Thursday, July 27, 2017

Get, set for the past

On a simplistic level, Sita — Warrior of Mithila — is a reinterpretation of the consort of Lord Ram, giving her character more heft. However, the subtext is deeply political. Not the petty, narrow political wheeling-dealing, but debating the ills that we grapple with, offering us the egalitarian point of view which was the hallmark of our ancient past.

‘Imbalance’ is the core of Amish’s second book in the Ram Chandra Series. And, to address and correct the ‘imbalance’ are the two protagonists and also Vishnu-in-partnership, Ram and Sita. This version tells Sita’s story beginning from the apaharan and then going back to her birth and gurukul, discussions with Guru Vishwamitra, and her skill of archery and wielding the lathi. The warrior in the title is clearly justified and challenges the popular image of Sita as a meek and submissive woman.

In the book, it says that most of our history is oral. And, it is so because it can be changed to suit the changing circumstances of society. So we ask Amish, in which stage of history was Sita’s popular image conceived?

“In the original Valmiki version, Sita is not a warrior. But she is a very strong character. She is very clear about what she wants, she is very clear about what dharma is and will fight for it. The ancient versions of Puranas and the epics tell us that there was equality between men and women. The versions that were written in the late medieval period and onwards painted a less equal relationship. I think that happened because when a society suffers from a lot of violence, it tends to become patriarchal. And, India has faced a lot of violence for the last few centuries,” explains Amish.

He goes on to add that societies become patriarchal because women can compete with men in almost every area, except in the area of violence. “That is because they don’t have too much of testosterone and their bodies are smaller. So they find it difficult. The Arab world today is patriarchal. But 1,200-1,300 years ago, they were actually quite equal.

The Arab world suffered a lot of horrific invasions. Turks and Mongols who destroyed us, went and destroyed them. The Arabs haven’t had independence for more than 700 years and since there was a lot of violence, they have become more patriarchal. We have been a peaceful society for the last 70 years, so it’s time we revived our ancient, more equal society,” he adds.

Equality and meritocracy, the recurring debate in our present socio-political system, finds voice in Sita. These are the issues which Amish is passionate about and so they are woven into his stories. Says he,

“The stories that I write may be set in an ancient era, but I write of things that I am passionate about. And, I am passionate about India. I love my country. To me, true love also means that you point out things which are wrong and have to be improved. We have to speak about the ills which ail our society. I don’t believe in the present caste-system hierarchy based on birth; that’s against our ancient culture. And, so is the inequality between man and woman and inequality between people who are born here. I believe that anyone who is born in the country and wishes to do something for its progress, is ours.”

That’s what the partnership of the two Vishnus — Ram and Sita — also hopes to achieve through their rule. So, who in the present day, can become those Vishnus and lead us on the right path of idealism and pragmatism?

Amish declines a straight answer saying that he has never worn his political beliefs on his sleeve. On being pressed, the authors of The Immortals of Meluha, says, “I never comment on politics and I don’t support any political party openly. But I comment on social issues and I am passionate about India. I believe that we are a lucky generation; it’s not very often that we see a country of this scale rising. We are a lucky generation that’s going to see it and even be a part of it. We will all make our contribution towards it. It’s a privilege.”

In ancient India with which Amish has an affinity, even if the countrymen had differences of opinion, they were welcome because the ultimate goal — the good of the country — mattered. “Accepting someone’s strengths and weakness is a nuanced approach. That’s the ancient Indian way. That’s how it should be now” he says.

This approach also reflects in the book and the way his characters are etched. Ravan, the third book in the Ramchandra Series is already being written. And, will try to show Ravan as a complete person — his intellect, his strength, warrior skills and his fallacies. “The biggest lesson that we can learn from Ravana is to keep our egos in control. In Shaivaite Purana too, a nuanced approach towards Ravana is seen. We can’t be simplistic and believe that Asuras are all dark skinned people with horns. That’s not how Asuras and Devas were described in the Puranas. Asuras were fair-skinned, while the Devas were dark-skinned too. Lord Shiva is touted to be a Dravidian God, but he is fair-skinned. Lord Ram and Lord Krishna are dark skinned. No one is completely black, or white,” Amish makes a point.

So in the next book, do we see him making the biggest revelation — that Sita is Ravan’s daughter? “No...No. There is a Malaysian version that says so. But at least I have not come across any Indian version that says ‘Sita is Ravan’s daughter’,” he clarifies.

But, Amish tells us, and everyone who has read the second book will know, that he has left clues for us to guess Sita’s identity and parentage. “Go through the text and think of Sanskrit roots of various names which hint at deer. What does Mrigasya mean?” Ponder over this readers and you will know if you cracked it when the book on Ravan is out in 2018!

Personal and Political

Omar Zafarullah’s A Hundred Journeys — Stories of My Fatherland is a sane commentary on Pakistan and consequently India too. Born in 1971, the watershed year in Pakistan’s political history, Zafarullah has written about his country, warts and all, for his children to understand where they come from.

A part memoir and part living manual, the book traces his family’s history, its migration from Ropar in Punjab, British India in 1910, to Gojra in the present-day Pakistan.

Zafarullah’s A Hundred Journeys, brought out by Rupa, is an ode to the author’s father and also recalls the indomitable spirit of his grandmother, Maaji, and the British India’s policies, which gave his family a chance to lift themselves out of poverty. Excerpts from an email chat...

Does the title A Hundred Journeys have any reference to Quran? And, why the ‘Stories of my Fatherland?’
The story traces the history of my father’s family; a major incentive for me was to explain better to my kids about my father whom they have never seen; I felt this was something they needed to know in order to complete their perception of who they are. This book is really an indirect ode to my father. Hence, Fatherland.

The title has nothing to do with the Quran. The book has nothing to do with it either. I travel a lot. There is also a chapter called a Hundred Journeys in the book. And there is a line in the book that ‘a hundred journeys began’ towards Gojra when news of my father’s death spread. That is its genesis.

It began as a working title. In the end, Rupa did not give me any time to think of something better and they thought it was fine — so that is that.

In the book, you have said that many of your friends and relatives don’t want to listen to the argument that Taliban is the cause of the nation’s woes. How do you think the book will be received in Pakistan?
Most people had decided that the woes in our country are the result of a grand Western plan to destabilise the world’s only Muslim nuclear power and the Taliban are only a small symptom of this larger disease. So, for most of my friends, the US is the cause of all our woes. I want to know what they will have to say on the book. I have not discussed it with them yet.

