Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi


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.

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Delhi’s unaccountable ‘Raja Kejriwal’

As Aam Aadmi Party chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s troubles mount he is not only out of touch with the city’s woes but also with his wayward flock.

Column in Business standard, May 20, 2017

After more than 40 years of living in the same house in a south Delhi neighbourhood, I recently moved to a temporary flat a few blocks away. Close by the old house stands a magnificent 16th century Lodi dynasty mosque, badly neglected by the Archaeological Survey; next to it a large municipal school. Both are plagued by a humongous garbage dump that also services the colony next door where, ironically, reside some of the country’s most influential legal luminaries. Years of protests have failed in regular clearance of mountains of refuse where cows and other strays forage freely. It is a fearful health hazard for hundreds of schoolchildren who cross it daily. The garbage dump near my new home is smaller but ruled by street dogs so vicious that they hunt and howl like packs of wolves all night. They put the fear of God in thieves and homeowners alike.


This bleak dystopian scenario in garbage disposal and waste management is visible throughout the city; come the monsoon, epidemics of dengue, malaria and fevers will stretch hospitals and mohalla clinics beyond breaking point.


Researchers like Bhanu Joshi and Eesha Kunduri of the Centre for Policy Research who conducted recent fieldwork in the working-class resettlement colony of Mongolpuri in northwest Delhi report accumulation of filth as a major governance failure. gandagi to dekh hi rahen hain, (You can see the filth everywhere) said respondents, now aspiring to middle class standards, to Ms Kunduri’s questionnaire.


The BJP has been entrenched in Delhi’s three municipalities for a decade, and in last month’s municipal election, the Aam Aadmi Party was thrashed, with the BJP sweeping 181 of the 272 seats for a third term. (was down to 48.)


Unlike its triumph in the Assembly election two years ago, there was hardly a broom in sight during the campaign; AAP’s “Jharoo King” received desultory attention from voters. Chronic civic ills like garbage disposal, and cash-strapped services like hospitals, are managed by the municipal corporations. In addition to the capital’s multiplicity of power centres, the BJP-political logjam at the top means that “Swachh Bharat” will leave India’s capital untouched.


The BJP’s recent success can be ascribed to one main reason: Arvind Kejriwal’s incredible loss of image and collateral downgrade of AAP’s reputation. In addition to Narendra Modi’s rise as a pan-Indian leader, the BJP fielded new faces in virtually all constituencies.


AAP, on the other hand, has consistently lost its moral compass and moorings. Many of its ragtag tribe have been exposed as a bunch of cheats, crooks, wife-beaters and wheeler-dealers. Since 2015 more than a dozen of its 67 MLAs and ministers have faced dismissals, arrests and jail terms. Former law ministers Jitendra Singh Tomar (fake educational degree) and Somnath Bharti (domestic violence and setting his dog called Don to bite his pregnant wife) have served terms in Tihar; MLAs like Amanatullah Khan, Dinesh Mohaniya and Prakash Jarwal were arrested on charges of molestation and sexual harassment; others have been accused of land grab, assault, abetting suicide, desecrating the Quran, inflaming caste rivalries, among other allegations.


The scandal currently convulsing the party concerns Kapil Mishra (former water minister just as the city is gripped by acute water scarcity) accusing the chief minister of taking a cash bribe of Rs 2 crore, money laundering, fixing land deals for his late brother-in-law and taking cuts on amenities like water tankers and retiling of footbridges. Mr Mishra may be slyly put up by political rivals but the irony is inescapable: The crusader who made his name and fame as purging national politics of corruption is now taking a direct hit. How does that make different from any other party?


In one respect Delhi is a capital unlike others. Many of its past rulers have been long-term residents of the city with an acute awareness of its complex structures of ownership and administration, and a finger on the pulse of competing interests and a restive population. From Indira Gandhi to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, key appointments, of lieutenant-governor and top administrators, were in the prime minister’s gift. Mrs Gandhi (and later Rajiv and Sonia) attended art exhibitions and LK Advani could be spotted browsing in bookshops. Even an outsider-turned-insider like PV Narasimha Rao had a wide range of non-political acquaintance and interests. Files pertaining to tree-cutting on the Ridge or cultural appointments went up to the PMO or home ministry. Mayors were (and remain) powerless figureheads but corporators were manageable. Grace-and-favour offerings, including the thankfully abolished habit of subsidised government housing to media favourites, were commonplace.


In short, many of these figures behaved like benevolent monarchs with the common touch. and don’t have old or deep roots in Delhi. Most unaccountable of all is “Raja” Arvind Kejriwal, the Aam Aadmi’s prophet, who’s out of touch with both the city and his own flock.


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Kishori Amonkar: A tempestuous diva

Before a great music patron like Sumitra Charat Ram I saw Kishori Amonkar turn from a ferocious feline to a docile kitten

Business Standard, April 8, 2017 

“Sit up,” she shouted into the mike, her voice a shrill rasp. A front-row member of the audience was lolling on a bolster. Looking up while tuning her instrument she went for him again. “Sit up!… I said SIT UP!… Did you not hear me!”

