Editorial / Two loves had he
A kind of heaven
The Telegraph Diary
Look 1 / Generation D
Candid camera
Look 2 / Fun in the sun
Eye on England
Letters to the editor

 
 
EDITORIAL / TWO LOVES HAD HE 
 
 
 
 
The enduring life of the Devdas myth shows that five decades of feminism have barely affected the desire to find the wife in the courtesan and the courtesan in the wife Devdas is not the hero of a mystery thriller, but his story represents a mystery. A Bengali novel published in 1917, Devdas was launched on its screen career with a silent film in 1928, and crossed ten productions in various Indian languages before its 2002 versions, one a sumptuous Hindi production and the other an incomparably paler Bengali one. Eternal lover or eternal loser, it seems all the world loves a Devdas, with the sole exception of one British newspaper, the only one among its peers to have accorded Mr Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film two stars. All the others rate it far higher, up to seven stars, while the takings in the box office, whether in the Indian metros or across the seas, would suggest that the drink-sodden, self-indulgent, generally wet Devdas retains a magic hold not only on the Bengali, but on everyone else as well.

In these post-modern times, this has naturally given rise to much grave discussion of the Devdas syndrome. The mystery of his appeal is being meticulously unthreaded. But the resultant tangle rather obscures the two women in the story — which is a pity, because the author of Devdas wrote quite astonishingly of women. The helpless innocent maiden compelled to give up her love for social reasons and to marry a much older widower, and the courtesan whose love for the one man who does not fit the role of client drives her towards austere sacrifice are easy to stereotype. They can be made to represent the feminine side of the “eternal lover-eternal loser” categories with equal ease.

But stereotypes have their uses. The stereotypical male desire to find the wife in the courtesan and the courtesan in the wife finds romantically elevated expression in the Devdas story. Given its enduring, and now evidently global, appeal, it would seem that five decades of the women’s movement have not managed to completely draw the sap from this particular structure of desire. The story’s crux lies in the dissonance between love and sex. Parvati, Devdas’s childhood and eternal love, leads a sexless life with her husband, while Chandramukhi, the woman Devdas depends on but does not seek, wishes to give up her trade in sex in order to love Devdas. The wife-courtesan equation is rendered especially piquant for Indian viewers of Mr Bhansali’s film by the use of two star-actresses who, by their very presence and well-publicized histories, evoke the required double response.

An old story retold may yet have the “contemporary relevance” that Mr Bhansali has claimed for his film. But the relevance in the case of the women characters is double-edged. The depiction of the centrality of romantic love for a woman — shackled by institutions and defeated by circumstances though she is — may come as furtive relief in these days of the women’s movement. It is reassuring to have romantic notions reconfirmed by fiction, when the fictionality is pointed up by opulent display bordering on fantasy. Mr Bhansali’s Devdas is a far cry from the sentimental desolation of the original novel. That evidently does not matter, because the received structures of human desire take a long time to change.

   

 
 
A KIND OF HEAVEN 
 
 
BY MUKUL KESAVAN
 
 
Exactly three weeks ago, a dream came true: I watched a cricket match from a press-box, as a bona fide cricket correspondent. It didn’t hurt that the match was a one-day international against England, that it was played at Lord’s, that the press-box in question was that glazed, uber-modern ovoid that stares at the Pavilion end like an eye on a stalk. Best of all, we won.

It was the last day of a long holiday in Wales and England, filled with football. After cheering Brazil on for nearly four weeks, after watching England play Argentina and Denmark in pubs fizzing with hysterical feeling, it was hard to feel excited about cricket. The most rabid cricket fan would find his passion for the game dimmed in England — compared to football, it counts for so little in the public mind. Still, this was India playing, I told myself, as I caught the bus. Also, I had a pass to the press box.

I had spent the morning on a train, riding up to London so by the time I got on the bus the match had begun. It didn’t help that Lord’s was a couple of miles from the nearest bus stop, obscurely called Swiss Cottage. I got to the ground two hours into the match to find England disastrously well-placed: two hundred and a few for three with twelve overs to go. I bought myself an unwieldy can of lager from a stall, flourished my credentials at the woman guarding the lift to the press box and rode up the stalk trying to look like a grizzled correspondent.

So I got off frowning purposefully, trying to take everything in without gawping. The view was spectacular, right over the stumps, but we were so high up that the players were slightly foreshortened. The reporters were arranged in stepped rows behind the tinted glass facade, looking steeply downwards: the whole effect was one of sitting in a Star Trek lecture theatre built for nerveless space cadets.

