Editorial / Two stones and the nation
Blood, kitsch and little hope
This above all / City of eternal light
People/ Soli Sorabjee
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / TWO STONES AND THE NATION 
 
 
 
 
The climb-down by the VHP and the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas gives Mr Vajpayee time. It does not reduce the threat of militant Hinduism There are moments in history when even a non-event is imbued with significance. The decision of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas to donate the two sacred stones can only be seen as an anti-climax after the charged rhetoric that Ramchandra Paramhans had indulged in. The head of the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas had threatened suicide if he was stopped from doing the shila daan and the puja on the acquired land. From this he climbed down to handing over two stones to a representative of the district administration about a kilometre away from the site demarcated by the Supreme Court. Willy-nilly the VHP and the Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas have been forced to abide by the Supreme Court’s verdict which forbade any kind of puja on the land. It is difficult to believe, given the previous utterances of the heads of these two bodies, that this climb-down was prompted by a suddenly-discovered respect for the apex court of the country. Rather the chances are that they were persuaded by the government or that they did not want to enter into a confrontation. The government, true to what the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, assured the nation, has stood firm and has not pussyfooted the kar sevaks making tracks towards Ayodhya. The arrest of 8,000 people is testimony that the government was committed to upholding the Supreme Court’s verdict.

This is the second reprieve that Mr Vajpayee has got in two days. He will be hoping, if he believes in luck, that his wheel of fortune has turned after the election debacle, the Gujarat carnage and the meaningless budget. Mr Vajpayee’s critics will argue that during the Ayodhya crisis, he was playing off both ends against the middle. The government’s plea to the Supreme Court was aimed as a placatory gesture towards the VHP while the announcement to uphold the court’s verdict was to reinforce his position as prime minister of India and not of a section of the country. One could, at a stretch, see in all this a master tactician at work with his back to the wall. Mr Vajpayee can claim to have won on points but he and the body politic have suffered a severe scare and the secular fabric of the nation is in tatters. Mr Vajpayee will be aware that he has only gained time; the problem that a resurgent VHP and a disgruntled Ramjanmabhoomi Nyas represent for the Bharatiya Janata Party and the National Democratic Alliance will return to haunt the prime minister.

Mr Vajpayee has stolen from Ramchandra Paramhans and from Mr Ashok Singhal, the head of the VHP, their moment of glory. For the nonce, the Ram mandir in Ayodhya remains a figure of rhetoric. It will be innocent to believe that Mr Singhal and his ilk will allow the issue to lie in this state indefinitely. Any move to mobilize Hindu public opinion will inevitably have profound political and social consequences. The voice and the opinions of believing Hindus who are non-fundamentalists will be overtaken by militancy and a brand of Hinduism that imbricates politics with religious beliefs. At a time when Mr Vajpayee’s attention should ideally be devoted to the economy and foreign policy, he will have to watch his back garden, which is full of weeds. It would be a pity if Mr Vajpayee, having nipped the shila daan in the bud, catches the Tartar of Hindu militancy.

   

 
 
BLOOD, KITSCH AND LITTLE HOPE 
 
 
BY SUNANDA K. DATTA-RAY
 
 
Like the Dutch boy of the fable who put his finger in the dyke to hold back the flood, the Supreme Court has succeeded in gaining a breathing space without necessarily averting the cultural polarization towards which we seem inexorably to be headed.

The government, too, is only playing for time. The response to a symbolic puja that it produced in court with every appearance of spontaneity was obviously meticulously prepared in the full knowledge that it would be turned down. It served the political purpose of appeasing the Bharatiya Janata Party’s most lusty constituency. Its predictable rejection threw a lifeline to the opportunists and time-servers of the National Democratic Alliance who are so desperately frightened of being deprived of the loaves and fishes of office. The puja justification also reflected the BJP’s true inclinations, though concern about what their new friends in Washington would think might force Lal Krishna Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee to dissemble their intentions.

The most damning indictment of their otherwise plausible demand for a greater role for the majority faith is that the India of their dreams seems to reflect Hindu life at its most primitive. Hinduism for them is no more meaningful than section 2(1) of the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act which defines as Hindu anyone who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsee or a Jew. A politician who trundles through the countryside in a tawdry chariot is qualitatively no better than a godman who suffers from hallucinations about Ramlalla.

