Archive for the ‘DIARIES’ Category

Rama, Reforms and India

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

Mint, 14 September 2012

Having been a journalist for two decades, it’s quite natural that I never do anything until I can feel the anxious warm breath of my editor on my shoulder. This was the one week when I found that I would be very busy, so it made sense to write the Mint column ahead of time and keep it ready in advance. Also, there was much to write about. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had indulged in a frenzied 24-hour burst of “reformist” activity. So, I wrote my piece on Monday, three days ahead of schedule, and went about my business.
Famous last words. I’m never now going to start writing till five minutes before deadline.
These “reforms”, first. (And when will we stop using that weighty term for mere policy announcements? Surely “reforms” convey something more basic and far-reaching?) P. Chidambaram, returning to the finance ministry, had sent out just the right messages. Investors—both Indian and foreign—were calming down. The stock markets, which have always been fond of the sultan of the suave veshti, were rising. The express train—whose headlight had been the light at the end of the tunnel—was appearing to slow down. And then even Kumbhakarna seemed to open his eyes and raise his head a bit from the pillow.
In the Ramayana, Ravana’s giant brother was considered pious, intelligent and brave (hmmm, does that remind you of someone?). He performed a major yajna for Lord Brahma, who was pleased and dropped by, with the usual bagful of boons. But when Kumbhakarna tried to ask the Mr Big for indraasana (the seat of Indra, the king of the gods), the goddess Saraswati sneakily tied up his tongue, and it came out as nidraasana, a bed to sleep in. When he tried to ask for nirdevatvam (annihilation of the gods—the Devas), it came out as nidravatvam (sleep). Mr Big granted his requests and teleported back home. However, brother Ravana figured out that the boon had actually turned into a curse and convinced Brahma to take a re-look. So Kumbhakarna slept for six months of a year and was awake for the remaining six.
Readers can find their own metaphors in this tale—who Brahma could be in the UPA, who Ravana could be, and so on.
It should also be noted that, just as Kumbhakarna was woken up when external forces—led by Ram—attacked Lanka, these “reforms” have happened more due to the threat of global credit rating agencies downgrading India to junk status, than any other reason. So it’s the foreign menace—Ram in the form of suspicious rating agencies and increasingly disinterested foreign investors (and—should we say it?—damaging reports in foreign media like Time and The Washington Post) that has forced the government to act. The people of Lanka had shouted themselves hoarse, but that had hardly disturbed Kumbhakarna’s slumber.
And now comes Mamata Banerjee. This is a politician who knows nothing other than to oppose. Who she’s opposing doesn’t matter—the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the National Democratic Alliance, the UPA, some poor cartoonist; the reasons don’t matter. In fact, the word “reason” should be uttered cautiously around her. Her career has been built on destructive politics—much of it obtuse and negative. It’s no wonder that she has made a total mess of governing West Bengal once she came to power. She represented “change”, and the people of Bengal have been left wondering if it was a change for the better.
The Union government will not fall. Instead, Banerjee, whose state government is completely dependent on Central funds, will preside over her state, using the Centre vs state logic, which the Left Front under Jyoti Basu used so cynically and effectively in the 1980s to keep West Bengal’s economy deprived, and its people focused on a bogey. Meanwhile, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who urged her up the ladder and coolly walked away once before, on the Presidential candidate issue, will gleefully carve out his pound of flesh for the Samajwadi Party and Uttar Pradesh. Isolation will make Banerjee more furious and defiant, give her more of a martyr complex, and every nook and cranny of West Bengal will be blasting ceaseless Rabindra sangeet from street corner megaphones. Ekla chalo re, one can safely predict, will be in the Top 10.
In the Ramayana, waking up Kumbhakarna before his sleep time was up had been a monumental task. A thousand trumpeting elephants had to be paraded on his tummy before the giant muttered the Lankan equivalent of “Eh, whazza time?” In India 2012, however, it seems quite certain that the elephants will be called off and Kumbhakarna will turn over and go back to sleep. It’s frightening to see how every political party is trying to outdo each other in paying brazenly disingenuous lip service to the “interests of the poor”. No party—including a large section of the Congress—gives two hoots for either a long-term perspective or the national economy. “The government can roll back a bit on diesel price and LPG cylinders, but they can hardly roll back the FDI in multi-brand retail,” I earnestly told a friend who firmly believes that the entire Indian political scenario is a big joke. (Please read his blog at “Why can’t they?” he asked. “What face will they have left?” I said. “What face do they have now?” he responded, raising one eyebrow.
I retreated in confusion, and have just placed an order for M. Veerappa Moily’s 1,700-page exploration of the Ramayana.

Calcutta Diary

Monday, December 20th, 2004

Dec 20, 2004

Eden Rhapsody

On the third day of the 1,724th Test match ever played, the crowds stream into Eden Gardens with hope in their hearts. Sehwag is on 82, Dravid on 33; Sachin, Saurav and Laxman are next in queue on what seems to be a good batting track. Surely there will be some fireworks?

