Saturday, November 26, 2005

The News Isn't Good Enough

A fact of life: the English left our shores nearly 60 years ago but the urge to learn their language never left us. On the contrary, it is tightening its grip every passing year - today even the accent in which the English is spoken matters, thanks to call centre jobs.

Nothing wrong in that. In a country like India where the number of dialects spoken is about three times the numbers of days in a year, it doesn’t help at all to be proficient just in your mother tongue. Hindi might be the national language but learn Hindi alone and you could at best be a Hindi teacher in some government school.

You might have often observed in public places such as restaurants or train compartments: a mother speaking to or rebuking her child in English. The confused child keeps slipping into its mother tongue, but the mother would stick to the English she knows. There are two reasons for her doing so - one, to demonstrate to the people around that she isn't a village woman; two, she genuinely wants the child to learn the language.

There was a time when parents had another handy device to make their wards learn English -the newspaper. The Midnight's Children will tell you how their class teachers asked them to read Calcutta's Statesman, which had a British editor even after the British had left and which was then reputed for its impeccable use of the language.

Many Calcuttans still accord God-like status to Desmond Doig, the legendary editor of Junior Statesman, who once had a copy rewritten 27 times by the reporter before considering it fit for publication in JS. Many other Indian papers also had, at the time, larger than life editors who could teach an Englishman a thing or two about the use of the language. And they also had their Doigs - faceless, nameless news editors who spent evenings peering over type-written copies in their tiny, musty cubicles.

Several generations of journalists honed their skills under the tutelage of these Doigs, producing newspapers that could indeed be considered the last word as far as the usage of the English language went. The Express, in Chennai, had its Doig in C P Seshadri, more popularly known as Master - an old-world but apt nickname because he could make others in the newsroom feel like a schoolboy. That's how you were those days: a nervous kid who considered it safe to deposit his ego at the doormat before entering the newsroom.

Today you might trust a journalist to give you the news, and maybe the news behind the news. But you can no longer trust him, or her, to teach you English. That’s because these days, journalists aren’t made. They are manufactured, by the expensive journalism and creative-writing schools that have sprung up in every respectable city today.

These schools, instead of puncturing egos, only seem to be inflating them, so much so that there is no space for the real education that comes along with the job. So these days you have someone trying to write like Marquez, and someone else trying to ape Hemingway (and none of them are likely to have read the journalism of these giants, only literature). And those who don't read books write as if they are still writing for their college magazines, thinking that's their ‘style’.

Both varieties - they are usually people in their 20’s - are extremely touchy about their writing: they would often want to know why their stories were edited or cut. They don’t care to remember the advice Chekhov gave about story-writing: after you have written your story, always cut out the first and the last paragraphs, because often they are the most pompous.

But who is there today to puncture egos and show the way to the youngsters? You can only lead by example, and here is an example of bad English and the worst kind of journalistic writing - the introduction of the lead story in the recent issue of a leading national newspaper which takes itself very seriously. “Islamabad: Even as it became clear that the death toll in Saturday's earthquake in Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) could be well over 30,000, Islamabad on Monday said it would receive relief goods from India.”

The introduction is so convoluted that it serves as a shining example of how not to write. It is the journalistic equivalent of illiteracy. But such writing is commonplace these days. Properly put, the sentence would read something like this: “Pakistan on Monday said it would receive relief goods from India to help victims of Saturday's earthquake that devastated parts of the country, killing more than 30,000 people.” Is it laziness that is allowing the murder of the language? Or is it merely incompetence?

Whatever the case, the news doesn’t seem to be good for either budding journalists or readers aspiring to enrich their language. It looks as if the guardians of the language are now sitting outside the newsrooms. I have three friends whom I turn to for advice or assurance whenever I am stuck with a piece of writing. They are all women in their twenties - one is a surgeon, another a teacher, and the third an architect.

Have Allies, Will Rule

In a nation that has been Independent barely for sixty years, ten years is a long time, especially when it comes to the existence of a political party or a political movement or a political system. Cross the ten-year milestone and you find will a permanent place under the Indian sun. Anything that is at first dismissed as an aberration, once it completes ten years in existence, eventually gains public acceptance. Perhaps that can explain why certain communal, casteist and, even, 'linguistic' groups, initially dismissed as the lunatic fringe, have become political forces to reckon with.

The foundations of Independent India may have been soaked in the blood of the nearly half a million killed in the Partition riots, but people who were old enough at the time to understand politics could have never visualised that a party which beat up fellow Indians hailing from down South and openly abused Muslims would one day rule Maharashtra. Neither would they have imagined that an electrical linesman's daughter who earned political fame overnight by heaping abuses on the upper castes would one day run Uttar Pradesh, the state that made Jawaharlal Nehru — the hero of 1947, a sophisticated, broad-minded man — a full-time politician.

Nehru was the Prime Minister when trouble began in Madras over the language issue. The refusal to accept Hindi as the national language led to a full-scale anti-Hindi agitation in the 60's. But no one, even at the height of that agitation, is likely to have imagined that some day, a Tamil director wanting to make a Tamil film called Love Story could risk himself being straddled on a donkey and beaten with brooms unless he changed the title to Kaadhal Kadai (the Tamil translation for Love Story).

Coming back to the point: ten years matter a great deal. If they stick around that long, the lunatic fringes become vote catchers, and a temporary political arrangement becomes part of the political system. And in about six months from now, India would be celebrating the tenth anniversary of an event which, politically, is no less significant than the achievement of Independence.

In August 1947, the British handed over political power to Indians. But in May 1996, the Indian electorate, breaking away from the tradition of being ruled by a single party, handed over to its leaders the concept of coalition politics. Actually what they had given was a fractured mandate: for the first time in the Independent history of the country they could not collectively decide which party should rule. The BJP and its allies — the Shiv Sena, George Fernandes' Samata Party, Akali Dal and former Sanjay Gandhi loyalist Bansi Lal's Haryana Vikaas Party — won more seats than any other party or combine. They staked claim and were asked to form government, even though they were far short of majority.

They hoped that some of the regional parties traditionally opposed to the Congress would support them for the sake of political stability. Sushma Swaraj, then the BJP spokeswoman, kept saying during the run-up to the vote of confidence that politics was not about arithmetic where one plus one made two, but about chemistry where one plus one could make eleven. She also kept saying that a large party, supported by various smaller parties, would provide a more stable government than a small set of parties propped up by a large party. Her chemistry didn't work, because the BJP, thanks to the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque, was considered a political untouchable. India's first coalition government came down in 13 days. Before the motion of confidence could be put to vote, Vajpayee made an emotional speech in the Lok Sabha and announced: “I am going to submit my resignation to the President.”

But Swaraj's theory that a large party when supported by various smaller parties provided a more stable government turned out to be correct in the coming months. In fact, it turned out to be the guiding principle for coalition politics in India. Even as Vajpayee was driving to Rashtrapati Bhawan to submit his resignation, a man who spoke no Hindi and whose command over English was no better than Vajpayee's, sat in Delhi's Karnataka Bhavan fielding questions from journalists who kept asking him how he was going to provide a stable government.

The man answered the questions rather absent-mindedly, because his mind was on the call from Rashtrapati Bhawan that was expected any moment. The call came soon enough, and H D Deve Gowda of the Janata Dal was bound for the President's House to collect the invitation letter to form the new government. But where did Gowda read out the contents of the invitation letter? At the courtyard of Delhi's Andhra Bhawan. He did so standing out of his white Ambassador car, so that he could be elevated enough to be seen (and heard) by all reporters and cameramen.

So that was that: Deve Gowda was to be the new Prime Minister from June 1, heading a 13-party coalition called the United Front which would be supported by the Congress. It is a different matter that not many outside Karnataka know who Deve Gowda was. Gowda, a former Chief Minister of Karnataka, was chosen for the job after the CPM politburo voted against Jyoti Basu becoming the Prime Minister — a decision that Basu himself later described as a “historical blunder.”

But why did he read out his letter at Andhra Bhawan? That was because the architect of that coalition, Chandrababu Naidu, operated from there. Naidu even got the CPI to join the government. Indrajit Gupta, the CPI giant who spent his lifetime opposing the Congress, was now the home minister in a government propped up by the Congress.

But the track record of the Congress as a supporting party had been bad. Indira Gandhi had pulled down Charan Singh in 1979 and Rajiv Gandhi had pulled down Chandra Shekhar in 1991. And in April 1997, in keeping with this party's tradition, Sitaram Kesri, for long the Congress treasurer and now its president, withdrew support to Gowda. His charge: Gowda had become a “communalist” and was being friendly with the BJP. Kesri made this allegation in a passionate speech at the Congress headquarters in Delhi, where the old man energetically lifted himself up on his toes every time he uttered the word “communalist.”

In came I K Gujral under “Operation Ganesh”, which was the BJP's description the episode : “the head is severed and another head, of an elephant, has been installed. The torso remains the same.” Within eight months, the ageing Sitaram Kesari swung into action again, this time demanding the removal from government of the ministers of DMK, which had been indirectly implicated by the Jain Commission probing the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Gujral had to go.

The BJP returned to power, and this time their alliance was 24-party strong. The coalition system had finally secured its place. It had become the norm, rather than a matter of convenience or compulsion. But teething problems were there. Allies who thought they were not getting their share threatened to withdraw support time and again. Mamata Banerjee of Trinamul Congress made the threat several times. The possibility of a key ally pulling out kept politicians as well as journalists on their toes for most of the late 1990's. It finally happened in April 1998 when AIADMK's Jayalalithaa decided to break away from the alliance.

Vajpayee lost the confidence motion by just one vote and fresh elections were called. The Kargil war intervened and Vajpayee, riding the sympathy wave, returned with a stronger and bigger coalition, which now included many parties from the erstwhile United Front. After that, it was a rather smooth ride for Vajpayee. He managed to complete five years in office — the first time by any non-Congress Prime Minister.

During these five years, the Congress seemed to be silently taking lessons in the coalition dharma. For when the National Democratic Alliance was defeated in the May 2004 elections, another coalition called the United People's Alliance smoothly replaced it. But there's one thing you might have noticed of late: no party of the ruling alliance is any longer threatening to “withdraw support”. And the Opposition is no longer expecting “mid-term polls.” These were terms that made headlines frequently in the late 1990's.

