Editorial / Old men in the house
The three word trick
This Above all / Of festivals and ties that bind
People / Nirupa Roy
Letters to the editor

There is something distinctly odd and funny about a prime minister having a snipe at his home minister in the upper house of parliament. Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s assertion that not even Mr L.K. Advani was aware of the contents of his tête-à-tête with Mr Pervez Musharraf in Agra can only be interpreted as an attempt to bring down Mr Advani a peg or two in the hierarchy of importance in the capital. It is easy to believe that Mr Vajpayee was settling many long-standing scores by this deliberate move to belittle Mr Advani. What such speculation ignores is the gross impropriety involved in a prime minister attacking his own home minister and in the public settling of private scores. One would have expected the prime minister to be above this kind of pettiness and bickering. But Mr Vajpayee is a politician of the old school, who, like the proverbial Indian elephant, has a very very long memory. His statement, although it was garbed in humour and rhetoric, scored a palpable hit. It will remain a mystery why he chose to do this in public. The put-down exposes the prime minister’s jitteriness rather than his strength. An imperious disdain would have been more befitting of prime ministerial dignity. But the mores of politics have radically altered.

The relationship between Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani has never been particularly smooth. There are good reasons for this. Between the two there exists the inevitable tension that is present between mentor and protégé after the latter has found his own feet and is no longer dependent on the mentor. With his rath yatra, Mr Advani had unexpectedly captured the national limelight and has never looked back since. Mr Vajpayee, not surprisingly, is unable to accept this new and influential Mr Advani who always claims to be more saffron than Mr Vajpayee himself. Mr Vajpayee looks on Mr Advani not as a rival but as a pretender. This fraught and complex relationship has not been helped by camp followers who have fuelled what can only be called a looking glass war. A shadow and proxy war has now come out in the open. It has not furbished the image of either party.

It would have been better for the country and for democracy if the prime minister and the home minister chose to debate, discuss or even differ on issues of policy. Instead, a day after Independence Day, there was the unedifying spectacle of homegrown quarrels articulating themselves in a public and hallowed space. This can only be read as a sign of the immaturity of the Indian democracy. The irony is that with such immaturity was associated two men who have grown old in politics. It can be argued that Mr Advani is an innocent party since he did not open his mouth in the Rajya Sabha. Such a view can only be called naïve or partisan. Sangh parivar watchers have lost count of the number of barbs that Mr Advani and his camp have directed at Mr Vajpayee. In retaliation, the latter did not take recourse to innuendo: the velvet glove came off, as did the mask of camaraderie. The Rajya Sabha was witness to a family squabble. Two old men lowered the dignity of India’s highest legislative body.


New Delhi believes in the three-word trick. The government has persuaded itself that the crisis in Manipur has been resolved by dropping three words from the Naga ceasefire declaration. The national media also believes that the problem in Manipur has disappeared as swiftly as it had erupted. There were hardly any editorials on the subject, with the entire media busy cooking up the spicy stew of Phoolan’s death. If there was any attention, it was on the Naga reaction to the change in the wording of the ceasefire declaration. An average citizen in mainland India believes that “we” have solved “their” problem. My friend, Angomcha Bimol Akoijam, thinks otherwise. For him the crisis has, in fact, just begun.

It is 15 years since Bimol left Manipur to settle eventually in Delhi. The national capital attracts over a thousand students from the Northeast every year and then puts them through such an intense and insulting experience of alienation that many of them begin to hate the country they had grown up believing to be their own. Manipuri or Naga or Assamese, they are all “chinky” in Delhi, forced to live in social ghettos. Every pair of eyes that stares at them tells them that they do not belong here. And if they react to it, they are told they are not loyal to the nation.

Bimol must have gone through all this, though he has managed not to be bitter about it. Perhaps because he did not discover his Manipuri identity in Delhi. Back home, he was a part of the movement that sought to revive symbols of traditional Manipuri culture. Like many others of his generation, he gave up his Kshatriya sounding name, Bimol Singh, and took on the traditional clan name, Angomcha Bimol Akoijam. The change in name symbolized a widespread rebellion among the younger generation of the Meitei community against the “Hindu” beliefs and practices of the community.

