Editorial/ Danseuse macabre
Fear is the key
The Telegraph Diary
People/ Anupam Kher
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL/ DANSEUSE MACABRE 
 
 
 
 
A goddess gone amok. Yet, Kali embodies not only macabre energy, but also arrested chaos. In her, anarchy is quite literally stopped in its tracks. Shiva’s husbandly stratagem transforms her fury into shame. And the celebration of such a dramatic moment is usually full of interesting contradictions. How is the spirit of a deity who traditionally exists outside the bounds of respectability to be civilized and domesticated? How does a modern Indian city redefine its notion of the civic in order to worship this goddess of licence and lawlessness?

The problem is best addressed at the most pragmatic level. And this is where Calcutta could perhaps boast of a reasonable success. Since the 1996 high court ban on fireworks exceeding a 65 decibel noise level, the city has been celebrating a more or less noise-controlled Kali puja every year. This is a triumph of sorts. A concerted effort to raise environmental awareness could lead to effective legislation, which could, in turn, be successfully enforced by the law and order machinery of the state. The police and the state pollution control board have been able to work together in making the city safer and less nerve-wracking during the puja. And this has been possible largely because of the absence of political interference. It takes a while to change civic habits. But people do see sense sometimes, and the entire process becomes less onerous when the matter is not politicized into a populist issue. The recent palaver over the eviction of hawkers in the city provides a rather shameful contrast. The conflict between the mayor and the Union minister proved, yet again, the uncivil consequences of electoral politics meddling in civic and municipal affairs. And the city is the poorer for it. Of course, the situation has been far from perfect the last few days. Noise levels have risen, inevitably, later in the evening with the slackening of vigilance, resulting in a number of arrests and a few fires. Petty offences, like the illegal tapping of power by puja organizers from overhead public lines, have also been fairly rampant. But, on the whole, the devi inspires, these days, a noticeably more civic devotion.

Yet the spirit of the dark goddess survives in oblique and unexpected forms. And there are ample spaces within Indian modernity to make room for the bizarre, the grotesque and the excessive. The anarchy of noise has given way to a carnival of extravagant illumination. This costly dazzle may even appear obscene to some in a state ravaged by floods, particularly when this calamity itself provides the “theme” for many of these extravaganzas. But the energies run deeper. Just as one Kali temple in the city was projecting its inner sanctum on a screen for those crowding outside for a darshan, another temple was struggling to manage the hundreds thronging to sacrifice their personal goats. The police and animal rights activists, looking anachronistic no doubt, hovered in the margins, pushed out by the robustness of an ancient tradition. The police, municipal authorities and the health department — the paraphernalia of the modern state — have also backed off from the case of the 10 year old girl who has been worshipped as Kali for the last three years by a tantrik. The ritual, conducted on a burning ghat, involves the offering of the worshipper’s blood to the girl followed by the washing of her feet with alcohol, which is then licked off her feet by the ecstatic supplicant. The girl does not seem to mind very much, apart from when she has to make an effort not to laugh when all that foot-licking tickles her. Her parents and kin, as well as the tantrik, see this annual event as the keeping alive of a tradition. The civic authorities, to avoid offending “religious” sensibilities, prefer to remain tensely neutral.

The same tradition can also, however, be fascinatingly innovative. Chocolate bombs, rockets and loudspeakers may have had to succumb to the rule of law. But miraculously transforming 20 kilograms of partially boiled noodles and quite unvanquished in all her six foot tall glory, the “chow mien Kali” rises this year — like a defiant phoenix from the ashes of what some would like to call modernity.    


 
 
FEAR IS THE KEY 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
It is ironic that newspaper houses should be in a panic over that ancient bogey, the foreign hand, just when an Indian family is bidding for a slice of Britain’s imperial press and an American news magazine has appointed another ethnic Indian editor. But then, it is not in us to practise what we preach. Newspapers are the most guilty in this respect for they often trumpet freedom from bastions of iniquity where all freedoms wilt, and which survive only because the industry is zealously protected from the winds of change, as Sushma Swaraj pointed out.

