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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Neighbourhood watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Superwoman complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Shooting star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 10, 2016

You're not wearing that?!

The story of a woman's life retold through the prism of gratuitous fashion advice

It starts soon after birth. Girl babies must be dressed in pink. Their dresses must have plenty of frills and ruffles. A bit of sparkle wouldn't go amiss. And it doesn't matter if the poor mite is virtually bald, stick a shiny headband or a shimmery barrette on for good measure.

Girls, you see, must look like girls. If you must dress them in trousers be sure to slip on a floral T-shirt on top. If you put them in shorts rather than skirts, make sure they are wearing delicate ballerina shoes not sturdy sneakers. And if they are on the beach or at a swimming pool they must wear proper swimsuits, with a bikini top that covers breasts that they haven't yet sprouted.

And from then on, the fashion messaging gets rather relentless. Girls who want to wear jeans and shirts rather than pretty little dresses as they grow into their pre-teens are described indulgently (and sometimes exasperatedly) as 'tomboys'. The subliminal message is that this is a phase they will grow out of, once they have gotten in touch with their femininity. Because this is clearly not how girls are supposed to look.

Teenage brings with it it's own set of rules, depending on where they live. If they live in small towns or in rural India, then this is the time to put away their frocks and skirts and seek shelter in the 'safe' haven of a salwar kameez. If their parents are more 'liberal' than most, then they can wear jeans with a kurta, if it is long enough to cover their derrières. But that's only until they get married. Once they are in their husband's home, the in-laws decide what they get to wear. Salwar kameez or sari. Head covered or uncovered. Goonghat or no ghoonghat.

The fashion lives of urban women are relatively unrestricted -- but only up to a point (at the end of the day, they are 'girls' after all). And so long as their parents, brothers, husbands, in-laws, and larger communities are on board.

So college girls in the major metros can, in theory, wear dresses, skirts, jeans, shorts or whatever the hell they please. There's just one catch. The fashion police that parades every campus, indeed every street, in India must approve. And if they think that tight jeans are 'distracting' or that short skirts are a 'provocation' well then, they wear that kind of stuff at their own peril.

In fact, as girls grow into women, it is quite amazing just how many fashion choices come attached with a tag titled 'Asking For It'. That sleeveless top tucked into the waistband of your trousers; that sari blouse tied across your back with a couple of strings; that skirt that rides up your thighs when you sit down or cross your legs; the leggings that show off the shape of your posterior; the dress that reveals cleavage when you bend down; or even the otherwise staid sari that shows off your midriff and stomach. No matter what your choice of outfit and which body part it exposes (or conceals), there is always a good chance that you are 'asking for it'.

What did you say? What are these women 'asking for'? Well, that depends. It could be anything from being cat called on the street, being followed home by putative stalkers, being groped in buses, marketplaces or on the Metro. And that's if they are lucky. If they aren't, they could even be 'asking for' being molested, or even raped by hapless men who have been so thoroughly 'provoked' that they can't be held responsible for their actions.

This scenario gets even more complicated if you bring the entire world into the mix. You can't wear bikinis in Iran. You can't wear burkinis in France. You can't leave your head uncovered in Saudi Arabia. You can't cover your face in Belgium. And so on and on and on.

Nor does it get any better as women get older. They might think that they have now passed the stage of being seen as sexual beings. And that they can now relax and wear whatever the hell they want. Well if they do, they have another think coming.

Once they are in their 40s, the fashion advice comes couched in 'mutton dressed as lamb' terms (sometimes from their own daughters who scoff: "Are you really going out in that?"). Anything above the knee is a strict no-no. Tight trousers or dresses are seen as a dodgy choice. And bare upper arms or a dash of cleavage invites exhortations of "Just put it away, dear!"

Even when women are post-menopausal or well into their 60s and 70s, the gratuitous tips doesn't cease. And in India, it gets particularly intrusive if they are widows. Don't wear bright colors. Don't use so much makeup. And is that bindi really a good idea? In fact, the style rules still apply even when they are dead: a red sari for the pyre if her husband survives her; a white one if she is a widow.

