Editorial/ A strange and antique land
A journey not yet over
The Telegraph Diary
The long road home
Differences/ Vit E for the soul
India in the making
Eye On England
Letters to the Editor

According to a Bengali playwright, Alexander the Great is said to have described India as a very strange country to his general Seleucus. That fictitious and dramatic statement has become a part of colloquial Bengali. Despite all this, there are occasions when one is forced to admit that the statement has a ring of truth about it and may have indeed captured one of the enduring truths about India. Take for example, the debate raging, according to reports, within the bureaucracy and the defence establishment about the official histories of the wars waged by India. There are innumerable issues of great pitch and moment over which the mandarins of the defence ministry could ponder. But no, they spend their time over something that is utterly irrelevant. Such is the strangeness of India.

The word irrelevant is used advisedly. What is the debate about? The defence ministry has written up histories of wars in which India has been engaged since 1947. A review committee was set up to decide whether these should be made public or not. Apparently, the committee decided in favour of publication and its recommendation was sent to the defence minister, Mr George Fernandes. Nobody has explained why there should be any debate on this at all, why a review committee should be appointed to look into such a simple matter. But there are more fundamental issues involved and these concern the very nature of the project. A history project on wars waged by India is something of a contradiction in terms. India, most military historians would say, has never fought a war. It has been involved in a number of skirmishes on the border with Pakistan and China. But these never escalated into full-fledged war.

For one thing, India’s military encounters with Pakistan and China did not last long enough to merit the term war. The longest of these — the 1971 enounter which led to the liberation of Bangladesh — lasted only 14 days. Again, with the exception of 1971, none of the so-called wars had any concrete and irrefutable results which eradicated the reasons that led to the conflict. One of the principal reasons for hostilities with Pakistan since 1948 has been the dispute over Kashmir. This still remains. In fact, hawks within and without the military establishment have argued for a very long time that India should have a war with Pakistan and resolve the Kashmir issue once and for all. What- ever the merits and demerits of such a position, it tacitly accepts that India has never had a full-fledged war with Pakistan. A war by definition entails the involvement of the entire country. Witness World War II, the war in Vietnam, the various engagements between Israel and Palestine and so on. In none of the military encounters that India has been involved has southern India been even remotely affected. India’s wars is a misnomer.

The other issue concerns publication. If the histories have been prepared what purpose will be served by keeping them in a cupboard for white ants to get at? Only mandarins with a peculiar penchant for secrecy could think of official histories not intended for publication. India is a strange country.


“Mistah Kurtz — he dead.” One hundred years have passed since the line was first published, yet the ghost of Kurtz has not been laid. His is a disturbed and disturbing ghost, which, instead of quietening down over the years, has acquired more unsettling dimensions. He is the personified core of the horror that the seaman, Charles Marlow, witnesses in Heart of Darkness. In this short novel, Joseph Conrad has constructed a journey that never really ends. Marlow’s trip by boat up the Congo in search of a mysterious agent called Kurtz is a metamorphosed account of Conrad’s own travels in the same region by land and water in 1890, when King Leopold’s regime was perpetrating untold atrocities in the so-called Congo Free State.

In that phase of expansionism at the turn of the last century, Western countries jealously watched one another’s forays into unconquered lands. Britain and America heaped condemnation on the activities in the Belgian Congo. Heart of Darkness was in a way the fictional counterpart of the commentaries from both sides of the Atlantic, to which Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain contributed two of the most valuable ones.

But this was just the beginning of the journey. Marlow’s trip up-river continued beyond the text into an exploration of the ideology of imperialism, through the comparative “disgraces” of the Belgian and British colonial attitudes in Conrad, traversing the inescapable rhetoric of racism (which for Chinua Achebe banishes Heart of Darkness from the shelf of the “greatest novels”) into the much vaster, far more intricately landscaped horizons of “overlapping territories, intertwined histories” of imperialism in Edward Said.

The journey continues because the story of imperialism is far from over. Conrad’s tale itself comes to an aesthetically satisfying close, with the return from the Congo to the story-teller’s location on the deck of the Nellie moored on the Thames as darkness falls on this other river. But the representation of Africa, and by extension, the “imperialized place”, has no closure. “To represent Africa,” says Said, “is to enter the battle over Africa, inevitably connected to later resistance, decolonization and so forth.”

