Rantings and Ravings.
Happy New Year. I haven’t written a word in ages and I figured the New Year would be as good a time as any to get started. This is less a New Year resolution and more a panicked reaction to the fact that I am way behind on a manuscript I have to turn in sometime in April and writing, any kind of writing is now a requirement. Plus I finally have something to write about – I just got back from a brilliant vacation in Goa.
As my last name suggests I am Goan on my dad’s side of the family, but neither he nor I were born or raised there so really we are Goan only in name. I wish I wasn’t Goan at all though because in a minute I am going to sound like I am bragging about my ‘home’ state. You see, post this visit I have come to believe that Goa is the best part of India, hands down, no competition.
While the beaches, the weather, the food and the party scene are all superlative what I love about Goa is it’s diversity. Having lived in New York for close to fifteen years I like a heterogeneous mix of people. To me that is an indication of a tolerant and creative spirit as well as a sign that as a woman I will be left alone to enjoy myself without fear. There is no other part of India that attracts and embraces such a wide range of people, Indian and foreign, nor is there anywhere where a couple of college girls can wear short skirts and bandanas around their boobs and not have to call the cops because they are being harassed.
Because the last time I visited Goa was twenty years ago several people assured me that I would hate it, and that it had changed. Well, it definitely has changed, and in many ways I am sure for the worse, but I didn’t hate it. Sure there were a few shacks and bars that clearly attracted a certain type of city slicker, a.k.a the kind of folk who behave the same way no matter where in the world they go, making no adjustment for the local culture or people. It is also true that some of the beaches have gotten more crowded. Although this didn’t bother me as much as the fact that the average Indian male now thinks his Y-fronts can double up as a swimsuit. Gentlemen, when I see a strange man walking towards me in his underpants, no matter how noble your intentions may be, you have already molested me, please put some pants on before I find myself appreciating the Speedo.
But besides Goa what I also notice has changed is me. I am now 40 (oops almost 41) and twenty years later I am a completely different kind of beach bum, here is how.
- I packed more cover-ups than actual swimsuits.
- I packed more moisturizer – day cream, night cream, light moisturizer for after the water, body lotion for after a shower, suntan oil, and sunscreen (30 SPF for body and 72 SPF for face).
- With regard to the sun tan, while my legs started to look insanely younger the same may not be said for my face mainly because my white hair now looks even WHITER.
- I was cranky about going to crowded beaches, walking around crowded market places, and driving on crowded roads. In my 20’s if I didn’t see heaving masses of people I considered the venue lame.
- I had to ‘rest’ between the beach and going out at night.
- A sexy 20-year-old now makes me feel tired rather than jealous.
- I had to drink in moderation because anything else would have involved the packing of many more moisturizers and several sticks of concealer.
- Camel-Toe is no longer something that happens to other people.
- My bikini bottoms are more vital than the bra because they must hold up my ass, which is bigger (by far) than my boobs.
10. My friends now have children that we had to take to the beach and play with. Oddly enough this was big-time fun. In my 20’s if anyone had told me I would think such a thought I would have told them that they were out of their fucking minds.
So yes, 20 years is a long time and people and places do change. What hadn’t changed though was the feeling I got when I landed in Goa – the feeling that I was happy.
On that note – enjoy 2014, and try to visit Goa if you can.
Written and performed by Radhika Vaz.
At 40 I have the confidence I wish I’d had at 20, the body I pray I will have at 60, and nose hair. At 40 there is a lot of nose hair.
Having turned 40 this year Vaz focuses her wit on the challenges of aging in a culture that worships youth, her decision not to have children and the stress that accompanied this choice, as well as her constant struggle to overcome her obsession with housework. Hilarious, irreverent, and always on the money, ‘Older. Angrier. Hairier.’ is a trip through the mind of a woman who refuses to take life too seriously – mainly because that wouldn’t be funny.
July 24, 25, 26, 27 (8pm), July 28 (7pm).
The Producers Club. 358 West 44th Street (b/w 8th and 9th Ave.)
$25 at the door.
$18 online. BUY HERE.
