The Telegraph
| Sunday, January 26, 2014 |


Eye on England

Eye on England
Amit Roy

The only good banker in town

  • Banker with a mission: Sir Suma Chakrabarti (right)

These days bankers are all assumed to be guilty (of something), but in London there is, at least, one honourable exception — a Bengali gentleman.

"I am more of a globalist," said Sir Suma Chakrabarti, a top British civil servant who took over in July 2012 as president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).

The last couple of days Suma has been in Davos, chatting to, among others, Cyrus Mistry, who has succeeded the saintly Ratan Tata as chairman of the Tata group — the EBRD is collaborating with Tata on a "big hydro power project" in Georgia.

On a trip to India in March last year Suma met key figures from industry and government, including P. Chidambaram, and emphasised the many advantages for India if it were to join the EBRD (too many to list but one is that Indian nationals would then be eligible to work for the bank).

Of course, it would be mad if India isn't quick to join especially while Suma is at the helm — though he points out that the decision on whether to admit India is not for him but for the bank's shareholders.

Suma was born in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, in 1959 and his parents continue to live in Calcutta save for the summer months when they come over to England to stay with their son, his Japan-born wife and their granddaughter at their home in Oxford.

At an elegant lunch that Suma hosted recently at the bank's headquarters near Liverpool Street for members of the Indian Journalists' Association, he said he hoped to "slow down" a little so he would see a bit more of his family. He estimated that "roughly 40 per cent of my time I am on the road".

Of the 66 shareholders, which are mostly nation states, ranging from the US, the biggest, to the Principality of Liechtenstein, the smallest, "I have now visited getting on to 50 in one way or another. Last week I was in Spain and Portugal — I did 18 meetings in two days. Before Christmas I was in Greece and Cyprus, (and in) the Baltics: I was in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania."

As for future visits, he was looking forward to Australia, Moldova and Mexico.

After Suma's secretary sent down a briefing note, he revised his travel figures upwards: he had done 62 visits to shareholders; business development in three non-shareholder countries, namely Taiwan, India and Singapore. "And I have done 18 international conferences and business development workshops. That's a lot."

Travel lit

For Sir Suma Chakrabarti I have a suggestion for a novel to take on his travels — Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland.

This is because of the Naxalite connection.

I much prefer the Tollygunge section of The Lowland which tells of two brothers, one of whom is sucked into the Naxalite movement with devastating consequences.

As for Suma, he spent the first five years of his life in Calcutta, then the years 1964-1969 in England where his father was a research scholar before returning home.

"I and my mother followed in 1969 but couldn't go to school in Calcutta for months because there was a Naxalite rebellion going on," according to Suma, who was forced to return to school in England.

At Oxford he met his wife — and England became home.

Radio waves

  • Reading Krishna: Jeremy Irons

They do say the best pictures are painted on radio — and the images were in the mind when actor Jeremy Irons read T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, which was inspired by the Bhagavad Gita.

Four years ago, I heard a short extract on Poetry Please. Last week, Four Quartets was again on Radio 4 but this time Irons read the whole poem in his deep, gravelly voice, taking an hour to do so. I listened to the whole thing.

The BBC described Four Quartets as "the culminating achievement of T.S. Eliot's career as a poet". He wrote the first part in the mid-1930s. In the 1940s, as war raged in Europe, followed the subsequent three parts.

Irons, 65, is more than familiar with Eliot whose poems he has been reading to audiences for a decade.

Last week he began Four Quartets with: "Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past."

"I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant...," he continued.

He read on: "So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna/On the field of battle./Not fare well,/But fare forward, voyagers."

While doing research on the poem, Irons came across a version read by the poet himself.

"I've always felt that poets are not the best readers of their work," he said, "but I thought he was very good."

Before her death in November 2012, aged 86, Eliot's widow, Valerie, came to hear Irons read from her late husband's work. "He's got him," she is said to have remarked.

Reporting India

Women are subjected to sexual assaults everywhere in the world but these days there appears to be only one story coming out of India — gang rapes.

The foreign office in London has issued travel advice on "safety and security", stressing: "Women should use caution when travelling in India... British women have been the victims of sexual assault in Goa, Delhi, Bangalore and Rajasthan... Serious sexual attacks involving Polish, German and Danish women travellers have been reported so far in 2014. Women travellers should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group."

The latest gang rape in West Bengal's Birbhum district, carried out at the behest of the village elders, has been headline news on the BBC (just as the Delhi gang rape was) — and in major media outlets in Europe and in America.

Extreme trip

  • Knackered: David Bailey in Nagaland

Clearly bored with snapping beautiful women, the celebrated photographer David Bailey, 76, undertook "an extreme trip" to take pictures in Nagaland.

But why Nagaland, he was asked on Radio 4 last week.

"Because I tried to get there for 40 years — and they wouldn't let me," he chortled. "I read it somewhere in Kipling about the Naga hills and I said I want to go there. There are still wars there but I made friends with the insurgents."

He had been to some rough places but in Nagaland, where he claimed he met headhunters, "I thought I was going to die," he added cheerfully. "When you get there you are so knackered — you find some king who smokes opium all day long."

His account of youths who frequented the Internet cafes sounded less exciting but more plausible.

Tittle tattle

  • Bollywood royalty: Priyanka Chopra

It has been intriguing watching the rise and rise of Priyanka Chopra, who was in London's Regent Street last week doing a "meet and greet" with her Indian fans.

I was in the Millennium Dome in London in 2000 when she won Miss World.

PR folk described her as "Bollywood royalty", while Paul Marciano, her creative director on an ad campaign, paid her the ultimate compliment: "Priyanka reminds me of the young Sophia Loren."

What is odd is that in the forthcoming Bafta awards, Bollywood is conspicuous by its total absence.