Only the realization that it might not survive without swaddling clothes explains the fierce resistance to allowing foreign papers to publish in India. Five years ago when the press orchestrated a campaign against Manmohan Singh’s attempt to make New Delhi the publishing hub of Asia, two Delhi high court judges, D.P. Wadhwa and D.K. Jain, lamented the “fear psychosis (that) has gripped the newspaper industry”. The fear was of losing advertising revenue to technologically superior and professionally more capable competitors from abroad though the industry piously proclaimed less mercenary concerns.

First, it argued that sex-and-violence international journalism would corrupt our morals. Secondly, that foreign newspapers would subvert our sovereignty. The new information and broadcasting minister’s return to the subject has prompted a third and even more mischievous canard — that foreigners are out to grab equity. This was how nepotistic business interests aborted Swraj Paul’s take-over bids in the Eighties.

None of these objections stands up to scrutiny.

The third is a dangerous and contemptible attempt to whip up chauvinistic fervour and unite all Indian companies in a crusade against supposedly marauding foreigners. But truth to tell, no foreigner has ever shown the least interest in acquiring newspaper houses with their mortgaged assets, manipulated shareholding, bewildering accounts, newsprint rackets, wrangling unions and bloated egos. “Vultures don’t eat ants,” as Robin Jeffrey says of Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch vis-à-vis India’s press, in his admirable book, India’s Newspaper Revolution.

Peddlers of takeover propaganda are possibly ignorant of the origins of the controversy. In 1955 John T. Bailey of the New York Times spent three months in India seeking permission to print an overseas edition of his paper. He had chosen a bad year, for Jawaharlal Nehru was in an anti-American tizzy. The United States Information Service was under a cloud and many of its libraries were closed down. Three small publications, Pratap, People and Thought, were accused of American funding; and even Nehru’s sister, Krishna Hutheesingh, was seen as less than loyal for contributing an article to the American Ladies Home Journal.

New Delhi ordained in that time of Nehruvian pique that Indian papers could not subscribe direct to international news agencies like Reuters. Their service had to be routed through our theoretically autonomous but heavily subsidized desi Statesman should be exempt from the ban. It was then British owned, edited and managed, and Nehru probably reasoned that this alone kept it out of local politicking. Many Nehru legacies have been thrown over, and telecommunications and insurance thrown open to investors, but 45 years later India is still chained by the decision on the foreign media.

The question of political interference cannot arise if foreign media tycoons have no interest in owning Indian publications. What they want is to print Time, the International Herald Tribune and other papers in India. The IHT is now flown in from Bangkok three days late and costs Rs 80. Publication in India would not make it subversive. It would make it more timely, cheaper and therefore available to a wider section of the public. That applies to all periodicals — the Economist, Spectator or Times Literary Supplement — that are now confined to the elite. There is something fundamentally repugnant about the implicit claim that foreign publications are all right so long as they are exclusively distributed and priced out of the reach of most people.

India should take a leaf out of the book of tiny Singapore which the president, K.R. Narayanan, will visit in November. For all that it is regarded as autocratic, the island has 200 accredited foreign correspondents, allows some 5,000 foreign publications to circulate, and half a dozen of them — including Time, the IHT, the Economist and the Asian Wall Street Journal — also to print there. The exposure has not weakened Singapore because, insisting that foreign papers could not operate “as if they were Singaporeans”, Lee Kuan Yew drew up a set of rules to safeguard the polity from irresponsible coverage which they had to accept. Like the competent and confident head of any household, the Singapore government retains ultimate control in its own domain. Does the world’s largest democracy lack Singapore’s competence and confidence?

The morality charge is laughable since India’s skies are open and every kind of television trash beams into millions of homes, without even the locking devices and watchdog groups to monitor programmes and regulate timings that socially conscious countries have instituted. Internet, with free access to sexually explicit sites, makes further mockery of this particular concern.

