Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

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Modi in sinking sands

The Kathua and Unnao rapes and killing have badly hit Narendra Modi’s strenuous effort at global image-building. But the problem of rising crimes against women is India’s skewed demographics.

Column in Business Standard, April 21, 2018

Outside the Palace of Westminster there was a storm of protestors. Inside Prime Minister was in full cry in one of his well-orchestrated chat shows. The irony of this performance in this week — titled Bharat Ki Baat, Sabke Saath — seems to have escaped him and his interlocutor, the party’s favoured adman-turned-censor board chief Prasoon Joshi. Some unintentional gems were thrown up. Answering a question on how he stayed fit, Mr Modi said, “For the last 20 years, I’ve been on a special diet. I take 20 kg or 30 kg of criticism daily. That’s the secret of my fitness.”

Unable to resist the spiel of his impoverished beginnings as a tea-seller, he said it was his habit to give up expensive gifts such as “silver swords” and “beautiful paintings”. “Wouldn’t anyone want to keep these in their homes? Not me. I auctioned them away and soon enough we had ~100 crore, with which we created a fund for the education of the girl child. That is my life, I have been so poor that these riches don’t affect me.”

Many political leaders are capable of cracking bad jokes and taking cheap shots but even by those slippery standards — from sheer brazenness to outright mendacity — some of Mr Modi’s flip remarks have all the subtlety of a slap in the face. The best offence being a good defence, it could only be extreme defensiveness, after the brutal reality of the Kathua and Unnao episodes, to talk of trading his pricey presents to raise funds for improving the lot of little girls. As for criticism, he must need a special protection of armour to face the outrage at home and universal condemnation abroad that the incidents have provoked, including from the IMF chief, who said she is “revolted” by the incidents.

After four years of relentless globe-trotting to build up his image as a world leader, Mr Modi’s reputation overseas has taken a severe beating. Gone are the days of his rock star appearances and rousing receptions at Madison Square Garden and Central Park in (“May the force be with you!”), wowing audiences at Wembley Stadium in London, bursting into a virtuoso display of drumming in Japan, and playing bhai bhai with the Australian prime minister Down Under. The days of tarting up the Sabarmati river front to host the Chinese premier, of organising whirlwind tours for the Israeli and Japanese PMs, dining with Ivanka Trump at Falaknuma Palace (the guests included a friendly robot called “Mitra”) and extending all-embracing welcomes that Rahul Gandhi calls “hugplomacy”, must seem a distant mirage.

There isn’t a media outlet or respected newspaper around the world that hasn’t expressed shock, horror and loathing at the blighted condition of women, especially young women, in India. The most-quoted statistic is that 40 per cent of rising crimes (rape, assault, kidnapping) against women involve underage girls. More disturbingly, a detailed fact-based report in The Washington Post this week gets to the demographic root of the growing attacks: There is an excess of 37 million males over females in India, a gap that is projected to become a chasm in the 17-29 male age-group in coming years. “The imbalance creates a surplus of bachelors and exacerbates human trafficking, both for brides and, possibly, prostitution. Officials attribute this to the advent of sex-selective technology in the last 30 years, which is now banned but still in widespread practice…With the increase in men has come a surge in sexual crime in India.”

It is not only that Mr Modi’s vaunted “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” campaign now lies in a shambles before the world; much of the anger exploding on Indian streets is directed against Mr Modi’s party members, affiliates and sympathisers for shielding the rapists and killers in Kathua and Unnao. These are the people who form the core of his support base, showing, as the novelist Anuradha Roy points out in The Guardian, “that the slow sectarian poison released into the country’s bloodstream by its Hindu nationalists has reached full toxicity”. She quotes Tagore as foreseeing the rise malignant, home-grown nationalism. “Alien government in India is a chameleon,” he wrote. “Today it comes in the guise of an Englishman … the next day, without abating a jot of its virulence, it may take the shape of our own countrymen.”

Mr Modi’s responses in this week are that of the ostrich that buries its head in the sand at the thought of an approaching maelstrom. On his government’s criticism by opposition parties, he said his problem was not with criticism. “To criticise, one has to research and find proper facts. Sadly, it does not happen now. What happens instead is allegations.”

To add to his troubles at home Mr Modi is in double trouble as he faces unprecedented flak abroad. He can’t seem to take it. Clearly, he is in the sinking sands.



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Life and death of a utopia

“Wild Wild Country” is a brilliant new six-hour Netflix documentary series that records the descent of Bhagwan Rajneesh and his cult into armed conflict and crime in Oregon between 1981 to 1985.