Withdrawal of support, the allies know, would only mean forcing fresh elections on public, which only wants a stable political system. So the politicians seem to have matured, and so have the electorate. Perhaps that is why in Bihar they decisively voted for the alliance led by Nitish Kumar. They had obviously failed to understand the strange equation between Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan and the Congress and had decided not to waste their votes on them.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

International Integration and Other Stories From Kanpur

Bara Chauraha, or the Big Square, is the heart of Kanpur from where life is pumped to the rest of the city. All public transport vehicles terminate here, and from here they begin their return journey. A crowded, noisy and chaotic place around which stand some of the city's biggest landmarks, all more than as century old — a college, two hospitals, two banks.

Till recently, Bara Chauraha boasted of another landmark, Nishat Talkies, which showed latest Bollywood movies. Hindi films are released in Uttar Pradesh a day before they hit theatres in the rest of the country, and Nishat would be packed for weeks after a new release. Often police had to be called in to control the crowds. While at college (which was right opposite Nishat), I had gone there to see blockbusters like Tridev and Maine Pyaar Kiya. And soon after I left the city.

The other day, when I was walking past Nishat, I paused for a second to see which movie was being screened. But the huge poster on the building, which once showed Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Sunny Deol, Jackie Shroff and others (all usually brandishing a pistol) was now announcing, “Mega Sale! Get woollen garments for best prices.” During my previous, annual visits to Kanpur, I had seen quite a few respectable cinema halls either closing down or downgrading themselves to showing C-grade movies. Now Nishat has fallen too. And the hottest destination for Kanpur’s — to use the appropriate term — cinegoers? It’s Rave, a cineplex, rather a multiplex, for it also houses a few lifestyle shops and an outlet of Barista. For an average Kanpurite not used to such sophistication as watching a movie on a computer-generated ticket handed out by tie-wearing young men or just checking out the shops in case the tickets are sold out, Rave is indeed a place to rave about.

But this is not just the story of Kanpur.

Those were the days when you stood in the queue for almost an hour to buy tickets, and having bought the tickets, would alternately stare at the poster — an artist’s impression of the actors — and the girls who had come dressed up for the occasion. Once the gates opened, you would pause to look, with anticipation, at the stills from the film pinned inside glass cases at the lobby. Finally you surrendered to the man with the torch.

Today you only have to drive to a cineplex. If you don’t get a ticket for this movie, you can always get a ticket for that movie. And you no longer bother to look at the posters because you already have seen endless promos on TV. There are plenty of girls to look at, though, but who do you stare at? They all look alike: tight tops, low-rise jeans. The tops are usually black, the jeans either black or blue.

There is even an easier, far more comfortable way of watching latest movies — call your VCD wallah and within minutes he will deliver you “original prints”. Suddenly, watching a movie has become so simple. But those where simpler times.

One symbol of sin during those simpler times was Debonair, the famous (men’s) magazine brought out from Bombay which adorned newsstands even in the smallest of Indian towns. Adorned is the word, because the magazine was supposed to be only watched from a distance. The hawker won’t show it to you till you promised to buy. That was because for the lay reader, the magazine held only visual value and by merely browsing it, one automatically extracted a chunk of its value without paying for it. For the informed reader, however, the magazine’s assets extended beyond those of the topless models it showcased: incisive interviews, brilliant essays, high-quality reportage, short stories, poetry... Debonair, after all, has had an impressive list of editors.

But there is no denying that the topless models — all gorgeous, all Indians, and all shot by celebrated photographers (or photographers who went on to become celebrated) — were the USP of the magazine. For a society like ours which wants sex but does not want to be seen wanting sex, Debonair was handy: buy it and hide it under your pillow.

In the early 1990’s Debonair found a rival in Fantasy, which was published from Allahabad. Fantasy became such a hit that its publishers followed it up with Fun. Suddenly, in the mid-1990’s, there was a spate of “girlie” magazines. They began to be brought out from places like Noida and Ghaziabad. Then one morning Internet came and wiped them all out. Porn had gone online. Debonair still adorns my favourite newsstand at Mall Road, but nobody seems to be buying it. It is evident from the thick dust that has gathered on plastic covers wrapping the recent issues of the magazine. Today titillation in no longer bought on the sly from pavement bookshops but can be comfortably accessed in the privacy of your home. And to hide it you only have to press Alt+Tab. There is nothing to hide under the pillow.

A memorable evening for a family, in those simpler times, meant dinner at a good restaurant. Restaurant: the word conjures up images of a gently lit room, not too crowded, where waiters indulged you without indulging into your privacy, and where you could linger over your food for hours on end. The next morning you could say, “Last night we dined out.”

Today, when life is on the move, the word ‘out’ in ‘dining out’ or ‘eating out’ has become redundant; it is almost taken for granted. These days you grab a meal, or have a quick bite, at one of the eating joints where food ranging from Chinese to Italian is served under one roof. Just eat and get out, for there are others waiting to eat. Or because you just don’t have the time. One does not realise all this while in the middle of it, but floating here in the relatively slow pace of Kanpur, one can’t help wondering how the New Economy has changed the definition of eating.

In the locality I live, there is a sweet shop which is known for its samosas — authentic UP samosas made by halwais (the rustic equivalent of chefs: people who specialise in making sweetmeats, samosas and jalebis) hired from Banaras. Now those halwais seem to be learning additional skills: that’s what I presume from the new signboard the shop has put up. It reads: “Samosa, Masala Dosa, Burger, Pav Bhaji, Chowmein, Pizza.”

A Banaras cook making Pizza? Politicians might still be parroting the need for national integration, but a sweet shop in Kanpur has demonstrated international integration!

That reminds me, the VCD shop in my neighbourhood, run by a Sardarji, has also repainted its signboard to include a new line, “Tamil, Telgu and Malayalam VCDs also availeble.” India has become a smaller place, leave alone the world.

Postscript. National integration: the phrase returns to my mind as I return to Chennai from Kanpur in a train called Rapti Sagar Express, popularly known as the Gorakhpur-Trivandrum Express or the Gorakhpur-Cochin Express (depending on which of these cities in Kerala it is bound for when it originates from Gorakhpur on a particular day. The day I board the train at Kanpur, and today it is bound for Trivandrum (or Trivendrum, as the signboards on the coaches read, and not Thiruvananthapuram). When the TTE comes with the chart, it looks as if he has spread out the map of peninsular India in front on me. A journey of 36 hours lies ahead. But I take solace in the facial expression of a fellow passenger, a Malayali, who has boarded the train at Gorapkhpur, the northeast end of Uttar Pradesh, a good seven hours before I have, and even after I detrain at Chennai, he would still travel for nearly 17 hours before reaching his destination, Trivandrum. He is going to spend 60 hours in the train. Two and a half days!

The first big stop after Kanpur is Jhansi, the historical town famous for its rebellious queen Lakshmi Bai and where, till two decades ago, people coming from the North to the South and vice-versa had to change trains. The train stops for 20 minutes. Like most passengers, I step down onto the platform just to while away the time. I hear an announcement: “A passenger travelling from Orai to Vasco Da Gama has lost his ticket. If he happens to listen to this announcement, he should contact the station master.”

Orai and Vasco Da Gama: geographically, they must be about a thousand kilometres away from each other, but culturally, they are centuries apart. Orai, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, where women still cover their heads at the sight of elderly menfolk; and Goa, where Western women sunbathed naked till twenty years ago. Connecting the two civilisations, the two cultures, is Indian Railways.

The binding force of the railways grips you harder as you travel further south, to the prominent junctions of Itarsi (in Madhya Pradesh) and Nagpur (in Maharashtra). They are not just railway stations built on reddish-brown soil. They are the pulse points of India. There is hardly any station in the country whose name you would not hear on the PA system here. One moment you hear that the train from Howrah bound for Nagercoil was arriving on platform no. so-and-so, the next moment you are told that the train from Ahmedabad to Chennai was delayed by half an hour. The East Coast touching the West Coast, the Himalayas touching the Indian Ocean — Indian Railways achieves that every day, every minute. Who can be a better mascot for national integration? That makes me wonder: why the railway minister of the country is usually a Bihari or a Bengali?

Some Sell Books, Some Sell Soap

Many of the writers whose books today sit on the ‘Literature’ racks of posh bookstores would have never imagined that their works would some day become classics. Run your finger through the spines of these books and you will realise that many of these writers did not even live long enough to bask in the fame that was due to them and that came posthumously.

If poverty put a comma in the writing careers of some of them, tuberculosis injected semi-colons in the lives of several others. Not to mention the question mark that would pop up now and then because of factors like alcoholism and censorship. Finally, a combination of some of these factors would put a full stop to the life of an about-to-be-celebrated genius. They would die even before they could turn 50, and in some cases, even 40. Maybe true geniuses are meant to die young enough, because if they live longer, they might produce stuff that negates their previous work.

As Hemingway famously remarked when William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1949, “No son of a bi*** who ever won the Nobel Prize ever wrote anything worth reading afterwards.” Hemingway might have said that out of jealousy, but he has a point — a point you will see if you closely follow the works of all Nobel laureates. Hemingway himself wrote nothing worthwhile after he accepted the Prize in 1954, with the exception of A Moveable Feast, the memoirs of his days in Paris as a struggling writer and which was published posthumously. And he wrote the book while fighting against depression which was induced by alcohol and ill-health (on the account of two plane crashes he survived) and failed marriages and which led him to commit suicide. He was 61.

If depression was an enemy for Hemingway, it was a constant companion for people like Eric Arthur Blair, or George Orwell, who could barely write in peace — ill-health and poverty kept hounding him till the end. A friend (was it Cyril Connolly?) once anonymously bailed Orwell out of his financial mess, so that he could keep his mind and soul together while writing. Orwell had no idea about the millions that were going to come because of 1984 and Animal Farm. Even if he had, it was too late: he was dying.

Tuberculosis and the censors killed D H Lawrence long before his time should have been up, even though he too had an anonymous benefactor in Aldous Huxley. Kafka died at 41, a sad man. F Scott Fitzgerald led a sad life and died young too. They all had something to say, so they wrote. Maybe to sustain themselves, but never to make money out of it.

Back home we had R K Narayan, who treated writing as yoga, irrespective of whether his books sold or not. And then there is Ruskin Bond, who has been soldiering on for decades from his modest home in Mussoorie, sustaining on whatever little money the children's books bring him.

But today the publishing world is no different from Hollywood or Bollywood. It has its own Tom Cruises and Brad Pitts and Shah Rukh Khans and Aamir Khans. Today you have celebrity writers who first write books and then go around, city to city, peddling them. And that does not exclude Sir Vidia, or V S Naipaul. The man has won every literary prize including the Nobel, does he still need to sell his books? Little wonder that Magic Seeds, the first book that he went around promoting after winning the Nobel, turned out to be eminently forgettable. It is quite possible that Naipaul, a man who cannot suffer fools and banality, is not even interested in such promotions and does that at the behest of publishers. In which case, publishers must realise that it is good writing that sells, and not the writer.