I have no idea how the book will be received in Pakistan. I am just as curious as you are about this. I have told my family to be prepared for any outcome. I touch upon some foundational issues which are ingrained in our patriotism. But these are artificial constructs which cannot sustain themselves against the forces of common sense; which will eventually prevail.

Pakistan is in flux. We are constantly trying to figure a way out of our morass. And we will find our way out. This book will be received well when we have figured this out. But that is the future. Today, will this book be received well or will it be disparaged as yet another Western ploy? I cannot tell.

Have your kids, Hyder and Maya, read the book? What’s their feedback?
Maya has read the first page and the dedication. She is seven. She wants me to tell her how my father died. Hyder is reading it now. He is 13. He says he has read about a third and he feels the quality of my writing is up to his standards; if I tried, I could be as good as Rick Riordan, he says. He has given me a small thumbs up for encouragement.

Since these subjects are discussed quite often in our home, I think he has a good idea where the book is going. I will ask him again after he finishes it.

Have you been to Ropar with Hyder and Maya to learn more about your roots?
Nope. I came to Chandigarh for the semi final of the 1996 World Cup of Cricket. My sister has been to Amritsar a few times, but travel to India has dried up in the past decade or so.

The book is about your family’s history in the changing landscape of Pakistan. But there are no pictures of the family or the city/country. Was that deliberate?
Yes it was, now that you mention it. It is quite perceptive of you to bring this out. No photos can quite capture the pictures in the mind; the light and the shadow of memories in the dark.

What is your dream for Pakistan? How do you want it to be for the kids to live in?
Safe. Equal. Free. Jazzy. Confident. Cool.

Would India be of any aid to Pakistan’s well-being?
Of course. Good question. We are fighting India’s fight on its Western borders; A buffer state keeping the insecurity of the Middle East and of Central Asia at bay. India can help Pakistan by ratcheting down its rhetoric; by working jointly on fixing Afghanistan; by affording our politicians the room to negotiate an honourable peace; by allowing democratic Pakistani voices to be heard in Indian cities; by playing Pakistani dramas and music on its media; by allowing more travel. The costs of these moves are small; the gains are manifold.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Emulate these heroes

The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and the US Consulate General, Mumbai, are organising Green Heroes Film Festival in Mumbai on Tuesday. This programme will recognise individuals and organisations who work relentlessly at grassroots level to protect the environment in their neighbourhood and communities.

As part of this effort, TERI identified Green Heroes in five cities in western India — Ahmedabad, Indore, Mumbai, Panjim and Pune — and enabled up-and-coming storytellers to make films on the initiatives of Green Heroes through workshops in each of these cities. The programme has resulted in 22 insightful, heart-warming short films on the heroes who are working in diverse fields such as forest and water conservation, composting, wildlife protection, waste management and clean energy.

Four of them are from Pune — Jeevit Nadi Foundation, Sunil and Priya Bhide, R Cube, Charity Store and Sharad Shinde from Mawal.

Three Green Heroes share their stories with us:

Cause of a river
A group of Punekars are working to ensure that the Mula-Mutha river and its eco-system thrives and the future generations be a part of it. For the first few years, Punekars, now formed into a group called Jeevit Nadi, spread awareness about the importance of saving our rivers from pollutants. In the following years, along with actual work there has been awareness too.

Shailaja Deshpande of Jeevit Nadi Foundation, says, “From last year, we are concentrating on awareness+action programmes. Our first programme is toxic-free lifestyle and promoting bio-degradable products. Various studies have shown that 70 per cent pollution of Mula-Mutha is domestic, while industrial waste amounts to 30 per cent. This tells us that individuals can rectify the mistake. So now we are meeting with corporates, visiting colleges. We are telling them that there are two bio-degradable products that they can use. One is toilet cleaners and another is floor cleaners. This will reduce the pollution and also reduce the load on Sewage Treatment Plans (STPs).”

The members are also promoting Mission Ground Water actively in Aundh, Pashan, Baner areas. Plus they are also networking with other organisations to drive this cause.

“The second awareness+action programme is building an app, which will tell people who are buying land, to know whether it falls under Blueline and Redline areas (areas which encroach on the river bed),” adds Deshpande.

Their third action plan is ‘adopt a stretch’. “If the river/ stream/ rivulet flows through your neighbourhood, people should come together to start a clean-up activity. We want people — individuals, corporates, Ganesh mandals and temple trusts — to take ownership of that particular stretch,” she explains.

The foundation also focuses on riparian vegetation. Riparian vegetation means the grass, bushes, shrubs, trees that grow alongside the river bank. “This vegetation is the association between ground and water. It recharges ground water and provides support to the river body,” adds Deshpande. Next, the members have also approached schools to include ‘river’ in their curriculum. “That means, the students can study the river and its eco-system. Make projects which will be a part of their science and environment subject. The students will thus be involved with their eco-system,” she points out.
(The film is called Jeevit Nadi)

The urban agriculturists
The outside temperature hovers between 40 and 42 degrees Centigrade. But inside the home of Priya Bhide, it’s 3-4 degrees cooler. It’s all due to the efforts of the Bhide family, who enjoy physical labour, and therefore do not have TV and AC installed in their home. Says Bhide, “We are urban agriculturists. More like waste managers. We collect dry leaves, vegetable waste, segregate them, create compost and use it for our plants on terrace. This is our main season of work — from November to May. Our neighbours send us some 20 gunny sacks filled with leaves and waste. We haul it up to our terrace. That’s our idea of enjoyment. We enjoy physical labour.”

Priya Bhide’s terrace garden is teeming with vegetables
The former physiotherapist, Bhide, currently, is involved in guiding people who want to set up similar gardening, composting or waste management projects.

“Many people in Bhandarkar Road and nearby areas are into urban agriculture. Then, there are people from other cities, who too want to change their lifestyles for the better and need tips. I make presentations, attend phone calls, reply to emails and also write for a Marathi daily on how to create your own green corner,” she adds.

Bhide has taken up waste management and gardening project on a bigger scale, but her advice to beginners is to take baby steps. “You feel reassured and satisfied only when you see results. And, that takes time,” says she.

Constantly innovating and following a green lifestyle, the Bhides use drained water for their terrace garden. “Every year, we hear and read stories of drought and water scarcity. We require a good amount of water for our terrace gardens. So we collect drained water from the bathroom, washbasins in a storage tank. We pull it up to the terrace via a pump, where it’s filtered and then used to water the plants. In this way, we use about 1000 litres of drained water for our garden,” explains Bhide.