Moreover, the underlying assumption that India’s media alone is virtuous while all other newspapers wallow in sin is arrogant and ignorant. It is impossible to think of two more staidly respectable publications in the entire media world than the Financial Times of London and our Business Standard whose memorandum of understanding was one of the applications that provoked a furore during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s tenure.

Financial worries are understandable. The print media’s share of advertising has fallen from 75 per cent to 63 per cent while television’s has spiralled from six per cent to 25 per cent. But with the total advertising budget going up eightfold in the decade to 1995, the print media has gained far more in absolute terms. Readership will expand as literacy spreads. So will overall spending on advertising as India’s still largely untapped economic potential is realized. Also, surveys elsewhere show that the internet expands at the expense of television and not the print media. Of course, some papers will go to the wall. That is the price of inefficiency.

Meanwhile, the government is squandering a tremendous asset. No other country can compare with India’s built-in advantages, political and cultural, to fulfil Manmohan Singh’s ambition of an Asian media hub. Murdoch’s genuflection to Chinese sensibilities — dropping the BBC service from Star and his tirades against the dalai lama — highlight the political gains of pragmatism. China, which has allowed Time to publish a quarterly edition, benefits handsomely from not being squeamish about asserting its right to lay down the ground rules for foreign media coverage and operations.

Narasimha Rao could have done the same instead of passing the buck to the Press Council which has no jurisdiction over executive decisions. If he got cold feet, his successors are equally nervous about antagonizing the big dailies. Y.N. Chaturvedi, the information and broadcasting secretary, was forced to eat his words last December after telling an economic summit that restrictions on the foreign media were about to be loosened. Pramod Mahajan seemed realistic when he was the minister but did nothing. Asked about it recently in Calcutta, Arun Jaitley did not disclose his own inclinations but took refuge instead in the specious plea that the Constitution does not grant freedom of expression to foreigners. His further argument that most members of parliament oppose liberalization belied the hopes of those who expect the government to lead and not follow.

I hope Ms Swaraj means business. She will need courage but we are used in the subcontinent to someone like her being the only man in governments of women.    


 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Lend out a hand

Signs of the changing times. And the Congress, like all good things Indian, wears it on its sleeves. Its a different Congressi culture under madam. No special treatment for the old hags in the party. Gone are the days when Indira Gandhi and even Rajiv Gandhi would help the veterans climb the treacherous steps to the aisle in public functions. Mrs Gandhi in fact would personally help Kamalapati Tripathi up the podium. All senior leaders were given place to sit near former prime ministers on stage, and meetings were presided over either by the state committee chiefs or the most senior local leader. Cut to modern times. Not even all state leaders now have the chance to come within smelling distance of the Congress president. Only members of the coterie have that privilege. Senior Congressmen have to plead with the special protection group and then with the state presidents for permission to speak on Sonia Gandhi’s rallies. Take the one held at Kanpur recently. It was a pity watching former Uttar Pradesh Congress chief and Haryana governor, Mahavir Prasad, trying his best to convince the SPG about his bona fides. The new leadership lent him no helping hand. On another rally held on the Phoolbagh grounds, the former UP chief minister, Ram Naresh Yadav, had the microphone snatched from his hands and was himself bundled off from the podium the moment it was announced that madam had landed. What a climb down!

His way with words

It is not known for sure if he is a man of letters. But his letters, at least the one which has created a storm, is not his own. This man is Sonia baiter, former party spokesperson and chief Congress dissident for now — Jitendra Prasada. And his letter writer is one Nimet Verma, who had earlier launched a hate campaign against the 10 Janpath secretary, Vincent George, through his unsigned letters addressed to faceless, nameless party workers that in effect reached journalists on the Congress beat. Verma allegedly was a gift from Prasada’s friends and guides, now confirmed to be the hotelier Lalit Suri, Sitaram Kesri’s crony, Rajni Ranjan Sahu and former Union minister for railways, CK Jaffer Sharief. Prasada’s philosopher however does not belong to this gang. You heard that times were changing. So don’t be surprised if Prasada prefers the words of Acharya Rajneesh to those of Bapu. His office in Teen Murti is apparently stashed with books on the Osho’s philosophy. One never knew Osho had a dislike for foreigners.

