Saturday, February 26, 2011

Secret Diary: Sreesanth ko aansoo kyon aatey hain?

Fourth Umpire: The World Cup is 'Fixed'

(Published in on 23 February 2011, retrieved from

“Does your father have to watch TV so loudly?” Sunita hissed.

“Tell him to lower it, then,” Arvind hissed back, “he can’t hear anyway.”

“Why are the ads so much louder than the match?” Sunita sighed.

“Welcome to cricket telecasting!” Arvind snorted, “first the ads, then the experts flirting with the token bimbo. Analysis! As if it’s not a foregone conclusion that Australia’s going to win.”

“Australia will lose this time,” his father yelled over the TV, “we’ll have a new winner for 2011.”

“Who, Pa, South Africa?” Arvind asked, scornfully.

“No, no, no. They’re chokers!” the old man brushed him off, without looking away from the TV, “it’s that apartheid problem.”

“What, karma?” Arvind smirked.

“No, no, reservation. The same thing that is killing Indian education,” his father said, lifting a finger in the air confidently.

Arvind rolled his eyes.

“Gone are the days when cricket was a gentleman’s game,” his father sighed, and added darkly, “it’s a gambler’s game.”

“So what is your theory, Pa? Kenya, Holland or Canada will win? Odds are 1000-1, best way to make money!” Arvind laughed.

“Oh no! Poor Tendu has to win the World Cup at least once!” Sunita exclaimed, “how else will he run his orphanage?”

“He can use the money from his ad campaigns,” Arvind said, and then looked puzzled, “what does the orphanage have to do with winning the World Cup?”

“It’s all about money,” and the old man waved his ‘India’ cap, “this has no significance now. No patriotism. The bookies are telling all the papers that they want India to lose. All greed and money.”

“Dad, dad! I need new leg pads for the World Cup!” Sachin panted, as he ran in with his friend Arjun, “we’re replaying every match the next day.”

“Yeah, look, it’s all about the money,” Arvind looked at Sunita, and then told his son, firmly, “no.”

“But, Dad!” whined Sachin, “Arjun and I have decided we won’t take money to play for India!”

“Yeah, right!” laughed Samyuktha, as she walked in, “like someone’s going to pay you both to play for India! Who’ll select you?”

“Ssh,” Sunita said, “stop being nasty to your brother!”

“Aunty, we’re not going to take money because we’ll make lots more from the ads,” Arjun said, excited, “Sachin – I mean, the real Sachin – got 36 crores in January from ads!”

The unreal Sachin, who was now begging his grandfather for leg pads, turned, “I’m going to make even more!”

“You know, that’s a good idea,” Sunita said, wonderingly, “why should the countries pay the cricketers when they make so much money from ads?”

“And Sachin’s the one who gets tax exemptions,” grumbled Arvind, “when he’s the only person in India who can afford to pay the whole country’s tax!”

“It’s a conspiracy,” his father said.

“What, Sachin’s tax?”

“No, the World Cup itself.”

“Pa, you sound like Dalmiya now!”

“I agree with him about Eden Gardens. It’s the home of cricket,” his father said, “why should they stop it from holding a match? The wall in Chepauk also collapsed when people went to buy tickets. But they didn’t cancel the match! What does that tell you?”

“That the ground is more important than the wall?” Arvind asked.

“No!” his father said, impatiently, “everything’s fixed! Look at the scorecard of India vs. Bangladesh! Bangladesh scored 283 runs. Bangladesh! That country wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for us! Are you telling me they almost made 300 runs?! How is that possible? FIXED!”

As Arvind opened his mouth, his father held up a hand, “And Holland and England had a close match! This is cricket, not colonialism. It’s not possible. FIXED!”

“They should just let it be like that,” Samyuktha said, “you know, like the WWE. Everything’s fixed already, but the audience won’t know who’s going to win. It’ll be exciting also!”

“Australia will win,” Arvind said, confidently.

“No, I don’t want that,” Sunita shook her head in worry, “they’re always swearing – what’s it called, sledging? And they’re killing all our students!”

“India has higher odds than Australia, anyway,” Samyuktha said, “it’s 3-1. Australia is 5-1.”

“It doesn’t matter. Everything’s fixed!” her grandfather grunted.

“Pa, no one’s going to fix the World Cup! It’s impossible!”

“No, Dad, he’s right!” Sachin said, excitedly, pointing at the screen, “see, it’s saying ‘FIXTURES’ there itself!”

