Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

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A royal tale

John Zubrzycki’s new book on Rajmata Gayatri Devi and Jaipur’s royal house is more twisted than the secret passageways behind Hawa Mahal’s lacy facade. 

Book Review, India Today, August 22-31, 2020

When she died at the ripe old age of 90 in 2009, Gayatri Devi, the Rajmata of Jaipur, the city to which she had come as an awestruck bride 70 years earlier came to a standstill. Amid showers of rose petals, cries of “Maharani ki jai!”, a 40-gun salute and the panoply of a state funeral, thousands of mourners thronged the Pink City. Newspapers around the world ran fulsome tributes. Neither Rajput-born nor fluent in Hindi, an audacious rule-breaker, why did she triumph in a kingdom that had barely changed since medieval times?

Hers is the image, as style-maker, royal jetsetter and most glamorous of MPs flung into jail by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency, that captures the precarious transition from India’s princely Jazz Age to the upheavals of modern democracy. A hand-tinted portrait adorns the cover of John Zubrzycki’s book, The House of Jaipur, but inside is a sobering 20th century saga more twisted than the secret passageways behind Hawa Mahal’s lacy façade.

In her bestselling 1977 memoir A Princess Remembers, the Rajmata told a rose-tinted tale of the teenage passion that propelled her from Cooch Behar’s royal household to Rambagh Palace as the third wife of the handsome polo-playing Maharaja of Jaipur. (Already a father of four, his two previous wives were sequestered in Rambagh’s purdah wing.)

Together, Jai and Ayesha (as their friends knew them) turned Jaipur into a modernising project: appointing reformist administrators, starting girls’ schools, negotiating political settlements and, presciently, converting their palaces into grand hotels. As party people, their social cachet was considerable. It irritated officialdom no end that the Queen and Prince Philip, the Mountbattens and Jackie Kennedy (and later Imran Khan and Mick Jagger) bore down on Jaipur for their company. In 1966, they were the only Indians invited to Truman Capote’s iconic Black and White Ball. Ignoring the dress code, Ayesha arrived in a gold sari and blaze of emeralds.

Yet they remained anachronisms of their age. Asked how she dealt with her husband’s senior wives and adulteries, the Rajmata said, “I think it’s much easier to get on with your husband’s other wife who has an official status than his mistress who is usurping you.”

By removing layers of “airbrushed inconvenient truths” from her sanitised memoir, Zubrzycki’s assiduously-researched, gripping account is of a troubled family wrecked by alcoholism, avarice and labyrinthine litigation among brothers and heirs. Ayesha’s father and two adored brothers perished from drink. So did Jai’s only daughter and his neglected purdah wives. Most tragically, their only biological son Jagat, divorced from his wife, a Thai princess, and estranged from his children, died in London after a reckless binge in 1997.

Claims of primogeniture by Jai’s eldest son Bhawani Singh led to a landslide of lawsuits. Though the Rajmata anonymously left some of her best Cartier pieces to the British Museum, her grandchildren enforced their rights of inheritance to her property.

The fight in the courts failed to dim the razzmatazz of Jaipur’s old court. Bhawani died in 2011, leaving a new rajmata in City Palace. His daughter Diya Kumari is now a BJP MP. And his grandson, 22-year-old Padmanabh Singh, is the new maharaja. He plays polo in England, waltzes Reese Witherspoon’s daughter at debutante balls in Paris, and walks the runway for Dolce & Gabbana in Milan. Brand Jaipur, a creation of Ayesha and Jai’s, marches on.



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Courts, courtiers, and magicians

Behind the teetering government in Rajasthan is the saga of the Gandhi dynasty scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Column in Business Standard, July 25, 2020

If ever there was a political partnership poisoned by mutual mistrust and loathing from day one, it was the forced harnessing of Chief Minister and his sacked deputy in Rajasthan to a single yoke. This disastrous mesalliance ― sold as a productive pairing of the Party’s Old Guard and Youth Brigade ― was thought up as a compromise by the mother-and-son team of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, the party’s main managers.

If an image is worth a thousand words, there is a moment on stage at Rahul’s pre-election Jaipur rally in August 2018, when he is seen winking at his friend and ally Sachin. (The Gandhi scion was going through his winks-and-hugs phase, having hugged Narendra Modi in Parliament a month earlier.) Catching Rahul’s wink on stage, Sachin drops his frosty distance from Mr Gehlot and goes up to shake hands with the man who later became chief minister.

Behind the teetering government in Rajasthan ― and the Congress’s collapse in Madhya Pradesh four months ago ― is the saga of the Gandhi dynasty scraping the bottom of the barrel. It now resembles some Ruritanian court with a farcical cast of Queen Mother, Heir Apparent, and Princess Royal, insulated from reality and emasculated by inner conflict. Add to this a wily, old trickster like Mr Gehlot, who refers to himself as “jaadugar” and you have a full-fledged opera bouffe. As the son of a travelling magician, the chief minister often boasts of his sleight of hand that can make opposition MLAs disappear. “Dekho mainey [BSP kahaathi gayab kar diya” (Look I made the BSP’s elephant vanish), he bragged after “acquiring” BSP legislators and absorbing them into the  In the last state election, he ensured that several legislators won as Independents so they could make up numbers to marginalise Sachin.

In 1976 there was a Congress president who proudly declared that “India is Indira, and Indira is India”. It used to be said of the party Mrs Gandhi ran that there were no equals, only dissenters or domestic servants. Her grandson Rahul was a babe in arms then but he adheres to that inherited principle of noblesse oblige. In the world of the Gandhis there are no colleagues, only courtiers.

