Editorial/ Mid-term break
Something understood
Insight/ India asks for the moon
Look I/ Indian Ocean on a high tide
Eye On England
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the Editor

This is not the first time that the Election Commission and the ruling government have been at cross-purposes. The tenure of Mr T.N. Seshan as chief election commissioner was marked by tensions of one sort or another, situations that sometimes came to a deadlock, as in August 1993. At such times, what comes to light are loopholes or grey areas in the Constitution, vagueness about the exact scope of the powers of the EC and debates over provisions of the Representation of the People Act. Derived from the constitutional conventions of Westminster, the Indian Constitution, although written down, has proven to be more controversial at certain crucial moments of practice. There are certain practices, like the conduct of mid-term elections, for example, that are particularly vulnerable to obfuscation. A dissolution of the house before the end of its term in Westminster requires concrete reason, such as an irreconcilable division over a bill at which the government of the day may feel the need to open up the question to the electorate. Not that dissolution is always granted.

This practice, transplanted into the Indian system, has bred unruliness. An elected body in Parliament or a state legislature is bound to carry on till the end of its term, until there is proof of loss of confidence in it. Without this single marker, dissolution of the house can be used to further the interests of different political parties or groups, something that is directly contrary to the spirit of parliamentary democracy. It relieves politicians of the burden of accountability and allows them, with the help of voluble lawyers, to play their own games at their own pace. The dissolution of the Gujarat assembly is one of the worst examples of such misuse. The chief minister expressed his desire to “go to the people” to ensure mid-term elections in the hope that the Hindu vote, consolidated after the carnage in the state, would help the Bharatiya Janata Party retain the state when its hold was getting weaker. The trick was to force the unwilling EC’s hand, because Article 174 stood to be violated unless the house reconvened in October.

The EC has been adamant that conditions in the state are not yet conducive to the holding of free and fair elections. The Union government is insisting that this is a decision that only the state and the Centre can take. Unfortunately for the government, the EC is doing its first duty in declaring the state unfit for elections. Article 324 of the Constitution very clearly says that it is the EC’s duty to ensure the proper recording of electoral rolls and the conduct of free and fair elections. The EC enjoys a certain autonomy of judgment, if only by implication. When the EC is speaking up against the government, its monitoring of a situation has to be given due weight. A constitutional body is not set up to prettify the landscape. No power is absolute in a polity like India’s, and the complementary arms of administration exist as checks and balances for one another. Since this particular situation has thrown up two grey areas, it would be useful to thrash out the whole question of mid-term elections, and clarify, once again, the EC’s actual powers.


“Are you in love? You’re on such a high!” my friend remarked as I rushed into Flury’s to keep my rendezvous with him. “No”, I said, sinking into one of those dear old chairs, “I’ve been teaching this morning.” “Teaching what?” he asked, inquisitiveness being his chief charm. “O, just a little poem — Blake’s ‘Sick Rose’. I’m ravenous.” We then went on to have — with real fish glimmering in the aquarium above us — a rambling conversation about the links, physical and metaphysical, between teaching poetry, feeling ravenous, and, of course, love: why I always feel acutely hungry after teaching a very good poem to a very bright student; why nothing else that I have gone on to do has given me quite that kind of pleasure, and where all this goes back to in my past.

Conversations often turn elegiac at Flury’s. And we soon found ourselves talking about two unforgettable women, both teachers, who seemed to have quietly vanished from our lives in this city. My music teacher, Fauzia Marikar, and my professor at university, Kitty Scoular Datta, are still very much alive. Yet it felt oddly natural to talk about them in the past tense. Both now live elsewhere —Kitty in Oxford and Fauzia nobody here seems to know where. But both of them, in their own very different ways, were vital presences in our student lives.

Fauzia was like a musical Mata Hari. She lived brilliantly on the edge, perpetually in debt and incurably extravagant, utterly robust and utterly unable to manage her own life, irresistible and exasperating. Yet she inspired an entire generation of young people to look beyond risk-averse mediocrity towards a certain excellence and adventurousness of spirit. Making good music was only a part of this excellence; good conversation (informed by genuine amorality and a rollercoaster-like articulacy) and other forms of creative hedonism almost equally so. I can now understand how these qualities could both rejuvenate and wreak havoc with the structure of formal educational institutions. But Fauzia liberated the learning of music from the drudgery of the Trinity College or Royal School examinations, and made it part of an entire way of living, thinking and listening.

When we were growing up in Calcutta in the late Seventies and Eighties, it was still possible to carry this off. The city would regularly be host to musicians of the calibre of Lorin Maazel, Rosalyn Tureck, Mstislav Rostropovich and the Oistrakhs. Herr Nagel would screen avant garde Bayreuth productions of the Ring at Max Mueller Bhavan, serving little German sausages between the Ride of the Valkyries and Brünhilde’s Immolation. Aruna Pasricha would play the Emperor, and the Maya Dases the Mozart Two Pianos. Father Mathieson of the Oxford Mission, an irrepressible cellist, would tilt and joust his way through a Haydn trio like a cassocked Quixote. It was still possible then to put together a magnificent Mozart Requiem at St Paul’s, with a full choir and soloists, and to listen to all the Bach cello suites at St John’s, however rugged the rendering.

