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

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Drawing the line

Your privacy is worth protecting; even at the cost of being thought rude

So, there I was in an airport lounge, sitting quietly in one corner, minding my own business. My husband, who was travelling in a wheelchair, wanted some water so I went to the buffet counter to get it. Barely had I reached into the fridge, than a voice behind me said, "Excuse me." I turned around, thinking it was a staff member offering assistance. But no, it was a complete stranger, smiling brightly at me. "Yes," I asked.

"I just saw that your husband is in a wheelchair," he said. "What is the problem?"

I suppose the easiest response would have been to explain that he was suffering from a bout of sciatica. But I was so appalled by the blatant disregard for my privacy (not to mention my husband's) and the barefaced effrontery of asking about a stranger's medical condition, that I had to pause while I got my temper under control.

So, I counted to ten and then asked in the most icy tone I could summon: "Are you a friend of his?"

Impervious to my annoyance, he responded cheerily, "No, no, I was just wondering what had happened to him."

I could have made the obvious comeback: "How is that any business of yours?"  But my manners got the better of me. "He is in pain," I said tersely and moved away.

But he was not done. "Anything serious?"

That's when my reserve of patience ran out. I turned my back to him and went back to my quiet corner, fuming all the while at the intrusiveness of strangers.

Thinking back on the encounter during the flight, I began to wonder why I had been quite so annoyed. After all, as an Indian, I have grown up in a culture where the concept of privacy doesn't seem to exist. Where even the most personal matters are the subject of public discussion. And where intrusiveness is such a fact of life that most of us cease to even notice it after a while.

Growing up, as the youngest of three kids, with a brother and a sister who were more than a decade older than me, I lost count of the number of times I heard people joke about how I must have been an 'accident'. After all, my parents had 'one of each' so the third one could only have arrived because of a failure of contraception. It was probably said good-naturedly but ever since I began to understand what it meant, it always came as a shock to hear that I had never been wanted in the first place.

More recently, I have seen much the same scenario unfold with a friend of mine. She has three daughters, all born with a year or two of one another. And every time she goes anywhere with all three of them -- whether to a PTA meeting, a family function, a birthday party, or even on a routine trip to the dentist -- she is sure to get one of the following three responses (and sometimes all three). "Three daughters? Oh, you must have been hoping for a son." "Is the shop shut? Or will you try one last time for a boy?" "How lucky, girls are the best. But doesn't your husband want a son too?"

I can only imagine how those three young girls feel when they hear these careless remarks thrown about within earshot. Do they feel worthless because, apparently, a family is never complete without a son? Do they wonder if their parents are disappointed in them because of their gender? Do they feel like failures for no fault of their own?

But somehow, everyone feels entitled to comment on other people's personal choices, or even query their life decisions. Here is just a random sample of questions that you grow up being asked in India -- not just by parents, family members, neighbors or friends; but by complete strangers in doctors' waiting rooms, on the train, and yes, even in airline lounges.

* How come you are not married yet? Divorced? Oh, what happened?
* How many kids do you have? Just the one? He is 5 already? Isn't it time you had the second one. You know, only children can grow up to be selfish and lonely.
* How long have you been married? No children? Any problems? You know, I can recommend a specialist. He helped my cousin conceive -- not once, but twice!

And then, there are the questions that are asked so that you can be placed in the social order:

* Where did you go to school?
* Did you go to college in India or abroad?
* Where do you live? Do you live in a flat or a house? How much did you pay for it? Oh, your parents left it to you? How much do you think it is worth now?
* What car do you drive? Do you drive yourself or do you have a driver?
* Where did you go for your summer holidays? Where are you planning to go for Christmas/New Year?

The questions just pile on and on and on till the intrusiveness becomes such a part of your environment that you don't even register it, let alone find it offensive.

But then comes a moment when a complete stranger walks up to you and asks you about your husband's medical condition as if he has a perfect right to do so. And that's when you begin to lay down boundaries in your own head. And promise yourself that you will safeguard them even at the cost of being seen as rude. Because, sometimes, offence is the best defence.

