Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

Leave a comment

Celebrating India’s built heritage

An Indian wins the Nobel Prize of world architecture and a 90-acre garden with Mughal monuments becomes the new pride of Delhi—it’s a proud moment for India’s built heritage.

Business Standard, March 10, 2018

Were an Indian to have won the Nobel Prize this week media coverage would have gone into meltdown mode. In fact something nearly as momentous happened without the news headlines going into much of a spin. The 90-year-old, Pune-born, Ahmedabad-based Indian architect, town planner and educator B V (“Balkrishna”) Doshi became the first Indian to win the — widely regarded as the Nobel of world architecture — in the award’s 49-year history.


In May the venerable Mr Doshi will fly to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum to receive the $100,000 prize and a medallion, inscribed in Latin and English, that sums up the greatest building practice as humankind’s finest achievement in three words: “Firmness” (longevity and sustainability), “Commodity” (functional usefulness) and “Delight” (aesthetic pleasure). In its citation the 10-member international jury, including Britain’s Richard Rogers and India’s trained architect-turned-industrialist Ratan Tata, said “has always created an architecture that is serious, never flashy or a follower of trends. With a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people through high quality… he has created projects for public administrations and utilities, educational and cultural institutions… His solutions take into account the social, environmental and economic dimensions, and therefore his architecture is totally engaged with sustainability”.


Trained in Mumbai and in Paris under — with whom he later collaborated in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad — Mr Doshi said, “I owe this prestigious prize to my guru, ” His own trajectory and vast oeuvre of more than a hundred iconic buildings (from low-cost housing projects in Indore and Ahmedabad to townships in Hyderabad and Kalol to cultural centres in Varanasi and Pune) demonstrate two elemental truths that inform India’s magnificent built heritage over many millennia.


One is India’s ability to imbibe the best of foreign influences; the other to fuse the traditional with the contemporary in a holistic and uniquely Indian expression. What, for instance, would the Taj Mahal be without the contribution of Persian master builders and Italian pietra dura inlay? More recently, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s (AKTC) mammoth restoration of Humayun’s Tomb and its environs, spearheaded by the 44-year-old conservation architect Ratish Nanda, invited master artisans from Uzbekistan to train Indians in the art of ceramic glazed tiles that originally adorned many of the monuments in this World Heritage Site. In their time the creation of soaring Mughal domes, of the scale and perfection of Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj, were considered unparalleled engineering and artistic marvels.


On February 21 the Aga Khan himself came to Delhi to inaugurate the latest phase of the ongoing Humayun’s Tomb and Nizamuddin area’s revitalisation project. This was the clearing, redesign and restoration of the 90-acre Sunder Nursery garden site that has been carried out over the last 10 years, with 20,000 new saplings planted and 15 monuments restored.


The entire Humayun’s Tomb precinct is of course much larger and now covers some 300 acres and 50 monuments, including the urban renewal of the dense Nizamuddin basti centred on the shrine of the revered Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya and the austere but jewel-like grave of the poet Mirza Ghalib. It is now considered one of the most ambitious public-private initiatives of its kind, with restoration work seamlessly allied to social sector interventions in health, education, sanitation and income generation. (Visitors to Humayun’s Tomb alone have leapt from 150,000 a year 20 twenty years ago to 2 million at present.)


Coincidentally, over Holi weekend I spent three days visiting the caves at after a hiatus of many years, and came away pleasantly surprised. What used to be a chaotic, even arduous, excursion to one of the greatest sites of Indian antiquity is now an extremely organised, orderly and well-managed enterprise, with pleasant gardens, easy transportation and reasonable amenities. The hotels of Aurangabad were full to capacity, including hordes of Japanese for whom the Buddhist viharas, rock-cut sculpture and glowing frescoes are an important spiritual journey. Limited groups were allowed inside in rotation; neat barriers were in place before the dim but beautifully-lit paintings; there was no pushing, jostling or loutish behaviour. Our bilingual guide, recommended in advance by the hotel, was one of the best-informed, eloquent and well-mannered I have encountered in my travels.


is but one of the nearly 4,000 sites managed by the centrally-funded Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), an organisation often reviled for being overly bureaucratic and burdened. Its remit is spread over 27 geographic circles and costs the taxpayer Rs 9.4 billion. But judging by the experience alone some of this money is well spent.


In its eulogy to Mr Doshi’s architecture the Pritzer jury referred to his “childhood recollections, from the rhythms of the weather to the ringing of temple bells [that] inform his designs… through a response to Modernism.” And the Aga Khan, in his New Delhi speech last month, emphasised that without honouring the past the future cannot be served.


For all that is grossly misguided and mismanaged in Indian habitats, it is a good moment to applaud the continuum of its built heritage.


Leave a comment

India’s lost generation

Amid conflicting statistics of India’s unemployed millions a remarkable new book tracks some of their stories in the small towns and villages of the Hindi heartland.

Business Standard, January 27, 2018

It was British Prime Minister who said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”Before departing for the snowy slopes of Davos, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s faced serious flak for the government’s failure in tackling the mammoth unemployment crisis, dismissed it as “lies”. He said that seven million jobs were created in the formal sector in the past year. His claim, based on the data from the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation, was immediately contested by analysts as selective cherry-picking. And some days later an report announced that “the number of jobless in India will increase to 18.6 million in 2018 and 18.9 million in 2019, against 18.3 million in 2017”; it also added that 0.5 million more were unemployed in 2017 than what earlier estimates showed.