It’s not as if the Heir Apparent himself has been deprived of chances. At 50 Rahul has been party general secretary, vice-president, and president (and MP since 2004). He has attempted party reorganisation and headed campaigns in two general elections (2014, 2019) and in key states such as Uttar Pradesh (2012). In many of these tasks he has failed.

A job ― any job ― was his for the asking in two successive Manmohan Singh-led governments but he turned down the experience of managing a ministry. Instead his select coterie of political heirs such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin, Jitin Prasada, and R P N Singh ― derisively known as the “Chamber of Princes” ― were made junior min­­isters. Taking responsibility for his party’s defeat last year, Rahul quit the party presidency. But the Congress without a Gandhi at the helm is like an ICU patient without ox­y­gen. Sonia slid into his seat without demur. Though her official title is “interim president” it could be “president ad infinitum”.

“Speaking good English, giving sound bites and being handsome isn’t everything,” said Mr Gehlot sourly of his abhorred former deputy Sachin. Admirable in themselves these attributes are equally applicable to Rahul. But these were not the reasons Rahul sent Sachin to Jaipur in 2014, appointing him state party chief. His job was to revive a decimated Congress and unseat the increasingly unpopular and corrupt Vasundhara Raje government. This the young leader did, travelling ceaselessly and keeping up a barracking of Ms Raje for her close links with Lalit Modi.

Sachin was given the lure of the CM’s prize when the time came. Mr Gehlot was nowhere in Rajasthan in 2013-18, tied down with party work in Delhi. Come elections in December 2018 and “Jaadugar Gehlot” went into overdrive, manoeuvring with Sonia, Ahmed Patel, and the old guard to wrest the CM’s job. Sachin got the consolation prize of deputy CM. Hostilities were instantly declared and have escalated into open war.

Taking a leaf from the Gandhi playbook, Mr Gehlot has been grooming his 40-year-old son Vaibhav as successor. Fielded from Jodhpur in last year’s general election, he lost to Union minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, who is allegedly an interlocutor in charges of horse-trading Congress legislators. But Vaibhav’s star is undimmed. He was recently elected president of the Rajasthan Cricket Association, a post that made Lalit Modi rich and infamous during Ms Raje’s reign. At the same time, the legislature’s Speaker C P Joshi, who is leading the legal assault to disqualify Sachin and his group, was elected chief patron of the cricket association.

If the gloves are off and iron fists out today who is to blame for the royal mess in Rajasthan? The BJP may be ready and waiting to pounce on another key state of the Hindi heartland but it is the Congress’s holy trinity that issued them an invitation to the beheading.

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The long lashing tail of Covid

Several question marks hover over the long term damage caused by the aftereffects of Covid infections.

Column in Business Standard, July 11, 2020

Since coming out of Covid hospital after a bad attack of the virus some days ago, I have been swamped by (mostly unsolicited) advice from friends and strangers on how to hasten my convalescence and a long recital of prophylactic measures that are likely to immunise me from a relapse.

For, among the many infuriating question marks that hover over the transmission, spread, treatment, and cure of Covid-19 are several additional vexed queries: How long is the period and process of recovery? Can its aftereffects damage other organs? And do recovered Covid patients develop immunity from a recurrence of the infection ― and if so for how long?

CNN anchor Richard Quest has lately broadcast eloquently on what he calls “living and suffering from the long tail of Covid-19”. Mr Quest tested positive in mid-April; his main symptoms were tiredness and “a dry, raspy, wheezy cough”. Now, worryingly, all these weeks later, the cough has come back, and so has the fatigue. Mr Quest says he has become unaccountably clumsy; he falls over furniture, reaches for a glass or something from a cupboard, and drops it. “It is as if that part of my brain, which subconsciously adjusts hand and movement to obstacles it sees, isn’t working … My digestive system is peculiar, to say the least. It doesn’t matter whether I call them symptoms, traits, or wreckage ― my body doesn’t feel quite right.”

More alarmingly, a report by neurologists in The Guardian this week published evidence that the virus triggered serious, possibly fatal, brain damage in more than 40 Covid patients. “We’re seeing things in the way Covid-19 affects the brain that we haven’t seen before with other viruses,” said Michael Zandi, a senior author on the study of University College London Hospital’s NHS Foundation Trust. The concerns by specialists centre on the unfathomable long-term aftereffects of the virus — ranging from breathlessness, fatigue, numbness, weakness, and memory loss. As in the 1918 flu pandemic, which is said to have left a million people with brain disease, Covid’s effects could take years to become apparent.

“We’ve already seen that some people with Covid-19 may need a long rehabilitation period, both physical and brain rehabilitation … We need to understand more about the impact of this infection on the brain,” says another clinical analyst.

In more telling turns of phrase, Mr Quest compares the infection to “a tornado … when it lands, it swirls through the body, causing chaos, confusion, coughs, wreaking damage to each organ it touches.”

Early Covid symptoms are not necessarily uniform. The Delhi-based dancer and choreographer Geeta Chandran, who has successfully fought the infection ― and emerged as an informal Covid counsellor ― says that the first inkling she had was a loss of smell. Like many others she enthusiastically endorses alternative homegrown prophylactics as immunity-building remedies, among them daily intakes of warm haldi doodh (turmeric milk) as the Ayurvedic equivalent of vitamin supplements. In the hospital where I spent a week, the haldi brew was offered to patients as a nightcap. Although turmeric is well-known for its anti-inflammatory, antioxidant properties in traditional medicine, there is no clinical research that it can fight, much less cure, Covid. Likewise for spice-based “kadhas”, or herbal concoctions with Giloy stems, of the heart-shaped moonseed plant (Tinospora cordifolia), which have suddenly achieved popularity, with people growing it in pots and public parks as some sort of magic vine that will ward off the spread of a cruelly unsparing sickness.