The Meiteis are the only large non-tribal community in the hill states of the Northeast. Meitei culture today is a product of approximately a thousand years of intermingling of folk traditions and Vaishnavite Hinduism with Krishna as the main deity. The Meiteis are about 55 per cent of Manipur’s population today. The rest include Pangals, a small Manipuri Muslim community, and a number of tribal communities in the mountain ranges that encircle the picturesque Manipur valley.

Just like the floating islands of the famous Loktak lake, the ethnic identity of these communities has also floated gently on the fluid surface of history. The boundaries of the various communities have been porous. Historically, quite a few of the “tribal” communities entered into or came out of the Meitei community. The boundaries hardened somewhat in the 20th century. Over the last few decades, tribal groups have started affiliating themselves with one of the two large tribal identities, Naga or Kuki.

Everyone believes that their newly discovered or acquired identity is the pristine criterion that should now be used to redraw the political map of the region. This is at the root of the current crisis. The rebels of Nagaland believe that they have a natural right over those parts of the tribal areas within Manipur whose inhabitants now think of themselves as Nagas. The Meiteis of the valley see in this a threat to their history and culture.

Bimol is distressed for the crisis made him see the real face of the establishment. The assembly building was being set ablaze in Imphal; the same evening L.K. Advani was assuring the nation that the situation was under control. The killing of 13 pilgrims in the Amarnath yatra rocked the government. The killing of 17 demonstrators by the government’s own bullets in Imphal didn’t ruffle any feather. The whole country was agitated over the arrest of the two leaders in Tamil Nadu. In Manipur, hundreds of people courted arrest and defied curfew. Sportspersons and artistes returned national honours. The chief minister’s official residence was torched. “How many in Delhi lost their sleep?” asks an anguished Bimol.

Bimol knows that a north Indian relates to the people of the Northeast, or Kashmir for that matter, as a landlord does to his tenants. A landlord may be lenient or generous but would brook no challenge to his ownership rights. An educated north Indian might be “liberal” in his dealings with Manipuris, but cannot accept them as a co-owner of the enterprise called India. Our ruling class loves to flaunt its knowledge of the topography between San Francisco and New York; but they would not know which way to hold the map of the Northeast. More than once, the national media has rolled the two leaders of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim into one mythical person, “Mr Isaac Muivah”. A fortnight before the crisis erupted, a television programme saw two well-known parliamentarians from the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party describe all the Manipuris as tribals. They also agreed that frequent defection from one party to another was a natural product of tribal culture.

This combination of ignorance and arrogance is at the root of the problem in relations between New Delhi and the North-east. Bimol is frustrated that the media portrayed the entire problem as a feud between the Nagas and the Meiteis. Once again, “we” resolved “their” problem. Once again, “they”, the aliens, were made to look silly. Once again, “we”, the proprietors of India, came out magnanimous and just. Once again, the victims — the Nagas and the Manipuris — were made to look capricious and the real oppressor, the powers that be in New Delhi, portrayed as the fair, if distant, arbiter. Once again, indifference was mistaken for neutrality.

Bimol has reasons to be worried. He knows a thing or two about the history of ethnic violence in the world. He knows that narrow and aggressive ethnic identities are not a remnant of the traditional past but are a function of the modern struggle for power. Until very recently, the vocabulary of majority and minority was alien to Manipuris. The first chief minister of Manipur, Mohammed Alimuddin, belonged to the tiny Muslim community of Manipur. And the longest serving chief minister, Rishang Keishing, is a Naga.

Bimol can see that this unprecedented political crisis has pushed Manipur into a new era. This modern era demands new definitions of ethnicity and sharper divisions between “us” and “them”. Despite widespread apprehensions, ethnic riots did not take place in Manipur this time. But that is no guarantee for the future. Riot or no riot, one thing is certain — ethnic loyalties would be tested in this new Manipur. The hitherto porous boundaries between communities will gradually give way to more sharply defined and self-conscious ethnic groups with high boundary walls separating them. Perhaps no one from a “minority” community would ever become the chief minister of Manipur again. Like the Nagas before them, those struggling for the autonomy and self-respect of Manipur will carry the impossible dream of a separate nation-state. Some would call them freedom fighters, others would describe them as separatists and terrorists.

