The world of films has always had a sleazy side to it. Drugs and sexual exploitation are always present in the reality of films. This is not just true of Bollywood but of Hollywood as well. One has only to remember the close links that a famous singer-cum-actor had with the New York mafia. He was the mafia’s man in Beverly Hills. This interface between the underworld and the film world is in the nature of the business of movie-making. From a business point of view, investment in films can never be safe. Nobody can quite predict which film will be a hit and which will bomb. If investment, as John Maynard Keynes said, is an act of faith then films are not an entity that evokes faith among those who are keen to earn returns on their investment. The markets for films are unpredictable and volatile. Hence, there is an inevitable propensity for money made through illegal means to enter the business of film-making. The money may not come directly but may be routed through fronts.
In many ways this interface is an integral part of the film business. Given the fact that this is not unknown or unknowable, there is no reason why this link cannot be snapped through better policing. There are no signs that the authorities have quite woken up to the dangers inherent in the close links between criminals and the leading players of Bollywood. Dutt’s closeness may be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Any violation of the law and any links with known criminals should not be tolerated. Film stars should learn that their celebrity status endows on them more, not less, social responsibility.
Neither does prosperity. That was confirmed during last week’s gruelling flights from Singapore to Colombo and London and back within a few days by way of Male, Colombo and Kuala Lumpur. Several time zones and many stretches of land and water. Also, the confusion of features and languages which warns you that, asked where they are from, obvious Indians or Chinese stranded at distant airports and layover hotels will reply Australia or Canada.
If racial stereotyping is out, not so the habits and customs that popular lore associates with particular cultures. Like that Barisal fisherman languishing in Mana’s desert heat, all those passengers jostling along thousands of intercontinental miles carried their own inflatable lifestyles in mental packets. But unlike Dracula, who could never be parted from his bed of native earth, these were, if not innocents abroad, travellers in innocence.
Not for them the aggressiveness that a Moscow Times columnist called Foreigner Abroad Syndrome and which was most marked on one of the last Aeroflot flights from Calcutta to London. There was no privacy in that plane-load of Bengalis settled in Britain. Every remark was made in a loud voice for everybody. Anyone who wanted to — and usually several did — chipped in with comments. A straw poll of the menfolk would have confirmed their country of adoption as the world’s worst. A doctor from the Midlands held forth on the iniquities of Britain’s health service; someone who lived in Southall gloated over the snub he had delivered to the British high commissioner in Delhi, whom he referred to by first name; a third man announced that the British were jealous because India is a major power. “Their skin is burning”, he screamed in idiomatic Bengali. “They have no answer when you tell them. They just look at you sideways in that sly way of theirs as if to say ‘There are things you don’t know’ and move away silently.”
In contrast, the women loved Britain. Domestic drudgery notwithstanding, it meant release from censorious in-laws and extended families. They bubbled with excitement because duty done, they were returning to the sleet and snow. Across aisles and over seats, down the length of the plane, they cried out in shrill triumph that Calcutta had laid them low. Some suffered acutely from the December heat, some from the pollution. The water was lethal, the food only slightly less so. “I can’t stand spicy cooking!”
For a Bosepukur-and-Bradford girl it was the alcohol. She had partied on New Year’s eve and jet-setted to a disco in a five-star hotel. “Y’know, all these people trying to be Western!” she sneered. What they gave her to drink she didn’t know but “Honest, it was killing! Calcutta alcohol, I mean, I could do without it, thank you!” A pretty young woman in slacks with two small boys on leashes could not stand the crowds in her parental Shyambazar. “I refused to go anywhere. My mother has a telephone now” — this with ringing pride— “so we just told everyone that if they wanted to see me they would have to come.”
“Yes, yes, yes!” chorused women, fat and thin, tall and short, big and small. “We couldn’t be bothered going round Haltu and Hatkhola, Taltala and Tarapur, salaaming the relatives like before. They had to come to us. We have telephones now. We can summon them when we want.” Thanks to Britain, they had freedom, authority and bargaining power.
Not so the two cheerful Tamil labourers with barely a word of English, who boarded at Kuala Lumpur on a return trip to Madras via Colombo. Their boarding passes were for a window seat and the one next to it, but the buxom Sinhalese woman settled in London and her little boy who had talked incessantly next to me in the centre aisle suddenly decided to move to the side seats. So, the hostess sat the Tamils down in two other places that were empty but whose legitimate occupiers soon appeared and turfed them out. The men moved willingly but had to move again and again like ticketless passengers. Only when I intervened was the chart consulted and two vacant places found without disturbing the mother and son from London.