Column in Business Standard, April 7, 2018

Wild Wild Country is the title of a monumental six-part documentary series that has just opened on Netflix. In painstaking detail over six one-hour episodes it reconstructs the life and death of Rajneeshpuram, the 64,000-acre utopian commune Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh aka and his orange-clad band of international sannyasins, created in the boondocks of Oregon between 1981 and 1985.

I am neither an indiscriminate Netflix binge-viewer nor much of a Rajneesh-watcher, ever since I spent time reporting on this bearded, bulbous-eyed sermonising guru at his Pune ashram (“The Spiritual Supermarket”, India Today, July 31, 1979). So how watchable is this marathon epic that Vanity Fairdescribes as “something of a pop culture phenomenon, the latest opportunity for voyeurs to absorb an improbable, shocking, and sprawling true crime tale”.

It is utterly compelling — as much for the assurance of the two young sibling directors, Maclain and Chapman Way, in culling hundreds of hours of archive footage and contemporary interviews (without a single line of voice-over narrative) as for the galloping growth of the media giant Netflix. The online streaming service-turned-content producer of blockbuster series such as The Crown is today worth $130 billion (slightly behind Disney and Comcast) with more than 100 million subscribers. For a modest monthly subscription, viewers can watch a vast array of old and new films and serials (including a growing selection of Hindi cinema). Its big push as producer in India this year is fictional drama, a serial adaptation by Anurag Kashyap of Vikram Chandra’s 2006 crime novel Sacred Games, starring Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. But a host of Bollywood’s best talent is angling or negotiating film deals.

Wild Wild Country, which could well be subtitled “Sacred Games”, is stranger than fiction. In Pune Rajneesh earned notoriety for his advocacy of free love and rumours of orgies among his foreign followers; puritanical politicians like Morarji Desai were having none of it despite adherents including actors Vinod Khanna and Terence Stamp; in the small rural community of Oregon disquiet turns into hostility as the “Rajneeshees” stage a political takeover of the local council, electing their mayor, renaming streets and cafes, and swamping the town in saffron. While the Bhagwan himself — gliding in Rolls Royces and swathed in outlandish robes and diamonds — makes occasional appearances, the charge is led by his ambitious, loose-talking, publicity-seeking private secretary, the Indian-born, American-educated Ma Anand Sheela. Media frenzy builds up as she attempts to take over the district legislature. Denouncing opponents as “bigots”, her inflammatory utterances, TV appearances and press conferences are marked by an array of flashy designer outfits. She is both media trophy and media victim.

Dark underhand activity at descends into crime. Hundreds of potential voters are afflicted by salmonella poisoning in salad bars; bombs go off; the commune turns into a fortress as armed sannyasins patrol the streets and practise at a shooting range in self-defence.

State and federal investigators get into the act to unmask a secret surveillance network, mysterious medical lab and attempted murders (including a Sheela confidante piercing the Bhagwan’s personal physician with a poisoned syringe).

Inevitably the collapse of this is triggered by internal dissensions and factional feuds. Sheela is banished — Bhagwan abuses her in public — and is replaced by a rich Hollywood producer’s wife.

As the noose closes round him Rajneesh tries to escape in two private Lear jets with a few disciples and his hoard of jewellery. He is intercepted, jailed and eventually deported to Pune, where he dies in 1990.

Sheela serves a two-year prison sentence, retires to run a home for the mentally-disabled in Switzerland, and appears only too happy to give her account in an extended interview.

The questions Wild Wild Country poses are as layered as its dense plotlines. Is it a classic decline-and-fall saga of a religious cult’s deterioration into dystopian nightmare? Or a morality fable of epic egos clashing over naked greed and power? A disquisition on the roots of xenophobia or the limits of democratic freedom? It is all of these but, shrewdly, the filmmakers take no particular position, allowing viewers to make up their minds.

The story is told entirely through the voices of the participants — a large and gripping cast of real-life characters from besotted acolytes to terrified locals, criminal attorneys and investigative journalists. Although the docuseries broadly follows a chronological structure of what happened in those four fateful years, it traverses a complex terrain of weaving the past and present, and the shifting standpoints of the main players as they come to terms with their post-Oregon lives. Some appear broken with contrition; others are unrepentant or continue to believe in Rajneesh’s sanctity and spirituality. Meanwhile the desolate, rotting shell of has been turned into a children’s resort by a new buyer.

A formidable exercise in film-making, Wild Wild Country puts Netflix in a commanding position creatively in its conquest of new markets.


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Why PM Narendra Modi’s sheen is wearing thin

Hubris and arrogance are taking their toll on the BJP’s image. 