I slid into a seat next to a well set-up Sri Lankan. He was armed to the teeth: laptop, mobile phone as well as a landline phone into which he spoke endlessly about London’s night life. All phone conversations follow a script: in this one, my neighbour was the man about town and the man at the other end (who, I gathered, had never been to a nightclub) had been cast as the hick.

I watched for a while, but desultorily, because it was England batting. Besides, Nasser Hussain was on strike, so nothing was strenuously happening. That’s when I noticed that several correspondents had trays of food and glasses of wine in front of them. Had these only been white correspondents, I would have assumed that the refreshments were a guild privilege to which I was not entitled and done nothing, but when I saw a couple of desi journos walking in with trays I began to wonder, as Indians customarily do, whether they knew something I didn’t.

I looked around me and saw that there was a buffet lunch laid out behind the viewing area and a counter from which drink was being dispensed. I slid past the Sri Lankan bon vivant and made my way to the buffet table, but not before making certain that absolutely no money was changing hands. Reassured, I picked up a plate and a napkin and had a bit of everything and many glasses of wine. This took a while. I could have carried my tray to the viewing gallery but I decided to stay in the buffet area within easy reach of the spread, reasoning that the match I could have watched at home but the food and drink came with the premises. And I missed nothing: there were television sets suspended over the tables. I wondered about people who insisted that there was no such thing as a free lunch; that was probably true in the normal world, but this was Lord’s and the lift had likely raised us into a kind of heaven.

It was certainly peopled by godlings. There was Barry Richards perched on a table; Ravi Shastri sharply turned out in blazer and tie; Boycott in shirt-sleeves and best of all, Gavaskar. I got Harsha Bhogle to introduce me to him and shook his hand.

We strangled the English batting in the last ten overs so it fell short of the three hundred that had once seemed likely and then Sehwag got us off to a rocketing start. I made the mistake of clapping audibly when he whacked a ball straight for four. The Sri Lankan stopped talking on the phone to call me to order. Did I know, he asked rhetorically, that this was a press box and clapping wasn’t allowed? “Why don’t you mind your own business?” I asked in return, not really wanting to know. I was mildly tipsy and consequently filled with indignation at being publicly chided. The Sri Lankan said something else which I didn’t hear because my head was busy thinking up a crushing put down. “Why don’t you stop being officious?” I inquired. Feeble, I know, but it was the best I could do.

Dravid and Yuvraj played wonderfully to steer us home and I wanted to cheer, but cowed by the deadpan professionalism of the hacks all round me, I merely mimed applause. Think of watching a test match over five days without booing or whistling or cheering! Peter Roebuck, who does the best cricket reporting I’ve read, was the only journalist there who looked remotely animated. The rest of them watched impassively and intermittently tapped their keyboards with two fingers, like expert zombies. If press boxes are all like this, reporting on cricket from inside them for a living must be a kind of purgatory.

After we won, I walked home because there were tens of thousands of people looking for buses and taxis. For a while I walked surrounded by desi supporters. One of them was a south Indian who kept shouting triumphantly in a kind of macho Hindustani. Every time he caught a white person’s eye, he’d shout “Oye gorey! kya dekh raha hai, saale, tu haar gaya!” [Oye whitey, what are you looking at, b****r, you lost!]. Then he’d neigh with laughter and look at his friends for endorsement. It was a stupid and pathetic form of solidarity, but compared to the stupor of those professionals in the press-box it was a sign of life. So instead of wincing each time he yelled, I smiled indulgently, all the way home.

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THE TELEGRAPH DIARY 
 
 
 
 

The president so pleases

Call it the presidential prerogative. Flowing hair-APJ Abdul Kalam is said to have made a rare request to his saffron mentors that has taken the wind of out their sails. Soon after voting was over, Kalam is reported to have told Pramod Mahajan, his image-manager and the parliamentary affairs minister in his spare time, that he desired to address schoolchildren immediately after taking oath as the president of India. But that wasn’t what made jaws drop instantly. It was his plea that the number of schoolchildren be at least a thousand. A visibly disturbed Mahajan pleaded that at best he could arrange for a hundred. Besides, it was impossible to fit in a thousand inside the Central Hall of Parliament where the swearing-in was likely to take place. After having managed to coerce the head of state to agree to the number, Mahajan then took a few other shots, just in case those worked. He tried to convince Kalam that he ought to abandon his favourite blue shirt for a day so that he could wear the bandgala, which was the tradition. But even if Kalam agrees with the attire, he has completely pooh-poohed the other proposition — a hair cut. Kalam made it plain that he trimmed his hair once in four months and this wasn’t the time. Should we then expect a new-look Kalam in a few months’ time?

