy and privacy. And they did this with grace and humour, even though it can't have been easy for either of them to deal with those carping critics who blamed Anushka's presence in his life for Virat's poor form during that period.

And when their love story ended and social media began trolling Anushka because Virat was back in good nick, it was Kohli who went batting for her with the kind of ferocity that only he is capable of (both on and off the wicket).

Strangely enough, even as Virat and Anushka were giving us tips on the art of the good break-up, there was another pair of celebrities driving home the lessons by helpfully posing as a cautionary tale.

Yes, I am talking about Hrithik Roshan and Kangana Ranaut. Now, we don't know for sure if they ever had an affair (so, please Hrithik, no legal notices for this piece) or if they were anything more than colleagues. All we know is that Kangana referred to a 'silly ex' in one of her press interactions. Hrithik reacted by tweeting that there were more chances of him having an affair with the Pope than with any of the ladies mentioned in the media.

To cut a long story short, the sorry saga culminated with both parties slapping legal suits on one another. In his legal notice, Hrithik's lawyers alleged that Kangana was delusional and suffering from Asperger's Syndrome, leading to mental health professionals raining fire on Hrithik's head. For good measure, Hrithik also got sued by a Catholic fringe group for insulting the Pope. (Honestly, you couldn't make this stuff up!)

What these two parallel narratives provide for us is a ready primer for how to deal with a love or a 'professional relationship' (there, there, happy now, Hrithik?) that has run its course.

First up, don't share details of your relationship or the break-up. It is nobody's business but your own; keep it that way. As the saying goes: never complain, never explain.

Next, don't give in to the temptation to bitch about your ex. No matter how loud people may swear that theirs is a 'mutual decision' most relationships end with one person being left and the other doing the leaving. And often the desire to paint the other party as a devil is overwhelming. Well, learn to resist it. Shut up and let the moment, the week, the month, the year pass; and so will the temptation to hurt the one you once loved.

And finally, even when the love has faded never forget that this was a person that you once adored. Remember how hard you fought to protect them when you were together. Bring the same passion to defend them when you have drifted apart. That is the best way to pay tribute to the bond you once shared (and also be a decent human being).

In other words, when it comes to matters of the heart, be a Virat, not a Hrithik.

Reading List

Here are my top picks from among the books I read over the past year

I don't know about you, but when it comes to discovering new and exciting authors, I rely on two sources. The first is Amazon, which prompts me towards new finds based on the books that I have already bought or downloaded. And the second is the kindness of friends, those like-minded souls who call me up excitedly to tell me about that 'brilliant new author' that I simply must read. And honest to God, neither source has let me down till date.

So today, in the spirit of passing it forward, I am sharing with you my list of the most amazing books I have read over the last year. I can't recommend them enough!

* All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: I had my doubts about this one. It is set during the Second World War. It's two main protagonists are a blind French girl and a young German boy which is a member of Hitler Youth. It didn't sound very promising at all. But I trusted the word of a good friend and bought it. And I am very glad I did. The story is amazing in itself but it is the lyrical quality of the writing that draws you in. Acutely observed, beautifully articulated, this is a book that will stay with you

* The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker: Originally written in French, the release of its English edition was marked by rather sniffy reviews. But it is telling that even those reviewers who carped that there was nothing special about the book confessed that they had, nevertheless, found it gripping. And they were right about that at least: this is cracking good read. A young author struggling with writer's block goes to visit his mentor and old professor, when the body of a young girl who disappeared 33 years is discovered on the professor's property. Buried alongside her is a manuscript copy of the novel that made the professor, Harry Quebert, famous. So, did he do it? Or didn't he? The young author grapples with these questions as he attempts to save his saviour.

* Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little: If you liked Gone Girl, you will love this. The 'dear daughter' in the story is Janie Jenkins, who is convicted of her mother's murder and sentenced for life only to be set free on a technicality after ten years. Is she guilty or innocent? Even Janie doesn't know for sure. So, she sets out to find out what really happened on the night her mother died, dodging a media machine determined to hunt her down and a crime blogger who is obsessed with her guilt. This one will keep you awake all night.

* You by Caroline Kepnes: This is a story about obsessive love, told from the point of the view of the stalker, a book store manager who fixates on a young student who visits his book store. Sounds appalling, right? And yes, on the face of it, it certainly is. But such is the skill with which Caroline Kepnes depicts a sick mind that by the end of the story you find yourself immersed in the world of the narrator, in which the usual moral codes don't apply. And even more shockingly, you begin to see things from his perspective, even though you know in your rational mind that he is pure evil.

* The Widow by Fiona Barton: Written by a former journalist, this is a book that is deceptive in its simplicity. The story unfolds through the viewpoints of different characters: the widow (of the title) whose recently-deceased husband was once accused of abducting a child; the reporter who tries to persuade the widow to sell her story to her newspaper; and the police detective who was investigating the case of the missing child. The constantly-shifting perspective is unsettling, especially as you discover that nothing is quite what it seems.

* Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans: This is one of the quirkiest books I've read in a long time. Set during the period of the Second World War (honestly, what is this recent obsession with World War II?) it tells the story of a lonely orphan being brought up by eccentric godmother, whose faculties are rapidly declining. After her death, he is evacuated to the country where he is taken in by yet another eccentric woman. The bond between these two damaged creatures evolves slowly as they become partners in petty crime, and create a dysfunctional family all of their own.

* The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob: This is yet another tale of Indian immigrants in the West, struggling with dislocation, straining against family ties, and trying to do the best they can as they navigate the tightrope between two cultures. But don't let that put you off. Mira Jacob has a lightness of touch which makes Jhumpa Lahiri seem wooden and clunky. This novel, spanning continents and generations, sparkles and shines with wit and humour even as it shines the spotlight on familial relations and the immigrant experience.