Editorial / The mindless state
And the war goes on
This above all / Travelling with ladies
People / Bono
Letters to the editor

It was very common among the ancient Greeks to believe that those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first deprive of their minds. By this reckoning, it will not be unfair to suggest that the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, has been marked out by divinity for quite some time. There has been nothing in the recent past that testifies to the existence of a mind in the government led by Mr Vajpayee. In government, as in the human body, the mind lies in the head. Take two examples. The railway budget for 2002-03 reverses, in terms of policy and vision, all that had been set out in the previous year’s railway budget. In other words, one is compelled to conclude that the government has two different attitudes towards the railways, and swings from one to the other annually. The other conclusion is even more damaging: railway ministers are allowed to do just as they please, and the prime minister and his cabinet have no control over ministers and their policies. Similarly, the home minister did a volte-face on the Naga accord which he himself had initiated. This is another glaring instance of mindlessness. Mr Vajpayee’s apparent slowness of reaction is either a sign of his waning faculties or an actor’s camouflage for incompetence.

This ineptitude and the prime minister’s occasional poetical flourishes would have been funny if they had not had tragic consequences as is evident from events in Gujarat. Every thinking person knew, as the news broke of what happened in Godhra, that the repercussions of the incident would be serious in Gujarat and even elsewhere. But not Mr Vajpayee. There is no evidence that the prime minister moved immediately to put the army on the alert; neither is their any evidence that he spoke to the Gujarat government to call in the army even before violence erupted. Mr Vajpayee’s government stood back to watch a communal riot unfold. Secularists would love to read in this an unfolding of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s hidden communal agenda. The reality is probably even more simple: the inactivity is related to inefficiency. And inefficiency is often a reflection of a state of mind, or lack of it.

The latest instalment in the saga of mindlessness is the Union budget for 2002-03. At a time, when every one was looking forward to the government taking some positive steps to kickstart the economy and to reverse the economic downturn, Mr Vajpayee’s finance minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, presented a budget that can please no one save the opposition parties. Mr Vajpayee sat back and watched his finance minister write the first paragraph of his government’s obituary notice.

When the BJP came to power it was the apprehension in many quarters that it would articulate and pursue its own agenda which would destroy the secular fabric of India. The secular fabric is in tatters, but this is without any help from the BJP and the government that it leads. Mr Vajpayee has not pursued an agenda, he has surrendered governance to inertia. There is nothing that can be more damaging than this. If Mr Vajpayee is keen to stop his government from living on borrowed time, he will have to borrow a mind to replace the prevalent vacuum.


Perhaps the most important message of the Godhra massacre and its grisly aftermath is that the war goes on. Its contours do not change, whether the front is in Kashmir, outside Calcutta’s American Centre or the ravaged towns of Gujarat. In each case, it is the concept and reality of the Indian state that is under challenge as the fateful Ides of March roll on, while our rulers sit on the fence mouthing platitudes.

One of the most shameful images of Thursday’s backlash was the BBC’s television pictures of clusters of khaki-uniformed policemen in Ahmedabad idly watching mobs on the rampage. The army was merely standing by. Yet, it was clear to everyone on Wednesday itself that militant Hindus would lose no time in hitting back for the vicious attack on the Sabarmati Express. Muslims, too, warned that they would “give a call to Muslims countrywide to protect fellow Muslims in Ayodhya”. Yet, the National Democratic Alliance government chose to fiddle.

Such callousness justifies calling for a prime minister’s resignation. But Atal Bihari Vajpayee is probably the best Bharatiya Janata Party leader we are likely to get. He may not be quite the moderate fallen among bigots of fashionable theory, but he is not entirely unconscious of the responsibilities of the democratically elected leader of a secular republic. If so, he can retain public respect only by ceasing to be riddle and enigma wrapped in poetic obfuscation when it comes to the politics of religion. He must come to grips with the duties of his high position.

Ultimately, the threat is to India itself. Secular harmony is only the first casualty. As P.V. Narasimha Rao told the Liberhan Ayodhya commission on Wednesday, “Either we are secular or non-secular.” In this fevered climate, everyone is a Muslim or a Hindu and only then, with the shrugged indifference of afterthought, an Indian. Even Bengali enlightenment has taken some hard knocks from the fear that communal or venal Left Front ministers are bent on turning this state into another Assam.