Fauzia mediated all this to us through her inexhaustible personality. She was an excellent pianist and a somewhat less excellent cellist. The rich muddle of her education went back to the cosmopolitan convent schools of Sri Lanka and south India, and to a charmingly neglectful mother who played the cello all day long and made up ensembles with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in her house by the sea. So around Fauzia’s musical prowess grew a medley of peculiar skills — baking perfect meringues, doing all sorts of mannish repair work, throwing delightful parties that would inevitably turn into Proustian soirées. Yet, she was a gruelling music teacher — without ever terrifying her students. I realize now that her technique would never have been up to producing a world-class pianist. But what she gave us was a musical sense that turned music-making into something considerably more than a genteel accomplishment. Her musical intelligence and sensitivity transcended piano-playing and took on, with no misgivings, other difficult instruments like the violin and the viola. Fauzia’s gusto and versatility made her a one-woman music academy, and her eclecticism took in everything from Beethoven to Scott Joplin.

I remember a rainy evening with no electricity in her Wood Street flat, listening to Fauzia playing the Für Elise. “You mustn’t try to play this before you’re at least fifty-five,” she had said to me. In her hands, Romanticism’s cheapest tune had turned again into something sublimely disenchanted. This was in the late Eighties, just before I went away. I visited Calcutta two summers later to find that she had disappeared.

Kitty existed in our lives in a completely different key. She was my first tutor at Jadavpur University, where I started reading English. We began with those mysterious love lyrics to dead children, Wordsworth’s Lucy poems. I still recall the thrill, and a deeper sense, beyond thrill, of larger possibilities of labour and contemplation, as the skies seemed to open all at once in the course of a single tutorial. Kitty’s fine, close readings of these poems not only opened up for me the entire historical vista of European Romanticism, but she also took me, with the utmost humility, to the threshold of the ineffable, and left me there to ponder the great, stark silences of love and death. In her rich tremolo, rolling her Scottish r’s, and with a distant smile and little headshakes, she simply read out to me Wordsworth’s lines, “No motion has she now, no force;/ She neither hears nor sees;/ Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,/ With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

But the essence of Kitty’s teaching and personality was most luminously expressed in her classes on the Metaphysical poets and on Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. In these, she embodied much more than a critical or pedagogic tradition. Faustus in his last terror quoting Ovid’s Roman elegy, with an extra lente, before being dragged into a Christian hell — “O lente, lente currite noctis equi” (Run softly, softly horses of the night); Herbert trying to define prayer through a series of metaphors which ends with, simply, “something understood”; Donne compressing the infinite into the minute, making “one little roome, an every where”. Kitty’s explications of these moments in Western literature placed her at the end of both a humanistic and a spiritual, even a meditative, tradition — a tradition of learning as well as, in the truest sense, a devotio moderna. For me, this humanism, at once sacred and profane, will remain mirrored in such disparate things as Holbein’s sketches of Erasmus’ hands, the biblical Song of Songs, Martin Buber’s I and Thou, and in some of the Gitanjali lyrics, all of which came alive for us in Kitty’s lectures and tutorials.

One understands one’s best teachers only much later. It was in Oxford in the mid-Nineties — Kitty had returned to England after more than three decades in India — that the import of Kitty’s life and its journeys began to dawn on me. This was largely through a few reticent encounters — in the Bodleian, in the St Mary’s coffee-shop, in her flat (bare of all the books left behind in Calcutta) and once, memorably, in the Holywell Music Room, where we had gone to listen to Schubert together. I began to understand how Kitty — and Fauzia too, in her own way — had reached and looked into the very heart of loss, and made of that experience a peculiar gift, turned it into something rich and strange. In these two women, an achieved and necessary solitude, a kind of disappearance, has become the fount of an extraordinary generosity of spirit.


It has the bomb, India now wants the moon. In a move that could mark the country’s entry into interplanetary exploration, space scientists are preparing to plunge into the latest race to the moon. If all goes according to plan, an indigenous spacecraft will be put into lunar orbit by the year 2007 at a cost claimed to be less than the price tag of two modern jet aircraft.

Over the past two years, a team of scientists spread across several institutions has quietly conducted computer simulations and calculations to pencil in a plan for India’s lunar mission. The national lunar mission task force, set up by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), has just submitted a detailed blueprint for a mission to send an unmanned Indian spacecraft to orbit the moon for two years.

ISRO is supposed to vet the proposal but everyone expects it to send it to the government for approval with a huge endorsement. “This should be seen as the first step towards India going into interplanetary exploration,” said Roddam Narasimha, a leading aerospace scientist and director of the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore, who is also a member of the space commission. “It could help India take on the role of an active participant in the exploration of other planets in the solar system in the coming decades,” he added.

The task force has proposed a 450-kg unmanned spacecraft that will orbit the moon at an altitude of 100 km (see diagram above). It will be armed with sophisticated onboard cameras and sensors to remotely study the moon. Once the formal green signal from the government is received, ISRO could put together a team and plan for a launch within the next five years.