If majority culture means such degrading tamashas, Winston Churchill was quite right to warn that independent (“Brahmin-ruled” was his term) India would “fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages”. Left to the sangh parivar, we will be saddled with an awesome Hindu rashtra draped in saffron, smeared in ash, hung with rudraksha beads, chanting incantations and brandishing a lethal trident to strip the credulous of their scanty possessions.

Mercifully, the government has to keep up appearances, if only not to outrage George W. Bush. There is a strong safety-valve in sections of the civil service, while the judiciary remains the ultimate guardian of the liberal vision of the founding fathers. But even without a tectonic shift, the Ayodhya drama seems to indicate that secularism is destined to go the way of non-alignment, Jawaharlal Nehru’s other dream.

If secularism was ever a driving force in national life, it ceased to be so when the exigencies of parliamentary democracy substituted pandering to vote banks for rule by an educated elite. Whatever Nehru’s enlightened thinking on nationalism and the scientific temperament sweeping away religious obscurantism, political reality sanctified by the Constitution is a recipe for both communal separatism and communal friction.

Whether Hindu revivalism preceded or provoked Muslim fundamentalism is the age-old chicken and egg question. The tenacity with which poorer Muslims — and that means the majority — cling to the madrasah system which clearly generates an exclusive consciousness is one concern. The possibility of foreign involvement in Muslim affairs is even more worrying, for security might be at stake.

Through the din rings Nehru’s warning against majority communalism as the greatest danger of all. Arguably, the minority’s militancy can be contained. Not so, however, when the majority suffers from a minority complex and sees itself as denied its basic rights in the land of its birth. There is no denying that many otherwise reasonable Hindus do feel that Muslims are pampered, which means they think that Hindus are victimized. The process started long ago with Rajendra Prasad articulating a point of view that many Hindus endorsed, but which found insufficient expression in the republic’s Constitution and in official life.

Gujarat has been reduced to a state of siege. When I visited Godhra 35 years ago on the eve of a parliamentary election, every other front door seemed to shine with an illuminated five-pointed star. I could not believe that Piloo Mody, the Swatantra Party candidate, whose symbol was the star, could be the recipient of such ostentatious support.Quite right, explained Piloo’s American wife, they were not Swatantra stars at all but stars of Bethlehem. Local Christians, of whom there were obviously a goodly ma- ny, had just celebrated Burra din or Cho- ta din — I forget the time of year — and had not yet taken down the decorations.

Today Godhra is a blood-drenched battlefield in a scarred state that has been described as the laboratory of Hinduism’s revival, and where inflammatory leaflets, apparently circulated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, demand that Muslims and their businesses should be strictly ostracized.

It will be claimed that these are the views of only a lunatic fringe, and that most Hindus (like many Muslims) in the south and in West Bengal remain untouched by communal madness. Perhaps, but it is always the extremist tail that wags the moderate dog. If a silent secular majority does lurk somewhere, it has shown little sign of life during these weeks of crisis. On the contrary, almost every other television channel nowadays beams mythological costume- drama that blends stirring entertainment with kitsch history to bestow credibility in the simple mind on fancies such as a mythic Rama haunting dreams and issuing precise instructions regarding an edifice in his honour. No wonder the priest at the Hanuman temple atop Simla’s Jakhu hill can rake in a little treasure trove of offerings by passing off an outsize footprint in a slab of modern grey cement as Rama’s.

Illiteracy and poverty are grist to the mill of superstition. They are compounded by the logic of numbers. Even in 1936, when he wrote his autobiography, Nehru acknowledged the challenge of “a few” Hindu leaders who“hope that being in a majority their brand of ‘culture’ will ultimately prevail”. The “few” have burgeoned into many and hold the reins of power. They are jealous of the Islamic ummah’s global reach, they complain of “minorityism” and, arguing that subcontinental Muslims have already carved two exclusive homelands out of what used to be India, they demand that the residual territory should resonate to the beliefs of the majority.