Hype can only get the writer fifteen minutes of fame. Maybe a dozen socialites will buy the book at the launch function. But that’s about it. Penguin editor David Davidar’s House of Blue Mangoes, which was launched with much fanfare only a few years ago, today sits dumped in the ‘Bargain Books’ shelf. On the other hand, the quietly-released Hungry Tide, by Amitav Ghosh, is doing well. Not to speak of Inscrutable Americans by Anurag Mathur, which was written more than a decade ago, when writers had not become glamorous.

The bottomline: good writing is capable of finding its way into readers’ homes. But not many seem to understand that in the age of desperate marketing. A big name like Tom Wolfe, for example, is today enticing people to buy his book, I Am Charlotte Simmons, by offering them a chance to win a beach holiday. One wonders if Indian readers should expect advertisements in the coming years which would say something like, ‘Buy this book and you could win 2-day/3-night trip to Goa!’ The ad could also be about finding a gold coin hidden inside the pages of a book, provided you buy the book. When marketing takes over, there isn’t much difference between a book and a one-kg pack of Surf Excel.

Madras Musings

One of the downsides of living alone is that when you fall ill, there isn't anyone to take your mind off the various aches and pains, except perhaps the newsreader who only adds to your illness by repeating the news over and over again. That's what you are resigned to — watching TV. Or reading the papers over and over again, including columns that you never bother to look at otherwise. And when you are done with both, you just lie down and stare at the ceiling, pondering about what you've just heard or read. Life can be sad.

Having been recently pinned down to bed by flu for almost a week, I often pondered over the sadness of life. After much thought I realised: life might not have been so sad if I was living in another city instead of Chennai — say Bangalore or Hyderabad or Delhi. Why go that far — I would have been better off even in Kancheepuram or Vellore. Because there, even in my sickbed, I would have had Amitabh Bachchan or Richard Gere for company. You know what I mean —I could have killed time watching Set Max or Zee Cinema or HBO or Star Movies.

But the average Chennaiite has been stripped of the small luxury of watching movies on TV, because the city's cable subscribers are governed by the Conditional Access System, or CAS, under which you can only watch free-to-air channels on your TV unless you buy a set-top box by paying a small fortune. The idea of CAS was to allow viewers to choose what they want to watch, and pay for what they watch. For some strange reason, a man called Ravi Shankar Prasad — the lawyer-turned-politician who is best known in Bihar as the BJP leader in the forefront of anti-Lalu campaign and who happened to become the country's information and broadcasting minister shortly before the National Democratic Alliance was voted out of power — chose Chennai as the test case for introducing CAS.

Why Chennai? He could have chosen Patna, his hometown. Today, the NDA has been long out of power, but the CAS continues to be under implementation in Chennai. But for how long? Either the CAS is scrapped, or the entire country comes under it: Chennaiites alone can't be deprived of watching movies. But it is unlikely that there will ever be a protest strong enough to reach the ears of the present information and broadcasting minister, because all Tamil — and other South Indian language — channels, including their movie channels, are free-to-air. So are all the news channels — the ones in South Indian languages as well as those in English and Hindi. And people addicted to HBO and Star Movies and Star Plus have already bought set-top boxes. So who is left to crib?

So for a ‘North Indian’ Chennai-resident like me, the only option left was to watch the news channels — watching how the Indian cricket team had turned into a political party. Newspapers are even spelling out the allegiances of individual players, as if they were members of the Union Cabinet caught between the Prime Minster and their party president. But you can’t blame the sportsmen: politics has seeped into every aspect of our lives, even into our private lives. These days, go to a discotheque in Chennai with your girlfriend and grab a beer there, and chances these days are that you could be featured in the newspapers twice — first as a Page 3 animal, and the second time as a sex-starved animal who is letting his culture go to the dogs by drinking with the female in public. And you thought such things happened only in Shiv Sena's Mumbai.

Earlier this month, a Tamil paper called Dinamalar front-paged a picture taken in Chennai's Park Hotel. The picture shows a woman on the dance floor drinking beer straight out of the bottle. It is quite apparent, from the picture, that she is being egged on to do so by her male companion; perhaps he has just passed on his bottle to her. Whatever the case, it is a common sight for those who frequent discos. For a newspaper, a juicy picture, alright, but the caption smacked of chauvinism: “Is this what equality means?” And then it added: “In a society where married couples are reluctant to hold hands in public, how can women be allowed to sing and dance with them?”

The hotel ran into trouble with the police because of this picture as well as other pictures of that evening in the disco published by the paper. And this drama coincided with a public apology tendered by the celebrated actress Khushboo for having said that she saw nothing wrong in women indulging in pre-marital sex as long as they took precautions. She was forced to tender a tearful apology because of political protests sparked off by her statement —a statement that would make perfect sense to any average, levelheaded Indian.

Are we living in the Taliban's regime? Does equality only mean the right to vote? If a man can drink in a pub, why can’t women? Or do these so-called guardians of Tamil culture think only men can drink? No wonder no one ever points fingers at the nuisance created by men drinking openly till late in the nights outside the numerous wine shops that dot the city's map.

And as for saying, “in a society where married couples are reluctant to hold hands in public”, well, these self-appointed guardians of culture should know that married couples rarely hold hands. Handholding is an obsession with teenage couples, who grow out of the obsession by the time they get married.

And if you really want to see couples holding hands and doing much more, you only have to spend an evening in one of the parks used by people for walking or jogging. Each bench in these parks in occupied by couples who get bolder as the sun dips further. But they are unlikely to make it to the front page of any crusading paper — so far they haven't. Neither have any of these papers ever front-paged stories about the outrageously vulgar songs that feature in the post-midnight programmes of almost all the South Indian channels. Wonder what happens to culture then.

But then, conflict of culture is not the news as is being made out to be, because you really can't define culture. The news, if anything, seems to be the conflict of classes —between people who get amorous in parks and people who get amorous in discos. And it is always easy to attack those under the spotlight — or the strobe lights.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Colombo Journal

Unforseen expenses may rise,” the star forecast in the Daily Mirror cautioned me, before adding with an air of authority: “No cheer for the romantic.”

My spirits instantly touched the ground even though I was flying at 35,000 feet. I suddenly felt angry with the air-hostess for having given me the paper. As compensation I asked for another drink. It isn’t, after all, a great idea to begin your first day in a new country by keeping an eye on your wallet instead of eyeing the beautiful things of the land.

The land, meanwhile, was 15 minutes away, as the screen in front of my seat informed. By the time the plane touched Colombo and the stewardess folded her hands and said goodbye, my anger had melted. She had really been warm. The warmth is on record: Sri Lankan Airlines has got awards for having the most friendly cabin crew. In any case they were going to be my hosts for the next five days. So I thanked her and stepped down into the steaming heat of Colombo.

The hour-long drive to the city seemed like a drive in our own Kochi — the same greenery, the same heat, the similar attire and mannerism of the people. Only the vehicles on the road were different: instead of the Ambassador and the Maruti and the Santro, you see Toyota and Nissan and Isuzu. The autorickshaws — or the tuk-tuk, as the locals call it — are, however, made by Bajaj. But they are not painted in any uniform colour. Some are bright red, some deep green, some others blue. I wondered if the colour depended on the whim of the driver or some government rule.

‘‘Do you like your room, sir?” the bell-boy asked me as he placed my bag on the rack. Clever boy, because the answer couldn’t have been ‘no’, for my ninth-floor room at the Colombo Plaza offered a splendid view of most of the city’s high-rises, the Beira Lake and the Indian Ocean. Is this the same city, I wondered, from where all the news that came out all these years were mainly about conflict, wars, blasts, suicide bombings and, of late, the tsunami? The tsunami hadn’t hit Colombo — fortunately so because most buildings that matter are just metres away from the Indian Ocean.

News about the tsunami devastation, however, continues to dominate the newspapers. All the more because this is the ‘National New Year Season’ — a time to introspect about the past and move into the future. But the past is yet to be repaired. “Avurudu (New Year) in welfare centres, thanks to officio-political bungling,” screamed the headline of a massive article in the Mirror’s edit page. The article lamented, “As politicians and policy makers wrangle over how, when and where the tsunami displaced are to be located, tens of thousands of fellow Sri Lankans will continue to languish in welfare centres, tents and makeshift places as we celebrate the Sinhala and Hindu New Year tomorrow.”

It also bitterly complained that ministers and MPs, instead of doing something for the victims, were going on foreign jaunts to study “disaster preparedness methods.” Reports on the front page had also taken the government to task for various other things. One report began like this: “In a National New Year attack, the main opposition UNP yesterday accused the government of deceiving a heavily burdened people, by advertising false price lists for essential items.” Another report said chicken had gone out of stock in Colombo and some suburban areas following a dispute between traders and producers.

I put the paper aside and turned on the piped music. A radio channel came alive with ABBA’s Take a chance. Then came George Baker’s Sing a song, then Osibisa’s Dance the body music... The jockey soon came on air to make the periodic announcement that this was Gold FM “that brings you the best of the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.” The noise of the nineties had been left out. It was with some effort that I tore myself away from the speaker. Colombo, after all, was waiting to be seen.

Heavily-burdened people. The phrase used in Mirror kept ringing in my mind as I made my way to Odel, a shopping mall recommended by the hotel staff. The mall doesn’t have the size of the malls you usually find in Indian cities: it’s only a two-story colonial building, but that makes it elegant. I happened to pass by a large mirror. In fact, I looked like a heavily-burdened man, compared with the impeccably-dressed young men and women floating past. People of Colombo are fashion-conscious. (They are also a friendly lot: people often smile at strangers).

The men often look good in what they wear because they seem to work out. And the women seem to be spending a lot of time turning the pages of Vogue. In any case, giant screens in Odel keep showing Fashion TV (unless a cricket match is happening) — the idea is to inspire you to buy more and more. And there is so much to buy — Calvin Klein underwear to Guess jeans. The price tags might send you in a tizzy — Rs 3000, Rs 5000, Rs 7000. But that’s Sri Lankan money: for the approximate Indian value you’ve to divide the figure by half. Two hours there had lightened my wallet. Part of the star forecast seemed to be right.