Dishing it out

How our relationship with food has changed over the last decade or so

Remember a time when food was just food? When it was something that you ate without thinking too much about it. When the highlight of your weekend was your mom's rajma-chawal (or fish fry or chicken biryani or whatever your comfort food was, growing up). When going out for a meal was something you did only on special occasions, like a birthday or an anniversary. When the only item of food that ever got photographed was your birthday cake -- and that, only because you were in the process of cutting it.

Well, if you are above the age of 30, you probably do. That was probably the last generation to come of age in an environment where food was just food. There was no obsessing about the calorific count of various dishes. There was no concern about the harm that sugar/carbohydrates/fat were doing to your health. Food wasn't something that you obsessed about; it wasn't something to fetishize on TV shows. Cooking was seen as mere drudgery; there was nothing glamorous about whipping up a three-course meal for your friends. And if you eschewed entire food groups on the grounds that they weren't good for you, your mom was more likely to give you an enema than cook a special meal for you.

But, as you may have noticed, things have changed since those innocent days when we mainlined maida (and snorted up industrial quantities of sugar) through the day without giving it another thought. Now, we are all mindful of what we eat. Wholewheat bread rather than white. Free-range eggs, not those produced by battery chickens. Olive oil rather than butter and cream. Lots of vegetables. White meat not red. Steaming rather than frying. And so on and on and on.

We all have a 'food theory' or a fad diet that we subscribe to. Some of us believe in 'clean eating', which translates into lots of fruit and vegetables with minimal cooking involved. Some follow the Paleo diet, eating food that only the Paleolithic man ate. Some still swear by the tried-and-debunked Atkins diet (lots of red meat, cream, cheese, butter, with a side order of cardiac arrest). Some don't let a morsel pass their lips after 7.30 pm in the belief that this will make them thin.

And then, there are those fancy themselves as 'foodies', with an abiding interest in different cuisines and the desire to gorge on them all. They are the ones trying to recreate that dish they saw on Masterchef in their kitchens. They are the ones most likely to whip up a 'mean Thai red curry' or bake a 'flakier than flaky croissant'. They are the ones who plan their holidays around the restaurants they want to eat in. Call them gourmands or gourmets, it matters little. It is food that drives them all.

Food allergies have had their day. Now we justify our exclusionist diets by evoking those two words that strike terror in every hostess' heart: food intolerance. So you have your regular lactose-intolerant folk, who won't have anything made from milk (except dahi, it has something to do with lactic acid apparently; but don't ask me more because the explanation was so boring that I fell asleep halfway through.) And then there are the newly-minted gluten intolerant folk (no, they haven't had tests, silly; they just understand their own bodies so well.) But the truly annoying ones are those who claim to be 'vegan' because it sounds so much more exotic, when they are, in fact, just plain 'vegetarian'.

How we eat has become a status symbol. If you eat parathas and dahi for breakfast you are a bit desi. The truly sophisticated would have rye bread and free range egg white omelette. Rotis or dal chawal for dinner? How very infra dig! You should really be having some grilled fish or chicken with a green salad on the side.

As for how we cook -- well, we cook mostly to show off. The potluck dinner is a thing of the past. Now, the way to impress your friends -- or even your boss -- is to create a restaurant-quality meal in your own kitchen (the more 'exotic' the cuisine, the more the bonus marks). If it's Italian, then an easy-peasy pasta or risotto won't do; you need to put at least an ossobuco on the table. If it's Thai, then a simple curry doesn't cut it; an omelette stuffed with crab would be a better indicator of your skill. If it's 'Continental', then you need to pull out all the stops: savory soufflé, lamb done pink and a chocolate fondant to end. And if it's Indian...well, really, why even bother?

And remember how the food looks is as important as how it tastes. Because, you know, Instagram. And Facebook. And Twitter. That's where all those dishes are destined to live on forever, scooping up likes and compliments, long after the meal is long over.

Because food is no longer simply food, to be wolfed down as soon as it makes an appearance on the table and forgotten soon after. Now, every meal is something to be mulled over, every dish a photo-opportunity, and every ingredient a statement.

