Editorial / Private lives, public figures
Memories of a political editor
People / Vyjanthimala Bali
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / PRIVATE LIVES, PUBLIC FIGURES 
 
 
 
 
Important political leaders are not supposed to have private lives. Or even if they have, it is not a subject that biographers should pry into and write about. One of Napoleon Buonaparte’s female admirers once remarked, referring to her idol, that genius has no sex. That luminous, if absurd, epigram just about sums up attitudes some Indians have towards their political icons. The reported response of the Congress party and of Ms Sonia Gandhi to the recent biography of Indira Gandhi by Ms Katherine Frank is a reminder that such attitudes endure. Reports suggest that Ms Gandhi has taken “strong exception” to the book and is even contemplating legal action. She is upset because she feels that the biography besmirches the memory of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. The objections are difficult to comprehend. It is not by any reckoning the duty of a biographer to uphold the memory of his subject. His job is to recreate the personality of his subject and through that to illuminate the work and times of the man or woman about whom he is writing. There is space for sympathy in a biography, but none for hagiography, a different genre altogether. In India, the two genres of biography and hagiography are always mixed up.

It is significant that the sections which have hurt Ms Gandhi all relate to her mother-in-law’s or her father-in-law’s personal life. The biography does not hide the fact that Feroze Gandhi was a rampant womanizer. And this hurt Indira Gandhi and embarrassed Jawaharlal Nehru. It looks at the rumour about Feroze Gandhi having an affair with Kamala Nehru before he married Indira. But the author dismisses the rumours because she feels such an affair “was inconceivable given Kamala’s poor health, her values and the complete lack of privacy in Anand Bhawan”. But she takes away the strength of the last point by admitting that the two of them often travelled together. The matter remains ambiguous. She follows in some detail the story of Indira Gandhi’s liaison with M.O. Mathai, Nehru’s secretary. Persons close to Indira Gandhi, like Mr B.K. Nehru and Mr S. Gopal, confirmed that Mathai’s version of the relationship contained more fact than fiction. What is surprising is that other kinds of allegation, like Indira Gandhi’s knowledge that Sanjay Gandhi had amassed a fortune during the Emergency or her involvement in the assassination of L.N. Mishra, do not disturb Ms Gandhi and her party. Only extramarital sex, it seems, is objectionable and capable of besmirching someone’s memory.

Such a reaction is by no means unique to the Nehru-Gandhi family and its retainers. Many Bengalis have the same kind of attitude towards local icons, Rabindranath Tagore and Subhas Chandra Bose. When Ananda Bazar Patrika printed translations of Bose’s love letters to his wife, Bose’s supporters burnt copies of the paper. Any mention of Tagore’s relationship with Victoria Ocampo brings forth looks of disapproval in polite Bengali circles. The same strain of hero worship is visible in the way Indians look at biographies. Biographies should be worshipful and they should gloss over scandals, affairs and such like. This is completely contrary to the way the art of biography has developed in the West. Biographers have had no hesitation in writing about John Maynard Keynes’s homosexuality, about Karl Marx’s illegitimate son by his housekeeper, about Bertrand Russell’s love affair with Ottoline Morell and so on. In India, such frankness has been rare. Nirmal Bose, in his memoirs, wrote about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s experiments with sex and Mr Gopal, with breathtaking honesty, described how his father S. Radhakrishnan was a philanderer. These are the exceptions that come readily to mind. Biographies in India tend to suppress what is private and considered salacious. This is a sign of immaturity. India, as a nation, clings to and protects its heroes when in fact they need no such protection. History will not judge Indira Gandhi by her sex life. She will be remembered, perhaps not very fondly, for what she did to the country. By being unnecessarily touchy, Ms Gandhi may be infringing on more than a biographer’s freedom.