‘‘Those days were bad,” says Anura, a twenty-something who works with an advertising company. She was referring to the days when the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government had not signed the ceasefire agreement. “The police would stop people at every few metres and frisk them. You could not park your vehicle anywhere. Boys could not go out with girls, girls could not go out with boys. You could not go out in the nights. And you had to carry your I-card all the time, or else you could be arrested.”

Today, you hardly find police on the streets. And night life is rocking. I ask Anura which is the most popular disco in Colombo. “You mean the most happening disco? It’s the Blue Elephant.” I was tempted to ask Anura out to the disco but did not for the fear of the rest of the prediction coming true so quickly.

Right now the sun was about to set so it was time to head to the beach. You won’t find sand but a promenade, called the Galle Face Green, which stretches out a kilometre and a half. Laid out in 1859, it’s a picnic spot where families gather every evening and mothers help their children fly kites. More grown-ups play cricket while even more grown-ups come with their girlfriends. The place teems with couples. The sun had just dipped into the ocean, turning the light into faint orange. The crescent of the moon had shown up overhead. I sat alone on the stone steps, eating pieces of raw mango dressed in salt and chilli flakes and watching the expanse of the ocean through the silhouettes of lovers sitting on the embankment. The forecast, I guess, was correct.


Many heroes of Sri Lanka today are cinema heroes, and the biggest of them is Shah Rukh Khan. Aamir Khan and Salman Khan have a lot of fans too. Among the Tamil heroes, Vijay (not to be confused with Vijaykanth) is the biggest heart-throb. But no one can beat Shah Rukh. “I accompanied Shah Rukh Khan from the airport to the hotel when he came to perform in Colombo. He is awesome, and also a nice human being. A child wanted his autograph but the security people would not let him. Shah Rukh happened to see the child and gestured him to come in,” says Martin (his name changed), who works with a travel agency.

Buddhist monks did not want the show to happen that evening, for it was the first death anniversary of a revered monk, Gangodawila Soma Thero. The actor was about to end his show when a bomb went off, killing two people. “Shah Rukh immediately rushed to his Mercedes. Just before he got into the car, I heard him saying, ‘F*****g Sri Lanka!’ The other actors jumped in too and they sped off, straight to the airport,” he said. “But please don’t say that I told you that Shah Rukh said this. I have to live here, and people here worship Shah Rukh. They will kill me if I say anything against him,” he pleaded.


But the real-life heroes in Sri Lanka are its people, who’ve retained their warmth and smiles in spite of years of conflict and hardship. The cheerful family you spot on the beach is likely to have lost a number of relatives in the December-26 tsunami. But the tragedy happened four months ago: right now it’s the time to usher in the New Year, to move on.

At a party, I found myself drinking with M Zarani, a society photographer and a man with impeccable manners who speaks English with the old-world elegance. We got talking and soon he gave me a recap of the island’s political history, starting with the rule of Sirimavo Bandaranaike “when children learned that A is for apple but never got to see an apple, when you were allowed to carry only three and a half pounds worth foreign exchange if you went abroad.” He also spoke about the tsunami devastation, and said how the government was doing little to rehabilitate the people. Only much later did he let it slip that almost the entire family of his father’s brother had been wiped out by the tsunami. “I think every second person in the island lost someone or the other,” he said thoughtfully.

Another person I met at the party was Nimmi Dethlefsen, a 54-year-old woman who runs an ayurveda resort near Galle. For an hour or so we spoke about yoga and panchakarma and about the yoga ashrams in India. The next morning we met again and she took me around Colombo — to a Buddhist temple, a few shopping malls, and also to the beach. I bought a couple of CDs and a granite figurine of the Buddha, but she didn’t let me pay at the shops. “You are in Sri Lanka. When I come to Chennai, I will make you pay.”

It was only over dinner that night that she told me her story. On the morning of December 26, she was in the bathroom of one the cottages at Galle, getting a tap fixed. Suddenly she heard people shouting and she came out to see what was wrong. The first wave took away her sauna huts. The next to go were the cottages. The third giant wave split her home into two. And the fourth washed away the upper half of the home. The destruction was complete. Nimmi survived holding on to a column.

Miraculously for her, all her staff and guests survived too. “Ganesha saved us all.” Today, she is not only rebuilding her resort but also helping — with aid from her clients abroad — to rehabilitate displaced villagers on the Southern coast. There are many like her in Sri Lanka who are silently doing their bit without seeking — or getting — recognition. For them, it’s all a part of life.


Sitting by the window on the return flight from Colombo and sipping arrack and watching the plane glide above the kingdom of clouds, I pondered — what is it about Sri Lanka I would miss the most? The beauty of the place? Maybe, but Kerala is just as beautiful. The weather? Certainly not — it is as hot as Chennai this time of the year. The people? Of course, yes; one doesn’t come across a friendlier lot very often.

Then, after a few more sips of the golden-coloured drink, I realised what I’d been missing the most ever since I left the hotel a few hours ago. Gold FM. Imagine the Beatles, ABBA, Boney M, George Baker, Osibisa and others taking turns to keep your spirits up round the clock. Is that why Sri Lankans manage to be so lively in spite of the years-long conflict and, now, the devastation caused by the tsunami? I wouldn’t know.

Human Harvest: Farmer Suicides in Andhra

Sangam Narayana has left behind a memento for his wife which she would rather not look at but preserves with great care — the May 22 edition of the Telugu daily Vaartha.

The front-page photograph of the paper shows Narayana, 48, a farmer in Masanpalli village of Medak district, lying sprawled in the fields, with dried up froth staining his right cheek.

Narayana seemed to have been pondering over his electricity bill before he decided to kill himself consuming endosulphan, because the electricity card lay near his body. The electricity dues for his farm, according to villagers, was Rs 12,000 and for his home another Rs 9000. The electricity department was asking him to pay up — even though the new chief minister, Y S Rajasekhar Reddy, announced waiving off farmers’ power dues immediately after he assumed office.

Narayana also owed about Rs 1 lakh to private moneylenders, and a similar amount to the State Bank of India. And with the monsoons failing for the last three years, his 3-acre land had yielded practically nothing but had only sucked in investments, like sinking of four borewells — three of which failed to strike water. The fourth gave him just about enough water to irrigate the small crop of sugarcane he had grown in a corner of the field. So like the hundreds of other farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Narayana chose the easy way out of the financial mess — embracing death.

‘‘Sometime back the moneylenders came home and abused him. Since then he looked very upset but he never said anything. That morning also he quietly had dal and roti and then left home saying he had to water the fields. I had no idea he was going there to die,’’ says Ushamma, Narayana’s devastated wife, squatting all alone in front of her hut.

Up in the sky, the clouds kept gathering and dispersing, lighting up hopes of the other residents of Masanpalli. But for Ushamma, the clouds have showed up too late. And no one knows yet whether those clouds will actually bring rains. Ushamma lost her husband, but for the rest of the world, it was yet another case of ‘‘farmer suicide’’ — a phenomenon that has gripped Andhra Pradesh, forcing the new chief minister to announce a host of steps to curb the death toll.

On June 12, his government placed an advertisement in Telugu papers which, while recording 108 suicides since May 14 when Rajasekhar Reddy took over, promised Rs 1.5 lakh compensation to the family of every deceased farmer, waiving off farmers’ electricity dues amounting to Rs 1100 crore, free power supply to them that would cost the state Rs 400 crore, increasing Budgetary allocation to agriculture and related sectors by nearly 40 percent and setting aside Rs 23,479.20 crore towards easy loans to them. The ad also announced setting up of helplines in every district, while the chief minister himself, in his recent roadshows, urged farmers not to get intimidated by moneylenders and report them to the police if they sought to recover their money forcibly.

But curbing suicides — which are sparked off by emotional distress — is not as easy as curbing murders and theft. The number of suicides has been so steady in the last one month that Andhra Jyothi, a leading Telugu paper, has been recording them on a daily basis on its Page 3, in a column titled Darunalu, which literally means disaster but which actually plays on the word runalu, meaning debts. In fact, Reddy’s promise of the Rs 1.5 lakh compensation seems to have only inspired more suicides.

‘‘Ever since he promised the compensation the farmers seem to be going tup, tup, tup (a sound indicating people falling dead). They know they are ruined, so they want their family to benefit from the money,’’ says Krishna, a journalist in Medak. In Medak district alone, at least 18 farmers committed suicide between May 14 to June 12, though the official figures put the toll at nine — the reason being the government does not recognise all such deaths as ‘‘farmer suicide.’’

The case of Shambhu Reddy, for example, does not come under this category. The story of Shambhu, a farmer in Medak’s Korpol village, is that of riches to rags. Once upon a time, his family owned 68 acres, growing millet. But expenses were to be met, such as the wedding of the various girls in the family, so one patch of land was sold after the other. Finally Shambhu was left with three acres, which he sold off two years ago to marry off his only daughter. Rendered landless, he leased three acres for cultivation. But the clouds never gathered over that land and Shambhu was forced to become a labourer for construction companies — the ultimate humiliation for a self-respecting farmer. But he managed to hide his humiliation till the morning of June 6.

‘‘He seemed normal, laughing and joking as usual and then we all went to sleep here (pointing to an open courtyard). At 4 in the morning he went to the toilet. When he came out he was staggering and he fell down. We rushed him to the hospital but he was dead,’’ says Upendra, 22, Shambhu’s son.

Honour: that’s something a farmer guards more zealously than even his crops. Hunger he can hide, but a moneylender’s knock at the door is heard loud and clear across the village. And that’s when he begins contemplating suicide. But the question is: Why are farmers being pushed to the wall in Andhra Pradesh?

Well, the sequence of events leading up to every suicide is simple and almost similar in every case: The farmer plants the seeds and waits for the rains. The rains fail. The next year he repeats the process, taking a loan from the bank and if that’s not sufficient, from the private moneylenders. In any case he can’t go to the bank if he has already availed of a loan from there. A majority of this loan money goes into providing for irrigation of the land, such as digging of borewells, while the rest of it goes for buying of seeds, fertilisers, etc. But borewells either fail to strike water or break down. And at times there is no electricity at all to pump water. The seeds, on the other hand, turn out to be of bad quality and the fertiliser adulterated. And the rains fail too. For whatever little crop he has managed to produce, he gets next to nothing, thanks to the middlemen. Somewhere in between, his daughter reaches marriageable age or his wife falls ill or his son wants to study further.

In the middle of this, he has only one hope — a good monsoon the next season. So he starts all over again, plunged in even greater debt. But the rains fail yet again. The government, all these years, has hardly been of help. There is no crop insurance to speak of, no guarantee of regular power or water supply, and no assurance of alternative income in case of a natural calamity or crop failure.