Will We Have a Budget for the Middle-Classes?

(Published in on 25 February 2011, retrieved from

(Image Courtesy: Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)

“The Congress never cares about salaried people,” a friend said to me, as we debated the relative evils of the two main contenders for the Centre in 2009, “it’s always the aam aadmi and the business leaders.”

The words have come back to me often over the past couple of years, as I do the math on my taxes, read about farmer suicides, and watch scam after scam unfold.

All of us have got so used to seeing the Prime Minister’s long-suffering, careworn face on television and in newspapers that his stoic willingness to accept his own shortcomings has become as much an irritant as his longing to be Caesar’s wife.

Meanwhile, the various petty interests that make up Parliament continue to hold the session to ransom, funded by our tax money. While the BJP mumbles that the Winter Session could have been saved if the Congress had been more cooperative on the subject of a Joint Parliamentary Committee, the majority party’s own MPs have been screaming slogans about Telangana during the Budget Session.

So, aside from drama, what can We the People expect from the Parliament?

Ahead of the Union Budget for 2011-2012, the government has announced plans to provide incentives on farm loans – yet another attempt to make the lives of the aam aadmi easier.

But, clearly, nothing has worked so far. More farmers are leaving their families with funeral expenses and posthumous loans every year. Put the question to the government, and chances are that they will tell you the statistics are distorted by the increase in population.

Those of us who read the papers really only care for one statistic from the Budget – the Income Tax limit. For nearly two years, we’ve been hoping the recommendations of the Direct Taxes Code (DTC) Bill will come into effect. This would exempt up to Rs. 2 lakh from tax, while Rs. 2-5 lakh will be taxed at 10 percent, Rs. 5-10 lakh at 20 percent, and more than Rs. 10 lakh at 30 percent.

Naturally, we can trust the government to have loopholes in place for those who make over Rs. 10 lakh an hour. But if the marches being conducted by senior citizens pleading for tax relief and release of pension funds on time are anything to go by, Pranab Mukherjee has some work to do for the salaried class.

Perhaps figuring out what our tax money has been spent on over the last year will give us some perspective on the benefits we need.

First, there was all the work that needed to be done to make India look pretty for the Commonwealth Games debacle.

Almost at the same time, our legislators at various levels decided they were too poorly paid to carry out the all-important functions of the nation and state, and gave themselves a salary hike.

As elections approach in several states, the ruling governments have got into a tizzy, building skywalks and escalators and flyovers we don’t need, distributing freebies to the ‘poor’, and honouring themselves at sundry functions.

For a while, our ministers went on an ‘austerity drive’, paying for cattle class and pressuring airline companies to upgrade their tickets; now, their focus has turned to better pursuits.

Our own expenditure has gone up, and the now-famous e-mail forward about onions, petrol and beer having the same price tag has proven that the needs of the unemployed, office worker and student are on a level.

Private companies have been whining about recession since the word became fashionable in the West, sometime early in 2008. Our salaries haven’t gone up. Schools and colleges, though, have pruned their seats and hiked the MRP of each unit, which means we spend more money trying to educate our children.

Newspaper articles come out every now and then, proving that it makes more sense to stay unemployed and claim BPL benefits than take up low-paying jobs in some states.

As there is no such reprieve for those of us who are unfortunate enough to have taxable incomes, we can only hope the dizzying figures that the 2G scam has made famous have altered the parameters of poverty.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Of Liming, Porknocking and Lara's Batty-ing

(Published in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, on February 20, 2011 as 'From the Guyana End')

(Photos Courtesy: Rahul Bhattacharya. Unauthorised reproduction of both these images is prohibited.)

Title: The Sly Company of People Who Care

Author: Rahul Bhattacharya

Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan)

Price: Rs. 495

Pages: 281

“They find he antiman sk**t in bed one day with the bowler, wuh he name, Cummins.”

“You only saying that cause of the name!”

“You ever seen how he hug up them other player?”

“Who got de record? Who got de record?”

And so begins an argument about Brian Lara that ends with the narrator of Rahul Bhattacharya’s The Sly Company of People Who Care ‘taking it outside’ with his interlocutor, in a bid to prove his own, and Lara’s, sexual orientation.