When the favoured Ayurveda guru Baba Ramdev’s firm Patanjali recently tried to patent medicines with names such as “Coronil” and “Swasari”, claiming that trials on Covid patients had shown favourable results as a cure, the government promptly restrained him from advertising any such claims.

Double double, toil and trouble/Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” chant the prophesying witches in Macbeth as a portent of a tragedy foretold. Faith healing, with its rattle and roll of pills, potions and elixirs, has its uses at a time of universal distress.

But the harsh reality continues unfolding in the heartless headlines. India recorded its biggest single-day spike this week with 25,530 Covid cases, breaching the 25,000 mark for the first time. The death toll crossed 20,000 with 400 fatalities for the sixth consecutive day. And the bulletin from Covid-19’s international monitor-in-chief, World Health Organization Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, wasn’t too optimistic, either: “In most of the world the virus is not under control. It is getting worse. 11.8 million cases of Covid-19 have now been reported to WHO. More than 544,000 lives have been lost. The pandemic is still accelerating. The total number of cases has doubled in the last six weeks.”


Eight days in a Covid hospital

Managing a household afflicted with Covid is punishingly hard

Column in Business Standard, July 4, 2020

After eight days and nights in a Covid hospital following an attack of some severity, I can vouch for one thing: Beware of the suddenness, stealth, and unexpected ferocity of this terrible affliction of our times. It can creep in upon you in the most silent, insidious way. Short of planning to scrub door handles ― or sanitizing groceries or reducing human contract to zero — for the rest of your lives you can take all anti-Covid precautions and still get it. That is what my family and I learnt through a punishingly stressful month.

Shortly after was lifted, my wife resumed work intermittently. On June 6 she returned home with mild fever ― about 99.5 degrees ― and immediately went into strict self-isolation. Whatever doctors may tell you (and unless you are in a hermetically sealed medical facility), treating a patient in self-isolation at home is easier said than done. Despite food, medicines, dishes, and laundry being segregated, her low-grade fever kept returning. There were no other symptoms; and to compound the crisis this was when Delhi’s squabbling political authorities, disastrously trying to control tests, controversially made Covid-testing difficult.

It took me more than a week to organise a technician from Gurgaon to come and test my wife. Doctors I contacted were helpless and besieged. To confuse issues, friends with similar feverish symptoms had tested negative ― mere instances of “seasonal flu”. That, too, is the subterfuge of Covid ― it is after all a form of flu, albeit dangerous and potentially fatal.

My wife tested Covid positive on June 19 but in less than 48 hours matters had spun sharply out of control. Our live-in staff turned positive. Between logging their temperatures, pulse rates, and oxygen saturation levels thrice a day, attending to my wife behind closed doors, organising meals, and calling doctors, I barely noticed my own rapidly deteriorating state.

Late on a Monday night I fell into a stupor. It didn’t take more than a few minutes for my “vitals” to go haywire. Sensing something wrong, my wife found me fallen from the couch on to the floor. Quick readings showed my temperature soaring, oxygen level precipitately dropping, and pulse racing. She had the presence of mind to swiftly organise help and transport me to Max Super Speciality Hospital in south Delhi, one of the best-equipped and efficient medicare facilities. With 300 Covid-compliant rooms spread over two blocks, and clinically sealed off from the rest of the hospital ― with its own ICU, catering, cleaning, nursing, and floor management units ― it has a profoundly dedicated staff of doctors and nursing staff, working 24×7 to the last reserves of their physical endurance. (Yet it is a sign of the times that, like most professionals, these health care workers at the frontline of the Covid battle, have had to suffer major salary cuts.)

By definition a quarantined Covid unit is a bubble-like entity, with little link to the outside world. For instance, it took several hours to arrange my toilet bag and laptop to reach my room from the front gate two days after I had entered hospital.

Nevertheless I would rather forget the first few hours I spent in the high-dependency unit before being allotted a private room. This was a crowded pre-testing facility that seemed (in my fevered state) like Saadat Hasan Manto’s madhouse. Elderly patients moaned and shrieked and even hurled abuse at the PPE-attired medical staff. This is because of the unnerving, sinister first impression of a Covid ward ― all attendants are dressed, down to white rubber gloves, in tip-to-toe white uniforms with masks and visors. You cannot tell surgeon from sweeper. It is a daunting sight. Until I grew to recognise my wonderfully attentive doctor, Smit Rajput, by voice on his daily rounds, I was unable to tell what he looks like. I would not be able to recognise him on the street today.

Fortunately my eight days in a Covid hospital turned out to be relatively uneventful. I had no prevailing medical conditions ― diabetes, blood pressure, heart disease ― and required no oxygen support. My sole risk factors were commonplace ― age of 60-plus years and an old pulmonary obstruction that all affects ex-smokers. A regimen of antibiotics, saline drips, and a battery of tests set me to rights. Only one unpleasant incident marred my family and my recovery ― and this was the persistent telephone calls from the interfering, ignorant Nanny State, in this case the capital’s municipality. Covid tests are registered on the basis of Aadhaar cards, so local government has your personal details. Banshee-like, semi-literate voices will disturb your peace, threatening to drag you off to quarantine facilities ― “Aapko quarantine mein jaana padega”. After a few calls, I shouted back to say that I was already under medical supervision in hospital. But think of the terror such calls may induce in the poor, the lonely, defenceless, and elderly?