How to switch roles

Another seething politician. The only problem is that his impatience is having a terrible effect on the country’s foreign affairs. The Union minister of state for external affairs, Ajit Panja, is proving to be a total misfit for the MEA and the South Block is having a terrible time covering his slips. Panja committed a Guernica sized faux pas in Baghdad when he declared that India would lift its sanctions against Iraq. That didn’t stop him. Now Panja has accused the Jyoti Basu government of “engineering” floods in neighbouring Bangladesh, probably to add more meat to Mamata’s allegations of the CPI(M) government “creating” the floods in West Bengal. “The Trinamool leader is taking the domestic battle too far”, is how an MEA official describes Panja’s harebrained ideas. But there might be another dimension to Panja’s flippancy. The old guard is seemingly not too happy with his portfolio. “There is no fun in handling passport applications and haj affairs”, Panja told his friends in the media. Are the wrong dialogues then merely to bag a new role?

Man and the animal

The madam may jump at this. But Sitaram Kesri and Rajiv Gandhi did have something in common — loyal pets. Rajiv was extremely fond of a Golden Retriever which died approximately the same time the former prime minister became victim to a human bomb. Kesri’s favourite Pomeranian, Ruchi, had given up eating when Kesri was hospitalized. The Pom’s burial coincided with Kesri’s funeral rites. That’s animal instinct.

Your slip is showing

Atal Behari Vajpayee is not the only one to have shocked Americans by referring to President Bill Clinton as Lincoln. The apparently ageless actor, Dev Anand, created a similar flutter in New York at a fund raising function when he consistently went on addressing Hillary Clinton as Mrs Kennedy. That ought to flatter Mrs Clinton no end.

Footnote/ Running for cover

Hawkers apart, there is one other person who would agree to the dark side of Operation Sunshine. She is the deputy of the mayor of Calcutta and the lone BJP representative in the 10 member mayor-in-council of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, Meena Devi Purohit. The deputy mayor had gone to negotiate with the hawkers on one Calcutta street when the policemen were busy evicting the encroachers. A few hundred of them immediately gheraoed her. The policemen, not knowing Purohit was on the spot, started chasing away the hawkers. The lady had to flee with them to escape the brickbats. A visibly upset Meenadi has reported the matter to the party office which enquires, “We want to know how the police failed to identify the city’s deputy mayor in the midst of the encroachers”. Confirming the incident, both the state BJP president, Asim Ghosh, and vice-president, Muzaffar Khan, say they will take up the matter with Trinamool to have it settled “amicably”. Meena Devi has also lodged a complaint with the mayor. But its not the mayor or the Trinamool, its the police and their political bosses, you see.    

 
 
PEOPLE/ ANUPAM KHER 
 
 
 
 

Fools Rush in

It is the done thing in Bollywood to call Anupam Kher the most versatile actor of his generation. The epithet must have been playing on Kher’s mind when he decided to sign up as the main host for Zee TV’s Sawaal Dus Crore Ka (SDCK).

“I feel one needs guts to host this show. Guts will work more than luck. Having a solid theatre background has trained me to slog it out...,” he merrily prattled days before the show was to go on air.

He was feeling so cocky and upbeat that he was even willing to risk a comparison with Amitabh Bachchan. “When I am on a particular job, I compete only with myself. Besides, I have great regard for Bachchan. It feels great that there will be comparison between us,” he added for good measure.

He didn’t stop at that. “How many people know that Marlon Brando was not the first choice to play Godfather? He had to give a screen test,” he told assorted reporters.