And although ambitious, ISRO’s lunar mission outlined by the task force will not cost too much money, even by Indian science spending standards. The mission is expected to cost around Rs 400 crores spread over five years. “This is by no means an exorbitant cost,” said Narasimha. Over the years, ISRO’s annual budget has grown to more than Rs 2000 crores.

If the price is reasonable and the expertise at hand, no government is going to cavil at an opportunity to join the big boys of the moonraker club. Certainly not the NDA government, which has made regional muscle flexing an article of faith. After all, only three countries have sent missions to the moon so far: US, the former USSR and Japan. China may be next. Few will be surprised if Delhi quietly signs the files that an enthusiastic ISRO will soon be forwarding to it for approval.

Space analysts say once ISRO had developed launch vehicles and satellites, it was only a matter of time before it turned its attention to space exploration. ISRO’s remote sensing satellites are considered world-class, its pictures are bought by customers around the world, and its PSLV rocket has propelled India into the club of commercial satellite launching nations. “ISRO can now afford to look at pure research projects,” said Narasimha. “They are well within ISRO’s technical and financial resources,” he said. The lunar mission is among the first two ‘pure science’ missions, the other being a new astronomical satellite that ISRO wants to launch later this decade.

It was ISRO chairman K. Kasturirangan who first articulated, three years ago, the possibility of a lunar mission by India. Within weeks of a successful launch of the PSLV rocket, Kasturirangan said that this launch vehicle could be modified to send a small spacecraft all the way to the moon. The task force was set up to examine in detail whether, and how, India’s capabilities in space technology could lead to a lunar mission. Kasturirangan has of course cautioned that ISRO would support the mission only if it sees scientific merit in it.

Not every scientist is convinced of that. Some aerospace scientists have expressed concern that time and effort will be spent in a lunar mission by India when enormous data from the moon is already available from the US and Russian missions. “I don’t think it will be either utilitarian or path-breaking,” says Hanasoge Mukunda, professor of aerospace engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. “Instead, ISRO should invest in frontier areas like new space propulsion technologies where India still has a window of opportunity to do path-breaking work.”

But space department insiders say there is no competition between a moon mission and new rocket technologies. “This is work that should be done in parallel,” said an aerospace engineer. They also point out that India’s move comes at a time of renewed international interest in the moon.

The European Space Agency is set to launch its first unmanned spacecraft to the moon early next year. Japan is also launching an unmanned probe by the end of 2003, and a second spacecraft two years later. China has also signalled its intention of joining the race to the moon, planning to send its own unmanned spacecraft before the end of this decade. And last month, a report by the US National Research Council titled “New Frontiers in the Solar System,” listed the moon as a site for further exploration.

“There are still unanswered questions about the moon that would help us understand better its origin, its evolution, and what it is made up of,” said George Joseph, chairman of the lunar mission task force, a distinguished professor at the Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad. “Science is the driving force today, but as human expansion into space begins, the moon may acquire strategic and economic importance,” he said. “This mission is an attempt to ensure that India is prepared for that future era,” said Joseph. Some science policy makers even see an analogy between the proposed lunar mission and India’s first Antarctic mission in 1981.

Joseph said a key scientific objective of the Indian spacecraft would be to map almost the entire lunar surface with a stereoscopic camera to obtain 3D pictures of the lunar surface with a resolution of five metres. The resolution is a measure of the smallest dimension that can be distinguished by the camera. “The US had taken very fine resolution pictures for its manned missions, but only in the neighbourhood of the landing sites,” he said. The best whole-moon map so far had come from the US Clementine spacecraft in the 1990s, but the images from Clementine are coarser images with a resolution of 200 metres.

The task force report was backed by ‘homework’ — scientific seminars, computer simulations and technology analysis by scientists and engineers across five institutions. A team led by Dr V. Adimurthy, director of flight dynamics at the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre, Thiruvananthapuram, simulated several possible launch vehicle mission trajectories to arrive at the most feasible option.

Dr Narendra Bhandari at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad, analysed data from dozens of US, Russian, and Japanese missions to the moon in the past, as well as data expected from future missions planned by Europe and Japan to work out a ‘science mission’ for India’s lunar orbiter that would not be rendered redundant by competition. “Our efforts will be complementary to what others plan to do,” said Bhandari.

At the ISRO satellite centre, scientists have visualised the challenges ISRO would have to encounter when it attempts to send a satellite 10 times further than where its array of INSAT satellites are parked today. Tracking and communicating with a satellite in deep space will be something Indian scientists have never had to do before.

There is however one development they are not so sure they can control. The enthusiasts may say the mission should be viewed as an investment for future generations, but some scientists also say it is almost ironic that India’s lunar and interplanetary ambitions are showing up at a time when interest in science has declined among its students. As one scientist asked wryly: “Who’s going to analyse the data from our interplanetary spacecraft when the most talented students nurture ambitions of writing software in the US?”