A week too soon

Bhairon Singh Shekhawat has quite a reputation in Hindutva circles for not putting a step forward before consulting a jyotish. And so it was a rather subdued Shekhawat who accompanied Messrs Vajpayee, Advani and Fernandes to the press conference to announce his candidature for the vice-presidential elections. The prime minister’s bosom pal is too old to be dancing for joy, but it seemed Shekhawat didn’t think July 17 was propitious enough. He had wanted the announcement deferred to the more auspicious date of July 24. The Rajput leader was convinced that if the formal announcement was made on that day, he would have been the consensus candidate. But his BJP brethren decided otherwise. They were afraid that if the announcement were delayed, the powerful Dalit lobby in the BJP would queer Shekhawat’s pitch and instead put up either Suraj Bhan or Sangh Priya Gautam for vice-president. And so niceties like astrology had to go out of the window.

Masseurs vs barbers

Why do you think AR Antulay quit as the chairman of the Congress’s minority cell? If you believe Antulay’s public posture that he was miffed at the Congress leadership not doing enough for the victims of the Gujarat riots, you must be naive. The private truth, as always, is not so pious. Apparently, the demand of the ex- CM of Maharashtra that his masseur be given a party ticket for the Delhi municipal elections was ignored, while Arjun Singh managed to get one for his barber. Cynical Congress wags however say that the “real” reason for Antulay’s pique is nothing as altruistic, if fairly ridiculous. It’s anger at the Rajya Sabha nomination bypassing him and going to Murli Deora. Now why does that sound so believable?

Queen bee of the new raj

Whatever his sins, M. Venkaiah Naidu redeems himself with the fabulous Andhra lunch that he hosts for journalists in the capital every year. This time of course, the lunch was a grander affair — Naidu was celebrating his elevation as BJP chief. But guess who was the centre of attraction at the do attended by all the small and big stars of the television and print media? Why, Pratibha Advani of course. Everyone from big time editors to small fry hacks were busy dancing attendance on and standing up in honour of LK Advani’s 30-something daughter. Journalists are like the weathervane — they can sense which way the political winds will turn. And it is definitely turning the Advani way now. After all, journos don’t want to be left out when Pratibha becomes hostess of 7 Race Course Road, do they?

Guv’s in great demand

PC Alexander wasn’t good enough to be president, so why’s everyone running after him now? They think he is the perfect counter to the Catholic woman boss of the Congress. No wonder, the moment Alexander resigned as governor of Maharashtra, Sharad Pawar quickly lapped him up and sponsored his name as the consensus Rajya Sabha candidate (barring the Congress, of course). Earlier, LK Advani had offered to make him advisor in the to-be-set-up deputy prime minister’s office — akin to what Brajesh is to Vajpayee. But obviously, that didn’t appeal. Is Sonia quaking in her sandals?

No flying high

Not this challenge but. Didi seems to be willing to take on any ministry, save the aviation. Not just because of its rather anglicized atmosphere or because the PMO takes a special interest in it, but because Trinamoolis think there is nothing in it that will conform to the party’s image. Since Trinamool has to do with the grassroots, it has to maintain touch with the ground. Not much choice there. Maybe the agro and rural industries?

Bollywood brotherhood

After Karisma-Kariena, its Salman-Sohail now. The two Khan brothers each has a release lined up — the senior, more experienced brother’s Yeh Hai Jalwa, to the debutant’s Maine Dil Tujhko Diya. Both films were to have hit the screens simultaneously but Sallo bhai threatened his producer with dire consequences till he agreed to defer YHJ’s release by a week. The protective older brother that he is, our balding hero wanted Sohail’s film to have a week’s reprieve. Now that’s sibling love or rivalry Bollywood ishtyle.

Footnote / Little to show at the Atlanta games

Don’t judge a delegation by its colour. A West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation delegation to Atlanta, even if headed by no less than its chairman, Somnath Chatterjee, could be as big a flop as countless other Indian delegations that reach the shores of the US of A every year. From news that has started to filter in, it seems that delegates took their job of visiting relatives, listening to their wards’ musical performance, or simply gobbing food more seriously than convincing Bengali NRIs to invest in their dying state. They did not even bother to see to the disposal of the relevant literature each had lugged around in 10 enormous cardboard boxes through the journey. Never mind if the porter charges for transporting that luggage had been astronomical. There was no one at the executive level to help Chatterjee expedite matters, no real effort to bring the moolah in. Only a few made some impression — the McKinsey consultant to the Bengal govt, quite naturally, two jewellers and a housing development firm. Not very encouraging really!    

 
 
LOOK 1 / GENERATION D 
 
 
BY AVIJIT GHOSH
 
 
For a hero that first seduced an entire generation back in the 1930s, it is surprising that the queues outside New Delhi’s Chanakya theatre have few old faces. A majority of the matinee crowd is young. The sort which might say, K.L. Saigal, who’s he? It doesn’t really matter. For most of them, Devdas,the movie, is the irresistible flavour of the week.