In his second book and first novel, Bhattacharya, who’s best known for his writings on cricket, sets out to “describe an encounter with the society of Guyana”. The book does it in three parts – a porknocking trip with a con artist, a lyrical description of the creation of Guyana’s settlements, and an adventurous trip to Venezuela with an Indo-Guyanese woman.

The epithet ‘novel’ turns out to be rather deceptive. The first half reads almost like a travel blog, and the story really takes off with a love affair that begins with a pink strap on brown skin, and a green-and-yellow macaw, and escalates into a bizarre situation that could make the narrator either a hero or a wuss.

Asked whether he set out to write a travelogue and changed his mind later, Rahul Bhattacharya looks perplexed. “No, that’s not the case,” he says, “the moment I started writing, I knew almost instantly that it was fiction, because that’s where the impulse was taking me. But I thought it should read like a memoir, so you should feel like all of this is really happening.”

However, his expression turns to horror when I turn to the acknowledgments and ask, “so, is Uncle Lloyd the inspiration for Uncle Lance? And there’s a Brian P...”

“No, no, don’t try to map characters!” he says, and assures me that Uncle Lance and Jan, the Indo-Guyanese woman, don’t exist. He laughs, “I wish my journey were as dramatic, but it wasn’t.”

It isn’t surprising the author’s often been asked whether the characters were inspired by specific people. Right from Mr. Bhombal, “who had a way of conveying that one was on the precipice of a dreadful mistake” to Baby, who takes the narrator on a diamond-picking trip after hoodwinking him twice, to a lady who bellows, “how them going to stop racial when they cyan stop theyself?” when the bus driver and conductor take a bathroom break, each leaves an impression; perhaps far more than the narrator, who has no name and is given to long reveries about the directionlessness of his life.

Bhattacharya says, “I wanted him to be the eyes and ears and soul of the book, just experiencing everything. To that extent, I wanted him to be anonymous. And then I found that it’s cheaply funny to, like, keep concealing his name in different ways. Also, I didn’t want to call him ‘Ashok’ or something. It’s not easy to write about Indians because immediately you’re like, ‘what part is he from?’”

The beginning of the book reminds one of Naipaul’s The Suffrage of Elvira¸ what with a ‘gyaffin’ interpreter-of-political-news (though he calls it ‘politricks’) and two neighbours waging a “cold war over a small patch of land [at the end of the corridor], leading to sudden and always temporary captures of territory with barrels or scraps of tin”.

But the comedy of manners morphs into a Jamaican adventure in Guyana, replete with dancehall, Rastafarians and a certain herb. As quickly, the boasts of the limers give way to the narrator’s contemplation of climate change.

There are times when the protagonist’s introspection gets too subjective for the reader to be able to relate. But the author sometimes conveys a feeling quite beautifully by using as eccentric a phrase as, “It had the special feel of a small inexplicable place in South America” to describe a restaurant-bar-shop. A charming interlude compares wanderlust to dheel , the word “kite-flyers in Bombay shouted when they wanted spoolers to let loose the thread.” Delightful similes, such as an old woman’s face being “crumpled like forgotten silk”, stand out.

There was one place where I wished the author had been more frugal though. Perhaps it’s the cricket reporter’s instinct to go with a ball-by-ball account that made the sex scenes as graphic as they are. (It didn’t help that I was eating spaghetti when I got to that part.)

On the subject, cricket is conspicuous by absence. “It wasn’t a part of my exploration because I felt it would just intrude on this book,” Rahul Bhattacharya says, when asked about it, “I mean, the concern of this book wasn’t to show all the different facets of Guyanese life; it was in understanding a society like this, which has been created from swampland and forest by colonialism.”

He adds, seriously, “Those waves of migration were so brutal, and all these people have been transported there to make a factory for the colonial powers, which have just come into this land and annexed it and built plantations. They’ve got this mix of Africans and Indians and Portuguese and Chinese and whoever else. The system is unsustainable, they find their voice, they try to emancipate themselves, the powers leave and then what happens, what are you left with? That’s what I wanted to see. When you create something like this, what are the consequences?”

But then, he does sportingly get drawn into an impromptu (and very unscientific) analysis of whether the West Indian cricketers are reflective of the islands they come from. “Carl Hooper is very Guyanese, very enigmatic, the kind of guy who won’t do things if he can’t be bothered. I’m trying to see if someone as mercurial as Brian Lara could have been anything but Trinidadian...Chanderpaul can perhaps be considered typically Indo-Caribbean, very much like the Indian community in Guyana, with his dogged determination, his no-frills style of play. And if you think about the four big Antiguan cricketers – Curtly Ambrose, Viv Richards, Richie Richardson and Andy Roberts, none of them was particularly pleasant. Great personalities, great presence – you can’t ask for a bigger presence than Viv Richards – but they’re not the smiley type!”