The problem arises over what that should mean in practice. Is the sanatan dharma only legend, ritual and muscle-flexing? Are louts who are paid to carry ornamental bricks the most effective guardians of the sublimity of the philosophy of the abstract that underlies the Katha Upanishad? “Since not by speech and not by thought,/ Not by the eye can it be reached,/ How else may it be understood,/ But only when one says, ‘It is’?” If Hinduism is an amorphous concept, so is the Greek version of the Persian variant of the Sindhu river that is “India that is Bharat”. The reality of each depends on what we make of it.

Whatever the achievements of militants like Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Keshavrao Baliram Hedgewar, their Hindu nationalism was not the Vedic religion of humanism. The rampaging mobs of Gujarat and Ayodhya do not represent even Hindu nationalism of the Savarkar-Hedgewar mould.Theirs is the frenzy of the lumpen out for blood, loot and excitement, and all the more dangerous for that since it can have severe repercussions on relations with Muslims, who are aggrieved, apprehensive and ready to give battle.

Twenty years ago, Nirad Chaudhuri outlined three ways of ending what he called “the toxic Hindu-Muslim discord.” First, by eliminating Muslims, which he thought possible but inconceivable. Second, by reducing them to subordinate status like minority communities in Muslim countries, which, he admitted, “would be morally repugnant” to most Indians. And third, by accepting the Muslim demand “to retain their group identity in a parallel society.”

There was once hope of a fourth choice — that the Hindu and Muslim identities would be subsumed in an all-embracing Indian label. But that hope is fading in the raucousness of the Ayodhya controversy.

   

 
 
THIS ABOVE ALL / CITY OF ETERNAL LIGHT 
 
 
BY KHUSHWANT SINGH
 
 
It is the oldest pilgrimage site in the world and much the most frequented by worshippers along the Ganga’s long course from the snow-bound Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Its original name was Kashika, the shining one, and hence its title, the city of light. It was also known as Varanasi after the two rivers ,Varana and Asi, which ran into the Ganga not far from the city. Benaras, by which it is known today, is a variation of the same name.

No one knows how old it is. Mark Twain, who visited it, wrote: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

Besides its antiquity and sanctity as the holiest of holy cities, it has always been the centre of music and dance. At one time it was famous for its beautiful courtesans, singers, dancers and mistresses of the art of seduction. Much has been written about them.

One such appraiser was the Kashmiri poet, Damodara Gupta, who extolled them in a long poem Kuttanimata — advice of a procuress. It is the story of a beautiful and talented courtesan named Malati who, despite her looks and accomplishments, could not find rich patrons. Vikrala, a retired courtesan, instructed her on how to go about enticing the affluent, fleecing them of their wealth and then ditching them.

So Kashi has it all:

In Kashi, there is dharma and it stands four square,

In Kashi, there is artha and it is of many kinds,

In Kashi, there is kama and it is the source of all delight

And in Kashi, there is moksha

What is there that is not there.

Kashi, the city of light, is the theme of Malavika Sarukkai’s latest Bharatanatyam piece, choreographed by her with the help of her mother, Saroj, and sister, Priya. It is based on Damodara Gupta’s poem. It was performed at the Siri Fort auditorium.

Since the performance had to be postponed for a couple of days owing to the state mourning over the death of GMC Balayogi, the Lok Sabha speaker, the auditorium was not packed to overflowing as it is whenever Malavika is performing. She promises to be back in Delhi in October for those who missed it. For me, she remains the most exciting dancer of our times.

For her sake, I read up all I could on Benaras. Most of it from Diana Eck’s Banaras: The City of Light. She starts with a quotation from Damodara Gupta’s poem:

“Are there not many holy places on this earth?

Yet which of them would equal in the balance one speck of Kashi’s dust?

Are there not many rivers running to the sea?

Yet which of them is like the River of Heaven in Kashi?

Are there not many fields of liberation on earth?

Yet not one equals the smallest part of the city never forsaken by Shiva

The Ganges, Shiva, and Kashi: Where the Trinity is watchful,

No wonder here is found the grace that leads one on to perfect bliss.”

