Editorial 1 / Festival for all
The party and the puja
This Above All / Canadian musings on coastal heroe
Letters to the editor

Once again, the Durga Puja in Calcutta was a mixture of administrative successes and failures. Control of noise must figure on the side of successes, blaring microphones and eardrum-bursting crackers were a rarity, especially beyond the specified hours. Traffic control, however, would show both stars and crosses. The expected junctions ran smoothly, mainly with the help of one-way movement on parallel roads and diversions. Unfortunately, traffic piled up in the shortcuts and diversions: everybody wanted to avoid the main junctions. The traffic on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass had to be closed on one evening. Yet the efficiency with which the police tried to manage what can be only be called an unmanageable situation is something to be admired. The point, of course, is that the situation will not change. Therefore it is important to draw lessons from this year’s Puja. The variables that affect the size of crowds and their direction are always tricky. Each year, apart from the traditional crowd-pullers, a number of other pandals suddenly become major attractions, and they differ from year to year. A traffic management force has to be ready for any eventuality.

Crowd management is as much a headache for the Puja organizers as for the police. Puja committees too deserve praise for the systematic way they have kept things under control. It may be noted that the rankings introduced by the government and some private companies a few years ago have had great success. The criteria of the different groups have not only encouraged greater creativity — the theme pandal is this year’s speciality — but have also spread greater awareness about cleanliness, manageability, noise levels and proportion. Interestingly, it is the traditional local Puja that has shown clearly the healthy effects of competition.

Already it seems time to go a step further. This festival is a magnificent spectacle, an experience that outsiders would treasure. For the Bengali, commerce and worship of the mother seem impossible to reconcile. Yet the possibilities of such a festival, exhibiting such brilliance and versatility of conception and execution and dynamic mixing of the traditional and the contemporary, cannot remain obscured for long. Already there is talk of selling tickets for entrance to pandals. This in itself is at first difficult to digest, because the whole idea is that worship and darshan are free. But what is being proposed is a carefully modulated plan, separate slots for tourists, and cards for those who do not wish to stand in queue. Also, the prices of tickets would vary on the basis of the time of day, the day itself perhaps, and the popularity of that particular puja. This is an idea that can be worked on. Such a plan would not only generate revenue, it would also help control crowds and improve organization.

The potential of the festival is enormous. The infrastructure and administration to tap it are just being built. Long term plans to develop it into the kind of feast day that draws tourists in the West could be chalked out now. The whole idea is of worship, enjoyment and community sharing, and that must not be damaged in any way. At the same time, to make the festival into a national and international attraction would help Calcutta regain its cultural pride and confidence.


The festive chaos of the last few days might have prompted an outsider to wonder whether the same mobs that fill puja pandals also vote for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and its allies. Were celebrations more robust in areas that support the Congress and the Trinamool Congress than in those that march with the hammer and sickle?

At stake is another paradox of Bengali life to which Charan Singh referred when he was home minister. Asking if I were a communist, he explained, “I never know with my Bangla brothers. They look like sahibs, speak like sahibs, act like sahibs. Yet they say they are communists!” He might as well have mentioned the other seeming dichotomy of communists who patronize pujas. A robust Jat could not grasp how essential such contradictions are to the Bengali psyche.

Obviously, his stricture did not apply to dedicated party cadres who live for their beliefs. For a different reason I would also exempt from the charge of double standards Calcutta industrialists who, having supported the British and Congress, and flirted with Swatantra and Trinamool, are now back with the Marxists while secretly funding the Bharatiya Janata Party. There is no moral turpitude in men whose business is business turning like the sunflower to whatever power rides the heavens.

Excluding these two groups, Charan Singh may have had in mind the old-fashioned Oxbridge academic with chiselled syllables, epitome of civilized dignity, who genuflected to a distant Marxist deity. Or property-owning leftist gentry like the worthy who approached the American consul general to twin Calcutta with San Francisco so that visits to his son there qualified as revolutionary duty. Only fears of Bengali newspapers feasting on Marxist-Marwari profiteering forced another member of the club not to evict a non-profit-making cultural organization from a south-of-Park-street mansion that he wanted to develop. Charan Singh could also have been thinking of globetrotting academic careerists who spew radical rhetoric and draw dollar salaries from international institutions.

The controversy over strikes, with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Jyoti Basu expressing contrary views, reflected the paradox of Bengal’s fourth, and most numerous, group. The chief minister is forced to be pragmatic. Without that obligation, his predecessor can indulge in the bhadralok luxury of inciting the toiling masses. Charan Singh would have identified the best prime minister India never had — Manmohan Singh’s accolade for a man who, he said, did not practise what he preached — as the epitome of an unique Bengali blend of revolutionary speech and capitalist style. During a record 23 years in office he mirrored bhadralok contrariness and provided it with a role model.

