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Sunday , March 14 , 2010
Since 1st March, 1999
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The new crusade: from Richard the Lionheart to Swraj Paul

As Swraj Paul emerged into the House of Lords car park last week and got into his waiting limousine, he had no reason to take extra notice of the statue that dominates this corner of the Palace of Westminster.

It is that of Richard the Lionheart, dressed in battle armour, astride his horse and with his mighty sword raised high.

And yet, he ought to have done, for Richard the Lionheart, one of the legendary kings of England, who was born in 1157 and ruled from 1189 to 1199, was much more of a “non-dom”, I have just established, than Swraj has ever been.

Last week, Paul, targeted by David Cameron as a non-dom contributor to Labour to deflect attention from the £4m contribution to Tory funds by another non-dom businessman, Michael Ashcroft, announced his decision to give up his non-dom status.

There is no more infelicitous word in common currency in the English language than “non-dom” — short for non-domicile. The confusion arises because someone like Paul, who is domiciled in Britain, can be treated as a non-domicile for tax purposes because of his birth abroad. Ashcroft has lived mainly outside Britain.

Paul, who was born in Jalandhar on February 18, 1931, will turn 80 next year. He now pays personal tax of half a million pounds a year in the UK, employs 3,500 British workers and has lived in England for the past 44 years — which is a lot more than Richard the Lionheart.

To go back to the beginning, Richard the Lionheart was a hero of mine from childhood days, when sitting between the tomato plants in the garden of our very modest home in Patna, I read the stories of Robin Hood. The outlaw of Sherwood Forest remained loyal to Richard the Lionheart who was forever absent crusading against Al-Quaeda in the Holy Land, while his evil brother, John, schemed to usurp his throne.

It now comes as a shock to learn that Richard the Lionheart was French, spoke almost no English, spent barely six months in England during his entire tenure as king and exploited the country to raise taxes to finance his war on terror. He was a non-dom in the true sense of the word.

Baroness Bachchan?

The burning question posed by Lord Meghnad Desai, the Labour peer, at a gala dinner in London last week, was: “Is Jaya Bachchan a ‘Lady’?

What Desai was suggesting — with the most honourable of intentions — was that Jaya, by virtue of belonging to the Rajya Sabha, should automatically qualify for membership of the House of Lords, the British upper chamber, in a sort of reciprocal arrangement.

This proposition from Desai, an economics professor from the London School of Economics who was elevated to the peerage in 1991, is not without merit. After all, many of the top clubs in India and the UK do allow their members to share each other’s facilities.

“The Bombay Gym has reciprocal arrangements with the Royal Overseas League, which I use quite often,” I have confirmed with a long time member of the Bombay Gym.

Desai’s suggestion was made after Jaya received a lifetime achievement award from the London Asian Film Festival, whose director, Pushpinder Choudhury, set up an organisation, Tongues on Fire, 12 years ago to recognise the work of women such as Aparna Sen, Sharmila Tagore and Shabana Azmi in Indian cinema.

The audience at the award ceremony at the Bafta headquarters of the British film industry in Piccadilly was also impressed by Abhishekh’s answers during an on-stage conversation with Francine Stock, a well known BBC journalist who often presents arts programmes.

“It was indeed an experience — not least to see the effect of Indian cinema ‘royalty’ on the atmosphere in the auditorium, since he was accompanied by his father and mother and his wife!” Stock remarked later.

“Abhishek himself was charming, apparently modest and thoughtful,” she added. “I was interested in his robust rebuttal — on the grounds that the Indian industry hardly needs to expand its market — of suggestions that Bollywood might be courting ‘crossover’ joint ventures with Hollywood.”

Jaya, accompanied by her son, popped over for an hour to a dinner at the Sheraton Park Lane Hotel nearby where Desai personally conferred “Baroness Jaya Bachchan” with membership of the House of Lords.

Perfect portraits

With only 60 exhibits, the National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition, The Indian Portrait: 1560-1860, which has just opened, is — to use a cliché — small but perfectly formed.

I intend going back for another look, especially at the awesome portrait of Jahangir holding a globe attributed to Abu’-Hasan in 1617.

By the way, Indians who come for The Indian Portrait, which runs until June 20, should wander through adjoining galleries to admire other portraits, for example, a recent one of the princes William and Harry and of V.S. Naipaul. There is also a new exhibition, Contemporary Connections, by the Singh Twins, Amrit and Rabindra.

Alongside contemporary Indian art, portrait painting deserves a new generation of enthusiastic patrons in India. I can imagine villagers queuing to see portraits of Mamata, Sachin, Modi, Sourav, SRK, Ashok Todi, etc. in the Great Hall of the People.

Forget the Book Fair. If the National Portrait Gallery could be transferred temporarily to Calcutta, there would be a million people fighting to get in.

Dalip’s delight

The actor Dalip Tahil met Jaswant Singh for the first time last week — and was taken aback to find “such a warm human being”.

The actor read extracts from Jaswant’s Jinnah bestseller whose UK edition was formally launched by Oxford University Press with a party at Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street in London.

Tahil is keen to play Nehru if a film version of Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer ever gets made. But I reckon Tahil, who was cast as the Pakistani physicist Dr A.Q. Khan in a drama documentary, would make a better Jinnah.

Natasha: an apology

An apology to the London-based artist Natasha Kumar, whose father’s name, as I had stated, is not Vijay, who was her late uncle, but Shant Kumar.

In early summer, Natasha, 33, is expecting to pay her first visit to Kashmir, from where her father’s family had to flee at partition. Natasha is supporting a charity, Healing Kashmir, set up by the writer Justine Hardy, to help people affected by the conflict on both sides of the border.

“It’s not a political thing,” emphasises Natasha. “It’s an ‘on the ground’ charity. Justine is there, working day to day, not just talking.”

Tittle tattle

This being the season of lifetime achievement awards, the actor Saeed Jaffrey, 81, is to receive one from Sharmila Tagore and Soha Ali Khan at the Nehru Centre in London tomorrow.

Equally deserving is Jennifer Jaffrey.

Many years ago, when the BBC was looking for a presenter to front a new TV series on Indian food, Jennifer recommended the winning candidate — her husband’s first wife, Madhur Jaffrey, who has apparently never acknowledged the debt which has made her rich and famous.

There is only one way to settle this — red chillies at dawn.

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