The reactions inside the auditorium are even more revealing. Cheers break out when protagonist Devdas, played by leading actor Shah Rukh Khan, stands up to his domineering father and retorts, “I object.” It doesn’t matter to the young brigade that the outburst goes against the grain of the character and the scene doesn’t exist in the slim 118-page novel written in early 20th century. Without the burden of memory and without the handicap of reference points, Generation X is relishing every moment of Devdas, just like young men and women of earlier generations. Not as a literary classic of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, but as a Shah Rukh Khan extravaganza.

The success of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest offering among the young and happening set is an anachronism. On the surface, the languid tale of a man who loses his girl and drinks himself to death seems to hold little attraction for those who love to hold the keys to a fast car in one hand and a girlfriend in another. But surprisingly, among this generation which sees no romance in failure and idolises material success, the film has touched a hidden chord where none seemed to exist.

Young Ravi Saroha, a 22-year-old studying computers, enjoyed himself thoroughly. He can talk to you about Shah Rukh or Madhuri or Aishwarya — he liked their performances. So did his petite girlfriend Neha (“You’ll have to change our names, we cut classes to watch this movie,” she says). “It was just another film. A little slow but good overall. The heroines look gorgeous. The sets are stunning. In any case, we would give our right arm to watch Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai or Madhuri Dixit together in a love triangle,” she gushes.

But they are not bothered about the fate of Devdas, Paro and Chandramukhi. For them, Devdas could be Dharamdas or Durgadas or Shiv Sunder Das — or even Dave Das. They simply don’t care. These characters will not haunt them for the rest of their lives. “I admire his complete involvement with love. But I don’t see him as a role model for me or anyone,” says Rajiv Ahuja, 22, who has never been in love and who would prefer to go for an arranged marriage in real life.

Back in 1936, when director P.C. Barua released the Hindi version of Devdas with Saigal playing the lead part, India’s urban middle-class youth fell for its charm. With arranged marriages being the order of the day and failed love affairs commonplace, millions identified with Devdas as the lover who didn’t have the strength to get the girl he loved but he had the courage to die for her.

Since then, at least in urban India, the times have changed. Not fully though. Social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan points out that the father-son verbal exchange still has relevant social echoes. “Patriarchal oppression is still part of our society. Even the 2001 mega hit Kabhie Khushi Kabhie Gham had strong strains of patriarchal oppression,” he says.

On his part, director Bhansali spares no pain to woo the younger generation. Much of the Rs 50 crore spent on the making of the costliest Hindi movie ever, has gone into the construction of the sets and it shows. Every frame of the film drips with opulence. Even death is made to look aesthetically pleasing. In director Bimal Roy’s film version of Devdas, released in 1955, the dying lover takes his last ride towards Paro’s home in a ramshackle bullock cart, in the Bhansali version we see a plush horse carriage. The cart moves slowly, the carriage at a furious pace much in tune with the times.

The film’s overwhelming grandeur helps it escape the misery of being actually located in late 19th century rural Bengal. In other words, Bhansali sugarcoats the tragedy making it relatively easy for a generation, brought up on a strict diet of feelgood movies, to enjoy it. Says trade expert Komal Nahta, “The young generation doesn’t know the story of Devdas. That seems to have helped. There is no doubt it is the biggest hit of 2002.”

There are several other instances of literary licence which has gone down well with the younger crowd. In the original novel, Devdas falls into bad times towards the end having to sell off his share of the ancestral property. But Bhansali’s Devdas lives and dies in style untouched by penury. In that sense, he is no loser, as the yuppies say. “He only fails in love, not in life,” says Bimal Verma, an MBA student.

The new Devdas is no wimp either. The earlier versions of the protagonists, played out by Saigal and Dilip Kumar, were almost emasculated in their body and spirit. They are rebels in their hearts but not strong enough to be rebellious in their actions. Contrarily, Bhansali’s Devdas is both defiant and male. His love for Paro reeks with physical, passionate intensity. He talks back to his father and sees through the wiles of his scheming sister-in-law. “I think he is a very intelligent and emotional guy who destroys himself for love. There’s nothing wrong with that,” says Bimal.

In the previous film versions, Saigal and Dilip Kumar tried to live their parts. When Saigal died in 1946 due to alcoholism, his fans believed that the actor and his part had merged forever. And Dilip Kumar, known as the tragedy king, had to consult a psycho-analyst to get out of the Devdas character. But Shah Rukh, an intense and impressive performance notwithstanding, plays himself once again. Bhansali ensures that the Shah Rukh fan club gets to see their familiar hero. In one scene, again the director’s and not the writer’s creation, an enraged Devdas sets a divan to flame showing his maniacal side. “I liked that scene a lot. It shows his passion,” says college student Kamal Juneja and a Shah Rukh fan. It was also the scene where Devdas almost behaves like the maniac played out by the same actor in Darr. The only thing he doesn’t do, is say, Ppppp...Paro.