Even this is not the end of the story, although the journey has long ceased to be solely linear. Representation alone does not make a tale. Therefore, Said says, “Conrad’s argument is inscribed right in the very form of the narrative as he inherited it and as he practised it. Without empire…there is no European novel as we know it…” In the impulses giving rise to the novel, Said discerns the convergence between the “patterns of narrative authority” and “a complex ideological configuration underlying the tendency to imperialism”. With the “unassailable” aesthetic completion he ascribes to Heart of Darkness, Said has returned to T.S. Eliot’s model of tradition and individual talent, which, he had begun by saying, could be applied to imperialism as to art. The lateral symbiosis imaged in Said continues to be traversed in numerous ways in postcolonial studies of texts, not least through the numerous rewritings of the novel itself. The accretions around Heart of Darkness forge paths for new journeys.

For a reader today, in India or anywhere else, Marlow’s tale is not the same as the one that was published in 1902. The transforming process of a growing tradition and the continuous inputs of the history of a hundred years have made it different from the story Conrad wrote. But as it changes its resonance through many readings, accretions and reworkings, the inexpressible darkness at its core acquires greater presence. Conrad’s ironic technique encourages the shimmering, shifting sense of the indefinable. Experience in his novels is never certain. Marlow recounts his Congo trip to a group of friends many years after the event, but the tale is retold as it is heard by a shadowy, first person narrator who refrains from identifying himself among the band of listeners. Conrad’s evanescent presence seems to pass from one to the other, the narrator, Marlow, Kurtz, the listeners — although never, as Achebe would remind us, the Africans — and again to straddle them all. The essence of the experience is a kind of reality in uncertainty. Marlow tries to communicate what the experience meant to him: “Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream — making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams…”

Marlow’s sense of unreality is peopled by concrete event, the memory of swirling black limbs, rolling eyes and desolate howls among the “motionless foliage”. The anchor of reality, of fictionalized fact, is perpetually adrift. The indeterminacy of Marlow’s experience suggests not just a journey into the heart of darkness, the landscape of the soul, but also the restless, constantly transforming activity of the artistic imagination. The facts of Conrad’s own experience, everything he had read and heard, resolve themselves into a vast site in which the imagination moves in search of meaning, a meaning that vanishes as it is figured in words, a meaning that will be rejected, re-formed, and re-informed both within the text and in its radiation without. The novelist seizes upon strange territory to make it his own, and in the process, bequeathes it to his inheritors, just as an imperialist does.

Words are thus central to the heart of darkness: they tell the tale in a search for truth and evaporate in the speaking. Kurtz’s eloquence, Marlow discovers, is hollow at the core. In a story of encounters, words fail at the crucial moment because strangeness is terrifyingly unspeakable. The metaphysics of encounter works by depersonalizing, of which one meaning is racism. Unlike the reports that came out of the Belgian Congo, based on meetings and interviews with African villagers, Conrad’s Congo is empty of African characters. Instead, as Marlow looks at the banks from his boat, he feels a stillness that is not peace: “It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention.” Achebe hated this. But the intervening imagination is implicated fatally in the encounter. According to Conrad’s own moral schema it is a damned and tragic cruelty that manifests itself at every encounter between unfamiliar worlds. The fear is unspeakable, and must remain unacknowledged, displaced onto the apparently meaningless and grotesque behaviour of the opponent.

The failure of words is enacted by the incomplete report Marlow finds among Kurtz’s papers. It is a brilliant peroration on the noble sentiments informing the purest of missionary ideals. With it is a scribbled footnote: “Exterminate all the brutes!” The impact of this may have been cushioned for Conrad’s contemporary readers by the fact that the ivory-looting, head-hunting Kurtz was the agent of a Belgian company. But a reader of recent times is likely to read this with a shock of recognition. Whether it is a “holy” war on “terror”, or a justified “reaction” against the alleged action of a coexisting minority community, the metaphysics of encounter has remained unchanged since Conrad’s imperialist times. Only now, with its shifting geographies, it is even less definable.



Victory at Lord’s

It was to have been a half Monty, only the team manager chickened out because he didn’t want to expose his flabby middle. All those who cringed at Sourav Ganguly’s barechested war dance on the Lord’s balcony after India’s victory in the NatWest finals can be thankful that Sachin Tendulkar joined Rajiv Shukla in declining the captain’s suggestion that the entire team take off their shirts and do a lap around the ground. But once the Little Big Man had said no, it was only a matter of time before the others cried off, one by one. Our captain, of course, is not a man to be put off so lightly and went ahead with the topless act. Speaking of the Lord’s victory, players’ phones were kept busy well into the morning by friends and family calling up with congratulatory messages. Among the callers that night was AB Vajpayee. But it was a rather confusing conversation, full of long pauses which made the players wonder whether he had hung up. Thankfully, manager Shukla soon came to their rescue — always the politician, he made the most of the opportunity to tom-tom his achievements. The other high-profile trans-continental caller that night was Sonia Gandhi. But being only the lowly leader of the opposition in Parliament, the lady did not speak to the team. She called up son Rahul who was at Lord’s for the match. Never knew the lady watched cricket!