She also points out that they haven’t faced any problems because of their large terrace garden — no mosquito menace, etc. “Only before monsoon, we ensure that the drains at home are not choked with leaves,” she adds.
(The film on Sunil and Priya Bhide is called Green Soil)

Don’t be a consumerist
A father, waiting to pick up his daughter from a birthday party, to kill time, enters a mall. A few minutes later, he walks out with a shopping bag, filled with items worth Rs 800. That man is architect Prashant Shah.

Someone who is always conscious about energy issue, Shah was stunned with his impulsive shopping. “I didn’t need half the stuff that I bought. That happens with most of us. Strategically placed eye-catching objects in a mall or store lure us and we end up buying them. We hoard stuff in our cupboards and wardrobes and then they are hauled up to the loft because of lack of space,” explains Shah.

That incident and two other connected episodes set Shah thinking. And, he started Rcube, a Charity Store, which believes in Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.

“I was once giving a lecture and quoted a principle of Jainism — Aparigraha — which means ‘less is more’. It means that what is in excess should be given away, shared, distributed. A lady in the audience asked, ‘Give it away where, to whom?’ That set me thinking. And, then when I was travelling in the UK, I came across many charity stores on high streets. The West is admirably ahead of us in ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’ philosophy,” he says.

Five years ago, Shah started Rcube in Mayur Colony. “People can donate clothes, books, toys, appliances in good condition. And, those who can’t afford actual goods, can buy them from this store at nominal price,” adds Shah.

His only wish is that more such stores open up in Pune, so that the gap between the haves and have-nots is bridged. To this effect, Shah sends a WhatsApp message every Saturday to his group. For instance, he says, how a t-shirt is manufactured. He provides a graphic of the assembly line — from where the cotton is produced to the end product. “There is so much of energy and cost involved. We can’t afford to turn a blind eye to this. Do you really need 40 pair of shoes? Or 50 pairs of shirts and trousers? Think about it,” he concludes.
(The film on Prashant Shah and Rcube is called Aparigriha)

‘She never flickered as a human being’

Photojournalist Raghu Rai’s camera trailed Mother Teresa for five decades. In his pictorial biography, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, you get to see the iconic images of the lady who was mother to all

The diminutive figure draped in a white saree with a blue border was a personification of compassion and love. She continues to be so even after her death. In his pictorial biography, Saint Teresa of Calcutta — A Celebration of Her Life & Legacy, (brought out by Aleph Book Company) photojournalist Raghu Rai captures the story of Mother Teresa and the work of Missionaries of Charity.

Rai’s camera was a witness to the daily and eventful happenings in the life of Mother and did its job faithfully, adhering to instructions of Mother — to respect the dignity of the poorest of the poor.

Divided into three sections — The Canonization of Mother Teresa, Her Life and Work and Her Legacy, the book also has an appendix with a chronology of events in Mother’s life.

The book, which is scattered with quotes of Mother, doesn’t have captions. Says Rai, “The book doesn’t give individual captions to the pictures because they are fairly self-explanatory. I also feel a successful picture doesn’t need any crutches, any words to explain itself.”

Excerpts from the conversation:
It was in 1970s that you first met Mother Teresa. Can you remember the moment?
In 1970, one of my editors at Statesman, Desmond Doig — a very prolific writer, designer, artist — rang me up in Delhi saying, “Raghu, I have met a great lady. And you have to come and photograph her.” I had a lot of respect for Desmond, his understanding, so I went to Calcutta and I met Mother Teresa in 1970.

The best part is that the Mother I met in 1970 and the Mother who left us in 1997 was the same ordinary, compassionate, loving mother. She never flickered as a human being. For me, her spiritual powers never dimmed.

How did you establish a connection with her? For someone who was so involved with her mission, did she find your camera intrusive?
Yes, she found my camera intrusive. Always. That was the only problem I had with her. After I had taken a few pictures, she would look at me and say, ‘Oh, I think you have taken enough pictures.’ How could I tell her that they were not enough?

When I turned up after a few months to take more photos, she would say, ‘You have come again. But we are in prayer’. So then I told her, ‘Mother, you have your way of praying. My way of praying is when I take pictures and capture the magic.’ She replied, ‘Oh dear, it’s nice. Do your work’.

You formed a lifelong association with her. Did that lead to exchange of confidences?
Mother was an open book and she did what she thought was necessary for the most ordinary, poorest of poor. But sometimes, she would wonder, ‘Oh my God! There is so much to do and I don’t have so much strength and resources to serve Him’. We never discussed personal lives.

What were your impressions of Calcutta as seen by the Mother?
In the book, there are several pages devoted to life in Calcutta — images of people sleeping in the open; one topless woman sitting in the middle of a street. The poverty was visible on footpath, on streets. These scenes disturbed her and inspired her to do what she did. Calcutta was the place which ignited her compassion and to do seva of the poorest of the poor. Toh yeh saari batein mein Mother ke saath jiya hua hun.

Abroad, people think of India as a land that has ailing and malnourished people, especially from the photographs that are showcased there. In your book, have you portrayed the ailing and suffering in a different light?
You know, people come with different sets of ideas and you can’t really challenge the understanding that they have of India. One thing which Mother told me in the beginning was: ‘Please remember one thing Raghu Rai, when you take pictures, the dignity and respect of the poorest of the poor has to be reflected in them. Unless you portray the sensitivity and care that we are giving them, in the images, you can’t shoot pictures when they are lying naked, filthy and painful’.

Have you gone back to Missionaries of Charity and seen the present-day work?
Before Mother was canonised, I was in Calcutta and I spent time visiting her Homes all over the city again. I was surprised to find that they were run more efficiently. Also, the presence of Mother was everywhere; in the sense that some portrait of Mother is looking down at you from the wall; there is her statue or bust. There were also some pictures that I had clicked.

I went to Old People’s Home in Kalighat and there was Mother. I went to Children’s Home — Shishu Bhavan and I see a statue of Mother, looking down at the babies. Then I went to Prem Dan where the leprosy patients are hosted. Her statue was there. I have photographed her Homes, showing her presence everywhere.

How many photographs went into the book? What sort of archival methods did you employ?
The book is about 150 pages and it has 130 photographs or so. I am not a very good archival person, but luckily, some of the important negatives were kept away, in safe place. So thanks to digital technology, we scanned and touched them, and they were then ready to print.

Did the newsworthy images go into the book?
No, it’s not really news images or journalistic images. But more humane photographs, that bring out the suffering of the ordinary people and the concern of the Mother and Missionaries of Charity for them.

When you heard about her demise, what thoughts crowded your mind?
When she passed away, in September 1997, it was pouring that day and the next day as well. But thousands of people stood in the queue to have her last darshan. Because she was Mother to all. Some people might say she was Christian and bringing more people into her faith, but the love and care she gave and the way she touched the hearts of everybody, it was quite touching to watch.

