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

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Best foot forward

A flat-out refusal to heels is the way to go, ladies

What would you do if you turned up at work and were told to change out of your flat shoes and wear a pair that had a two-inch (at least) heel? Of course, if you are a man then the question doesn't apply because you would never be asked to do anything so silly in the first place. But if you are a woman and work, say, in a corporate office, a hotel, a restaurant or even an airline, would you accede to such a request because it was what was expected of female employees?

Would you trot off and find a pair with a heel and slip it on meekly? Or would you stand up for your right to wear any kind of shoe you bloody well like?

I only ask because a 27 year old called Nicola Thorp found herself in exactly this predicament when she reported for her temp job as a receptionist at the London office of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Her employment agency said that her flat shoes were unacceptable. She had to go off and buy a pair of shoes with heels at least two inches high and change into them. Thorp refused. So, the agency sent her home and refused to pay her for the day.

But while the rest of us would have vented on Twitter and called it a day, Thorp was made of sterner stuff. She launched a petition asking that it be made illegal to ask women to wear high heels at the workplace. In 48 hours the petition has chalked up 110,000 signatures, enough to get the subject debated in the House of Commons and a law passed so that no employer in the future can get away with such sexist demands of its female workforce.

Such strict grooming requirements are relatively rare in India. But a few years ago, when Delhi's new international airport opened, with its long walkways from check-in to boarding, I was appalled to see the female ground staff of one particular airline (which shall remain nameless) negotiating that distance on heels.

Why, I asked one young woman, was she wearing heels? Surely, flats made much more sense given that she probably chalked up 10 to 15 kilometers on a regular shift.

Yes, she agreed. But the uniform rules stated that female employees must wear heels, so she had no choice in the matter.

I was so appalled by this that I wrote a column the next week (Running in heels, Brunch, August 2010) about how unfair it was to discriminate against women employees in this manner. Men could go about their jobs in comfortable shoes, while the women had to teeter around on high heels. How was this fair?

A few months later, when I travelled by that airline again, I found that the ladies were in flats. The uniform rules had been changed. And while I wouldn't dream of claiming credit for that change, I would like to believe that my voice among the chorus of complaints mattered.

See, that's the problem. Too many of us are only too happy to follow the rule (unwritten or spelt out) that to look properly 'groomed' women must wear high heels. So much so that we have even conditioned ourselves to believe that we are not really ready to face the world until we have a pair of heels on to bolster both our height and our self-confidence.

Not that I am one to talk. I spent my entire 20s and my early 30s in heels even though there was no dress code that forced me to do so. I voluntarily embraced this world of pain, telling myself (and my aching feet) that this was what being a successful professional was all about: looking the part. It didn't help that I was short, so I needed the morale boost (quite literally) that high heels provided.

I, at least, had the excuse that I was short. But even my tall willowy friends embraced heels, simply because that was what you did. You wore heels to work and high heels to party because -- or so we were conditioned to believe -- that made us look more attractive.

It was only once I was comfortable in my own skin (and very uncomfortable in my heels) in my mid 30s that I finally had the confidence to vote with my feet and simply say no to heels. I stood tall enough in my own estimation. And I didn't care if I fell short of the beauty standards imposed on women across the world.

Today, I am happy to report that the rebellion against high heels is apace. Earlier this month Julia Roberts walked barefoot on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival. This was noteworthy because last year at Cannes some women had been turned away from the red carpet because they were wearing flats. The dress code, they were told sternly, specified heels.

Well, try telling that to Julia, guys! She couldn't give a hoot as she threw off her shoes and sashayed across the red carpet in bare feet, giving the proverbial finger to the powers-that-be at Cannes in the process.

At this point, I am sure that there are many women out there who are preparing to mail or tweet me about they feel more powerful, even more empowered, with their heels on. Okay, ladies, just drop me a line five years down the line when your backs are whacked and your bunions have set your feet aflame and tell me how powerful and empowered you feel now. And then, we'll talk.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

So sorry for your loss...