The evening screeched to a standstill before it started. It was a first up close view of Kishori Amonkar, the tempestuous diva of Hindustani classical music, who quietly passed away in her sleep, at 84, this week a few days after her last concert.

The occasion was an ill-starred performance at an odd venue in the early 1980s — the Taj Mansingh in Delhi trying to connect culturally with a traditional baithak in an opulent chandeliered hall. The photographer Raghu Rai, also present, recollects this week her sharp reprimand when he made the cardinal mistake of lighting a cigarette. Among her legions of fans, he later captured her gaunt features and something of her obsessive performing style vividly in black and white images.

My encounters with her were the result of a friendship with Delhi’s greatest patrons of the performing arts, the Shriram family. From a young age, my brother and I were taken to the Shriram Shankarlal Festival each spring, then held on the open grounds of Modern School on Barakhamba Road. This was a sort of late-night mela with hundreds streaming in and out before a vast stage on which the musicians came and went. Often carried home in the early hours, our joy was when our mother announced, “All right, no school tomorrow.” The (not the holiday) was among their many gifts.

The 70th edition of this annual festival, now held at its permanent home, the Kamani auditorium, and featuring such greats as Girija Devi and Rashid Khan this year, has just ended. It is the bequest of the late Sumitra Charat Ram who put her husband’s fortune to good use by gathering the great and the good among India’s legendary performers. Her legacy, glowingly enhanced by her daughter Shobha Deepak Singh, is unique: Neither ticketed nor sponsored, the festival, as she points out, is sustained by avid followers.

On the numerous occasions I sought an interview with the irascible, mercurial I was dismissed. On one occasion she was downright rude.

In 2000 she was the festival’s star performer. On behalf of NDTV I importuned Ms Deepak Singh to help. She was understandably non-committal but added, “Mummy is giving a lunch for Kishoriji. Come if you like and we’ll see if we can persuade her.”

Sumitra Charat Ram’s was a remarkably benevolent and calming presence. In her simple cotton sari, large bindi and mangalsutra she presented a picture of the vanishing courtesy and grace of Uttar Pradesh — made more disarming against a backdrop of museum-quality treasures that filled her grand home. (For an unusually frank appraisal of Sumitraji’s life, read her son Siddharth Shriram’s birth centenary tribute to her in Business Standard, November 15, 2015).

Utterly humble before her, turned from ferocious feline to docile kitten.

She promptly agreed to the recording; in the candid interview she spoke movingly about her life and art. She recalled the hardships her mother, Mogubai Kurdikar, faced as a young widow. “She had to travel to concerts in third class compartments. I would often go to sleep in her lap as her accompanist. We lived in a one-room chawl. She needed every penny to educate me and my siblings.” She dwelt on how she sought to create “an architecture of sound” by exploring the colour of each note. “For me the audience also becomes the raga.” Later, off the record, she was unsparing about playback singing, and her rejection of film after singing for Geet Gaya Pattharon Ne, a 1964 potboiler by V Shantaram.

Of the ameliorative power of her my best recent example is of two young women — my daughter and her close childhood friend — going through a taxing time in foreign capitals. It was a time of tedious struggle; when verbal succour failed, I sent them a link to a composition by Kishori Amonkar, a profound solace to me in times of sadness or stress.

This is a 48-minute-long khayal in the Raga Hamsadhawani, an invocation to the Remover of Obstacles, whose fame is so universal that when Barack Obama, after his India visit, was asked what he brought home, he delved into his pocket and produced a little Ganesh. The piece is largely devoid of the soaring taans and shrutis (virtuoso and micro-notes) that are hallmarks of her style. In an unruffled contemplation of Ganapati’s playfulness and prescience she draws eternal truths. Namita Devidayal, author of the bestselling musical memoir The Room (Random House; 2007) concurs that it is possibly one of her most inspiring pieces.

Kishori Amonkar’s greatness was that, from her troubled life and temperament, she produced of transcendental healing.

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The Romeos of Hazratgunj: An elegy

Yogi Adityanath’s orthodoxies threaten a highly evolved culture in UP

Column in Business Standard, March 25, 2017 

“The pursuit of happiness…in of the 1950s meant pursuing girls…The theatre of operations revolved around Hazratganj…They would arrive in cars and rickshaws wearing tight, extremely tight, salwars and kurtas…Glances were exchanged, remarks were passed, optimistic conclusions were reached…”
—Vinod Mehta, Boy, 2011

For generations a favoured sport in the city of is “Gunging”. This has nothing whatever to do with the OED meaning of clogging or encrusting with “sticky, congealed matter”; it refers to loitering with intent in the cafes and cinemas of Hazratgunj, the city’s ever-popular thoroughfare. The cool dudes of lay in wait for the passing beauties and bluestockings of Isabella Thoburn College. In Mr Mehta’s time the swains included the late politician from Padrauna, C P N Singh, father of the former Congress minister R P N Singh, and the well-known journalist — “Saeed…in his black shirt and tight black trousers…compiled sexy English poetry about the girls of and pasted it all over Hazratganj.”

In Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh such wayward Romeos would all be in the lock-up. The setting up of “anti-Romeo” squads at police stations all over the state is only the start of an enforced new morality that will cover what people can eat, how they dress or how they behave in the streets. The Muslim-baiting chief minister’s views on women and male-female relationships are well-known: He rails against “Western feminism” — whatever that is — because it “hampers the creation and stability of the home and family”. And if men “acquire women-like qualities they become gods but when women acquire men-like qualities they become ‘rakshasa’ or demon-like.”

In provincial towns such as Meerut there is already a backlash against police patrols to round up any suspected Romeos outside colleges or paan stalls; but in the IG has ordered a squad in each of the state capital’s 11 zones. If this is an attempt to maintain public peace it could also be a flimsy excuse at settling scores. First targets: Any Muslim youth seen within yards of a Hindu girl.

Uttar Pradesh has a highly politicised police force, often seen as incompetent and corrupt. In Mayawati’s heyday thousands of officers were transferred overnight; five years of Samajwadi Party rule, and in its earlier phase of power in 2003-2007, a gradual Yadavisation took place. This was the cause of goonda raj, a blatantly partisan law and order machinery, the BJP campaigned against. The political weather vane has now swung again, and the UP police are adept hands at pleasing their new masters.

While the ill-fated Romeos of await corporal and other punishments, the saffron leader’s food rules are more punitive. Slaughterhouses are being shut down, illegal or not, the saddest casualty being the century-old shop of Tunday’s succulent kebabs, in Lucknow’s old Chowk area and other outlets. For many no visit to the city is complete without a taste of its refined Awadhi cuisine, its galautiskakoris, biryanis and kormas. This pinnacle of culinary excellence is under threat. Tunday’s blighted shop owner has run out of buffalo meat and is offering chicken as a poor substitute. Thousands of others will be put out of livelihoods in UP’s celebrated food industry.

This first wave of cultural intimidation will take a serious toll of a highly sophisticated, syncretic, intellectually stimulating and idiosyncratic culture. Memoirist after memoirist, from the writer Ira Pande, daughter of the great Hindi novelist Shivani, to the historian Veena Talwar Oldenburg, have recorded it vividly.

In an obituary of Hazratgunj’s famous bookseller Ram Advani, who died last year, Ms Pande records uniquely Lakhnavi terms for local landmarks — the Zoo is called Bandriya Bagh, the Museum known as Murda Ajayabghar and Loreto Convent Bhaktin Iskool. For a more delightful and rewarding compendium there is nothing to beat Prof Talwar Olderburg’s Sham-e-Awadh: Writings on Lucknow (Penguin; Rs 395) that takes in the times of Wajid Ali Shah, the lives of its courtesans, accounts of the 1857 revolt and the many strands of a mannered culture that form the crucible of Ganga-Jumni tehzeeb.

This rich tapestry has given Indian cinema some of its richest dividends. Will Mr Adityanath also ban blockbusters such as Chaudhvin Ka ChandPakeezah and Umrao Jaan for portrayals of pulsating romance and promiscuity? Or ordain as subversive dramatic fictions spun from history and literature such as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Shyam Benegal’s Junoon?

The ill-starred putsch against the Romeos of is like sucking the Gomti river dry — it’s now just an arid trickle. Perhaps it’s time to compose a new kind of marsiya, an elegy traditionally sung by the Shias of Uttar Pradesh, to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain that and his family movingly rendered in “Expressions of Muharram” described in this column on October 24, 2015.

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UP’s shifting jigsaw

Were it a separate country, UP would be the sixth most populated in the world

Business Standard, February 25, 2017

As the juggernaut of the seven-part election rolls on to a close on March 8, all eyes are on Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state of more than 200 million. Were it a separate country, UP would be the sixth most populated in the world. The way the vote swings in the Hindi heartland will not only be a verdict on some of the titans of Indian politics —Prime Minister Narendra Modi, supremo Mayawati and the relatively young duo of and — but also have a decisive bearing on who rules India in 2019. Despite its intricate tapestry of region, religion, caste and linguistic dialects UP handed out decisive verdicts in the last two elections — in favour of the Samajwadi Party dominated by the Yadav family clan in 2012 and a clean sweep for the Narendra Modi-led wave in 2014.