   

 
 
MEMORIES OF A POLITICAL EDITOR 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
Late one evening a week ago I asked Vanya Kewley, producer of television documentaries on stirring themes like the Bangladesh war, Catholic resistance to Chile’s military dictatorship and Tibet and the Dalai Lama, whether she had any news of Anthony (Tony) Bevins and his wife, Mishtuni. She hadn’t. We were driving back to London after a long day in Norfolk where Vanya and her scientist husband were looking for a country house to buy, and I made a mental note to track Tony down this time. Waiting for a train at Waterloo the next morning, I opened the Times to read “Doyen of political editors dies at 58”. Second shock: Mishtuni had died a few days before. It was gracious of the Times to give its erstwhile chief political correspondent that send-off for he had defied Rupert Murdoch’s spectacular coup that broke the trade unions. “I will go to Wapping with ashes in my mouth”, Tony told a packed meeting.

This is hearsay for I did not ever meet either of them in Britain. In fact, I did not meet them at all in 35 years. Our last meeting was in 1966 when Tony and Mishtuni came to dinner at my mother’s bungalow in Calcutta. Immaculate in dhoti, silk panjabi and shawl folded over one shoulder, this lanky Bengali-speaking lad from Liverpool with the tousled hair and impish lop-sided grin took off his slippers on the front steps, entering the verandah barefoot. The gesture was ritualistically correct but not often seen in our house. At the table, after the soup plates had been cleared, he stared at the roast mutton and burst out querulously in grammatical but not idiomatic Bengali, “Eta kar mangsho (Whose meat is this)?”

“Manusher (Human)”, I teased, partly to point out the wrong pronoun and partly to ridicule what I recognized as the root of his concern. Mistaking mutton for beef, he was reacting like an orthodox Hindu. Tony was not amused. “Mishtuni doesn’t eat beef”, he said huffily. That, as well as our first meeting, came to mind when I read Colin Hughes’s tribute in the Guardian to the couple’s “searingly honest, openly emotional relationship”.

It was thanks to Mishtuni that I got to know him. I was staying at Ratan Kuthi, then Santiniketan’s most comfortable guest house, when another visitor, Dr Lesny, the Czech doctor whose father had been attached to Rabindranath Tagore, took me to the modest Roy-Bevins household for dinner. Dr Lesny asked Mishtuni to sing which she was quite ready to do, and did remarkably well, but only after the show of reluctance and the coaxing that are de rigeur in Bengali cultural circles.

At one point, Mishtuni murmured that Tony would be angry if she did not sing. That started it off. “Why are you saying that?” he wailed in anguish. “Do I beat you? Do I scold you? Then why do you pain me by saying I will be angry?” If that sounds sloppy in translation, it sounded sloppy even in Bengali. But we must have broken through cultural barriers, real or affected, to establish a sympathetic relationship, for before the evening was over Mishtuni suggested that Tony should dine with me at Ratan Kuthi while she was away in Calcutta visiting her father, Kshitish Roy, an engaging Tagorean who had looked after Santiniketan’s junior school. I would be company for him and he for me. Evening after evening he would come over to the guest house and, after dinner, at which others might be present, we sat talking through the night without benefit of stimulant. “I haven’t talked like this to anyone for a long time,” he said and asked shyly if he could read to me from the novel he was writing. I remember no plot but I do recall long introspective passages studded with Bengali words. Tony was impatient when I queried “walls of poka”, failing to connect. “Poka!” he cried. “Insects!”

He was 23 to my 28 but the difference seemed less important than the similarity of taste and interest. We also shared a sense of uncertainty about the future. The organization I worked for was changing, and I feared new demands on my professional style. My remit then was to roam the country, describing whatever caught my fancy. But there were hints that I would have to immerse myself in politics and staid leader-writing if I wanted to “get on”, as the phrase goes. “I don’t envy you your choice”, Tony commented.

He, too, faced a choice. He wanted to write but did not know where. His distaste for the newspaper industry and its potentates was matched by his vigorous contempt for politics and politicians. Like me, he had no political affiliation. Unlike me, he had seen politics at close quarters. His father had been the odd man out among Harold Macmillan’s aristocratic ministers. “The Tories needed a working class pin-up boy”, he explained, “and my father was from the back-jiggers of Liverpool.” I gathered it was Merseyside dialect for back-to-back terraces.