The number-crunchers can fight it out. But those looking for a qualitative account of these job-seeking, desperate millennials — uneducated, unemployed, or unemployable — that form India’s vast “youth bulge”, many of the answers are in a remarkable piece of work of reportage out next month.Dreamers: How Are Changing Their World(Penguin; Rs 599) by New Delhi-based journalist Snigdha Poonam is not, as the title may imply, about the “creamy layer” of the youth who populate English-speaking elite colleges, engineering institutes, and business schools, but about the rest, the chancers who don’t stand much of a chance.

For nearly four years, Ms Poonam trekked to the villages and small towns of the Hindi heartland to track some of their stories. Occasionally exhilarating but often disturbing, it is a deeply unsettling account of “a generation … of wealth-chasers, attention-seekers, power-trappers and fame-hunters”.

Mostly male, aggressive, with inchoate notions of nation and nationalism, they are the likely bedrock of Mr Modi’s majoritarian politics. Their chief form of communication is Facebook and WhatsApp; and the main desire to reinvent their self-image to somehow escape the perilous provincialism that imprisons their lives. Take the Singhal brothers from a village in Haryana, who set up WittyFeed, a click-bait website in Indore that uploads anything that will go “viral” — with 82 million monthly visits, 1.5 billion page views, and 4.2 million likes of FB, it is set to rival BuzzFeed, the world leader in viral content. The Singhals’ tightly-controlled Internet cocoon is a heady mix of moralising and Steve Jobs spiel. (“Bhaiyya becomes very angry if anyone criticises India,” says a Singhal employee while Mr Singhal himself issues a barrage of homilies such as “Live your life as if you were to die tomorrow”.)

The world of WittyFeed is a far cry from the life of Moin Khan, an impoverished balloon seller in Ranchi, who saved money by milking cows to enrol in English-speaking classes in one of the thousands of coaching centres in small-town India, and in 10 years was heading the American Academy of Spoken English. “There is a craze for me everywhere … People in [my village] … come home to hear me say something in English.”

Ms Poonam’s narrative bristles with small-time fixers like Pankaj Prasad, who finds power and wealth by filling Aadhaar forms for poor villagers, or big time scammers who lure gullible job-seekers with offers from call centres; it chronicles stories of abject failure, such as “Mr Jharkhand’s” search for stardom; and seething frustration, among rod-wielding misogynists fighting “love jihad”, and maddened upper-caste gau rakshaks.

Not many women feature in this “theatre of toxic masculinity”. One exception is Richa Singh’s bitter struggle to become the first students’ union president of Allahabad University.

I asked Ms Poonam (who is 34, the daughter of a retired IAS officer in Jharkhand, and followed her father’s advice to exchange their upper-caste family name for her mother’s given name) what it was like to follow the lives of so many strange, shady, often deeply unpleasant males. “A revelation,” she said. “Many of them had never had an interaction with a female outside their homes. They were often more nervous than me.”

When she finally married her long-standing boyfriend, Business Standard columnist Mihir S Sharma, last year, she confesses he was “horrified”. “Who are these people?” he would ask her. “All these losers you keep chasing.”

Winners or losers, what is the single-biggest transition she noted among India’s lost generation? “The Smartphone,” she said. “It has given them a new identity, often transcending markers of caste, class, religion, and place.” And what was the one thing that was unchanged? “Corruption in all forms, fraud, cheating, forgery. These are not considered crimes, rather they are par for the course, one way of getting ahead.”

Unsurprisingly, her book has been showered with plaudits by leading critics and opinion-makers. It’s been quickly snapped up by a British publisher and the well-known agent David Godwin is sold on it. It was recently launched in London and gets star billing at the Jaipur Literature Festival. What did she feel at the end of her journey among the Indian unemployed? “Very worried and anxious,” she said.


Leave a comment

Best bookshelf of 2017

My year-end list of the best books that hit the stands in 2017

Business Standard, December 30, 2017

What do diplomats do when they retire? They tend to spend their days venting on television or boring one another at think tanks. T C A Raghavan, former envoy to Islamabad, is the honourable exception. This year he produced, possibly by fortuitous coincidence, two remarkable chronicles of history, immensely readable and as distinct as chalk and cheese. Attendant Lords: Courtiers and Poets in Mughal India (HarperCollins; Rs 699) is his account of and his son Abdur Rahim Khan-i-Khanan, powerful nobles in the service of four emperors, from Babur to Jahangir. Although their driving ambition and protean talents — as military strategists and epic patrons of literature and architecture — left an indelible imprint on India, they came to a sticky end, a result of bitter factional feuds that plagued the empire. Mr Raghavan’s hold of the story is fluent yet uncompromising; this is history as it should be told, without arid, heavy-handed flummery. Later in the year, to mark 70 years of the subcontinent’s division, he produced The People Next Door: The Curious History of India’s Relations with Pakistan (HarperCollins; Rs 699), equally original for material extricated from the cracks of fractured history — the stories of diplomats, soldiers, writers, and sensationalists who once made headlines, and now lie forgotten.


A paradox of the year past was that even as India-Pakistan relations dipped into deepest acrimony, a plethora of writing appeared to commemorate the birth of the two nations. Aanchal Malhotra’s Remnants of Separation: A History of the Partition Through Material Memory (HarperCollins; Rs 799) is a poignant exhumation of the detritus and talismans that families like hers left behind or carried with them.