There is no denying it, ISRO’s initiatives in space exploration come at a time when vast sections of the scientific community are worried about a sharp decline of interest in science among students at the undergraduate level. “It is a particularly disturbing situation in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics,” said professor Govind Swarup, former head of the National Centre for Radio Astronomy, Pune, where he led a programme to build one of the world’s largest array of radio telescopes.

“We have established world-class experimental facilities like the Giant Metre Wavelength Radio Telescope here, or the world’s highest optical telescope at Hanle, Ladakh, but there is a dearth of talent coming into the field,” Swarup said. “A lunar orbiter mission by India is a wonderful objective, but it needs to be preceded by a massive effort to attract the best students into science.” It would have to be part of a larger strategy to boost infrastructure in science and engineering educational institutions.

But some task force members believe the moon mission might itself attract students to science. “I’ve found tremendous enthusiasm among students at the undergraduate and Masters levels, in fact even greater than what I have experienced from older scientists,” said a task force member. “This mission marks a shift from the application of indigenous space technology for social and economic development to exploration. That might be an exciting motivation for students to pursue careers in physics and astronomy,” he said.

Space hardware with a “Made in India” tag will of course continue to watch the weather, track the country’s forests, monitor crop performance, search for groundwater, and facilitate television broadcasting and long-distance calls. But everything that India has ever sent into space has remained in Earth orbit. That situation might change before the decade is out.


Snigger as much as you will, but we have to say this. When the crowds mill around Indian Ocean, men and women swaying with its music, some screaming, but most singing along, we get an idea — or just a fleeting whiff — of a wonder called the Beatlemania. There, we’ve said it. Let there be derisive hoots of laughter, but the point is this: what the Beatles did to millions of men and women across the world, Indian Ocean is doing to a few hard-core thousand — and, yes, across the world.

Groupies follow them from Boston to New York to North Carolina to listen to them. People walk up to them in Washington to ask them if they are, indeed, the musicians whom they heard the night before. Crowds of ecstatic listeners give them a standing ovation in New Zealand, young devouts propose marriage and fan mail comes pouring in — with one particularly poignant mail telling the band that the writer’s terminally ill mother is hooked on to the Indian Ocean. And all this comes with invitations to play in major music festivals across the world.

In the midst of all this, the band’s four men — Susmit Sen, Rahul Ram, Asheem Chakravarty and Amit Kilam — talk about the change in their lives. Ten years ago, there was a time when they had nowhere to perform and nobody to play to. This year, they have had so many concerts in different parts of the world that they are actually losing track of time. “We are exhausted just from jet lag,” says Rahul Ram, bassist, singer and the in-house wit.

It’s been a hectic year. In August last year, they performed for the first time at the Edinburgh fringe festival, taking in 18 shows over 14 days. The group wasn’t expecting much from Edinburgh, knowing well that when there are 2000 acts and 14,000 shows, an unknown Indian group’s music at 5.15 in the afternoon is not going to excite too many people. “So there were some shows where we had an impressive audience of four,” says Ram. “But we played on.”

“But that was the turning point,” adds lead guitarist Susmit Sen. “Edinburgh was really the stepping stone,” he says.

The group’s been on the move since then. The band returned to India after playing in London and Edinburgh, to be invited to take part at a Confederation of Indian Industry extravaganza in Singapore. This was followed by an invitation to the New Zealand music festival. After a series of gigs and standing ovations in New Zealand, the band went to the United States. Several performances in New York were followed by shows in North Carolina and Washington. The group played for the Smithsonian folklife festival in Washington this summer before briefly touching base with India, only to pack their bags and set out again.

This month, they have been performing at the Edinburgh fringe festival again, though this time in a coveted late evening slot. The band is now flying to Japan for a few concerts before it returns to India. And then, in September, it will be performing in Indonesia after which they will fly to Australia for the prestigious Melbourne Festival. And New Zealand beckons after that.

So what exactly turned them from a brilliant-but-not-that-often-heard-band to a brilliant-and-much-happening-group? “It’s been a quantum jump for us,” says drummer Amit Kilam.

In an old and dilapidated house, overrun by wild plants, the quartet reasons how it happened. This is their friend’s house bang in the middle of Delhi where the band practises whenever it is in town. A small room is spilling at the seams with guitars, drums, tabla and the dhol. A little later in the evening, the strains of their familiar music will come wafting out to mingle with the sounds of a bustling busy market place outside the iron gates, but right now they are just talking music. And of a beginning nearly two decades ago.

The first tenuous links were formed in 1984, when Sen and Asheem, singer and percussionist, met and liked the sound of each other’s music. The band was formed in 1990. Sen sold an electric guitar to help fund a promo tape — recording seven songs in one day — which inspired HMV to cut a disc for Indian Ocean in 1993. The album went on to sell over 40,000 copies — then the highest selling record by any Indian band.

In 1991, Rahul — a doctorate in Environmental Toxicology from Cornell, Narmada activist and school mate of Susmit’s — joined the band. In 1994, Amit Kilam — then still a Deep Purple fan in college — took over as the band’s new drummer. Sen’s father named the band, and since then fans have rustled up a great many explanations on the genesis of the name (such as, Indian Ocean because they are Indian and their music, like an ocean, crosses all boundaries).