I started out young playing bingo and we didn’t call it bingo back then. We called it ‘housey’ , and it was the most-loved game on all Indian Air Force stations (or at least the ones I grew up on). I guess the reason for this was that it was basically gambling cloaked as something a little less scary sounding.
The bingo games were organized at the club, which is a spacious open-air and family-friendly area. If you didn’t rush to get there, then you wouldn’t be able to get a table. Imagine balancing your food, drink, and ticket on your lap. My dad has an impressive announcer’s voice just like Ameen Sayani and there are times that he calls out the numbers. Bingo (or housey) callers are fun to listen to, especially if you are younger because they don’t just shout out the numbers, but instead announce them in a unique way. You can hear them say, “Number 2 for me and you, Legs 11, number 13 unlucky for some” and more funny number descriptions. I was fascinated by them and their ability to call the numbers quickly while at the same time coming up with a witticism that instantly brought those numbers to life. And when it was my dad’s turn to announce, I felt so proud of him. Today, people play the game online through websites like FoxyBingo. Even if they don’t get to hear the callers, people can interact with the hosts and other players through chat games and the site’s online community. It makes people feel like they are really at the club playing bingo.
My mum always bought me a few tickets so I could play along with them. I don’t recall winning anything, but I wasn’t alone. There may be lots of frustration over those little bingo tickets, but people continue to enjoy hearing the callers and being with good company. The prize money back then was not that big – usually five or ten rupees and sometimes fifty – but that was very rare – but it doesn’t matter. It’s clear to me that money wasn’t what people were after, it was the rush that bingo gives to a player. The rush that only luck can bring – or rather the anticipation of luck.
A selfie is a ‘self-portrait’ taken on your phone. I had no idea what a ‘selfie’ was until MTV Desi had me do this little project for them. Here is a slideshow that will tell you exactly what you need to do to get that perfect Facebook profile pic.
Last week the Delhi High Court upheld a ruling that shut down the Comedy Central television channel for ten days ( a ban they recently lifted while they ‘reassess the case’). This ruling was based on recommendations from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry and according to the various reports I have read, the Ministry was in a huff because two programs (“Stand Up Club” and “Popcorn) that aired on the channel contained “dialogues denigrating women”.
Now, I have NOT viewed either of the programs that inspired this brouhaha, and so I do not know if these shows were witty and relevant, or if they were just a meaningless bunch of sex-jokes strung together to entertain the mind of the average 18-year-old male, and I most certainly do not know if the humor depicted in any way denigrates women. That said I am pissed off with all of this for two reasons.
The first is that this ruling is an obvious denial of my freedom of speech. As a comedian my goal is, and will always be, to push the boundaries of everything – including what the moral police considers ‘good taste’. I remember when I first performed my live show in India, a ‘taste-maker’ in Bangalore actually told my producer that he (yes it was a man) thought it wasn’t proper for a woman to talk about her ‘private parts. Well see – that’s the joke right there. An old guy with nothing better to do other than telling a young performer how to express herself.
For those of you unfamiliar with comedy (mainly the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting), please understand that it is not simply a set of one-liners. Our job is to speak the truth, to question it, and to ultimately make you question it as well. And if we happen to mention human genitalia to make our point so be it. I can’t speak for the comedians at Comedy Central but if that is indeed what they were trying to do then they have been unjustly and harshly punished. And by punishing them you send a message to all of us that says we should play it safe and do as we are told because that is the only way to survive.
For a country with such an ancient tradition of art and culture this is frightening. Don’t get me wrong, there is a certain line that I don’t want anyone crossing – people who incite hate and violence against anything or anyone need to be checked – but a bunch of comedians who were probably doing neither?
The other reason I have my knickers in a bunch is that these Ministry guys have used women’s sensibilities as a crutch for their shenanigans. And while I appreciate the Ministry’s eagerness to get on the bandwagon of protecting women’s rights, I would like them to know something.
As a woman I am not shocked by sex jokes on TV, nor am I afraid of them. The reason I am not afraid of them is because they are locked in a box that I am free to turn off at any given moment. A box that can not possibly follow me down a dark road and violate me in anyway. So thanks gentlemen but this is not offending my womanliness in anyway.