Clearly, poor Kher had overestimated his versatility. SDCK has just completed its debut week, and it is more than obvious that the analogy with Brando does not stick. In fact, the programme has been roundly panned by everyone who has had a chance to see it.

On Diwali night, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) seemed to be on overdrive. Aamir Khan and Sonali Bendre trooped in for a feel-good special episode while Bachchan looked luminous in ethnic Indian clothes.

A few channels away, Kher was trying to soldier on bravely. With a saffron tilak on his forehead, he looked a pathetic sight. It was almost as if he had sat down to hawk some Diwali sweets at a neighbourhood shop.

Kher’s cause is not being helped by SDCK’s format. Everything seems to be either a straight lift or inspired by KBC. And even Kher knows that most copies can only hope to be second best.

Kher seems to be strangely soporific on the show. His answer to Amitabh’s trademark “lock kar diya jaye” is a weak and wan “freeze it”, which has already left television viewers cold.

His co-anchor, Manisha Koirala, also seems to be sleep walking through the show. The tension that Bachchan creates as a hopeful waits expectantly for him to come out with the right answer has simply not materialised on Zee’s version. Maybe it was the opening week jitters, but Kher faltered once too often for comfort. “Whether your answer is right or wrong, we will see,” he told one competitor. It almost seemed as if he was taking a relaxed college tutorial.

Unless something magical happens, Kher can expect a lot of jibes in the coming weeks. Maybe it is time for Kher to remember what he had learnt from Peter O’Toole when he appeared for a minuscule role in Kim. “An actor has to be prepared to make an ass of himself,” he had been told. He might not have paid much attention to it then; he will have to now.

Around the same time, Kher made his debut in Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh where he played a 70-year-old. For someone who was in his mid-20s and aspiring to make a mark in the Mumbai movie industry, it was a risky and crazy gamble.

The film was to make Kher into a household name in India. “TV lene nahin aaya hoon. Apne marein hue bete ki asthiyan lene aaya hoon...,” were the lines that made him famous. The National School of Drama student who had given up his job as a teacher of theatre history and speech techniques at Lucknow’s Bharatendu Drama Centre to become an actor was on his way.

His was a heart warming story of a small-town boy who had come to the big bad city to make a future. No one would have have given this boy from Simla a second look. On top of all this, he was bald. Not something that looks good on the CV of a young actor.

He rented a ramshackle room in Khernagar, a slum dominated area in Bandra East and shared it with eight others. Every morning, he would go from door to door and beg for roles. Mahesh Bhatt, on the wrong side of fame then, decided to cast him in Saaransh. The boy with stars in his eyes had become a star himself.

A little later, he proved himself yet again. As Doctor Dang, the sadistic villain, in Subhash Ghai’s Karma, he excelled again. The commercial movie world jumped on him rightaway. Very soon, Anupam Kher became a permanent fixture in almost every movie that was being made. Somewhere along the way, the actor that had been noticed in Saaransh retreated into the background.

Once in a while, his fans could see glimpses of the old magic in films like Jeevan Sandhya, Pestonjee and Daddy. But he seemed eternally damned to playing the stock Hindi movie bad guy or buffoon.

More than 10 years after he made his debut in films, his happiest moment in the movies continued to be Saaransh. And that is still his biggest problem.

He has tried again and again to break out of the bad guy/buffoon mould, but it did not seem to be working. In the early 90s he had become a bit of an activist as well. He slapped a Stardust reporter over a story and very soon triggered off a full-fledged battle between the film press and the actors. “I’m not a good actor because of what they write,” he had announced as the fight reached fever pitch.

He took up the cause of Kashmiri Pandits next and spoke out against atrocities on them. More recently, he took on Arundhati Roy and her diatribe against India’s nuclear blasts. “I was so angry when I read her article in The Guardian during my trip to London. She has every right to express her opinion in an Indian magazine about India’s nuclear policy... But please do it at home... The only reason why she did it in my view was to get international recognition. I thought it was extremely hypocritical...,” he said.