This time looks different because no one is taking firm bets. In sharp contrast to Punjab where there is unanimous agreement that the Shiromani Akali Dal-are certified losers, the uncertainty of the UP verdict has cast a pall on the predictions of professional pollsters, squadrons of out-in-the-field reporters and every jack-in-the-box pundit from street side vendors to yogis, gangsters, cheerleaders and thousands of contestants for 403 seats. Many polls that gave a clear lead in January, for instance the India Today-Axis poll of 171-184 seats against 97-104 for the SP-alliance, in February show the alliance closing the gap with 168-178 seats against the BJP’s 180-191. Two-thirds of the way through it seems a neck-and-neck race, with Mayawati lagging a distant third.


Does this mean a youth dividend for UP ke ladke and that can override the complex, shifting permutation of caste and regional configurations? Over 40 per cent of the populace is under 30 years, a huge demographic segment hungry for education and employment. Moreover the 43-year-old has completed a full term as chief minister, fought and won a bruising battle with a bunch of corrupt volatile family elders, shown an earnest commitment to development, however imperfect, and adroitly negotiated a partnership with Rahul Gandhi, who is just three years older. Can this youthful gathbandhanmatch the JDU-RJD-mahagathbandthan that vanquished the in Bihar in 2015?


That the two are scions of troubled political dynasties is no longer an issue; the BJP’s long-professed antipathy to dynastic succession has been cast to the winds, several candidates in the fray being relatives of political leaders starting with Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s son Pankaj.


Hidebound UP watchers will argue that a progressive youthful outlook, untainted by corrupt practice, together with development projects, don’t add up to all that much; and that ultimately candidates who successfully pander to affiliations of creed and community in every constituency will prevail. These are the fixers, as former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan once illuminatingly analysed in a public lecture, who grease the levers of the political system at the ground level.


Narendra Modi’s right hand man, President Amit Shah, has been burning midnight oil for two years in preparation to put this system into practice for the UP debacle. Tellingly, the has not fielded a single Muslim candidate in a state with a 20 per cent Muslim population. Its strategy rests on stitching together a pan-Hindu coalition of upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalits, amongst others. So why is the party betraying signs of anxiety as the voting machines lumber slowly from west to east across the spread of the Gangetic plain?


For several good reasons. It has been unable to find a face for the chief minister’s post (having burnt its fingers from the disastrous consequence of putting up Kiran Bedi in Delhi two years ago). Mr Modi alone is the BJP’s star campaigner and practised orator; there is no second in command in sight. Despite his seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy, can he whip up sufficient national appeal — and Hindu nationalist sentiment — to bring home the prize?


In many pockets, the after-effects of demonetisation still linger. Core supporters from the powerful Jat sugarcane farmers of western UP and many urban traders have grievously suffered and could extract revenge. There has also been bitter infighting over the distribution of seats and Mr Shah’s perceived highhandedness.


Whichever way the pieces fall on March 11, the shift in UP is the biggest test for the BJP’s future. If it loses the state even by a few seats, Mr Modi’s chair in New Delhi will be shaken. And if it wins, his position will crystallise invincibly.



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A tale of tattered posters

Sasikala’s rise to the top heralds a new kind of ideology-free transactional politics

Business Standard, February 11, 2017

Last May, not long before she disappeared from the public view, fought her last election as sitting MLA from R K Nagar in north  She didn’t campaign but swept in unopposed. R K Nagar is a proletarian, lower middle area but why is this nondescript neighbourhood so important?

Because it is the only vacant MLA seat in Tamil Nadu’s 234-seat legislature. Can V K Sasikala, pretender to Amma’s throne, fill that seat?

The plain answer is “No”. The R K Nagar by-election is imminent but Ms Sasikala is so deeply detested in that she knows she will be thrashed. Each time her posters come up in the city they are ripped apart. The tale of tattered posters, in a nutshell, encapsulates the political crisis in Tamil Nadu, a succession battle so gripping that it has put every other story, including the ongoing state elections, in the shade.

Ms Sasikala’s bid to become chief minister is a case of political inheritance so odd as to be almost without precedent. She is neither a dynastic nor a designated successor; she has never fought an election; she’s played no official role in party affairs till her sudden elevation as chief after Jayalalithaa’s death on December 5. Her sole claim to political power is that she allegedly holds the keys to Amma’s vast treasure chest, a fortune she helped amass over the years. This may buy her most of AIADMK’s 135 MLAs but it wins her no popular support. If she was to legitimise her position, she would have to find a some safe Thevar-dominated constituency. Andipatti near Madurai is being mentioned as one such option.

How a 60-year-old former video parlour owner from Cuddalore emerged from the inner recesses of Poes Garden to stake her claim as chief minister is a saga stranger than any fiction.

Ms Sasikala has conveniently dropped her husband M Natarajan’s name, though, as befitting a respectable “Chinamma” (which translates as mausi or mother’s younger sister) she still sports a diamond-studded thali or mangal sutra. But it is to Mr Natarajan that she originally owes her ascent to power.