A song for Kalam

Outgoing president KR Narayanan hosted a goodbye dinner for the council of ministers sometime last week. A ring-out-the-old-and-ring-in-the-new kind of affair. Naturally, APJ Abdul Kalam was also present. The little party started with the strains of Jayastute by the Hindutva icon V.D. Savarkar playing in the background, and ended with Sayonara, the blockbuster hit of the Sixties. But you should have seen the smirks when Babuji dheere chalna came on. Obviously, they were directed at the new president’s strange ways. But was Kalam listening?

Note the differences

How great a misfit Kalam is among the political set will be evident if you compare him with Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the vice president-to-be. The senior BJP leader recently organized a yagna to persuade the rain gods to look kindly on the two states of Rajasthan and Delhi. Shekhawat is a firm believer in astrology while Kalam does not think about the stars at all, unless it has to do with sending a satellite into space. When asked what he thought was a propitious time to take the oath of office as president, Kalam replied that he didn’t have any preferences in the matter — any time that didn’t interfere with the working of Parliament would suit him just fine. Thus it was that the swearing in ceremony in the Central Hall of Parliament was over much before the house assembled at 11 am on Thursday. Here’s a thought — perhaps it is Kalam who should be smirking at the ways of his colleagues rather than the other way round?

It’s all in the stars

Not being superstitious is all very good — but here’s a bit of history that should give pause to APJ Abdul Kalam. The only two other Muslim presidents, Zakir Hussain and Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad, both died before they completed their terms. Incidentally, both took their oaths of office in the Durbar Hall of Rashtrapati Bhavan. All other presidents — from Rajendra Prasad to KR Narayanan — preferred the Central Hall. Needless to say, all of them completed their terms. Is that a mere coincidence or is there something to mumbojumbo after all?

Troubled bridge over waters

While India is trying its best to look the other way while its island neighbour in the south continues to haggle with its Tigers, one man in India’s planning commission is trying to repair burnt bridges, or build bridges. In fact, a bridge over the Palk Straits seems to top the commission’s agenda, what with this senior functionary even chairing a meeting with officials drawn from various branches of the government. Voices of concern aired at this meet are alleged to have been brushed aside while the babu in Italian suits went ahead with his argument for a bridge that would cost Rs 5,000 crore. The MEA is also supposed to have volunteered to pay Rs 30 crore for the preliminary feasibility study, although it found later that its pockets were actually not so deep. But what prompted our man in the commission to take up this heroic task? Apparently, his corporate friends who are thinking of extending operations overseas. And that calls for an epic battle?

News from the frontline

n Change on the rail front. Didi is supposed to be all ears to Subrata Mukherjee in matters concerning railways. No one knows when the mayor replaced the duo Sudip and Nayana Bandopadhyay in Mamata Banerjee’s favour. Sudip is supposed to have been caught in the act of teasing out a meaty role for himself in Delhi while he was bargaining for the railway booty for Mamata with the saffron wallahs. But why watermelon Subrata? Our eyes and ears in the Trinamool camp say that didi is mightily impressed with the way Subrata has been shutting up people, even the diabolic Somnath Chatterjee, who took a potshot at didi by saying that her struggle should have been staged in Delhi, not in West Bengal. Then even the independence movement should have been carried out in London, not India, argued Subrata. Even the leftist bandhs should have been in Delhi. A lot of punch there. But Mamata’s own punches are earning a different reputation for her. The joke doing the rounds in the capital is that Mamata is like Devdas pining for her Paro — the eastern zone. Who’s her Chandramukhi? One was once the “natural” party of governance for 50 long years after independence, but is now in a shambles. The other is the parvenu which is slowly consolidating its hold on power and gradually learning the rules of the game. But the Congress and the BJP continue to be fierce rivals. For example, no sooner did Sonia Gandhi shuffle around the faces in the AICC that the BJP too scurried to make some changes among its 24, Akbar Road officebearers. It has got so bad recently that the BJP has even taken to imitating the Congress menu for journalists. The Congress, which still behaves as if it is the party in power, serves the hacks with grand meals, which include tea and cold drinks. The BJP, on the other hand, hasn’t quite got over its party-in-opposition hangover, and merely handed around some chai-biscuits. Until recently, when reporters complained to the party spokesperson, VK Malhotra. Ever since, journalists on the BJP beat are being treated to a more elaborate fare. The hacks, for one, are not complaining at this petty oneupmanship.    