Bimol wonders if there is any space for floating islands like him in the new era. The masters in New Delhi would never quite accept him as a rightful owner of this country. The newly converted protagonists of Manipuri nationalism would not fully trust him. He knows that modern nationalism and ethnicity are a heartless affair. It accepts no ifs and buts. It tolerates no ambiguity or fluidity. He wonders if the new masters will order the floating islands of Loktak to stand still, prohibiting them from disrupting the distinction between land and water. He wonders if Loktak, the symbol of much of what we know as the wonder that Manipur is, will survive in these modern times. The crisis, as Bimol says, has just begun.

The author is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, and can be contacted at [email protected]


Among the scores of Pakistani media-persons who came over to cover the Agra summit was an unmarried girl in her twenties. She was more starry-eyed about everything she saw and the people she met in India than her elder companions. Like them she had indulged in a lot of shopping: saris, silver and gold jewellery, shoes, herbal cosmetics and so on. Among her many purchases were some raakhis and a mangalsutra. “I think this tying raakhis round wrists of brothers and getting money or presents in return is a wonderful custom; I have lots of brothers and male cousins. I also like the idea of wearing a mangalsutra to signify you are married. When I have my nikah, I’ll ask my husband to put it round my neck.”

“What will your mullahs have to say about raakhis and mangalsutras? They will denounce them as Hinduizing of Islam and pronounce a fatwa against you,” I said.

“Mullahs can go to hell,” she replied emphatically.

Raksha bandhan has a lot to commend it as an annual bonding between brothers and sisters. But I do not think it should become a display of wealth. I recall starting off by giving my one and only sister Rs 11; then I increased it to Rs 21, then to Rs 51 and finally pegged it at Rs 101. Her other brothers give her a lot more: they have a lot more to give. Perhaps the needs of sisters should be kept in mind: if they are in need give them more; if they are well off, a token sum will do. I know this consideration can be highly beneficial.

Three years ago Illoosh Ahluwalia was a struggling artist and found it difficult to pay her two daughters’ school fees. Then one of her male cousins married into a rich industrialist’s family. Raksha bandhan gave him the opportunity to help her out without embarrassing her. He gave her Rs 11,000.

Besides paying her daughters’ school fees, it gave her breathing time to paint at leisure. Her exhibitions in Delhi and Mumbai were sell-outs. This year her exhibition was inaugurated by Madhavrao Scindia. The quality of her portraits of beautiful women has improved beyond recognition. I am confused about the need for wearing emblems to signify marital status. Most married women (and some men) wear wedding rings. Women do much more. Apart from northern India, mangalsutras are commonly worn by married women.

Then there is sindoor which is applied in the parting of the hair. Not all women wear it. Some have a tiny red dot. But there is Sushma Swaraj whose sindoor runs like a swathe of vermilion right across the parting. On top of that she wears a huge bindi (in her case binda would be closer to the mark). She is a good looking woman. Why does she have to disfigure her face simply to proclaim to males of the world, “Lay off! I am a happily married woman!”

Sowing the seeds of life

One doesn’t hear so much of Van mahotsavs which were a regular feature of the summer monsoons as one used to in the past. I had almost forgotten about this being the best time to plant trees till the secretary of the Delhi Golf Club told me that he had got 10 saplings of sandalwood trees from Mysore to plant along fairways and asked me if I would agree to plant one of them. Sandalwood is an exotic tree in northern India but it does take root and flourish.

I have one in the tiny patch behind my flat. It has been there over 20 years. It is over 12 feet tall. But it has no fragrance. Sandalwood is a parasite: its roots suck juices from roots of neighbouring trees and convert them into aromatic stuff. My poor “fellow” has only bougainvillaea bushes near it and probably its roots do not relish the taste of roots whose flowers have no smell.