Pakistan casts a sombre shadow over this stricken field. With foreign and domestic affairs so incestuously intertwined, no one knows whether the murderous mob that singled out the railway bogies in which kar sevaks were packed acted on its own or was instigated by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence and its agents provocateurs. Gujarat’s chief minister believes it was a “pre-planned…terrorist activity”, not an ordinary riot.

In either case, the ISI must be rubbing its hands in glee at this fresh recrudescence of communal butchery in a country that has always looked down its secular nose at Pakistan’s theocracy and which has still not been made to pay territorially for liberating Bangladesh. Unlike the December 13 attack on Parliament House or the January 22 shooting in Calcutta, the Godhra arson cannot be blamed on obvious and identifiable terrorists. However, Pakistanis can plausibly present Thursday’s horrendous upsurge as a breakdown of civil society and further evidence of the sham of Indian secularism.

Pakistan has many scores to settle, and Pervez Musharraf’s January 12 speech or the soothing noises he makes for George W. Bush’s benefit mark no pause in his vengeful campaign against India. If terrorism is war by other means, communalism could be terrorism by other means.

Speaking in New Delhi the other day, the ambassador of the United States of America complimented Musharraf on embarking on “a courageous and profound redefinition of his nation’s policies, both domestic and foreign”, and claimed that the Pakistani leader had “already made substantial progress”. Apparently, his “commitment that terrorism will not emanate from Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied territory promises to transform the security situation in this region.” Well, that’s fine and dandy, as the Americans would say, for their pre-determined choice of south Asia’s bright boy. But it sadly overlooks developments on the ground that nourish India’s continuing concerns.

On February 15, Indian troops in Poonch killed 14 armed Pakistani intruders affiliated to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, al Badr and Harkat-ul-Mujahideen organizations. The very next day, and presumably in retaliation, terrorists gunned down Hindu villagers of Rajouri. Such provocative blood-letting is likely to grow as the hundreds of Pakistani jihadis who were evacuated from Kunduz in Afghanistan, while the US looked away, find their way to the line of control. They might be joined by taliban and al Qaida guerrillas who escaped the American bombardment and are bound to be a fundamentalist tho- rn in Musharraf’s side if allowed to cool their heels in his supposedly purged and purified Pakistan. Without inducting foreigners, who are already believed to account for 70 per cent of the militants, Pakistan would not have been able to maintain its guerrilla campaign in Kashmir.

The attempt to blame India for the Rajouri killings and the gruesome murder of the American-Israeli journalist, Daniel Pearl, confirmed Musharraf’s bitter animosity and devious methods. So did calculated dissimulation over when the British-born Islamic militant, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, was apprehended and confessed. The change in Islamabad is not of purpose but of tactics, and our domestic problems, such as the Ayodhya dispute and its bloody repercussions, provide ammunition. Pakistani agents can add fuel to fire while Pakistani spokesmen take full propaganda advantage of every collapse of secular harmony.

Obviously, there is no easy or quick solution to a confrontation that is rooted in history. The specific problem of Ayodhya has been allowed to fester for a decade and for half a simmering century before that. The need is for a formula that satisfies reasonable Hindu and Muslim leaders — the fanatical fringe on either side must be ignored and suppressed — and leaves no scope for future friction.

Various compromises such as a memorial to all faiths or a temple and mosque side by side (of which there are many examples all over the country) have been mooted. The physical form matters less than the agreed process. Vajpayee rightly said when he belatedly called an all-party meeting to consider the crisis that there are two ways of resolving the issue — through discussion or litigation — but, predictably, there was nary a word about his own preference.

Being mealy-mouthed during the Uttar Pradesh campaign was excusable, but having lost that battle, he can at least try to redeem his reputation by giving a lead instead of giving every appearance of tamely following events that always take him by surprise. Where does he really stand on Ayodhya? Is there any difference of opinion between him and diehards like Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi? How seriously should Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other sangh parivar militants take his appeals and admonitions not to carry out their Ides of March threat? Is his prevarication due only to political dependence on the sangh parivar and the influence of colleagues who have no qualms about flaunting their robust faith?