A Western hostess would have ordered the pair back to their seats. Ours being Asian, obligingly tried to solve the problem without offending anyone, least of all a passenger who looked as if she could create trouble. That only compounded difficulties. Moreover, the hostesses were Sinhalese and, who knows, the episode might have been chalked up as another instance of discrimination against Tamils.
The hostess’s efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable were part of the Asian amiability that was manifest in many ways. As a regular cattle-class flier, I found Sri Lankan airlines far more generous with food and drink than any Western carrier. Whereas European hotels treat you with near-insolence if you have an airline layover, for it means that you are not paying, during two halts at Negombo in Sri Lanka, where I spent not a penny, they still treated me like an honoured guest with a welcoming smile, a garland of shells and a ritual drink each time.
The flip side was the deference to authority that the hostess demonstrated. It was also evident at Colombo’s Bandaranaike airport when passengers with connections were led past waiting queues and whisked through all formalities. Of course, it happens all the time in India, but somehow seemed more obvious in Sri Lanka. Perhaps it was more noticeable after Singapore where a high official whose last posting was as high commissioner in London checked in his family at the counter like the rest of us and said goodbye outside the security enclosure. No upgrading or special entrée in this fiercely meritocratic democracy. But as an Australian once lamented to me, he had asked his company to post him in Asia and they had sent him to Singapore instead “where everything works”.
Asia also makes itself felt in less pleasant ways. Passengers took not the least notice of constant appeals over the loudspeaker to keep the aisles free. They repeatedly squeezed past the service trolleys or expected stewards to back away. The hybrid costume of women in Western dress revealed an incongruous love of gold ornaments, while marks and daubs on foreheads betrayed tradition’s continuing hold. Luggage was often higgledy-piggledy with one man travelling with an arched cane bookshelf. Worst of all, no other passengers reduced bathrooms so quickly to such odorous squalor.
But there might yet be hope. They used to say in Britain, even in the Fifties, that there was no point in equipping the new working-class houses with long baths because the inmates would use them only to store coal. The British working class — if it can still be called that — has moved on ostentatiously, but in other ways, England is succumbing not to Asians — who are too desperately trying to be British — but to Asian norms.
The London underground is nowadays full of notices asking people not to put their feet up on the seat, something that would not have needed to be said in the England of our dreams. More than once I saw men with their feet up, and they were all whites. As I discovered last week, Asians do such things only in an Asian environment. It’s their last stand, a release from the irksome constraints of conforming to an alien ethic.
Something in thereLok Sabha the 13th. A terrible fear has gripped MPs after the sudden death of the vice-president, Krishan Kant. With 14 MPs as well as two presiding officers of the two houses, GMC Balayogi and Kant, dead and gone, legislators are reported to have begun feeling that the 13th Lok Sabha, which had its prime minister sworn in on the 13th day of October, and managed to survive a terrorist attack on the 13th of December last year, is definitely inauspicious. When party leaders assembled early last week in the room of the Lok Sabha speaker, Manohar Joshi, to condole the death of Kant, there was panic writ large on the faces. Some felt that it was the Parliament library that was jinxed. Some others suggested the Andhra connection. Both Balayogi and Kant had served the state. Naturally, there were fervent suggestions for a puja or yajna be performed to rid the house of the evil spirit. But it would be too much to expect a consensus among parliamentarians. The BSP’s legislator, Rashid Alvi, is supposed to have butted in to point out that Parliament was a secular space. No mumbo-jumbo then? No such luck. Alvi meant that there needed to be prayers held in all the different religious ways. Be prepared for a larger circus anyday now!
Our man in the MEACaught offguard. The excited, talkative Yashwant Sinha was happily mingling among senior officials of the ministry soon after taking over as the new foreign minister of the country when he suddenly went speechless. The googly came from a senior member of his office who had been his classmate once. “So you finally made it to the foreign office?” A seemingly innocent query. But Sinha was stumped when the official also started to recall how a young Sinha was once desperate to get to the foreign service, but had failed to bag the most sought after job. Sinha had had to settle for a career as an IAS officer. While the journey down the memory lane continued, Sinha shuffled uncomfortably. But the sheepish smile never left his face. He’s already learnt the ropes you mean?
Attention, matesWit’s end. Last week when a calling attention session on disinvestment was proposed by the BJP MP, Kirit Somayya, in the Lok Sabha, it yanked up eyebrows. Jaws hit the ground when Kirit, going against the tradition, started showering praise on the disinvestment minister, Arun Shourie. Aghast, senior MP of the CPI(M), Somnath Chatterjee, pointed out that Somayya was merely patting Shourie’s back instead of asking questions. That was when Raghuvansh Prasad of the RJD pitched in in his inimitable style, “We have heard about match-fixing, but what I can see here is that even calling attention can be fixed”. Well said, Prasad.