Upon discharge my summary from hospital includes the assurance that I have “recovered from COVID and do not pose a risk to the community”. Cold comfort it may be but it spells a release from a future under siege. For the moment that is.

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Lutyens: The man behind the myth

In his remorseless climb up the greasy pole he was like Thackeray’s manipulative, social-climbing heroine Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.

Column in Business Standard, June 16, 2020

Were Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect credited with creating New Delhi, alive today, he would have relished the vilification of his name. He would have loved nothing more than the “elitist” label — all his life, he yearned to belong to Britain’s moneyed and titled class. In his remorseless climb up the greasy pole he was like Thackeray’s manipulative, social-climbing heroine Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair.

For the same reasons, would have scorned Narendra Modi’s desire to irrevocably alter the Central Vista. In 2019, Mr Modi declared: “I could neither make the Lutyens’s world a part of me nor me a part of them…I am a representative of the non-elite world. For me, everything is about the people of India.” Coming from a leader sequestered in grand garden bungalows would have gleefully pounced upon the prime minister’s false egalitarian pretence.

In many respects, the phrase “Delhi” is a misnomer. Though he helped choose the site and create a blueprint for the imperial capital, Lutyens only designed select buildings — Rashtrapati Bhavan, India Gate, a few princely palaces such as Hyderabad House and less than a handful of bungalows. North and South Block and Parliament House are the work of his close friend from their pupillage days Herbert Baker, with whom he later fell out bitterly. Several others who designed important buildings in the 26 sq. km. Lutyens Bungalow Zone (LBZ) have faded into footnotes — Robert Tor Russell (Connaught Place, Teen Murti House, Gymkhana Club), the brothers Charles and Francis Blomfield (Jaipur House) and Walter George (Modern School, Regal Cinema, Ambassador hotel) to name a few.

What kind of buildings, who for, and what they might look like, were questions fiercely debated in Parliament and the media, once imperial firman in 1911 decreed the capital’s move from Calcutta to Delhi (Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi by Robert Grant Irving, OUP 1981). The prestige then — as now — of occupying a Lutyens-era dwelling was seen as the glittering prize for a hard-won career, the calling card of having arrived. To this day, it carries the indelible imprimatur of power.

Lutyens reserved contempt for Indian architecture though he used some of its elements. He dismissed Mughal architecture as “piffle” and pilloried “pointy” Islamic arches. Humayun’s Tomb, he scoffed, was “veneered joinery” and “chhatris are stupid, useless things.” Of his 1921 War Memorial (India Gate), the architectural historian Giles Tillotson in Delhi Darshan: The History and Monuments of India’s Capital (Penguin; 2019) writes: “Modelled on the triumphal arches of Rome (and later European derivatives like the Arc de Triomphe in Paris), it was meant to appear, above all, imperial.”

By today’s definition Lutyens was an unapologetic White supremacist: “The very low intellect of the natives spoils much, I do not think it is possible for Indians and Whites to mix freely; mixed marriage is filthy and beastly and they ought to get the sanitary office to interfere.” His prejudice deepened the rift in his marriage when his wife fell headlong for cranky Indian spirituality.

Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869-1944) was born the tenth of 14 children of an impecunious artist who struggled to feed and clothe his brood. All his life “Ned” (as he was called) sought to erase “the squalor and social humiliation” of his pa­st, according to his great-granddaughter, the historian Jane Ridley, in her biography Edwin Lutyens: His Life, His Wife, His Work (Pimlico; 2003). Deeply ashamed of his relations, Ned’s driving ambition was shaped by well-connected women as stepping stones in his meteoric rise.

The first was the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll with whom he forged a long, lucrative partnership to design cou­n­try houses in a consummate new style. The second was Lady Emily Lytton, the left-on-the-shelf daughter of former viceroy Lord Lytton whom he married in 1897. He shamelessly milked her family for its connections. “Ha! Hee! What can we get out of her?” he wrote to Emily when she described a rich widow. Soon he was designing innovative mansions for weal­thy clients and cultivating political connections for government jobs. Unques­ti­onably a polymath, from his head sprang a stream of original ideas and designs, not just for buildings but for furniture, lighting fixtures, even a magnificent doll’s house. As draughtsman, his pen was in ceaseless motion — producing plans, caricatures, puns and acid putdowns.

Curiously, India was the pivot that precariously balanced the couple’s opposing trajectories and collapsing marriage. As Lutyens’s fame grew, Emily’s immersion in Theosophy and the occult became obsessively focused on the teenage Krishnamurti, launched in Britain by Annie Besant in 1911, as the “World Teacher”. By the 1920s, the earl’s daughter was “travelling third class, serving Marmite and sleeping in Indian railway stations” while the impoverished pain­ter’s son, now elevated to “Sir Edwin”, fo­u­nd solace in the arms of Lady Sackville, the spoilt mother of writer Vita Sackville-West. Despite their long estrangement, Ned and Emily exchanged 5,000 letters that are the core of Prof. Ridley’s biography.

Lutyens adroitly worked the levers of power to gain the New Delhi commission and trampled any objection underfoot during its completion (1912-31). He was an implacable foe. Herbert Baker and he quarrelled but the final breakdown came over the slope to the apex of Raisina Hill -— the two had signed a memo finalising a gradient of 22.5 degrees. But when completed, Lutyens found, to his horror, that it obscured the portico and dome of his masterpiece from the base. He moved heaven and earth to get it changed but failed. Calling it his “Bakerloo” he railed against his erstwhile friend for the rest of his days.