In the last few years, he has dabbled with theatre, launched his own productions, producing Bariwali recently.

Kher seems to be in a mad rush to break free of the stranglehold of the Hindi commercial movie world. “I’ve exhausted all the tricks of my trade,” he confessed in an interview some years ago.

For someone who has constantly embraced new kinds of roles, SDCK must have seemed like just another challenge. And, in any case, he had not come off too badly in the other TV talk show he can be seen in, one where he can be seen talking to children of various shapes and sizes on Sab TV.

Zee TV needed someone with “experience, empathy, maturity and versatility”. Kher who has long cultivated an image of close association with these adjectives fitted the bill.

But it was a bit foolhardy to pit himself against Amitabh Bachchan in the first place. Maybe the same madness that led him to accept the role of a 70-year-old in Saaransh was at work again. It worked in Saaransh. It is not likely to work in Sawaal Dus Crore Ka.    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Whose reputation was it?

Sir — Nothing describes better the report that the Pakistani umpire, Javed Akhtar, has sued South African cricket administrator, Ali Bacher, than the old saying, “Empty vessels make much noise” (“Javed Akhtar sues Bacher”, Oct 23). It sounds ridiculous to anyone who is aware of the goings-on in the world of cricket. When “Akhtar alleges that Bacher tried to hurt his reputation and credibility”, one wonders what reputation Akhtar is talking about. As many as nine leg before decisions in a test match, many of them doubtful, are enough to raise eyebrows. If Akhtar does not want a fresh can of worms to be opened, he should stop kicking up a fuss about Bacher’s allegations.
Yours faithfully,
Siddharth Gupta, via email

Heartless culture

Sir — The editorial, “Heart of darkness”(Oct 15), rightly condemns Calcuttans for their fanfare on the occasion of Durga Puja when millions of their brethren were fighting for their lives. The complete lack of sensitivity displayed by the people of this city can hardly leave room for their boasts of cultture and heritage.

But why single out Calcuttans when a similiar attitude prevails throughout the country? In the not-so-distant past Indians were glued to world cup cricket matches while their jawans were braving the odds at Kargil. “Educated and enlightened Indians” unhesitatingly immerse themselves in a consumerist culture although half the population is languishing below the poverty line.

The people who claim to worship women in the form of shakti, also commit terrible atrocities against them. While the country remains divided on the grounds of caste and religion, it persists in selling to the outside world its theme of “unity in diversity”. The shame of child marriages, dowry deaths and witch-hunting are forgotten in the pride of a nuclear India. Calcutta is only a small part of a larger hypocritical India.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Sir — The editorial, “Heart of darkness”, is correct in pointing out that the state administration has not devoted enough time to the preservation of the heritage of our city. Its policy of renaming the streets of Calcutta has fallen flat as people have shown a reluctance to adopt the changed names. Therefore Sarat Bose Road continues to be referred to as Lansdowne Road. Apparently, no lessons have been learnt from the successful renovation of the Town Hall.

Yours faithfully,
Nandini Maitra, Calcutta

Ticket to importance

Sir — Recently, prior to a Samata Party rally in Bihar, the Union minister for agriculture, Nitish Kumar, urged the rallyists not to buy train tickets to come for the rally. Who does the minister think he is? What is surprising is that there has not been any adverse reaction from the media in response to the minister’s outrageous remarks. Sometime back it was Sharad Yadav who diverted an Indian Airlines flight, actually bound for Lucknow, to fly to Patna to please some members of parliament on board.

This trend among India’s political leaders of ignoring public sentiments and misusing public money seems to be gaining in strength. Unless the public and the media come down heavily on this class of politicians which thinks public money and public interests are of no consequence, the entire country might soon become a “Bihar”.

Yours faithfully,
Subir Sen, via email

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