Editorial / You might as well live
British is multiracial
People / Fardeen Khan
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / YOU MIGHT AS WELL LIVE 
 
 
 
 
If dying is an art, like everything else, then the Bengalis seem to be doing it exceptionally well. The latest report on suicide in India, prepared by the National Crime Record Bureau, shows West Bengal at the head of the list of suicidal states. Although the actual number of suicides in the state is coming down, Bengal has remained at the top of the list for three successive years, with 13 per cent of Indian suicides occurring in the state. Those inclined to be wry, rather than sentimental, about such things would express their bemused lack of surprise at such a finding. Bengal’s visionary dreariness — its unique combination of intellectual refinement, swine-haunted hospitals, derelict schools, derecognized universities and dysfunctional mills — would be the perfect setting for modern India’s young Werthers. The report points out that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have very low suicide rates. It would seem that, in these states, a combination of native robustness, illiteracy, corruption and relentless violence arising out of every imaginable form of social inequality leaves very little time for pondering the great Hamletian question.

But the report does bring up the multifarious and baffling nature of suicide itself, particularly when considered in relation to larger social and political structures like the state and its various institutions. Suicide can be an unfathomable and private act. It can also be a public, though no less complex, gesture that is explicable in brutally simple “sociological” terms. Independent India, as a democracy with its own feudal and colonial legacies, has evolved its own forms of indifference and exploitation. Suicide could often be a way of drawing political attention within such a society, taking to an extreme certain forms of emotional blackmail — like fasting — that have become a normal part of public political discourse. Self-immolation in the Mandal era, suicide-bombers belonging to terrorist groups, and the mass suicide of impoverished farmers’ families in Andhra Pradesh are all acts that are statements whose meanings are, in a sense, terribly clear. There are a great many cases in Bengal that demand to be seen in some sort of a social context. In India, most suicides are still caused by conflicts within the family, and in Bengal such conflicts largely centre around property. In this category, the number of women killing themselves remains significantly higher than the number of men. Apart from cases of dowry-related torture driving women to suicide, there has been a number of cases in the state of women killing first their children and then themselves as a gesture against their thriftless husbands immersing their families in debt. And this, like most other cases of female suicide, continues to be a metropolitan trend. Another public sphere turning people suicidal is health. More people than before have killed themselves after prolonged illnesses. Half the suicides in Kerala are AIDS patients. Complete social and medical ostracism, rather than actual physical suffering, is the cause of these deaths.

There is obviously a wide range of pressures and contexts that could “explain” many cases of suicide, and could even give them a peculiarly regional character. The absence of proper daylight for half the year in some Scandinavian countries apparently drive many of their inhabitants to death, out of the sheer pressure of unremitting gloom. But such pressures apart, every suicide marks the unique crossing of a certain threshold. The final impulse behind this crossing remains hauntingly inscrutable to those who choose to stay on the side of life, and of the law. Such crossings often come with their own disconcerting logic and sanity, an utterly mysterious determination that conquers the universal human fear of physical pain.

Perhaps Dorothy Parker’s Jazz Age rationale for choosing to live might offer another black alternative to this logic, if not exactly a life-affirming consolation to its victims and survivors: “Razors pain you;/ Rivers are damp;/ Acids stain you;/ And drugs cause cramp./ Guns aren’t lawful;/ Nooses give;/ Gas smells awful;/ You might as well live.”

   

 
 
BRITISH IS MULTIRACIAL 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
Last week’s British census reminded me of a Chinese Singaporean wondering whether the best way of handling minorities was isolation or integration. It also warned that, as the Indian and German experiences have demonstrated in different ways, there might be an unhappy political fallout of prying too closely into and highlighting sectarian definitions in a nation that has not yet come to terms with multiculturalism, notwithstanding Robin Cook’s ridiculous claim that chicken tikka masala is the national dish.

As a loyal son of the Yellow Emperor, my Singaporean colleague had in mind Mother China’s problems in suppressing Xinjiang and Tibet. But we know that the ethnic question has a much wider resonance than even troubled Kashmir, and that globalization has only intensified the tribalism that lurks in all of us, accentuating the importance of whatever clan or sub-clan we might belong to. Yugoslavia’s break-up most dramatically illustrates a contemporary determination to discard the ideal of political nationalism in order to reorganize society along minimalist sectarian lines. Britain’s gentle regional devolution is a symptom of the same trend.