Sadly, it is not to be. Sehwag hits a huge six and departs immediately after. But India has nearly 150 on the board with only two wickets gone; perfect situation for Sachin to let loose. Instead, he decides to put his nose to the grindstone. After his long lay-off, there is clearly tremendous pressure on him to perform and he has responded by batting in the dourest possible manner. But Sachin playing only with his head and no heart, only copybook cricket and no flamboyant passion is cricket’s loss. And not even, perhaps, the right strategy for him. At Calcutta, he scores 20 off 54 balls, before being bowled. I am sure millions of cricket lovers across the world are hoping their hero will just be his natural self, the man born to rule over bowlers.

After having been bored silly for three days, not too many venture towards the ground the next morning. But that changes as soon as the first South African wicket falls. Word goes round the city that Harbhajan and Kumble are going to rip through the batting. By tea, about 60,000 people have gathered in the stands, and the roar is a thunderous echoing constant. The crowd has become a single gigantic—and very loud—mind willing the Indians forward, forcing the opposition to make mistakes. When the fifth wicket falls (Dippenar), a Mexican wave goes round and round and round, a mesmerising and never-ending circle of pure passion. There is no more electrifying place to be than Eden Gardens when India scents victory.

Cabbie Code

While much has improved in Calcutta—flyovers, new shopping malls, the riverside makeover, traffic remains terrifying. There are hardly any undented cars in the city, and all taxi drivers drive with the simple assumption that the man in the car coming at him head-on is less insane than himself. Every taxi ride is serious panic-attack time. In two days, my cab was hit twice by other cars. When that happens, the drivers simply stick their necks out of the windows, abuse each other and drive on. They don’t even get down to check the damage. In only one other city in the world have I been so scared sitting in cars—Kabul.

Telly My Future

When in Calcutta, I keep myself amused by watching astrology channels, packed with soothsayers—from bloodshot-eyed tantriks to sleek laptop-toters—answering phone-in questions. Sample 1. Young man on phone, after giving his date of birth: “Sir, I have a girlfriend. Can you tell me about her character?” Tantrik: “She’s very sentimental, no?” Young man: “Yes, sir.” Tantrik: “You won’t be able to handle her. Forget her.” Young man: “OK, sir, thank you, sir.” Disconnects. Gushing compere: “Guruji, you could divine his girlfriend’s character from his birth date?!” Tantrik (eyeballs rolled upwards): “It’s all Maa Kali’s blessings! Maa! Maa!” Sample 2. Man on phone: “My business isn’t doing well.” Astro-palmist: “How can it do well when you have such a bad temper?” Man: “But everyone tells me that I am too meek to be in business.” Astro-palmist: “Don’t argue! It says here in your chart that you have a very bad temper.” Man: “But I can’t even admonish my staff when they don’t listen to me!” Astro-palmist: “Please don’t waste my time with your lies. Anyway, business is going to be bad for two more years. Next caller please.”

Oops, Rahul!

Rahul Dravid is agitated, an extremely rare state for him. He has the Outlook 75 Years of Indian Cricket open on the table at page 85, where there’s a picture of him leaning against an S-class Mercedes convertible. Says the caption: “He came into the cute sweepstakes pretty early, but the Wall walled off most of it. All the other super-rich trappings are in place though.” “The car belongs to a friend of mine!” says Dravid. “I am not the type who drives a Mercedes, I don’t want or flaunt ‘super-rich trappings’! I’m deeply disturbed by this totally wrong impression of me that Outlook is giving its readers! I am—hey, wait a minute! Sandipan, you work for Outlook, right?” “Right.” “Oops!” No, Rahul, no oops. We see your point and you are correct. Thanks for the great time we had in Jeet and Malavika’s home that night. And sorry about the picture.

Till Princedom Come

Prince of Calcutta he may not technically be, but Saurav Ganguly reigns over the city. And the man knows it. When he comes out for net practice, the spectators cheer like demons. So he gives himself a bit more time to soak in the adulation. Doesn’t walk straight to the nets, but strolls along the stands with the crowd yelling “Dada! Dada!” and then turns away from the fans to go to the net area.

When, with Sachin out, Ganguly strides out to bat, he is cheered wildly all the way to the crease and every shot of his meets with a roar that other crowds reserve for when a visiting side’s tenth wicket falls. And then the unthinkable happens. Dada is judged lbw on 40. The crowd is deathly silent. But as he nears the pavilion, the stadium gets to its feet and applauds him in. TV replays show that Ganguly was actually not out. The headline of the main match report the next day in a Bengali newspaper is Calcutta plainspeak: “Once more, Saurav is umpire’s fodder”. In the 13 innings he has played before the people who love him the most, Ganguly has only one score above 50.