He must have inherited his cynicism from Reginald Bevins, who used Disraeli’s phrase, “the greasy pole”, as the title of an exposé of political wheeling and dealing. Armed with a degree from the London School of Economics, Tony had gone to Santiniketan as a member of the British Voluntary Service Organization, which predated the better-known American Peace Corps, and met and married Mishtuni. Santiniketan, the romantic in him saw as Kafkaesque. “There’s the Castle”, he said, pointing to Uttarayan.

I wondered how she would make out in Liverpool. The question of cultural disharmony seemed never to have crossed Tony’s mind. I was not surprised to hear of his spat with an extreme right-wing journalist nicknamed, The Brute, who had apparently riled him on race.

The Bengali grapevine told me that Mishtuni had recovered from an attack of childbirth paralysis. But Tony was lost to Bengal, though news of his doings trickled back to me sometimes because British journalism is an incestuous club of which I remained a sort of honorary member, having started life in it and written for many years for the old Observer. I heard of his job-hopping — at least seven papers — and scoops, awards and feuding with Margaret Thatcher. He strove valiantly to break the lobby system whereby Number Ten controls favoured political journalists through daily dollops of off-the-record information.

Tony must have mastered his aversion to newspaper ephemera since he held some of the most exalted political positions in the Fleet Street that was. But he was without a job at the end, having sacked himself last December when a man with the reputation of a pornographer bought the Daily Express. Apparently, he was working on the biography of a sculptor (who?) and on a book on mad cow disease.

The obituaries say that Tony was unconscious in hospital and unaware that Mishtuni had flown back from America and collapsed and died by his bedside. They speak of his courage, integrity, cleansing missions and bouts of hard drinking. They mention a public snub to Mrs Thatcher. William Hague went out of his way to heap praise on him.

Tony has often been in my thoughts in these three and a half decades. I wondered why he was not at the boardroom lunch that the Independent gave for me though he was then the paper’s political editor, and why, with his fluent Bengali, he was never counted with William Radice, Andrew Robinson and Ian Jack who are regarded in Calcutta as Bengal afficionados. I wonder now why there is not a whisper of the novel into which he poured himself in 1965. It would be sad if politics won in the end, burying Tony’s sensitivity and the appealing whimsy of his “walls of poka” under the debris of battles that could never be won.

   

 
 
PEOPLE / VYJANTHIMALA BALI 
 
 
 
 

Ways seeing

People evolve. One day, they are in the Congress, espousing Nehruvian thought. And then, before you know it, they are in the Bharatiya Janata Party, championing the cause of Hindutva. One day, you find them gaily prancing around trees, and then, before you can say Vyjanthimala Bali, they are heading national juries set up to assess the best films of the year.

Bali, chairperson of the 48th National Film Awards, has spent most of this week cocooned in a friend’s house in New Delhi, trying to get a pesky press off her back. The former actress, who last kicked up a furore in 1964 when she did a mean jig in tight slacks in the film, Sangam, has just rustled up another storm. Before the jury could announce the awards for the year’s best in Indian cinema, three of its members walked out in protest, accusing the jury of rigging the awards. Bali went on air, arguing that the jury members were all experts in the finer nuances of cinema. And television mercilessly spliced her brave defence of the jury with a comment from jury member Nivedita Pradhan. Asked about her links with cinema, she said sagely: “I watch films.”

Pradhan — a BJP MLA from Cuttack — would have been at home in the jury, for it sounds like a picnic organised by the BJP’s cultural wing. To begin with, chairperson Bali is a member of the BJP. She joined the party with considerable fanfare two years ago — immediately after it became clear that the Congress was not giving her a second term in Parliament. Jury member Tarun Vijay is the editor of the RSS organ, Panchjanya, Shashi Ranjan was BJP member Shatrughan Sinha’s one-time TV producer and Parvati Indusekhar was Sushma Swaraj’s campaign manager in Bellary.