This tireless, irascible, remarkable man with provocative opinions and prodigious output would have found much to dislike about the occupants of the city that bears his name today. Most of all he would have loathed their mangled pronunciation of his name (which is of German origin). It is not “Loot-yuns”, or “Lath-yanes” or “Lew-tins”. Jane Ridley clarifies: Lut (to rhyme with hut)-chens.

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The trouble with cities

What the migrants’ crisis in India and systemic racism in America have in common is turmoil in the cities.

Column in Business Standard, June 13, 2020

Cities, it is said, are the crucible of opportunity, the engine of progress. They are places where fortunes are made and talents flourish; the fount of governance. But events have lately turned this wisdom on its head. Cities are being seen as simmering cauldrons of disease, social injustice, poverty, and police atrocity — the darkest cesspools of despair. Two recent events, two months apart, are triggers of how cities can wreak countrywide havoc.

On the eve of March 25, Narendra Modi took the nation by utter surprise with his sudden announcement of a three-week lockdown. Neither Mr Modi nor his government could have reckoned the scale of human misery unleased as hundreds of thousands of starving jobless migrants began to flee cities in one of the biggest humanitarian calamities, entirely man-made, that India has known.

On May 25 an act of wanton cruelty by a white police officer that killed a 46-year-old African-American named George Floyd in Minneapolis paralysed America. Not since the civil rights movement culminating in the urban uprisings of 1968 has the country witnessed what the New York Times calls “a vast American reckoning with racism”.

Despite the galloping rise in corona infections, thousands of masked protestors have marched through numerous cities, from Miami to Seattle, to oppose “systemic racism”, demand the shutting down of police departments, and face arrests. Rioting, ransacking shops, and defacing statues of Jefferson and Columbus have led to curfews in cities including Washington DC, and bringing out the National Guard to defend the White House.

With an election looming in November, President Donald Trump’s response is of a leader cornered by cascading public anger. He threatens a crackdown on protestors, denounces Republican opponents as “domestic terrorists”, and casts the confrontation as a law-and-order problem. Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s tactics were similar when faced with widespread anti-Citizenship Amendment Act last winter, most prominently the prolonged sit-in by women in Shaheen Bagh. Armed police entered the Jamia Millia and JNU campuses, the BJP lost the Delhi election in February, and communal riots (that left more than 50 dead) followed in the backdrop to Mr Trump’s India visit.

Unlike India, where law enforcement agencies are under the jurisdiction of state governments (with the exception of Delhi, where they are under the Centre’s thumb), in America local mayors and sheriffs appoint police chiefs. It is a trigger-happy society. Civilians account for 393 million (about 46 per cent) of the worldwide total of civilian-held firearms, that is, 120.5 guns for every 100 residents. The police are a highly militarised force. Casualties on both sides are high: Between 2000 and 2014, 2,445 police persons died on duty. In turn about 1,000 civilians a year perish at the hands of the police. The African-Americans are among the worst-off segments of the population and three times as likely to be killed as the whites. According to a survey in The Economist this week, “blacks comprise 13 per cent of the population but 33 per cent of the imprisoned population”.

In the recent crime drama Paatal Lok (Underworld) that filmmaker hails as reflecting “the dark heart of India, communal and casteist India”, the discrimination against a young Muslim cop, Imran Ansari, eager to rise in the service, is repeatedly highlighted. And though the series tracks the criminals to their origins in the hinterland, Delhi is the pivot of the criminal world. Indeed, the city is sub-divided into four loks, mythic worlds — of the celestial upper class, the earthly middle class, and the underworld of desperados and migrants across the river.

As the unmanageable number of migrants desperate to return to their villages after the corona outbreak showed, the idea of the metropolis as melting pot and refuge for rural wage-earners is a mirage. The spread of Covid-19 has proven the opposite to be true.

As seething hotbeds of inequality and prejudice, cities are dangerously insanitary and inhospitable in a health emergency. Those unsupported by any safety net stand little chance of survival.

Despite legislation and sustained campaigns for racial equality since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, the lot of black Americans living in high-density areas (where more than one-fifth live below the official poverty line) has grown by 57 per cent since 2000. “And black children are seven times as likely as white children to experience this more corrosive form of poverty.”

Big cities have also emerged as home to, and biggest carriers of, the corona virus. If America leads the world with 2 million cases and more than 116,000 dead, urban agglomerations like New York top the chart as the most infected places. India now ranks fourth globally, with Mumbai a mirror image of New York. States with densely populated cities — Maharashtra, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and Gujarat — continue to record the highest daily jump in infections. In the tragically conflicted geography of our time, the reputation of the Mahanagar has never been at greater risk.

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Lessons from the lockdown

The corona pandemic of 2020 will join cataclysms such as killer floods, communal bloodbaths, or a mass migration rising to Partition levels.

Column in Business Standard, May 30, 2020

As the first stirrings of life return to the streets, there is something hesitant, almost furtive, about the slow lifting of the  Cars are now visible from my window on an empty thoroughfare and — my heart jumped at the sight — even a bus or two. The popular bakery down the lane is open for business but you cannot enter: Like children, noses pressed to the glass questing for forbidden morsels, you point to a preferred loaf of bread — though there isn’t much choice. The chemist has resumed home deliveries but the stationer has pasted a notice announcing a three-day working week.

In neighbourhoods like mine, all entrances and exits are shut, bar one that is monitored 24×7; the nearby basti, too, is practising a shutdown in its lanes: No thelas or vehicles allowed. I asked our garage mechanic how his children, who attend the municipal school, were managing lessons. “They were sent homework on my mobile and told to prepare.” He broke into a grin before adding, “Prepare for exams, which may happen one day or never happen.”