In Medak, for example, crops worth Rs 3 crore were damaged, but the compensation the farmers got was only Rs 3 lakh. ‘‘The government promises a lot of things but it never reaches the ground level,’’ says P Chengal Reddy, chairman of Farmers’ Federation (Andhra Pradesh). ‘‘What’s happening today is the cumulative effect of red tapism, faulty pricing mechanism, corruption and the institutionalised exploitation of farmers by middlemen. There comes a time when a farmer is at his wit’s end. He desperately wants to get out of the system but what he gets is a notice from the bank,’’ says Reddy.

A lot of farmers’ problems can be solved if they shift to cultivating crops that require far less water than paddy or sugarcane. The state governments have been encouraging them to do so but the farmers seem to be reluctant. ‘‘Even if we grow paddy in a small area we at least get rice to eat and fodder for our animals. The excess we can sell to buy seeds and fertiliser. That way we can survive,’’ says Bantu Shiva Chander, the sarpanch of Masanpalli village. And he does not approve of the idea of reporting bullying moneylenders to the police. ‘‘Banks don’t give us another loan till we pay back. Moneylenders are our only hope. If we take them to the police, who will give us loan again?’’ he asks.

Banks, post-liberalisation, are no longer what they used to be. During their recent meeting with chief minister Reddy, the state’s bankers remained quite indifferent to his appeal to cut interest rates for farmers. They said their money was also public money and they cannot give special concession to Andhra farmers. The new government, clearly, will have to play a bigger and aggressive role now. Promises and schemes aren’t enough: it has to make sure what is planned in Hyderabad reaches the villages. Farmers, after all, have placed all their hopes on Reddy, who is seen as farmer-friendly unlike his predecessor Chandrababu Naidu who was considered IT-friendly.

The agriculture department, it is learnt, is contemplating a comprehensive insurance scheme which would take care of the family’s health and the children’s education — two areas where increasing costs have added to a farmer’s burden. It is also planning a law which would make it mandatory for a farmer to get a certificate from the groundwater department before sinking borewells. If the department certifies there is groundwater, yet the farmer fails to strike water, then he can ask the pump manufacturer for refund.

Another area of thrust is to encourage farmers to plant pongamia, which produces oil-bearing seeds that can be processed into bio-fuel. Pongamia can grow in desert conditions and it requires only a one-time investment of Rs 12,000. But there’s a problem: the first crop grows only after five years and it will be 15 years before a farmer reaps its benefits. At the moment, though, the farmers’ sole hope is a good rainfall.

But clouds, like the sun, have this habit of playing hide and seek. And they love to hide when you seek them the most.

June 2004

Ghost of The Gas: Bhopal Tragedy

In North India, they love to watch wedding processions pass by in the neighbourhood. In front of the procession march liveried members of a band party playing film songs, followed by the dancing friends and family members of the groom. The groom himself is at the tail-end, sitting nervously either on a caparisoned horse or inside a flower-decorated car.

The night of December 2, 1984 — a Sunday and an auspicious day for weddings — was a night of such processions throughout North India and that included Bhopal, the sprawling, laidback capital of Madhya Pradesh which was by then famous mainly because of Sholay. In the 1975 blockbuster, comedian Jagdeep plays a wood-seller called Soorma Bhopali (the strong man from Bhopal), who is actually a weakling but whose favourite pastime is to tell false stories about how he managed to capture the two notorious thieves, Veeru and Jay (Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan).

So to the night of weddings. Standing at the door of their home near the Bhopal railway station, Lakshmi Srivas, 35, and her six children watched two or three such processions pass by. Her husband, an employee of All India Radio, would join them occasionally. After the last of the processions had gone, the family had dinner and went to sleep. Another day in the life of a middle-class family had passed.

Then came the screams.

“It was about two o’ clock (in the morning). I heard people shouting Bhago! Bhago! (Run! Run!) Nobody said why, they just asked us to run. It was smoky outside and smelt as if somebody was burning chillies. Our eyes were burning and we were finding it difficult to breath,” recalls Lakshmi, now 55. She and her family first thought it was some kind of a terrorist attack — perhaps a retaliation by Sikhs because the anti-Sikh riots following Indira Gandhi’s assassination (on October 31, 1984) had just ended.

“Everybody was running. Many fell down, but people stepped over them and ran. My husband had just got his salary, so we had money to take a train out of Bhopal. But at the railway station there was chaos. Trains weren’t running and people were all over, coughing and vomiting. So we ran to the bus-stand, but there weren’t any buses. So we ran back to the station and spent the night in a pit next to platform no. 5,” she says. Huddled in the pit with the family, with faces covered in wet cloth, Lakshmi passed out.

She returned home next morning to find her eyes red and swollen. She also learned what the smoke was all about. But those living closer the pesticide-making Union Carbide plant in Bhopal knew almost immediately that it was poisonous gas emanating from the factory. “We were woken up by a burning sensation in the eyes. My uncle worked in the plant and he knew instantly what had happened. By then people were already on the streets, screaming Bhago! Bhago! I grabbed my younger son, who was a year old then, and ran towards the lake. In the panic I forgot about my elder son, who was three. I left him sleeping under the quilt. Next morning, thank God, we found him still sleeping,” says Rehana, 42, wife of a daily-wager.

Unlike Lakshmi and Rehana, some 3000 people of Bhopal never returned home. They were lying dead here and there — in their homes, on the streets, in hospitals, in mortuaries. But that was only the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Bhopal — a chapter that shows no signs of ending even 20 years later.

It all began with the fight against insects that ate up crops. The poor Indian farmer, perennially the human face of sadness, badly needed pesticides. Then one day, Union Carbide, an American multinational, came to his rescue. Heard of Eveready batteries? Well, that’s what it made after it was set up in 1886. It diversified into making gases and chemicals during the First World War and to atomic energy processing during the Second World War. It started operating in India in 1905 as Eveready (India) Company, marketing Eveready batteries that you still use for torches and transistors. In 1959, it became Union Carbide India Limited.

In the 1960’s, Green Revolution was sweeping India and farmers were abandoning traditional growing methods for high-yielding seed varieties that required fertilisers and pesticides. Time was ripe for the multinational to set up a pesticide plant. And Bhopal, a virgin city and centrally located, literally, was its choice. Union Carbide engaged its best engineers to build the plant which was finally installed in 1969. It was to produce a cheap pesticide called Sevin. “Spend one rupee on Sevin and make five,” that was the mantra it preached to the Indian farmer. It was in 1973 that the first batch of methyl-isocyanate — the tongue-twisting name of a poisonous gaseous compound that would be on every Bhopali’s lips 11 years later — was imported to make Sevin.

And in 1977, the maiden production of Sevin took place: 321 tonnes of the pesticide were produced. Everything seemed to go on fine till December 6, 1982, when the American engineer Warren Woomer, who was the chief architect of the plant, left India. He had worked on the principle: “Always keep only a strict minimum of dangerous materials on site.” He also left with the hope that the three huge tanks at the plant, E610, E611 and E619, which could stock up to 120 tons of methyl-isocyanate, would never be filled. Woomer believed that a small quantity of the deadly gas was enough to meet the demand for Sevin, which had been dwindling swiftly because of failing monsoons. No rain, no crop — so where was the need for pesticides? Union Carbide India Limited was now running into losses and the new bosses who took over from him were heavily into cost-cutting. As a result, safety measures went out of the window. And then.

Safety is everybody’s business — read the notice board in the control room of the Union Carbide plant. (The board, ironically, remains intact till date). But that night on December 2, the staff which had taken over from the previous shift, had no idea that safety itself was at risk. Till it was too late. The pressure in tank E610 had mounted from two to 55 pounds per square inch and soon it began to smell of boiled cabbage — a definite sign that tank 610 was spewing methyl-isocyanate!

The time was five minutes past midnight — something that inspired the title of Dominique Lapierre’s book on the tragedy, It Was Five Past Midnight In Bhopal. It is alleged that one of the workers on duty that night, Mohan Lal Verma, who was sore with the management over his promotion, had deliberately induced water into tank 610. The allegation, however, could never be proved and today Verma, according to Lapierre’s book, lives 60 miles from Bhopal and works for the industries department of Madhya Pradesh.

Call it accident or negligence, the fog of methyl-isocyanate that settled on sleeping Bhopalis that night changed their lives forever. Over 3000 died that night itself, and nearly 12,000 died in the following years because of diseases induced by the poisoning. And thousands and thousands of others — nearly six lakh people according to some estimates — are dying a thousand deaths everyday. Their lives are now all about trips to the doctor.

Like in the case of Lakshmi, who that night was watching the wedding processions. To begin with, Lakshmi’s menstrual cycle went haywire soon after the gas leak. And that is now also the problem faced by her four grown-up daughters. And almost all members of her family suffer from weak eyesight and recurring chest pains. And one of her daughters has been repeatedly operated for cysts in her reproductive organs. About her husband, who is due to retire from All India Radio next year, she says shyly and hesitatingly: “I can’t even tell you what he is suffering from.”

Says Satinath Sarangi alias Sathyu, who has been rallying the gas victims for demanding adequate compensation: “Breathlessness, poor eyesight, loss of appetite, pain in the joints, anxiety, irregular menstrual cycle – these are common problems faced by the gas victims. They are only being treated for the symptoms, for which they have spent thousands of rupees so far, but neither the Centre nor the state government has bothered to go into the core of the problem. Alternative therapies like ayurveda and yoga help, but the government is doing nothing.”

Sathyu, an engineer by profession, has set up Sambhavna, a trust that seeks to rehabilitate gas victims through such alternative therapies. Sambhavna also has a gynaecological clinic set up with the help of the royalties received by author Lapierre. Another crusader in the town, Abdul Jabbar, has also done his bit to rehabilitate the victims by setting up Swabhimaan Kendra (Self-Respect Centre) where poor women make stuffed toys, paper bags and, above all, flags and badges for political parties.

“We hope to get a lot of work for the Bihar elections,” says Jabbar, in his forties, as he directs an effigy-maker to make a monstrous effigy of the people responsible for the miserable life of the Bhopalis which is to be burnt on December 3, the twentieth anniversary of the tragedy. “I want one body with three heads — one of an angrez (a Westerner to represent multinationals), one of the Indian government, and one of Warren Anderson (the man who was the Union Carbide chairman when the disaster happened),” he directs. “For the multinational, make any white man, and to represent the Indian government, make any Indian man. And as for Anderson, do you know how he looks like?” The poor effigy-maker has no clue how Anderson looks like, so he points to a picture in the room which shows former President R Venkatraman shaking hands with Jabbar. “Is that him?” asks the effigy-maker innocently. Jabbar rebukes him: “Idiot! Anderson is a white man!” The effigy-maker smiles sheepishly. Jabbar then asks an assistant to show the effigy-maker a picture of Anderson.