And if that wasn’t enough, among the members was MacMohan, a small-time Hindi film villain known for his two-bit role as Gabbar’s sidekick, Sambha, in Sholay. MacMohan is also the uncle of Raveena Tandon, who won this year’s best actress award. He signed an affidavit like everybody else before joining the jury, declaring that he was not related to any of those whose efforts were being judged. But Bali is sanguine about such issues, pointing out that MacMohan bravely abstained when it came to a vote for Tandon. “Anyway, who knows who is related to whom,” she says, airily waving her hand. “I didn’t know that Mr Pradeep was Arundhati Roy’s husband,” she says, ignoring the fact that Roy’s work was not being assessed by the jury.

It irks the actress, dancer and former member of the Rajya Sabha that people don’t see her point of view. And she is particularly miffed with jury member and director Pradeep Kishen for looking down on the jury and publicly “ridiculing and insulting” his former colleagues. “How can he be so toffish and malign me like this?” says an indignant Bali.

To be fair to Bali, she was not the one who selected the jury. The information and broadcasting ministry had a long list, out of which it shortlisted 16 people. Bali agreed to become the chairperson after I&B minister Sushma Swaraj urged her to take on the mantle. “I was a little hesitant to begin with, because I had other engagements. But I respect Sushmaji a lot. Like her, I am forthright and strong in my thinking. That’s why I can’t accept it when someone casts aspersions on me.”

Aspersions, clearly, are still being bandied about. The dissenters believe that most films selected for the awards didn’t deserve them. Kishen believes that a cabal was at work, since most members of the jury were, ideologically, similarly inclined. Bali refutes that. (“What kebab-shebab are you talking about?’’ she asked Kishen in a television talk-show when he was holding forth on the shenanigans of the cabal.) “All the decisions were taken on a majority vote,” she says.

Kishen’s main grouse against the jury is the way it recalled films that had already been rejected. To enable the 16-member jury to assess 129 films, the jury was split into four groups of four members each. Among the films the sub-groups rejected Daman — the film that won Tandon her award — and Pukar — which got the award for the best film on national integration and gave actor Anil Kapoor his first national award. When a group in the jury — led on by Bali, says Kishen — insisted that the two films be recalled, the director suggested that a method be followed. “I said, if while viewing a film, even if one member of the four-member group had liked the film, and now the full jury wants it recalled, let’s bring it back. But if all four members rejected it, let’s not recall the film.” The jury outvoted him. Kishen then argued for recalling a film by Mani Ratnam that had been rejected by the sub-group that reviewed it. The jury outvoted him again.

When Pukar was being screened on the last day of viewing, the lights came on, terminating the screening half-way through the film. This had happened on earlier occasions, usually when a film was found to have no redeeming features, but only after all jury members had agreed to a termination. In the case of Pukar, jury member Dhritiman Chatterjee asked Bali if he could view the film in full. “No,” she said.

Vyjanthimala Bali tells you why. “Everybody had seen Pukar. It has been released in movie halls,” she says, no doubt indicating that Chatterjee has not been watching the right kind of cinema.

Bali, of course, is convinced that the jury did the right thing. She gives the example of an animated short on the Mahabharata, called The Pandavas. “This is a film on an epic that is educational and goes back to our culture and values,” she says.

But instead of siding with the film, the rebels actually expressed an appreciation for a film that Bali said she couldn’t even talk of. “This film used bad language and signalled all kinds of wrong relationships,” she says darkly. “And they liked the film!”

Bali, now in her late sixties, looks as aghast as she did when Raj Kapoor took away her clothes while she bathed in a pond in Sangam. True, the saucer-like eyes that sparkled with mischief now hide behind glasses. The hair-colouring is out of a bottle, and age has lined its way to Bali’s once moon-like face. But the actress — who retired from films after her marriage in 1968 — maintains that she takes pride in the fact that she is the senior-most Bharatnatyam dancer in India today.