Three years ago I wrote with great enthusiasm about gurudwaras which were giving saplings as pershad instead of the traditional halwa. I do not know if the practice continues. I also learnt that the Tirupati temple has also started giving saplings as prasadam. If all places of worship made this a regular practice, we might reverse the deadly pace of deforestation, and make our country green once more. My pleas to ban cremations of the dead by wood has fallen on deaf ears. We have no option but to plant more trees than we cut down to use as fuel, for making furniture and for disposing dead humans.

There is also a callous lack of concern about the health of trees that we have. Pushpa Bhatia drew my attention to trees planted along roads.

Very often on the ground the boles of trees are covered by bricks, stones or tarmac. This deprives roots of the sustenance they derive from rain-water and earth warmed by the sun. Such trees become sickly, their leaves turn pale before their time, their flowers and fruit also do not flourish. Pushpa ascribes the noticeable decline in our bird life to the poor health of trees in urban areas. She may have a point.

Laughter is the best medicine

An anti-smoking slogan at a barber’s shop in Juhu, Mumbai — “Smoking helps you lose weight — one lung at a time!”

Discovered written on the door of a maternity ward in Aurangabad — “Push! Push !!Push!!!”

Seen written behind a Hyundai Santro in Mumbai — “Make love not war — see driver for details.”

A sticker on a Yamaha mobike — “If practice makes perfect, and nobody’s perfect, then why practise?!”

A graffito on a wall of a new Mumbai college — “Sex appeal — please donate generously!”

An ad for a guitar in a Mumbai eveninger — “Guitar for sale, cheap — no strings attached.”

(Contributed by: Shashank Shekhar, Mumbai)

Verses of freedom

Cheer up my chum, dance around the tree.

Now, all of us are absolutely free!

Dacoits do not commit the crime at night

They loot a Bank in broad daylight!

MLAs don’t hold the governor in reverence

They go on shouting in his august presence!

Employees have no regard for the boss

Him, in the sky, they hurl and toss!

Students do not obey or respect their teacher

They treat him like a funny creature!

Children are not scared of their father

What he says they do not bother!

Policemen are so reckless and sinister

They can manhandle a Chief Minister!

Life is so safe that it can be said

“In a protected area, you can shoot an MP dead!”

(Contributed by G.C. Bhandari, Meerut)



Mum’s Word

Some abiding images of Hindi cinema refuse to fade with time. Think of Dev Anand, and the picture that comes instantly to mind is that of a nattily-dressed hero with an ever-nodding head. Say Pradeep Kumar, and a picture comes to mind of a man in a satin dressing gown with a pipe in hand. Talk about Nirupa Roy, and up pops a vision of the quintessential mother –– a lady with greying hair with a loving yet distraught look in her eyes and a heart of gold.

But the 70-year-old silver screen mother figure has suddenly been cast in an awfully unfamiliar role — that of the cruel, dowry-demanding, wife-beating mother-in-law.

Even as Chandigarh-based daughter-in-law Una filed a dowry harassment case (Sections 323/498A and 406 of the IPC) against her actress mother-in-law, the near-saintly Nirupa Roy, “who has been unwell for a few years now,” has retreated into a shell of “shock, hurt and disbelief.”

Near-saintly only because Roy, who has been cast in innumerable mother roles during a screen career spanning about three decades, is firmly entrenched as the kind of deified mother favoured, only with slight variations, in Hindi cinema over the years.

The Mumbai-based Gujarati actress, born Kokila Kishorechandra Balsara, who went on to become Bollywood’s most famous mother with films like Deewar, Khoon Pasina, Suhaag, Amar, Akbar, Anthony and Muqaddar Ka Sikander, has over the years also very effectively blurred the line between reel and real personalities.

On screen, Roy typified the doting, self-sacrificing mother figure. The kind who would starve rather than let her son get a chapati less. Or the kind who did everything from sewing in wretched half-light till her fingers bled to washing mountains of dishes just to keep her son’s body and soul together. Significantly, Roy usually played a widow and perhaps the absence of a male romantic figure in her life only added to her chaste appeal.

Off screen, it would seem, Roy indulged in pretty much the same son-doting. In the Napean Sea Road apartment building where the actress lives with her husband, two sons and daughter-in-law, Nirupa Roy is known as “mataji” or “Nirupaji”.

