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Eye on England 31-01-2010

The curious case of Deepak Kuntawala Bookable offence Twitters unite Brick Lane Tittle tattle

By AMIT ROY UNITED WE STAND: Mukesh Ambani, Lakshmi Mittal, Naresh Goyal and others at the reception
  • Published 31.01.10

The curious case of Deepak Kuntawala

Are his critics being horrible to Deepak Kuntawala, the “hero” who was supposed to have helped 150 people to escape from the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai on the night of 26/11?

Now, the 37-year-old financier from Cheam, Surrey, has admitted he was not involved in any such rescue — which was the reason why he was able to get a great deal of favourable publicity and set up a charity dinner with the blessings of Prince Michael of Kent.

A year on from 26/11, Prince Michael, amazed by Kuntawala’s tale of derring do, made Kensington Palace available for the fundraising dinner. From Mumbai, a clutch of Bollywood folk — Kabir Bedi, Shekhar Kapur, Lara Dutta, Konkona Sen Sharma, Boman Irani, Arshad Warsi and Sanjay Gupta — flew into London to lend glamour to the evening free of charge.

Bedi tells me the group would not have come had Prince Michael not been a patron of Kuntawala’s charity, the DVK Foundation.

After a protracted dispute, Kuntawala has now settled 90 per cent of the money he owed East West Travels, the Mumbai travel firm that flew the Bollywood crowd to London on Kingfisher. But other invoices remain disputed.

Kuntawala now says that he never claimed he led the rescue of 150 people, including the entire board of Unilever, by tearing down curtains and using them as ropes. It is the media, notably the Daily Mirror, that turned him into a hero. But the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard — and a very angry Kabir Bedi — have challenged Kuntawala’s version of events.

“I did smash windows and tied ropes, how many were saved is difficult for me to quantify — does it matter if we saved one person or 150?” Kuntawala has said in his latest statement.

After the charity dinner last November, Kuntawala told me that 150 people were rescued in 20 minutes and that his dinner had raised £250,000 after costs. He had seemed genuinely public spirited.

“If we get out alive after all this,” he also told me he had promised himself, “we had better make our lives meaningful. After this, we had better make a real difference.”

Prince Michael has given away a cheque on Kuntawala’s behalf on a recent trip to Mumbai but the Fundraising Standards Board in Britain is investigating the allegations against Kuntawala.

Immediately after 26/11, he told a British newspaper about looking out of the Sea Lounge on that fateful night: “I looked out into the harbour and saw a few boats coming ashore. They were full of hunched men, dressed in black. It reminded me of a scene in the film Under Siege.”

At the very least, Kuntawala has, inside him, a book and a movie — to be directed by Shekhar Kapur and produced by Kuntawala, starring Bedi as Kuntawala, Prince Michael of Kent as himself and Lara and Konkona as gunwomen who switch sides after both fall in love with our hero.

Bookable offence

If English friends ask me what book they should read if they are venturing into India for the first time, I often suggest Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy or, if I am being really pretentious, R.K. Narayan’s translation of The Mahabharata, which, come to think of it, is not that bad a recommendation.

I noticed that at the end of a recent travel article after making her first trip to India, journalist Libby Purves, who presents a light current affairs programme called Midweek on BBC Radio 4, had recommended three books, including E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India.

This will please K. Natwar Singh, who is known to be a Forster fan, but the choice will not make V.S. Naipaul too happy.

“Forster, of course, has his own purposes in India,” Naipaul once said. “He is a homosexual and he has his time in India, exploiting poor people, which his friend Keynes also did. Keynes didn’t exploit poor people, he exploited people in the university; he sodomised them and they were too frightened to do anything about it. Forster belonged to that kind of nastiness really.”

When asked whether Forster had contributed anything to the understanding of India, Naipaul was characteristically restrained in his comment: “He encouraged people to lie. He was somebody who didn’t know Indian people. He just knew the court and a few middle class Indians and the garden boys whom he wished to seduce.”

Now that we have just celebrated January 26, a good essay to set for a school exam would be: “Which book in your opinion best sums up 60 years of the Indian republic?”

The winner ought to receive signed copies of Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness; India: A Wounded Civilisation; and India: A Million Mutinies Now, plus a DVD of A Mystic Masseur.

Twitters unite

So what’s going on between David Miliband and Shashi Tharoor?

Seven hundred people were invited to the Indian high commissioner’s Republic Day reception at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London’s Park Lane, where VIP guests included the British foreign secretary David Miliband.

Miliband, who is 44 and tipped as a possible successor to Gordon Brown, flattered Indian egos by declaring: “India is a superpower in its soft power, a superpower in the soft force of its democracy, and superpower in its intellectual advance and a super poser in the world of business.”

Indians applauded wildly. More mysteriously, Miliband referred to his friend and fellow Tweeter Shashi Tharoor.

And on Twitter, Miliband gushed: “60th anni of indian constitution. Shashi Tharoor has said curry’s place in British life shows the empire strikes back!”

There is another school of thought, of course, that holds “curry is an English dish accidentally invented by the Indians”.

Although the Indian constitution has banned caste discrimination, there was a velvet rope strung across one end of the Ball Room beyond which only the likes of Miliband, Mukesh Ambani, Naresh Goyal and Kamal Nath were allowed.

“It’s for security,” an official said by way of explanation.

But, in truth, none of us on this side of the rope ever felt threatened.

Brick Lane

Great celebrations have taken place in Brick Lane, the heart of London’s bustling Bangla town.

“If we can make India bat again,” said a Bangladeshi supporter on the penultimate day of the second Test, “it will be a moral victory for us.”

He expressed regret that Rahul Dravid was injured: “Mistaken identity — we were after Sehwag.”

Tittle tattle

Jayant Prasad, India’s ambassador in Kabul, impressed us all with his briefing at India House last week at the conclusion of the Afghanistan conference. The man knows his stuff.

The US, the UK and other Nato countries are pouring in money and troops into Afghanistan but India has one weapon the others don’t — Aishwarya.

He spoke of one occasion when he told Afghan women at a social gathering that he was looking forward to seeing Jodhaa Akbar.

The women looked at Prasad with pity.

“ ‘We have already seen it,’ ” they told him.

Prasad explained: “Pirated copies are available in Afghanistan even before a Bollywood film is released in India.”

Prasad’s face broke into a smile: “There are 20 channels now and Bollywood is very popular.”