One day, someday, when all this is over and those who survive to tell the tale to our grandchildren, the corona pandemic of 2020 will join cataclysms such as killer floods, communal bloodbaths, or a mass migration rising to Partition levels.

As of this week, the country has crossed the 150,000 mark in infection and is adding 6,000 new cases a day. Delhi Chief Minister says the city’s hospitals are ready for an influx of Covid-19 patients but medical practitioners such as Dr Ambarish Satwick, 44-year-old vascular and endovascular surgeon at Sir Gangaram Hospital, is among those to rip into the government’s notions of prepared medical capacity or strategy.

Dr Satwick’s blunt but lucid arguments were initially aired on a WhatsApp neighbourhood group but, as a cautionary account, they have gone viral (to use that painful phrase). His prediction is that the epidemic is just about taking off in Delhi. “At some point in early July (if not earlier), we’re likely to observe a complete breakdown of our healthcare infrastructure, which means that hospitals in the NCR will run out of beds to treat Covid patients …”

Easing the means “your chance of getting infected today is 15 times more than what it was in the beginning of May. It will be a hundred times more by June-end.” And there could be a second surge by September.

Given the unpredictability of the virus, the plethora of statistics (floating like a parallel contagion) is fundamentally a form of roulette. Dr Satwick told me: “Mr Kejriwal’s reservation of a percentage of beds in private hospitals is like a fatwa. A dedicated Covid hospital has to be fitted out distinctly from one for non-Covid patients.”

This is true as patients with other medical conditions have complained of being sidelined in the corona emergency. And there are certain conditions, such as women in labour, that cannot wait, says Dr Satwick, whose wife is a pediatrician: “What do you do about those?”

My own need was minor, a dental problem that persisted through the lockdown. Relieved that the father-son practice I have patronised for 30 years had reopened, I entered another kind of clinic. The usually busy waiting-room was empty, disinfecting and PPE protocols were rigorously in force. Strips of blue barrier tape were stuck on door handles and armrests of dental chairs. “Don’t forget we are dealing with saliva and blood in highly sensitive and contaminable areas. We can’t be careful enough,” young Dr Srijan Mehta explained. He has pared down his schedule to take only crucial cases due to

curtailed staff and other restrictions.

The weeks of incarceration have ineluctably changed all lives, and I asked Dr Mehta how they had changed him. He had become more philosophical and tried to reorder life to basic essentials.

Friends and colleagues similarly speak of reappraising priorities and editing routines if they are fortunate enough to work from home. For some expenditure is cut down (on clothes, transport, and going out) and time, having acquired an elastic dimension, is available for reading, reflecting, or spending with loved ones. Simplification, is the word often used.

Anachronistically, however, for many the exigencies of the lockdown have complicated lives. It has demolished taken-for-granted support systems and magnified uncertainties. Professionals unable to WFH, or with small children, or shorn of domestic help and endangered jobs, the worries have only begun. The worst-off are the multitudes, outside the safety net of the soldiering middle classes, that face interminable displacement and destitution.

But the biggest contradiction of the contagion is that it is both leveller and divider. As an affliction, it brooks no difference between divisions of region, class, rich, or poor. And yet it drives the wedge deeper between those with the wherewithal to ride it out and those on the margins unable to withstand its assault.

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The king’s speech

What the Indian public got from Narendra Modi this week was another monologue–the fifth since March 19.

Column in Business Standard, May 16, 2020

President Donald Trump has a habit of hurling daily doses of abuse on social media at papers and journalists who are not in his corner. His pressers on the pandemic may be ill-informed and ignorant but they’re a regular punching bag for correspondents persisting with pointed questions. Individually calling them out as “terrible”, “fake”, and “nasty” losers, his attack this week was racist when a television reporter of Chinese origin asked if boasting about high levels of testing was worthwhile when more and more Americans were dying every day. “Don’t ask me. Ask China that question,” the president huffily responded, quit the podium, and stomped off.

“King” Trump’s blunderbuss speech is notorious for letting it all hang out. However, such no-holds-barred exchanges give the American public an idea of whether or not he’s worthy of re-election in November.

This kind of face-off doesn’t happen in the world’s largest democracy. No one gets to ask the head of government in New Delhi any questions. One of the first established rules of Narendra Modi’s reign was abolishing “public” press conferences, any interaction that was spontaneous, unscripted, or without the crutch of teleprompters. Pitching himself as a visionary leader during election campaigns, the prime minister, at a time of an unprecedented health emergency, is now a televisionary figure.

What the Indian public got this week was another monologue — the fifth since March 19 — delivered in shudh (pure), not sadharan (plain) hindi. It was a king’s speech, drained of empathy, devoid of human connection or the common touch. Mr Modi’s earlier telecasts explaining the had an urgency, peppered with colloquialisms such as jaan hai to jahaan hai. In contrast, Tuesday night’s performance was a pot pourri of abstract concepts: Self-reliance, quantum jumps, local’s power over global, with occasional sorties into the PM’s hobbyhorses of promoting yoga and solar energy.

There were references to speedy production of PPE and face masks, but the plight of millions of exhausted, half-starved, jobless migrants struggling for thousands of miles to reach home was lost somewhere towards the end of Mr Modi’s half-hour homily. Cocooned in sanitised safety, is he out of touch with the horrifying scenes of privation on highways, at railway stations, of migrants run over by trains and lorries, and the shortages of beds and health equipment in hospitals?

Mr Modi’s ministers seem to echo some of his obliviousness. At a public event on May 14, Commerce and Industry Minister declared, as if it were a signal achievement at 73 years of nationhood, that no hunger deaths had been reported:

“We have gone through the entire three months without a single person starving.”