The year 2017 was exceptional for history, biography, memoir, and investigation. Upinder Singh, pre-eminent among scholars of ancient India, produced her long-awaited tome: Political Violence in Ancient India (Harvard University Press; Rs 999), a scholarly but accessible throwback to war and peace, discrimination, and disparity — that fragile balance between violence and non-violence that tore apart yet, against the odds, largely held together a complex society.


In the year of Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary, a compelling reappraisal came from journalist Sagarika Ghose’s deservedly bestselling Indira Gandhi: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister (Juggernaut; Rs 699). As a timely companion that combines political immediacy with intimate insight is a paperback reprint of novelist Nayantara Sahgal’s account of her cousin, Indira Gandhi: Tryst with Power (Penguin; Rs 399).


For those who might wonder about the man behind the cult of one of the country’s most-loved and prolific writers, Ruskin Bond’s Lone Fox Dancing: My Autobiography (Speaking Tiger; Rs 599) provides answers. It is a story of persistent loneliness — imposed and self-sought — and lingering sadness. Perhaps only a lost, itinerant childhood of emotional dislocation could produce Mr Bond’s treasury of memorable children’s literature.


Two works of thorough, eye-witness investigation stood out in the year: Naturalist Prerna Singh Bindra’s The Vanishing: India’s Wildlife Crisis (Penguin; Rs 599) of the war waged by haphazard development on wildlife habitats and their fauna. And Maid in India: Stories of Opportunity and Inequality Inside Our Homes (Aleph; Rs 599) by award-winning ex-Wall Street Journal and New York Times journalist Tripti Lahiri, is a penetrating study of the ever-growing numbers of poor women in domestic service. It’s not always a journey in charred chambers of horror; the stories of despair are relieved by the writer’s sardonic tone and self-scrutiny.


In fiction Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Penguin; Rs 599) was the literary chart-topper with reactions that ranged from beguiled wonderment to dense bemusement. Her long years of political activism have not dulled her light, however. It is a book to be read, above all, for its luminosity of writing.


Lavishly illustrated art proliferated, on subjects both specialised and general. Strongly recommended are Taj Mahal: Multiple Narratives by and (Om Books; Rs 2,900); Chikankari: A Lucknawi Tradition by (Niyogi Books; Rs 2,495); Reverse Glass Painting in India by Anna L Dallapiccola (Niyogi Books; Rs 1,495) and the superb catalogue accompanying the India And the World: A History in Nine Stories (Penguin; 1999) exhibition, a path-breaking collaboration of rare objects (from 1.7 million years ago to the 20th century) in the British Museum, and Indian public and private collections. The show is currently drawing visitors in droves to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vatsu Sangrahalaya in Mumbai, and is due to arrive for a three-month tenure at the National Museum, Delhi, next year.


From an eye-watering visual display to mouth-watering dishes, the pick of the year’s culinary odyssey is The Cookbook (Aleph; Rs 499) by the well-known interior designer and her mother, Chand Sur, both steeped in the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb of the capital. Fragrant biryanis, succulent kebabs, steaming shorbas,and a large selection of vegetarian fare and desserts offer a feast of refinement, family stories, and city lore fit for Awadhi nawabs, past and present.


A very happy New Year!


Leave a comment

Is Nawazuddin’s kiss’ n’ tell defensible?

Actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui has pulled his memoir. But what else does his book contain—and is his story worth telling?

Column in Business Standard, November 3, 2017 

The answer to the question above would be: More or less. The kerfuffle this week over the sudden withdrawal of the talented, versatile An Ordinary Life(Penguin; Rs 599) before its official release is damaging all round — to him, his co-writer Rituparna Chatterjee, and the publisher.


The kiss’ n’ tell bits are brief, concerning his liaisons with two actresses, and He was jilted by both but his confessions are farcical and foolishly egregious. The former drove him to contemplate throwing himself under a train; in the case of the latter he describes a sort of grand seduction scene with flickering candles, with her in “soft faux fur…And I, being the lusty village bumpkin … scooped her up … [and] made passionate love.” Later he apologetically admits that he “was quite a selfish bastard”. Both women have responded, neither denying the relationships but disputing his versions in “he-said-she-said” spats. Some might charitably say that Mr Siddiqui has done the honourable thing by voluntarily pulling his book, though advance copies were out with reviewers and online retailers were booking orders. These are dangerous times, and did Mr Siddiqui have a choice before the fur really began to fly?


There are object lessons here for future memoirists. Actors as diverse as Dev Anand and Naseeruddin Shah have been far more candid about their lives but, as seasoned warriors, they understood that discretion was the better part of valour, apart from a honed command of the English language.


Those unable to take up their pens engage the best co-writers. Poonam Saxena, weekend editor of Hindustan Times who recently co-wrote a successful memoir of filmmaker Karan Johar, a nuanced enterprise in the light of his personal and professional relationships, says: “If cinema stars sanitise their memoirs readers crib. And if you’re frank you’re obviously going to upset some people. In Karan’s case he was certain he did not want to hurt anyone in any way without compromising on home truths. This involved a lot of detailed discussion.”


Film journalists who write unauthorised biographies follow strict rules. Yasser Usman, who has penned the bestselling lives of superstars Rajesh Khanna and Rekha, says: “There were many controversial and personal details involved. The first step was informing the subject or their families — they did not cooperate but they knew that I was writing on them. Secondly, everything I wrote was on record, based on interviews or archival material. There were thorough legal and editorial checks to weed out anything objectionable. That’s the process.”