They have come out with three albums in this one decade: Indian Ocean in 1993, Desert Rain in 1997 and Kandisa in 2000. Their cassettes and CDs have been a great success, especially with foreign visitors. “Music-shop owners kept telling us that our music was greatly popular with a section of foreigners,” says Sen. “This was the first indication of how our music was catching on,” he says. In the mainly tourist spot of Thamel in Kathmandu, for instance, Kandisa has been among the top ten selling records of all times.

Several other bands have come and gone, and some have stuck around, in these years in the north. Silk Route made a splash, but, like its namesake, is now a forgotten track; Parikrama has its fans, but hasn’t gone much further since its early days; Mrigaya has made a mark and has been performing at the Edinburgh Fringe since last year; Euphoria is more into Hindi pop. But Indian Ocean has been moving on.

“I think one of the reasons for all our successful concerts is the fact that we have never compromised with our music,” says Sen. “And because we never played to the market, we never had a problem when things didn’t look that good.”

Asheem Chakravarty believes that what has been catching on in their music is its emotional content. “I can see the faces of the audience, and I always feel that they are reacting to the emotional pulse of our music,” he says. Not surprisingly, even when the lyrics are not easily understood — Kandisa for instance is in Aramaic and Ma Rewa is a traditional — the music connects.

But though their music was always different, a few things helped in promoting the band. On top of the list, the group stresses, is a young man called Sanjoy Roy, the founder of an event management group, Teamwork. Indian Ocean’s trips to Edinburgh were organised by Teamwork. It was an expensive proposition, for the performing group had to pay for every show. Sponsors — including the Ford Foundation — took care of their airfare, stay and other expenses. And Roy made sure that the people who mattered — festival directors, for instance — got to know about the group. Every evening, he would throw a lavish party which turned into the event of the day. “Local newspapers started writing about his parties,” says Ram. “He got a buzz going.”

The rest, says the group, just followed. The director of the Melbourne Festival heard the Indian Ocean and immediately issued an invite for the 2002 Melbourne festival. The New Zealanders liked them and promptly organised a tour. “We never really thought we’d get this kind of an overwhelming response in New Zealand,” says Kilam. “Just imagine, New Zealand,” adds Ram, “where there are 15 million sheep and 3.8 million people. But tickets got sold out and we got a standing ovation everywhere we played.”

The good word, Ram says, spread mostly by word of mouth. The local press did its bit with reviewers singing paeans to the group. The band was compared with the Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Mahavishnu and the Grateful Dead. “Susmit Sen’s fluid guitar lines recall Jerry Garcia and (John) McLauglin at their finest,” said the Evening Post of New Zealand.

The response was similarly enthusiastic in the US tours, which the Indian Ocean organised with the help of friends. The group’s first show — in Boston — was dominated by Indians. In New York, they were surprised to find that the crowd, a mixed one, seemed to know all their songs. At one particularly packed concert, the crowd joined in when the group sang Kandisa. But Ram heard a disembodied voice somewhere in front of him saying “Ma rewa, ma rewa” all through the evening. “Clearly he wanted us to play that song, but I can’t tell you how distracting he was. I had to keep playing and saying ‘shut up.’”

In July, after the group had raised $15,000 for victims of violence in Gujarat, Indian Ocean moved to Washington. By the end of the tour, it found that its audience in Washington was mostly white. Barring a huge black woman, who sat right in the front with a big stars-and-stripes banner, and small groups of Indians who held the Indian tricolours aloft, most members of the audience, the group says, were people who were fond of music and had heard of the Indian Ocean. A box load of CDs that they had taken with them sold out even before their show was over. “This may be just a hypothetical figure,” says Sen apologetically, “but one of the organisers told us that we could easily have sold 10,000 CDs while we were there.”

There is a palpable sense of elation in the band. And that’s not surprising, considering the fact that in the first five years of its existence, it had only four shows. Since then, they have had over 100 concerts. This year was particularly busy — with concerts in four continents. The days are hectic as well, as they tie up loose ends before they leave for Japan.

Ram picks up his guitar and ties a turban around his head to get going. Sen gently brushes the strings of his guitar with his quicksilver fingers. Kilam is with his drums and Chakravarty with the dhol. The group has to practise for a couple of hours before it takes a plane to what promises to be another round of adulation. “It’s a good feeling,” says Ram.



Real story behind Phoolan’s death

Author Mala Sen has returned from a research trip to India determined not to let up over the death of her friend, Phoolan Devi, who was shot dead at her MP’s home in Asoka Road, New Delhi, on July 25 last year.

Mala, who immortalised Phoolan in her book, Bandit Queen, and later wrote the screenplay of the film, has little doubt that there has been a political cover up. Three people, alleged to be the assassins, are in custody, she acknowledges, but the investigation is no nearer establishing who recruited them.

She is not naming the culprits but she wants the investigation to focus on Phoolan’s husband, Umed Singh, and on Mulayum Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi party. The one thing Mala rules out is that Phoolan was a victim of a revenge killing by the residents of the village of Behmai.