That claim could be contested once the migrants reach home and the rural incomes begin to plummet. What the has so far achieved is to make the invisible visible. This hitherto unrecorded horror of urban poverty, hidden in the folds of the ripped fabric of urban India — some 80 million migrants (for that is the latest official statistic) currently adrift somewhere between town and village. These nowhere people are but a fraction of casual labour far down the food chain, the supposed beneficiaries of Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s munificence: Two months of grain supply worth Rs 3,500 crore of the vaunted Rs 20 trillion of relief.

After years of tub-thumping about the triumph of schemes such as JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhaar, Mobile), it has suddenly dawned on the government that many of this vast workforce possess neither bank accounts nor ration cards. Why else would they be flogging their cell phones to scrape some rupees for their perilous journey home? Talking to some construction workers huddled in an incomplete building site near my house to whom the neighbourhood RWA supplies meals, one of them ruefully said, “Agar Aadhaar card ki keemat hoti tau bech detay” (if our Aadhaar card could fetch some money, we would have sold it).

As for the other segments that the Rs 20 trillion relief package is aimed at — salaried employees, small and medium enterprises, and industrial units — critics have pointed that the rebates by way of tax refunds and provident fund payments are not grants but evergreened loans. This means taxpayers are getting money that belongs to them anyway.

One of the most dangerous developments of the pandemic panic is the growing intimidation, harassment, and violence against journalists, with punitive police action at the behest of various state governments. This week the Gujarat police booked an editor for sedition for merely suggesting that Chief Minister Vijay Rupani could be replaced for his incompetence in controlling the rise in cases.

In this respect Mr Modi is well-tutored in the school of Donald Trump. It was apparent this week that the prime minister (having run out of eye-catching diversionary ploys such as thali-banging, bell-ringing, and nine minutes of diya-lighting) is suffering a communication crisis. It is time to polish up the king’s speech.


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Yesterday’s page turners

Fashions change, and it’s difficult to pinpoint why many critically acclaimed and commercially successful writers fall off the literary map while others soldier on.

Business Standard, May 11, 2020

Sorting out a cupboard full of sent across by her retired parents to keep or discard, a friend was awash with nostalgia at spotting paperbacks of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham. These are not the sort of titles stocked by airport bookshops today, yet for much of the 20th century, such as du Maurier and Maugham were at the top of their game. Their output was prolific, sales seemingly invincible, and film adaptations by masters such as Alfred Hitchcock were adorned by the likes of Greta Garbo, Laurence Olivier and Bette Davis.

A random sample among friends and colleagues of what they found on family bookshelves reveals, unsurprisingly, not how disparate reading tastes were in English-speaking households a generation ago, but how similar. Apart from compendiums of Shakespeare and Tagore, translations by S Radhakrishnan and C Rajagopalachari (of Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata) my parents’ shelf, too, was a mixed bag of the high- and lowbrow. Prefaced and epilogued by handsome cloth-bound editions of Scott’s Poetical Works, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, Diwan-e-Ghalib and Victor Kiernan’s reliable translation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz were throwaway crime novels and bodice-rippers; even a cheap rip-off of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

But who, nowadays, reads D H Lawrence’s once-banned novel, cause of a long obscenity trial, for its scattering of four-letter words? And who borrows or buys paperbacks by James Hadley Chase, Erle Stanley Gardner, Marie Corelli or Barbara Cartland? For decades, their sales were a publisher’s untarnished goldmine: Ms. Cartland alone produced 723 titles in her lifetime (1901-2000) and made it to the Guinness Book of World Records for penning 23 romances in one year.

Fashions change, in everything from pizza toppings to nuclear reactors, and it’s difficult to pinpoint why many critically acclaimed and commercially successful fall off the literary map while others soldier on, untouched by the vicissitudes of time and taste.

Consider the curious case of the India-born Durrell brothers. Lawrence, the elder, is justly famous for The Alexandria Quartet, cult mid-century fiction that made him a contender for the Nobel Prize. “If ever a work bore an instantly recognizable signature on every sentence, this is it,” pronounced the Times Literary Supplement. Yet today, it’s Gerald Durrell, the naturalist, who’s far outpaced his elder brother’s fame. Audiences can’t have enough of My Family and Other Animals (1956) his childhood memoir, made and remade as TV series, most recently The Durrells (2016-19). Film has contributed immeasurably to the longevity of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, a potent brew of sex, snobbery, sabotage and sadism.

P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie are the hardiest of perennials, their shelf life undimmed by the caprice of readers. “An anodyne to annoyances,” declared Evelyn Waugh of the creator of Bertie Wooster, adding, “Mr Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own.” The journalist and fiction writer John Lanchester ascribed Agatha Christie’s talent for fictional murder to her “complete belief in human malignity…in the end the reason one person murders another comes down to avarice and/or hate. She believed in evil as a plain fact about human beings and their actions.”

Unassailable since the early 19th century is the Jane Austen industry. The dissolution of Mr Darcy’s hauteur (and sphincter muscle) into drooling devotion at Lizzie Bennet’s feet has surmounted many strains of gender politics including the ravages of radical feminism. Pride and Prejudice has been filmed serialised six times; and in 2017 the writer Moni Mohsin wrote a delectable account of attending an “Austentatious Tea Party” in “Austenistan” organised by JASP (Jane Austen Society of Pakistan) in Lahore, with women in muslin gowns sipping Assam tea and nibbling cucumber sandwiches while waited upon by maids in shalwar kameez.