In his exploration of race, gender, restlessness and displacement, Rahul Bhattacharya looks at drug-lords, gang-wars, and even the workings of the law. He recounts how a magistrate might ask, “Mr. Nazeer Abeed Ally, on the night of January 21, 2006, at the southern end of East Street, Alberttown, a muskmelon projected by you damaged the windshield of a white-colour Nissan, vehicle licence plate PJJ 2121, belonging to one Mr. Vincent Totaram. How do you plead?”

A man who’d stubbornly refused to leave Guyana finally gives up after a break-in, while a Guyanese man who lives abroad tells the narrator he doesn’t want to live in Guyana, but wants to be die there. With charming innocence, a child lazily shares his lunch of apples with the narrator. Indo-Caribbeans throw their doors open to a complete stranger for the night, just because he’s Indian.

“They live in a hand-me-down India from a hundred years ago, where their only interaction with India is through Bollywood,” says Rahul Bhattacharya, speaking of how a Lata song could leave them in tears and an Amitabh Bachchan movie start a raging fight, “Guyanese TV is really sort of like being in wonderland or something. You’re watching a movie, and then you have one hour of live Headlines Today, and then it switches off and they pick up something else. They steal signals and just run everything. All the latest Hindi movies are playing!”

The other interaction is Chutney music, which sprang from what the author calls a “consensus language” which has absorbed most Indian tongues into it, and contains such lyrics as I ain’t touch de Dulahin (but her belly start to swell).

The author signs off our chit-chat with a couple of Creolese sayings – He waant to suck cane and blow whistle too (A rough equivalent of “He wants to have the cake and eat it too”) and Let’s see who got more seed than balanjay. He begins, patiently, “That’s from boulanger, which is one of the words for baingan, eggplant, which they also call baigan, but then in English, they say b-a-l-a-n-j-a-y.” Suddenly inspired, he says, “it’s like kis mein kitna hai dum!”

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why India Can't Pull off a Mubarak

(Published on on 17 February 2011, retrieved from

 (Picture Coutesy:; unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)

It’s hard to believe the citizens who overthrew Hosni Mubarak were actually inspired by the Tunisian Revolution. The men, women and children who assembled in Tahrir Square will go down in history for bringing down a thirty-year-long dictatorship in less than a month. Now, the 82-year-old man who was clinging on to power for as long as he could, has announced through a representative that he wants to die in his resort at Sharm el-Sheikh.

I’ve studied and worked with Egyptians in the past; none of them struck me as particularly unhappy with the way things were going in their country. There were the Mubarak jokes, of course. But they didn’t seem to carry the angst of the Iranians, the fury against a regime that told them what to do and what not to do.

To many analysts, Egypt seemed the most unlikely country in the Arab world to step up and overthrow its government. Mubarak had been around for too long, the people who were being oppressed didn’t have the means to do anything, and the ones who weren’t oppressed didn’t care – or so the world believed.

Yet, the country has taken everyone by surprise. Weeks after the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 began, echoes are being heard across the Arab world and the rest of the Middle East – with a country as tiny as Bahrain demanding a change of rule.

Now, let’s move further east, to the largest ‘democracy’ in the world, a nation whose population comprises nearly a quarter of the world’s. Never has a nation that holds elections every five years, with only one period of Emergency in its history, been subject to rule by so many dynasties at so many levels.

There may be as many political parties as there are opinions; but the leadership of each of the major ones – with the possible exception of the BJP, unless you count the RSS family, and Maneka and Son – seems to be hereditary.

At the Centre, the Nehru-Gandhi family has stayed at the forefront of politics, with at least one member playing puppet-master irrespective of who the figurehead is. Take a look at the list of MPs in Parliament, and you’ll find all the “young ones” (which in our country, seems to comprise the 30-50 age group) are the offspring of politicians.

While the First Families of State Politics – the Thackerays in Maharashtra, the Karunanidhi clan in Tamil Nadu, and the Abdullahs and Muftis of Jammu and Kashmir – may not have remained consistently in power, other parties have held a monopoly in states, even without keeping it in the family; take the CPI(M) in West Bengal.