A heartbeat. That’s how long it took Shahnaz Parvin Akhtar Kausar to decide to end her life and jump into the Jhelum river, which meanders down Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) into Jammu. Fed up with her in-laws’ unrelenting taunts about her inability to conceive and her husband Muhammad Yunus’ apparent lack of concern, Shahnaz wanted to end it all. So, on a sunny October morning in 1995, she walked towards the river from her village in Haryan, Dabagh, district Mirpur in PoK and plunged in.

But Shahnaz did not die. Instead her life took a trajectory that symbolises the human tragedy of two neighbours, India and Pakistan, existing in a state of perpetual hostility for over 50 years. At the core of the enmity lies an intractable question: who lays greater claim to Kashmir — Pakistan or India?

Shahnaz landed in prison where she has spent almost seven years now. She has been raped, given birth to a daughter and spends her time today counting the days she has spent away from her village.

The ochre and red brick building of Jammu district jail stands forlornly under the cascading monsoon sky. The prison houses 112 prisoners, including 23 women and six children. It is visitor’s day and some of the sombreness of the institution is erased by the sound of boisterous laughter. But the bonhomie evaporates as you walk towards the women’s cells, even though the sun has suddenly made an appearance. The golden rays are pouring in through the barred windows of a large sized room. For over four years, Shahnaz has been sharing this space with five other women and her daughter Mobin, who is nearly six years old.

At 32, Shahnaz, dressed in a golden-yellow salwar kameez, is a slender, handsome woman with coppery skin. Nearly five feet five inches, she is tall by Indian standards. Despite her apparent lack of education, a sense of quiet refinement envelops her. It is obvious Shahnaz does not seek pity as she recounts her tale in a mixture of Pahadi and Goddari, a dialect spoken by the Gujjar tribe, in a calm, imperturbable voice.

After jumping into the river, Shahnaz says, she almost uncannily floated towards India where she was fished out by a soldier from the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) near Nowshera in Rajouri district of Jammu. Though she managed to persuade her saviour that she was a bona fide trespasser and not an enemy spy, she was marched off to the Nowshera magistrate’s court. For entry without a passport, under the Enemies Ordinance Act, she was punished with a 12-month sentence and fined Rs 500. Because she had no money, Shahnaz’s sentence was extended by another three months. She was then transferred to the district jail in Poonch to serve her sentence. It was here that her life took a strange new turn.

Shahnaz’s voice drops an octave lower, almost to a whisper, as she recounts the day when she was raped by Mohammaduddin, the jail warden at Poonch. “When it was happening I didn’t scream for help because I thought the warden might kill me. And then I thought even if I shouted, nobody would come because I am a Pakistani.” However, she did complain later and Mohammaduddin was suspended and a legal case registered against him.

The rape resulted in the birth of a daughter whom she named Mobin after consulting the Quran. Since Shahnaz had always believed she was barren, the event changed her life completely. Brought up in a family of eight siblings — four brothers and four sisters — Shahnaz had longed to have a large family after marriage. But thanks to her in-laws, she had always believed that she was infertile. Until now. Which is why when she was given the choice, she refused to abort the child. “The best memory of my life is connected to its saddest event,” she says. “It was the worst possible way to have a child but I felt fulfilled at the same time.”

After Mobin’s birth at Poonch District Hospital, Shahnaz returned to prison. “Unfortunately, when she completed her sentence in early 1997, nobody told her that she was free go back home,” says A.K. Sawhney, a Jammu-based lawyer who is fighting her case on behalf of a Chandigarh human rights group, World Human Rights Protection Council. Sawhney has filed a petition in the Jammu High Court asking why Shahnaz was still being kept in jail with a child. Instead of making arrangements for her return to Pakistan, or trying to integrate her into the local community, Sawhney says she was bundled off yet again to another penitentiary — Jammu district jail.

To keep her incarcerated legally, new charges were filed against Shahnaz in August 2000 under the sweeping Public Safety Act. Another 24-month sentence was given. “We have had to keep her in jail because as a Pakistani citizen without valid papers we cannot even send her to a destitute home,” says S.S. Ani, superintendent, prisons, Jammu and Kashmir. ‘’It’s not an ideal situation for her, but under the circumstances it is the only option.”

Mobin, who has spent her entire childhood in confinement, will turn six this October. She knows no other life. At eight a.m. every school day, a constable, whom she calls ‘policeman uncle’, escorts her to the local school. The intimacy between Mobin and her jailors is unmistakable. Wearing a brilliant red dress, tight braids and a dazzling smile, a perky Mobin exhibits her command over the English language by singing out the alphabet. “She will be the only one amongst all her cousins who will know English,” says Shahnaz proudly.