Lessons learnt from bereavements, new and old

There is something about death that makes us exceedingly uncomfortable. We don’t want to imagine a time when our parents will no longer be around. We don’t want to dwell on the prospect of our own deaths. And we don’t even want to think about the possibility that some of us may survive our own children.

As a result, we are completely unprepared when death comes visiting in our vicinity. We can only guess how our parents would have liked their funeral arrangements to go, having never discussed anything quite so unpleasant with them. So, we flounder around, half-mad with grief, trying to work out how best to send them off. We don’t write our wills or put our affairs in order, because, you know, that would be tempting fate. And all too often we leave an almighty mess behind for our heirs to sort out – yes, the ones we are sure will live on long after we are dead and gone.

And such is our unexpressed but deeply-felt horror of death, that we don’t quite know how to deal with those who are newly bereaved. We want to express our condolences, we would like to be sensitive to their loss, and we certainly empathize with their pain (especially if we have experienced it ourselves). But there is something about death that leaves us all a bit tongue-tied. We simply can’t summon up the vocabulary to vocalize our thoughts. And so, we fall back on platitudes, cringing within ourselves even as we mutter them, knowing that we are bringing no comfort to those grieving.

Or maybe that’s just me. I still remember the acute discomfort I felt when I called upon a young mother in my neighbourhood who had lost her young son to cancer. I had seen the child grow up before my eyes, seen him waste away as the disease took hold of him, spent time by his hospital bed, holding hands with his hollow-eyed mother. I even managed to endure the funeral, heartbreaking as it was.

It was when I called on the mother the next day that I ran mysteriously dry on words. What does one say to someone who has suffered a loss like that? Words seem so inadequate in situations like this. But I still tried, telling her how much he was loved, how he was in a better place, that he was no longer in pain, and that he would always live in our hearts.

Platitudes. Every single one that I could think of, trotted out so that I didn’t have to deal with the real emotions that the woman in front of me was experiencing. Platitudes. That distanced myself from her pain and suffering. Platitudes. That allowed me to reduce her unimaginable grief to proportions that I could deal with.

I went back home, feeling ashamed of myself.

Ever since then, whenever I have had to deal with death and bereavement, I have tried to do a little better. And over years of mourning the loss of those I loved and those loved by them, this is what I have learnt.

Sometimes it is okay to not say anything at all: If you can’t think of anything appropriate to say, stay silent. It is for times like this that hugs were invented. Just hold the grieving person close, letting them know that there is still love in their world. If they cry uncontrollably, don’t ask them to stop. Allow them to let their grief out by way of their tears. If you are crying too by then, it’s fine; don’t be embarrassed. Tears are probably the best way for you to communicate your feelings, until you are strong enough to find words.

Allow everyone to grieve in their own particular way: There are some who can’t stop talking about the passing of a loved one. It is almost as if they are trying to desensitize themselves to what happened by telling the story over and over again. Just listen to them. That’s all they want. And then there are those who can’t bring themselves to talk about the one they lost. Respect their reticence. Recognize their fragility. And talk about something else. 

Don’t avoid people who have suffered a bereavement simply because their grief makes you uncomfortable. It may be hard going sustaining a conversation with them. They may not be much fun for a long, long time. But stay the course. Don’t cross the road to avoid them because you can’t stand to see the sadness lurking in their eyes.

Remember, grieving is a process. Don’t try to hurry it. Or ask people to start resuming their normal lives after a couple of months, as though there isn’t a person-shaped hole in their hearts. Allow them the time and space to come to terms with their loss, no matter how long it takes. 

Acknowledge the fact that time does not heal; it just anaesthetizes. That when you lose a loved one, there is a tiny part of you that is always grieving. And that’s the way it should be. Because that’s the way we carry those we loved and lost in our hearts forever. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Orange is the new President

As The Donald becomes the presumptive Republican candidate, here's a sneak peek at what a Trump presidency would look like

So, it is Donald Trump Vs Hillary Clinton in the US presidential race. And while both my head and my heart are with Hillary Clinton, there is a tiny part of me -- call it my funny bone -- that can't help but wonder what a Trump Presidency would look like (and what a hoot it would be; except, of course, you know the real and present danger of a nuclear holocaust).