Breaking bread together

It is said that families that pray together stay together. It could also be said that families that eat together stay together. Sir Shri Ram, my friend Bharat Ram’s father and the founder of the Delhi Cloth Mills industrial empire, insisted that all his sons, daughters-in-law and grand children be present together for the main midday meal. When he noticed anyone absent without good reason, he had his personal secretary send them a note asking for an explanation.

In my parents’ home there were no set rules, but the entire family was present at all meals. I was not aware that eating together was a form of bonding because the father’s presence at the head of the table had a subduing effect which made us talk in low tones or exchange banalities with each other. What does create family bonding is when the food is cooked by the mother and she presides over the dining table. The atmosphere is more relaxed and the conversation more intimate. If the mother happens to be a good cook, it adds to the pleasure of the daily re-union.

Claire Datta mourns the passing of the cult of the “kitchen table”. Claire is an Anglo-Indian married to a Punjabi. She is passionately fond of cooking and takes sensuous delight in experimenting with new recipes and enjoying them. She runs Claire’s Bakery in Santushti Enclave and bakes the best bread, biscuits and cakes in the capital. Once a year on Christmas or New Year’s eve, I place an order for a turkey or a capon. It is of the highest quality, but expensive. She makes up for it by adding Christmas pudding free of cost.

Claire’s thoughts on food as a bonding factor deserve consideration. In a letter to me she writes: “What has happened to the world that began at the kitchen table? The way people eat has changed so fast in such a short while, it has left a generation of mothers relieved at their new found freedom, yet struggling to hold on to their children in the old ways. Pizza and burger expresses now own our children, they dish out meals that sustain life. But can they feed the soul?

“Once upon a time the dining table was what family life was all about. Food was pleasure, now it’s recreation — fast, boisterous and noisy. As a working mother, I appreciate all the conveniences, the escape from day-to-day drudgery in the kitchen, but I also miss the sense of security and love that came from being at the table with my family. We discussed school, boyfriends, mom’s day and dad’s...[There was] the feeling of steadfastness, that no matter what happened this would never change. Have we lost that forever? If we have, who will teach us the new ways? Will it take decades of mistakes before nature endows us with the skills to craft a new table to replace the old one?

“Children fill their plates at the stove and head for the TV or their rooms. I cry out silently, ‘come back, talk to me’, but the words don’t leave my lips. I am a modern mom, my children need their space and I don’t want to crowd them.”

The letter continues to say how much her husband shares her views on food (and drink) as a bonding agent in a family. She continues: “My husband says he learnt to drink at family dinners. When he was 18, a beer was poured for him. He watched how his dad and grandfather sipped it and made it stretch throughout the meal — it made him feel important. I have never seen my husband drunk, ever.

“Teens today talk about getting sloshed, pissed, obliterated. The yardstick for having a good time is how pissed you were and how little you remember about the rest of the evening. I search for the words to tell him how uncool this is....In our ‘hi mom’, ‘bye mom’ relationship, created by the need for space, ‘me’ time, time to ‘chill’ and all the other times I’ve been told a teenager needs, how can I make him stop long enough to listen to me? Time was when the table was our ‘mom and pop time’.”

On the fast track out of this world

Three old men were passing the time of day discussing the ideal way of leaving this world. The first, aged 75, said he’d like to go quickly and suggested a crash in a speeding car. The second, aged 85, agreed on a speedy end, but thought he’d prefer a jet-propelled plane.

“I’ve got a better idea,” mused the third, aged 95. “I’d rather be shot by a jealous husband.”

(Contributed by Reeten Ganguly, Silchar)

   

 
 
PEOPLE/ SOLI SORABJEE 
 
 
 
 

And justice for all

Brave new words have this bad habit of cropping up when they need to be quietly buried. A lawyer remembers a casual conversation with attorney-general Soli Jehangir Sorabjee — then known as a senior Supreme Court advocate — four years ago. Sorabjee’s utterings then, modest-and-yet-bombastic, may well have been his famous last words.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had just come to power. The old system was being rinsed out, and sparkling new weaves were being aired on the clothesline. In the corridors of the Supreme Court of India, conversation those days was often devoted to who, among the black-coated, white-banded legal eagles, would move to the attorney-general’s office.