Ani declares that three attempts were made to get Shahnaz and her daughter back to her country. But they have been futile. The last attempt to secure Shahnaz her freedom took place on June 25, 2001, on the eve of the Agra summit held between Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his Pakistani counterpart, General Pervez Musharraf. As a goodwill gesture to mark the event, a prisoner exchange between the Pakistani Rangers and the Border Security Force was scheduled at Wagah. Six Pakistanis who had strayed into India were going to be exchanged for a similar number of Indians who had wandered into Pakistan. A delighted Shahnaz dressed herself and her daughter for the event, bid farewell to their friends and went off to what she thought would be freedom.

When her turn came, says Shahnaz, the Pakistani Rangers made it clear that while they were willing to accept her, Mobin — born of an Indian father — was not going to be allowed to cross over. For Shahnaz, returning to India meant going back to prison. But to leave without her daughter was never an option. “Why would any human being want to separate a mother and her child?” she asks. Like the Kashmir dilemma, this question, too, remains unresolved.


Many alphabets put women in the soup. A for amazonian; B for battle-axe; C for ’churail’; D for dominatrix. But what about E for empowered? For most men I know, the last is the least palatable. Raw, frontal belligerence they can handle because they can slot it into a stereotype and feel superior about it. Empowerment bowls them a googly.

I overdosed on it at the international AIDS conference in Barcelona. Condoms used to be the ruling deity of these global gatherings; but, this time, the E-word almost deflated the C-word. I don’t mean to be insensitive. I know that, perversely, it has taken a brutal pandemic to empower those who were once the most disenfranchised.

True, given the choice between being spared AIDS and denied empowerment, the answer is a no-brainer. Nor is empowerment an automatic side-effect. Far from it. But the few who have fought the disease and the odds to find a voice — and used it on behalf of the still dumbfounded — deserve all the hosannas you can sing in praise of their grit and guts.

In the decade-plus that I’ve tracked the epidemic in India, I’ve watched its locust-cloud pass darkly over different swathes of social terrain. In the early years, it was the prostitutes. We learnt to call them sex workers more easily than we learnt to face up to the truth that they were more victims than vectors. The cruelty of their fate was now aggravated by the plumbing of their gender; as far as HIV is concerned, for a woman it is easier to receive than to give. In the no-exit maze of red-light districts, these body-hawkers were now trapped between life and livelihood.

With hypocrisy-lubricated righteousness, we dismissed this as divine retribution on an ‘immoral’ profession. But the AIDS virus was less discriminating. It couldn’t differentiate between promiscuity and domesticity. So, while policy-makers dithered and we pretended that the only thing upright about us was our rectitude, HIV insidiously slipped into the home. So much so that marital sex began to constitute high-risk behaviour. The infection passed on to unsuspecting wives, and, through them, to babies.

Many young sex workers died, but some lived to take care of themselves and their peers, even to become global best-practices models, like Calcutta’s Sonagachhi Project. Then, when AIDS began its lethal descent into the general community, the determination and success of the infected prostitute ironically became the crutch and beacon of her respectable sisters.

Now it’s the housewife who has become the new totem of AIDS-related empowerment. At the recent international conference, India’s positive women acquired a visibility that was as admirable as it was disconcerting.

Middle-class women from small-town Kerala and Tamil Nadu shrilly thrust themselves on the reluctant conscience of the Indian AIDS establishment as it swaggered through the banner-festooned halls of the Fiera Barcelona. And for the new health minister, it was payback time. They’d worshipped Shatrughan Sinha as a star; now scrawny Kausalya and matronly Daisy demanded a Shotgun Solution.

A social stigma more excruciating than physical agony had created its own immuno-deficiency to the normal restraints of class, community and gender. The uninhibited hysteria of these women may have been born of desperation, but clearly they didn’t intend to die of it. Empowerment could well turn out to be the ultimate vaccine against AIDS, an even more wondrous Vitamin E.


Neville Tuli of Osian’s will be in and out of Delhi for the next few days. He is organising two previews for his forthcoming auction in Mumbai on August 14. The theme of the auction is A Historical Epic: India in the Making, 1757-1950. The two previews will be held at the Art Today Gallery and the British Council. While these two previews will be flagged off on August 1 and 5, there is a preview already on at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai.

The auction will sell 151 lots of engravings and lithographs, antiquarian books, film memorabilia, modern and contemporary art. Talking to the press before the preview, Tuli, with his flying hair and passionate gesticulations, is emphatic that the “curated auction” is not just about money, although it does spin money for the larger art “infrascape” that he is trying to create. He is talking of a museum, archives, research facilities. All this he would like to set up without going to the government or corporates or philanthropic bodies for finances. That is why auctions are necessary. Tuli says that visual depiction of history is as important as textual history and often helps to correct distortions.