As far as dress codes go, there's none quite as stringent as the ones prescribed for women: from the moment they enter this world to the time they depart it.

This really is a life-long service. And it matters little that you didn't sign up for it.

Daddy issues

We do our kids a disservice when we marginalize the role fathers play in their lives

A few months ago, I went to see the stand-up comic, Papa CJ, perform his show, Naked. He walked on to the stage, carrying a few props. Among them was a teeny-tiny blue onesie that he hung up on a stand behind him as he began his routine. But it was only towards the end of the show that the audience learnt its significance. This was what Papa CJ’s son had been wearing when he last saw him. Since then, many long years had passed but he hadn’t seen his son because of a bitter divorce and a custody battle that left him frozen out of his child’s life.

There were a few moist eyes in the audience by then, especially when he confessed that he had a fantasy that a stranger would knock on his door one day, ask him if he was Papa CJ, and then ask if it was okay if he just called him ‘Papa’.

I was reminded of this show last week when I read Maneka Gandhi’s comments on paternity leave. The Union minister for women and child development announced: “Paternity leave will be considered only if, once the woman goes back to work after 26 weeks of leave, we find that men are availing their sick leave for a month to take care of the child…I will be happy to give it but for a man, it will be just a holiday, he won’t do anything.”

Now, I have no personal knowledge of the circumstances of Papa CJ’s divorce and the rights and wrongs of his custody battle, but having witnessed his pain as he recounted being denied access to his son, it was clear that here was one father who would have given anything for the privilege of changing his child’s diaper one more time. And in that, he stands in for millions of Indian fathers who would love to play a more hands-on role in the rearing of their children, but are unable to do so because one parent has to be in full-time work to keep the home fires burning.

These kinds of men do the best they can. They try and come back early each evening to give their wives a little rest. They take over night feeds. They rock the baby to sleep in the early hours of the morning. They put together a quick pasta or pulao for dinner if the baby has bad colic and just won’t settle down. And they long for the weekends when they can spend quality time with their kids, breathing in their special baby smell as they douse them with talcum powder post bathtime.

Are there some Dads who shirk childcare responsibilities even when they have all the time in the world? Am sure there are. But for every Dad who prefers watching football to playing ball with his kid, there is another who spends hours reading stories to his child, giving in to every demand of, “Just one more, Dad!”

Fathers like these would like nothing more than a period of paternity leave when they could legitimately take some time off work to bond with their babies, and give their sleep-deprived wives some respite in the endless duties of childcare. But stereotypes like the ones that Maneka Gandhi referenced in her statement prevent them from doing just that.

This casual dismissal of the important roles fathers play – and more importantly, want to play – in a child’s life is symptomatic of a culture in which it has become fashionable to slag off men to prove your feminist credentials.

Consider this. Would Maneka Gandhi have been allowed to get away with it if she had made such a sweeping statement about women? Or, more to the point, would a male minister get away with being so dismissive about women? Let’s say that a male minister said that women should not be allowed credit cards because they are reckless shoppers and would run into debt. Would we let that go as easily as we have the suggestion that all men would treat paternity leave like a paid vacation?

Of course not. There would be widespread outrage, political parties would condemn the statement, social media would go into meltdown, there would be demands for an apology. In short, all hell would break loose.

But sexism doesn’t cease to be sexism just because the targets are men rather than women. And dismissing all men as ‘feckless fathers’ who don’t have any interest in looking after their children reeks of rank sexism.

Yes, there are plenty of men who feel pretty useless around a baby when he/she is being breastfed and in diapers. But who said that paternity leave was only meant for when the child is an infant? Child-rearing doesn’t stop once the kids have started walking and talking. If anything, it can get even more strenuous.

It’s not enough to bathe and feed children. It is just as important to teach them life skills like swimming or cycling. Or indeed, provide them a living example of a world in which men and women are equal participants, equal partners even, in the task of raising a family.

So, instead of reinforcing the stereotype that looking after babies is a woman’s job, how about encouraging men to get more involved in the rearing of their children? And if you are going to do that, then incentivizing them with a period of paid paternity leave is a good start.