Mr Siddiqui’s co-writer, a San Francisco-based reiki teacher and former journalist Rituparna Chatterji, and his publisher’s editor have served him badly. Ms Chatterjee has written a feeble Facebook apology but candour can be no apology for carelessness. The book abounds in flagrant errors of language, comment, and naming of names. For instance, after praising his Moscow-trained drama teacher Anamika Haksar (and daughter of P N Haksar) to the skies, he expresses disappointment that “she married a random guy” and goes on about it, insensitively and offensively. Ms Haksar could legitimately demand deletions and redress. I cannot imagine


Mr Siddiqui — fluent in Hindi, Urdu, and Arabic — speaking of a fellow as “waiting for that elusive Godot we call success” or comparing Mumbai’s monsoon light to “a dandy unable to make up its mind about which colour to wear”. And so on, ad nauseam.


The great pity is that Mr Siddiqui has a remarkable, even inspiring, story to tell. How the eldest of eight in a family from a village in Muzaffarnagar, western Uttar Pradesh, attained his quality of searing performances on screen is a saga of punishing sacrifice and struggle. He describes in heart-wrenching detail his upbringing, his employment as a chemist or chowkidar, and his burning desire to go to drama school; above all the years of starvation, scrounging and homelessness looking for acting jobs. “My hair began to fall out in clumps due to the stress. I had literally become a skeleton as there was little separating my bones and my carbon paper-like skin.”


From the desperado with a menacing stillness in Gangs of Wasseypur, to the comic pathos of the clerk in Lunchbox, to a small cameo of the child abductor in Lion, Mr Siddiqui’s account of life on Mumbai’s Grub Street, as the blurb above arresting black-and-white cover images announces, “was like a long dark night that had no end, no hint of light.”


Now that the damage is done, what are the choices before the and his publisher? They should undertake a complete overhaul of the manuscript and relaunch it after due apologies, excisions and corrections (including, in my opinion, a long, gushing ode to his young daughter). For Mr Siddiqui’s is by no means an ordinary life; it should not be allowed to go to waste in a retelling.


And his story so far is a statutory warning to all public figures planning to tell theirs. Look before you leap into print.


The Aarushi verdict and CBI’s humiliation

The Allahabad High Court judgement on the Aarushi murder of 2008 has set the Talwars free, smashing to smithereens the CBI’s case that they committed it. What will the CBI do now?

Column in Business Standard, October 21, 2017

Delhi may have breathed a bit easier at after the ban on firecrackers but collectively the nation has exhaled a sigh of relief at the acquittal of Rajesh and Nupur Talwar for the murders of their 14-year-old daughter Aarushi and domestic Hemraj, the crimes they never committed in May 2008.


The Allahabad High Court’s 273-page judgment is a remarkable document. Dense and devoid of digression, it is a detailed forensic examination of the evidence on record. It is also one of the harshest indictments of the CBI’s dirty tricks that put the Talwars through a horrendous nine-year ordeal, four in the grim environs of Dasna jail,  To quote just one operative line: “…There is not even an iota of evidence on record even remotely suggesting either Hemraj was assaulted in Aarushi’s bedroom or of any sexual activity between the deceased.”


Shortly after being imprisoned for life in November 2013, started a jail diary, some pages of which were published in journalist Avirook Sen’s bestselling account Aarushi (Penguin, 2015; Rs 299). “We are destroyed,” wrote the agonised father. “We were destroyed by Aaru’s loss and he [Shyam Lal, the CBI’s trial judge who convicted them] has completely destroyed us by this kind of verdict.” If Mr Sen’s book, prophetic in hindsight, raised the bar in investigative journalism, Justices and AK Mishra, the “demolition duo” who have destroyed the CBI’s prosecution case, may have opened a new chapter in criminal jurisprudence.


The is now decisively in the dock. It stands accused of an appalling line-up of misdemeanours from suppressing and fabricating evidence, tutoring witnesses, falsifying forensic analysis and much else, chiefly the handiwork of the late AGL Kaul, the CBI’s investigating officer who zipped round the country, hell bent on obtaining the Talwars’ conviction by doctoring records.


This fruitless pursuit, which tore the Talwars’ life and reputation to shreds, means that Aarushi’s killers have not only got away but may never be found; the case that shook middle-class India to its core, and let loose the baying bloodhounds of the media to spin the most luridly prurient of yarns, will go down in the annals of the as yet another unsolved — and insolvable — crime.


Rebecca Mammen John, a member of the Talwars’ legal team and who fought their case pro bono for many years, regards the verdict as “a great personal victory” but points out that the defence arguing their innocence was “consistent throughout, it was the CBI’s prosecutors that kept shifting their stand”.


The key point to remember about the Aarushi case, as of countless others, is that it was a crime against the state; and that the CBI, as prosecuting agency, is funded by taxpayers’ money. It, therefore, involves us all — in effect we have paid to tyrannise the Talwars, and accuse them of murdering their daughter for alleged carnal relations.


As Avirook Sen says, “It was a case of collective suspension of rationality, of the courts, the media, and of us as consumers and supplicants to an entire system.”


We, too, have paid for Judge Shyam Lal of the court, whose much-derided judgement of November 2013 that condemned the Talwars is a travesty of legal and linguistic balance. With its crude references to Aarushi as “a beaut [sic] damsel and sole heiress” and synonyms for penis (Hemraj’s “willy was turgid”; his “pecker was swollen”) it abounds in solecisms such as “to repeat at the cost of repetition”. (Judge Shyam Lal, in violation of the judicial code, employed his son to help write the judgement.)