Made for each otherMatchless, both of them. But parliamentary affairs minister, Pramod Mahajan, seems to have a competitor in the political secretary to Sonia Gandhi, Ambika Soni. The latter seems to have been in urgent need of an accommodation, but the parliamentary panel on housing would not oblige her. At that juncture, Mahajan, acting as election agent of APJ Abdul Kalam, approached Soni for an appointment with madam. The sec made it clear that it would be a one-to-one meeting between Sonia and Kalam. “Where will I go?” asked Mahajan. Soni was quick to reply, “Both of us will sit out and have tea”. Fair enough. The next day, the parliamentary panel on housing is said to have called up Soni to say that a house was ready for her on the recommendation of the parliamentary affairs minister. Give and take or mutual respect?
Those in the rat raceWhat is not sauce for the gander is evidently sauce for the geese. Krishan Kant may have died a sad vice-president, but that does not mean others will not vie for his post. Which is why the two contenders are busy trying to snub each other. While the opposition candidate, Sushil Kumar Shinde, is trying his best to woo the 120 scheduled caste and scheduled tribe MPs, urging them to vote for a fellow Dalit, the BJP’s Bhairon Singh Shekhawat is as busy trying to show Shinde in poor light. The whisper campaign alleges that Shinde is married to a Kayastha. His two daughters are married into Jain families in Rajasthan and by his looks and sartorial taste, Shinde appears more like a Chitpavan Brahmin than a Dalit. What does Shekhawat look like?
No flowers anymoreA dream goes bust. Trinamool MP, Sudip Bandopadhyay, is alleged to have even got himself a bandhgala in preparation for the ministerial swearing-in, but fate ruled otherwise. Didi wouldn’t take anything but railways,which meant Sudip could have nothing. And now, he doesn’t even have didi’s ears anymore. At a recent working committee meeting of the party, Sudip is said to have suggested that the proposed bandh in Bengal would not achieve much. Didi should accept whatever the NDA offered, go to Delhi and manipulate decisions from there. At this, didi is reported to have leapt up for his throat. He was told that he was not the “policy-maker” of the party. Quite naturally, Sudip is supposedly planning to leave Trinamool with three MPs in tow to bargain with the PM. All for wearing the bandhgala?
Cleaning the messFinicky Mr Jaswant Singh has a thing about cleanliness at the workplace. He has sought the services of a senior bureaucrat to keep North Bloc spick and span. Our man has had a stint as administrator of New Delhi Municipal Corporation. Which means North Bloc will surely and steadily descend to hell.
Footnote / A house for Ms AzmiFor all her activist, pro-poor image, actress and Rajya MP, Shabana Azmi, is quite an adept player of babugames in the capital. She has managed to bag a prime type-VIII ministerial bungalow on 23 Ashoka Road when, as a first time MP, she was entitled to nothing more ambitious than a modest flat in Vithalbhai Patel House or North or South Avenue. In fact, so keen was she on the house that she turned down the request of former resident Margaret Alva to let her remain for a month since her daughter-in-law had just given birth.
But poetic justice seems to be catching up on Azmi. Her much-prized bungalow has now become a wasteland with the Delhi Metro digging up much of the place and creating a din with their heavy machinery. So bothered is Azmi by the ruckus that she now wants to move out. But given the shortage of housing in New Delhi, her wish is not likely to be fulfilled soon. Significantly, other eminent Bollywood denizens in the Rajya Sabha — Dilip Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar — are yet to be allotted houses from the Rajya Sabha pool.
The judge’s decision, which came during the course of the ongoing Bharat Shah investigation under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), ended what had been reprieve time for the Dutt family. During which a relatively relaxed Sunil Dutt had been preparing for the sadbhavana rally, which he was to lead along with fellow-activist Sharmila Tagore for the victims of the Gujarat carnage; while son Sanjay was shooting in idyllic Ooty (the Mezza Mezza party was a brief getaway).
The new tape — an earlier round of tapped phone conversation had been released around October 2000 — puts the spotlight on Dutt. But it has also spurred on the Bharat Shah investigation that had been flagging after Shah was released on bail this March.
Shah — Bollywood’s biggest and most high-profile financier — had been arrested under Section 3 of the MCOCA last January. His arrest and the subsequent investigation hinges on a massive 18,000-page chargesheet based on telephone-taps that were initially restricted to Chhota Shakeel’s three mobile telephones with their Dubai SIM cards, but later also covered the phones of Shah, producer Nazim Rizvi and actor Dutt. The final recorded phone-taps have led to a total of 31 tapes and much display of Bollywood underbelly muck. They have also led to fear psychosis in a film industry that has historically depended on its symbiotic relationship with the underworld in order to survive.