I suspect that like most cow-belt Hindus, Vajpayee was not too displeased by what happened on December 6, 1992, and wants a temple on the site, providing it can be built without damaging his reputation at home and abroad. Hence the contortions of the White Paper which blames “pseudo-secularists” — the BJP’s favourite whipping boy — whose alleged pampering of Muslims (“minorityism” is another word over which BJP theoreticians drool) supposedly provoked right-minded Hindus into destroying the Babri masjid. Hence the Hindutva muscles that Ashok Singhal and his colleagues flex as they mobilize kar sevaks from all over the country and demand that the disputed site should be handed to them.

The government must not be bullied into surrender. It must weed out subversives among Muslims and prevent further Hindu vengeance. Nothing would suit Islamabad better than a major bloodbath on the day when the kar sevaks are supposed to start building their temple. Nothing could be more dangerous for India’s stability. A leader who risks that has no business in the chair, no matter how dire the alternative.


Karthika of Penguin-Viking dropped in with a friend she introduced as Anita Nair. “Are you the film producer?” I asked. “No,” replied Anita, “I am a writer.”

“What books have you written?”

Karthika intervened, “We published two of her novels — The Better Man and Ladies Coupe. I sent you both, but you did not take notice of either.”

Embarrassed, I immediately took the offensive. “I get books by the dozen every week. If you want me to write about one, you should mark it ‘must read’.”

Karthika sent me another copy of Ladies Coupe. Once I started on it, I could not put it down. I listed it in the category of “must read” works of fiction. Nair is a born story-teller with a style of narration which compels reading.

Ladies Coupe is contrived. Six women find themselves crammed in a three-tier women’s compartment of a train travelling from Bangalore to Kanyakumari. They have nothing in common, save their gender. Some had happy marriages. A few did not. One was raped and took her revenge. Another seduced men younger than herself. Of course they do not open up to strangers on their first meeting, but they do so to the readers in every juicy detail. Their being together in one compartment provides the framework,and holds the story together like a ribbon holding a bouquet of flowers of varying shapes, colours and fragrances.

The main character, Akhila, is a frustrated spinster in her forties, who has spent her younger years looking after her parents, siblings and their offspring. She finally decides to break loose and unknown to anyone boards the train to Kanyakumari to try and discover her identity. Panic grips her because she has never before been alone.

She records her feelings as she sets out on this voyage of self-discovery. She writes: “Panic fans the flames of fear. Panic dulls. Panic stills... Akhila felt panic dot her face. She had escaped. But from what to what?

“Quo vadis — Akhila remembered the strapped Bata sandals her father had bought just before he died.

“Quo vadis. Do you know what that means? It’s Latin for ‘Whither goest thou?’ I like the conceit of a pair of sandals that dares ask this question. Something I haven’t asked myself for a long time. He justified the expense of buying an expensive pair of footwear, of allowing himself to be tempted into buying branded shoes, instead of picking up a pair from the local shoe shop.

“Quo vadis? Akhila asked herself. Then in Sanskrit: Kim gacchami. Then in Tamil: Nee yenga selgirai.

“Akhila didn’t know any more languages but the question dribbled through the boundaries of her mind in tongues known and unknown...

“Akhila saw herself as a serpent that had lain curled and dormant for years. She saw life as a thousand-petalled lotus she would have to find before she knew fulfilment. She panicked. How and where was she to begin the search?”

Among the wittiest and most malicious tale related is the story of Margaret Shanti and her husband, Ebenezer Paulraj. He is a handsome young man who becomes the principal of a public school in Coimbatore. Margaret is chemistry teacher who perceives life as a combination of chemical elements.

He is a pompous, self-opinionated prig who successfully destroys Margaret’s self-confidence by bullying her into an abortion and treats her as a house-keeper and a cook. He entertains sycophants from his staff to lavish meals without any regard of the extra chores he inflicts on his wife.

Margaret avenges herself by overfeeding him till he loses his athletic figure and becomes a fat slob. “Love is a colourless, volatile liquid,” says Margaret. “Love ignites and burns. Love leaves no residue — neither smoke nor ash. Love is a poison masquerading as the spirit of wine.”