What I am blown away by however is that sex related jokes in Indian media (entertainment or otherwise) have come to the notice of the Ministry just this recently! Are these dudes the only ones who haven’t noticed dialogues denigrating women have been all over TV, the movies, in advertisements and beyond – like forevs. Are they the only ones so blissfully unaware of our screenwriters and songwriters and choreographers tireless efforts to objectify women? Did that just slip by you chaps or is Bollywood too big even for you big shots to dare take on?
Thank you big, strong, manly men of the Ministry for trying to make it look like you care about my sisters and me but did any women actually protest these shows? I may be proved wrong, but I am willing to bet not a single woman complained about this shit. And the reasons they didn’t is because they (the women) have a sense of humor and because they don’t have time for rubbish. They are too busy working, and raising kids and protecting themselves on the street from REAL threats because the police and the government and the justice system won’t do their jobs. And how can we expect them to when they are all engaged in providing extensive protection to themselves and shutting down comedy channels.
What has happened is scary. Like horror movie style creepy. That a group of performers could be so easily silenced, that I can barely find a handful of articles about this online, and that the entertainment industry is not up in arms about this all says something about the largest democracy doesn’t it? It says that we are a country that does not care about its artists. Not one bit.
Some people call it the greatest city on earth; some think it’s a shithole of vice and greed, cramped living spaces, noise, dirt, and way too many immigrants and tourists. I think it is all of these things and more. New York is a city that you can hear, taste and smell. It’s a place you can feel. And for the past 12 years I have been lucky enough to think of it as home. This is the city where I grew up in a sense, got married, learnt what I wanted to do with my life, made some awful mistakes, got some shit right, and above all collected a crazy, amazing group of friends.
In a few months I won’t live here anymore. I haven’t been able to write about this until now because I was in denial. If-I-pretend-I-am-not-moving-then-I-am-not-moving type of thing. But I am, and as I look out of the window here at Aroma Café on 72nd street (a neighborhood I very rarely find myself in), I wonder what I will miss most about the Big Apple. Will it be public transport, the Hudson River, summer in New York, the variety of everything from food to the classes you can sign up for, the Statue of Liberty, Grand Central Station, the skyline, or Brooklyn (!)?
I will probably miss all of it, but if I had to pick just one thing it would be the people. I love New Yorkers. They are resilient, can do with little, walk fast, dress well, come from all over the world and are from every walk of life. They are in a hurry (because the left home later than planned and the R train isn’t running), they complain a lot (‘Fucking snow’), look pissed off (‘Fucking cabbies’), are pissed off (‘Fucking pedicure place shut down’) but can be very kind if you are new or lost. They have created a city that embraces you no matter how strange your parents think you are and then that protects you from the narrow-mindedness that exists elsewhere in the world.
Leaving New York won’t be hard – the people…well that’s a whole other thing.
[I wrote this for the feminist blog Ultra Violet, it is the first of a series on Feminism & Humor]
I GREW UP IN India, as the only child of parents who did not expect me to observe any of the socially accepted behaviors for women. My parents thought that ladylike conduct of any kind was a highly over-rated skill set that I could do without. And so I became what I am today: a loudmouth (comedian) who mines her personal and private life for laughs.
My one-woman comedy show, ‘Unladylike: The Pitfalls of Propriety’, debuted in 2010, and is an hour-long monolog about the endless double standards I was subjected to, none of which were shoved at me by my parents but by society in general, and more insidiously, by my peers. For example – good girls kept their legs crossed and their virginity intact for their husbands. The husbands, of course, were droppin’ it low and spreadin’ it wide (a phrase I learnt from Toni Braxton’s mother). None of this has ever made sense to me, and I open my show with a rant against virginity and the forces that push us to cling to it.
I also rant about other stuff like body hair, flatulence, masturbation, and sex within marriage (or is that just masturbation? Hmm…). And all of it is from the perspective of ‘If it’s OK for the boys, why isn’t it OK for us’? As a comedian, you never know what the audience will find funny. You dig deep, you bare your soul, and you hope that someone out there will relate. And so it was to my utter delight (and, let’s be honest, utter relief,) that people got the joke. Especially the women. Not surprising, I suppose, since the show is written from my perspective as a broad.