In the early 1980s, employed as a government PR, he requested his boss, Chandralekha, the district collector in South Arcot, to introduce his wife to Jayalalithaa, then a rising political star. Ms Natarajan (as she was then known) ran a small videography shop, hiring camera crews to film weddings and other functions. Ms Sasikala made a flattering video on Jayalalithaa’s appointment as propaganda secretary, following up with another glowing portrait when she entered Parliament as a Rajya Sabha member.

From those modest professional encounters began a friendship between the two women, a relationship so close that in time Ms Sasikala came to run not merely Jayalalithaa’s house but oversee her business affairs. (Chandralekha’s introductory favour was not returned – the IAS officer-turned-politician was the victim of an acid attack in 1992.) There is an unusual photograph on the internet that sums up Jayalalithaa and Ms Sasikala’s mutual well-being and wealth – the two women are dressed as brides, draped in matching rich red-and-gold saris, and covered head to toe in gold ornaments.

There have been only a couple of nasty blips in this long-standing association: In 2011, Ms Sasikala and her relatives, who formed a cordon sanitaire around the chief minister, were expelled from the party and Ms Sasikala evicted from the house. The reason for this expulsion hardly stretch the imagination. Among those disowned was V N Sudhakaran, Jayalalithaa’s “foster son” (in fact Ms Sasikala’s nephew), whose fabulously expensive wedding hosted by the two women had some years ago brought to a standstill. Swiftly distancing herself from her kin, Ms Sasikala, however, was back in favour within months and safely home.

Among her first actions after the chief minister’s demise was to conduct a purge of officials such as Sheela Balakrishnan, Santha Sheela Nair and

K N Venkataramanan, considered close to Jayalalithaa. From there to ordering party MLAs to pledge allegiance to her promotion as chief minister was but a short step.

O Panneerselvam’s challenge, after his deep communion with Jayalalithaa’s departed spirit at her Marina Beach memorial, must have come as rude surprise. Like her, he belongs to the Thevar community and could rob some of her political base. But unless the Supreme Court puts her back in jail for her ill-begotten riches, Ms Sasikala’s rise to the top heralds a new kind of ideology-free transactional politics. It shows the way to other political heirs: All that matters is financial muscle and enough rented hotel rooms to lock up your MLAs in. Public support is as dispensable as torn posters blowing in the wind.


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JLF’s decisive decade

Despite criticism and controversies, ‘JLF At Ten’ is a tour de force to contend with

Business Standard, January 27, 2017


Barring a couple of years in recent times, I have attended nearly every edition of the (JLF) since its inception. What was a modest, unfocussed and slightly impromptu literary gathering was pulled up from its bootstraps and propelled forward by two writers of wide-ranging enthusiasms: Nam-ita Gokhale, engaged in Hindi and bhasha literatures, and William Dalrymple, an enduring link between Indian stories and international audience. This unlikely duo was enjoined by a crucial third: The unflappable, omnipresent Sanjoy Roy — he of the inimitable long white tresses and friendly access — who runs the 100-strong Teamwork Arts, possibly the most influential arts event entrepreneur in the country.

I’ve seen this triumvirate through some sticky moments; for example, five years ago when two eager-beaver writers began to read on stage from Salman Rushdie’s proscribed The Satanic Verses to protest his last-minute cancellation. The agitators were at the gates, and FIRs, lawyers, local police and politicians swarmed the inner courts of Diggi Palace till late at night. Many thought the litfest would shut down next morning. But such was the goodwill of the hosts and the generous embrace of the Pink City that the show has unstoppably gone on since.

Figures don’t always tell the full story but JLF’s 10th anniversary last weekend — in theory a Thursday-to-Monday event but actually swallowing the whole week — had 409 speakers over 200 sessions at six venues; over 400,000 people attended over five days.

Priyanka Malhotra of Full Circle, whose smallish bookshop has now expanded to a gigantic thronging tent, featuring 45,000 titles by every author present, told me: “Despite the best security, we still lose about 10 per cent of sales to pilferage. How do you pat down every conservative woman customer? They object.”

Book thieves may be bad for business but osmotically they’re good for JLF’s reputation. The litfest is free to all provided they register online — this means hordes of students — and last-minute arrivals pay a fee of Rs 200.

Still, it’s a logistical feat to house, feed and transport the speakers and delegates from 16 hotels to Diggi Palace, followed by lavish evening entertainments — Amjad Ali Khan playing in the grandeur of Amer Fort, Vidya Shah singing in Hawa Mahal and a splendid complement of visiting Afghan and Syrian musicians jamming with Rajasthani singers sponsored by the Aga Khan Musical Initiative.

There isn’t a room to spare in the city during the JLF week; and it’s been suggested that the once-crumbling but centrally-located Diggi haveli — a small hostelry that’s metamorphosed into a 100-room hotel — should be replaced by a more commodious venue. But that hasn’t deterred the heaving thousands, making their orderly way through security checks, snacking and shopping at innumerable food stalls and boutiques, hysterical at Sadhguru and Rishi Kapoor’s sessions, and mobbing the likes of Javed Akhtar and Shashi Tharoor. One initiative in crowd management that JLF’s organisers have successfully implemented is employing 400-odd college volunteers from India and overseas. “They’re paid a small honorarium and trained for a week in December,” says Mr Roy. (I met one such group from Melbourne University who said it was the best “working holiday” they’d had.)