Once the brouhaha dies down, Bali says she is going to go on stage with a dance-drama called Sangamam. It is based, she says, on the universality of all religions. “Every thought is the same. Everybody says the same thing,” she says. Quite like what she had thought the jury would be like.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

Haunted morning walks

The Tehelka ghost is still stalking the capital, not at night, but apparently at the crack of dawn and its preference for BJP blood has forced our saffron law minister to put on battle gear over his track suit. But that hasn’t sufficed and Arun Jaitley has had to change track as well — from the Lodhi Gardens to Panchcheel Park. On his two kilometre long morning walks at the former patch of green, Jaitley found himself hounded constantly by journalists, politicians and bureaucrats (both retired and serving) ever since Tehelka started giving sleepless nights to many. He is said to have decided to call it a day when a hotelier close to Vincent George too began walking with Arun and pleading George’s case. Jaitley has reportedly shifted to the lesser known park, but he would be naive if he thought his scent wouldn’t be picked up. Which brings us to the subject of morning walks itself. In Delhi’s durbar culture, the wee hours of the morning often provide the backdrop to some of the most important meetings between political minds. When Sitaram Kesri was seeking Sonia Gandhi’s blessings, he had reportedly begun going for his sair to Nehru Park where Vincent George used to take his dogs for a walk. But that was before the Tehelka and the hidden cameras.

Get going Mr Patnaik

More victims of the Tehelka ghost. A rebellion is said to be brewing within the Biju Janata Dal, which is an important ally of the Tehelka-ravaged NDA government. Rebels are apparently fed up with party president and Orissa chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, for failing to make the most of the occasion and get the state its pound of flesh. Several BJD legislators refused to share a platform with Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his visit to the state capital to address rallies to defend his party and his government. Seven rebels — Prabhat Samanta Ray, Bharatuhari Mehtab, Prassanna Acharya, Prassana Patsani, Jagannath Mullick and Padnabh Behera — have even dared to shoot a missive to Naveen, asking him to do a Mamata Banerjee on the tainted Vajpayee government. But why the heartburn? One strong grouse these BJD members have been nurturing against Vajpayee is his apparent neglect of Orissa’s interests. The men are upset over the stepmotherly attitude of the railway budget to the state. With Mamata gone, they wished Vajpayee to give the railway ministry to the BJD. Stone deafness there. The cake has gone to Nitish Kumar. Now both the senior and junior ministers of railways are from the Samata Party. Some parties have all the luck.

Skipping a meal

Of late Bongs seem to be coming back from the capital with a bad taste in their mouths. After the Trinamoolis, the experience of a handful of state Congress leaders from West Bengal was no different. The other day, the Congress general secretary and the man in charge of West Bengal, Kamal Nath, had summoned these men to help him with his homework, that is to assist him in identifying assembly seats from which the Congress could stake its claim in the state. The meeting began at one in the afternoon and continued till 4.30 pm. Tea came, but there were no signs of the goodies that usually go with it. The Bongs had to soothe their rumbling tummies with bread and omelette back at the Banga Bhawan. Kamal Nath had apparently presumed that they had had lunch before coming for the meeting. Was it an innocent communication gap?

From match point to flash point

You thought cricketers only fixed matches? Wrong. Take this instance where one tried to fix a journalist. Narendra Hirwani, the leggy Indian cricketer who took 16 wickets in 1987-88 against West Indies, was recently recalled to the Indian team, but prevented by Harbhajan Singh to show his stuff. The poor man lost his cool in Gwalior when a scribe popped the innocent question as to why his ball was not turning against lowly Orissa. Hirwani, who plays for Madhya Pradesh, has apparently become a soft target even for the Orissa batsmen. The bowler reportedly hit the ceiling and when he landed, began bashing up the journo. Talk of poor performance.