The 2001 census seems to stress differences rather than similarities, and invite new migrants to stake their own political demands. We know in India the destructive power of separate electorates; we know that paring the community cheese too thin can Mandalize society, and that governments can cynically exploit demographic data. This might seem a far cry from contemporary Britain, but inviting people to state the ways in which they are different can place a premium (or discount) on difference. The Indian equivalent would be to underline language, religion, caste and sub-caste in census forms, oblivious of the explosion of loyalties and demands that this can trigger off.

The world is not so much a village as a collection of villages that are beginning to rediscover (or create) their grassroots identity. One of Singapore’s more “intellectual” ministers, George Yeo, even developed the thesis that small is not only beautiful, as Schumacher used to say, but also pragmatic. Even a huge country like China, he argued, had to split itself into little pockets — the economic export zones — for purposes of growth.

Of course, Yeo might have had a different theory about the most desirable size if Singapore had been bigger. But two trends are beyond self-serving personal formulations. First, the urge to give political expression to small and cohesive entities. And second, the affirmation of narrow identities based on race, religion or language. Britain is zigzagging between these two complementary trends on the one hand and the government’s formal commitment to a multiracial ideal — witness last year’s Race Relations (Amendment) Act outlawing ethnic discrimination by public bodies —- on the other.

The devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with New Labour promising now to place even England under a series of elected regional assemblies, genuflects at the small-is-beautiful ideal. This conflicts with the pledge to treat “British” as an inclusive national label that embraces people of all colours, cultures and cuisines which demands that the entire populace of the British Isles should be treated as a single nation.

Britain’s first census in 1801 asked only five simple questions regarding gender, occupation and living conditions; ethnicity was raised for the first time in 1991. There were 41 questions this time, with a heavy emphasis on race. The questionnaire was refined not only to wring confessions of how people see themselves but also to force them into the straitjacket of official thinking with questions that prompt their own answers.

Thus, if you are white, the offered choice of being British or Irish rejects the pretensions of people like the Sikh settler in the United States who famously applied to the courts that being of Aryan descent he should be counted as white. If you are Asian or black you can describe yourself as “Asian British” or “Black British” (not “Asian English” or “Black English”) with several kinds of Asian or black to choose from.

Asians can be Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi or of any other Asian background; blacks can be Caribbean, African or of any other black background. The Mixed category allows for white and black Caribbean, white and black African, white and Asian, and people of any other mixed background. It is almost as detailed, though far more accurate, than in Singapore where every form lumps Sri Lankan, Pakistani and Bangladeshi with Gujarati or Tamil under the Indian category and classifies Sikhs separately. I was forced protestingly to put down my “race” as “Indian” because the Chinese had not heard of Indo-Aryan.

The complaint here is that by restricting the white choice to British, Irish or any other white background, the Office of National Statistics, which is responsible for the census, argues that the Scots and Welsh cannot be British since they are separate races. The privilege of being British is more explicitly denied to the Chinese. No matter how anglicized a Chinese might be, no matter how many generations his family might have lived in Britain, the ONS has ruled that there is no such thing as “Chinese British”.

Historically, the Chinese are even greater wanderers than Indians, ranking almost with Jews. An old Chinese saying has it that they will go wherever there is land and water. They have been assimilated in the United States. In London, they have moved from the once derelict East End to a bustling Soho which now caters to every imaginable kind of taste in Chinese cuisine. They have also taken over central portions of North Country and Midlands towns that previously boasted only one or two Chinese restaurants, and converted them into brightly painted Chinatowns with ornamental gateways as in San Francisco.

Some Chinese are bound to resent the refusal to describe them as Chinese British as iniquitous a piece of discrimination as concession ports and unequal treaties. Already, blacks complain that New Labour is far more indulgent to Asians because of their financial clout. The Chinese can cite the same reason.

