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     Volume 4 Issue 5 | July 23, 2004 |

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A Roman Column


Neeman Sobhan

Last night I attended a 'gala' dinner at Roma's elegant Hassler Hotel on the Spanish Steps. It was an India promotion event featuring the pretentious fusion cooking that one either loves or hates. I respect tradition but I also love breaking them, flirting with the unconventional-- as long as it is done well. So, I enjoyed my mango soup; my quail garam masala with cherry sauce; and the millefeuille pastry layered with saffron-yoghurt (srikand). But many foreign guests balked saying, "This is not Indian food." I grinned unsympathetically at them as they poked through their landscaped plates. They were complaining only because the food was unexpected, not because it was un-tasty. I and others applauded the chef, Rahul Akerkar, (who cooks at his Mumbai restaurant 'Indigo') as he sauntered through the courtyard full of candlelit tables saying: "Hope you're enjoying the food?" I looked at some of the politely insincere nodding faces and thought: Sorry that you didn't get a taste of 'authentic' Indian food, but stretch your imagination and think from the food-artist's point of view. Think differently, adventurously. Creative people shouldn't have to rise to other people's expectations. How can individuals and cultures grow if all we do is maintain status quo and never try out different ways of expressing ourselves?

[As an aside, during my last trip to Dhaka in March, my experience of eating our own innovative chef Tommy Miah's Bangali nouvelle cuisine was quite favourable. Once you decided to suspend your pre-conceived notions of what to expect from British Bangali food fused through a confusion of identities and ideas, the resulting 'fusion food' was actually quite pleasant to the palette. Or we were just lucky with the dishes we had ordered. And for an evening out it was fun, after all, nobody is asking us to partake of this hyped-up culinary stew everyday and replace good, old-fashioned Bangali home cooking, which I wouldn't eat in a restaurant anyway, unless places like Kasturi turned glamorous and branched off from Purana Paltan and opened franchises in the republic of Gulshan.]

Now to get back to the artist in the kitchen and to make a long story short (actually, as we proceed, it will be revealed that the purpose of this verbal rambling is not to encourage the Picasso of Pots 'n Pans or the Salvador Dali of Daals, but to make a short story long, or to be more precise, tall!)

So, having put in the word for breaking rules gracefully, and for giving the thumbs down to the standardizing of social perceptions and expectations, I have a question to ask of everyone. WHO the HECK created the standards of female beauty to read long and lanky? When did the world pass the regulation as pre-requisites to beauty, the exaggerated and unrealistic proportions of the under nourished six foot Amazonian on the catwalk? How did the ideal of beauty (it self a silly notion in a world where every woman with confidence can be beautiful in her individual way) become so askew that normally proportioned women now consider themselves un-beautiful because they don't measure up in a world where you are never tall or thin enough. Whoever is responsible for this skewed image, may he/she go to a hell of being doomed to eat fusion cooking night and day: omelettes with caramellised <>korola (bitter gourd) for breakfast; cauliflower soup laced with molasses for lunch;and for dinner, a fish au gratin in cheese and dark chocolate.

I had just put down my spoonful of silver wrapped blueberries at the Hassler when the organiser announced that Miss India World 2004 would now reveal herself. The lights swung up towards the garden terrace overlooking the courtyard and down the steps descended a vision of a draped sari, and it descended and descended, till we finally got to see the person that actually went with it. A thin odalisque in a city of tall obelisks! As with the food, the audience was a bit hesitant. Was she a beauty or was this hype? I applauded, and so did the others, but a bit uncertainly. Beauty has many faces, and we were willing to cheer this sweet young thing although she was a bit too tall and too thin. But my nagging, unanswered question was: was she there ONLY on the strength of her height and thinness?

Had we lived in a world where only curvy women of medium height were the ideal of beauty, I would have stood up and given a standing ovation to this lanky girl for making it against the odds of convention. But given the accepted beauty standards these days, where only severely tall women need apply and the rest can go home, I feel the need to temper my applause.

Don't get me wrong; I am happy for self-confident women who are over five feet ten inches, qualifying them to show off their height to advantage on the catwalk. But a beauty pageant (a disturbing institution to start with, which determines the way many impressionable young women judge themselves) should have the social responsibility to include a variety of physical feminine types and not discriminate against women who are not of a certain height. The message they transmit is that only tall is beautiful and short is not; that grace and sensuousness cannot belong to the less than tall category; that being a model is being the 'model' woman.

This has played havoc with the self-image of many insecure women of average height and normal weight. I have heard recent cases of young girls getting bone-extension surgery in the legs as if they were getting hair-extension. This is as disturbing as anorexia, eating disorders and liposuction. Consider complexion: dark skin is in and pale skin is out, at least in the Western world. But why cannot both be considered attractive--it would certainly prevent many women from contracting skin cancer from excessive tanning, and women in the east from damaging their complexion with bleaching creams.

I really feel that the notion of standardising beauty ideals should be seriously reconsidered as a social issue. And beauty pageants could play a healthy, responsible role in this. After the bathing suits and evening dresses, and the ridiculous 'intellectual' hurdle of the all-important question-round is over (Oh! So NOW we agree that beauty is not really physical?), I think organisers should broaden their perspectives to include all types of beauty.

I met 20-year-old Sayali Bhagat, the present Miss India World at another party in Rome and enjoyed meeting this delightful girl. She has a charming smile and a pleasing personality but lacks that combination of confidence, glamour and magnetism that could make her more memorable on the ramp. Frankly, apart from her height, she was just the pretty girl-next-door. Turns out, she was not even the one originally crowned, which was Lakshmi Pandit who turned out to be married and had to resign, upgrading the first runner-up!

The remarks I made about Sayali Bhagat relate only to the object packaged as 'Miss India', the created symbol of processed beauty. My personal opinion about the girl from Nasik, studying Management in Mumbai University and chatting graciously with everyone was that though she is not international beauty pageant material, she is a lovely girl, nevertheless. Actually, delete the 'nevertheless'. A woman's beauty is neither conditional, nor can it be standardised or replicated; and Sayali, tall or short, and whether you win the Miss Universe title in China or not, I think you are a beautiful woman and it was a pleasure meeting you.



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