Warts and all, there is no denying that Bhansali’s Devdas has managed to win over Generation X. No surprise, both Bhansali and producer Bharat Shah are laughing their way to the bank. Devdas is dead! Long live Devdas.

   

 
 
CANDID CAMERA 
 
 
BY LATA KHUBCHANDANI
 
 

Q: What do you think of the new Devdas?

It was almost half a century ago that I acted in Devdas. It wouldn’t be fair to compare one with the other. In the sense that we worked hard at the time and, am sure, Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dixit under Bhansali’s guidance have done their best. I have not seen the film but I only hope that the substance, in essence, is the same.

Q: Yours has been such a landmark film. How true was it to Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 classic?

We were absolutely true to Saratbabu’s novel. There were hardly any deviations. We were aware of our roots and were familiar with the subject of the novel. You see, we imbibed a lot from our surroundings and these would feature in the literature of our times — in Saratbabu’s novels or Munshi Premchand’s or Manto’s stories as well as in other literary works. So we could easily relate to the milieu in the novel.

Q: Were there any deviations in P.C. Barua’s film which had K.L. Saigal in the title role?

That was a trifle simplistic. In those days cinema hadn’t quite developed a culture of its own. When a literary work is shaped into a screenplay, it can fail if not handled deftly. The subtle nuances may get buried in the transposing act. Anyway, as we couldn’t get a copy of that film earlier, I got to see it much later, only after we had finished with our version. That, I’d say, was a good thing. Frankly, when you are doing a remake of something, it is better that you don’t let it impact you to a great extent.

As long as you have studied the script thoroughly and have familiarised yourself with the subject matter, it’s fine. It’s another thing if the movie becomes a hit, the rendition is perfect and certain scenes become memorable. Then it becomes essential to perceive the work and see if there are ways in which you can steer yourself to do it differently, simultaneously ensuring that you remain true to the subject matter. That way there is some contrast. I’m sure Bhansali, talented that he is, has churned out something that is absorbing.

Q: Did you find it difficult to portray Devdas?

For me portraying Devdas was nothing short of doing a day’s work. In any case, the story is such that an actor can not really go beyond its ambit. I had a problem with the content of the first few scenes. But I could understand and relate to Devdas’ psychology when he hits Paro with a stick and says ‘I’ve given you this mark for your pride’. The author, being remarkably good, has been able to handle this scene very well. It might have made very little sense in the hands of a lesser writer.

   

 
 
LOOK 2 / FUN IN THE SUN 
 
 
BY BACHI KARKARIA
 
 
Travel broadens the mind; it also compresses centuries. Thus, a mundane Egyptair flight transports me from a city as layered as a baklava pastry to a resort so recent that it’s almost indecent in a country where nothing younger than a millennium is taken seriously. In the span of an hour or so, I have traversed history and hedonism, moved over from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, and experienced the galactic difference between Alexandria and Hurghada.

The first was built by Alexander, the second by hoteliers. And it shows. History marches as indefatigably as the legendary Macedonian general through the ancient port that bears his name. In the Red Sea resort of Hurghada even thinking of something other than the here and now is a non-bailable offence: you are immediately stripped of your bikini, and given 20 lashings of spurious suntan lotion.

Alexandria’s many-splendoured reputation precedes it. As we drive down the Desert Road from Cairo, my imagination turns the passing trucks into the armies of Ptolemy, the stocky peasant women into Cleopatra clones, the petrol stations into urbane 19th century salons where British, French and Turkish expats each added their own cultural flavours to this bubbling hookah, or sheeshah as it is known here.

I have only seven hours to take in this historic city, so I persuade Yasser, our guide, to fast-forward the ancient monuments so that we can absorb the atmosphere. He must think me a philistine, but he insists on showing us three sights. We dutifully clamber past the assorted statuary of Ptolemy’s garden, but the other two make my blood run cold : the 35m descent into the spiral of Roman catacombs, and the walk through what was once the grandest library of the ancient world, 500,000 books at last crumble.

The TV traveller Michael Palin called it ‘Cannes with acne’, but I am fascinated by the Corniche, the faded waterfront now in the throes of heritage restoration. Scaffolding and sackcloth embrace the flaking elegance of old hotels, residential buildings and monuments to Alexandria’s unique positioning. Alexandria was commercial hub and political capital during the Macedonian, Roman and Christian periods. It lost only half its glory when Islam’s conquering armies swept down the Nile in the seventh century to establish their swagger domes in Cairo.