“What then is the purpose of life. What exactly are we looking for? The usual answer is happiness. ‘Define happiness,’ asks one of the women in the coupe. Akhila quotes words from a New Year’s greeting card: ‘Happiness is being allowed to choose one’s own life; to live it the way one wants. Happiness is knowing one is loved and having someone to love. Happiness is to be able to hope for tomorrow.’ Would the women she was talking to ‘who wore marriage as if it were a Kancheepuram silk sari’ understand that what Akhila most desired in the world was to be her own person? In a place that was her own. To do as she pleased. To live as she chose with neither restraint nor fear of censure.”

Ladies Coupe made delightful reading. Bless Anita Nair!

Home for holidays

Come winter and Indians settled abroad throng here to spend a few weeks visiting relations, friends, temples, gurdwaras, dargahs, and other places of pilgrimage. Some come to take a look at the Taj Mahal, Ajanta-Ellora and the Qutb Minar. If they have time to spare, they drop in on yet another relic of the past — me. Then they wing their way back to the lands of their domicile.

This winter I had quite a few visitors. There was Mangalam Srinivasan who many years ago spent quite sometime in Delhi with her two children, in the hope that the prime minister, Indira Gandhi ,would give her something worthwhile to do. It did not work out and Mangalam returned disappointed to Washington. Now she lives with her husband in Harvard and came on a short visit. She did not like my asking her whether she had abandoned her political ambitions. “I never had political ambitions,” she replied firmly. “I wanted to do something which would make a difference in peoples’ lives.” I liked the way she put it.

Jasjit Kaur’s ambition in life is to spread the message of her gurus in America. She and her husband devote their spare time organizing camps for young American Sikhs. She came full of beans as ever and gave me a specially designed Cross pen with the Khalsa emblem, Khanda-kirpan on it.

There was Dr Munir Kadri and his wife who live in Rotorua (New Zealand). He is a surgeon specializing in prostrate gland surgery. He times his visits to coincide with an Indo-Pak mushaira, organized by Kaamna Prasad. He also performs free surgeries in different towns and cities in India as a part of his debt repayment to the country.

Rajwinder Singh has made his home in Berlin and publishes poetry both in German and Punjabi. He is a bachelor. When his parents were alive, his winter visits were made to inspect prospective brides. I wrote about his entertaining me in his flat in Berlin, where a feast was prepared by his German girl friends. That put an end to his bride-hunting in India.

Last year he came with a Spanish girl. In his poetic manner he gushed “the first time our eyes met it was like a clap of thunder. We fell in love...” The clap of thunder was not followed by a rain of confetti. “She is an actress in Barcelona and wants to live there. I have been given the status of a poet laureate in Germany. I can’t start another life from scratch in Spain. And she wanted me to give her a child.”

“So what’s the problem?” I asked. “Give her one and live your separate lives.”

“Its not so simple; she thinks a child needs its parents to be together,” replied Rajwinder mournfully.

Rajwinder returns to Europe next week with his problem unsolved. Meanwhile, he had a triumphant fortnight in his homestate, Punjab, with the publication of a second collection of poems in Punjabi.

The winter is not quite over. Basant Panchami has come and gone, but mists, occasional rain and wintry conditions persist. I expect a few more Indian-born foreigners to pay migratory visits to their original homeland before the summer sets in.



Rockin’ in the real world

First some Bono (pronounced Bonn-o, not Bone-o) talk. “What I’m working toward on a daily basis is the next year’s G8 summit…what if the entire continent of Africa were to explode or implode? That is its present trajectory. You have 40 million AIDS orphans in the next 10 years…when people are left out of the equation, history tells us that revolt is around the corner…and I wear grey underwear, and my favourite colour is amber [laughs warmly].”

A neat punch of activist concern and rock ‘n’ roll swagger, a conscious blend of the art of the ridiculous and erudite awareness. In other words, the charismatic U2 frontman knows perfectly what he is about.