Far removed from the passing fancy of radicalism that Shaw thought desirable in sentient youth, posturing is a lifelong addiction for people in the creative professions, academia, the civil service and even in business, who enjoy the best of many worlds as they talk left and act right. Wives who nurse their domestic altars do not deter husbands who are trapped in the sterile language of revolution. Nor does exuberant private industry suggest that many of our parlour pinks believe that the greatest good of the greatest number flows from public ownership of assets.

The phenomenon is of hoary provenance. The late Niranjan Mazumder, journalist and storyteller, used to tell of a 19th century Bengali writer who wore pants under his dhoti in 1857, uncertain which way the Devil’s Wind might blow. If the mutineers won he would be garbed in impeccable nationalism. If they lost, he could rip off the dhoti in a jiffy to emerge as colonialism’s sartorial acolyte. As with the men in the media who shed their pink for saffron when the BJP’s rath rumbled to victory, versatility is seen as virtue, not evidence of inconsistency. Heramba Maitra is dead.

It would be crude and simplistic to brand them all Vicars of Bray with an eye on the main chance. If that were so, Bengalis would do much better in the national rat race. Being left of centre is an occupational hazard for the bhadralok who would otherwise appear uncaring and heartless. It is the hallmark of the Progressive, Liberal and Intellectual, never mind if he also lobbies for Rajya Sabha nomination or writes lucratively in what he calls the anti-people press.

The social cost is worth considering. Leftist dominance may account for Bengal’s freedom from communal bias, but fellow travelling is also responsible for economic stagnation. It encourages moral dissimulation and forces people to pretend to despise wealth generation so that productive labour loses its allure. Upward mobility is a good thing, indicating that society is not moribund. Here, upward movement is heavy with deprecation with politically trendy folk feeling they have to expiate the guilt of success as they move into smart flats, buy cars, send their children to English-medium schools, join clubs, attend cocktail parties and berate America while holidaying or even working there.

A leading radical actor engaged an expensive interior decorator to design two sitting rooms in his house. Party hoi polloi squatted on rough benches downstairs while society lounged upstairs around an avant-garde leather and wrought iron bar.

Modern though it is, Bhattacharjee’s high-tech vision alone will not revitalize Bengal. E-governance cannot make the bureaucracy less lethargic, politicians more caring or the police honest. It will not stamp out extortion by urban gangs flying party colours, end racketeering in real estate, or compel industrialists who are anxiously courting the Left Front to invest in factories that add value and create jobs. Just plain governance will do quite nicely if it means schools, colleges, hospitals, jobs and housing, efficient service, disciplined labour and freedom from corruption. The Internet is the means to ends that are as old as man; it must not be exalted into an end in itself.

Marxism’s last gasp of bogus nationalism is the government’s other ineffective analgesic. Changed place names and linguistic chauvinism create the impression of a vigorous Bengali dynamic while real power is rapidly slipping away — if it has not done so already — into non-Bengali hands. The semantic revolution is Bengal’s substitute for both good governance and an ideology that is dead or dying. Marxists can get away with it because unlike Trinamool playing footsy with cow belt obscurantists or Congress with the burden of its Italian supremo, the CPI(M) — like the folk effervescence we have just experienced — remains the Bengali’s last stand.

Vast numbers therefore vote for the left while huge crowds also spend six days in frenetic perambulation. Strict logic suggests a contradiction. The Ramakrishna Mission’s travails, the embarrassed haste with which Jatin Chakravarti tried to cover up when he inadvertently invoked god in a public speech, and hole-in-the-corner pujas in the homes of some Marxist dignitaries clearly proclaim that the official hierarchy still formally disapproves of religion. But the electorate probably has a better instinctive understanding of the linkage.

Does this mean that it neatly divides the things which are Caesar’s and those which are god’s? Or that politics and puja co-exist because both have lost meaning? Do they perhaps overlap as symbols of Bengal’s distinctive personality, totems of a culture under siege? A bit of all. The community puja, like football, is theatre of the masses, occasions to rally supporters, rake in money and wallow in the nostalgic memory of Rani Rashmoni or the Sovabazar raj. Pandals are politicians’ pulpits. “We have left only the high court, Kali mandir and Calcutta Club,” a prominent Bengali businessman once lamented. Now, the Marxists and puja should head his list.

Routine voting for the CPI(M) holds an illusion of bread. The secular entertainment of shops, eateries, lights, music and pandal-hopping is the circus. There is little ideology in the party and little worship in the puja’s commercial extravaganza. In merging, Caesar and god may have been equally devalued but both reinforce Bengal’s beleaguered identity.