A toast to the coast

For someone who takes a long time in opening up, chatting up random people in the queue while boarding the ferry from Dabhol-Dhopave and then to Tawsal-Jaigad, surprisingly became easy. Away from prying, judgemental eyes, it seemed perfectly natural to lie down in the shade of a shut kirana shop or walk barefoot on the cool grass. Sitting on a blue tarpulin sheet under a makeshift bamboo roof, it was easier to understand a farm hand’s woes about the ‘winter’ in Konkan which spoils the fruit crop.

Two Health Departments workers wait for passengers with kids at Tavsal jetty

These impromptu halts, while doing a l00-km run on a daily basis for six days along the coastal Maharashtra, were postcards to myself; the images were familiar, but they were dipped in different hues. When you are working in a newsroom, you are inundated mostly with stats and a not-so-rosy picture of the world around you. This is not to say that what we saw during this trip from Alibaug to Goa was free of dark clouds. However, they mostly came with a silver lining.

The village kids show us their catch -- the crabs -- which they are going to sell at the market

The journey
While travelling to Dive Agar, to join the cyclists whom I was assisting on their ride, I boarded an MSRTC bus from Swargate. After a certain point, I chaffed at the bus’ slow speed, its frequent halts, until it struck me that it wasn’t easy driving the bus around the winding ghats with four-wheelers racing down from the opposite direction. Amongst my companions in the bus were students from Mangaon, Shrivardhan etc, who were studying in Pune. For them and all those village folk who had to visit Pune for work, the bus was their only link with the city.

Later, when I was following the cyclists in the back-up car, we spotted a few boats at a picturesque spot. I alighted from the car, to take a few pics. A lad came running (perhaps to join his friends). When I asked if I could click his photo, he was thrilled and although I couldn’t share it because it was clicked on an SLR camera, he was happy to see his image, exclaiming to his friends, “Aye! Maza photo aala bagh!”

He and his merry friends then decided to treat me and a friend with crabs. “Take a look!” they urged. The group of kids was going to sell the crabs at the market.

At the jetty, we met two women from the state health department. The jetty was their halt to administer polio drops to babies who were holidaying with their parents. At the arrival of each ferry, they would single out parents with babies, administer the drops to the tots, while cooing and consoling them. It was work and we don’t know if it was pleasure to them.

The experiences
On the way to Achara, while waiting for the cyclists to show up, I dozed off on the veranda of a shop, but was not completely oblivious to the happenings around. A group of school girls was cackling away at the bus stop, without bothering to discuss the ‘stranger’ in their midst. None of the two-wheeler commuters slowed down, no catcalls.

On waking up, my eyes fell on a blackboard announcing ‘Dashavtar’ festival, a traditional theatrical performance based on the Puranas which is one of the interesting features of Konkan. It was organised by autorickshaw owners of Munge village. Dish and Cable TV has its own charm, but getting together and watching a theatrical performance gets the entire village grooving. May be, I shall make time for it the next time I go visiting.

On the last leg of our journey, things could have gone haywire. That day, all the shops, restaurants were shut in Sindhudurg district. A meeting of the merchants was on in a neighbouring town and to show their solidarity, all the shop owners had downed their shutters. We managed to convince one ‘dada’ of Parule village to open his chai-nashta dukan and feed us hot Vadas, steaming cups of chai and Konkani Misal. He served this with a toothless grin and a 1 rupee coin stuffed in his left ear.

In Vengurle, another 60 km away, Ashok Vengurlekar offered to prepare maase thali (fish thali) for the cyclists who were due to reach in an hour or so. Vengurlekar also went out of his way to help this writer send an important email. The internet cafes there were shut, so the guy offered us his relative’s scooter and asked us to follow him to the tehsildar’s office. Unfortunately, there was network problem. Not giving up, the gentleman asked a printer friend of his to let us use his computer and send the mail.

It’s gestures like these that make India incredible and leave you with warm memories of the place made special by unselfish people.

One with the tribe

What makes a home? The people, of course. And also the surroundings. Can a house made of cement and concrete find itself in harmony with the greenery around in a forested area? Not really. Gone are the days when every region had its unique architecture, suiting the landscape and lending it an exclusivity. For instance, Konkan was known for its chiryachi ghara (red brick houses) and Marathwada for its dhabyachi ghara (flat-roofed houses). Now, these structures are few and far between. Cement and glass constructions have mushroomed both in rural and urban landscapes. We have gone wrong trying to bring in a ‘homogeneous’ look, and, more importantly, ignoring the region’s climatic conditions.

The house of a farmer at Palsunda village which won the Design Jatra team HUDCO prize
It was this which acted as a trigger point for architect Pratik Dhanmer when he returned to his village Murbad near Dahanu. “My village consists of 70 houses. In the past, we relied on traditional architecture — like using karvy (reed grass) and bamboo to build them. They grew in plenty in our region. However, in the new constructions, cement was being used. When I objected to it, a villager pointed out, ‘You have lived in a cement house in Mumbai for several years. You have consumed natural resources far more than us. Who are you to tell us where we should live or not?’ That hurt me. But it was also the truth,” explains Dhanmer.

He and his architect friend Shardul Patil, who also hailed from the same region, decided to renovate the latter’s home using traditional architecture. They are now in the process of building Dhanmer’s home using karvy and red bricks. “My old home was 100 per cent made of karvy. In the new construction, the walls and partitions are made of karvy and wood, while the columns are made of red bricks. The foundation is of mud,” he adds.

Dhanmer, Patil and their two friends Anuradha Wakde and Vinita Chiragiya form the core team of Design Jatra — an architectural firm, adhering to Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings. They are all students of Rachana Sansad’s Academy of Architecture, Mumbai.

Work ethics
Dhanmer cites Gandhi’s conversation with architect Laurie Baker on how we should ideally be using the material available within a five km radius of the construction site. “However, we are finding it difficult to construct houses using material within a five km radius. So we have extended it to 20-25 km radius. We are primarily a tribal village, so we want our construction to meet their needs. A tribal earns Rs 200 as daily wages. So how can he pay Rs 350 for a bag of cement? He then gets caught in a debt trap. Plus, cement curing requires a lot of water. We don’t have enough water resources, so the process of cement curing isn’t done properly. That results in poor quality construction and in a year or two, the houses collapse,” he adds.