The political right’s objection to the census form is that it confirms that the English are being marginalized in their homeland. It is pointed out, for instance, that while Scottish MPs can air their views on a purely English phenomenon like fox hunting, English MPs do not enjoy a similar say in Scottish affairs. Tackled on the absence of England and English as options for respondents, an official spokesman claimed that “when the form was tested the English appeared happier to describe themselves as British”. If so, both the English and the ONS had second thoughts for the latter subsequently advised people to write England/English and Wales/Welsh wherever appropriate under the Others category.

All this may sound like irrelevant hair-splitting. But the ONS believes that detailed information “will help to uncover racial inequality and take action to tackle it”. It might. It could also enable dangerous negative action. It has not escaped attention that though Jews figure as a religious category, they are conspicuous by their absence from the ethnic section which handles all other minorities in precise terms. The inescapable conclusion is that the authors have not forgotten what the enumeration of Jews led to in Hitler’s Germany.

Some fear that this census, too, could fuel unpleasant action. It may be pertinent in this context to note that the home office is accused of issuing two orders, the second on April 23, authorizing the immigration service to discriminate against certain nationalities. The second order says that Kurd, Roma (Gypsy), Albanian, Tamil, Pontic Greek, Somali and Afghan immigrants and asylum seekers should be subject “to a more rigorous examination than other persons in the same circumstances”. There may be sound reason for these instructions but they do reveal that governments everywhere find ethnic knowledge a useful tool for arbitrary action with not always pleasant consequences.

   

 
 
PEOPLE / FARDEEN KHAN 
 
 
 
 

High Low

There is a little victory jig routine, complete with high-fives and triumphant yells, that Fardeen Khan perfects in his recently-released Pyar Tune Kya Kiya. The catchy routine must have been the last thing on his mind when he was recently arrested on a muggy Saturday evening in Bandra, for attempting to purchase a single gram of cocaine from a local drug peddler. The irony, of course, was that Khan was celebrating the success of Pyar Tune Kya Kiya when he was picked up.

A relatively new face in the Bollywood brat pack, the 30-something Khan is a star son pretty much unashamedly a chip off the old block. The old block in this case being producer-director-actor Feroze Khan, who along with brothers Sanjay and Akbar, were the original bad boys of Bollywood — with a killer charm they almost patented.

While Khan radiates an equally potent charm — recently journalists with a Mumbai-based film magazine were swept off their feet when the actor dropped by at their Nariman Point office “without the usual retinue of PROs and PAs in tow to give us some recent photographs to go with a feature we were doing on him” — he is, in keeping with our more staid times, a little less reckless than his father and uncles. That was until his little cocaine shopping spree went public.

Wearing his blue-blooded Bollywood lineage proudly, Khan is candid about being a star son: “Comparisons may be odious, but they’re inevitable...initially, I’m bound to be known as Feroze Khan’s son. I consider that a headstart in life.”

The headstart though wasn’t really much to write home about, given Khan’s disastrous debut in home production Prem Aggan. Which was followed by over a year of hibernation. Khan, who moved on to studying business in the US after graduating from Mumbai’s Meethibai College, described the hibernation as a “period of up-grading” himself. Which meant like other actors in the wings, he worked on his diction and grooming.

Defending his son, dad Feroze Khan first said that with “one out of 10 kids snorting regularly it wasn’t such a big deal”. Obviously he’s talking about a different bracket of kids altogether given that the one gram of cocaine Fardeen was trying to buy would have cost him Rs 2,500. The kind of kids Fardeen must hang out with when he goes motor-racing or go-karting — two of his favourite sports.

Feroze Khan went on to clarify that his son wasn’t an addict: “He told me that he had tried it only three or four times in the past, mostly in the presence of and under the influence of his friends. On this occasion he was intending to take it because he was feeling light and good as his film had just been declared a hit.”

Juggling periods of emotional highs and lows has been something that Fardeen has been struggling with for quite a while now. In an interview he gave, not too long after Ram Gopal Verma made his film Jungle with him, Khan spoke about how while at college in the US he worked as a waiter on campus — “The obscurity helped me...,” he said. It was while he was in his second year of college (where he was studying business) in the US that Khan decided he would switch to a career in movies.