And once these parties and clans come to power, no one seems to be able to keep a check on them. Opponents file criminal cases, and deal with counter-accusations. Every decision taken by the president of the ruling party, both at the State and Central level, is unilaterally passed.

As politicians play Robin Hood and use public funds to serenade those who are believed to be at a disadvantage going by poverty and caste criteria, their band of Merry Men makes a neat little packet. Politicians, who claim to have come from the humble homes they visit in villages, declare bank balances running into tens of crores of rupees (notwithstanding what they’ve got stashed away in secret accounts across the world, and property in the names of their multiple spouses, parents, in-laws and children).

Yes, there are elections. But what with booth-capturing, names missing from the voters’ list, malfunctioning machines and freebies, they’ve become a farce in most states. And even if they were “free and fair”, as the phrase goes, what do you do when you have a choice between the devil and the deep sea?

We can wonder why Egypt could do what so many of us would like to, but haven’t been able to; how the death of a young man like Khaled Said could be a factor in the end of a regime like Hosni Mubarak’s.

A Kashmiri friend of mine says, “The more I understand why Egyptians made it, the clearer it gets to me why Kashmiris haven't. The Egyptians had no ‘leaders’. The Kashmiris have them in plenty.”

That could be extrapolated to the whole of India. We have so many leaders that we automatically look for one even when we want to take them on. We have ‘caste leaders’, ‘party patriarchs’, ‘industry captains’, and even ‘high-profile activists’.

Perhaps change can only come about when everyone is willing to be a leader, and everyone is willing to be a victim; when our opinions and ambitions matter more to us than our safety; when our voices can stop trying to outdo each other, and merge into a chorus instead.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Allure of Mayawati's Feet

(Published in Sify on 10 February, 2011, retrieved from

The closest encounter I’ve had with Mayawati made such a long-lasting impact that it became a daily ritual that went on for as long as I lived in Noida.

It happened one morning, as I glanced at the park on my way to office. Where no one could miss it, stood a humongous statue of the grinning chief minister, complete with a handbag. Something about the bag transfixed me. It was large, box-shaped, with long straps, almost like a laptop bag, and gaudy enough to remind one of The Emperor of Ice Cream by Wallace Stevens.

Now, I remember that it hung down to Mayawati’s feet. I also remember that the sheet in Wallace Stevens’ poem did not cover the lady’s feet. I wish I had taken a closer look at the extremity in question, but its significance didn’t strike me at the time.

However, now, we cannot ignore the hypothesis that there must be something incredibly alluring about the lady’s feet.

In May 2007, a lot of newsprint was spent in analyses of how and why some of the MLAs in her state refrained from touching her feet after taking oath as ministers. Most articles concluded that the ministers in question belonged to the ‘upper castes’ and were so trapped in their varna-based prejudices that they couldn’t adapt to the progressive laws of feudal sycophancy.

However, while her ministers may not have lived up to expectations, a group of Brahmins, complete with caste-marks and caste-threads, lined up to touch Mayawati’s feet and beg her to save them (though they weren’t specific about what they needed to be rescued from.)

On February 8, 2011, Mayawati’s feet made headlines again. In Naunakpur village of Auriya district in Uttar Pradesh, her personal security officer DSP Padam Singh decided to play shoeshine boy.

While some reports claim Mayawati asked the policeman to clean her shoes, others quote him saying he did it out of respect for her; however, every report I’ve read quotes UP cabinet secretary Shashank Shekhar Singh telling the media that the dirt on Maywati’s footwear could have caused her to have a nasty fall, and assuring them that they themselves would have been compelled to emulate Padam Singh’s act if they had noticed.

Some analysts take note of the fact that Mayawati didn’t even look at or thank Padam Singh for his timely service, and put it down to the psychological makeup that gave rise to her propensity for ticking off bureaucrats in public.

I think they’re being unfair on Mayawati. So many people have fallen at her feet over the years that they must be too calloused to retain sensory perception any more. She oughtn’t to be blamed for not noticing something she didn’t feel.

Her opponents criticise her for treating ‘government servants’ as ‘slaves’, but there again, is a logical fallacy. She does pay their salaries. When they behave well, she even extends their tenure. It is believed Padam Singh, who retired after being part of Mayawati’s entourage for sixteen years, was given a year’s extension for his stellar performance in the field. Naturally, on-field duties include saving the chief minister from a nasty fall.