An important question arises in the aftermath of the Allahabad acquittal: In its moment of abject humiliation what will the do? Given the profile of the case and its tortuous unravelling, its choices are limited. The high court judgment leaves little room for appeal, but it has the right to approach the apex court, though the action may be fraught with risk.


Or it can hold an internal, even a public inquiry, and punish investigators for their trail of calumny and cover-ups. And there could be a third option, tried in the West, but not tested strongly enough in public interest litigation in India. A collective body of the tax-paying public can sue the and hold it accountable.


Because the bottom line is this: If a case as sensational as the Aarushi and Hemraj murders, which gripped the public imagination, is proven to be a monumental miscarriage of justice, then what of the grievous harm and condemned lives of the numberless poor in jails, doubly victimised, accused of crimes they may never have committed but destroyed by prosecution agencies of the state?



1 Comment

Partition at seventy: A family story

Growing up in Amritsar seven years after the Holocaust I grew up with the trauma of some of the worst scenes of massacre of the Partition tragedy.

Business Standard, August 12, 2017

In the entrance hall of Bikaner House, the capital’s new cultural hub, is placed a large map of India in outline. Next to it are reels of black string and scissors; visitors are invited to plot their family’s migration during  “Trace your family’s journey on the map,” reads the heading over a dense criss-crossing of strings to numerous cities from to Calicut, and Quetta to Chittagong, in the undivided sub-continent. You can also join the exercise online at by recording the privations and horror your parents or grandparents endured during that blood-spattered chapter of history. In a month-long memorialising of the at 70, a calendar of daily events includes films, talks, and seminars; elsewhere in the capital there is a spate of revivals, such as the late Sheila Bhatia’s Punjabi opera Chann Badlan Da, plays by the Chandigarh-based director Neelam Mansingh, and new accounts by Aanchal Malhotra and Barney White Spencer. Like the European Holocaust, the attempt is that memory should not suffer the erasure of a terrible time when sectarian violence left 2 million dead, 12 million displaced, thousands of women raped, towns and villages torched.

I am not a child of but grew up in close proximity to it. I was born and spent my early years in Amritsar, seven years after the event, where my family had a settled history of a century or more. Our extended family home was a rambling, red brick bungalow called “Sunbeam” off Mall Road in Civil Lines, where the family moved from the old city in the 1930s. In a happy if spartan childhood, I am old enough to remember a world of smelly thunder boxes and iceboxes, coal fires, boiler stoves, and table fans that let off puffs of smoke, steam, or cool air to fend off the city’s bitter winters and scorching summers. Where children are told soothing bedtime tales, our daily fare were stories of the bloodshed my family had witnessed, scenes, my father said, of the sewers turning red and the overpowering stench of corpses.

The strangest account was of my grandmother’s disappearance at the height of the killings. She was an unlettered but iron-willed matriarch, wrapped in widow’s weeds of white dupattas, who, with very little money, had brought up six able-bodied sons to find their way in the world. During those fateful months she refused to leave her crumbling home in the inner city because of its closeness to the Golden Temple, her place of daily worship. Now, with an outbreak of cholera, acute shortages of food, water and petrol, links between the old city and Civil Lines snapped. For five days her sons looked for her in vain; finally, summoning their youngest brother, an army lieutenant, they made it to the Golden Temple, a teeming mass of refugees. Leaning against a gilded pillar, they found her in the inner sanctum, serenely reciting the gurbani. But when they tried to lift her, my frail grandmother proved unaccountably heavy. She was seated, it turned out, on a wooden dowry chest filled with her gold ornaments. “Where did you think I would go?” she irritably asked. “I could only go to the Home of my Saviour.”

Talismans my brother and I possess of that summer are two small Afghan carpets with the traditional pattern of Islamic charbaghs. They are the parting gift of an Afghan merchant of our father’s acquaintance whom he hid in his office before finding him safe passage across the border. For years afterwards, they exchanged letters but never again met.

My wife’s families, on both sides, are from Lahore; although not bloody, their migration was grim. Later on, when they retired in Delhi, they only seemed mildly interested in my trips to Pakistan. They did not ask questions nor express a desire to revisit their childhood homes, schools, and colleges or the scenes of their courtship. They politely changed the subject.

It is human nature to excise our blackest experiences, to exercise what Salman Rushdie’s mother memorably called “forgettery”. Among the many stories recounted in Amritsar’s Museum, the painter Anjolie Ela Menon describes her family’s evacuation from Murree, where her father was an army surgeon. She was seven at the time but gives a graphic account of him “operating on wounded people left on the road”. Then she asks: “It strikes me as strange that very little art came out of those experiences. I think we don’t want to remember.”

For many like them, the past was another country.

1 Comment

India’s insuperable bureaucracy

Despite vastly enhanced salaries and retirement benefits why do India’s government servants go on greedily demanding more?

Column in Business Standard, July 29, 2017

After if there is one class of public officials that looks after itself generously it is the For years the country’s elite services of the IAS, IFS, and complained that their salaries and perks were hardly commensurate with the levers of powers they controlled; and that in retirement they were relegated not only to lives of relative obscurity but also impecuniousness. It was one reason suggested for declining levels of probity and increase in influence-peddling and corruption among the “officer class”, including the defence services. Compared to their peers in the private sector or professional services like doctors, accountants, and engineers, they earned pitifully, never mind the passing glory of occupying bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi or state capitals with all the panoply of official cars and subordinate flunkeys.