Soon after my show opened in New York, a journalist from The Huffington Post interviewed me. She had seen it and her first question was ‘Are you a feminist?’ Looking back, this must have been a rhetorical question. Based on the content of my show, I am a feminist, it’s clear as day! But here is the scariest thing in the world, I did not immediately say ‘YES! Yes, I am a feminist’.
Instead, I hemmed and hawed for what felt like an eternity, until my show’s director, Brock Savage, stepped in and informed us both that he was not just a feminist but a proud feminist, and that he could not stand women who didn’t call themselves feminists. And I see his point – women who disown feminism are like poodles who disown PETA.
Human beings always seem so eager to identify with a state or a country or a religious group. We proudly state our affiliations, ‘I am Bengali’, ‘I am Presbyterian’, ‘I am French’. Yet, here I was with a 60-minute act all about the pain and aggravation of being female and afraid to state my association with the group of humans I had the most in common with! What the hell was wrong with me?
Turns out a few things.
To begin with, I was ignorant. I didn’t have a clue about what a feminist was. Growing up in India, I don’t recall hearing the word ‘feminist’, I didn’t know of any strong, powerful, Indian women being described as feminist and to the best of my knowledge, none of them took that mantle upon themselves. Anil Kapoor was my hair role model, no one had a mullet quite like his, or like mine, for that matter, but where were my feminist role models? They were M.I.A, and so if I did call myself a feminist what exactly was I expected to do? As far as I knew, all our battles had been fought and won by 1970. We could vote, bras had been burnt and we were equal to men.
Of course, now that I see this in print, I feel even more ashamed of myself. I hail from a country rife with female infanticide, a country where child-brides are not that uncommon, and where rape cases go unsolved and the perpetrators go unpunished. How could I have thought, even for a moment, that we women were in the clear?
But even after it had dawned upon me that feminism was very much my business, I still wasn’t sure I qualified! I mean weren’t feminists all clever women with degrees in women’s studies, who eschewed pussy-fart jokes, weed, and gossip about other thinner, more toned ladies?
Turns out, feminism does not discriminate. To begin with many feminists are men (case in point, my director Brock) and so, armed with a vagina, I was already better qualified. As for my bad habits – this was feminism not puritanism, so no problem there. And yes, most feminists are highly intelligent and well-read – but I am smart enough, I went to college, and if I put my mind to it, I know I can catch up with all the ‘required’ reading, which by the way, if you have not got to, yet have no fear and start with Caitlin Moran’s ‘How To Be A Woman’– it is hilarious and meaningful and hilarious – oh I said that twice – and right there – feminists don’t have to be serious, and so I could continue to be a comedian.
So what was I still afraid of?
If I am to be completely honest, part of my hesitation came from the fear of commitment. Once it had dawned up on me that feminism was very much my business, I understood that being a feminist was a responsibility. A responsibility to set an example, to think about the things that affect our lives, and, most important of all, to act when our hard-won choices are threatened.
Oh my God! That’s a lot of work. Plus, I will have to stand by my word, and I may have to argue with a few people, and I will come off as a shrill, unattractive, man-hating shrew.
NOT TRUE! I was a shrill shrew to begin with, so no need to panic. As for man hating – Brock’s gay – he likes men and he is a feminist – so I should be okay. And yes, of course it’s a commitment that may involve some hard choices, and inspire some arguments, but it’s so worth it! Like a few months ago, when female voters in America cast their ballot in favor of President Obama in the hope that his administration would protect their right to choose. Their voices were heard and he won, thus ensuring our reproductive rights were our business for at least the next four years.
But sadly, America is just one country. The day after the election, a young woman, Savita Halappanawar, died in Ireland because she was denied a life-saving abortion. This awful tragedy could have been so easily avoided if we lived in a world where religious sentiments were considered less important than a woman’s life.
