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Why Britain needs a Mahatma

After having seen Sammy! A Word that Broke an Empire in Bombay last April I said I felt this “is a play which deserves to be brought to Britain to somewhere like Waterman’s, a West London arts venue”.

Last week I braved London gridlocks to get to Waterman’s for the first night of this wonderful play written by the excellent but unwell Mr Partap Sharma. It was even more enriching to see the play a second time and catch up with the talented Dubey family — Ravi plays Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s alter ego and conscience; his daughter, Neha, now studying “psycho-therapy and counselling” in London, is superb as Gandhi’s feisty wife, Kasturba; and his wife, Lillie, is the director and producer.

Gandhi, portrayed by Joy Sengupta, is as good as ever, as are all other cast members.

The first half, which I like better, deals with Gandhi’s experiences in South Africa, where the young Indian lawyer comes up against General Jan Smuts (we had met in our youth because for three years as an undergraduate in England, I contended with a portrait of Smuts in our dining hall). Everyone in the audience thought the play terrific.

What makes it more effective is that neither Smuts nor Lord Irwin, the viceroy, is shown as wholly evil but a mixture of good and bad.

How Britain could today do with the spiritual wisdom of someone like the Mahatma, as the establishment tries to find a civilised way of neutralising the extremist fringe among its home-grown Muslim youth. A few days ago, a number, apparently of Pakistani origin, were picked up by anti-terrorist police on suspicion that they were allegedly plotting to “kidnap and behead a Muslim soldier on video” in their effort to discourage other Muslims from joining the British armed forces and serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At one point in the play, Gandhi urges Indians to fight for Britain against Germany: “Join the armed forces — do not take advantage of Britain’s hour of need.”

Gandhi may well have condemned Tony Blair’s decision to invade Iraq, as do most Britons, but kidnap and murder would have provoked moral outrage.

A century after the partition of Bengal, the old policy of playing the Muslim card — Irwin refers to the Latin, Divide et impera (“divide and rule”) — has come back to haunt Blair’s Britain. Alas, Hindus cannot be smug about it for in the eyes of the Jade Goodies and their friends, all Asians are “Pakis”.

Fair, unfair

This week we are getting extra rosogullas from BBC World Service — by far my favourite radio station. As part of “India Rising”, a whole week devoted to how India is reacting to economic change, a nice girl called Sunita Nahal (hope I’ve got the name right) has been doing the Book Fair from Calcutta.

Only, there isn’t a book fair because of “environmental concerns”. Amit Chaudhuri, whom she consulted, had mixed feelings about the fair being shifted for the novelist reckoned the maidan offered “maddingness, if there is such a word, and magic” — and a lot of dust as well, he conceded.

Sunita toured pavement book sellers as well — a few months ago outside the Museum I picked up a book on the mathematician, Srinivasa Ramunajan (which, in common with everything else I have, probably won’t get read).

There is much else on India Rising, from Shah Rukh Khan telling listeners (only half jokingly, I suspect) that he is the biggest movie star in the world (which, to be fair to him, he probably is) to an economist’s assessment that India is probably already the world’s third largest economy.

What took me aback was the claim of a young man who said he attended parties where people drank, smoked and there was sex.

Good job his parents knew nothing about this, the woman interviewer ventured.

Not a bit, said the young man, the parents were at the same parties. It was not that his father told him not to have sex, only that he should use a condom.

Clearly, I am out of touch, or that, thanks to eight per cent GDP, the country has changed beyond recognition in the few weeks I have been away.

Bollywood MP

Some of his critics think that Keith Vaz does it for self-publicity but I don’t agree — life would be dull without the “member of parliament for Bollywood”.

Assisted by campaigning on his behalf by Dalip Tahil in his Leicester East constituency for the May, 2005, general election, Keith got a majority of 15,876 votes, placing him an impressive 54th out of 642 MPs.

Last year, he took Amitabh Bachchan to Leicester, got him to dress up in don’s robes and even got him an honorary degree at De Montfort University.

Last week, after Shilpa Shetty’s meeting with Tony Blair and other cabinet ministers at the House of Commons, he presided over a happily chaotic press conference by the banks of the River Thames, and then took the winner of Celebrity Big Brother to Leicester where huge Indian crowds awaited her.

As the Keith-Shilpa cavalcade hit the busy Asian areas of Leicester, there was even more chaos than when the Big B had come to town. At one point, police wouldn’t let Shilpa get out of her car, thereby disappointing her fans who had waited more than three hours.

Perhaps Keith, who has been an MP since 1987, can compensate by bringing SRK next time.

A former Minister for Europe, Keith needs to be restored to government with responsibility for twinning Leicester (nicknamed “Filmpur”) with Juhu.

Tesco trouble

Kamal Nath, who addressed the London Business School a few days ago, said that 40 per cent of India’s fruit and vegetable production goes to waste — and that this could be reduced if western retail companies helped with “back end operations” such as storage and refrigeration.

But Sonia Gandhi, who has apparently written to both Manmohan Singh and to the Commerce and Industry Minister urging caution about admitting retail, may have a point.

Friends of the Earth, the respected environment group, has this to say about Tesco, the supermarket giant which is desperate to get into India and nearly did so via partnership with Sunil Mittal: “Tesco’s growing market share is bad for British business, bad for consumers, bad for the environment and must be checked.”

Tittle tattle

Back in the 1980s, when British companies were cutting jobs, chairmen and managing directors wisely got rid of the office Rolls-Royces for humbler Volvos and Mercedes. Since then, it has become socially more acceptable for British bhadralog to be seen driving Bentleys rather than “Rollers”.

In India, as Azim Premji of Wipro noted shrewdly on the BBC’s India Rising last week, the impoverished are exceedingly tolerant of wealth in others.

We should not be too sanctimonious but even in a relatively rich country like Britain, where people aren’t actually starving, a birthday gift of a Bentley (to Abhishek) or a Rolls-Royce Phantom (to the Big B from Vidhu Vinod Chopra) would be widely condemned as being in spectacularly vulgar taste.

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