Anderson. That’s a hated name in Bhopal. His company had the blessings of the Congress party — the ruling party at the Centre as well as Madhya Pradesh during the disaster. That gave him enough courage to come down to Bhopal immediately after the gas leak and he was arrested — but only briefly. Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, and Arjun Singh, the then chief minister, ensured that Anderson flew out of India safely.

Today, Anderson is missing from his given address in the US fearing possible arrest as the awareness against the Bhopal gas tragedy grows worldwide. “If Chilean dictator Pinochet can face trial at the age of 88 for his misdeeds, why can’t Anderson, who is only 82,” asks Ward Morehouse, who has been running the Bhopal Action Resource Centre in the US since 1985. “Twenty years is too long a time. Time has come when Union Carbide, and its present owners Dow Chemicals, are made accountable,” he says. He makes sense. No one has been held accountable so far in the world’s worst-ever factory accident. Union Carbide did pay compensation, which was Rs 715 crore in February 1989. That time a dollar amounted to Rs 15.

Lengthy procedures followed to ascertain the identity of gas victims and finally, after three years of the tragedy, every survivor was paid Rs 25,000 — at first Rs 200 a month and then a settlement of the remaining amount in the mid-1990’s. But today one dollar is equal to Rs 45 and the remaining compensation money has accrued up to almost Rs 1,500 crore. The amount is now supposedly being disbursed among gas victims following a Supreme Court order in July this year.

It is not just money that Dr Divya Kishor Satpathy wants for the victims. He wants a research into the mutations that might have taken place after the gas leak. Dr Satpathy, who divides his time between roses and dead bodies, should know better. Today, at 55, he is the director of the medico-legal department of Bhopal’s Gandhi Medical college, but that night, it was his job to do post-mortem of the gas victims.

“We spent five days at the mortuary without going home. Every half an hour one of us used to cry. There were small kids. What was their fault? They didn’t have any shares in Union Carbide, they didn’t profit from the sales of Sevin. Many of them where clutching to their mothers,” says Dr Satpathy, wiping a tear. He has been conducting autopsies for the last three decades and that should harden him, but he still cries at the thought of that night. “We got a thousand bodies on the first day, 725 on the next, and 55 the day after. We ran out of shrouds, but the cloth merchants threw their shops open and let us take bundles of cloths. The red cloth was for Hindus and the white for Muslims,” says Satpathy, whose pastime is to grow roses. He has nearly 30 varieties of roses growing at his home as well the terrace garden of the hospital. He also has about 30 pigeons under his care.

“I love people who can’t speak, like pigeons and roses. You see, living beings always tell lies. It is the dead who speak the truth,” says the doctor. Is anyone listening?

December 2004

2004 Election Reporting: Who'll Be The PM?

We have watched over dinner, the same politicians say the same things for two months non-stop. It has become tiring and tedious. Fortunately, it all got over yesterday with the final round of the campaign, and in the next 3-4 days you should know who the new Prime Minister will be.

Unfortunately, though, if a clear picture does not emerge that quickly, you still may have to put up with the faces of those politicians. Each will be claiming how close he, or she, is to the magic figure, 272, the strength required in the Lok Sabha to form government.

When the election campaign formally began two months ago, Atal Behari Vajpayee looked comfortably set for a second term, riding on the expensive India Shining campaign, which the BJP had started last year itself. Perhaps that's a mistake the BJP made: it lit up its candles too early in the evening. Most of the wax had melted away by the time the election campaign reached its peak, and that's when the Opposition parties pulled out their candles.

Mulayam Singh Yadav employed smarter copywriters to create sleek ads that projected him as the Chandrababu Naidu of Uttar Pradesh. And the Congress launched Rahul Gandhi to resurrect, quite successfully, the charm of Rajiv Gandhi. And then came the exit polls after the second round of elections which showed the Congress narrowing its gap with the BJP, and out came from hibernation the leaders who've always aspired to architect a non-BJP coalition such as Harkishen Singh Surjeet.

The CPM general secretary is old and ailing, but he is still so passionate about dislodging the BJP that he emphasises the need for a Congress-CPM alliance even in Kerala, forgetting that the two parties are bitter enemies there. This could be his last chance to stitch up a non-BJP coalition, and his efforts are bound to stoke the ambition of many politicians who have been waiting for their day to rule the country.

Whether their day has come will depend on the NDA's tally. If it falls just little short of the 272-mark, then Vajpayee should have no problem continuing. He can trust on George Fernandes to get the requisite numbers. In any case, Vajpayee still enjoys a mass appeal and in the present circumstances, he alone can provide a stable government — something he has proved by successfully running a coalition government for six years. But if the NDA falls way short of the magic figure, then you'll either have a Congress government supported by the Third Front parties; or a Third Front government supported by the Congress. The latter's longevity will always be doubtful, because the Congress has a history of pulling down governments at the Centre. But in either case, one of these could be the Prime Minister:

Sonia Gandhi: The sphinx rises

If she pushes up the Congress tally, which has only gone down after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, it will be a major victory for her and she will have the moral right to stake claim. As for her foreign origin, the court has made it clear that she is an Indian citizen and her allies like Laloo Yadav also consider her to be an Indian. But she might face roadblocks from people like Sharad Pawar, who had quit the Congress only because of her foreign origin. But if she becomes the Prime Minister, she will not only make history but might also raise the hopes of Indians settled in Italy to someday step into the shoes of Silvio Berlusconi. And foreign correspondents, when they send their dispatches from Delhi, will begin their reports like this: “Italian-born Indian Prime Minister Sonia Gandhi on Monday said...”

Manmohan Singh: Backroom Boy

The shy, soft-spoken Sardar, who as the finance minister in the early 1990's sowed the seeds of economic reforms, could be a possible candidate if Sonia Gandhi is not unanimously accepted by the non-NDA parties. Singh says he is not interested, but you can't expect a man like him to say, “Yes, I want to be the Prime Minister.” As the finance minister he was hated by the Left parties but that was when the Left hadn't discovered that the BJP was the bigger enemy.

Somnath Chatterjee: Not Left out...

In May 1996, when Vajpayee's minority government was certain to fall, the newly-formed United Front decided to make the CPM leader Jyoti Basu, then the West Bengal chief minister, the Prime Minister. Bengali journalists stationed in Delhi rejoiced: they could have free access to the PMO. But their joy lasted only for a day. The CPM politburo decided against Basu taking up the job — a decision Basu later described as “historical blunder.” The CPM won't repeat the blunder and if the situation calls for its man to become the Prime Minister, then Somnath Chatterjee, a Lok Sahba veteran, could be the candidate. A good-natured man, Chatterjee gets along well with all political leaders and he could be the bridge between the Congress and the parties which are anti-BJP but not so anti-Congress, such as the Samajwadi Party. It was at his place about two years ago that Sonia Gandhi, over dinner, interacted with other Opposition leaders for the first time.

Mulayam Singh Yadav: Kingmaker/King

If the NDA falls short of majority, then Yadav is definitely going to be the kingmaker, if not the king himself. The Uttar Pradesh chief minister has worked hard this election and if he wins the 40 seats that he is expecting, his party could be the third-largest in the Lok Sabha and would be wooed by both the BJP and the Congress. When Vajpayee's government was pulled down by Jayalalithaa in April 1998, Sonia Gandhi could have become the Prime Minister but Yadav refused to support her because of her foreign origin. He has since toned down his stand on the foreign-origin issue but it remains to be seen whether he agrees to support a Congress-led government, or is adamant, like in 1998, on the Third Front forming a government with Congress support. And if the Third Front is installed at the Centre, then Yadav, as the leader of its largest constituent, could be the natural choice as the Prime Minister.

Laloo Prasad Yadav: The Shrewd Jester

“One day I will rule the nation, serve the nation,” roared Laloo, the shrewd politician who hides behind that buffoonery, on a TV channel last week. “But unlike them I am not in a hurry.” By “them” he meant the BJP, the party he hates the most. He hates the BJP so much that he is now the biggest ally of the Congress at the Centre -- the same Congress which he fought to establish himself as a politician. Laloo might not be in a hurry, but in the event of a hung Parliament, the non-NDA parties might be in a hurry to cobble up a coalition. And if egos prevent the emergence of a consensus candidate, then Laloo could spring out the compromise candidate. In that case, the most sought-after man in the PMO will be the man who carries his spittoon.

Sharad Pawar: The outsider

He became the chief minister of Maharashtra in 1978 at the age of 38 by splitting the Congress and toppling its government. Since then Pawar has made many such dramatic moves, the most recent being quitting the Congress over Sonia's foreign origin and forming the Nationalist Congress Party. At present, though, the Congress and the NCP are allies in Maharashtra and opinion polls show their alliance winning 20 of the 48 seats in the state. That might not leave Pawar with too many seats to bargain for the top job, but many non-NDA parties might prefer him over, say, Sonia or Mulayam. Pawar's logic is, if Deve Gowda can become the Prime Minister then why can't he? Yes, why can't he?

2004 Election Reporting: Voter Fatigue

May 5: There are two Indias, come to think of it.

One India produces Nobel Prize winners, but in the other India thieves make off with a Nobel Prize medal. One India produces Muslim cricketers who help their team beat Pakistan, but in the other India, Muslims are taunted for allegedly being sympathetic towards Pakistan. One India boasts of some of the best hospitals in this part of the world, but in the other India, a man wakes up after post-mortem has been done on him. One India is partying, wearing designer clothes, but in the other India, bare-bodied people are toiling to earn their bread. The list is fairly long.

So which India is going to elections - India no. 1, which is hot and happening, or India no. 2, where people remain poor and illiterate and deprived of basic amenities and divided by caste and religion?

Depends on who you ask.

If you ask Govinda, the hero of Bollywood superhits such as Hero No. 1 and Coolie No. 1, his answer would be India no. 1. And he won't be wrong. Otherwise, he and some two dozen other filmstars would not have traded the greasepaint for the grime that is Indian elections. The glamour value attached to this year's elections is so high that except for the celebrity fashion designers, almost everybody who graces society parties in Bombay and Delhi has joined one politicial party or the other.