The film world’s link with the underworld has never been a secret, and actors, producers and directors themselves once cultivated the dons with pride. A joint commissioner of police said: “Till the Mumbai blasts, getting photographed with the dons or celebrating birthdays with them was not considered anti-national. The bubble burst after the blasts in 1993.”
Film producers benefit immensely from this relationship, but as the former joint commissioner of police, crime, D. Sivanandan, who arrested Shah points out, “Such link-ups can land them in a soup. Initially, the producers associate themselves with the underworld to gain a foothold in the industry. But after they make their mark, the gangs demand a cut.”
With the release of this instalment of phone-tap tapes, speculation is rife again on the Karachi and Dubai bhais,and their moles and molls in Mumbai — and if the tapes are the last word, Dutt now has a lot more explaining to do. In the recorded conversation that was played out in special judge A.P. Bhangale’s courtroom, Dutt speaks to Shakeel, along with director Mahesh Manjrekar; and producers Harish Sugandh and Sanjay Gupta. Not too long ago, Dutt played a ruthless underworld don in Manjrekar’s Vaastav — a film which many saw as a positive landmark in the actor’s chequered career.
Originating from Bollywood’s heartland, the Bharat Shah case has been promisingly dramatic from the very beginning. The Sensex marked the day of his arrest by crashing 63 points. Not surprising, given that Shah also controls a diamond business worth over a 1000 crores, apart from the fact that he has invested nearly a 100 crore rupees in Hindi films, including Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s opulent Devdas. With the release of the new tape, the drama continues. Speculation is now rife about the timing of the release of this particular segment of Shakeel’s conversation with Dutt. Especially since the abridged transcripts of the tapes had already been heard in the court.
One Bollywood insider says, “The orders for a leak of this particular tape would have had to come from somewhere high…and everyone knows Bharat Shah has ‘powerful connections’ at the Centre. I think the idea was to show Dutt saheb’s family in bad light. It [taped conversation] will also cast its shadow on Dutt saheb’s sadbhavana rally. After all now the thinking will be: ’jis ke ghar me apradhi ho, woh dusron ke apradh kya ujagar karega?’ (a person living in a glass house should not throw stones).” Another line of speculation revolves around the Sunil Dutt-Sharad Pawar rivalry. Some people believe that Pawar’s man in Maharashtra — Chhagan Bhujbal — the state’s deputy chief minister, who also holds the home portfolio is behind the release of the tape.
Speculation on Dutt aside, the tapes have only helped tighten the net around Shah. When the Mumbai police first began investigating Shah’s activities in December 1999, the businessman was unconcerned, he believed in the clout of his political patrons. It was only when the Mumbai police, empowered by the draconian MCOCA that provides for taped material to be used as evidence, confronted Shah with tapes of his conversations with Shakeel made during a surveillance operation that lasted over two months, that he realised the net was well and truly closing in.
The 1,800-page chargesheet filed in the Bharat Shah case includes evidence from 90 witnesses, including 14 film personalities that include Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Rani Mukherjee, Preity Zinta, Akshay Kumar, film directors Abbas-Mastan and Manjrekar and film producer Mansoor Siddque.
Countering the masses of taped evidence is a powerful campaign to save Shah — he is after all extremely close to the Thackeray clan and counts several politicians from the Centre among his close associates. Political games aside, Shah also has an important ally in his legal representative, Kapil Sibal.
Sibal, who had been Dutt’s lawyer during the 1993 serial bomb blast case, argued against Dutt during one of Shah’s bail hearings held in July last year. “Sanjay Dutt has directly spoken to Karachi-based Shakeel over the phone several times. The police even have a recording of the conversation. Yet he is a witness and Bharat Shah the accused.” But Sibal wasn’t trying to get Dutt into trouble with that statement. He later argued: “Several film personalities have talked to Shakeel over the telephone. What I am trying to say is that everybody in the film industry is acting under pressure. Witnesses’ statements mention that everybody had received threats from the underworld be it Dutt, Mahesh Manjrekar, Sanjay Gupta or Bharat Shah.”
But Sibal also has his own take on why Shah, who loves zipping around Mumbai in his glitzy BMWs, has been singled out by the police: “There are some witnesses who were actively involved in the underworld. Mansoor Siddiqui contacted Shakeel to recover Rs 35 lakhs from Dutt. Though he was seeking extortion money, he has been made a witness in the case. Whereas Bharat Shah spoke to Chhota Shakeel only once, that too through Nazim Rizvi…he has been singled out for reasons best known to the police…”
Coming to the defence of Shah, Shakeel while talking to a few Mumbai-based journalists soon after Shah was arrested, had said: “The voice in the tape is not mine. The language is also not mine. Shah is a ‘white aadmi’ and I had nothing to do with him.” Shakeel went on to say that while he did not believe in investing in Mumbai’s fickle film industry, he believed that Shah was being ‘punished’ for being close to a Shiv Sena leader.