The Congress in the UP, a.k.a. Rita Bahuguna Joshi, has been quick to call for Mayawati’s resignation. A timely swoop may have spared Joshi from a fortnight in judicial custody after she was accused of violating the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.

Of course, two of the Congress’ own Gandhis have been...umm, footloose, shall we say? Last century, Sanjay Gandhi’s slippers were carried by minister N.D. Tiwari, and more recently, Rahul Gandhi was given the honour by Maharashtra’s Minister of State for Home, Ramesh Bagwe.

While the party might well take offence at Mayawati’s near-plagiarism, the UP chief minister’s singles score is higher than the Gandhi scions’ collective one. The reason might have something to do with Mayawati’s expenditure on pedicures.

The next time I visit Noida, I’ll take a closer look at Mayawati’s favoured appendages. Thankfully, statues can’t trip when there’s dust on top of their shoes.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Of Sonia, Cadbury's and Latrine Born

(Published as 'A Provocative Book No Indian Could Have Written' in I-Witness, The New Indian Express, dated 6th February, 2011)

(Image Courtesy: The New Indian Express; unauthorised reproduction of the image is prohibited.)

India’s been exotified as the court of the fish-eyed Goddess and lamented as an area of darkness. Paul Theroux has wrinkled his nose at the slums, and Dominique Lapierre has exalted the gutters and the nun who used them as breeding grounds for conversion. Thankfully, finally, a wry voice that fills in the gaps with authoritative commentary has made itself heard again.

Patrick French’s second book on this country, India: A Portrait, which claims to be “an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people”, lives up to its promise. As the author admits, it’s a book no Indian could have got away with writing, without questions of religious, regional and caste-based allegiances popping up. As the reader learns, French is a Briton who knows more about India than most people who’ve grown up here. If you disagree, and you’re not Khasi, here’s a challenge: do you know who U Blei is? Even Google doesn’t give you the answer in English (I checked), but that’s the name of the Khasi God.

Since he wrote Liberty or Death, which created controversy for its purportedly ‘revisionist’ view of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, French has spent more time in India and with India. He’s even written the authorised biography of V S Naipaul, the man who has documented India thrice.

This time, French focuses on the other Gandhis – the ones from the dynasty that has ruled India since the British left. In a book that’s divided into three sections – Rashtra, Lakshmi and Samaj – the author deals with the trajectory of the country’s politics, economy and society. Surprisingly enough, it’s not just readable; it’s gripping.

Among other things, French proves that toilet humour features in our list of colonial hangovers – he cites parents naming their children ‘Latrine Born’, politicians naming their parties DIC(K) – Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) – and (inevitably) refers to Morarji Desai’s favoured beverage.

The metamorphoses of the two most powerful Mrs. Gandhis – Indira and Sonia – are traced in an engaging manner, and told in no less detail are the stories of a labourer’s son who became a professor of law, of a quarry worker who was chained for nearly two years, of a pimp whose father is a politician (and who believes “Nawabi culture is gay culture”), of a child labourer in Bangalore, of a Vietnam veteran of Indian origin (whose accent nearly got his fellow-soldiers killed), and of Srikanth Nadhamuni (who compares designing the Pentium II chip to the concept of maya in Advaita philosophy).

The scope of the book takes the author from Ladakh to Kanyakumari, interviewing people ranging from Afzal Guru (albeit by accident) to RSS ideologues, tracing the lives of employees ranging from the dabbawallas of Mumbai to the geeks of Silicon Valley, observing rituals for deities ranging from Angrezi Devi Maiyya (whose prayer is ‘A-B-C-D’) to Mayawati, and profiling celebrities ranging from the Mozart of Madras to the alleged Murderer of Michael Jackson.

French’s writing is touchingly evocative at times, such as his description of his interaction with Aarushi Talwar’s parents and his narration of the last years of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s life, and hilarious at others. He sardonically observes that Luck by Chance – which is about getting a break in cinema without family influence – starred the offspring of Aparna Sen and Javed Akhtar, and entertains the reader with the story of how TVS found its ‘bearings’.

French wonders whether Anish Kapoor might have conceived his “monstrous sculpture” to commemorate London 2012 as a metaphor for Britian, when Kapoor describes his work as “an eccentric structure that looks as if it’s going to fall over”. The author goes on to attribute Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s listing of five categories of what counts as a majority in India to “the logic of a clever schoolboy” and suggests helpfully that Sen might include a sixth category – “Indians whose names start with a consonant.”