Weaving through the hubbub, audiences could pick at spirited debates on demonetisation, throw questions at Booker Prize winners Paul Beatty and Alan Hollinghurst, or plug into any subject under the sun from the arcane (“Smell and Perfume in Ancient India”) to the quotidian (“Of Saffron and the Sangha”). I caught up with illuminating sessions by Neil MacGregor on “Shakespeare’s Restless World”, a tribute to poet-translator A K Ramanujan, journalist Luke Harding on Edward Snowden, “Sur, Sangeet, Sahitya” on the evolution of Indian classical music, and Mr Dalrymple and Anita Anand on the tortured history of the Kohinoor.

Finding the money to fund this giant ferris wheel of a litfest isn’t easy. With major cutbacks in advertising, several sponsors pulled out this year, though Zee — the title sponsor —  sustained its three-year contract. Increasingly, however, JLF’s cash-or-kind tie-ins appeal to partners in travel and hospitality sectors to reinforce Rajasthan’s position as a tourist magnet: This year Cox & Kings paid cash, Taj and Meridien regularly host major parties, and the state government chip in with police support and permissions to show off the city’s forts and palaces.

Increasingly, too, important trade publishers like HarperCollins and Penguin Random House top up marketing budgets in recognition of India as a book-buying nation on the upswing (unlike, say Australia and New Zealand where markets are tanking). “In the end,” says Mr Roy, whose company runs 26 events in 40 cities and 16 countries, “it boils down to branding. JLF is our flagship and we work 18 months in advance. At the back of the festival brochure, we have already announced the principal speakers for 2018”.

Despite criticism and controversies, “JLF At Ten” is a tour de force to contend with.

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The torments of Om Puri

Om Puri’s Quiet And Credulous Charm Could Be Disarming

Business Standard, January 14, 2017

Here is the 34-year-old talking to me in 1984: “I never felt let down or bitter because I never lost perspective on my life. Relax, I used to tell myself at especially difficult moments, what would you be doing if you weren’t here? You would have ended up being a clerk somewhere. There was no terrible anticlimax in my life because I built no castles in the air. It made everything flow easy and even.”
It’s a long damp afternoon and we’re in a hotel room in Delhi. The actor’s accolades are piling up in his landmark films — two national awards for best actor in Arohan and Ardh Satya; a Filmfare supporting actor for Aakrosh and, crowning glory, best actor at the Karlovy Vary filmfest — but, scandalously, a woman member of the Filmfarevetoed his nomination, reportedly saying, “How can you? He’s so ugly.” The film writer Jai Arjun Singh noted this week of the actor who died on January 6, aged 66, that much of his best work was done between 25 and 35 years ago. Naseeruddin Shah’s excellent memoir And Then One Day describes the sudden, surprising impact Puri made on stage at the National School of Drama: “Om had always been a model, if somewhat stodgy, student and human being…[known for] his sweet temperament rather than his acting. Now he delivered [in a Kabuki play] a knockout performance…and I had to admit to myself that none of my own performances in the school productions could begin to approach Om’s achievement in Ibaragi.”
Om Puri’s quiet and credulous charm could be disarming. “Really?” he kept saying when I said that Raghu Rai would be shooting his portrait for the profile I was preparing (“An Actor’s Actor”, India Today, August 31, 1984).
Next day Mr Rai arranged the session in his flat; the two got along so well and made the shoot so enjoyable that the afternoon extended to rounds of Old Monk and dinner. The profile quotes director Govind Nihalani, who first met Om during dubbing sessions of Junoon, as saying that it was a struggle to persuade the producers of Ardh Satya to cast him. “They just thought audiences wouldn’t be able to take that face for too long.” Yet the impact of his performance was so compelling that the late film critic Amita Malik, who was present at Karlovy Vary for his first major international honour, found that foreign audiences “found him sexy and strongly appealing in a macho way.”
If memory is a series of film dissolves, none of our subsequent encounters over the years was like that first. “Om Puri’s most abiding asset as a human being is not modesty (a quality almost always false in performers) but humility,” I had observed.
Madhu Jain, the journalist and editor of IQ magazine, who first met him on a 10-day trip to Russia in the early 1980s, found him warm, earthy and an acute listener. But when she saw him last year at Ebrahim Alkazi’s big 90th birthday bash in Delhi it was a different man. In that rumbustious celebration, milling with Alkazi devotees, he was in his cups. “He appeared dazed, angry, unseeing. Just not himself. It made me very sad.”
As his fame grew his emotional life was in a shambles. My last encounter with him in 2009, a TV recording for the publication of his second wife Nandita Puri’s biography which he found offensive and hurtful, was a dead loss: He was sullen, monosyllabic and unfriendly. Outside the bookshop where we recorded, a large crowd of fans had gathered; I hurriedly escaped the suffocating atmosphere, leaving the overly managing Ms Puri to deal with the bad vibes. At the Jaipur litfest that year he was frequently incoherent and drunk. His marriage was on the rocks.
Born the youngest of eight children (of whom only two survived) to a mother who died in adolescence, and a father, later a railway clerk, Puri was dumped with relatives in a village outside Patiala. Working a hard apprenticeship through provincial theatre groups to NSD, it was Alkazi’s intuitive genius in 1970, that forced the selection board to award him a monthly stipend of Rs 200.
In the last couple of years I got Om’s news from our mutual friend, American novelist Richard Morais based on whose novel The Hundred Foot Journey, Om took on Helen Mirren in a feel good culinary rom com that became an international hit. “The world is a little less bright and a lot more boring. RIP big-hearted Om,” Morais wrote this week. Yet life for Puri, “the Amitabh Bachchan of the dispossessed”, did not flow easy and even. In the end an accumulation of torments beat him.