And this is where the plot around Chhagan Bhujbal thickens. “We will smash the underworld-film nexus,” said the deputy chief minister after his weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday evening. Bhujbal, who had defected from the Shiv Sena several years ago, has taken a personal interest in the Bharat Shah case. Shah’s links with the Shiv Sena’s first family — the Thackerays — is well-documented. The link was more evident than ever when Thackeray’s daughter-in-law and avid film buff, Smita Thackeray, got her film Haseena Man Jayegi financed by Shah. His arrest embarrassed the Thackerays enough to keep them silent.
Crowded by the overwhelming sub-text, the Mumbai police has its work cut out for it in the Bharat Shah investigations. Legal experts feel, the trickiest part of the proceedings will be to prove that the person Bharat Shah (and the others) is talking to is really Shakeel. Since Shakeel lives outside the country, technically there isn’t any way to conclusively establish his voice on the tapes. One possibility though is that associates of Shakeel may be summoned to give evidence. Another more likely possibility is that Nazim Rizvi, producer of the film Chori Chori Chupke Chupke and identified in the first round of tapes as talking to Shakeel, may offer to turn approver in the case, in return for a lighter sentence.
Till that happens, speculation in the Bharat Shah case remains a free-for-all. In the meantime, the tapes continue to build an interesting lexicon of a Bollywood as the bhais know it. A star-spangled universe peopled by ‘hakla’ or Shah Rukh Khan the stammerer; nanga-nanga pehlwan or the brawny macho Salman; ‘chikna’ a double reference to either golden boy Hrithik Roshan or rival don Abu Salem with his playboy looks; and finally ‘jaan’ or Priety Zinta.
Get used to this ready reckoner — till the next lot of tapes are played out in the special judge’s courtroom.
Sareswala was addressing a meeting in central London on the condition of women in Gujarat after the communal riots. Sharing the dais with Sareswala was a group of women belonging to different women’s groups in England. There was documentary filmmaker Gita Sahgal, academician Bina Fernandez, and women’s activist Zubeida Motala. They had come together, for the first time, to raise awareness about the victims — particularly women — and call for an end to the funding of communal organisations. There were 10 women’s groups present who had combined to form an umbrella organisation called Asian Women Unite (AWU).
“All these groups have been very active over the years, working in areas like domestic violence, immigration, and rehabilitation of refugees,” says Amrit Wilson, one of the main forces behind Asian Women Unite. “After the riots in Gujarat, we decided to join forces.”
The women’s groups united under the common banner include well-known organisations like Southall Black Sisters (who hit the headlines after they won a landmark judgment in the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who was released after killing her husband following years of domestic violence), the Newham Asian Women’s Project, Brent Asian Women Resource Centre, Dosti, Asha and South Asian Solidarity. Since Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis all work closely in these groups, the movement found that it was easy to bring the communities together on the issue of communalism. “It was important for us to have a secular platform, “says Wilson. “AWU may have a broad range of political views, but the bottom line has been communal harmony.”
In their meetings, Wilson and her compatriots have been targeting ordinary Asian women who have never been politically active. They are talking to them about what is happening in Gujarat and other parts of the country and how it affects all of them. “We have been saying that VHP-UK, Sewa and other Britain-based charities are actively collecting funds which are then diverted to their units in India,” says Wilson. “We want to expose the real status of these organisations. Sewa International says on its website that it is part of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh and works according to the Sangh ideology. This is a charity that was very active during the Gujarat earthquake and collected hundreds and thousands of pounds. We have evidence that the money was used by Sangh Parivar activists in Gujarat who have been directly involved in the recent rioting.”
That AWU’s strategy to combat communalism is working is evident from the several public meetings that the group has successfully held in Southall and central London. They have been attended by ordinary people interested in knowing more. Women in hijabs have sat next to Hindu housewives and expressed anguish at the events in Gujarat. Wilson says that people have come up after meetings saying they had no idea that donations were being misused and that they would think again before giving any money to these charities.
Women have always been at the forefront of South Asian activism in Britain. Wilson herself — who has been based in Britain since the Sixties and is part of the first generation of activists — belongs to South Asia Solidarity, a group that was set up nearly two decades ago. At that time, the group was protesting against the treatment meted out to artists who had come to the UK for the Festival of India. “We soon became active on democratic issues, repression in South Asia, immigration laws, racism and other related issues,” says Wilson, whose book, Finding a Voice — Asian Women in Britain, created waves as soon as it was published in 1979.