BJP lawman Arun Jaitley, everybody knew, would sooner or later be named a minister. Constitutional lawyer K.K. Venugopal had been sounded off, but had politely turned down the offer. The buzz went that Soli Sorabjee — one of Emergency’s free speech heroes — was being offered the job which he had held when Vishwanath Pratap Singh came to rule at the Centre in 1989.

“I had decided that I’d say ‘no’ to the job,” Sorabjee told the lawyer. “But I am being persuaded to reconsider my decision.” The lawyer, who saw Sorabjee as a card-holding member of the secular brigade, asked him if he wouldn’t have a problem with the BJP’s known line of thought. “The BJP would need a sane voice,” was Sorabjee’s quiet reply.

The sane voice faced some flak in the Supreme Court of India this week. After several years of lull, the Ram temple issue bounced back into the court with a bang when supporters of the temple — including the aggressive Vishwa Hindu Parishad — announced that the construction work for the temple would begin on March 15. On Wednesday, a three-judge bench turned down Sorabjee’s plea for a ‘bhoomi puja’ on an undisputed but government acquired land in Ayodhya.

Sorabjee’s words had an electrifying effect down the line. One, for the first time the government was openly seen as supporting the VHP’s programme for a Hindu puja in Ayodhya. Two, his position galavanised the so-called secular partners of the National Democratic Alliance into action, sending K. Yerran Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party and Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress into a conspiratorial huddle. Sorabjee was even grilled at a meeting between Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and disgruntled NDA allies. And third, it led to a situation where Sorabjee had to go public to clarify his stand in court. The ’bhoomi puja’ was not the government’s idea, but his own, he said.

Sorabjee’s stand — his own interpretation of a 1994 ruling — has surprised many. “It seems quite strange that Sorabjee was talking about how long the puja would take and how many sants would be involved in it all on his own,” said a law watcher.

But the suave gentleman-lawyer is known for his diverse stands on issues. Sorabjee had fought for the victims of the Bhopal gas leak in the ‘80s and won them a compensation of $470 million that many thought was a bag of peanuts. Later, as an attorney-general, he supported a review of the settlement and successfully pressed for the reinstatement of criminal charges levelled against the Union Carbide Corporation, the Multi-National Corporation which owned the plant where the poisonous gas leak occurred in 1984.

And then, earlier this year, he advised the government against seeking the extradition of the former UCC Chairman, Warren Anderson, from the United States in connection with his trial in the Bhopal case, kicking up quite a controversy.

But, then, his tenure this time has been a particularly stormy one. There was an ugly spat building up between the AG and the then law minister, Ram Jethmalani, which led to the minister’s resignation in the summer of 2000. Jethmalani had then blamed Sorabjee for his ouster from the government. Jethmalani had been spearheading a campaign against the then chief justice of the Supreme Court and often hinted that the chief justice and the attorney-general were ganging up against him.

In Pune, asked why he had had to resign, he had said: “I was not getting along well with Sorabjee and this may have been the reason.”

In his campaign against Sorabjee, Jethmalani had pointed out that the AG — who was the additional solicitor general and then solicitor general during the Janata regime in the ‘70s — had taken fees from the Hindujas in a case even as the government was fighting the London-based brothers in another case related to the Bofors gun. Sorabjee had later explained that he had taken permission from the government to do so.

Jethmalani, today, of course, is a much mellowed man and no longer views Sorabjee — at least not in public — as his bete noire. On Thursday, he even defended him in Parliament. Says Jethmalani: “The attorney-general is the attorney-general not for the government but for the people.” He said: “An AG doesn’t have to obey a government diktat if he doesn’t agree with it. He has to try and convince the government with his own argument. If it comes to an impasse, he could even resign.”

Wednesday’s case, however, was a little different. Lawyers point out that in this particular case, it was not Sorabjee voicing a government view that he didn’t believe in. The 72-year-old lawyer was articulating a position that the government nearly said it didn’t believe in.

