The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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A tale of two cities

returning to London, my first outing was to the press night of the return “by public demand” of Calcutta Kosher, by Shelley Silas, the play which emphasises how Jews in India, especially in Calcutta, have not faced the discrimination they have suffered in most other countries.

Before leaving Calcutta, my last assignment was being taken around by Ian Zachariah, one of the most respected members of the city’s 50-strong Jewish community, to two well-maintained synagogues, Beth El and Maghen David, in Canning and Pollock Streets respectively just off Dalhousie, as well as to the cemetery. Here Ian’s parents and both his grandmothers are buried.

“I have booked my space,” he quipped.

Ian is flying to London to catch Calcutta Kosher, which did well enough on its first run to be brought back by another London venue, the Theatre Royal in Stratford East. It’s much improved.

Jamilla Massey plays Mozelle, an ailing Jewish mother who resists pressure from Silvie (her hellish daughter from Los Angeles, played by Shelley King, an actress originally from Calcutta) and her other daughter, Esther (Harvey Virdi), from London, to emigrate to a more comfortable life in the West.

After visiting the two synagogues in Calcutta (looked after by Muslim caretakers) and the cemetery (which is cared for by Shalom Israel, 31, who buried his father there last December), Mozelle’s words have acquired added meaning: “This is my home, this is where I belong. Calcutta is the only place to live in India, you know. This is where I was born, this is where I will die.”

A huge plug for Calcutta but not undeserved.

During a day trip to Santiniketan last week, Supriya Roy, the excellent librarian at Visva-Bharati, told me how back in 1938, Tagore rescued a German Jew, Alex Aronson, who was fleeing Nazi persecution but had been arrested by the British in Calcutta as an “undesirable alien”. Tagore fought for his release and brought him to Santiniketan where Aronson taught English for years.

Even the Left in London, who think they have advanced views on the controversial issue of asylum, would concede Tagore’s radical stance on human rights was ahead of its time.

Cover uncover

If it’s not actually raining Asian cover stories in London, they are now no longer a rarity. The latest in the Mail on Sunday’s You Magazine is on Preeya Kalidas, who was the first to play the female lead in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams.

For a year, Preeya had to do a wet sari scene, which she explained thus: “Saris are quite an integral part of Bollywood films because they show a woman being sexy without having to take her clothes off. It’s fantastic — great. You suddenly feel completely empowered as a woman, whereas nudity is not something I would be completely comfortable with.”

If Mahesh Bhatt or any other Indian director worth his salt is really looking for suitable actors from England, people like Preeya might be worthy candidates — rather than the contrived discoveries of Channel 4’s reality show, Bollywood Star.

Magic pop

Another 23-year-old making a name is Jay Sean, a pop singer of Sikh origin, who has just been signed by Relentless Records, a branch of the Virgin label, for a reported £1 million.

Jay, whose inspiration is his grandfather, a singer at Sikh weddings, still lives with his family in Hounslow, a Punjabi area in west London.

“I always harboured this dream of being a singer,” he says. “When relatives came from overseas, I had to sing for them. I was the party trick.”

Despite this and a promising academic record at school, he chose to become a pop singer. He recently performed at the MTV India awards and his latest single, Eyes on You, is “already getting huge airplay in the week prior to its release”, it has been reported.

His label has described his voice as “mesmerising” and some have even called him “the Asian Craig David”, after the successful British pop singer.

At Relentless Records, his managing director, Shabs Jobanputra, is optimistic: “For years I have been looking for an Asian superstar.”

Perhaps another candidate for Mahesh Bhatt to consider.

ACCENT WISE: Madhav Sharma

Well spoken

The Indian actor in England with probably the most impeccably-spoken English is Madhav Sharma. So it was nice of him to ask: “How was my Bengali'”

I could truthfully assure him it was very good. Madhav plays the caring Muslim cook Siddique in Calcutta Kosher.

I showed Madhav my note book. I had recorded that his very first words in the play, Kamon aacho, bhalo' (How are you, all right'), had been executed to perfection.

There is a reason why Madhav’s spoken Bengali is convincing. “My father, K. S. Sitaram Iyer, lived in Calcutta for 35 years,” says RADA-trained Madhav, who changed his stage surname to Sharma. “My nephew is (the writer) Pico Iyer.”

Madhav goes on: “I did study for two years at Scottish Church College. My first Shakespearean role was at Scottish Church when Harold Taylor was the principal.”

His next acting role could not be more English. “I am in the West End, playing Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night,” he says happily.

Life line

And to think at one stage British Airways cancelled its non-stop London-Calcutta service. The twice (or is it thrice') weekly service goes pretty full, and it is now up to the airline and the West Bengal government to increase the frequency to a daily one (more business, trade, academics and food writers would surely follow).

The service has become a life line between Bengalis in London and their families in Calcutta.

“I am grateful for this service,” I told one of the stewards on the way back to London.

“Oh, thank you,” he replied, “but wait till we have served the meal.”

There wasn’t one. Snacks, yes, but no meal. Next time I shall take a tiffin carrier.

IN FOCUS: Monica Ali

Tittle tattle

At the time of writing I believe Monica Ali, author of Brick Lane, has contributed a long feature on Calcutta for The Daily Telegraph. She would probably have preferred to have written about Dhaka, where she was born but the Bangladeshi authorities would not give Monica, a British passport-holder, a visa when she last applied for one. They believe that writers, a dangerous lot who refuse to do what they are told, are best kept out. I would have liked to have read Monica on the colourful Bangladeshi version of Holi — chucking acid on women. BBC World Service radio has just broadcast a damning report on this practice.

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