Wilson points out that most South Asian men in Britain — when it came to activism — were worried only about racism. “When we came in, we started looking at other issues as well. We soon realised that the South Asian community in Britain was intensely patriarchal. In fact some aspects of our society were even more violent here than in South Asia. Young married women could be abused and had no recourse to justice. From 1979-80, a strong movement emerged for the protection of women and the first Asian women’s refuge centres were set up.”
Wilson and her fellow women activists soon discovered that as women, they were up against two systems, the British government and society and the patriarchal Asian society. “We realised that racism was creating a situation where women were being locked up within the community so they would be protected from the racism outside. But at the same time, if women aspired for freedom, people would sneer, saying they were trying to ‘become white’,” the activist explains.
Wilson points out that in Muslim-majority areas like Bradford, there was a dangerous trend of the right-wing British National Party (BNP) aligning with the VHP and the BJP against Muslims. “As if the BNP could ever be able to differentiate one Asian from another,” she laughs. “We are all ‘Pakis’ as far as they are concerned. But the trend is worrying.”
Today the groups that once led working-class Asian women out on the streets, are focussing on communalism, war and the nuclear build-up in the sub-continent. Recently, in a unique display of solidarity, nearly 200 Indians and Pakistanis formed a human chain outside 10 Downing Street calling on Britain to stop exporting arms to the sub-continent. “We see communalism as a dangerous force, one that is linked to the development of the Indian state,” says Wilson.
The women’s groups now plan to hold several meetings in local community centres up and down the country where there are large pockets of South Asians. Meetings in Newham and Bradford have been planned. A group of eight British MPs from the Labour Party has announced that it will visit Gujarat to get a first hand picture of the situation there. The group will also visit Kashmir in October.
Sareswala, who along with other Gujarati Muslims is calling for compensation for British victims, says it is amazing to see how little awareness there was in Britain of the situation back home. Hopefully, however, things look set to change now. “We have a long way to go,” she says. “But a very positive beginning has been made, and that is good.”
Two meals later, I found myself marvelling over food as a means to ‘rozi roti’. Under the banner of a new NGO called Media Moves initiated by Indu Jain, my friend Rashmi Uday Singh conducted the first of a proposed series of workshops to help homemakers make a living from their own kitchens. Women have always been like the ‘ghar ki murghi’ who is considered ‘daal barabar’. Now, the mundane moong is being turned into rich ‘makkhani’.
As I chewed on this serial encounter with kitchens, a thought sprang up like a burp. And, like this digestive milestone, it contained both relief and embarrassment. What gratified me was that a woman’s voyage into self-reliance was being embarked upon from the warm waters of her safest harbour. It also meant that the unsung chakki may finally be worshipped as a wheel of fortune.
What made me uneasy was the alacrity with which women ditch their kitchen. At the first whiff of empowerment, they dump it as a regressive symbol of drudgery instead of promoting its role as a source of strength. I can’t go as deep as the serene Indu Jain who, at the inauguration of the catering workshops, spoke of ‘Annam Brahman’, the Infinite in a grain of rice. Instead, I’ll go along with the educationist, Smita Deepak Parekh who publicly acknowledged the therapeutic value of cooking. I’ll endorse the fact that it doesn’t have to be perceived as a backbreaking chore; it can be a remedial balm, a somewhat sweaty sublimation of our angst against that potboiler called life.
Women voluntarily relinquish this first-mover advantage, this USP, and then whine that all the world’s great chefs are men. I know that the Mahila Mandal Commission will come down on me like a ton of frying pans for my insensitivity to the disparities between backburner classes and creamy layers. But, spare me the lecture on men whipping up celebrity from what women slave over. If women knew their onions instead of shedding tears over having to slice them, they’d proudly sing ‘Pyaz kiya to darna kya?’
Women have begun to recognise that the power emanating from the kitchen transcends the usual cliche of the rolling-pin thanks to the newish literary genre that uses food as metaphor. Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate has had many imitators, but really no equals. Doesn’t matter, in books, as in rosogollas, there’s always room for more. So while Chitra Banerjee Devakaruni’s Tilo, The Mistress of Spices, may not exude the evocative eroticism of Esquivel’s Tita, she too takes masalas into the metaphysical domain.
Kitchens don’t have to be militated against as perpetrators of heat. They can be basked in as a source of light. If a scoop of chilli powder can reinvent itself as a Cuisinart brand of cayenne pepper, surely a woman can upgrade her territory and market it to herself and her world as anything from political power-centre to safe getaway? The old, no-frills recipe collections now come with the lush production values of coffee-table literature. They are never meant to see the inside of a kitchen, but I would strongly advise women not to take a page out of this book. Cooking offers a range of satisfaction: belly-filler, money -spinner, stress-buster, Domestic Goddess- image-maker. Surrender this premium space at your peril.