So, bon appetit to all you 'foodies'. As for me, since you ask, I'm sticking to my rajma-chawal!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Time lapse

Here's a quick glimpse of what you can expect from your 40s

Every decade of our life brings with it a few life changes. In your 20s, you are just about entering the big, bad world as a fully-formed adult, negotiating your way through it on your own. It is a somewhat scary but always exhilarating experience. Your 30s, more often than not, finding you settling down, or at the very least, attempting to, with a spouse or a partner, with a couple of kids and in-laws thrown into the mix.

And, then come your 40s. This is probably the decade when you will experience the most life changes. And this may well be the decade that changes you as well.

As someone who is on that journey, allow me to give you a quick glimpse into what you can expect from your 40s, based on my own experience and that of my friends.

* Just when you think that your kids have now grown up and can cope on their own, you will have to become carers once again: this time to your parents or parents-in-law. With a bit of luck, these illnesses won't be life-threatening. Perhaps a broken leg, necessitating a stay in hospital, and a long rehab process afterwards. If you (and they) are truly out of luck, it may be something more serious like a heart episode or a stroke. But no matter how quickly they recover and how good the prognosis, your life and theirs will never be the same again. Not just because of the demands on your time and energy. But also because parenting your parents can be heartbreaking, for both parties.

* Middle age will start to make itself manifest in your body. You will no longer be able to dance in heels all night without hobbling back home in pain. After a long night of drinking with your friends, you won't be in a position to get up the next morning and get to work (oh no! You'll be in bed, groaning and moaning, and nursing the mother of all hangovers). There will be that niggling ache in your back when you pick up something heavy or overdo it on the cross trainer at the gym. Your knees will creak in protest when you take a flight of steps. I could go on, but I'll only end up depressing both you and me.

* Just when you are in a position to afford eating out in fancy places, thanks to a generous company expense account, your doctors will put you on a strict no-fat diet ("Your cholesterol is off the charts," he/she will harrumph disapprovingly). Just as you finally have enough disposable income to buy those designer suits you hankered after all your life, you will discover that you don't fit into even the largest size on display. Made to measure, instead? You'll have to get into your 50s before you can afford that!

* Did you really think that the worst bits of child rearing were over? Ha, bloody ha! Now, instead of those cute cherubs who climbed into your bed every morning and woke you up, you have two sulking teenagers skulking around the house, answering your every query with a grudging monosyllable. Their rooms are a mess; but you are not allowed entry, even for a clean-up. They spend all their time on their phones, Snapchatting and Instagramming; but you have been blocked on both, so you don't have a clue what is going on in their lives.

* This is also probably the time when you begin to panic about your finances. Your children -- yes, the ones closeted in the bedroom, with ear-thumping music on -- are unlikely to get the grades to get into top-rated Indian colleges. So it will have to be university in Britain and America -- or Singapore, at the very least. Yes, you have spent the last decade saving for it. But who knew that the rupee would hit this all-time low? You could spend everything you have saved or even take a loan to send your kids to a prestigious college abroad. But what if you had a medical emergency or lost your job in the interim? How would you cope? Is it a wonder you don't sleep well at night?

* And then, there is the bereavement and the loss. This is the decade in which you will begin to experience the loss of near and dear ones. And not just of your parents and in-laws, who are in the twilight of their lives. No, this is when you will lose a friend, an old school mate, an office colleague, someone roughly your age, to death. More often than not, this will come as a bolt from the blue and leave you gasping with shock and horror. There, you will find yourself thinking, but for the grace of God, go I.

Yes, I know, I paint a depressing picture. But there is much to be thankful for as well. You are still around. Your kids may not speak to you but (trust me) they still love you. And most certainly, they need you. Your parents may be shadows of their former selves, but their presence still adds grace to your lives.

Yes, you may well think that there's nothing to cheer about getting older (or even, just plain old). But pause for a moment and consider the alternative. There, you feel much better, don't you?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Have you Heard about Depp?

The lessons we learn from celebrity break-ups

Unless you have been hibernating in the wilds of Ladakh, by now you will have heard about the messy breakdown of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s marriage. If, like me, you are something of a news junkie, you will have the details of their marital meltdown coming out of your ears.