“Behmai is a very poor village,” she argues. “They could not hire that kind of people with the machinery and ability to get through tight police cordons. The centre of Delhi is almost like a police state these days.”

Both Mala and Phoolan’s lawyer, Kamini Jaiswal, believe there has been a “political conspiracy”. Before her death, Phoolan told Kamini and Mala that she intended to disinherit and divorce her husband but that she would do so only after the elections in UP. “But these wills and documents were never drawn up and signed. Her husband played a very phoney game after her death because I knew of their private relationship,” says Mala.

On the political front, the second time MP “was disenchanted with Mulayum Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi party and was thinking of crossing the floor and joining the BJP. I just ask the general questions, ‘Who killed Phoolan Devi? Who was paid? What was it about?’ I think that Umed Singh and Mulayum Singh Yadav’s party have a lot to answer for. Until they are deeply investigated and answers found, I will not feel justice has been done.”

Mala has one criticism of the Indian press. “The anniversary of her death was, more or less, ignored in the press,” she claims. “My criticism of the Indian press, which I admire greatly on the whole, is that it does not follow stories through. Perhaps that is because we have so much tragedy in India. We have had Gujarat, we have had Kashmir. I suppose they say, ‘What is the death of one woman worth?’ ”

After Bandit Queen and Death of Fire, Mala had moved on to her third book. It’s on AIDS, built round the experiences of three Indians, including a close friend. But the BBC rang her to seek her comments on the death by burning of Kuttu Bai, a 65-year-old widow, in the village of Tamoli in Madhya Pradesh. Without wishing it to be so, Mala has become the BBC’s suttee specialist.


Let’s get one thing straight. Young Parthiv Patel, who has captured the hearts of the cricket loving public in England, did not need “a note from his mum” to allow him to stand up to the wicket without a helmet, as some commentators (jokingly) have suggested. In my office, work came to a halt as Parthiv fended off the closing overs to see India through to safety in the second Test at Trent Bridge.

“He doesn’t look 17,” said an incredulous colleague, “more like 14.” The England Cricket Board advises young people to wear helmets when there is risk of injury but in First Class cricket, it is not compulsory, according to Andrew Walpole, the ECB’s media relations manager whom I consulted. “We issue guidelines to schools and clubs on the use of helmets in recreational cricket and the advice is that wicket-keepers under the age of 18 should wear a helmet if they are standing up,” says Walpole. “These guidelines do not apply to First Class cricket as professional players are covered against injury by insurance schemes.”

He adds: “It’s left to the individual professional’s discretion and while Parthiv didn’t wear one on this occasion, remember it was a flat pitch and we have seen other professional keepers wearing helmets to stand up more frequently in the First Class game.”

If it were left to the commentators, Parthiv would now take precedence over Ajay Ratra as India’s main keeper. Colin Bateman in the Daily Express commended Parthiv for “showing all the maturity you might expect from someone who was made captain of his country’s under-19 team at the age of 16”.

And in The Daily Telegraph, Derek Pringle concurred by saying that “great credit must go to Parthiv Patel”. In the Daily Mail, Mike Dickson was also taken with the “Pint-sized Patel”, who, he pointed out, “is not old enough to buy a drink” in a pub but “showed remarkable calm under pressure”.

In The Times, Christopher Martin-Jenkins noted: “He is shorter than Sachin Tendulkar, not much higher than the stumps and he was playing in only his ninth First Class match but showed courage, coolness and excellent technique to keep a tiring England attack at bay.”

It is worth recalling that Tendulkar was also 17 when he scored his first century on his debut tour of England and saved India.

Cow craze

London looks as though it has been raining cows. In squares, pavements and even the floor of the Stock Exchange, no fewer than 150 cows have appeared as though by magic. Actually, the cows have given the city quite an Indian look since we are used to having the animals wandering around in the busiest of streets.

The idea of dotting a city with fibreglass cows, painted in bright colours by local artists, was first conceived of in Zurich in 1998 by a company called CowParade Holdings AG. The following year, Chicago followed and a few weeks ago the cow craze hit London. At first, it seemed the whole thing was a BJP plot to Hinduise Britain but such suspicions proved unworthy.

On October 10, the cows are to be auctioned off by Sotheby’s to raise money for ChildLine, a children’s charity, at about £5,000 a time. It now seems ironic that so much of what we considered irritating back in India — such as cows and rickshaws holding up traffic in town — brings a soothing touch to London.

The cows have planning permission to be in London for only 12 weeks. There are several cows near my office in Canary Wharf but the one I like best is a friendly white one resting in the shade of a tree. I will be sorry to see it go.

Ray’s summer

The number of people who come to the National Film Theatre per month totals 10,000 on average. In July, the figure doubled to 20,000. Such is the pulling power of the Satyajit Ray season, which has been advertised at Waterloo and many other London underground stations with posters depicting an image of the Bangladeshi actress, Babita, from Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder). The Ray films have flushed out London’s Bengalis in big numbers. Normally, they are happy to stay at home and leave the noisier and altogether more determined Punjabis to dominate the arts scene. Almost the best thing about the Ray films is that they do not have Bhangra.