Just a month ago, on December 16th, as anyone not living under a rock knows, a woman in New Delhi was brutalized in a vicious gang rape that eventually killed her. As vile as the event was, it brought out the best in Indian women. I kept up with the aftermath from my apartment in New York and for the first time, I actually felt like women in India had had enough. It wasn’t lip service or fear that was on display, but empathy and courage.
The fact is that this awful tragedy could have been avoided if we lived in a world where women are safe and thus truly equal to men. But we don’t, and this shit has to change. And it can only change if we all band together and tell the world that none of us will tolerate it anymore.
Because we are feminists, goddammit, and that is what we do.
(Published by Times of India Crest)
In a few months I will be 40, and the reason that I am thrilled about it is I can finally tell all those annoying pests who say ‘40 is the new 30’ to shove right off.
40 is not the new 30. I am 40. I have been here for 40 years. Not 39 not 38 and certainly not 30. I get what they are trying to say – in the old days a 40-year-old was an auntyji who had back fat, and wore mom-jeans, but today things have changed and a 40 year old is different right?
The only thing that has changed is that instead of spending all our time worrying about how we look and seem to other people until we are 30, now we get to keep going for another bloody decade. All that we have done is increase the number of years that we are obliged to stay YOUNG. Because, let’s be honest, in the youth obsessed culture we now subscribe to, that is all that counts.
And who even comes up with this shit? I’ll tell you who. The same turnip who came up with ‘inside every skinny girl is a fat girl waiting to get out’. This is not true. I have been patiently waiting for the fat girl to come crawling out of Christy Turlington. I have waiting for this to happen since the early 1990’s, since that annoying George Michael video with all the super-models. Not going to happen. Because inside every skinny girl is another skinny girl, and inside her is another skinnier girl and so on. They are like those Russian nesting dolls. There is no fat girl inside a skinny girl and being 40 is not the new 30.
And until I heard this nonsense I thought getting older was normal. Actually I thought it was fabulous. When I was a kid my dad was allowed to smoke what he wanted, drink what he wanted, eat whatever the hell he wanted to, he could stay up late and not bathe if he felt like it, all because he was OLD. So naturally I couldn’t wait. Also, when I was growing up in India, asking a woman her age wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t a rude question; it was just a question like ‘Madam how tall are you?’
But now the foolishness has spread and even in my Motherland asking a woman her age is a rude question. And the reason it’s rude is because the whole problem with being older is that you look older and looking your age is now an insult. The word ‘old’ is now an abuse. It’s an affront. We have managed to take a natural stage of life and make it insulting. Old is the new fat.
I recently got in to a conversation about age with an acquaintance of mine (she was a friend who got downgraded immediately after this interaction) and I said ‘I know I look 40 and I am ok with it’ and she lost it!
‘NONONONONONO you don’t look 40, are you crazy! You are so fit! You don’t look 40, not you’.
I know she was trying to make me feel better but all she managed to do was irritate the crap out of me.
Of course the part that bugs me most is that this is a woman problem, because while our male counterparts dissolve in to a sagging, drooping mass of 40-year-old bitchtits, they are called distinguished and sexy and we are called cougars! Ladies, a word was made up to describe us! Men get to enjoy their 40’s with a beer, a pile of pancakes and no hair, but I get no rest. I am still supposed to have the face, body, and enthusiasm I had 10 years ago. And I can’t keep up! Because being 40 is nothing like being 30.
30 can mix dark rum and vodka shots with wild abandon, vomit it all up and then bounce back to life only to repeat the whole process again the next night. At 40 if I mix rum and vodka shots it is entirely possible that I will die. If I survive, I will not look like I have a hangover; I will look like a hangover, like the flakey, beige balls of a very old, sick basset hound.
Look, we all want to appear to be ‘aging gracefully’ which used to mean that you were graceful about aging, you didn’t bitch, you didn’t moan, and you didn’t believe stupid little sayings, you just got on with your life, but now ‘aging gracefully’ basically means not aging at all. Not physically, not mentally, not emotionally, not spiritually. So we have a bunch of 40 years olds who look like 30 year olds with the emotionally intelligence of a 20 year old.