Several memoirs of the period, for example, The Service of the State: The Reconsidered (Penguin, 2011) by the upstanding civil servant Bhaskar Ghose, give an accurate portrayal of challenges faced in the districts and the Centre. He doesn’t much remember entertaining even a close group of friends simply because there wasn’t cash to spare on anything more than a few bottles of beer. Then came the 7th Pay Commission with a substantial jump in salaries and pensions — and you would think the carping might stop. But no. Although the Commission was wound up a couple of years ago, this week central government employees accused the Finance Minister of “cheating” them. Why wasn’t their minimum pay hiked beyond Rs 18,000 a day as promised?


Like Mrs Gummidge, the chronic complainer in David Copperfield, everything is much worse for this class of Indians than for any other. This week, too, one Col. Mukul Dev served a legal notice on the defence secretary for replacing free rations to officers in non-conflict areas with an allowance of Rs 96 a day. An army officer of my acquaintance wholeheartedly agrees. “Daily withdrawal of free rations could feed a family of two or three,” he rues. “But what will Rs 96 buy you these days?”


Cast a colder eye on what civil servants earn by way of enhanced pay scales and retirement benefits and the picture is actually quite rosy. At the top of the pecking order a secretary-level officer (or an equivalent director-general of police) receives a salary of Rs 2.5 lakh a month; at the bottom of the step-ladder the starting pay is Rs 56,000. Pensions are half of the last-drawn salary so the hallowed brethren get about Rs 1 lakh a month after turning 60 plus full health cover at most hospitals. Some of my widowed aunts, wives of long-deceased soldiers and officials, are quietly smiling after years of scrimping and saving.


Despite every government’s commitment to cost-cutting and reducing staff strength, the administrative machine’s expansionist notions greedily demand more. Jitendra Singh, current minister of personnel and pensions, stated in the Lok Sabha recently that in the last four years the annual intake of officers has increased to 180, of to 110 and to 150. Yet he expressed “serious concern…[over] the persistent shortage” of authorised numbers in the three services — 1,400 in the IAS, 560 in the IFS, and 900 in the (against their present strength of 4,926 IAS, 2,597 IFS, and 908 serving officers).


Expectedly, the highest number of vacancies are in the Hindi heartland of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh where the race to join the powerful “afsar” class ensures lifetime security apart from vastly improved marriage prospects. Increased numbers of women in government employment have altered the matrimonial equation, however. There’s a higher “bride price” for such women looking for suitable boys. As one prospective father-of-the-bride said, “My daughter will bring “kirayamaaf” (rent-free) accommodation for life.”


Heavily subsidied grace-and-favour housing is one of the biggest perks of sarkari life. In Delhi, with its hordes of central and state government officials, most neighbourhoods are mixed, punctuated with large swathes of dwellings to house the babudom’s innumerable layers. Many of these are now undergoing the most dramatic and visibly ostentatious makeover by the government’s richest redevelopment agency, National Buildings & Construction Corporation. Gigantic fluorescent screens are transforming huge government colonies such as Nauroji Nagar, Sarojini Nagar, and Netaji Nagar into lavish commercial high rises and new government housing. The NBCC, a listed company with revenues of Rs 600 crore, recently sold a 10-floor tower (the first of 12) in Nauroji Nagar for a record Rs 1,100 crore, higher than Connaught Place prices. Part of the proceeds, says the NBCC’s chairman, will double the existing government housing units from 12,970 to 25,667 at a cost of Rs 32,835 crore. Private real estate developers can only dream of such unattainable prices and locations.


In his magisterial, as yet unmatched, history of the origins of India’s Philip Mason rightly called it the “heaven-born” service. In our time, its grasp and growth is yet more self-perpetuating, privileged, and insuperable.


Leave a comment

The politics of grievance

From a riot by domestic servants against employers to caste as a shield for corruption “grievance politics” are take on new avatars.  

Business Standard, July 15, 2017

A small and ugly broke out in the capital’s satellite city of Noida this week. A 26-year-old Muslim maid went missing from an apartment in a prosperous housing society. When she did not return home to the nearby slum at night, a large crowd gathered and began stoning the building; its residents were expectedly terrified. The dispute turned to be a nasty but not uncommon maalik-naukar (master-servant) row. The maid’s employers said she had stolen money and had footage to prove it; she accused them of unpaid wages and ill-treatment. Meanwhile, conditions in the servants’ settlement, as in many urban slums, were described as appaling — a mass huddled in an insanitary, garbage-choked warren, living under tin roofs in the full pelt of the monsoon. But an uglier subtext to the violence soon erupted. Although the slum settlers are migrants from Cooch Behar their settlement is known as “Bangladeshi colony”. A series of provocative WhatsApp forwards and statements by residents’ welfare associations (RWAs) on the “terror of in Noida” aggravated tensions. Example: “I would advise that all RWAs ban entry of Bangladeshi workers with immediate effect…they are encashing our need…and thinking it our weakness…[and] will all come down on their knees (sic).” In short, a class antagonism of rich versus poor took the colouring of a communal confrontation.


Enmities of class, caste and creed have flared up in bigger, more virulent ways, from beef bans and lynchings of Muslims and Dalits to love jihads, but increasingly, the real and imagined politics of grievance finds expression in unexpected situations. I got talking to a well-informed and articulate professional at a social occasion recently – of the sort that right wing trolls label a “libtard” – and on being asked what she did, with good-humoured irony, she replied, “I’m a professional anti-nationalist you could say. I teach at Jawaharlal Nehru University.”