But no matter what he says about his larger vision, Tuli is a canny businessman who understands the business of collecting quite well. To hold an exhibition-auction, A Historical Epic, at a time when Indians are exulting in a wave of patriotism, is an astute move. Similarly, attempting to introduce new collectibles like film memorabilia is a clever gambit.

His understanding of the market can be seen in some of the books going on the block. T. H. Hendley’s Indian Jewellery published in the early years of last century is bound to attract jewellery collectors. A detail of a page has been included in the brochure. Despite all this, how well the auction will do is another matter.

I would also like to point to the split in those heading commercial art establishments. Tuli is a case in point. It is not enough that he is emerging as an important auctioneer. He also has to stress that his main focus is art history and spread of awareness of art. Is it always necessary to be high-minded? And especially when paintings with problematic provenances come under the hammer, how can one root for art history and connoisseurship?

The week has been great for movie buffs. On top of the list has been the 4th Cinemaya Festival of Asian Cinema organised by Cinefan. Sponsored by the Government of Delhi and Tata Tea, the festival has been growing in strength every year.

Says festival director, Aruna Vasudev, “The first year we began, we showed only 20 films at one venue. This year we have had 60 films at four venues.” It’s not just that the festival has grown in size, but has grown in profile as well. Many of the films shown here are being screened for the first time.

Festival director Vasudev has been able to attract some distinguished films particularly from Egypt and Iran. The nomenclature Asian cinema was stretched a bit to include Egypt. But then there have been so many shared experiences that Vasudev is quite justified to include Egyptian films. Particularly, when one gets the opportunity to see Chahine’s film Destiny.

The Indian section is well-represented by some of the latest films this year. Screened in a section called India Bazaar, there is Girish Kasaravalli’s Dweepa (Island), Aparna Sen’s Mr & Mrs Iyer, Shahji N. Karun’s Nishad and Mani Ratnam’s Kannathil Muthamittal.

A great draw, especially for the younger generation of film buffs, has been the Tribute to Kurosawa section screened at the India International Centre auditorium. Eight of the Japanese master’s classic films, including Rashomon and Red Beard, are drawing young, college-going viewers which beeps quite an optimistic signal to the organisers of such events.

In her focused approach to the organisational aspect of the festival,Vasudev is setting a model lesson to national film festival directorate. The national festival has become synonymous with confusion.

The other film event this week was the special British Council screening of Bend it like Beckham. Arranged jointly by British Council and Sanjeev Bhargava’s Seher, the evening was a glittering occasion with Delhi’s chief minister Shiela Dixit as the chief guest and the two glamorous movers and shakers of the country’s causes, Sharmila Tagore and Shabana Azmi.

The story, by now quite familiar, centres on a young Sikh girl Jess (Jasminder) Bhamra who lives and dreams of playing football. Naturally, her parents being more conventional do not like her obsession. In the end, overcoming many obstacles, she achieves her ambition.

From playing with boys at the local park, she makes it to the US with a scholarship and the promise of playing in a professional women’s team. Very cleverly made, Chadha has provided interesting counterpoints. One is a young British girl, who like Jess, has problems with her mother (though of a different kind), for playing football. The filming of the wedding scene was one big blast of sound, colour, lights and movement. The solemnity of the scene where Jess scores the winning goal was almost sacred in contrast.

Apart from the enjoyment factor, Gurinder Chadha’s film was in total sync with the British Council’s programme focus. Of late, the British cultural agency has been highlighting various facets of multiculturalism. And Gurinder Chadha explores the problems of adjustment between the two people with great verve.

The celebratory, feel-good quality of the film went down very well with the Indian audience. Although Chadha added her own twist to the clash of two alien cultures, Bend it like Beckham generated the same sense of euphoria as the Indian cricket team winning the NatWest trophy or Lagaan being invited to the Oscars.



Wisdom in Wisden choice

Wisden’s Indian Cricketer of the Century? It had to be Sachin, I thought. Then a friend from Zee TV said she had put her money (metaphorically) on Gavaskar. She had a point, I could see.

How could you give the award to Tendulkar for performance in the 20th century when he was still playing in this century? And he hadn’t quite caught up with Sunil Gavaskar in the number of Test centuries.

However, one of the 35 judges, whom I bumped into just before the Wisden/Kelvinator show, said confidently: “There is only one man — Tendulkar. Crowd pulling power!”

When Tendulkar received the “People’s Choice Award”, I thought he would also be named Cricketer of the Century because judges and the masses would be in tune. Tendulkar, always the perfect gentleman, spoke respectfully of being in the presence of “seniors”, among them Bishen Bedi, Dilip Vengsarkar and the Nawab of Pataudi. How young they looked in TV footage of their times but not as babyish as some members of Sourav’s side.