Tribal life
Having observed the tribals closely in Jawahar and Palghar districts (near Mumbai), Dhanmer and his friends realised that their work shouldn’t disrupt their natural way of life. “The tribals have an organic way of living. They toil in the fields and live in homes made of mud, bricks and stones which are available in plenty. They live in close proximity to nature. So why burden them with extra funds?” he asks.

The Design Jatra: (from left) Shardul Patil, Anuradha Wakde, Vinita Chiragiya and Pratik Dhanmer
City-based architect, Mayukh Gosavi, who has also collaborated with Design Jatra in the past, says, “The walls of tribal homes are made of kud or karvy. The dried, long, slender reeds are woven into a mat, which becomes a wall panel. Over this panel a thin layer of mud and cow dung is applied. Cow dung stabilises the structure. In about two years, the wall partitions decay. Instead of wasting them, the tribals use them in the field, where it decomposes into manure. This manure is used in growing crop.”

The tribals are also fond of their animals and want to live in close proximity to them. And, unlike us urban dwellers, they are not comfortable with the idea of toilets at home. “I think their needs and beliefs have to reflect in the architecture. The Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (PMAY earlier known as Indira Awaas Yojana) didn’t take these realities into account,” adds Gosavi.

The Design Jatra team was appointed as sub-consultant to PMAY and they have also signed a contract with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to build low-cost houses within a limited budget. “PMAY offers Rs 1 lakh for the beneficiary — families living below poverty line. If we use modern technology, they get a 267 or 270 sq ft (approx) house. Most villagers are reluctant to live in small homes. Plus, many districts in Maharashtra are drought-prone. So cement construction is doomed from the beginning. A farmer in Palsunda village had approached us with his brief of building a small house, but not like the ones constructed under the government scheme. So we used mud, bricks from his old home, and brick and mortar locally available and constructed the house. Many of his neighbours too joined in, thus making it a community project,” explains Gosavi.
“The house,” adds Dhanmere, “gave us the second prize from HUDCO for designing low cost houses. That was a start we were looking for and now we have built six such 1,500 sq ft houses.”

The team members of Design Jatra, who call themselves ‘social architects’, have turned their attention to creating sustainable living. “We have realised that people are not averse to the old way of living. It’s just that the resources are dying, because of ignorance and lack of dependency on them. There is no good utilisation of wood, because forests are being cut down. So we formed two self-help groups in the village and have been encouraging villagers to turn to community farming, steering them away from using chemical fertilisers and eventually taking up forestation. This is our long-term plan,” says Dhanmer.

The group has also coordinated with Bharatiya Agro Industries Foundation (BAIF) and procured 50 native rice varieties to be grown by the villagers. They are also working on a native seed bank and motivating village women for backyard farming.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Border-line syndrome

The news of Indian soldiers mutilated by the Pakistani army has set off a fresh wave of protests among the countrymen. The daughter of Head Constable of Border Security Force, Prem Sagar, wants 50 Pakistanis to be beheaded as revenge for her father’s death. A long round of Pakistan bashing and war-hate will occupy the news space for a few days to come. In the midst of this, a few peaceniks, like Tehmina Dadyseth, will try to talk about people and humanism.

Before the hate mail for Tehmina starts, here’s a disclaimer. She is the heroine of Anuja Chauhan’s Baaz, a war romance, if one can categorise it. Daughter of a retired General, Tehmina aka Tinka, doesn’t support war. Her love interest, Ishaan Faujdaar (Shaanu), is a flying officer in the Indian Air Force. Quite like ‘maverick’ (Tom Cruise in Top Gun), he believes in his duty to the nation. Until his and Tinka’s views clash and, make us, the readers, squirm.

Unlike her other books, which too had an element of conflict in the plotline, Chauhan’s Baaz is different. It captures the spirit of what is happening now. Around us. The war hyperbole, nationalism and patriotism debate is in the book, with an insight into what the armed forces think about the conflicts across the border.

Set around the 1971 Indo-Pak war (Liberation of Bangladesh), Baaz makes you yearn for love and think of the world as one.

Excerpts from conversation with the author:
When did you actually write the book? It reminded us of Gurmehar Kaur controversy and the nationalism debate which is being discussed, dissented now.
I actually put fingers to keyboard in February 2016. And finished the first draft on November 30 of the same year. Then, there was some editing feedback and consultation with a military expert. So, yes, it happened before the whole Gurmehar blow-up, but I think those concerns have been very much a part of our national debate in the last couple of years. In fact, those issues are always relevant, aren’t they? Rabindranath Tagore believed that there is something higher than the concept of National Identity and that is Humanity.

Which side of the debate are you on?
I believe very strongly in speaking softly and carrying a big stick. The defence services are our big stick — it’s important that they be absolutely battle-ready at every moment — fit, trained, highly motivated, well-armed and well-provisioned. But it’s equally important that we deal with our neighbours with kindness and mutual respect.

Did the tone write out itself? Was it going to be a love story between Indian Air Office officer and a Pakistani girl?
No, there was never any Pakistani girl! This is a book about India and Indians — the soul-searching we all go through as citizens and soldiers. The central conflict, the thing that attracted me to this setting, was the differences between the ideologies of Tinka and Shaanu. She, who has seen the havoc war can wreak (her brother is a dead fauji) is essentially a pacifist and he, a boy from a small Haryana village, totally seduced by the sexy flying machines of his dreams and can’t wait to go to war.

And, how does it feel to be back with HarperCollins after a fling with Westland?
It feels great — I loved Westland too — they have two of my books (The Zoya Factor and The House that BJ built), and also all my titles in six Indian languages. The quest is always to find a wider audience, and that again, is what has bought me back to Harper at the moment.

Y this? Y that?

Radicalism. This one word is the core of Y — a new play co-written and co-directed by Shrirang Godbole and Vibhawari Deshpande. An Indo-German collaboration, in which Shrirang and Vibhawari worked with Lutz Hubner, Y takes a strong stand against radicalism and the extremist ideology that is being strongly felt around us.

This or That
Talking about the play, Vibhawari says, “It’s about a youngster who is contemplating the path of violence. He is standing at a crossroads and has to make a choice — this or that.”

“Through this play, we have tried to show the process of radicalisation — what is going on inside the boy’s head,” adds Shrirang.

The play, which premieres today, is a Maharashtra Cultural Centre’s production, and will be staged at Jyotsna Bhole Sabhagruha. The play has four versions, including the Marathi one. Says Shrirang, “The German production will be staged next year in September. The first one to be staged is in Marathi, followed by a Kannada version. In the near future, I will also bring out the English production.”