Trump's run for the Republican nomination has already provided the rest of the world plenty of laughs, even as Americans look on in horror. There was the time he assured us that he didn't have small hands or a small anything else ("there is no problem there, I guarantee it!") in the course of a internationally televised debate. Or when he accused Ted Cruz's father of being directly involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I could go on, but then we'd be here all week, wouldn't we?

Now that he is the official Republican nominee, Trump has mellowed somewhat. The time for calling Mexican immigrants liars, thieves and rapists is clearly over. Now it is time to appeal to the substantial Hispanic vote in America. So, the man who only recently proclaimed, "This is America, where we speak English, not Spanish," is now singing a different tune, sorry, tweet.

Trump recently posted a picture of himself, looking fetchingly orange, combover jelled firmly in place, with a taco bowl artfully arranged before him, fork poised just so. The accompanying tweet read: "Happy #CincoDeMayo! The best taco bowls are made in the Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!" (In typical Trump fashion, this tweet was a little economical with the truth. Taco bowls are not on the menu at the Trump Tower Grill, though they featured as a 'special' on the Trump Cafe menu to celebrate Cinco De Mayo.)

So, what comes next? Trump dressed in low-slung jeans and an oversized T-shirt accessorized with lots of Jay Z style bling, rapping about how he loves all those nice Black folks? Or as Omar Abdullah tweeted, in reaction to the taco bowl picture, "Waiting for @realDonaldTrump to tweet a picture of himself eating kababs, smoking a sheesha while saying I love Muslims."

But frankly, I have had my fill of the Trump candidacy; I am more intrigued by what a Trump Presidency will bring. So, these days I lie awake at night wondering what The Donald's America (Oh Yes! It's Great Again!) would look like. In case you are just as curious (and why wouldn't you be?), here's a sneak peek:

* The White House will no longer be the White House. It will be renamed the Trump House. And the Donald will only slum it inside the Residence for as long as it takes to build a kick-ass skyscraper ("the tallest building you ever saw") in the Rose Garden. Then, the White House will be converted into a spa, for First Lady Melania's exclusive use.

* Job interviews for the first Trump administration will be conducted on live television on a show called Celebrity Cabinet. And just like the Miss USA and Miss Universe contest, there will be a talent round, a question and answer round, and a swimwear round. America (It's Great Again!) will get to vote on whom it wants as its Secretary of State, Secretary of Justice, etc., and the winner will be crowned by President Trump himself, while Melania will give away the sashes.

* Cabinet meetings will be the new reality TV. They will be telecast live (with a two-minute delay, so that all expletives can be bleeped out) as and when they take place and viewers will be able to tweet in their thoughts on the designated hashtag. Every six months, there will be a season finale during which one Cabinet member will be sacked with the Donald's immortal phrase: "You're fired."

* True to his word, Trump will keep Muslims out of America (Yes! It is Great!) until he has figured out 'what's going on'. And since he's not the brightest bulb, this won't be happening any time soon. But immigration numbers will not go down, as tall, pneumatic, young blonde women from Eastern Europe will get visas in record numbers, with the President himself vetting the applications (it's called succession planning, duh!).

* In keeping with the Trump tradition of giving all his rivals catchy nicknames ('Little Marco' 'Lying Ted' 'Crooked Hillary'), the new President will bestow world leaders with their own monikers. My money is on 'Dodgy Dave' (David Cameron), 'Stupid Angey' (Angela Merkel) and 'Macho Modi'  (our very own Narendrabhai, of course).

* Less than a year into his administration, when the wall on the Mexican border is only half as high as The Donald wanted, funds on the project will have to be diverted into building a wall on the Canadian border. But unlike the Southern wall, which was built to keep Mexicans out, the Northern one will be built to keep Americans in. And yes, this one, Canada will be happy to pay for.