There was, of course, never any need in real life to wash dishes or sew in half light as the Roys are an affluent family. “Her husband runs an insurance business,” says actor Shashi Kapoor who played the good son in Deewar which possibly had Roy’s most definitive mother-role. In the film Kapoor makes the proud “mere paas ma hai” declaration to a wayward older brother, Amitabh. The declaration didn’t just leave movie-goers deliriously happy, it also sealed Roy’s fate as the epitome of the ideal mother.

Kapoor, who spoke only “very recently” with Roy about “something to do with an insurance policy that she called up to remind me about,” says he cannot believe the dowry charges against Roy. “Anyway you cannot believe everything you read in the papers,” he laughs, adding that Roy pretty much lived her screen persona in her real life as well.

“She is just as wonderful, fair and kind a person as she was on screen.”

Daughter-in-law Una, an NRI who married Roy’s son Kiran in 1992, doesn’t seem to share the same feeling though. She claims that her in-laws extracted a dowry of Rs 30 lakhs and a further Rs 11 lakhs from her.

She says she was asked to leave the house as she refused to succumb to pressures exerted on her to give her in-laws a monthly allowance and another huge sum of money from her uncle. Una has also alleged that she was subjected to physical and mental violence in the Roy home.

Her uncle, who lives with Una in Chandigarh, says they are “looking to the courts for justice.” While the Roys believe that the charges have been fabricated by Una, a person close to the family says that the Una-Kiran marriage was a troubled one “and though Nirupaji is incapable of physically harming anyone, perhaps her fault lay in being the doting mother who silently supported Kiran’s misbehaviour.”

Perhaps for the first time, Roy is looking at the disadvantage of having created and nurtured a cultish mother image for herself. Being a doting mother could also mean turning a blind eye to a favourite son.

But given that in films like Deewar, Roy chose the good son over the bad one, “It’s difficult to see the actress sitting back and doing anything so wrong as demanding huge sums of money from her daughter-in-law just to satisfy her son,” feels Kapoor.

“The public perception is that she is as perfect, as doting as she was to us, her screen sons. And even before she was seen as an ideal mother, remember she played the role of several Hindu goddesses on screen,” he says. “Leave aside the public, I think she’s wonderful and perhaps that has to do with my earliest memory of her,” he says. And that memory is of a very young Roy who played Parvati in the film Har Har Mahadev.

While still an unknown face in Mumbai, Roy had often played the role of a goddess in many a Gujarati film with elan — Sita (thrice), Parvati (thrice), Taramati, Draupadi and Damayanti.

Roy’s move to the world of Hindi filmdom seems to have been a bit of providence actually. And her first role was the result of an advertisement her husband found in a newspaper :“New faces required for a film with Gujarati dialogue.”

Apparently, Roy had not wanted to act in the film, but did so only at the behest of her husband who thought it would be the lucky break into Bollywood for her.

“Even though I cannot comment on the case as our lawyers have asked us not to speak on the matter, I can say that she is a wonderful mother-in-law,” says Nabina, married for the last 14 years to Roy’s elder son Yogesh. “She has always been a very dutiful wife, mother and grandmother,” stresses Nabina.

Of course, a dutiful wife and mother need not necessarily translate into a dutiful mother-in-law. “My mother cannot even kill a fly, how can she raise her hands on somebody, that too on a woman? Would not my wife walk out on me, if my mother was that violent,” said Yogesh when asked about the charges.

But even if Roy has been a less than perfect saans, it is difficult to fight so pristine an image. It is far easier to see the actress as incapable of harming anyone, even when mothers-in-law across the country are effortlessly guilty, to some degree, of what Una says her famous mother-in-law did.

“If an actress like Lalita Pawar, (who has played a squint-eyed nasty mother-in-law in countless films) had been charged in a similar way people would have been quite happy to accept the story,” says sociologist Yogendra Singh.

This is the result of stereotyping in Hindi films. “It becomes very difficult for the viewer to discern the difference between a screen-personality, seen repeatedly in many films and the actor’s real personality,” adds Singh.