On-the-sets stories from the shooting of Jungle — a film which went on to do several notches better than Prem Aggan at the box office — reveal a little more on Khan’s insecurities and need for affirmation in the dog-eat-dog world of Bollywood star kids. His first shot for the film was one long run. At the end of the day’s shoot a fairly nervous Khan went up to Verma to ask him how he had done, to which Verma laughed “I have only seen you run...so I will tell you later.” On hearing this, the actor only turned a little more visibly nervous.

As it happened Verma, who initially signed him on because of his good looks, later commented on being “pleasantly surprised by his [Fardeen’s] performance”.

Admitting that the world of big-screen glamour is riddled with insecurities, Khan recently said: “The nature of the business itself is insecure. Whether you will be accepted by the audience or not, whether your film will do well or not. The anxieties continue to grow as you grow.”

With Pyar Tune Kya Kiya doing encouragingly well at the box office, Fardeen must have felt an overwhelming need to celebrate the temporary end of his anxieties, the best way he could.

   

 
 
THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

And the ship sails on

The sweepstakes in the states over, sweeping changes are waiting to happen in Raisina Hills. Two very famous heads are likely to roll, and then probably be “rolled back”. The finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, and the invincible principal secretary to the prime minister, Brajesh Mishra, apparently will lose their jobs. The Delhi rumour-mill has it that Mishra might be inducted into the cabinet and given his lolly(some people have all the luck) — the slot of the minister of state for external affairs with independent charge. The soother for the FM is not so forthcoming. If Mishra bores into the MEA, it will mean Jaswant Singh will have to be shifted out. That will probably be in the finance ministry, where he will have to battle it out with the Andhra governor and former RBI governor, C Rangarajan, P Chidambaram and Murli Manohar Joshi. As for the defence cake, it seems to have the glad eyes of LK Advani, and till buddy George Fernandes gets a clearance from the Venkatswami commission on Tehelka, the slice might go to the Union home minister. There are supposed to be newcomers to walk the ramp as well. Kisan leader Ajit Singh, who has patched up with saffronhood, may become agriculture minister to take on the onerous job of strengthening the BJP hand in Uttar Pradesh. Ajit Panja may also be given his prize for spoiling the party of the Trinamooli didi. And the game of musical chairs may go on till the music finally stops for the NDA.

Going by the verdict

Sonia Gandhi — and the NDA is no music to her ears — has allegedly sent three emissaries to the Telugu Desam CEO, N Chandrababu Naidu, with the hope that he provide her with the rope to pull down the BJP-led government. If her men fail her, Sonia has another card in reserve — Mamata, whose persuasive skills with Naidu, have been tried and tested before. Naidu, however, is no novice. Only a zero-five verdict in the states will convince him that the NDA is after all a sinking ship. And even Mamata cannot promise him that.

Planning for the commission

The induction of Nandu Babu, less famously NK Singh, into the planning commission has got Yojna Bhawan alive and kicking again. One joke doing the rounds is that with Montek Singh Ahluwalia going to the IMF, the planning aspect has gone. Which leaves out only the commission. And the new entrant will surely be able to handle that.

Intelligent choice

An expensive dinner was held recently at a five-star hotel in the capital in the honour of the CBI director, RK Raghavan, and Gautam Kaul, director general of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Both men are retiring. The guests also toasted to welcome Raghavan’s successor, PC Sharma, as the acting director of the CBI. The question that hasn’t stopped bothering the Delhi police since then is who actually picked up the tab for this no-expenses-spared do. Cynics believe that the enormous amount of money came from the intelligence kitty. Most intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies at the Centre and in the states have vast sums of money at their disposal, ostensibly for the purpose of gathering information. In the absence of audits, much of this fund gets spent on things which are not even remotely connected to that job. Activities like dinner and dance, presumably.