Ten centuries later, Napoleon once again recognised its strategic importance at the confluence of European and Asian trade routes, and another 70 years later, the opening of the Suez Canal added to the swell of art and power. In fabled Alexandria, the Muse continued to cohabit with Mammon as languorously as the consorts of a Khedive. Now, in a hotel lounge as crumbly as its sticky pastries, we sip a Turkish coffee, and let the ghosts of eras past whisper in imagined ears.

And then we must tear myself away from this mail-order catalogue of embalmed memories on the balmy Mediterranean.

The Red Sea springs upon us after flying over miles of stark desert. It is impossible to believe how such a lavish expanse of water can exist at the edge of such an arid stretch of sand. But there it is in startling bands of pista green, aquamarine, even cobalt blue.

After Alexandria’s cabin trunks of history, Hurghada is a knapsack. Today it’s crammed with every one of the world’s hotel chains, but just 50 years ago , it was just one diving shop run by an Egyptian and his German wife. They found it necessary to add a primitive ‘hotel’ with stone-brick beds for their clients who came for the spectacular plunges into the underwater world.

We’re seeking the same exclusivity. We leave the crowded hotel strip and drive to the still-developing Sahl Hasheesh where the Oberoi has a spectacularly pampering all-villa resort. It blends perfectly into the landscape. Low-slung Islamic-Arabic architecture with its hexagonal columns and domes, the merger is furthered by the design’s play with just one colour, beige. The splashes are left to the scarlet bougainvillaea and the Red Sea.

The next morning we reluctantly extricate ourselves from our private pool, our erotic ‘alfresco’ sunken bath, the breakfast ministrations of Shareif the steward, and take a day’s cruise.

As the luxury catamaran pulls away, the decks fill with a polyglot babble. Russian, Italian, Spanish, it may be all Greek, but the subtext is clear: fun in the sun. The Hurghada shore-line recedes, the Legoland of hotels gives way to a shrug of mountain ranges gently undulating like the Q3 profit-and-loss graph of a sterling solid company.

Tops and trousers are unceremoniously dropped as the serious ritual of sun worship begins. Skin dotted with the barest of Lycra is anointed with more devotion than vestal virgins lavished on the idols of Ra. Stomachs are gently massaged, noses solemnly stroked, thighs sensuously rubbed with the lotions and potions guaranteed to deepen the gold and keep out the UV rays.

There is the same meticulous pattern to the spreading of towels, the adjusting of Ray Bans and bikinis, before the ultimate anjali: the languorous stretch in the sun.

When the boat reaches the coral reefs, not everyone becomes a tangle of the neon-pink finned shoes and snorkel masks that we had excitedly tried on for size at the shop onshore. Most of us however gamely jump into the water, c-c-cold in February. On our tummies we drift, in a continuum of awe at the multitudinous marine planet below.

Underwater cliffs drop sheerly, minnows pass in schools, larger fish give us the mean eye, or ignore us altogether. We crawl through the surface trying to remain in basins of warm water, before the cold currents pull us away. And of course we hover over the corals, in wonder at their myriad colours and shapes.

By the time we’ve had our fill of snorkelling, the cooking of lunch in the galley has progressed from a waft of homely aromas to a hearty, simple boatman’s meal. Nutty, small-grained brown rice, a crisply fried sardine, a cucumber and tomato salad and an aloo-pyaz sabzi that had first smelt, and now tastes like it had never left the hinterland of the Hooghly.

But no one’s napping after this soporific lunch. On the contrary, there is more energetic slapping on of bronzing balms, more excited shouts as the boat moors to an island. Everyone scrambles out, the sun worshippers to fling themselves in an international ashtanga namaskaram on the bleached white beach, the snorkelers to skim the surface, and the serious divers to show off.

As the sun tires of its devotees, and turns into a dull disc slipping towards the sea-line, the breeze gets sharper, and all but the most intrepid begin pulling their T-shirts back on. They are fully dressed by the time the boat pulls up again to the Hurghada jetty. A guy ruefully remarks, “They looked better with their clothes off”.

Back at our hotel, Samy Ibrahim, a moonlighting music professor at the Cairo Conservatoire, is formally attired in white tie and tails, ready to make his violin weep for the diners in the Oberoi Sahl Hasheesh’s banquet hall.

   

 
 
EYE ON ENGLAND 
 
 
BY AMIT ROY
 
 

Lording it over London

Indians are bringing fun and, in particular, the House Full culture, to England. For example, the “House Full” sign has become a regular feature of the Victoria Apollo, a massive 2,200-seat theatre where the musical Bombay Dreams is raking in money.