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My best bookshelf of 2016

Business Standard, December 31, 2016

Some of the best reading were works of modern and contemporary Indian history

The inexorable rise of nationalism — in Britain, in America — the horrors of war in and the often traumatic economic fallout of in Modi’s India made real-life narratives stranger than fiction in a post-truth world.


On my year’s bookshelf, some of the best reading were works of modern and contemporary Indian history, gripping accounts of the making and unmaking of the nation-state.


Two expansive, ground-breaking works stand out: India’s War: The Making of Modern South Asia, 1939-1945 by Srinath Raghavan (Penguin; Rs 699) and The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar by (Juggernaut; Rs 699). Ramachandra Guha once applauded Raghavan’s ability “to make military history sound sexy”. An ex-army officer, who by his own admission abandoned “the seductive rigours of the army for the sheltered groves of academia”, Raghavan’s story is no arid chronicle of campaigns and commanders in theatres of war; it is a wide-ranging account of how World War II fuelled the nationalist struggle and with it sweeping political, economic and social change that also marked out India’s future role on the world stage. Embellished with a wealth of detail and splendid profiles, there is hardly a dull page in this commodious and superbly structured volume.


Unlike Mr Raghavan, Ms Sundar was a trained academic who made her first foray into Chhattisgarh’s Maoist-infested district 25 years ago as a field researcher and was transformed from a passive observer to a passionate activist. Her brave and forensically documented story of the raging civil war between insurgents and the government’s scorched earth atrocities by the vigilante is illuminated by her compelling voice. “This book is written because, in the absence of justice, at least the truth must be on record,” she writes of events leading to the Supreme Court’s intervention to curb human rights abuses inflicted on one of the poorest tribal populations. Ms Sundar has suffered reprisals since the appearance of The Burning Forest, yet her testimony is a triumph for maintaining the delicate balance between an impartial reporter, an involved crusader and, above all, a fine writer.


One objective of both the historians is that, in the end, their stories are also of people who struggled to remake history. Two biographies by journalists — of utterly distinct public figures — capably tackle how individuals can rise from relative obscurity to command national attention. Half Lion: How P.V.Narasimha Rao Transformed India by Vinay Sitapati (Penguin; Rs 699) fills an important gap in telling the story of the country’s first Congress prime minister from a non-Hindi speaking state. Narasimha Rao’s reputation is undervalued for precisely those reasons; but he was a linguist, speaking 17 languages, a shrewd manipulator of party politics, propeller of economic reforms in 1991, and cultivated old-school Hyderabadi. He also led an imaginative life penning controversial fiction. The low point of his career was the demolition of the Babri Masjid. With access to Rao’s personal papers and a range of new source material, Mr Sitapati’s portrayal of Rao is far from the customary hagiographic lives of Indian leaders.


Grovelling portraits of Indian movie stars are as commonplace as penny dreadfuls. Yasser Usman’s account of Bollywood’s enigmatic siren Rekha: The Untold Story (Juggernaut; Rs 499) rises above the mould of tawdry bodice-rippers. It’s a racy read alright; but, backed by diligent research, he builds a convincing account of a woman breaking the shackles of enforced victimhood and the star system by living life on her own terms. In its way, it unfolds like a radical feminist plot.


An unusual and concise business history also made its presence strongly. Fascinating for its subject and easy accessibility, economist Omkar Goswami’s Goras and Desis: Managing Agencies and the Making of Corporate India (Penguin; Rs 299) is an excellent study of 19th century business practices whose vestiges are contentiously felt today.