How did the election process become glamorous? Maybe that’s because in the last one year or so, we've been hearing a lot of good news - the sensex touching the 6000-mark (whatever that might mean to the man on the street), foreign exchange reserves touching an all-time high, the economy growing at 10.4 percent and so on. Besides, most Western papers wrote lengthy features on the booming outsourcing and the information-technology industries.

Feel-good news like these gave credibility to the India-Shining campaign that was being run by the NDA government led by BJP on television channels and newspapers. That's why a smug BJP called for early elections, hoping to cash in on this feel-good mood. Once the elections were announced, the Opposition parties pressed their own spin doctors into action.

These days, the Congress party is running an ad on TV channels which shows a young man liberally ordering tea and snacks for his friends from a roadside stall. The stall owner asks the young man, “What is the matter, you look happy. Have you got a job or what? He replies: “Not yet, but I know I will get one soon. After all, the Congress is returning to power.” The ruling party, on the other hand, runs an ad which shows pre-1947 clips of the Congress leaders who fought for India's freedom and which ends with the line: “These people made sacrifices to drive foreigners out of the country. And now some people are trying to install a foreigner as the Prime Minister.” The reference is to the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress party.

The common man, meanwhile, is sitting back and watching the elections being fought out in television channels. He isn't interested one bit, as evident from the thin crowds that public meetings of politicians have been attracting. For example, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s rally in his home constituency, Lucknow, on April 5 drew sparse crowds. And Deputy Prime Minister L K Advani's month-long campaign, cutting through the length and breadth of the country, also drew mild response from the people. Similar campaigns by him in the past had helped the BJP storm to power.

Why are the people disinterested? One reason is election fatigue. True, elections are being held after five years, but the gap hasn't made up for the fact that this would be the third general elections in eight years.

Another reason is that the parties don't have anything to offer them except tired promises. The BJP is still clinging to its promise of constructing a grand Ram temple at Ayodhya - a promise that earlier won votes but now only puts off voters. (Even the shopkeepers of Ayodhya blame the BJP for ruining their business. Pilgrims have stopped coming to this temple town ever since it was turned into a garrison following the demolition of the 16th-century Babri mosque in 1992.) And of late the BJP has a new promise - that of a developed India by 2020. That’s too distant for the Indian voter. As a man in one of Advani’s meetings commented: “In that case we will vote for the BJP in 2019.”

The Congress, on the other hand, is a party that has ruled India for more than 40 years since 1947, so its promises don't really hold any credibility. On top of it, it doesn't have a leader who could be projected as the alternative Prime Minister. Maybe the party will wait for the children of Sonia Gandhi to gain enough political experience to run for the top job.

Still, people have to vote for someone or the other. Even here, TV channels are trying to do the job for them. One of the channels recently commissioned AC Nielsen to conduct a survey, which gave the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance a clear majority. It showed the NDA winning 287-307 of the 543 seats and the Congress and its allies winning only 143-163.

Now, if the actual results are drastically different than this, then you can be sure it was India no. 2 that went to the elections.

2004 Election Reporting: Kannauj

In Lohia land

April 27: What is common between Jaya Prada and the late Ram Manohar Lohia? It is likely that instead of answering that question, you'll ask another: Who exactly was Ram Manohar Lohia? Put that question to Jaya Prada and chances are you'll draw a blank, even though the actress today represents the ideology of Ram Manohar Lohia.

You can't really fault Jaya Prada. The Samajwadi Party -- or the Socialist Party -- she has joined belongs to Mulayam Singh Yadav and Amar Singh. It has nothing to do with Lohia -- the greatest socialist thinker the country has ever produced -- even though its leaders claim to be hardcore Lohiawaadis (followers of Lohia's ideals).

Mulayam Singh's brand of socialist politics breathes on caste politics while his lieutenant Amar Singh's brand of socialism thrives of society parties in Delhi and Mumbai. These days Amar Singh has taken a break from these parties and is busy addressing the final round of election meetings across Uttar Pradesh. And the posters advertising these meetings don't forget to prefix the word “Thakur” before his name.

The real Ram Manohar Lohia is preserved in the memory of Keshav Lal Gupta, a shopkeeper in Kannauj. Gupta is ten years older than Independent India and he remembers all the elections since 1952. But the one he remembers fondly is the 1967 elections -- that's when Lohia stood from Kannauj and won a Lok Sabha seat for the first time. (Lohia died the same year).

“He was such a big leader but so simple. He dressed simply and went around talking to people like you are talking to me. You didn't have four security guards following a politician then,” says Gupta. After Lohia, the leader Gupta admires is Atal Behari Vajpayee. “You can't find a better Prime Minister than him. Tell me, can you?”

Now Kannauj is a place which really looks frozen in time, cut off from the rest of the world -- that is if you discount the Coke ads. If you are making a film on a 12th-century Hindu king and want to show a town square, you can shoot in Kannauj instead of creating an expensive set. So it looks a bit out of place to watch Gupta lighting his bidi and rattle off the achievements of Vajpayee instead of whining about local problems. ”All these years America never cared for us, but now they want to be friends with India,” he says.

Today Gupta has the choice of either voting for Vajpayee's candidate, Ramanand Yadav of the BJP, or Akhilesh Yadav, the 30-year-old son of Mulayam singh Yadav, the follower of Lohia. Gupta spells out his preference by pointing to the flag on top his shop -- it is the BJP flag. But it is one of the few you find in Kannauj, which is awash with flags and posters of the Samajwadi Party. From each of them, the young, innocent face of Akhilesh looks out at you. (Mulayam Singh, during his first tenure as the chief minister in 1989, was zealously promoting Hindi. His men were putting symbolic locks in English-medium schools and he himself made it a point to write his official correspondence, even to his counterparts in non Hindi-speaking states, in Hindi. He was eventually snubbed by the then Kerala chief minister, E K Nayanar. But all this while, Akhilesh was studying in Australia).

Akhilesh also happens to be the sitting MP from Kannauj. His victory in 1999 is being attributed to the fact that during those elections, there was no BJP candidate in the fray. The BJP, as part of its electoral understanding with the Loktantrik Congress Party -- a breakaway group of the Congress led by the Naresh Agarwal who was dumped by the BJP soon after -- had left the seat for the LCP. Angry BJP supporters had voted for Akhilesh.

The present BJP candidate, since he too is a Yadav, is expected to give a tough fight to Akhilesh. And since this is his first election, he has a clean slate unlike Akhilesh, who is being charged with not doing enough for Kannauj is the last five years. “There are villages where there is no electricty, so people are angry,” says Rvanidra Shukla, a tempo driver. And there are some people who are angry for other reasonhs. Mayawati, when she was the chief minister, had taken out a chunk of Etawah (Mulayam Singh Yadav's home constituency), clubbed parts of Kannauj to it and made it a separate district. But Yadav, when he became the chief minister, cancelled her decision.

But Akhilesh's youth seems to be working in his favour. “People studying in degree colleges will vote for him,” says Jyoti Sharma, a BA student. Agrees her friend Nisha, “He represents the youth.” She pronounces the word with a typical UP accent: Yooth. They are both sitting in a tonga -- horse-driven carriage -- one of the means of getting around in Kannauj.

Moreover, dad Mulayam, as the chief minister, is doing whatever he can to help his son win. Kannauj, which doesn't betray its status in the world as one of the biggest producers of itr, or indigenous perfume, is about two hours drive from Kanpur (the nearest city). You know you've hit Kannauj when you run into sunflower fields. There are miles and miles of them and springing from between them, at regular intervals, are hoardings that carry Mulayam Singh or Akhilesh's picture and say, “Uttar Pradesh. Baney Uttam Pradesh.” (Let's make Uttar Pradesh the best state). The same message is conveyed by Amitabh Bachchan in cinema halls just before the movie begins -- and the movie usually is a soft-porn one such as Garden of Eden -- or by a recorded female voice, sympathetic to the Samajwadi Party, which keeps on playing in shops .

There are two more candidates in the fray worth mentioning -- Vinay Shukla of the Congress and Rajesh Singh of the Bahujan Samaj Party, but the locals insist that the fight is between the Samajwadi Party and the BJP. The Congress ceased to matter in Kannauj in 1989, after which the socliasts and the BJP took turns in representing the seat. The last big Congress leader who won from here was in 1984 -- Sheila Dikshit, who is now pursuing a successful political career as the chief minister of Delhi.

Perhaps the only place in Kannauj unaffected by the election fever, untouched by the flags, in the centuries-old Gowri Shankar temple. The temple has a permanent, stationary flag -- made of gold. It's Monday and tractor loads of devotees -- turbanned men and veiled women shyly sucking at ice candies -- has descended from neighbouring villages to worship Lord Shiva.

There's a plaque in the temple compound which informs that somewhere around that spot, in 637 AD, the great king Harshavardhana had called an all-religion meeting in the presence of the Chinese traveller Huen Tsang. Kannauj was the capital of Harshavardhana. Today, the elections in the same Kannauj is a matter of prestige for someone who claims to be the modern-day champion of secularism in Uttar Pradesh -- Mulayam Singh Yadav.

2004 Election Reporting: Rampur

Jaya Prada live

April 23: Fifty-fifty. That's how R K Khandelwal, a hotelier in Rampur, rates the chances of Jaya Prada winning the elections.

This should make the actress happy, considering that the rating comes from a 70-something man who must have stopped watching Hindi films after the departure of Madhubala and Nargis and who, above, all, thinks women don't make good politicians.

But at the moment Jaya Prada does not need a Khandelwal to make her happy. She has entire the Rampur descending on the streets under the afternoon sun to watch her travel in an open jeep to file her nomination as the Samajwadi Party candidate for the May 10 Lok Sabha election. The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of party workers who follow her shout slogans, beat the drums and burst crackers.

Khandelwal remains seated on his desk at the reception (he doesn't seem to trust anyone else doing the job) while his staff -- the waiters, the roomboys, etc. -- gather outside the hotel to watch Jaya Prada's procession pass by. The actress, whose beauty was once praised by none other than Satyajit Ray, is clearly aware that Muslims form nearly 60 percent of Rampur's population. So she wears a green embroidered salwar kameez and a matching dupatta to cover her head (she has her head covered whenever she appears in public here). She is also wearing sunglasses so you can't make eye contact with her, but there she is, waving at you.

Standing next to her in the jeep is Mohammad Azam Khan -- the man to who people like Khandelwal attribute her fair chances of victory. Khan hails from Rampur and is the urban development minister in Mulayam Singh Yadav's government, and a powerful minister at that. Before the procession took off, Khan told Samajwadi Party workers: “(The Rampur election) is a question of my political life and death. So make sure Jaya Prada wins.”