Thanks to Indians, it was also house full at Lord’s for the India-England Natwest final where the MCC had to paste hand bills with the message: “All tickets for today’s match have now been sold.” Among Indians here for the past week, the talk has been of little else. It seems quite a few left the ground in a dejected mood when India slumped to 146 for five, with Sachin Tendulkar gone. Oh, ye of little faith!

The next day, English cricket writers were unanimous in their praise of Mohammad Kaif and Yuvraj Singh after India’s historic victory. In The Sunday Times, Simon Wilde said that the two “performed like world stars”.

The match will probably figure in the annals of cricket alongside India’s World Cup victory in 1983. Then Kapil Dev had led the side. Now, the man in charge was Sourav Ganguly. Henry Blofeld in The Independent on Sunday was positively close to being poetic. “Ganguly led the way, cutting, slashing, driving and pulling when he had the chance,” wrote the man known affectionately as “Blowers”. “It was as if a tidal wave was racing through the Bay of Bengal and the England bowlers were so many shipwrecks.”

Yuvraj, added Blofeld, “is a wonderfully talented left-hander who looks like a cross between Gary Sobers and Graeme Pollock with a dash of Frank Woolley thrown in”.

Vic Marks wrote in The Observer: “This India side do not know when they are beaten.” One young spectator, an Indian journalism student, flew in from Los Angeles to see the match even though he had been unable to get a ticket.

“I was happy to pay £110 to a tout for a £48 ticket,” he admitted. “I would have paid £200. It was worth it. I have been to 50 one-day internationals. This was the best. It is something I shall always remember.”

The man, a Bengali, said his enjoyment of the game was slightly spoiled by the company he was forced to keep. “We were only two Bengalis surrounded by a crowd of Gujaratis. They were taunting Ganguly saying, ‘Ganguly, you are sh**,’ but they had to shut up once he started to hit out.” One squarish drive by Ganguly off Andrew Flintoff sailed over the boundary ropes for six and was perhaps the shot of the match.

Not all Indians are sporting, and some are notoriously bad at handling victory. A few, fuelled by drink, threw racist remarks at the black England fast bowler, Alex Tudor, who was asked: “Why don’t you go back to Jamaica?”

The English, by and large, are quite indulgent about the fact that most Indians settled in England — even those who have lived here for 40-50 years — still support India. This is not seen as disloyalty. The Lagaan T-shirts on sale were an omen of things to come. I was pretty confident when Yuvraj brought up 200 with a nonchalant six. Just as India won, one man reached into his bag, pulled out a banner and held it aloft triumphantly. It read: “Lagaan II.”

Sheikh down

At last after two years of trying I managed last week to see a one-man play, The Last Act, based on the life and times of Sherlock Holmes. In this play, the great detective, who has just attended the funeral of his faithful friend and chronicler, Dr Watson, returns for a final visit to 221B Baker Street where his thoughts travel back over the life they have led.

In course of his discourse, Holmes recalls his encounter with Professor Moriarty, “the Napoleon of Crime”. “He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by Nature with a phenomenal mathematical ability,” he remembers telling Watson.

Holmes’ analysis of Moriarty could easily fit Omar Sheikh, the 28-year-old Pakistani who was sentenced to death in Pakistan last week for masterminding the kidnap and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl. Sheikh, who was born in Britain in 1973, was educated at Forest School, a well-known public school in Wanstead, Essex. The young Omar had shone at maths, for which he received an A grade in his A-level exams. He also got an A grade for economics and went on to the London School of Economics.

Sheikh was a formidable criminal not despite his academic brilliance but because of it. As Holmes said of Moriarty: “A criminal strain ran in his blood, which, instead of being modified, was increased and rendered infinitely more dangerous by his extraordinary mental powers.”

Cruise control

A Shah Rukh Khan Focus will be one of the highlights of the 56th Edinburgh Film Festival next month, when DDLJ, Asoka and K3G will be screened. He will also talk about his life and times on August 24.

He has been billed as “the Tom Cruise of Bollywood” but the festival organisers have corrected themselves with “perhaps that should be: Tom Cruise is the Shah Rukh Khan of Hollywood”.

Sensitive soul

If Jaishree Misra’s autobiographical debut novel, Ancient Promises, about a simple Delhi girl cast into an unhappy first marriage back in her native Kerala, is ever made into a film, one of the censors who will be vetting the movie in London will be Jaishree herself.

Jaishree has just started a new job, training to be an examiner with the British Board of Film Classification, the organisation which clears movies before release. When Ancient Promises was published, Jaishree went back to Delhi, hoping to set up a school for children with learning difficulties such as her own daughter, Rohini, who is now 19. Sadly, the project proved too difficult and Jaishree, her husband Ashutosh, and Rohini have returned to resume their life in London.