He leads “the biggest rock band in the world”, has just hit the cover of Time magazine for his Third World debt relief efforts and with his band, has won a total of 14 Grammys (including the four bagged this week) in their 22-year career. U2’s last album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and their live concerts, have become cultural touchstones following September 11. Their songs, Walk on and Stuck in a moment, written at least a year before the attacks, have struck a chord with Americana devastated, far surpassing the impact of the tribute albums meant to give hope and courage to the victims.

Saving the world is no new territory for rock stars. John Lennon, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and of course, Sir Bob Geldof made the grade when Bono was still in prep school. Dylan, after the first few frenetic years of civil rights activism, turned his back on the whole social awareness thing and concentrated on being a poet, and only a poet. Lennon did his famed bed-ins for world peace and Harrison his Bangladesh concert, definitely the genus of all rock fund-raisers. And, well, everybody remembers Geldof’s Live Aid for famine relief in Africa.

Sadly, they were all cases of rock stars casting themselves as emotional savants, folks who feel suffering and poverty more than the rest of humanity. And they all worked from outside the establishment, the argument being politicians and businessmen are the enemy. Perhaps reasons why the Bangladesh money only reached the country after 10 years and the Live Aid aftermath was fraught with similar financial problems.

But, Bono — Latin for good or beneficent — knows that he has to work within the system to milk it for his projects. In the last two years, he has met everyone from the Pope to Colin Powell, laying the groundwork for his organisation Debt, Aid, Trade for Africa (DATA), which he hopes to officially launch this month. “I know how absurd it is to have a rock star to talk about the World Health Organisation or debt relief or HIV/AIDS in Africa,” say Bono. But he also understands his stature and his access to media.

Whether at the World Economic Forum or a meeting with Bill Clinton, Bono refrains from treating his cause as an emotional issue. “We don’t argue compassion,” he says. “We put in the most crass terms possible; we argue it as a financial and security issue for America.”

“I refused to meet him at first,” says US treasury secretary Paul O’Neill. “I thought he was just a pop star who wanted to use me.” But, after a one-and-a-half-hour chat, he changed his mind. “He’s a serious person. He cares deeply about these issues, and you know what? He knows a lot about them.” No wonder the high school dropout was invited to deliver a keynote speech for the graduating class of 2001 at Harvard University. Earlier guests have included the likes of Martin Luther King Jr widow, Coretta King and Mother Teresa. There he befriended economist Dr Jeffrey Sachs who has been updating Bono with grad-school knowhow ever since.

The entertainment industry is in complete awe of the man’s erudition. As one producer says, “It’s amazing that he can read and understand all those economics books.”

The same way he can read the economics of his trade — music. After taking a critical and financial beating with their 1997’s Pop album and the subsequent tour, Bono and mates went full steam with All That. They marketed themselves according to the needs of the new millennium, where artistes are made rather than born. “With this record, we took the attitude that the business has changed an awful lot and we just couldn’t rely on things that we did earlier. So we did more TV, more interviews,” admits Bono.

Sellout? Not really, the 10-million albums sold and the second highest-grossing tour of all time notwithstanding. All That has been hailed as a masterpiece even by the most abrasive critics. Q magazine, the pop bible of Britain, recently put U2 on par with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — in terms of success, and social and musical relevance. Take their song Please, for instance. September, streets capsizing/spilling over the drain/shards of glass splinters like rain/but you could only feel your own pain… October, talk getting nowhere/November, December remember/ we just started again. New York? 9-11? Pretty eerie. Sounds prophetic when one thinks that it was written sometime in the mid-’90s.

Growing up in the political chaos of Ireland helped. The young Paul Hewson, as Bono was originally christened, had his first brush with terrorism when a frequently-haunted coffee shop in native Dublin was blown to bits minutes after he walked out of its door. An experience that has motivated his lyrics ever since. But the overt topicality and dilettantism of earlier hits like Sunday bloody Sunday and Bullet the blue sky, kept Bono standing at the threshold of lyrical genius.

That’s where the extremely unlike-celebrity act of sticking to one woman, and parents, paid off. Stars, rock or otherwise, are known to have enormous libidos and dysfunctional households. But the 41-year-old Bono is still happily married to his high school sweetheart, Alison Stewart (“she just looked like the straightest girl, wearing this gingham dress and a little cardigan”). He visits his family even between busy tour schedules — usually a time when artistes sow their wild oats. Last year, he was right by his father’s bedside during the last few days of his fight with cancer.

