Learn from the best
The casualties from Britain’s worst train disaster near Gretna Green in Dumfriesshire, Scotland — 226 killed and 246 injured — are comparable with the ones from Odisha. Two moving trains and a stationary one were also involved in both collisions. But the date is significant — May 22, 1915. Nothing similar has happened since because Britain has a very rigorous Rail Accident Investigation Branch, which I consulted on hearing of the horrific news from Odisha. I was told that the RAIB is an independent organisation whose investigations aim to “improve the safety of railways, and prevent further accidents from occurring.”
Its operational trigger is low: “The RAIB must by law investigate all rail accidents involving a derailment or collision which result in, or could result in: the death of at least one person; serious injury to five or more people; or extensive damage to rolling stock, the infrastructure or the environment. The RAIB may also investigate other incidents which have implications for railway safety.”
Anyone who analyses the frequency of train disasters in India will acknowledge that they are caused by a mixture of human error and signalling systems that badly need upgrading. Since the British built much of the network in India, we shouldn’t be too proud to seek the advice of the United Kingdom’s RAIB. In the long run, it can save thousands of lives.
Being able to laugh at the same things unites Indians and Pakistanis, according to the Pakistani-origin author, Moni Mohsin, who lives in London. She has created the character of the ‘Social Butterfly’, an upper-middle-class woman in Lahore given to malapropisms. The Social Butterfly’s husband, Jannu, went to Oxford. She proudly proclaims him to be an “Oxen”. The Social Butterfly holds Rishi Sunak in high regard — “unlike other people who have come from the migrants, who have had to work hard and lift themselves, he is mashallah not from the poors [sic].” And she is impressed by Modiji. “His 56-inch chest is bigger than Kim Kardashian, even.” All her Indian friends in London love Modiji. She’s also in love with Modiji because she wants to be invited to their parties.
Mohsin explains why a Pakistani Social Butterfly attracts a following in India: “It’s not just in the Punjab but in all of India and Pakistan, the social structure is the same. That’s because the social elites are so small. So the Social Butterfly is enjoyed in India because she is so familiar.” Mohsin gives due credit to Shobhaa De for her own writing style: “She wrote in Stardust magazine which I used to devour in the ’70s… I learnt from her. We have turned English into our own English — which is entirely justifiable.”
Vaseem Khan, a Pakistani-origin author, has just been elected chairman of the prestigious Crime Writers’ Association. He is the first non-white person in 70 years to hold the post, which has been occupied by such illustrious names as Ian Rankin and Peter James. Vaseem was born in London in 1973 to immigrant parents. His late father, Mohammed, was born on the Indian side of the Punjab border but crossed over at Partition. His late mother, Naweeda, was born in Pakistan in 1947. Vaseem’s crime novels are all set in India, inspired by the exhilarating time he spent working as a management consultant in Bombay from 1997-2006, when he met his future wife, Nirupama Badhwar.
Vaseem’s protagonist is a retired and honest cop, Ashwin Chopra (named fondly after his brother-in-law), who has a baby elephant, Ganesh, as his sidekick. Chopra’s wife, Archana — modelled on Vaseem’s wife — thinks her husband is “right even when he is wrong.” His latest novel, his ninth in eight years, Death of a Lesser God, features an Englishman who stayed on in India after Independence, but is due to hang in 11 days for the murder of a nationalist lawyer. “But he claims he’s innocent — and a form of reverse racism is at work because India is punishing him for the sins of the raj.”
Vaseem is chairing a panel in London to examine why Agatha Christie is so popular in India. Perhaps India and Pakistan should consider relaxing visa restrictions for those attending literary festivals.
A full plate
Sundaram Tagore spent a month tending to the new art gallery he has opened in London to add to the ones he owns in New York and in Singapore. He seldom talks about his lineage — Sundaram’s father, Subhogendranath Tagore, was the grandson of Hemendranath Tagore, the third son of Debendranath Tagore and the elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore.
Sundaram has been dining at Indian restaurants “because [he] can’t get food like this in New York.” He over-ordered at Anjan Chatterjee’s Chourangi, asking for prawn cutlets, steamed ilish, black daal, Calcutta fish fry, Calcuttalamb biryani, daak bungalow chicken curry and kosha mangsho for three people. The place was buzzing with non-Indian groups of more than 10 people wandering in late into the evening.