There are many things about aging that suck but there are some wonderful things too. Experience, patience, introspection – are all glorious things that typically come with age, and to deny this is denying our own development. 40 isn’t the new 30, but if we carry on like this 40 will soon be the new stupid.
(Published in Times of India Crest).
By the time I hit ‘marriageable age’, or my late teens, it became clear as day that because my parents, and my grandparents before them, had had ‘love marriages’, I too would have to fend for myself in the marital department of life. Growing up in a rather liberal home I knew that one fine day I would go off and either find or not find a life partner. Arranged marriages were uncommon in my clan and it was apparent that I would not be getting any help from my folks or anyone else on that score.
This was well and good while I was in college. I was grateful that my mum and dad weren’t annoying busybodies planning my future, but were instead happy to let me have boyfriends and find my own way. They were cool parents, who would be down with whoever I loved regardless of religion, nationality or bank account, and so I was unable to relate to some of the horror stories I heard of girls being forced to break-up with their sweethearts only to be ‘married off’ to someone they barely even knew. I actually felt sorry for these girls, they would never understand the joys and excitement of a love affair! Mine were modern parents and I was a modern chic. Yay for me.
By the time I got to my mid-twenties however had I changed my mind. While most of my girlfriends had received at least one offer of marriage via their families, my tally was depressingly a big fat zero (I refuse to count the really creepy Physics tutor who wanted to marry me when I was 17). I even had a friend whose second cousin sent her a proposal, and while she cringed at the idea I secretly envied her. As far as I was concerned the Arrangeds were at an unfair advantage.
To begin with, how wonderful it would be if I could, on the strength of my family’s reputation alone, find a man. I always believed that women in arranged marriages were not running around wasting time in the bargain basement of life, rummaging about for a good deal, instead she was shopping in a boutique where the products on display had been handpicked after an intensive whetting by sundry aunties, uncles and other do-gooders. Unlike me this girl would not have to dress up and parade around nightclubs until the odd hours of the night looking for a man, he would instead be presented to her in the dignified ambience of her home. It was with silently mounting terror that I realized I had mistaken my parent’s inability to pull a proposal for ‘coolness’. If I never found love it would be their fault. Unfair advantage #1.
Another thing an Arranged need not worry about is whether or not she is wasting her time with a commitment phobic moron. No of course not, thanks to the aforementioned aunties and do-gooders her selection set will comprise of men, not boys, who actually want to be wed. The rest of us on the other hand have to take our chances – which by the way are about as good as winning a lottery. Once we identify a guy we reallyreally like, we are then left wondering ‘how serious is he?’. This wondering by the way is bloody exhausting. You are not allowed to just come out and ask because men as we all know are rather timid creatures and get freaked out by all this commitment stuff. So instead you become a paranoid bundle of nerves trying to work this all out in your head and the head of your loving girl friends. Unfair Advantage #2.
And last but not least, one of the biggest challenges that face those of us who must marry for love – meeting the parents. The question of WHEN to introduce your significant other to mummy-ji and papa-ji is a big one. Introduce them too soon and you appear over-eager (my husband met my parents before we started dating), introduce them too late and it looks like you may be a commitment phobic moron (I met my future mother-in-law after I had lived with her son -shrouded in the kind of secrecy the KGB would have envied – for over three years, and I met my future father-in-law two weeks before my wedding.)
For obvious reasons the Arrangeds don’t have to give this type of thing a second thought. They meet the parents pretty much immediately, and if for any reason they haven’t had a chance to get acquainted, they have at the very least been pre-approved – like good credit card customers. In a Love Marriage on the other hand you are a high-risk applicant. Only one person in the family knows anything about you, and no one knows your khandan so you don’t even have good credit history. We have to kiss so much more arse just to be liked by our prospective in-laws. Unfair Advantage #3.
But no matter the differences, there is one striking similarity between a Love and an Arranged match. You see, regardless of how you met your husband, in a night-club, a strip-club or a church, know this – his mother will always think he could have done better.