Three times a week, she will have to watch movies for five hours a day. All new censors are warned that constantly watching films, some of which can be either very depressing or violent, can leave them “desensitised”. And Jaishree is a gentle soul.

Although she is not writing at the moment, she is quick to emphasise that unlike Arundhati Roy, with whom she shares a literary agent in David Godwin, she is “not a one novel novelist”.

“Although I have not been there for its release, my second novel, Accidents Like Love and Marriage, has been published in India,” she points out.

Tittle tattle

This being the cricket season, the food millionaire G.K. Noon risked a cricketing joke when he was felicitated last week on his knighthood at the Institute of Directors in Pall Mall. The reception in his honour was given jointly by a gathering of the great and good in the Indian community. The cricket quip referred to the overwhelming Indian presence at Indian cricket matches. According to Noon, the New Zealander Sir Richard Hadlee had once been hugely impressed by the sell out crowd at the Wankhede Stadium. However, Sir Richard asked Sunil Gavaskar why one seat was empty.

The word came back from one man who had bought tickets for himself and his wife.

How come she hadn’t turned up?

The man sent word back that she could not make it because “family and friends are at my wife’s funeral”.

   

 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Making a point

Sir — That the vice-presidential election has become a prestige issue for the Congress is obvious from its decision to field a candidate for it (“Former cops in token fight”, July 19). This despite the fact that the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, is almost certain. Clearly, the Congress has not forgotten the humiliation of being upstaged by saffronites in the presidential elections. By nominating Sushil Kumar Shinde, the Congress is ensuring that there is a contest, and some unity in the opposition to see it through the monsoon session of Parliament.

Yours faithfully,
Anuradha Chaudhuri, Calcutta

Lost glory lost forever

Sir — Anup Sinha in “Reasoning deficit” (July 17) rightly points to the Left Front’s dismal record in developing human capabilities in the state. The reason for this is the combine’s lack of vision and its short-term objective of clinging to power under the garb of parliamentary democracy.

It is strange that despite its pro-poor image, the left in West Bengal has done very little except for the agrarian reforms that was accomplished early in its tenure. Ever since, the government has invested its energy in a peculiar brand of populism that has ensured the prosperity of those who have remained loyal to it and the denigration of those who have opposed it. That such a policy could be dangerous in the long run has not occurred to the thinktank. The exodus of both industry and manpower from the state is the direct consequence of this policy.

The new leadership in the government may be now desperately trying to stall the decline in the state of affairs. But given its current fiscal situation, any talk of West Bengal’s development sounds absurd. The thoughtlessness of successive Left Front governments has negated human excellence in the state. It may now be impossible to regain the lost glory.

Yours faithfully,
Partha Bhattacharya, Calcutta

Sir — Anup Sinha argues in “Reasoning deficit” that even if the Left Front chose to concentrate on agrarian reforms, there was no dearth of resources that could have prevented it from giving some attention to the social sector, especially to healthcare and education. But education, if not healthcare, has received enough attention from the left, much of which unfortunately has been to its detriment. The fact is that the left, from the beginning, has tried to intervene in all sectors that would assure it continued rule. So education invited interference as much as the agrarian sector. Through both its educational and agrarian reforms the left has tried to create a class of supporters which would remain loyal to it.

Yours faithfully,
Joyita Saha, Calcutta

An eventful journey

Sir — The anniversary issue of The Telegraph provided the rare opportunity to read articles written by a few of the most well-known faces in the Indian media (“Twenty unputdownable years”, July 8). It was a treat for young readers like me who have no clue about the newspaper’s history — how it was conceived by the dynamic M.J. Akbar and subsequently nurtured by equally talented journalists to eventually become “unputdownable”.

Yours faithfully,
Shiv Kumar Pandey, Calcutta

Sir — I was only eight years old when I chanced upon a new newspaper that looked very different from its more serious competitors in the market. With the impetuosity typical of a child, I demanded that my father buy me a copy of The Telegraph. I was then too young to either understand or appreciate its contents. My father too was smitten and switched loyalties in no time. The Telegraph has indeed come a long way since then.

With several of the national dailies having decided to have a Calcutta edition and improve their look, The Telegraph, will have stiff competition in days to come. It needs to introspect on how to attract the young. The introduction of new supplements targeted at the youth could boost sales. But given its history, The Telegraph will surely be able to meet the challenge.

Yours faithfully,
I. Bhattacharya, Naihati

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: [email protected]
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
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All letters [including those via email] should have the full name and full postal address of the sender
   
 

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