The issue at stake is why he did so. For many, Sorabjee has been an urbane Parsi, never quite given to religious rituals. “He is not that kind of a man at all,” says a former colleague of his. “He is an extremely interesting man, with really a good gift of the gab and interests that range from all kinds of music to poetry reading,” says the lawyer. His Sunder Nagar house, where he has thrown some memorable parties, is stacked with music and books. Old-timers recall having spent some fruitful evenings with him, discussing the finer nuances of jazz and law. “He is a jolly good fellow,” says a former minister.

In legal circles, many believe that Sorabjee has made himself a willing scape-goat in the case. But the question being asked is why Sorabjee did so. “I suppose flexibility in a lawyer is a valued quality,” said a former colleague of his.

Cynics say that he was only being a good lawyer — one who defends and opposes the same issue as effectively. Friends believe it could well be fatigue. An interviewer had once asked the man of many parts how he managed to devote time to jazz — an all-consuming interest — while in office. Sorabjee had seemed a little tired of it all. He had no time for jazz, he had rued, no time to read or write, and no time for a holiday. “I intend to retire when I am 70... Retire to a hill station and read for my seven grandchildren.”

He said that in 1999, when he was 69. The grandchildren, presumably, are still waiting.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

No more excuses

Sir — Sunil Gavaskar has rightly blamed Sourav Ganguly for India’s humiliating six wicket defeat against Zimbabwe in the third one-day international (“Biggest culprit was Sourav”, March 14). That every other batsman with the exception of Mohammad Kaif and Sanjay Bangar failed to come up with respectable scores does not absolve Ganguly of the crime of playing irresponsibly. Ganguly’s scorecard might not look all that bad, but he has failed to lead by example and deliver when the chips are down. It is time that the Indian selectors considered replacing him with a younger, more enthusiastic player.

Yours faithfully,
Joyita Saha, via email

The government’s job

Sir — Madhushree C. Bhowmik’s article, “Life in the time of joblessness” (March 12), paints a poignant picture of families torn apart by economic hardship in the wake of the Centre’s disinvestment policy. The idea of reviving the economy by disposing of the white elephants of the public sector is commendable. In the post-liberalization era, this is also inevitable. However, given that India is a poor country, both the state and Central governments should have pondered the ramifications of this policy before implementing it. The government’s indifference to the social costs of disinvestment has proved to be quite high, as Bhowmik shows. It has destroyed families and family ties. The government cannot deny its responsibility to the citizens. It is imperative that it arranges some kind of compensation for those who have lost their jobs as a result of its disinvestment policy.

Yours faithfully,
Aruna Mitra, Jamshedpur

Sir — Krishanu Krori in his letter, “Bitter pill” (March 12), has stated that a government’s primary duty is not to provide employment but to restrict itself to maintaining law and order, providing healthcare and education and building up an infrastructure that would be conducive to industrial and economic growth, as is usually the practice in the West. But one wonders if the government’s responsibility with regard to social services or infrastructure can be considered sufficiently fulfilled if it absolves itself of its duty of providing employment to the population. After all, a government needs a workforce for doing the welfare work that has been enumerated by Krori. The difference between the government of India and its Western counterparts is that the former seems perfectly content to downsize the workforce without fulfilling its social responsibilities. It is this difference in attitude that has placed Sri Lanka, a country poorer than India, higher in the human resources development index than India.

The government’s disinvestment policy is not welcome and this is not merely because it results in the retrenchment of a substantial percentage of the workforce. It is unwelcome because it negates the concept of a welfare state on which India was fashioned. The government in a civilized country needs to protect the weak by maintaining law and order. It is also the government’s duty to provide jobs to the poor. Even a so-called capitalist country like the United States of America has imbibed socialist ideals. Unemployed youth in the US get a handsome allowance.

It is imperative that the Central government realize that it has to ensure equal distribution of resources and balanced growth. Excessive retrenchment would lead to a more unequal society and more people below the poverty line.

Yours faithfully,
Sujit De, Sodepur

Mistaken identity

Sir — Damayanti Datta’s article, “In search of new young faces” (March 3), has an error. A sentence in the last paragraph of the third column begins: “Anchita Ghatak of Parichay…….”. But the name of the organization referred to is Parichiti, and not Parichay.

Yours faithfully,
Dolon Ganguly and Chitrita Banerjee,Calcutta

The error is regretted.

— The editor

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