You read a good novel, you want to read others written by the same author and find out more about him or her. I read a very good one titled The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami, published a few months ago by Bloomsbury. Most novels have a few lines on their jackets about the author. This had nothing besides excerpts of a few reviews comparing it to V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, novels by Rohinton Mistry and Shauna Singh Baldwin. It was described as “heart breaking”. It also mentioned an earlier novel with an enigmatic title, Tamarind Mem.

I felt very frustrated and set out to nearby Khan Market, which has six bookstores, to see if I could lay my hands on another copy of The Hero’s Walk which had been lent to me by a friend and whatever else I could by the author. I drew a blank. Only Rachna Davidar, owner of the Book Shop, was familiar with the name. Tamarind Mem had been sold out.

From The Hero’s Walk I surmised that Anita Rau Badami was from Karnataka, now living in Vancouver, perhaps with a Canadian husband. I was wrong. My friend who had recommended the novel to me got more authentic information from the internet. Anita Rau, born in Rourkela, is a Kannadiga, educated in Madras and living in Canada with an Indian husband. She wanted to write books for children but while doing a course in creative writing was persuaded to write for adults. So came the two novels.

The plot of The Hero’s Walk is very simple. It is about an orthodox family living in a town named Totupuram, adjoining Tamil Nadu, on the Bay of Bengal. The family lives in a large house on Brahmin Street. The house was built by a prosperous lawyer who then took on a mistress he lodged a few houses down the same street. He died leaving very little besides a disgruntled widow, a son Sripathi and a daughter Putti. Sripathi failed to become a doctor as his parents hoped and took on a poorly paid job as a copywriter in an advertising agency. He owed money to his bank and friends. His chief pre-occupation was to write letters to The Hindu signed Pro bono Publico. He collected pens to do so. His wife Nirmala bore him a daughter, Maya, and a son, Arun. Maya grows into a beautiful girl and wins a scholarship from a Canadian university. Before she leaves Totupuram she is engaged to the son of a well-bred Brahmin family. In Canada she falls in love with a Canadian boy in her university and marries him. Sripathi Rao is humiliated and desolate. He cuts off all contact with his daughter. Maya has a daughter Nandana. When she is seven, her parents are killed in a car crash. A mortified Sripathi has to travel to Vancouver and bring back a most reluctant granddaughter and the ashes of his discarded daughter and Canadian son-in-law whom he had never seen.

Most of the novel is based in Totupuram and revolves round Sripathi’s family living in their ancestral home: His sister, Putti, who is a spinster at 40, a cranky old mother who quarrels with everyone, a good-for-nothing son, Arun, and a grand child pining to get back to Canada. Their neighbour is a milk-vendor who becomes an MLA and a millionaire. His son, who eyes high-caste Putti, succeeds in marrying her to the disgust of Putti’s crazy mother. It is not the story alone that keeps the reader rivetted to the novel but the way Badami etches her characters and gives the most trivial event dramatic significance. She has a puckish sense of humour and a charming way of handling Kannada-English.

It ends on a philosophic note. Sripathi and her son take the ashes of Sripathi’s mother to immerse in the sea on the very spot where they had earlier immersed the ashes of Maya and her Canadian husband. The evening sinks into a moonlit night. Arun asks his father to stay on the seashore. Late at night when the beach is deserted they watch hundreds of turtles come out of the sea, dig holes in the sand, lay their eggs, cover up the pits with their flippers and waddle back into the sea. They have been doing so ever since life began on earth, reminiscent of the lines:

The waves with their little white bands
Erase the footprints from the sands
The tide rises, The tide falls.

This has been a good year for Indian writing in English. I can count at least six novels which will continue to be read in the years to come. The most memorable will be Anita Rau Badami’s The Hero’s Walk.

Courage under fire

Her name would be known the world over to people who take an interest in current events, read periodicals or watch TV. She’s been in the print and electronic media for over 20 years, in the forefront covering the Afghan civil war, the Naga rebellion, the Indo-Pak confrontation on the Siachen glacier and much else. She has been on the staff of The Indian Express, India Today, Time and CNN. She has won more awards for journalism, national and international, than any other Indian journalist.

Anita Pratap nee Simon was born in Kottayam, Kerala, to Syrian Catholic parents. Her father was an executive with Tata and was posted in different cities. In 11 years, Anita changed seven schools. She took her Senior Cambridge examinations from Loreto House, Calcutta winning all the prizes and topping the list in English. She joined Miranda House, New Delhi. She again topped the list when she took her BA honours examination, which she passed in 1978, in English literature. An academic career was wide open to her. Being a restless person she opted for journalism and took a diploma from Bangalore University. She was immediately taken on by Arun Shourie, then editor of The Indian Express. After a short stint in Delhi she asked to be transferred to Bangalore where her parents were living. There she met Pratap Chandran, a senior reporter, and married him. He was Hindu, she Christian. But this posed no problems with either set of parents since both were Malayalis. Anita Simon became Anita Pratap and a year later their son Zubin was born.