Tendulkar also remembered the set of good luck pads from Gavaskar with which he had started his career in First Class and Test cricket.

They were worn taking into account he had to score his runs in singles, joked Gavaskar. “But this man doesn’t believe in singles,” he added.

I was taken aback when Viv Richards called out Kapil Dev’s name. But thinking about it now, it seems the right choice. For a start, it avoided the embarrassing question of deciding between Tendulkar and Gavaskar. An emotional Kapil treated the award as an exoneration of the match fixing allegations against him — charges which Richards also dismissed.

In a recorded on-screen interview, Ian Botham, who spoke fondly of how he and Kapil had once engaged in cricketing “war” but now played golf together, backed him, too.

In the best traditions of cricket, perhaps the time has come to give Kapil and Mohammed Azharuddin, one of the 16 nominated for Indian Cricketer of the Century, the benefit of the doubt. The great Third Umpire, the people of India, are in a forgiving mood, if the spirit of the Wisden evening in London is any guide.

Gavaskar was right when he observed that the ascent of modern Indian cricket began with the 1983 World Cup victory under Kapil. What he brought into the Indian psyche was a fighting “never say die” attitude. And Azharuddin still retains his admirers. The former England captain, Michael Atherton, wrote the other day that he believed only two batsmen in his opinion possessed magic. One was Brian Lara and the other was Azharuddin.

Diana’s day

Diana Hayden, the 1997 Miss World, showed an admirable understanding of cricket when she co-hosted the “Wisden Indian Cricketer of the Century” awards with Mark Nicholas, the Channel 4 presenter, at the Wembley Conference Centre last Tuesday.

Nicholas let slip that “Lady Diana”, as he referred to her, had won £500 by betting on India during the recent Natwest Final at Lord’s when England believed it was almost certain to win after scoring 325.

Diana, the Hyderabad girl who became Miss India in 1996, probably did the patriotic thing but she backed India, she announced, “when England were 100 for one.”

What were the odds at that point, I asked her later.

“It was a bet with a friend,” she said.

Did he pay up?

“You bet,” she replied.

Play on religion

Who is that Indian woman who has been driving up and down Waterloo Bridge in the last few days as though she is stuck in a rat run? Tanika Gupta owns up, “I have been looking at my name up in lights.”

Not many Indians manage to get their plays put on at the Royal National Theatre, where Tanika’s latest work, Sanctuary, has its all important press night this Monday. The theatre, which is situated on the south bank of the Thames, has the names of the play and the playwright lit up.

Tanika — whose father, Tapan Gupta, founded the Tagoreans in 1961 and mother, Gairika, is still involved in the society — has been at the business of writing plays and scripts for radio, films, TV and the stage ever since she left Oxford.

She grit her teeth when she was interviewed by a young woman from Zee TV: “I am so sick of being called an Asian writer. I was asked, ‘What’s it like being an Asian writer? Do you write about things that have Asian characters?’

“Sanctuary,” she explains, “is the story of a Kashmiri man, Kabir, who is working in an English graveyard. He is hiding from his past.”

So also is an African man from Rwanda, whom he befriends and who ultimately betrays Kabir.

“It’s a heavy play, very anti-religion — the Christians get a battering more than the others — with big issues,” she says loftily. Tanika agrees that one of the nicest features of the National Theatre is its bookshop. “I have been in there to check if they have copies of my plays,” she admits.

Daughter undear

Another biography has come out in which a daughter has trashed her father. But in this case, I once met the subject and was also a friend and colleague of the author’s brother.

In Home Truths: Life Around My Father (HarperCollins; £18.99), Penny Junor, who normally writes about the British royal family, has turned her attention with devastating effect on her own father, who was a drunk, a bully and a bit of a lech.

John Junor, who died in 1997, was for 32 years editor of The Sunday Express, a dull paper which once had a large circulation but has today become pretty irrelevant.

But it was the paper which gave me my first job in Fleet Street.

“Do you want to make money?” said Junor gruffly, when I was ushered into his presence for my interview.

He did not want to see any of my cuttings (mostly from the late lamented Amrita Bazar Patrika). To say yes to a man florid with lunch time wine may have attracted the outburst: “Then go and work for a bank, young man, but don’t waste my time.”

His displays of rage were well known even then.

To say no may have elicited the response: “You obviously have no ambition — get out!”

I mumbled yes.

“Good,” he responded and immediately led me to the news editor, who was told: “He starts now.”

