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Blame it on big, bad Bollywood

Things are getting worse for South Asian women in Britain, according to feminist British author Amrit Wilson, who asked me to read her new book before writing about it (an unusual request to make to a journalist, I must say).

But for light reading last week on my direct London-Calcutta Air India flight, I packed her Dreams, Questions, Struggles: South Asian Women in Britain (Pluto Press) ' the 9 hrs 17 mins seemed just right, inclusive of time for breathers and note taking with sharp pencil.

Amrit, who was born in Calcutta to a South Indian father (Rao) and a Bengali mother (Amiya Banerjea) and has lived in Britain since the 1970s, is even sharper on lots of things, including Bollywood.

She focuses on the allegedly insidious effect of two typical blockbusters, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and Kabhi Khushi, Kabhi Gham ' “both present a sanitised picture of India, with none of the poverty which might embarrass Asians living in the west.”

Although I cannot totally endorse Amrit’s bitter view of love, life and Asians, she does make the (quite valid) point that Bollywood reinforces “traditional Hindu family values” and the syndrome of the daughter-in-law who cannot be happy until she is “properly subservient”. What worries her is that these films are now “taught in primary schools as examples of ‘traditional’ culture”.

“Bollywood is increasingly influencing the lives of the South Asian diaspora,” claims Amrit.

She points out that in another movie, Baghban, the grandmother, Pooja (Hema Malini), is portrayed as a “true avenging Hindu heroine”, while adopted son Alok’s wife “is the perfect daughter-in-law, willing to be a slave and insisting on literally worshipping her in-laws”.

I also found intriguing her comments on the “Hindu” brothers at university who “protect” the “female South Asian Hindu students”, “mainly from Muslim men”.

Amrit takes the view that “the rise of the religious right” has made life harder for Asian women.

Whether unmarried Indian and Pakistani women in Britain, without a family support structure ' their numbers are growing ' are any happier is not a question Amrit has addressed.

But she deserves an attentive audience when she asserts: “In this generation, young Asian women face enormous pressures which are entirely new ' for example the pressures to consume and to tailor their appearance to ‘acceptably non-ethnic’ standards. Some things have not changed in 30 years. In some parts of the country ' and not just isolated areas ' the police still use family members, even husbands, to interpret in domestic violence cases.”

She has not suggested this but perhaps British police should routinely ask all Asian husbands: “Have you stopped beating your wife'”

India flying'

The Indian news agent at Waterloo underground station in London was simultaneously proud and scathing of The Economist’s cover story last week, “Is India Flying'”

“What flying'” he said scorn- fully.

He found the page with the exchange rates: “Eighty six rupees to the pound. If it was 40, I would say India’s flying.”

The cover sketch is of an Indian levitating, but he clutches a laptop and a mobile phone. The 14-page report asserts: “The question is no longer whether India can fly, but how high.”

The most unexpected Economist story was the $750 million bid, subsequently withdrawn, by Vijay Mallya, of United Breweries, for Taittinger, the French champagne house. India buys only 100,000 bottles of champagne a year, a figure which is likely to rise, although one hopes it will be drunk by people rather more discriminating than Rahul Mahajan and his associates.

Dance, dance

Former journalist Sumit Mitra accepted my recommendation and invested '60 in seeing the hit musical Billy Elliott with his wife, Shoma.

Sumit, now the speechwriter for Mukesh Ambani at Reliance, enjoyed the musical so much that he will, in turn, recommend it to all his friends heading to London for summer.

“We are floored,” the ex-Presidency College boy told me, minutes after he had emerged from the show, which tells of the story of an 11-year-old boy from a working class mining village who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer.

The tale is set against the backdrop of the 1984-85 dispute between the National Union of Mineworkers and Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister. She finished off the strikers and the mines ' it is shocking that today Britain practically has no coal mines, even in Wales.

As a child I had been captivated by the 1941 film set in a Welsh mining village, How Green was My Valley, based on Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel of the same name. More than a decade ago, I went to Wales to report on the unsuccessful attempt to keep open the last mine in Wales.

“We thought the dancing in Billy Elliott excellent; the choreography absolutely stunning and the political context unique,” enthused Sumit.

For London-bound Indian swallows, I also recommend the musical Evita, based on the life of Evita Peron, lover and later wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron, which has returned to the London stage. She was a sort of Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi rolled into one.

Old is gold

If western jewellery can be brought to India for sale, it’s only fair there should be trade in the reverse direction. A well known jewellery store in Jaipur, the Gem Palace, is to hold an exhibition-cum-sale of 250 trinkets in London at Somerset House, from September 28 to October 22.

The Treasures from the Gem Palace exhibition has been organised by Harry Fane, recognised as an authority on vintage Cartier. Amongst the jewels on display will be “gold and enamelled chandelier earrings, cabochon rings, delicate bracelets, beaded necklaces studded with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies, as well as jewelled objects d’art set with precious and semi-precious stones”.

The Kasliwal family, whose ancestors were apparently jewellers to the Moghul emperors, established the Gem Palace in 1852. Its jewellery was worn most recently at the Oscars in Los Angeles by Amber Valletta and Mira Sorvino.

“Past admirers of the Gem Palace have included Countess Mountbatten of Burma, Jackie Onassis, and Princess Diana,” says a spokeswoman for the store.

Present-day admirers include Nicole Kidman, Mick Jagger, Giorgio Armani and Arun Nayar ' the latter, clearly a modern thinking man, would one day like to buy his girlfriend, Liz Hurley, some jewellery as well.

ON A HIGH: Lakshmi Mittal

Tittle tattle

There is no escaping the ubiquitous Lakshmi Mittal, even at 35,000 ft. During the flight, when I looked at the International Herald Tribune, as one does, there was a front page interview given by the steel tycoon at his London office.

Ever since Guy Dolle of Arcelor called Mittal Steel “cologne” to Arcelor’s “perfume”, all of Asia appears to be rooting for Mittal. “The IHT carries something on Mittal every day,” explained a Calcutta friend.

The French won’t be pleased if Mittal gets to buy French-dominated Arcelor.

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