Tittle tattle

In Jeffrey Archer’s forthcoming novel, Sons of Fortune, there is a little touch of the Hindi film, Amar Akbar Anthony, which tells the story of three brothers who are separated in childhood. Archer, who is serving a four-year prison term for perjury, has been dropped by HarperCollins, his old publishers. But he has been picked up by Macmillan, with whom he has signed a £11 million deal for his next three books.

Sons of Fortune will trace the tale of twin boys who are separated at birth and grow up without knowing about each other. Archer will be released in time to promote the paperback version of his novel. However, real life is a lot more dramatic than even Archer’s fiction.

A white mother recently gave birth in an IVF clinic to black twins after her eggs were fertilised in error from sperm donated by a black man. Now, a judge will have to decide whether the twins are retained by the mother or handed over to the black man, who has been shown by DNA testing to be their biological father.



Wanted: dead or alive

One thing you can’t accuse Tamil Nadu’s Iron Lady of is laxity — at least when it comes to avenging herself on all her tormentors. Where her enemies are concerned, J Jayalalithaa is very much the hound-you-to-the-ends-of-the-earth kind. M Karunanidhi had a taste of her vengefulness. And now Madam CM seems to be equally determined to rid the state of all LTTE types, like Vaiko. To be sure, some people do say that the vendetta against the LTTE is just blind, in reality her target remains her political opponents. So obsessed has she become in recent times with the LTTE that she is said to have dispatched three policemen from Tamil Nadu to New Delhi “to guard the Indian Parliament”. Apparently, the Tamil Tigers had threatened to attack the Central legislature and the carbine-totting men were there to foil the attack. They had been issued shoot-at-sight orders and were armed with a checklist of LTTE extremists, whom they were to identify and engage in battle. Amusingly however, most names on the list were that of people — Kittu and Dilipan, for example — who had either died or surrendered. Surely, it isn’t the ghost of the LTTE that Jayalalithaa fears?

Tehelka catches up

There’s trouble in paradise. Tarun Tejpal may have become the face of tehelka.com, but his senior staff is not amused. Especially Aniruddh Bahal. While the bearded boss of the scandal-mongering news portal has been busy playing the role of victim-of-an-official-vendetta to the hilt, an angry Bahal has dashed off a letter protesting against Tejpal cornering all the credit while others had done all the hard work. Indeed, Tejpal has a better turn of phrase and can also bandy about the odd quote, but now that Bahal has established his own literary credentials — first book, Operation West End, is to be followed by a new one for which he has reportedly bagged a hefty advance — he wants a little place in the sun, or at least on the ever-obliging Star News channel. Over to you, Mr Tejpal.

Friends on the job

For a crusty old scientist, APJ Abdul Kalam is increasingly becoming the darling of the capital’s Page 3 set. Perhaps it’s his simple ways that are helping him win friends and influence people. At home, that is in the imposing Rashtrapati Bhavan, Kalam has a way of walking up to his guests and chatting them up so that they feel at ease in their grand surroundings. He apparently told the acting high commissioner of Pakistan, Jalil Abbas Jilani, that he wished relations between the two countries were better. Coming from the Father of the Indian Missile Programme, that could not but floor Jilani.

Contrast this with Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi who did not deign to step out of the VVIP enclosure. Our prime minister might have a problem getting up and about, but what excuse does the leader of the opposition have for playing coy?

My days in the sun

For presidents past and present, this seems to be the season to do away with deadwood convention. And it’s not merely Kalam who is doing so; his predecessor KR Narayanan, surprisingly, is not too far behind. The career diplomat and a stickler for rules, Narayanan broke with tradition to pay a visit to Parliament. The former head of state was paying a courtesy call to the centre of all political action. He was the guest of the CPI(M)’s Somnath Chatterjee, who had invited a few former prime ministers and opposition leaders to meet Narayanan over some vadas and rosogollas. Obviously, the guest of honour must have found the company very congenial because he became quite passionate talking about his days in Raisina Hill. But were they all sweet memories, Citizen Narayanan?

If you have it, flaunt it

The Central Hall of Parliament has rarely seen a more strange sight. A newly elected member of the upper house and a flamboyant liquor baron was reported to be calling out to waiters and pressing tips into their hands. And quite heavy ones at that. That’s one infallible way of ensuring better service. Wonder what all those socialist types in the house thought of such blatant display of money power?

The minister is always late

Will someone please tell Shatrughan Sinha that he is no longer a part of Bollywood? And that reporting late for Parliament is not the same thing as reporting late for shooting? Barely a couple of months into office and the new Union minister for health has already had a tongue-lashing from his partymen and the opposition for not being present in the Lok Sabha when the house was taking up business related to his ministry. He kept everyone, including the Delhi CM, Sheila Dixit, waiting for hours at a recent function to launch an AIDS awareness programme. By the time he arrived, most of the guests had slunk away. Serves the Bihari babu right.