Ali, as she is fondly called by her hubby, has been an enormous influence on him. A political science graduate from University College, Dublin, she made him see politics in ideological terms. It was Ali who forced him to visit Ethiopia in 1985, while other stars were content to have done their goody-two-shoes bit by taking part in Live Aid. As U2 biographer Eamon Dunphy says: “The best thing about Bono is Ali. She is calm and rational and able to see beyond individuals to policies.”

And also able to make Bono see beyond artistic ego and take it all with a pinch of salt. Which explains his acceptance speech at the Grammy’s this year. “Being Irish, if you get eight nominations and get no awards, they wouldn’t let you back in the country. So this is a public safety issue.” Pretty close to the portrait of the middle-aged artiste as a complete man.



Fame is a fickle dame

Limited fame Sir — The comedian, Spike Milligan, who recently died at the age of 83, will not be eulogized in India in the same way that George Harrison has been. This, despite the fact that Milligan was born in India, and became a seminal figure in satirizing the British Empire’s posturing in the Fifties. One of the reasons for this neglect could be that he rose to fame at a time when it was not fashionable in India to celebrate leading British figures. Harrison, however, rode the effervescent celebrity wave of the internationalist Sixties. One hopes that Milligan, performing in a less glamourous time, and vending an anti-globalization message, will also be remembered in India.

Yours faithfully,
Niraj Prasad, Patna

Open arms

Sir — The article, “Waiting for calamity” (Feb 28), by Ashok Mitra zeroes in on the forces which impoverish the developing world today. The war on international terrorism has only been profitable for arms companies. As Mitra rightly points out, the flow of arms is not limited to “legitimate” regimes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and west Asia. International terrorist outfits like the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, and the druglords of Colombia, Mexico or Equador also benefit from the greater availability of arms. The United States of America is tragically sowing the seeds of further destruction.

Yours faithfully,
Sumant Poddar, Calcutta

Sir — Ashok Mitra never fails to amaze, but with the article, “Waiting for calamity”, he has surpassed all earlier efforts. From his rhetoric, it would seem that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an act of cold logic, while the battle cry against terrorism, is just so much “hysteria”. Do I detect a hint of satisfaction in Mitra at the perceived downfall of the US?

To those who were outraged by September 11 and who believe that all methods should be employed to protect innocent people from terrorists, the flaws in Mitra’s analysis will be evident. Perhaps the US does control the world, but America is not run by arms dealers. The US’s interests lie in maintaining the status quo. Since September 11, the US has had to increase its defence spending, a move reciprocated, in proportion, in the developing world. But the idea that third world regimes will sacrifice their entire budgets in a bid to emulate US defence spending rises, whilst George W. Bush and company charge blindly on, is frankly absurd. For starters, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank will not let them. Apocalypse seems to be too much on Mitra’s mind.

Yours faithfully,
Partho Datta, Calcutta

The boys in blue

Sir — In the aftermath of the American Centre attack, the move to punish policemen for wrongdoing rather than reward them for good work, is unjustified (“Carrots Galore”, Feb 24). Policemen are only human and were deeply affected by the shoot-outs. Many of them were driven to depression. There should be programmes to help policemen and their families, with councillors to provide advice. A retreat specifically for policemen would also be a good idea. Our policemen need to be encouraged, not castigated.

Yours faithfully,
N.R.Venkateswaran, Calcutta

Sir — At around 4.30 pm on February 14, I was passing by the turning to the American consulate complex on Ho Chi Minh Sarani when I heard a commotion. A young student, barely 20 years old, had accidentally driven his motorbike down the street. He was instantly surrounded by more than 10 policemen with cocked guns. The young man had stopped his motorcycle but before he could dismount he was dragged on to the road. The policemen started hitting him with the butts of their rifles. They dragged him to the footpath and continued with the beating.

I have not forgotten the January 22 attack on the American Centre, when the police were brutally attacked. But I was appalled at this barbaric act of “retribution” by the police force on an innocent motorcyclist. I hope members of the consulate are better protected than the passers by outside.

Yours faithfully,
Karan Gupta, Calcutta

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