Refreshingly, French doesn’t romanticise the Maoists, and comes away from his interview with ‘Gaddar’ (Gummadi Vittal Rao) feeling the Naxals are rather disconnected from reality. He notes that poverty in India is marketed as entertainment, grimly stating, “if the BBC wants a television show about child-trafficking in India, they send Lindsay Lohan to West Bengal.” His analysis of the importance of political pedigree is a revelation (Details are up on, run by French and his wife Meru Gokhale.)

The Westerner’s naïveté comes through very occasionally – for instance, French asks a labourer who was held captive by his employer why he didn’t send word to the police. The author attributes the nation’s surprise over Agatha Sangma taking oath in Hindi to linguistic stereotyping, rather than parochial animosity.

But French more than compensates for the rare slip-up with a nuanced study of such complexities as the origin of caste. One could nit-pick, and ask the author why a certain subject wasn’t included, but as one who has tried to, I must admit it’s a hard task.

If you’re Indian, reading the book is like learning the history of your country in four days. If you’re a tourist looking for “sadhus or suffering” as French puts it, the book will make you wish you’d read it before you booked your tickets.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Why Nithyananda, Karunanidhi and Dalrymple Deserve Padmas

(Published in, on February 3, retrieved from )

This year’s announcement of the Padma Award winners has disappointed those of us who love a good controversy.

Well, of course there’s Montek Singh Ahluwalia, but he’s no Sant Singh Chatwal. You could go on, as many people have, about the ridiculousness of fast-tracking the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission to the Padma Vibhushan at a time when onions are making people cry even before they’re cut. But then, you could dismiss it as the UPA’s signature on an otherwise justifiable list.

However, I have a personal wish-list of Padma Awardees, whose stellar service to Indian society has got more attention than accolades:

Rakhi Sawant for Art (Cinema and Theatre): How often have we seen an item number girl merge film and drama into three reality shows? After being spied on in Bigg Boss, she went on to get almost-married-and-divorced on television, and then pass judgment on the aam aadmi in Rakhi ka Insaaf. The fact that a contestant was allegedly driven to suicide oughtn’t to stand in the way of Rakhi receiving laurels, when the Planning Commission is believed to be doing a splendid job despite the rising count of farmer suicides.

Swami Nithyananda (Public Affairs): This one’s self-explanatory. An affair on candid camera followed by a televised self-purification ritual makes the man who is usually referred to by the rather glamorous epithet ‘Self-styled Godman’ quite a pioneer in his field.

Himesh Reshammiya (Art and Culture): He did what even Mowgli could not. A boy raised by wolves supposedly spent most of his youth singing Jungle Jungle Baat Chali Hai, but Himesh could put the whole pack to shame with the “ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooonh!” with which he introduces each of his compositions.

However, I find his attitude more awe-inspiring than his music. In all likelihood, he’s the only one who’s left Karan Johar at a loss for words on the latter’s own show by (a) admitting that the purpose of his cap was “hundred purcent” to camouflage his receding hairline (b) reminding Johar Junior that his was among the big labels that wouldn’t give him a chance early in his career.

Niira Radia (Trade and Industry): It takes something to represent three business empires with interests in telecom. But those of us who’ve been curious enough to listen to her tapes in detail will know Radia has also contributed to India’s foreign trade. She tells Ratan Tata that she owns a single Roberto Cavalli gown. However, when asked whether she purchased it in London or Mumbai, she replies, intriguingly “oh, long ago.”

A Raja (Science and Technology): A natural follow-up, you might think. But, no, Raja’s credentials for the honour are quite different. First, he deserves recognition of some sort for making a thirteen-digit number – 17,60,00,00,00,000 – familiar enough to type without pausing to count the zeroes and space the commas. One is also tempted to credit him with being involved in a scam in a field about which he is clueless enough to call it ‘spetrum.’

William Dalrymple (Literature and Education): We hadn’t heard about White Mughals before he wrote a book on them, but now we’re so comfortable with the term we’ve bestowed it on Dalrymple himself. More pertinently, though, since he and three other Blackberry-toting friends are to be entirely credited with the organisation of the Jaipur Literary Festival, might as well, huh? Of course, the government may have to negotiate with Facebook to create a Padma Awards application. I quite like the idea of an update that reads:

Pratibha Patil just gave William Dalrymple the Bharat Ratna!