“If Jaya Prada wins, it will be only because of Azam Khan,” says Khandelwal. If she wins, that is. The more you travel around Rampur, the more you talk to people there, you realise even the other candidates have 50-50 chances of winning.

The most visible among them is Begum Noor Bano, the sitting Congress MP and a member of the erstwhile Nawab family that once ruled Rampur. And unlike Jaya Prada, the Begum doesn't have to dress up as an elegant Muslim woman -- she is as elegant as aristocracy can make you, but that could be her drawback as well.

“Unlike Jaya Prada, she doesn't hug a village woman or pat the cheek of a child. After all she is a Begum and she has to keep a distance. But that could make all the difference,” says Jai Prakash Sharma, a roadways employee.

And the actress is promising voters that she will settle down in Rampur if she wins. Not a bad idea, come to think of it. She won't find so much of open space and greenery anywhere else in the country -- not at least in Mumbai, where she owns a rs 48-lakh apartment, not even in Hyderabad, where she owns a Rs 92-lakh house and a Rs 35 lakh worth plot, or in Chennai, where her husband Srikant Nahata owns a Rs 35-lakh house in T Nagar and where she herself own commercial properties worth crores. In all she is worth nearly Rs 9 crore -- according to the affidavit submitted by her while filing the nomination.

But locals doubt if she will really settle down. The Begum, on the other hand, might be aloof but she belongs to the local ruling family -- something the typical Indian voter always idenitifies with. Also, she has been an MP twice -- in 1996 and 1999. And her husband, the late Nawab Zulfiquar Ali Khan, had been a long-serving MP from Rampur.

The biggest charge against her is that she has not done anything for her constituency in the last five years, but many locals are not against giving her another chance. “After all she is going to stay in Rampur. We can always approach her,” says Suraj Singh, who runs a phone booth in Rampur's Civil Lines area.

The two women are banking primarliy on the Muslims voters -- constituting nearly 60 percent of the 13 lakh electorate. And that's where the problem is: the Muslim vote is bound to be divided. On the other hand their two main rivals, Rajendra Kumar Sharma of the BJP and Afroze Ali Khan of the Bahujan Samaj Party, do not have such problems.

Sharma, who defeated Noor Bano's husband in 1991, is assured of the Hindu votes, consisting mainly of influential Punjabi traders. Afroze, on the other hand, is assured of the Hindu dalit votes -- amounting to nearly two lakh. On top of it, if Afroze manages to win some of the Muslim votes, he could be the winner. On the contrary, however, if the Muslim and some of the dalit votes gets split between Jaya Prada, Noor Bano and Afroze, the BJP man could be the winner. So it's a tricky situation for each of the candidates.

But Mulayam Singh's administration is clearly trying its best to see the actress sail through. A couple of theatres in Rampur are re-running old films of Jaya Prada -- tear-inducing films such as Maa. And last Wednesday, when her procession reached the collectorate for the filing of her nomination, the state police had no problems with the huge Samajwadi Party crowd gathering at the collectorate. But on the same day, when the BJP candidate filed his nomination, the police chased out his supporters from the collectorate compound.

Jaya Prada's presence, however, has breathed some life into this quiet town in Northwestern Uttar Pradesh where the main occupation of the people is agriculture. There used to be a textile factory and a sugar factory once upon a time, but they have closed down. Today Rampur is known for its distilleries and wood-carving and embroidery workshops.

More than anything else, the South Indian actress has made Rampur famous -- famous even across the borders of Uttar Pradesh. Till the other day, Rampur was just a dot on the map, located quite close to Nepal -- a dot they generally ignored because nobody ever went there except for, say, a wedding in the family.

But there was a time when Rampur was famous, especially among the British rulers. “In April 1905, His Excellency Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy, visited Rampur. During his two days stay Lord Curzon visited several of the public institutions and offices of the state and expressed himself well satisfied with all he saw,” says the Rampur State Gazetteer. Many of these insititutions, at least their splendid buildings, exist even today, including the 225-year-old Oriental University and the 100-year-old Raza Library.

The Nawabs -- the descendants of the Rohillas of Afghanistan -- were so faithful to the British that they opposed the 1857 mutiny and saved the life of the British soldiers and their families in their state. For this gesture, Queen Victoria decorated Yusuf Ali Khan, the then Nawab, with the title of the Knight Commander of the Most Eminent Order of the Star of India.

There is much more of Rampur's history hidden in the palatial Raza Library. None of the candidates has talked about, say, setting up a museum to tell the world that better things happened in Rampur other than knife-making (Rampuri chaku, or knife, is legendary). But then, Indians politicians are not known to save history: they only exploit it.

2004 Election Reporting: Allahabad

Joshi faces the heat

April 16: Those pirates struck in the high seas, these pirates strike in the river, rather the confluence of the two great rivers of India which makes Allahabad famous. They glide their boats alongside yours and even before you realise, you've been persuaded into performing a boat-to-boat puja for the well-being of your near and dear ones.

Since all this happens in the middle of the river, you can't even walk out. All you can do is console yourself watching other would-be victims getting rowed into the trap of the priests and the pandas -- as the middlemen between God and mortals are called -- who throng the river.

Still, thousands gather everyday at Sangam, as locals call the confluence of the three rivers -- the third river being the underground spring Saraswati, which is supposed to have dried up. When and how, nobody knows. Murali Manohar Joshi, soon after he became the human resource development minister in 1998, commissioned a project to explore if the river existed.

One does not know what came out of the project. Perhaps nothing, or else that would have been mentioned prominently in the long list of Joshi's achievements that is being circulated in Allahabad these days.

Topping the list is the construction of a bridge across the Yamuna that will take the loads off the existing bridge that was built in 1927. The bridge, built by Hyundai with money given by a Japanese bank, is almost ready. Other prominent achievements include the setting up of the Indian Insititute of Information Technology (called Triple I-T by locals) at Allahabad and the institution of a space chair at the Allahabad University. Besides, there are dozens and dozens of other achievements -- a swimming pool here and a park there, a road here and a drain there and so on. Not to mention what he claims to have done for the Muslims -- modernising the madrasas, promotion of Urdu, etc.

“He has done so much for the city,” says Vipin Gupta, the BJP activist who gave me the list of Joshi's achievements, “and you must not forget that Allahabad is a city of intellectuals, and Dr Joshi (who taught physics in the Allahabad University) is the only intellectual in the fray. So even if they don't like the BJP, they will vote for him.”

But Joshi, who has won Allahabad thrice since 1996, himself doesn't seem to share Gupta's confidence. Or else he wouldn't have spent this entire week in Allahabad, campaigning especially in the rural and Muslim areas. Last Tuesday he visited a village of Patels -- a backward caste in Uttar Pradesh -- and sought to win them over by comparing them to Vallabhbhai Patel, who belonged to Gujarat where Patels belong to the upper caste.

The mild state of panic that Joshi is in at the moment is best explained by a local journalist -- we will call him Ramji Shukla -- who has been associated with Joshi in some manner or the other. “It's like this,” says Shukla, “Dr Joshi has been winning mainly because of his support in the urban areas, where the main voters are Brahmins, Kayasthas and Bengalis. They are sophisticated voters, who don't vote for the typical rustic Indian politician -- the kinds you find in the Samajwadi Party or the BSP. But this time Mulayam Singh Yadav had planned to field Jaya Bachchan, and that's what gave Dr Joshi a scare. She would have easily picked up the Kayastha (Amitabh Bachchan is a kayastha) and the Bengali votes, besides the regular Samajwadi Party votes. That's why Dr Joshi has been coming to Allahabad so often in the last six months.” Forunately, for the HRD minister, Mrs Bachchan refused to contest.

Joshi got another scare when Rita Bahuguna, who lost against him in 1999, suggested that Priyanka Gandhi stand from Allahabad. Locals -- from journalists to rickshaw-wallahs to paan-wallahs -- insist that had Priyanka contested, Joshi would have lost without doubt.

Still, things aren't going to be easy for Joshi. His primary opponent is Samajwadi Party's Reoti Raman Singh, who is the transport minister in Mulayam Singh's government. Singh has been the MLA from Karchana -- an Assembly segment of Allahabad -- for eight terms now and has a strong grip on the rural votes. Joshi's other opponent is Satyaprakash Malaviya, the veteran socialist-turned-Congressman. A Brahmin, he expected to bite into some of Joshi's votes, besides winning back the old Congress voters who see the party rejuvenating with the entry of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi.

Joshi has to consider two more things. One, the percentage of votes polled by him has dropped consistently -- from 42.7 percent in 1996 to 33 percent in 1999. Two, if you translate the 2002 Assembly election results in Allahabad into Lok Sabha results, then the Samajwadi Party wins hands down.

For the situation that Joshi is in today -- unlike Atal Behari Vajpayee in Lucknow and L K Advani in Gandhinagar -- he himself is to blame. He has always been seen as arrogant and unapproachable. He is also seen, by some, as an outsider -- he hails from Almora in Uttaranchal. Last Wednesday, Ravi Bhushan Wadhawan, a former mayor of Allahabad and one-time associate of Joshi, called a news conference to say that the contest in the city was “Allahabad Vs Almora.”

The Yamuna bridge, Wadhawan claimed, was cleared by V P Singh when he was the MP, and that Allahabadis did not benefit from the IIIT. Only people from Almora were getting jobs there, he said, adding that during Joshi's tenure, most of the industries of Allahabad, like the Indian Telephone Industries, BPCL, HCL, etc. had only closed down.

In any case, there is an interesting contest on cards, even though people of Allahabad have witnessed far more interesting fights in the past. This is a high-profile contituency, after all. It gave the country its first two Prime Ministers (Nehru contested from Phulpur in 1952 when Allahabad was part of the constituency. After that Allahabad became a separate seat and Lal Bahadur Shastri won from there in 1957 and 1962). In 1984, Amitabh Bachchan defeated political heavyweight, the former chief minister H N Bahuguna. And in June 1988, all eyes were on Allahabad when V P Singh, the new national hero, defeated Shastri's son Sunil. Locals remember Singh campaigning on motorcycles.

But when you ask people who will win the 2004 elections, they say without a thought, “Dr Joshi”, just like they say “Atal Behari Vajpayee” when you ask who the next Prime Minister will be. Maybe because the Opposition candidates aren't high-profile enough. Who will eventually win you will know only on May 13, but if Joshi wins, it would be a hard-earned victory this time. For he is doing what he really hasn't done in the past -- going out in the heat and dust and meeting people.