Sachin’s master class
Last Saturday, India was resuming its first innings with Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar at the wicket. On this occasion, when the crowd was overwhelmingly white, I heard an Englishman in the crowd express mixed emotions: “If Tendulkar gets in ...”
The English wanted Tendulkar out quickly, but they also wanted the first Lord’s hundred from the man billed as the “world’s best batsman”.
It is not only the Indian media which puts huge psychological pressure on Tendulkar. A pull out special supplement in The Times had done a cover story on Tendulkar, in which John Woodcock, the paper’s former distinguished cricket correspondent, had called him, “The new Bradman”.
Woodcock’s equally distinguished successor, Christopher Martin-Jenkins (known as CMJ), included Tendulkar last week in his all time best Rest of the World eleven in a batting line up that began: Sunil Gavaskar, Barry Richards, Viv Richards, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar.
CMJ, who was sitting next to me, muttered: “I hope Sachin is going to justify his selection.”
The Lord’s failure notwithstanding, I believe he already has, and in time I am sure he will further justify CMJ’s faith. In fact, the Lord’s failure may be good for him since Tendulkar, like Gavaskar, is an intellectual who thinks analytically about the game.
This was obvious from the “Master Class” which Channel 4 TV filmed him taking just before it began coverage of the final day’s play from Lord’s. Tendulkar showed how he picks up his bat, keeps his left arm close to his body, follows the ball from the moment a bowler begins the run up and keeps his eyes focused within a narrow band. He was superb, as eloquent in explaining himself as he usually is on the field. Perhaps his future lies, not so much in opening a chain of restaurants, but in a Sachin Tendulkar School of Cricket for 10 year old Indian boys who dream of getting a Test hundred at Lord’s.
The prize, as Ajit Agarkar discovered, is an inscription in the hall of fame at the very headquarters of cricket.
Fear in Fulham
When Jemima Khan, daughter of the billionaire businessman, James Goldsmith, married the cricketer Imran Khan, and moved to Lahore, many a (jealous) woman journalist in London threw her hands up in horror.
Would this lovely English rose be safe in a Muslim country like Pakistan, they wondered?
It is ironic, then, that Jemima’s life has been threatened in her London home. An intruder, wearing a balaclava and wielding a knife, recently broke into her house in Fulham. What saved Jemima from possible tragedy was that a bodyguard, whom she had hired a few weeks ago, was sleeping downstairs. The intruder, who lunged at him with his knife, ripped his jacket before running away.
There has been speculation that since Imran is campaigning for the elections on October 5 as the leader of the Justice Party, the break-in was an attempt at either assassination or kidnap. The intruder, who let himself in, removed the film from the CCTV.
One journalist, Danae Brook, wrote in The Mail on Sunday, that Imran “could be a prime target for assassination by Islamic extremists. Many are convinced he will become the next leader of his country and, inevitably, that means he has serious enemies.”
Is Jemima pointing the finger, via the journalist, at Musharraf? She will have to be careful because London is, in some ways, more dangerous than Lahore.
Going to see Bombay Dreams again last week, this time with the family, I encountered a number of ticket touts outside the theatre — a sure sign of success. Andrew Lloyd Webber, the producer who has said he will take the musical to Broadway, will be pleased with that.
Lloyd Webber will be less pleased with an open letter in which the author and broadcaster Farrukh Dhondy has said that parts of the plot should be credited to him. As things now stand, the script, which was savaged by the critics, is said to be work of the writer Meera Syal.
Farrukh’s claims have been reported by Eastern Eye, an ethnic newspaper in London, in a story beginning: “A literary war has broken out in London’s West End over the true authorship of Bombay Dreams.
The musical, which is now the hottest show in the capital’s theatreland, is credited to comedienne Meera Syal as its author. But veteran writer Farrukh Dhondy told Eastern Eye that he is “the original author of the play, though he has received no recognition for it to this day.”
Actually, he did receive £2,000 for his original 19-page treatment, “Bombay Dreams. A Musical. By Farrukh Dhondy.”
I did manage to have a chat with Farrukh, who turned up at a cricket match in which I was playing (not very well, since you ask). His treatment begins with the line: “The city awakes to the sounds of the morning”.
It so happens the musical’s opening song is called: “Bombay awakes.”
Bombay Dreams was conceived of jointly by Shekhar Kapur and Lloyd Webber. Farrukh’s story is set in a slum where the hero, Ved, is brought up by hijras. He also suggests a character called Raj Rathor, an entertainment mogul, who is serving a sentence for tax evasion, plus a disruption of a Miss World contest by a bunch of feminists.
In the actual musical, the hero, Akaash, is befriended in the slum by hijras, one of whom, Sweetie, is his best friend. From inside prison, a film director, Madan K Kumar, who is in for tax evasion, runs his business, and there is indeed a disruption of a Miss World contest by feminists.
