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Eye on England 19-02-2012

Mounting anger over India’s malnourished children   Houston hurt   Lord of spices   Royal demise   Games cover   Tittle tattle

  • Published 19.02.12

Mounting anger over India’s malnourished children

In life there is sometimes one thing worse than being unsuccessful — and that is being successful. People in the UK cannot understand why there are malnourished children in an economically booming India.

On BBC Radio 4’s flagship programme Today last week, presenter John Humphries became angry when Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children, was interviewed about his organisation’s new report, A Life Free from Hunger: Tackling Child Malnutrition.

In India, there was a growing demand for more food from the middle classes “who are eating more and more food”, said Forsyth. “And then at the very bottom — the children who are getting less and less food.”

The image was of the middle classes snatching the bread from the mouths of the poorest children.

Forsyth wants David Cameron to convene a global hunger summit. He said six million children die every year from malnutrition and around the world half a billion children will be physically and mentally “stunted” over the next 15 years. Children under two who suffered “stunting” would never recover. In India, 60.5 million children — 48 per cent — already fell into this category.

Humphries tackled Forsyth: “There are many, many malnourished children in India but the economy of India has boomed over the last few years — India is a much richer country than it was. So you would think there would be enough money to feed those children!”

When Forsyth spoke of putting pressure on the Indian government, Humphries got even angrier: “The government of India knows perfectly well what is happening in its own country, dare I suggest even better than Save the Children, for instance, and any other charitable organisation. They know exactly what is going on (and) if they wanted to do it they would do it. I am sorry if that sounds desperately cynical but it is a reality, isn’t it?”

BBC listeners were so furious that Today returned to the subject the following day.

The Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, Praveen Jha, complained there was “a lack of political and economic will”, while Lord Desai suggested that within families, girl children were “last in the queue”.


Houston hurt

Ashok Amritraj recalls he did meet Whitney Houston through Kevin Costner, a friend, about the time when they were filming The Bodyguard and she sang I will always love you.

“Her voice was so strong — (Barbra) Streisand was the only other person who had a voice like that.”

Ashok is transiting London on his way back from India where he estimates he has given 110 interviews promoting his 3D movie, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, over five days in Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi.

“Sometimes, success comes very fast,” suggests Ashok, about how tragedy occurs in Hollywood. “People find difficult to handle that.”

Stars lose touch with reality. “People get obsessed with Hollywood. The numbers (you earn) are huge. It can overwhelm you.”

Over more than 30 years as a movie producer in Hollywood, Ashok believes he has managed to stay grounded only because he is rooted in Indian culture — it helps that his wife is also from south India.

“Don’t forget the first half of my life was in India,” he adds.


Lord of spices

It is hard to believe that my friend and master chef Udit Sarkhel, has died in Calcutta, aged 53.

When I wrote last week that he had returned permanently to India, after years in England, where among his many achievements he ran a restaurant, Calcutta Notebook, devoted to Bengali cuisine, I had no idea he had passed away on February 8 from a heart attack.

This was apparently a day or so after the death of his father.

His former wife Veronica called from Calcutta and though she didn’t leave a message something in her voice gave away something was not right.

Simon Parkes of the BBC’s Food Programme, who co-authored The Calcutta Kitchen with Udit, agrees with me: “No one did more than Udit to promote the true taste of Bengali food here in Britain. He knew exactly how to set its subtleties in context against the more widespread and less refined Punjabi cooking found mostly in the UK. His passing is a sad loss.” Like some other top Indian chefs in London, Udit emerged from the kitchens of the Bombay Taj.

Cyrus Todiwala, also ex-Taj, pointed out: “Years of Taj training give one an overview of the various regions of India. Udit rose to fame during his stint (as executive chef) at the Bombay Brasserie in London. He was instrumental in the restaurant gaining widespread recognition and fame.”

Udit was “deeply respected” by peers within the industry, added Cyrus. “His knowledge and skill of Bengali cuisine was noteworthy. The sudden passing of this great person has robbed the industry of a unique talent and many of us a friend and colleague.”

When Harrods once stocked goat meat (at Rs 1,462 a kilo), Udit declared: “Kosha mangsho takes some beating.”

He endorsed sparing use of ghee when appropriate.

Andy Varma is hoping to convene a memorial meeting of fellow Indian chefs in London to mark Udit’s passing. It will be a great shock for his children, Neil and Jade.

Of late he had run a restaurant called Mango and Silk in East Sheen in south London with his partner, Radhika Verma.

From India, she said: “Great chef, magician with spices, loving son, proud father and my soul mate — we will all miss him.”


Royal demise

James Whitaker, who died last week, aged 71, after losing a battle with cancer, was for many years the royal correspondent of the Daily Mirror. He was plump, boisterous, loud but always great fun.

After several trips to Italy, the Middle East, India and elsewhere, I concluded this was not a job for grown-ups but Whitaker treated the whole business of reporting royal trivia with the earnestness of a scholar.

He felt those who wrote about the royals ought to maintain a certain decorum. He felt let down personally when I once arrived for a drinks party at his home in my dilapidated Volkswagen.

“You can’t drive that,” he admonished me.

The period from when Diana came on to the scene until her death in 1997 marked the halcyon period for the “ratpack”, as the royal watchers called themselves. With Whitaker’s passing, something of the old way of life on Fleet Street has come to an end.


Games cover

Britain will obviously use its best aircraft to protect the London Olympics — I gather four Eurofighter Typhoons are being deployed to RAF Northolt in north London — “scramble to target in two minutes”.

This is an area with a large population of Gujaratis. They understand business and should encourage the Indian government to re-examine whether the decision to buy the French Dassault Rafale was the right one.


Tittle tattle

Actress Naomi Watts, 43, has been picked to play Princess Diana in a film, Caught in Flight, directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, about her relationship with her “Mr Wonderful” — Pakistan heart surgeon Hasnat Khan.

But who will play Hasnat?

Your bids in a sealed envelope please — though, personally, I would screen test Irrfan Khan for the role.