A poorharvest

Zee reportedly failed to make a killing on the Tehelka. It hoped to fetch Rs 5 lakh for 10 seconds through advertisements while the tapes ran, but had to settle for a paltry Rs 50,000 per 10 seconds for ads that ran across 15 channels. Did nobody want to watch the post mortem?

Footnote / Felled heroes and fallen rates

It goes without saying that the BJP establishment is terribly unhappy with what the Tehelka tapes unearthed, particularly with the snippet that revealed the former president of the party, Bangaru Laxman, pocketing his lakh. They feel, and quite rightly, that there has been a significant drop in the BJP ratings both at home and abroad. But the concern is not so much about what Bangaru stashed away, but how much there was in his folio. The lakh, more than damaging the BJP image, seems to have brought the BJP rates tumbling down. A BJP MP from Delhi, who is also considered to be a fund-raiser for the party, is particularly upset over Bangaru’s doings. In an informal chat with journalists he grieved that he couldn’t believe that Bangaru had accepted only a lakh. This, he felt, will bring down the BJP rates globally. “Imagine if you convert the amount into dollars, then the money is reduced to just around two thousand dollars. People living abroad would be saying Bangaru got caught receiving less than two thousand dollars. Imagine, what a shame for us”. And for us too, Mr MP.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

No crystal gazers needed

Sir — It is incredible how year after year people join in the euphoria surrounding the Oscars and participate in it vicariously through television, magazines, newspapers and god knows what else (“Since you’ve missed this on TV...”, March 30). But what puzzles one is the mindlessness of the event. Clearly, the whole thing is doctored. Whoever didn’t know that Julia Roberts and Russell Crowe were going to get Oscars for their leading roles? And who could have been surprised by Steven Soderbergh getting an Oscar for one of his two films nominated? Frankly, the whole thing is a waste of everybody’s time and money. Have we ever had an instance when the top Oscars have gone to good, independent films?
Yours faithfully,
Vivek Jaiswal, via email

The rights cause

Sir — Speaking at a workshop on human rights and police reforms at Simla, J.S. Verma, the chairman of the national human rights commission, emphasized that the independence of the police force was as important as that of the judiciary. Verma said that the judiciary would not be able to rule justly without independent and honest investigation of the crime.

The need for an effective mechanism of accountability in the police organization was stressed. Verma said that the police should be people-friendly rather than power-friendly.

In India we are still governed by the archaic Police Act and rules framed in 1861 by the British. They were meant to establish the supremacy of British rule over their colonial subjects. It is unfortunate that even after more than 50 years of independence, we have not been able to shed the British legacy. We have inherited a rude, repressive and insolent police which is corrupt besides.

Unfortunately, our political bosses in their behaviour have become more British than the British. They need a committed police force now because there are coalition governments both at the Centre and in the states where their stability is at stake and their authority is always threatened.

Yours faithfully
Shariq Alavi, Lucknow

Sir — The chief minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, in his recent address to the police of the state, asked them to be people-friendly (“Image sermon to police”, March 20). Not too far back, he had given the police a free hand in shooting suspect individuals without worrying about human rights. Surely Bhattacharjee realizes that these two ideas are at odds with one another. Going by the record of the police in the state, the policy of giving a free rein to the police may backfire. However, Bhattacharjee, as a shrewd politician, can ask his police to win friends among the people now and indiscriminately shoot “anti-socials” during and immediately before the elections, when the police becomes the politicians’ greatest help.

Yours faithfully,
Debaprasad Ray, Calcutta

How literate are they?

Sir — It is astonishing that the government of West Bengal’s department of information and public relations should choose to display its ignorance in public. In an advertisement published in The Telegraph on March 12, it has claimed that the state is the third most literate state after Kerala and Maharashtra. The most literate state, as per the statistics furnished by department of census operations, is Mizoram (95 per cent) followed by Kerala (93 per cent). Mizoram has really worked hard to attain the position. Denying them the honour is grossly unjust.

Yours sincerely,
Snehashish Ghosh, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
Third Floor, Godrej Building,
G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007
   
 

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