In fiction, three novels gave undiluted pleasure: Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor (Aleph; Rs 499), a splendid debut collection of short stories for their amalgam of the past and present in far-flung locations and incandescent writing; the last of Namita Gokhale’s Himalayan trilogy Things To Leave Behind (Penguin; Rs 499), a period piece that melds 19th colonial history with the luminous folklore and family traditions of the Kumaon hills; and for its fanciful flights of character and situations punctuated with mordant wit, Sri Lankan writer Ashok Ferrey’s The Ceaseless Chatter of Demons (Penguin; Rs 399).


And for a delightful distraction and year-end smile in an otherwise gloomy time there’s nothing to beat Amul’s India 3.0 (HarperCollins; Rs 299), the incredible story of the utterly-butterly politically incorrect poppet in polka dots who marks 60 years of the most delicious advertising campaigns in the world.


Don’t miss it and have a happy New Year!

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More notes on notebandi

Demonetisation has pushed the bureaucracy – in this case the creaking, ill-equipped banking system – to breaking point

Column in Business Standard, December 3, 2016

It’s now the halfway mark of the 50 days of pain the prime minister begged his countrymen to bear for the notebandi inconvenience to abate. In fact, day by day, the crisis is intensifying, with lengthening queues, struggling banks, drained ATMs and threats of violence. At the government bank I use, it is no longer possible to withdraw the prescribed Rs 24,000 a week; the sum dwindled to Rs 10,000 several days ago and is whittled arbitrarily to lesser sums.
Often there is no money. The police have been called twice to push back the seething throng and quash the scuffles and fights. Chronic shortages — to run households, pay salaries and settle accounts — means that most other conversation has ended. The sole dominating discourse among all Indians, cutting across divisions of class and geography of city, small town and village, is how to conduct the painful business of daily life.
It is an increasingly precarious and desperate business. I haven’t sensed such a near-universal feeling of pent-up frustration and anger since the dark days of Sanjay Gandhi’s nefarious nasbandi (mass sterilisation) campaign in 1976.
Like Sanjay’s ill-fated movement for population control, notebandi too is a coercive, mass participatory exercise ordered by dictatorial fiat from on high. Given the miasma of ad hocism, secrecy, fear and loathing that surrounds the curtailing of black money, with rules changed every other day and new punitive measures announced — such as holdings of personal jewellery — it is akin to Sanjay’s authoritarian “Five-point terror” in many ways.
It has pushed the — in this case the creaking, ill-equipped system — to breaking point. It has driven Parliament to a halt and endangered the livelihoods and lives of millions. Detailed accounts in Business Standard this week describe the plight of industry affected: Among them two million employed in the diamond-polishing industry in Surat, 500,000 unpaid tea plantation workers in Assam, the distress of cash-starved farmers unable to pay borrowers’ dues or the flight of construction labourers in cities back to their villages.
In an interview to The Caravan magazine this week, Renana Jhabvala, national coordinator of Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), the microfinance trade union with two million members, although a supporter of the PM’s Jan Dhan programme, smashes his Utopian ideal of a “less cash” or cashless economy to smithereens.
Small co-ops such as SEWA, she says, are not only starved in banking’s food chain to get the new but also that the poorest women are, and remain, the most discriminated in rural banking.
“There are no brick-and-mortar banks in a radius of even 10 km in many rural areas. When you go, sometimes you’re not entertained. The procedures of the bank are often difficult. I’ve seen ATMs where people have been standing in lines like you see now (even before demonetisation) because the electricity is off. Of course, no women can go there because it’s all males (in the lines).” Since demonetisation, she adds, women with average savings of Rs 10,000-20,000 queue for hours to deposit or withdraw money.
The urban middle classes are also reeling from the pain; each has an individual story of some unforetold trauma. A friend who was clearing cupboards and desks this week to mop up any old remaining old notes opened the cupboard of his father, who had died a while ago after a painful illness and found a neatly sealed envelope fall out. It contained a lakh of rupees. On it, written in an old man’s quavering hand, were the words, “For my last rites.” My stupefied friend says that, what at any other time would have seemed a windfall, was now a liability. In Narendra Modi’s daily life-and-death decrees will cremation and burial grounds accept cheques only? Will priests and maulvis henceforth carry PoS terminals?
Black not being the same as money, unfettered access to, and spending of, hard-earned savings is a deeply personal matter for the vast majority. Notebandi, like nasbandi, is not merely disruptive nationally but insidious and intrusive of private lives. It has given birth to a whole industry in rackets and rumour-mongering. Having sharply polarised opinion — for every critic notebandi has its champions — it is worth recalling that many of the Emergency’s draconian measures were praised by luminaries such as Khushwant Singh, M F Husain and Girilal Jain.
Behind its opaque and mendacious disinformation campaign the brutal truth is this: The government has neither enough new notes, nor adequate printing machinery or distribution capacity. It has no time line to replace 86 per cent (Rs 14.2 crore) worth of “worthless paper”. Except for one banal statement, the RBI governor is at sea to update facts or figures.
Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan. As time perilously marches on to his 50-day deadline, Mr Modi will soon be called out to answer.