Many a good professor is troubled, most notably Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, a documentary on whom has been held up by the censor board until the words “cow”, “Gujarat”, “Hindutva view of India”, etc. are deleted. The censor board chief Pahlaj Nihalani has done worse, from making B-grade films to doting music videos on Narendra Modi; evidently his Hindutva identikit of gau rakshak disallows anyone else from using the words. The aggrieved documentary-maker plans to challenge the decision, adding to the quagmire clogging the courts.


The bitter twist of caste identities and grievance politics are best exemplified by the champion of social justice, Lalu Prasad, and his corrupt progeny, a “Cricket XI” that beat the cricket control board for nefarious wheeling-dealing. Cornered in a gigantic property scam of ill-begotten farm houses and real estate in Delhi and Patna, Bihar’s deputy chief minister and former cricketer Tejashwi says he will go to the “people’s court” to seek legitimacy. Like other icons of deprived classes such as Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav, Bihar’s first family today stands for, in Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s withering phrase, “the Robert Vadra model of development”.


Their aspirations are of princely proportion, their identities defined by social markers of untold wealth. Ms Mayawati may strut around in diamonds to unleash a building mania for pleasure parks in B R Ambedkar’s name to rival the Bourbon queens but her political rivals in Uttar Pradesh are driven by a craze for foreign cars. While Mulayam Singh and Akhilesh Yadav profess a preference for latest bullet-proof Mercedes models, younger son Prateek proudly posts images of his sky blue Rs 5-crore Lamborghini. This flagrant exhibition of rapacity contributed to their defeat in the state election in the spring.


The noose of financial malfeasance is also tightening round Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif, as investigations into his family’s huge hoard of hidden overseas assets are spotlighted. Here is columnist F S Aijazuddin’s writing in Dawn this week: “One has only to turn the leaves of Pakistan’s ledgers kept since 1947 to see how almost every ruler – whether elected, nominated or self-appointed – has in time blurred the distinction between state ownership and private possession…The situation now is so chronic that…should Pakistan be headed by an honest leader, determined to cleanse the country of corruption, he would be hounded out of office soon enough for incompetence or unforgivable negligence.” Like Mr Tejashwi, Mr Sharif is also mulling the idea of approaching the “people’s court”. A general election is due next year but will he call a snap poll to test his mandate?


As Mr Aijazuddin cynically remarks, “Pakistani politicians could never become Roman Catholic priests. They refuse to take a vow of poverty.” That fate, as in India, is reserved for the so-called Bangladeshi slum dwellers of Noida who took to stoning the apartments of their well-to-do employers. The real injury of the aggrieved is not the same as the grievance politics of those in power.

Leave a comment

The complicity in murder

The gathering at Jantar Mantar signals that the saffron tint of hate crimes against Muslims are swiftly becoming a taint.

Business Standard, June 30, 2017

Exactly as predicted by the weather office, the monsoon hit the capital on Wednesday afternoon. What was entirely unexpected was the crowd that descended on to join the “Not In My Name” protests in response to posts by documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan. As the clouds opportunely rolled back for a while people kept pouring in, my phone buzzed with social media alerts and messages from colleagues, friends, and neighbours on their way.

The gathering was neither politically orchestrated nor propelled by fury. The numbers were not as many as the city saw during Anna Hazare’s or the but even a few thousand was large for spontaneous word-of-mouth outreach. There were some well-known lawyers, activists, and performers on stage but not, as some cynically suggested, more journalists present than protestors. I encountered people of all age groups and backgrounds. Arogyan Kumar, a middle-aged office worker, came by Metro from Gurgaon, “kyonki daftar mein do din se is meeting ki charcha hai” (there has been much talk about this meeting in my office for two days). Mohd. Vakil, a college student, confidently sporting his skull cap, came all the way from Modinagar with classmates. “Sirf Junaid ki yaadmein,” he said simply (we’re only here in Junaid’s memory).

Unlike Mohd. Akhlaq’s lynching in Dadri or Pehlu Khan’s in Alwar on false allegations of storing beef or trading cattle for slaughter, the 16-year-old Junaid Khan was brutally stabbed in full public view, in front of his siblings on a train, for no other reason than he went shopping for Eid. That the cold-blooded murder took place on the outskirts of Delhi was made more horrifying by the complicity of two Delhi government officials who egged on his killer.

Ms Dewan, who organised the meeting, is not a street agitator, she says. “Yet the tipping point came with the lynching of Junaid…[he] was just a child….and got killed by a mob near Delhi, my city. You become complicit in this violence by keeping quiet. I didn’t want to be complicit in this. We can’t wait for an eternity to protest.”

As the “Not In My Name” call spread to other cities via the simple and speedy tool of social media, devices that the prime minister and his government relentlessly use for puff jobs and self-promotion, their complicity in the humiliation, intimidation and targeted killing of Muslims gets darker by the day.

It has been the gloomiest Eid in memory. In official circles the festival is marked by a series of iftaar dinners, with political leaders competing to outdo one another by hosting lavish feasts to break the day’s fast. Far from doing so, not a single member of the Union cabinet attended the President’s iftaar. In Lucknow, the saffron-robed Muslim-baiting Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath broke from precedent and followed his leader Narendra Modi by failing to host one; he also pointedly skipped the governor’s iftaar. “He should have been courteous to attend it. It has been a longstanding tradition,” the imam of Lucknow’s idgah remarked. In the city that epitomises an embedded syncretic culture of Ganga-Jumni tehzeeb, the omission was a deliberate insult.