Raj Kapoor, reborn

Hero no 1. Guess who laid claim to that fame at the French film festival at Paris? As far as the Chechnyan delegation was concerned, it was our dear old Mithunda. The excited Chechnyans apparently let out a roar when they discovered film copies of Mithun Chakraborty, the evergreen Bollywood hero, at the office of an Indian film maker there. They began reeling out names of his films one after the other, Mithun was around. The Indian director at Paris attributed Mithun’s popularity with the Chechnyans to his action films. Not his noble face?

Footnote/ Keeping them spellbound

Black magic! There is no doubt that Indian politicos invariably practice some of it on their voters, but one senior Congressman seems to be using it on the fourth estate as well. Ajit Jogi, chief minister of Chhattisgarh, is believed to have been advised by his astrologers to shake off the spell of Shani or Saturn if he wished to climb the political ladder. One easy way to do that is apparently by giving away gifts of iron to the unsuspecting to ward off the harmful influence of the god. So Jogi, after he came to power, is reported to have made a habit out of gifting black iron artefacts to scribes, together with other goodies, on Saturdays. Many a journo has carried these beautiful specimens of tribal art back home, but those who have a knowledge of the occult or astrology have been suspicious of Jogi ever since. Recently, a scribe, who had apparently been duped into accepting the gift, is said to have opened it on his way back, and on finding a dark iron object, threw it into a nearby drain. What could that mean for Jogi — that journalists are difficult to cast a spell on?    


Rights of admission reserved

Sir — If Indira Gandhi kept her partymen in line with her haughtiness and Rajiv Gandhi charmed his way with his earnest hamming, Sonia Gandhi seems to make do with a certain plodding correctness. She tries to make up for her lack of experience by listening to everyone — a ploy that leads to gaffes like the recent one. Her diktat that only a limited number of visitors were to be let into 24, Akbar Road almost caused a riot (“Sonia in, loyalists out”, Aug 14). Apparently, officebearers had complained that they could not work in the din. Surely, madam could have reminded them that meeting people was their job?
Yours faithfully,
Rakhi Gopalan, Calcutta

Futile war

Sir — Gwynne Dyer in “War clouds on the horizon” (Aug 5) exposes the foolishness of the United States of America in trying to effect a change of regime in Iraq. What purpose would a Kamikaze strike on Iraq serve other than destroying lives — some more “collateral damage” — and creating more enemies for the US. It is well-known that the US-engineered United Nations sanctions on Iraq have done more harm to Iraqis than the US claims Saddam Hussein has done to Americans. It is time, as Dyer rightly says, that the much-vaunted “checks and balances” in the US democracy asserted themselves and prevented a misadventure that would give the US what can at best be called a pyrrhic victory.
Yours faithfully,
R. Datta, Howrah

Sir — The people of Iraq are already weighed down by the more-than-a-decade-old UN sanctions. The country’s sovereignty was violated in 1991 by the imposition of “no-flying zones” south of 33 degrees and north of 36 degrees latitude, supposedly to protect the Kurds in the north and Shias in the south. Despite much worldwide protests, the UN has been unable to lift the sanctions for fear of the US. Any US air operation in Iraq will only harm civilians — Saddam Hussein and his advisors will not be affected. Take Afghanistan, where all the B-52s and Tomahawk missiles could not kill Osama bin Laden or Mullah Mohammed Omar.

The five permanent members of the UN security council have huge stockpiles of nuclear warheads, waiting to be deployed. Are these not weap-ons of mass destruction? Perhaps, they also have chemical and biological weapons. Does not the US’s insistence that Iraqi weapons laboratories be inspected by UN inspectors smack of double standards then?

Twenty-eight countries supported the US’s Operation Desert Storm when Iraq invaded Kuwait. How many will support the US if it decides to bomb Iraq again? The inaction of the Organization of Islamic Conference and the Arab League is also mystifying since the killing of Hussein will further inflame Islamic ire against the US.

Yours faithfully,
M. Das, Jamshedpur

Pedestrian matters

Sir — In a few years, there will be flyovers all over Calcutta. But will these solve any of the traffic problems that we face everyday? Not much, if the Gariahat flyover, which is already functional, is any indication. Evidently, policy-makers have not given the design aspect of these flyovers adequate thought.
Yours faithfully,
Mehnaaz Shami, Calcutta

Sir — Park Street, especially the stretch in front of the Assembly of God Church School, is a pedestrian’s nightmare. The footpath on both sides has been dug up and nobody seems to be bothered to repair it. Most roads in the area — Loudon Street, Wood Street, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai Road and so on — are in a terrible shape. The Calcutta municipal corporation should do a better job of looking after this posh locality.

Yours faithfully,
K. Ghosh, Calcutta

Sir — I was recently driving along the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. As the traffic light at the Nicco Park crossing was red, I stopped. The green light to go right was turned off. Suddenly a white Ambassador, marked “On W.B. Govt Duty”, came from behind, dashed against the right side of my car and took a right turn. Are the drivers of vehicles on government duty above the law?

Yours faithfully,
Maloy Datta, Calcutta

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