(This was published in Times of India Crest)
In 1979 when I was 6, my dad, who was a pilot with the Indian Air Force, moved our little family to Iraq where he would be working for the next two years. There were two things I remember most fondly about my time there. The first: Because we were in the boondocks of an Arabic speaking nation the only school available to us was Arabic medium. And so for the entire duration of my stay I did not attend school. To say that these were the two most blissful years of my childhood would be putting it mildly. Some of the other Air Force bases had more industrious mothers who had gotten together and home schooled their off-spring — thankfully, none of these schoolmarms had made their way to where we were, and so I was allowed to run about like a wild animal all day long. I had two friends – Sher Singh and Zora Singh, two brothers around my age, and our entire day was playtime, we would go home for our feed and water and then go back to doing absolutely nothing constructive.
The other thing that made my life worth living was television. We had not owned a TV until then so just having one was fantastic, but the truly brilliant part was that at the time the Iraqis were in to broadcasting all the big American TV shows. I watched as much TV as humanly possible, including several shows that were clearly for adults only. Lucky for me my mother was not one to worry about what was and what wasn’t appropriate TV viewing for children and so I was allowed to watch American people kill, steal and have sexual relations with abandon.
I thought that my life was complete, until a year later, when thanks to some of my aunties, I got to watch my first ever Miss Universe pageant. Beauty competitions are to little girls what porn is to little boys, the proceedings are not in our immediate future but we know that at some point they can be. And so that night my fate was sealed. I knew then, buck-toothed and flat-chested as I was, that one day I would morph, just by sheer will, in to a blonde haired, blue eyed woman called Shawn Weatherly (1980’s Miss USA) thus winning the Miss Universe title, snatching it, as she did, from under the nose of Miss Scotland – who looked genuinely surprised to have lost. I could see myself, parading about in a swimsuit with a sash identifying me as ‘Miss India’. How proud I would make my people.
We returned to India a few years later and eventually I forgot about Miss Universe. My boarding school had no TV, and even if it had I could hardly expect Doordarshan Circa 1985 to feed me the nutritious mix of beauty pageants and B-grade American soap operas I had become accustomed to. Then I went to college in Mumbai and everything changed.
It was the 90’s, Madhu Sapre had lost the Miss Universe title by a hair’s breadth, but in a watershed moment the following year Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai won Miss Universe and Miss World and I went quietly mad with glee. Finally the world had realized how beautiful we Indian women truly were, this was my moment and I was going to carpe diem the shit out of it. Of course I didn’t have a plan or a modeling portfolio, I was too cool and good-looking for that, instead I decided that the best way to get my career rolling was going to be ‘spotted’ by a model co-coordinator as I went about my daily business. There were a surprising number of them floating about Bombay spotting models all day long, I merely had to wait. I was lazy and an idiot.
Of course the reason for all these beauty championships was not because Indian women were all of a sudden prettier than everyone else but because the international cosmetics companies needed a growing market. That I missed this point despite majoring in Economics is depressing times two. But I missed other stuff as well – I missed the fact that ‘Beauty’, like automobiles, is an industry, I missed the fact that beauty pageants are like car shows, the shiniest models get the most attention despite the fact that they represent less than 1% of the total number of cars on the street, and last but not least I missed the fact that if you are born a Fiat you can not become a Ferrari.
It’s possible that if my years in Iraq had been spent in school rather than at home watching TV I might have been smarter but I wasn’t, and sadly girls like me were a dime a dozen back then as they are today. I recently read that more teenage girls would rather be models than Nobel Prize winners. Not surprising. We belong to a worldwide culture that continues to reward women just for being pretty. And we start early, we are more likely to tell a little girl that she is pretty rather than that she is strong or smart. By placing good looks and a great rack above all else we send a message to women – no one wants you for your ability to design a space shuttle, and by ‘no one’ we mean men. This attitude is a difficult one to un-learn because it’s so deep-rooted in our female psyche.
But hope springs eternal and I believe that the next generation of women will be braver. Many of my friends now have daughters and I hope that they will grow up unafraid of being smart. But for a truly liberated society it’s not enough to leave everything up to the women. How about if we focus on our men and teach the next generation of dudes that there is nothing hotter than a thinking chic.