The marriage was soon on the rocks. The divorce was fiercely contested over the custody of the child, with Anita ultimately winning custody over Zubin. Having done all she wanted to do with journalism, both print and broadcast, Anita turned to making documentary films. She would still have been making documentaries but for a chance encounter with a stranger at a cocktail party at the Maurya Sheraton. She left the party early as did the stranger. They exchanged greetings while waiting for their cars. “Why are you leaving early?” he asked. “I have to be with my son. He is waiting for me. And you?” He replied, “I too have a son at home waiting for me.” They got talking and realized they had much in common: Both were divorcees with sons to look after. They decided to meet again. He was H.E. Arne Walther, Norwegian ambassador to India and is 15 years older than her. Anita agreed to marry him. Now she is Her Excellency Anita Walther.

I once asked her if she had at any time been close to death during her years as a reporter. “Many times”, she replied with a smile. “In Afghanistan, with bombs falling a few feet from me. In Sri Lanka, with bullets whizzing past my ear. But once I was on the hunt for an authentic story, I lost all fear and went for it.”

It occurred to me that quite a few Indian women journalists have shown more guts in the face of danger than their male counterparts: Tavleen Singh bearding Bhindranwale in his own den, Pinki Virani cocking the snook at Bombay’s underworld dons, Barkha Dutt interviewing Pakistanis when tensions between the two countries were at the highest.

Anita Pratap has recorded her adventures in Island of Blood: Frontline Reports from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Other South Asian Flashpoints.



Controlled chaos

Sir — It does not matter now if Asoka flops at the box office in India; steel barriers had to be erected outside the cinema in London to prevent a gatecrash for its world premiere (“Bollywood breaks steel barrier”, Oct 25). The marketing strategy was unique: producing “just the right amount of controlled chaos for passers-by in Leicester Square to wonder what all the fuss was about”. Evidently, the producer and lead actor, Shah Rukh Khan, did not have enough confidence in the film itself. Khan might find it interesting to compare notes with Sushma Swaraj, full of ideas from Cannes for promoting Hindi films internationally. However, he must take care not to appear miffed if the minister asks him to cut out the dancing-around-the-trees sequences from his coming films.

Yours faithfully,
Sushma Saxena, via email

The better star

Sir — The exit report of the national assessment and accreditation committee on Jadavpur University makes it clear that the university is likely to get five-star status. Jadavpur is like the good student doing his lessons round the year and bagging the first prize (“Not starry eyed”, Oct 19). It is, however, sad that it has to share this prize with some others who have not put in half as much work as it has.

Jadavpur University may have had the advantage of being a “small” university. But it has also had to tackle serious hurdles such as a limited choice of departments, which is one of NAAC’s criteria.

Since the possible five-star billing and the “centre for excellence” award received earlier ensure that the university will get plenty of funds from the University Grants Commission, efforts need to be initiated to add some more departments so that students inclined towards the bio-sciences, for instance, can also reap the benefits of the excellent standards of this institution.

Yours faithfully,
Srimati Ray, via email

Sir — Does the star rating awarded by NAAC really mean much? It might grade colleges and universities in some order of merit, but what about the glaring differences of standard between two institutions getting the same star rating? Take the universities of Jadavpur and Calcutta for example. For quite some time, Calcutta University has come to represent all that is wrong with higher education in West Bengal. Results are published late with unerring regularity, answer-scripts are often mislaid by examiners, the departments and buildings in its sprawling campus are by no means well looked after — the list could go on. It is actually a wonder that some praiseworthy academic work still comes out of this university.

It is understandable that in terms of size, Calcutta University is a much larger institution than Jadavpur. And a larger size does breed problems of a larger dimension. But it is not too much to expect that, given its long and glorious history, Calcutta University should have also tried to put in place a proper infrastructure and an administrative machinery to handle its myriad problems.

The five-star status brings with it the danger that Calcutta University might get complacent and become a bigger non-performing giant than it already is.

Yours faithfully,
Sukumar Dasgupta, Calcutta

Sir — The academic establishment of West Bengal would do well to ponder why the NAAC had to go out of its way to point out that colleges and universities of the state displayed an unusual lack of initiative in offering themselves for the assessment. Why is it so difficult to make them understand that a good rating will only ensure a smooth flow of funds? Only when institutions use lack of funds as an excuse for poor standards is the attitude understandable.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Majumdar, Howrah

Parting shot

Sir — For Indian sport-lovers, at last there is something to rejoice over: the national junior hockey team has won the World Cup, a feat which the seniors have failed to achieve in a long time. The young boys who have won the trophy should be nurtured well since India has produced several champions at the junior level in the past too, but has failed to groom them to become world-beaters at the senior level.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Srivastava, Salboni

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