Like vintage clothing or retro design, the fickleness of changing tastes can also bring a writer back in fashion. Consider the fluctuating fortunes of Daphne du Maurier. Among Ms Du Maurier’s gifts was a cut glass pedigree. Granddaughter of a celebrated Punch cartoonist, her father Sir Gerald du Maurier was a rich and powerful actor-manager of the London stage. His friends included the young Alfred Hitchcock. Rebecca, published in 1938, was an instant hit, and contained many Hitchcock elements — a young bride, mysterious manor house, a drowning and an unseen serial seductress. Determined to conquer Hollywood, Hitchcock pitched the book to the movie mogul David O Selznick and sailed the Atlantic. Rebecca, the movie, swept audiences, critics and the Academy Awards in 1940. Alfred Hitchcock and Daphne du Maurier’s careers were sealed in gilt.

Although there was a Bollywood version Kohraa (1960) with Waheeda Rehman, and Lalita Pawar as Mrs Danvers in an inspired piece of casting, the original with Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine still has a 100 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And can there be a more invitingly escapist first line to ward off the tedium of the lockdown than, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley…”

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Migration and the call of home

What the story of trapped migrants reflects is the extent and depth of urban poverty—and the widening chasm between the rich and poor.

Column in Business Standard, May 2, 2020

Let me go home” is the desperate cry common to stories of the thousands of migrants stranded in cities, corralled in detention centres en route, or somehow dodging inter-state barriers and highway patrols to reach their villages thousands of miles away. After weeks of hard-to-control crowds taking to the streets to find a way home, more chaos is likely to ensue as reluctant governments piece together plans to transport them home after ensuring safety procedures.

This was inevitable, given the growing restiveness among this workforce, and the grim accounts unfolding before our eyes. Like some gritty neo-realist tale of a doomed protagonist from black-and-white cinema, one particularly tragic story was front paged in the Indian Express this week. It sums up a daily wager’s plight more that any statistic.

Insaf Ali, a 35-year-old mason’s helper in Mumbai, began his two week-long trek on April 13 to reach his home in district Shravasti, bordering Nepal in northeast Uttar Pradesh. With just a few thousand rupees, he walked, bribed truckers, and escaped police checks, surviving for days on biscuits. But in the end, there was no justice for Insaf Ali. Physically exhausted and mentally distraught, he was caught and quarantined a few miles from home. He collapsed and died not far from his village. His wife, Salma, spoke to him before his phone battery ran out. Breaking down, she said: “He had no work for weeks. He said that in the village, he would at least be around familiar people and manage. He kept saying he only wanted to come home. And when he nearly did, he could not live for more than a few hours.”

When, one day, the spectre of is behind us and life begins to edge back to the new normal, policymakers, urban planners, social scientists, and creative thinkers such as fiction-writers and filmmakers will probe two questions that the overwhelming wave of “reverse migration” (for that is what it is) has brought home to us. One is the extent and depth of urban poverty.

The other is a definition of “home” — a place a migrant leaves in the first place in search of opportunity, a better livelihood, or simply a assured chance survival.

All urban agglomerations are propelled by migrants, many escaping the hinterland’s grinding deprivation to fuel commerce and the massive construction boom; and to fulfil the demand for services by a voracious new middle class. But how much do we really know about them?

A colleague has recently been taking a sample of one such segment — the ubiquitous security guards in their flimsy cabins posted outside Delhi’s well-off homes and neighbourhoods — and finds that labour contractors extract up to a quarter of their salaries as commission, about Rs 3,000 of Rs 12,000 per month. They are expected to live off Rs 8,000, remitting a portion to support families back home.

A scattering of recent Labour Ministry statistics (1.8 million migrant workers; 1.04 million living in shelter homes; 600,000 trying to walk home) cannot convey the degree of alienation and shock that force daily wagers like Insaf Ali to reach their families when they are laid off and homeless.

It is a reflection of the widening chasm between the rich and the poor worldwide that two of the most celebrated prize-winning films of 2018-20 are punishing accounts of urban poverty. Ironically, they come from two wealthy Asian nations, Korea and Japan, both strong welfare states that have successfully battled the pandemic in recent days.

Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (Palme d’Or at Cannes 2019; four Academy Awards, 2020; available on Amazon Prime) is an account of a poor family that fraudulently infiltrates a rich household, leading to the violent destruction of both. The Shoplifters, by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Palme d’Or at Cannes, 2018; available on Netflix), concerns a similar family of petty crooks on mean streets who kidnap children and teach them how to shoplift. Shot in the cramped space of airless single-room tenements, both are infused with black humour. Crucially, they pose questions of rootlessness that haunt displaced people everywhere: What constitutes a “family”? And how do you define a place called “home”?

Nor has the theme of urban destitution left Indian art and cinema for more than half a century. The late abstractionist Ram Kumar’s earliest art was of dark figurative canvases depicting urban migrants. And in the 1958 movie Phir Subah Hogi, as a hard up Raj Kapoor wanders among the starving pavement dwellers of Mumbai, Sahir Ludhianvi’s lyrics echo the pandemic’s global grip today:

Cheen-o-arab hamaaraa, Hindostaan hamaaraa;

Rehne ko ghar nahin hai, saaraa jahaan hamaaraa.

Kholi bhi chin gayi hai, benchein bhi chin gaye hai;

Sadkon pe ghoomtaa hai, ab kaarvaan hamaaraa.

(China and Arabia may be ours, and Hindustan too;

But we have no home to go to; all the world belongs to us.

Evicted from our hovels, not even benches for rest;

Our weary caravan now roams this city’s streets.)