To recap very briefly, it happened thus. Johnny Depp and Amber Heard met on the sets of the movie, The Rum Diary, and fell in love. Johnny broke up with his partner of 14 years, the French actress Vanessa Paradis, who is the mother of his two children, and moved in with Amber. Fifteen months ago, Depp and Heard got married in a spectacular beach ceremony in the Bahamas.

And a couple of weeks ago, just days after the death of Johnny’s beloved 81-year-old mother, Betty Sue Palmer, Amber sued her husband for divorce and obtained a temporary restraining order against him on the grounds that he had been physically abusive towards her through the course of their short-lived (but clearly stormy) marriage. To prove her case, Amber produced pictures of her battered face, with bruises around her eyes and a fat lip. 

The Depp camp responded with denials and statements from Depp’s ex partner, Paradis, and his daughter, Lily-Rose, about what a lovely and loving man he was, and how it was impossible that he would hit a woman. Heard hit back by leaking an exchange of messages she had had with Depp’s assistant a few years ago, which seemed to acknowledge a history of abuse from Depp over a period of time. The assistant responded by saying the messages were fabricated. And so it went, on and on and on.

No break-up is ever pleasant but there is something particularly nasty about celebrity break-ups. It’s not just that the world’s attention is focused on the private lives of strangers, but that everyone has an opinion on stuff that they couldn’t possibly have any knowledge of. And before you know it, fans of both parties have come down on one side or another, sticking by their respective idols with a resolution matched only by their ignorance.

So, we have Camp Depp, which insists that there is no way that Johnny could have been abusive towards Amber. He is such a splendid, stand-up guy! Didn’t you see what a marvelous job he did as Jack Sparrow in Pirates Of The Caribbean? Not to mention his performance in Alice In Wonderland. She is just making up all this stuff to get a bigger divorce settlement.

Ranged against Camp Depp is Camp Heard, which is considerably smaller but makes up for it by being a bit shriller. Their view seems to be that women who claim to be victims of domestic abuse should be believed – or else other women will be too afraid to come forward and report their abusive partners. And why would Amber be making this stuff up anyway? It is not in the interest of a small-time actress like her to take on the might of a Hollywood megastar like Johnny Depp.

And thus it goes. Emotions run high. Arguments break out, both in real life and on social media. For some reason, people seem to take this stuff personally even though they don’t know the persons involved. 

I don’t know about you, but what this reminds me of is the time when Brad Pitt broke up with Jennifer Aniston and went off to play happy families with Angelina Jolie. Even then, the world seemed to be divided into Team Aniston and Team Jolie; for some reason, no one thought it fit to create a Team Pitt.

But while every celebrity break-up is unique in its own way – certainly, there were no accusations of domestic violence against Pitt – they do teach us the same lessons. Here, in no particular order of importance, are the top three:

If you have a fortune to protect, whether you are a man or a woman, always get a pre-nuptial agreement signed before you sign on the marriage certificate. Yes, I know, it is not terribly romantic to foresee what may happen in the case of a divorce even before the wedding. But it is the best way to ensure that you are not risking the assets you spent years building up; and, more to the point, that your prospective spouse is marrying you for the right reasons.
Try your damnedest to keep the media out of your business. Work out all your issues – alimony, divorce settlements, child custody arrangements – in private with your lawyers. Once you have negotiated all these tricky bits, release a joint statement to the media. Follow the example of those ‘conscious uncouplers’, Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow, or nearer home, Hrithik Roshan and Sussanne Khan, who have remained publicly supportive of each other even after their divorce.
There is a thin line between love and hate, and it is all too easy to tip over to the other side when your relationship is disintegrating. But no matter how bitter and angry you are with your soon-to-be ex-partner, try and remember that this is a person you once loved and wanted to spend your life with. Respect and civility goes a long way. And even if it isn’t reciprocated, in the long run you will be happy that you, at least, did the right thing.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The book's the thing...

And sometimes it’s even better when it is adapted for TV or a movie

If you are a fan of Elena Ferrante, and (like me) are suffering withdrawal pangs after having devoured every word she has ever written, then I have some good news for you. The Italian film and television production company, Wildside, has announced that it is working on adapting Ferrante’s Neopolitan quartert into a TV series, along with producer Fandango. The series will be shot in Italy, and in Italian.

