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Nitish, Nitish, burning bright

In an earlier avatar, I knew him as 'the Lord Krishna', just after he had married my friend, Monisha Patil, daughter of Vimla Patil, then editor of Femina; and later as a BJP MP.

Now, he handed me his business card, which read: 'Dr Nitish Bharadwaj, chairman, Madhya Pradesh State Tourism Development Corporation Ltd.'

At the last election, he didn't stand 'after listening to my inner voice' and his Karnataka-based guru, Swami Sadyojat Shankarashram, but next time, he definitely will. Meanwhile, he is based in Bhopal, happy to increase the area under forestation in MP so that the 200 tigers have a chance to breed.

Tigers are like actors ' they need space to perform.

'Each male tiger needs 35-40 sq. km,' he tells me. 'Unless you increase the size of the forest area, the tiger population cannot go up.'

I reckon Nitish, who is doing his best to improve MP's roads, hotels and rather basic tourist infrastructure, has found his calling.

'I would like to move on from Krishna,' adds Nitish.

However, he believes people still remember him from the lead role he played in the 94-episode Mahabharat on Doordarshan back in 1990 because other actors, including Sanjay Khan, 'failed' to bring Krishna to life.

We have met by chance at the World Travel Market in London. About 200 Indians have turned up, representing as impressive an overseas gathering of my countrymen and women as I have ever seen.

Tourism is certainly big business in India and set to become bigger. I am not convinced tourism is an unmixed blessing but my travel guru, Rabindra Seth, who is knocking 79 (he assures me), believes it can be a force for good.

Among the many other states, the (laid-back) lot from Goa confirmed that the state will host the International Film Festival of India (they must learn Cannes is pronounced as 'the boy can run...' rather than 'Kaaaaan').

There was a Mr Asgar Khan, from Mumbai, whose company, TravelmartIndia.com, has teamed up with Suniel Shetty's to offer 'Bollywood Tourism'. For $100, foreigners and NRIs can have a day at the studios plus a chance to spot a star (Nitish does not think the idea will work but I have a feeling it might).

UP's tourism minister, Kawkab Hameed, who is from a nawabi family, spent the week focussing on the Taj Mahal's 350th anniversary and how it had been granted security clearance by the Supreme Court for moonlight viewing from November 26.

Hameed seems a decent man with good ideas (eg. getting the Brits to come to mark the 150th anniversary of the Indian Mutiny/ First War of Independence in 2007), though I have reservations about getting a bunch of celebrities to overfly the Taj in a hot-air balloon.

Getting carried away by his description of Shah Jehan's creation 'shimmering in moonlight', I suggested helpfully that 'the Taj is to architecture what Aishwarya is to Indian womanhood.'

The minister shook his head and said: 'No, her beauty will fade, the Taj's will not.'

Oriental strains

One journalist who comes across as fiercely uncompromising on her numerous TV and radio appearances is the Daily Mail's longtime columnist and foreign correspondent Ann Leslie. But she certainly surprised listeners ' especially me ' with her soft side when disclosing her choice of her favourite eight records on BBC Radio4's Desert Island Discs.

Explaining that she grew up in India and Pakistan until she was sent to boarding school in England at 10 and that she loved India and its culture, she picked Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Allah Mohammed, Char Yaar as one of her eight favourite pieces of music.

When asked the usual question, 'Which one would you take to your desert island if you could take only one', she had no hesitation in selecting one which I, too, love ' the wonderful theme to Satyajit Ray's Apur Sansar composed by Ravi Shankar.

'I was the happiest in India,' she said simply.

FOOD GUIDE: Udit Sarkhel

Fishy tales

Some time ago, William Sitwell, editor of Waitrose Food Illustrated, a monthly brought out by the supermarket group, told me that his magazine followed chefs back to the cities which had inspired their cuisine. This is why he spent a week in Calcutta with Udit Sarkhel, who is generally recognised as one of the heavyweights among Indian chefs in Britain.

Waitrose Food Illustrated has now published Sitwell's article, 'Come Full Circle', together with a fabulous set of photographs by Simon Brown, who manages to capture the essence of Calcutta in a way few others have done.

Along with pictures of a garlanded Udit in a taxi, a crowded commuter train, the Jagannath Ghat flower and the Nager Bazar fish markets, the Kalyani Book Stall in P.C. Sarkar Street and a wall graffiti in favour of CPM candidate Md Salim, there are also photographs of Udit's mother and father, Uma and Chitta Sarkhel. (There is even a shot of their letter box, 'Flat No.1, 1st Floor'.)

Sitwell dined at a number of Bengali restaurants, including two that I am glad are not located in London (I'd never get a booking) ' Oh Calcutta! and Kewpie's Kitchen.

At one point, Sitwell's diary notes the high point of his culinary adventures: 'Tonight dinner is with Udit's parents, back in Dum Dum.'

Udit, whose restaurants in London include Sarkhel's Indian Cuisine and the adjoining Calcutta Notebook, has helped with the cooking, but 'it is mainly his mother who has produced the food'.

'Dinner begins with lassis and a starter of topshe, a small fish fried in batter. Next comes fried potatoes; fried gourd; dal with cauliflower and peas; and shrimps with baby jackfruit. Then it's the katla, which has been fried, then stewed, and pabda, a kind of catfish, cooked with mustard. A mutton casserole and hilsa, a Bengali herring, also cooked with mustard, complete the feast.'

It's what we Bengalis call 'simple home food, please take, we have not done anything special for you'.

Mobile lot

The Financial Times recorded a milestone last week ' India has more mobile telephones than fixed landlines (44.9 million to 43.9 million).

Certainly, I have noticed that Indians who come to Britain arrive prepared with 'Sim' cards suitable for use in the UK. They are also much better and quicker texters than us lot in Britain.

Sunil Mittal, chief executive of Bharti Televentures, made a very significant point: 'In India mobile phones are for ordinary people and fixed line phones are for the rich. We used to think it was the other way round.'

Upmanship, however, will arrive when you ring someone on his mobile and he says: 'Can you hold on, I'm on my other mobile'

INDIA CALLING: Cherie Blair

Tittle tattle

In 1997, the Queen visited India for the 50th anniversary of Indian Independence. Though it has not been fully fixed up, I have been tipped off that an even more important woman is to fly to India shortly on behalf of a charity.

I am sure her hosts will put out the red carpet for Tony Blair's wife, Cherie. She has done her bit for race relations by wearing a clip-on sari.

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