A repudiation of the most important Muslim festival is one thing but the terrifying roster of hate crimes against Muslims another — their numbers have soared since Mr Modi came to power and growing in BJP-ruled states. In a recent piece on the shape of India’s political landscape to come, the historian Ramachandra Guha says that though the BJP juggernaut may be unstoppable, “it has not been able to suppress either reasoned debate or independent documentation and analysis … In society at large, tens of millions of Indians remain committed to an idea of constitutional patriotism that is steadfastly opposed to Hindutva. These Indians do not want their country to become a Hindu Pakistan. They do not want to be told what to eat, how to dress, whom to love and whom to vilify. Seventy years of independence and of life under the Constitution have led to the inculcation of mores and habits that run against the grain of authoritarianism and majoritarianism”.

The crowds collecting in cities this week in stunned sympathy for an innocent teenager’s killing could snowball; a trickle could become a flood that the BJP’s masterful managers might find hard to contain.

Mindful of this Mr Modi took to invoking the Mahatma, spinning the charkha at Sabarmati ashram and denouncing cow protectors that Mr Guha calls “gau gundas”.

But before the country’s saffron-tinted map becomes a taint, Mr Modi has to demonstrably prove that he means what he says, and that his cohorts in New Delhi and party faithful in the states are not complicit in foul murders.


Indira Gandhi’s centenary: Two views

As a demoralised Congress Party prepares for Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary on November 19 two new books on Mrs Gandhi offer an reappraisal of her life. 

Business Standard, June 16, 2017

It’s an inescapable irony that in the year the gears up to celebrate Indira Gandhi’s birth centenary, the fortunes of the family firm she properly founded are at a particularly low ebb, reduced to a woeful presence in Parliament and bruised by a succession of election defeats. What would the country’s second-longest serving prime minister (after her father), of whom it was said that she fought best when her back was to the wall, make of her heirs, who exhibit neither strategy nor stomach for getting ahead?


Reviled and revered, deified and demonised, the Indira mythology has consistently grown since her assassination in 1984.


Her memorial at 1 Safdarjung Road draws crowds greater than Rajghat; and a survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed that she was the most recognised Indian after the Mahatma, ahead of Jawaharlal Nehru. It has even been suggested that top BJP leaders such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, however grudgingly, harbour admiration for her controlling streak and steely resilience. She remains every ambitious power seeker’s copybook PM.


Two new chronicles turn the spotlight back on the paramount “Mrs G” — Journalist and broadcaster Sagarika Ghose’s Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister (Juggernaut; Rs 699; out on July 7) and Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature by Jairam Ramesh (Simon & Schuster; Rs 799). Ms Ghose’s is the greater labour; in eight trenchant chapters, with the kind of incisive, often coruscating, commentary that marks her journalism, she trawls through a large corpus of Indira biographies, memoirs, official papers, media records, and personal interviews (including with Priyanka Gandhi) to update the leader’s life and afterlife for contemporary readers.


The publisher’s hype (“Insecure Daughter. Betrayed Wife. National Heroine. Tough Dictator”) may be overheated but this is neither hagiography nor a muckraker’s account of “India’s original high command leader”. A sense of uncanny déjà vu is amplified in her analysis of “the hankering for power, the near-conviction that she alone knew what was best for India, coupled with a deep insecurity about her own future…[It] meant that ended up undermining and destroying the very institutions that her father had so painstakingly nurtured”.


Ms Ghose effectively builds a portrait of a complex, conflicted personality through shades of contrast. “When she came into a room it was as if she was surrounded by electricity, bijli,” says Natwar Singh. Jacqueline Kennedy describes her as a “real prune — bitter, kind of pushy horrible woman … it always looks like she’s been sucking a lemon”. And here’s Mark Tully: “I don’t see her as an iron lady. I see her as an indecisive woman who kept dilly-dallying … each of her periods in power thus ended in disaster … If she had realised her own power she could have risen to the level of a great stateswoman. But she didn’t realise her power to do good. She only realised her power to stay in power.”


The biographer employs an unusual form as framework for her study, each chapter prefaced by a personal letter questioning Indira’s decisions and traits, a series of “What if…” scenarios. Perhaps the idea was to create a Brechtian or sutradhaar-type distancing device, to engage and provoke readers new to Indira’s life. I often found them distracting from the strong, core narrative.


Jairam Ramesh — MP, former environment minister, and speech-writer for the Gandhis — explores an aspect of Indira, supported by rare archival photographs, of her deep and abiding affinity to nature. The love of trees, birds, stones, and mountains was a personal solace in a friendless childhood, an education interrupted by constant uprooting and spells in jail; essentially an introvert, her retreat to the hills was an escape from the rigours of office. Many of the books she collected or her personal correspondence brim with details of fauna and flora; an ardent bird-watcher she treasured friendships with ornithologists such as Salim Ali, Dillon Ripley, and Malcolm MacDonald. Her father and she turned the gardens of Teen Murti House into a menagerie that included a baby crocodile. “It bit everybody except me,” said her son Sanjay. “But when it bit Mother, it had to go.”


Shortly after becoming prime minister in 1966, she created the Indian Forest Service; in 1973 she launched Project Tiger and closely monitored its progress, introducing further legislation for the creation of national parks and preservation of other species.


As the country hurtles towards an environmental crisis — and the world is convulsed by the climate change debate — Mr Ramesh leaves no stone unturned to place Indira’s life as a naturalist and standard bearer abroad, for example, in her seminal 1972 speech at the UN human environment conference in Stockholm. His copious research is also an attempt to unravel the inner life of an enigmatic and problematic figure of political history.


Indira-fan or Indira-phobe, these two views are a timely diversion from the summer heat and the progress of the monsoon.