A universal issue
Y is a global play, dealing with global issues, but each version is rooted in the popular culture. “Germany, at present, is grappling with immigration issue and the ISIS crisis. In India, we have Kashmir issue, plus the silencing of our writers and intellectuals like Dr Narendra Dabholkar, M M Kalburgi. So the essence of all the versions is the same,” add the duo.
Shrirang goes on to add, “When Dabholkar and Kalburgi were killed, there was no en masse protest. There were a few groups which protested. I believe that if you remain silent, or do not express your opinion, when such incidents occur, it means that you are supporting them.”

Indo-German collaboration
The Indo-German collaboration started with Du and Me, a play for young adults. The same team — Shrirang, Vibhawari and Lutz — worked on the light-hearted play. “That’s when we realised that we sync really well in all aspects — creativity, values and principles of life are common. All four of us felt that this association cannot be only for one play. And, we started talking about the next collaborative project in September 2015, when we were in Berlin, with our shows. We met again in Bengaluru at Ranga Shankara for a show.

Surendranath of Ranga Shankara also expressed interest in working with Lutz. He said, ‘I have been working with these two playwrights, so why don’t you join this?’ Suri was happy to do that and he also hopped in. And, then this process started,” explains Vibhawari, quick to add that this is not a GRIPS play. “This play is in association with Stephan Fischer Fels of State Theatre, Dusseldorf,” says she.

The rise of right
A look at the global scenario tells us that the whole world is moving to ‘right radical’. “Violence and extremism is at its peak. And, there are so many global and local events that are denoting this fact. There is this urge to go right, to go to extremes, to go towards violence. The effort is to figure out why it is happening. Why we are doing this?” points out Vibhawari.

The play does not have any political or religious connotations. The message that the makers are trying to put across is that radicalism exists in our mind too. Says she, “In a casual manner, we make comments like ‘So and so people need to be killed. This is what they deserve’. We might not actually pick up a gun and shoot someone. But the thought itself is radical. We are on this path at some stage of our lives, and it’s time, we paused and thought about it.”

The treatment
Shrirang points out that, “Y is not an open-ended play. We make a strong statement denouncing terrorism, fanatacism and radicalism. As a person too, I don’t support terrorism — be it of any religious hue. The subject is grim and dark, but Y falls in the realm of dark humour. A play has to entertain, that’s what we believe. We are trying to break the regional and local nuances and make it global. As directors, we want people to go back thinking, ‘where do I stand on this path?”

‘Rights of women pertain to economic issues’

Journalist and author Annie Zaidi voices her concerns over triple talaq and the Uniform Civil Code

Annie Zaidi, noted for her works like Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, Love Stories # 1 to 14, makes it clear that the fight for the abolition of triple talaq has been led by Muslim women, before politicians jumped into the fray. She also tells us that the core issue is economic rights for women. Excerpts from an interview:

Women at the fore
“Triple talaq is NOT an issue raised by the Narendra Modi government. This is an issue that Muslim women’s organisations like Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Aandolan (BMMA) in Mumbai have been talking about for decades. It is a pity that the issue has been hijacked by right wing groups, especially by male politicians! After all, the fight was being led from within the community, by Muslim women. They would have prevailed, sooner or later. As early as November 2016, under pressure from within the community, the Muslim Personal Law Board had set up a women’s wing to look at the problem of triple talaq. It is just a matter of time,” says Zaidi.

Economic rights
She also opines that the rights of women are an economic issue across communities. “The real problem is that women are not paid wages if they work alongside their husbands or within the household. So if a marriage collapses, they have no money or house of their own. This is true for Hindu women too. The right to inherit property for Hindu daughters is a recent development. It took many decades of fighting orthodox and conservative elements within Hindu society,” explains Zaidi.

Uniform Civil Code and what it spells
According to her, the problem is not that the Modi government wants Uniform Civil Code (UCC). Says she, “They want Muslim marital laws to be the same as Hindu upper caste/ Brahmin laws. Even the laws governing Hindu marriages are actually not reflective of all traditions. After all, divorce was freely available and common among many tribal communities that broadly fall under the umbrella of ‘Hindu’. The British had to legislate and codify laws only because upper caste Hindu groups did not allow divorce, or widow remarriage, etc. Polygamy and polyandry, both are a part of Indian cultural history.”

Many Hindu families suffer needlessly if one spouse refuses to give a divorce, even if the marriage is effectively finished. Why is this something to aspire towards? “Muslim laws are much more sensible in this regard. If the marriage is over, finish it. Give it some thought, yes. Give it time, yes. But how long can you hold onto a partner against his will?” she asks.

Marriage and divorce are finally personal matters, and cannot be legislated beyond a point. What the state needs to do is to secure individual freedoms and offer greater safety nets for all citizens, regardless of religion or gender. And this includes the right to marry outside one’s religion, and to change one’s religious affiliation when one sees fit. Women need to know that they can walk away from bad marriages.

‘Islam gives many rights to women but most are ignorant of them’

Historian and author, Rana Safvi shares her views on the triple talaq imbroglio, and the social context in which it was allowed

Triple talaq often makes to the discussion table of the polity and society. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the Muslim community to not politicise the issue and a few ministers making uninformed statements, the debate doesn’t stay on the course. There is no real understanding of the rights of married Muslim women and what exactly the Islamic faith promises them.
To understand the subject a little more clearly, we chat up Delhi-based historian Rana Safvi, who has recently authored a book called Tales from the Quran and Hadith.

What is Hadith? And, what does it say about triple talaq?
Hadith is based on the spoken word of the Prophet and wasn’t documented till as many as a hundred years after his passing away and their authenticity depends on their chain of transmission. The Hadith of the Quran says that of all the lawful acts the most detestable to Allah is divorce.

There are two types of talaq prescribed in the Quran: The first has been named Talaq e Ihsan (most preferred) where the husband pronounces talaq and for the next three months he has no physical contact with his wife. This gives him time to think. And if after three months, he changes his mind, he can go back to her and their marriage is once again valid. The second, which has been named Talaq e Hasan (preferred), is one in which the husband pronounces the word ‘talaq’ over a period of three months and in between there is every attempt for reconciliation with arbitration. If after three months that is not possible, then divorce is final. These were the two talaqs prevalent during Prophet’s lifetime and only these find mention in the Hadith.

The triple talaq we talk about is instant triple talaq, which is over in seconds by pronouncing it thrice. The practice of triple talaq came up in the caliphate of the second Caliph Umar and must be seen in the socio-historical context in which it was allowed. It was to prevent men from saying talaq in jest and then revoke it before the third month leading to insecurity in the mind of the wife as to her marital status.