Give this woman her rightful place

This woman is capable of much more. That is one thing about herself the Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson, Najma Heptullah, has been trying to convince everyone about. That is also one of the reasons she recently hosted dinners for four successive days for small groups of journalists. Each day, the menu, the conversation and the sweet dish remained almost the same. Najma’s self-discovery was given a fillip by her recent visit to Havana, where Fidel Castro was apparently so impressed with her that he requested her to address his ministers. Unfortunately, an Italian is not as perceptive as the Cuban. Relations between the Congress president and Heptullah have nosedived of late. Najma however needs Sonia’s backing for her candidature for the presidential post, and if not for that, then at least for the vice-president’s chair. But madam does not seem to be keen to sponsor her. Each day some party leader or member tells her about Najma’s allegedly snide remarks about the 10, Janpath resident. Why are they nipping talent in the bud?

Footnote / The trick is in the buttons

A battle of wits in Bengal, but one didn’t know how bad it was till one visited the Satgachhia constituency. The duel was virtually between Jyoti Basu’s former election agent turned CPI(M) candidate, Gokul Bairagi, and TMC candidate and Mamata’s pet, Sonali Guha. At Nodakhali bazar, at the heart of Basu’s constituency for 24 years, CPI(M) supporters were busy overturning the wisdom of the election officers. The cadre informed voters on their way to the booth that pressing the first button (which was for Bairagi) on the electronic polling machine would turn it on. They could then press any other button of their choice. TMC workers could not be outdone in their “one to one battle”. They told voters that pressing the first button would invariably give them an electric shock. Instead, they had to start by pressing on the fourth button from the top (which unquestionably was for Guha). The fourth button sermon might not have worked as successfully as the first, especially if it missed those already inspired by the cadre-speak. So if Bairagi makes it to the assembly, we’ll know which button did the trick.    

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

A simple case of burning out

Sir — Shoaib Akhtar has become, in a short span of time, almost indispensable for the Pakistan cricket team. As such, he should have been given the best care possible. Being a fast bowler with an awesome pace, he is at a greater risk of burning out fast than the rest. The recent reports of a possible injury (“Tough test for Pakistan”, May 2 and “Speculation rife over Shoaib’s missed flight”, May 4) and his absence from competitive cricket since February give reasons to suspect that he has been overused. Anil Kumble, too, has suffered because too much cricket has been demanded of him. This is why younger cricketers need to be groomed properly, so that older ones can be rested and their burnout stalled.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Marriage of necessity

Sir — The electoral alliance in Assam between the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party indicates that the big brother of the National Democratic Alliance is in urgent need of an ally post-Tehelka. The party which had decided to go it alone in the Assam assembly elections, changed its mind after two of its allies — the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal and the Pattali Makkal Katchi in Tamil left the NDA.

The AGP has its own reason to align with the BJP. It has realized that the people of the state are averse to the idea of returning it to power. Since the letter of credit scandal came out into the open in 1997, Prafulla Mahanta’s image has suffered a setback. Neither is the performance of the AGP government something to write home about. It did badly in the 1998 and 1999 parliamentary elections. It was deserted by the minorities, a large part of its support base. It is the BJP which would expand its support base since the AGP has already lost much of its mass appeal. There is only one option before the AGP — to perform or to perish.

Yours faithfully
Abhijit Roy, via email

Sir — Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s recent assertion that legally and constitutionally, it is now difficult to deport Bangladeshi infiltrators who have settled in Indian territory underlines the seriousness of the immigrant problem. His statement that work permits be issued to the migrants is a slogan to help the AGP-BJP combine get the votes of the Bangladeshi migrants of Assam in the assembly elections.

Dissenting voices within the BJP show that the party is divided on the issue. Although Vajpayee’s assurance might win his party some votes, it will also make the educated unemployed young people in Assam turn away from the AGP-BJP alliance. With such large numbers of skilled and unskilled, educated and technically qualified people in the country, is it right to issue work permits to foreign nationals merely to gain a few votes?

Yours faithfully,
Jitesh Sonee, Calcutta

Discouraged

Sir — How could the watchers-on at the Chandni Chowk metro station direct such ugly, racist remarks at a Chima lookalike because of the colour of his skin (“Monkeys in our orchard”, April 28)? What happened was a shameful incident showing a dangerous lack of respect for people of other cultures. Bengali courage is truly a thing of the past; it is sad that the only time it surfaces is in a crowd against a single man. After reading the Diary item, would I still doubt Bengali racism, prejudice and xenophobia? No.

Yours faithfully,
Bryan Forst, Calcutta

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