The four novels, which trace the friendship of Lenu and Lina over half a century, will be adapted into a four-season TV series, which each novel taking in eight episodes, making it a 32-episode blockbuster. Ferrante is believed to be involved in the production, though nobody quite knows in what capacity or how closely. But then, given that nobody even knows who Ferrante is – she is still jealously clinging tight to her anonymity – that can’t be very surprising.

No release date has been announced but I am already salivating with anticipation. The story of Lenu and Lina consumed me entirely as I raced to the final book in the quartet, The Story of the Lost Child, and I can’t wait to see this tale of female friendship retold in a visual medium.

Of course, this anticipation is tinged with a dash of fear. It is the same fear that every book-lover experiences when a well-loved book is turned into a movie or a TV series. I felt that fear when the first series of Game of Thrones was released, not sure how that tale of kings and knights, love and lust, pride and passion, would work on the TV screen.

Would it all look a bit ridiculous, like some costume dramas tend to do? Would the story have the same power on TV as it did in the book? Would the characters be reduced to caricatures because of the demands of the visual medium? Would it just become yet another bodice-ripper of the kind that litter the television universe?

You can imagine my relief when the TV series proved to be as much of a triumph as the books. Of course, I felt a little miffed that I already knew what was going to happen, thus losing out on the thrill of anticipation that other viewers, who hadn’t read the book, were feeling. But then, George R.R. Martin, rather obligingly, went off script in the later seasons, and I could watch with the same edge-of-the-seat excitement that non-readers were privileged to experience.

So, yes, I am a tad nervous about how the Ferrante will survive the transition to our TV screens. Just as I am both nervous and excited about the movie adapation of Longbourn that is in the works. Random House Studios and Focus Features have acquired the film rights to Jo Baker’s novel about life below stairs in the Bennet household made famous by Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice), and the release date is tentatively set for 2017. I just hope and pray that this adaptation remains true to the original and doesn’t go down the Downton Abbey route.

But the one author whose works I long to see on television is Georgette Heyer (just one of her books, The Reluctant Widow, has been made into a film – and a pretty bad one at that!). The prolific author of Regency Romances has given us such amazing characters as The Grand Sophy, Arabella, Frederica, Venetia, and it would be an absolute treat to see them come alive on the TV screen. But for some reason, British TV companies are too busy filming Pride and Prejudice again and again and again to pay any attention to the possibilities inherent in these Heyer heroines.

And that is an absolute pity, if you ask me. Heyer tells absolutely cracking stories, intricately-plotted and leavened with wit and humour. And her heroines are the absolute best; plucky little creatures who do their best in a society that hems them around with strict rules of etiquette.

Who else but Heyer could come up with a heroine like Sophia Stanton-Lacy who comes visiting her aunt with a little monkey to gift her young cousins, and thinks nothing of confronting an evil moneylender with an elegant but effective pistol? Or the impish Leonie de Saint-Vire, who masquerades as a young page in Parisian society, before being unveiled as an aristocratic beauty? Or even the stunningly beautiful Deborah Grantham, relegated to the fringes of polite society as Faro’s Daughter, who makes the greatest conquest of them all?

I could go on listing the marvelous, resourceful, witty, intelligent, beautiful women who people Heyer’s stories (the headstrong Lady Serena Carlow, Judith Taverner, Mary Challoner are just some names that come to mind) but then we’d be here forever. Instead you could go over to petitionbuzz.com and sign a petition asking that Heyer’s novels be made into a movie.

Though, if you ask me, television is better suited to telling Heyer’s stories (in my view, movies are like short stories, only TV series can do justice to the sweep of a novel). Surely the BBC or ITV, which spends millions on period dramas of dubious quality, could pick up one Heyer Regency Romance – my personal favourite would be The Grand Sophy – and adapt it into a six-part series. I would bet my entire collection of tattered copies of Heyer’s novels that it would do so well that production companies would be scrambling for the rights to the books yet to be filmed.

So, come on guys, look sharp. This is a world of fiction beyond Jane Austen and Julian Fellowes that beckons.