What is Mehr? Can a husband withdraw it at any point?
Mehr is a mandatory payment, in the form of money or possessions paid or promised to pay by the groom, or by groom’s father, to the bride at the time of marriage, that legally becomes her property. It can be paid immediately or deferred. It is for the bride’s financial independence. In case of the wife asking for divorce (khula), the Mehr, if deferred, is forfeited.

Are economic rights of women the core issue here?
Women have been given many economic rights in the Quran but unfortunately ignorance and lack of education means that most of them are unaware of it. The patriarchal mindset of society adds to it and Muslim women often find themselves destitute after a divorce.

Does triple talaq apply to all sects of the community?
Only the Hanafi sect in India practises triple talaq.

Can a woman ask for unilateral divorce?
Islam gives many rights to women but most are ignorant of the facts. The Nikah is a contract between two parties: bride and the groom and the nikah-nama is the contract document. Both can get clauses inserted into it. One clause she can get inserted is the talaq e tafweez wherein the husband delegates the wife the right to divorce. It can be conditional (in case he remarries, etc) or unconditional. She can also insert clauses that he can’t give her instant triple talaq.

Why is Uniform Civil Code not acceptable to the majority of Muslims?
Muslims, for reasons justified or unjustified, are feeling vulnerable at the moment and are not open to the idea of a Uniform Civil Code which they feel threatens their religious identity. Also, it is not clear what all and who all will fall in its ambit. Once that is clear, there can be a debate.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Once more....Latadidi

Mohan Deora and Rachana Shah have co-authored a book - On Stage With Lata - to describe how the singing legend was the first Indian film artist to conquer foreign shores. They talk about the book and Lata Mangeshkar, the person.

For those living several shores away, there are a few things that they miss about home. First, the food and second, the films (regional, Bollywood) and their songs. These two factors transport them on a nostalgia trip, filling them up with joy and sadness.

In the ‘70s, ‘80s and even in the ‘90s, it was difficult for the NRIs to connect with their folks in India, so cultural evenings, concerts brought them together.

Classical musicians Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan were the prominent names in the international circuit, but no popular icons from mainstream Hindi film industry had performed abroad till then. The first one to perform, and that too on a big scale, was Lata Mangeshkar.

This precursor is necessary to tell you how Latadidi conquered the foreign shores and in fact raised the bar for all Indian artists who were to follow her in later decades. All this valuable information has been put together into a book - On Stage with Lata, brought out by HarperCollins Publishers.

It has been co-authored by Mohan Deora, a nuclear scientist, who had organised Latadidi’s performances in American cities and the Caribbean and Fiji islands, and Rachana Shah, her niece. Shah, alongwith her cousins, had sung in some of the concerts too.

The two explain what it was like to organise and be a part of the concerts, and of course watch the Melody Queen up close.

Mohan Deora

Did you maintain a diary in the ‘70s and ‘80s?

I never maintained a diary and I agree that it is really impossible to recall and jot down the information three decades hence. But I had three sources to do so. The one was the memories of certain events imprinted in my brain over the three decades. The second was, various articles written about these shows and the third one was the recordings and videos collected during the period.

How did you choose the incidents, anecdotes that went into the book?

The incidents and anecdotes that went into the book were inspired by my memories that are still with me and may never be forgotten. Whenever one asks or talks about the book, the first thought that comes to the mind is the loss of our beloved, Mukeshji. A day before his demise, on August 27, Mukeshji came to my house for dinner with Latadidi and we had a very enjoyable evening. While driving back to the hotel, he even said, ‘Ek vegetarian ke ghar par itna achcha chicken kabhee nahi khaya’. And the next day, he was gone, forever. I still wonder how it could have happened.

Which are your favourite Latadidi songs?

The top three that come to mind are: Ayegaa aayega aanewala from Mahal, Mohe bhool gaye saawariya from Baiju Bawara and Ye zindagi usiki hai from Anarkali.

In one of the chapters you had said that it’s Indian film music which brought together strangers in a world away from home. Does that still hold true? Which Indian/Bollywood, regional songs are being heard by young Indians and their parents, living abroad?

It is the Indian film music which brings strangers together in a world away from home. And it will always continue to be so. Predominantly, the Hindi/Bollywood songs are being listened to by parents living abroad today and hopefully the youngsters too will follow suit. My 11-year-old granddaughter Saaniya listening to a Lataji song, asked me, ‘Baba who is this singer? I would like to sing like her.’

Rachana Shah

When Mr Deora approached you with the proposal to write the book, how did you go about penning his thoughts?

Mohan uncle, as I lovingly call him, was the main organiser of Didi’s shows abroad. And being the meticulous man he is, he had preserved every article, piece of information, photos from all these tours. Plus when one deals with a phenomenon like Lata Mangeshkar, one just naturally cherishes every moment with her.

So he had all this wealth of information and it needed to be told to the world. Since the book is narrated through his eyes, I had to keep that perspective and not dilute it at all.

Were there any instances when your memory of the tour/s differed with that of Mr Deora?

Not at all. In fact, by writing this book, both Mohan uncle and I relived all those precious moments again, with an even more deeper understanding of this incredible artist called Lata Mangeshkar.

Was it difficult to concise the impact and reach of Latadidi’s concert shows abroad in this slim volume of book?

The book showcases Didi as a stage performer in the the USA, Canada, the Caribbean islands and the Fiji islands, between the period 1975-1998. It doesn’t touch any other aspect. Nor is it presumptuous.. It’s an honest and simple read.

Didi is the epitome of simplicity. We’ve tried to ingrain that quality in our style of writing. And Nasreen Munni Kabir has done a fab job of editing it.

While writing the book, have you learnt something new about your aunt or the way she conducted herself?

Didi is a revelation every time I meet her. I’m so lucky to spend time with her and absorbing the littlest things that come my way. This book reflects her aura as a stage performer only. But through that one glimpse, one gains insight into the humane and philanthropic side of hers. She is grace personified and I marvel at the way she has conducted herself for so many years.

What did these tours mean to you as a child?

As a child, one breezes through life. Happiness comes quick and stays longer. And that’s how Didi treated us. I was exposed to different cultures and people from all walks of life at a very young age. It has made me adopt a very tolerant and accepting approach to life.

Didi made sure we had a very happy and nurturing environment around us. My brother, my cousins, we grew up as one big happy joint family. We travelled together and grew up together. All these values I attribute to the elders in the family and I can’t thank them enough.