Eat, drink and be merry

As it now turns out that coffee, chocolate and wine are actually good for you

It has long been my fantasy that science would one day discover that all the stuff that we enjoy eating and drinking – potato chips, chocolate, red wine, coffee – is good for us. And that all the stuff that we loathe – salad, low-fat dressing, green tea, and other such ‘healthy’ options – are actually bad for us. Well, this week I am happy to report that we are half-way there.

A recent study conducted by the Luxembourg Institute of Health, the University of Warwick Medical School, the University of South Australia and the University of Maine (phew! It takes a global village to bring you good news these days), found that those who ate 100 gms of chocolate a day – equivalent to a bar – had reduced insulin resistance and improved liver enzymes. And since insulin resistance is often a precursor to diabetes, which is a risk factor in cardiovascular health, having a chocolate bar could potentially be better for your health than glugging glasses of wheatgrass (that bit of extrapolation is entirely mine, not to be laid at the door of those worthy professors!).

In fact, the same study also looked at the consumption of chocolate alongside tea and coffee. Both these drinks are high in polyphenols, a substance that exists in chocolate and makes it beneficial to cardio and metabolic health. So, the best think you can do is eat your chocolate with a nice steaming cup of coffee or tea.

But don’t celebrate just yet. This is not a license to cut a generous slice of chocolate cake or even tear open a bar of Snickers at snack time. The kind of chocolate that is good for you is one that is closest to the natural product, cocoa; not the processed, sugar-heavy stuff that is stocked in your fridge. So yes to dark chocolate bars with a high cocoa content; no to milk chocolate with industrial quantities of sugar and fat added to it.

Okay, I admit, this is not ideal. But I will take it. Especially since it comes close on the heels of another bit of good news. A joint study carried out by researchers from Belgium and the Netherlands on gut bacteria concluded that diversity – in terms of having many different kinds of bacteria – was good for your gut, and hence, for your health. And one way of increasing that diversity was to drink red wine and coffee.

Red wine has always has its cheerleaders, who credit it with doing everything from reducing cholesterol to bettering cardiovascular health. It is rich in antioxidants, such as quercetin and resveratrol, which play a part in reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease. And red wine is credited with playing a major part in the famous ‘French paradox’, which refers to the fact that while the French eat more dairy and fat, their rates of heart disease are much lower than, say, those of Americans.

Red wine is also an essential element in the so-called Mediterranean diet, which is widely believed to be the healthiest way to eat and drink your way to a long and happy life. Have a glass or two (low to moderate consumption is the key; drink the way Europeans do, no British-style binge-drinking) along with a diet high in fruits, vegetables, unrefined cereals, lots of fish, very little red meat, and lots of olive oil, and you are good to go for another few decades.

But while you clearly can’t go wrong with red wine (so long as you remember to drink only a couple of glasses), coffee too has been getting good press of late. An American Diabetes Association study last year found ‘strong’ evidence that drinking six cups of coffee per day could reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes by 33 per cent for both men and women. However, the results were the same with both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee, so it is unlikely that the magic ingredient is caffeine. But either way, I’ll take it (black and with just a splash of Stevia, thank you).

Especially since coffee seems to offer other health benefits as well. There is evidence that it increases dopamine production in the brain, which explains why you feel so good after that first cup of coffee in the morning. Studies have shown that those drinking four cups of coffee a day had an 11 per cent lower risk of heart failure. And high coffee consumption has also been linked to a lower risk of Parkinson’s, though this benefit seems to be limited to men. (Coffee? Sexist? Who knew?)

So, this Sunday morning, as I sip on my fourth cup of an Italian roast and decant a nice bottle of a light fruity red so that it is ready to drink by the time lunch is served, I send up a silent prayer. Please God, make goji berries and quinoa evil, and turn potatoes into the next super-food. And cheese. Oh yes, please don’t forget cheese!