At the moment, her family is also drawing on the actress’s screen personality to counter Una’s charges. “The reason why people who know her cannot believe the charges is because in real life she is very much like the person you have seen in films — very simple and down to earth,” says Nabina

And with almost everyone else echoing Nabina, whatever the later legal verdict might be, the people’s verdict is out — Nirupaji’s halo still shines bright. So what if there are two sides to every coin?



Elusive friends

Sir — The news report, “Naresh scouts for friends in revenge mission” (Aug 14), may well have summed up the predicament of ousted Loktantrik Congress Party chief, Naresh Aggarwal. After being betrayed by his partymen and out-manoeuvred and beaten at his own game by the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Rajnath Singh, Aggarwal is now in a do or die situation. His pledge to unite the opposition may prove to be a Herculean task given that he will have to bring together bitter enemies like Mayavati and Mulayam Singh Yadav. With Mayavati still in an unforgiving mood, it would not be unfair to say that Aggarwal’s dreams of revenge may well evaporate.

Yours faithfully,
Joyita Saha, via email

Holy cow

Sir — It is difficult not to be amused as well as exasperated while reading the news report, “Beef book in VHP oven” (Aug 8). Even if one takes the trouble of going through the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Puranas, it is doubtful whether one will find more than a handful of references to ancient Indians eating beef. Yet Dwijendra Narayan Jha of Delhi University seems to have managed to write a book of about 183 pages on this subject.

According to the dictionary, the word “beef” can be used to refer to the flesh of a cow, a bull or an ox. Whatever references I have found of beef in our ancient texts seem to indicate that Hindus ate the meat of calves and bulls, but not that of cows. Given that the number of bulls was usually higher than the number of cows, the slaughter of cows became forbidden with time. Cows were also valued as they provided milk. With time, cows became sacred and were even worshipped. This is not the first time that the saffron parties have objected to a book on the grounds that it offends the sensibilities of the “majority” in India. One doubts if these self-professed guardians of Hinduism have bothered to find out more about Jha’s book before condemning it. Most of us remember the fuss that the Shiv Sena created over Salman Rushdie’s book, The Moor’s Last Sigh. Unfortunately for the sainiks, the book became even more popular. The controversy surrounding Jha’s book could well make it a bestseller. Instead of fighting, Jha and Gumanmal Lodha should engage in a healthy debate on its merits.

Yours faithfully,
L.N. Roychoudhury, via email

Sir- It is high time that intellectuals in our country resign themselves to cultural chauvinism whenever they write something that offends the sentiments of the “majority”. By ordering its cadre to burn copies of Dwijendra Jha’s book, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is encroaching upon his fundamental rights.

Jha’s book only attempts to analyse the food habits of ancient Indians. By describing the book as “an atom bomb explosion against our religious feelings”, Gumanmal Lodha, the head of the Rashtriya Goraksha Andolan, is exposing his own ignorance and religious bigotry. Lodha seems to be holding a grudge against Jha who, along with other intellectuals like Romila Thapar had opposed the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Yours faithfully,
D.K. Mukhopadhyay, Midnapore

Real entertainment

Sir – In his article, “Restroom Realism” (Aug 12), Mukul Kesavan has successfully contrasted the realism in Hollywood films with “the willing suspension of disbelief” in Hindi films. One shudders to think the song and dance numbers Sam Neil’s character in Jurassic Park or De Niro’s in Taxi Driver would have to perform if these films were made in Mumbai.

While all Hindi films are “musical”, Hollywood musicals are realistic with witty dialogues and logical sequences interspersed with heart-warming songs and dances. Indian actors break into songs in unusual places. Of late, Switzerland seems to have become a favourite haunt with Indian filmmakers. An overdose of sex and violence makes most Hindi films impossible to watch.

Whereas Western films deal with a variety of subjects, from extra-terrestrials to sexual harassment to corporate lawsuits, commercial Indian cinema is full of formulae with glamorous costumes and locations.

Indian parallel cinema, on the other hand, has done well for itself. Its depiction of middle-class realities and use of average-looking actors make it convincing.

Yours faithfully,
Indrani Bhattacharya,Howrah

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