Since Farrukh signed away all his rights for the £2,000 fee, the matter, legally at least, as he seems to accept, is now closed. Perhaps Meera could help soothe Farrukh’s hurt feelings by sending him a thank you box of chocolates with some flowers.
To be compared with Bibhuti Bhusan Banerji, author of Pather Panchali, is a great honour. But that is precisely the accolade given to an Englishwoman, Sara Banerji, whose new novel, Shining Hero, has been tipped by Robert Nye, reviewing the book for The Times, as “a serious contender for this year’s Booker Prize”.
Sara, who met her husband in an Oxford coffee bar, spent the first 17 years of her married life in South India, tea planting and bringing up three children.
Shining Hero is set in India and is the story of a baby boy who is consigned to the Hoogly by his mother. The baby survives, is brought up as Karna and later begins a search for his biological mother.
Nye says that like Pather Panchali, Shining Hero “would also make a fine film”.
Like many a Gujarati living in Britain, the academic Lord Bhikhu Parekh has bought a property in Gujarat. He has gone off to his apartment in Baroda to engage in some deep thinking and write a heavyweight book.
But before leaving London, he tossed an idea into the air of constructing an imaginary dialogue between Mahatma Gandhi and Osama bin Laden. If he had the time, he would be tempted to write a play.
“I want to write books which will be read several hundred years from now,” he said.
Still, I persisted, how would the play end?
“Gandhi would have told Osama bin Laden, ‘You have achieved what you set out to achieve, so you should, if you really love Afghanistan as you say you do, surrender to the Americans. They won’t know what to do with you. At your trial, which will have to be public, you will have the world as your stage.’ ”
And would he listen to the Mahatma?“Yes.”
Too little, too lateLate entry Sir — The new finance minister, Jaswant Singh, is deluding himself if he thinks that voters are naïve enough to not see through his schemes (“Jaswant makes room to cut tax burden”, Aug 1). Singh is making amends for his predecessor’s folly by announcing tax cuts so that small investors can be wooed back to the party. With polls due in several states, the Bharatiya Janata Party cannot risk to lose this segment of voters. However, Singh’s bag of goodies comes a bit late in the day and may not be enough to undo the damage already done by the taxman, Yashwant Sinha.
Sir — Pratap Bhanu Mehta in his article, “Unlettered assembly” (July 25), deduces that lack of education among legislators does not necessarily make them bad ones. In that case, lack of education should not make bad civil servants either. But strangely enough, Indian civil servants not only have to be graduates but they also have to go through rigorous civil service examinations. Most often they work under bosses who have criminal records or little learning.
As regards electoral reforms every voter has the right to know whether a candidate has been chargesheeted with a criminal offence or not. However, the disclosure of financial assets might be interpreted as an encroachment of privacy and needs further deliberation.
Sir — That the educational qualifications of candidates filing for nominations have little or no impact on their performance and behaviour in the legislative assemblies cannot be accepted. A basic education is required as the elected candidate often has to interact with the media, foreign delegates and people from all walks of life. In Sanskrit there is a saying that vidya dadati vinayam, meaning education makes a man polite and gentle. Thus we can assume that a legislator’s behaviour has something to do with his education.
Since legislators are elected by popular mandate, voters have the right to demand that disclosures about their education and financial assets be made mandatory. Parties, irrespective of their ideology, should unite on the issue of electoral reforms.
Wrath of nature
Sir — This year the failure of the monsoon in large parts of India has resulted in drought-like conditions, which should make the Indian government think of ways to provide food aid to avoid death caused by starvation (“Truant monsoon fuels generator rush”, July 24). What the Centre can do to prevent further deterioration of the situation is to stock foodgrains in religious institutions like gurdwaras, mosques and temples from where it can be distributed to the affected. This will help the authorities reach the targeted areas faster and will be cost effective as well. Sincere efforts are needed at such a time and such measures would help a large number of people within a short span of time. Such rations may also be provided by the Food Corporation of India and a list of the quantities being provided by the government should be drawn up to ensure transparency in the system.
The government’s example in turn will inspire NGOs and corporate houses to contribute both materially and financially to those affected by droughts. The Centre has to be prompt in its aid. Precious time has already been lost.
Sir — Droughts are a frequent phenomenon in our country owing to inadequate planning and financial mismanagement by bureaucrats and politicians. In some states the existing water resources are not properly used and disputes with neighbouring states over the issue of sharing of water is becoming a common trend. This leads to loss of both money and time. Deforestation has had a detrimental effect on the quantity of rainfall in India. The planning commission should seriously consider remedial measures to reduce the occurrence of drought in India and also see that they are implemented.
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