William Dalrymple likes this!’

Jyoti Singh (Sports): She used the Bihar Assembly brouhaha to showcase her talent for throwing flower-pots. While the government didn’t see fit to include an event in her honour at last year’s Commonwealth Games, they ought to have made amends by rewarding her for her...ummm, shall we call it ‘woman power’?

M Karunanidhi (Social Work): Not only has his system of distributing free colour televisions won him votes, it’s also empowered people to follow what exactly is going wrong with the governance of their state and nation. As the elections approach, he may want to take Nitin Gadkari’s advice and give away bulletproof jackets to fishermen, though.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Are Ghosts Killing Our Fishermen?

(Published in on 25th January, 2011, retrieved from

(Image Courtesy: Unauthorised reproduction of this image is prohibited.)

Three men in a fishing boat are asked to jump into the sea by personnel aboard what one of them identifies as a Lankan Navy fast craft. A fisherman hesitates because his hand is injured, and he can’t swim. At this, the men on the fast craft tie a rope around his neck and strangulate him by pushing him into the sea. Then, they ride off, leaving his comrades to search for his body.

The victim, 28-year-old Jayakumar, was unarmed. So were his companions – his brother Senthil and their uncle Rajendran. And yet, someone saw fit to order them to jump off their boat on pain of death, and proved they meant it.

Who was that someone? Sri Lanka claims it wasn’t their navy. India condemns the action, shrugs and moves on. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee sagely says fishermen crossing the maritime border should be arrested, not killed, and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna conveys his sympathies to the bereaved family.

Jayakumar is the third fisherman to have been killed in the past six months, by what we must conclude are ghosts in the India-Sri Lanka waters. Since July 2010, these marauding ghosts have attacked and wounded more than thirty fishermen, stealing their catch, mobile phones and other valuables.

Each incident has been followed by precisely the same diplomatic dance. DMK patriarch and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi bemoans the loss and conveys his grief to the Centre through telegrams and phone calls, while AIADMK Chief J Jayalalithaa slams his lack of action.

The Centre clucks its tongue, and ticks off Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka gathers up righteous anger and denies involvement. The Centre puts its hands in its pockets, hems and haws and mutters indulgently, “well, don’t do it again”, to which Sri Lanka responds indignantly, “what do you mean, again?” The Centre gives the fishermen’s family a solatium and tells the press that Sri Lanka is still an ally.

And what happens when Sri Lankan fishermen stray into Indian waters? They’re detained and handed over to the Lankan mission, to be returned safely back to their homes. I’m not suggesting that they be given the same treatment as their Indian counterparts; I’m suggesting that their Indian counterparts be given the same treatment as they.

The seemingly haunted vessels that magically carry the identification marks of the Sri Lankan Navy dispense punishment in much the same manner as the ‘kangaroo’ courts, and all we can think of is compensating the family, and closing the case.

A few lakhs may be more than a fisherman earns in a decade. But could such a sum ever make up for the loss of a son, of a husband, of a father? And why is India doing nothing about it? We’ve never been the non-interfering type. In fact, our involvement in the Sri Lankan civil conflict has cost both sides dear. But that hasn’t kept us from poking our noses in – except when we’re required to take a stance.

The next question, of course, would be: What can India do? The answer would be easier if we were to transpose the issue to the other side of the border.

If the transgressor were Pakistan – which, incidentally, behaved in almost the same manner in the wake of the 26/11 attack (except that Lanka cannot quite say its forces are ‘stateless actors’) – we would first cancel our cricket tours. In the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup, this is bound to have a severe impact on Sri Lanka, especially given the amount of clout India has with the ICC.

Secondly, we would rethink our trade relations. India-Sri Lanka trade has been rising steadily over the past few years, with 2010 creating a record for bilateral trade. At a time when Sri Lanka needs to boost its economy, India has a gun to hold to its head.

The third aspect India could use for leverage is socio-cultural relations. Indian authors have been invited to the Galle Literature Festival. India has been involved in development projects in the education and health fields in Sri Lanka.

When fishermen continue to die for no good reason off the coast, we cannot continue to be friends with the perpetrator. When the Centre has ammunition, it cannot twiddle its thumbs and fail to protect its citizens.

For once, in a career of playing doormat to its neighbours, our country should stand up and demand justice.
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