I did four Saturday shifts and distinguished myself by getting not one story into the paper.

Later, Junor’s son, Rod, who edited the Peterborough gossip column of The Daily Telegraph, became a good friend of mine. But I didn’t know he had turned to drink, which was subsequently to kill him.

Honesty in biographies is essential but it is hard to say whether this exercise by a daughter is a cathartic experience or simply an attempt to make money at any cost.

We Indians have not yet mastered the art of writing biographies but this book, although very readable, is not a model.

Tittle tattle

Many people like kidneys for dinner but to be asked to donate kidneys in exchange for dinner is a novel experience.

This coming Monday, businessman and philanthropist Dr Kartar Lalvani — his company Vitabiotics makes health pills — is hosting “a dinner for potential organ donors” on behalf of the National Kidney Research Fund.

Actually, the cause is worthy but touchy. The demand for kidneys from Indians requiring transplants is very high but for reasons of culture, religion and superstition, few are willing to carry even donor cards.

Lalvani and his wife, Rohini, who are giving the dinner at their London home overlooking Regent’s Park, are anxious to make it clear that guests do not have to sign away their kidneys as a condition of getting their dal/roti. “Those interested in the issue of organ donation and transplantation in the South Asian community” are also welcome. That will come as a relief to guests.



School for scandal

Sir — In what way is the Montessori that the former residence of Jyoti Basu has been converted into better than a “chow shop” (“M for Montessori, not Marx”, July 26)? As long as both are governed by the same principles of profit-making? It is ironic but true that in Calcutta, kindergarten schools and eating joints seem to be cropping up with the same frequency. It would have been a different matter altogether if the residence of West Bengal’s longest-serving chief minister had been turned into a free school for street-children. Since it is not, Basu can hardly justify his son’s new venture as a “good cause”.
Yours faithfully,
Suddhasatwa Seal, Calcutta

Time to cash in

Sir — The decision to go for an early election in Gujarat is a potentially dangerous one. It is an attempt to capitalize on the communal divide that has become glaringly obvious after Godhra. In fact, the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state shows that it has always whipped up communal passion for electoral gains. It won the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh right after the Babri Masjid demolition. The Shiv Sena-BJP combine won a landslide victory in Maharashtra after the 1992 communal riots in the state, taking advantage of the prevalent mood of communal hatred. The election preparation in Gujarat is merely an attempt to repeat history.

In the last elections in UP, the party could not generate the desired degree of communal frenzy, although it tried to do so by giving the Vishwa Hindu Parishad the go-ahead to build momentum for the construction of the RamJanmabhoomi temple. What is truly baffling in this despicable drama is that the so-called secular allies of the BJP in the National Democratic Alliance, should choose to overlook the devious game plan of the sangh parivar.

Yours faithfully,
Sanjay Kumar, New Delhi

Sir — How political considerations can overshadow all humanitarian concerns is evident from the BJP’s attempt to hold an early election in Gujarat. It is no secret that the battered state has not returned to normalcy yet. Sporadic incidents of violence are still reported daily from different parts of the state. Thousands are yet to return home from the relief camps while many have shifted base to other states. The scenario makes clear the reasons behind Narendra Modi’s decision to dissolve the assembly and call for elections: it will now be considerably easy for him and his party to garner a majority in the absence of a sizeable number of valid voters. Could there be a greater mockery of democracy and secularism?

Yours faithfully
P.K. Bagchi, Howrah

Sir — Narendra Modi is well within his constitutional rights in dissolving the Gujarat assembly and recommending early elections. But here a parallel can be drawn with another state facing elections: Jammu and Kashmir. By the same counter that the Centre is in favour of imposing president’s rule in this state, Gujarat should also be recommended for president’s rule to facilitate a free and fair elections. Also, the Election Commission must see to it that candidates with criminal records, inadequate educational qualification and unaccounted for wealth are debarred from contesting. The electorate should be able to vote for a candidate who is not debased and c orrupt.

Yours faithfully,
B.S. Ganesh, Bangalore

Parting shot

Sir — Vijay Anand’s case is a good example of what happens in India to persons who try to take a few bold strides (“Censored censor packs up”, July 22). The suggestion made by Anand, the chairman of the censor board, to impose a tax on pornographic films was based on sound logic. But his efforts met with virulent non-cooperation from the government. As Anand has rightly visualized, a ban on such movies and the halls showing them will not solve the problem. Besides theatres illegally showing X-rated films, there are numerous adult websites which one can access readily. These provide enough ingredients to fulfil the demands of a part of the Indian audience. It would have been more in keeping with the times if the government had seen eye to eye with Anand on this issue.
Yours faithfully,
Pritha Gupta, Chinsurah

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