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Bengal to the nth degree

So Manmohan Singh has got it. Good for him. I do hope the PM turns up for his honorary degree ceremony. It should be a colourful event and, at least, he will get an agreeable lunch at High Table. More to the point, it will give me a day out in Oxford.

More seriously, looking at the roll call of Indians who have also received honorary degrees in the past ' I am indebted to research done on my behalf by Nicky Old of the university's information office ' I have to acknowledge that Oxford has been more than generous to Bengal.

I think I had better open the batting with Rabindranath Tagore (1940) and his relative, Sir Sourindro Nath Tagore (1896), best known for promoting cultural communications, especially in music.

One down, I would bring in Satyajit Ray (1978), with talented newcomer Amartya Sen (1996) at four.

The middle order has to have solidity in case of loss of quick wickets, so what about Surendra Nath Sen (1958), once head of the history department of Calcutta University, at five'

Though known to be erratic but brilliant in his day, Nirad C. Chaudhuri (1990) is suited to six. He is little enough to wear the big gloves.

Since selection is based on talent alone and not on race, Reginald S. Copleston (1908), bishop of Calcutta, deserves slot seven.

After talking by mobile phone to the Team Bengal think tank, I can exclusively reveal that one Indira Gandhi (1971), ex-Santiniketan girl, will make her debut at number eight. (Some wanted her stripped of her honorary degree when she locked up all the Opposition players in 1975.)

The think tank is currently in conclave contemplating the last three places.

Team Bengal will play Team India, picked from those who have also received honorary degrees from Oxford.

The longish list includes the economist Vijayendra J.R.V. Rao (1969); Vijayalakshmi Pandit (1964); Sir Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan (1952); the one-time vice chancellor of Madras University, Sir A. Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar (1948); his namesake Sir A. Ramaswami Mudaliar (1946), who brought together science and industry; and the lawyer/politician Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru (1937).

Also in contention are Sir Abdur Rahim (1937), jurist and scholar; two maharajahs, Sir Bahadur Madho Rao Scindia of Gwalior (1911) and Sir Chandra Shum Shere Jung Bahadur Rana (1908); and Romila Thapar (2002).

The cantankerous V.S. Naipaul (1992) deserves the added responsibility of bringing out nimbu pani for both sides.

Men of letters

Fleet Street editors have a word for readers who write too many letters: 'Nutters'.

To be sure, newspapers appreciate short letters which shed light on news developments or make a point in a witty fashion. But there are quite a few readers who are persistent and tiresome. Though all correspondence is politely acknowledged, such letters invariably end up in the bin.

Last week, there were two good letters from Indians on the same day in The Daily Telegraph. One Sabina Ahmed, from Taunton, Somerset, objected to a piece about conspicuous consumption by rich Indians and complained ('The Other India'): 'The Indian government spends a lot of time on nuclear programmes. Roads, clean water and electricity are of more value.'

Another ('Iran is a greater threat than North Korea'), from Vipul Thakore from London, was a Pakistan-bashing exercise.

'Pakistan has given nuclear weapons assistance to North Korea in exchange for missile systems,' Vipulbhai pointed out. 'Scientist Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan has traded nukes with North Korea, Libya and Iran. It is essential that the US and UK interrogate Dr Khan urgently to prevent catastrophe, overriding their own short-term expediencies and Pakistan's intransigence.'

If they are wise, the duo will resist the temptation to write another letter for six months, preferably a year.

Some small papers, especially in the ethnic media, receive so few letters, that their staff are reduced to making them up to stir up controversy ('I have not read such a load of rubbish in all my life,' the very reporter who wrote a story might begin).

Sex magazines, too, require creative staff who can fill the letters page ('I was 16 and she was 30 and just divorced but I could see my teacher wanted me to stay late after school for some extra French lessons').

Big papers have the luxury of dumping many of their letters. A good letter, said a long-suffering colleague ' 'any paper which uses the same reader twice in a month is in trouble' ' is a Godsend.

ARTWATCH: A promo for Chila Burman's exhibition

To Damascus

Following the assassination of Lebanon's former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, there are signals from Washington that President Bush now wants to 'sort out' Syria, which is blamed for this killing, before turning his attention to Iran.

But one person who is definitely getting there ahead of the possible arrival of the US marines is the British-Indian artist Chila Burman. The Sikh lass returned home to London from a long Indian trip to India and immediately flew out to Syria for British Council-sponsored exhibitions in Aleppo and Damascus.

She will be promoted as the best of the contemporary UK art scene, run workshops for Syrian arts students at college and exhibit 20 pieces of her work, including She Tried to Be Good and Jelly Handcuffs.

Chila's programme was fixed up last August. On her way to Heathrow, she did her best to hide her apprehension: 'I know Syria is all in the news. It's prestigious to be selected by the British Council to have a solo show there.'

She is there as a visual artist, one of very few Indians to have made a name in Britain. What she has not packed is a flak jacket.

CHARITY CALLING: Sunil Mittal

Mittal mania

Another Mittal is getting a few column inches in the UK ' Sunil Mittal, boastful boss of Bharti phones. Over a lunch interview with the Financial Times, he promised to work for the uplift of poor farmers who make as little as Rs 5,000 per acre.

Lunch at La Piazza, Hyatt Regency, Delhi (one Vellutata di Funghi, one Insalata di Caprino, one Risotto alla Marinara, one Medaglioni al Pepo Nero, one red wine, one lime soda), came to Rs 2,564.

According to Einstein's new law of relativity, one Indian acre equals not quite two lunches.

Tittle tattle

When Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles visit India as Mr & Mrs after their April 8 wedding, what sort of food should she be given' She is apparently none too keen on spicy food, so Hyderabadi biryani is out as is masala dosa (which Charles quite likes).

When Camilla's elephant-mad younger brother, Mark Shand, celebrated his 50th birthday with a dinner at the Cinnamon Club, an expensive Indian restaurant in Westminster, she brought a large crowd of well-wishers.

Afterwards, Camilla's son, Tom Parker Bowles, turned to Iqbal Wahhab, the restaurant boss, and said: 'Thank you for converting her. My mum has hated Indian food for 30 years.'

My tip to Raj Bhavan catering would be to offer her fish fingers with beans and chips, followed by apple pie with lashings of custard. This never fails with the English upper classes.

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