Business Standard, March 24, 2018

The word “hubris” in Oxford English Dictionary is summed up simply as “excessive pride”. It is the single-biggest reason for leaders who exercise unrestrained power to rapidly start losing their shine. In the controlling, vainglorious style of managing government and party that he displays, is sometimes compared to 

In a notorious exhortation in 1976, party president D K Barooah declared, “India is Indira and Indira is India.” Perhaps Mrs Gandhi took his grovelling utterance literally. It was a calamitous period when she had seized absolute power during the Emergency, leading to a humiliating defeat in the election of 1977. Her son Rajiv Gandhi, a milder species, also displayed moments of unalloyed hubris. In 1982, as party general secretary, he shouted at Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister T Anjaiah at Hyderabad airport, calling him a “buffoon”; Anjaiah was sacked forthwith. More alarmingly, as prime minister in 1987, Rajiv dismissed then foreign secretary at a press conference with the curt announcement, “You will be meeting a new foreign secretary soon.”

leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are known to quote these instances as prime examples of sycophancy that afflicts the country’s grand old party and its catholic adherence to dynastic succession. Instead, they might ponder the all-consuming arrogance that grips the “Modi-Shah” combine a year ahead of the next general election. In the wake of the abject reversals in Gorakhpur and Phulpur — and a series of defeats in other by-elections — the most commonly posed question today is: Will 2019 be the BJP’s 1977 moment?

In the copious analysis of the shifting caste alliances and SP-gatbandhan that led to the losses in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy’s pocket boroughs in Uttar Pradesh, one MP from western UP was quoted as pinning the blame on the sense of “Ahankar and aham” (arrogance and ego) that prevails in the party cadres. “Our party rules in 21 states, or in alliances, that govern 70 per cent of the electorate,” he continued, “but avenues to respond to 1,300 MLAs are blocked. The fact is that most legislators feel ignored and unappreciated.”

There is a telling video clip — it went viral after the BJP’s recent election triumph in Tripura — that demonstrates how party veterans are publicly brushed off. It shows the Prime Minister greeting a lineup of dignitaries assembled on stage at the chief minister’s swearing-in in Agartala. Among them is the 91-year-old  He is bowing, hands folded, in a decorous namaskar but Mr Modi coolly walks past without acknowledging his greeting.

Among Mr Modi’s first actions on taking charge in 2014 was to mothball the likes of Mr Advani as margdarshaks, stopping leaders above the age of 75 from playing active political roles. But Mr Modi is both the rule-maker and the rule-breaker. Then what about the 75-plus B S Yeddyurappa, currently projected as the BJP’s candidate for chief minister in the upcoming state election in Karnataka?

Mr Modi’s disdain for public in media interactions is well established; even more so is the case of Amit Shah. Except for a bunch of oily cupbearers in the capital who perform at the duo’s bidding, access to the PMO is tightly monitored, trips abroad abolished, open press conferences unknown. The tone of sneering contempt — “You are just securalists who don’t count” — in which Mr Shah insulted the press at a media encounter in the Ashok Hotel not long ago went down badly. Journalists from Gandhinagar well-acquainted with Mr Modi during his long reign in Gujarat who seek interviews have been told, “doesn’t belong to Gujarat alone, he now belongs to India.”

Yet in Mr Modi’s “House of Cards” a favoured few can do as they please. Among them is Smriti Irani, who took charge of the information and broadcasting ministry last year. Ms Irani, in a hit-and-miss political career, has learnt the art of cultivating the media; less civil is her record with civil servants. Last year in an unaccountable action she transferred several dozen information officers of the Press Information Bureau, the official interface between the media and ministries. The move caused consternation as some were due for retirement. No amount of chocolate cake she sent PIB officers after the Budget has had the effect to mollify a resentful staff.

One of the BJP’s core traditional constituencies in Delhi has been of middle-class shopkeepers and traders. Bridling at 15 years of rule and the BJP’s national landslide in 2014-15 it put the Aam Aadmi Party, led by “Jhadoo King” Arvind Kejriwal, in power. Hubris is Mr Kejriwal’s middle name; Delhi’s citizens are ruing the day he became chief minister.

For some months many of the city’s markets have been part-paralysed by a “sealing drive” to collect fines for using residential floors for commercial use. The rules the city’s municipalities and is the small opposition in the legislature. Here is the party’s chance to alleviate shopkeepers’ distress and win back old supporters. But it is deluded in the belief “Modi raj” that will deliver them. Ahankar and aham have been many a great leader’s undoing.


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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.

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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.


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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!


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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?



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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.

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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.