Falling in love with Urdu

Sukhan, a mehfil of Urdu poetry, ghazals and qawwalis, will be staged in the city today. Om Bhutkar and Jaydeep Vaidya explain the concept

Noted Urdu poet and lyricist Gulzar, who was at the Jashn-e-Rekhta festival this week, was quoted as saying, “Urdu is alive the same way it was earlier, with the same old strength. Its energy hasn’t reduced. Maybe its aspect is changing… Urdu is the most alive language and moving ahead with times.”

Exuding similar sentiments was theatre actor Om Bhutkar, when we met him for a chat on Sunday. Bhutkar and his friends have come up with a Urdu ghazal, shayri programme, titled Sukhan.

“My affair or should I say passion for Urdu language began when I was writing the play Mi..Ghalib. My friends and I are equally fond of classical music, ghazals and nazms (verses) and whenever we meet, we keep discussing Urdu shayris and the works of singers and poets. In fact after Mi..Ghalib I had tossed this idea of doing a programme on Urdu ghazals and my friend Nachiket Devasthali kept on reminding me to get cracking on it,” says 25-year-old Bhutkar.

Thus Sukhan was conceptualised. The literal meaning of Sukhan is speech or conversation, and that’s the crux of the programme. Says Bhutkar, “In Sukhan, we establish a direct interaction with the audience in Urdu. Many in the audience fear that they might not be able to comprehend the metaphorical language. So we ask them to concentrate on the sound. Sound is the central element and not the language.”

The three-hour-long programme has seven-eight qawwali and ghazal performances interspersed with recitation of Urdu verses, couplets, narration of short stories and reading out excerpts from letters written by Mirza Ghalib. The team has chosen verses and couplets written by Amir Khusro, Hafeez Jullundhari, Jaun Elia, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mir Taqi Mir and Iqbal.

“Depending on the audience’s understanding and the length of time, we try to introduce new elements in the show. In our show at S M Joshi Auditorium, we plan to pay a tribute to poet Nida Fazli, who passed away recently,” says Bhutkar.

When asked about mastering Urdu diction so quickly, the actor clarifies, “I have learnt to read and write Urdu. But I won’t say I have mastered it. As an actor, I don’t have to master the language like an academician. Nachiket and I, who recite the nazms, can take certain liberties because we are artistes. The thrust of Sukhan is to introduce people to the beauty of language and its literary treasure. Urdu sounds both familiar and exotic at the same time, and that’s the flavour which we want to present before the audience.”

Qawwali is an important component of Sukhan. Bhutkar and Jaydeep Vaidya (who has directed the musical compositions) speak excitedly about it. Says Bhutkar, “Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has a great influence on us. And, so we wanted to include some qawwali compositions.”

“In films, qawwali is shown as an orchestra. We have tried to stick to the traditional pattern of qawwali mehfil using instruments like harmonium, tabla, sarangi and tanpura,” adds Vaidya.

The team of Sukhan comprises young singers, still being trained in Hindustani Classical Music. So, they found it a little challenging to master qawwalis, which requires energetic singing.

“Abhijeet Dhere, Swapnil Kulkani and I sing qawwali. Depending on who is the lead singer, the other two support him. Sanika Kopargaonkar and Divya Chaphadkar sometimes help us with the back vocals for chorus. Usually, girls don’t sing qawwali. Their role is more prominent when we sing ghazal compositions,” explains Vaidya.

“Qawwali is difficult to master. The songs are very spiritual and the references to the lover and his beloved, actually mean the Lord and his devotee or being one with the supreme. You need to feel and bring out the bhakti in your voice,” he adds.

And that’s the beauty of music and the language in which it is sung. “It embraces all and cannot be claimed by one,” the duo exclaim, before signing off.

Do as the Tatas do

The Tata Properties exhibition, which opens to the public today in the city, is a must visit to acquaint yourselves with the family’s spirit of entrepreneurship and philanthropy.

Visitors at the Tata Properties exhibition which was inaugurated on Saturday at Tata Central Archives

If the contribution of the Parsi community, the Tata family in particular, to the country’s economy, architecture and philanthropy is to be measured, then a visit to the Tata Properties exhibition is a must. The exhibition, which was inaugurated by Ishaat Hussain, director, and Farokh N Subedar, Chief Operating Officer, Tata Sons, on October 8, will be open to the public from today (Monday) at Tata Central Archive, off Mangaldas Road, Pune.

The exhibition, which showcases over 100 photographs of the properties from 1822 to 1965, is in many ways an eye-opener to the entrepreneurial spirit of Jamsetji Tata and his family, who moved to the then Bombay from Navsari and their commitment to usher in industrial revolution in the country. Besides, the panels put up at the Archive indicate that the Tata family moved like nomads in Bombay, staying in different parts of the city. This helped the family identify various areas, which could further their cause in industry and nation building.

The panels also provided information on the various enterprises which Jamsetji and his sons took up. They failed in some, while some enterprises flourished. But what we do gather is that their entrepreneurial spirits never flagged.

The exhibits also provide a dekko into the rituals of the Parsi community, the way they dressed and, of course, the way they lived. The prominent exhibits include the Bombay House, Esplanade House and its interiors which have a Louis VI drawing room and Japanese drawing room.

There are information plaques which outline the family’s commitment to education. For instance, Ratanbai Bamji donated Rs 1,00,000 for a building for the Zorastrian Girls’ School Tehran in memory of her father, Nusserwanji Ratanji Tata. In 1912, Sir Ratan Tata made an offer of financial help to the University of London for instituting a Chair (professorship) to investigate and research causes of destitution and poverty. Sir Ratan made an annual grant of 1,400 pounds from 1913-21.

The Tatas also have had a few properties in Pune. For instance, Sir Dorabji Tata and Sir Ratan Tata donated
Rs 10,000 and Rs 5,000, respectively, in 1916-17 for the proposed building of Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in then Poona. The Hall, which was completed in 1917, still stands today as part of the main building. Then, there’s Gladhurst on Bund Garden Road bought by Sir Dorabji Tata, which had exquisite interiors, extensive grounds and maintained gardens. It is currently known as ‘Dutch Palace’ and is owned by Edward Pereira.

At the exhibition, which will continue for three months, you will find more such information, inspiring you to ‘give back to society’.

Putting plastic waste to use

Dr Medha Tadpatrikar and Shirish Phadtare started Rudra Environmental Solutions (India) to convert plastic waste into poly fuel. The initiative is garnering a lot of praise and attracting volunteers

A small packet arrives at Dr Medha Tadpatrikar’s office while we chat about her work of plastic segregation. “It’s from Vizag,” she informs. Tadpatrikar and her business partner, Cost Accountant Shirish Phadtare, started Rudra Environmental Solutions (India) Ltd in Pune in 2014 and has been educating people about plastic segregation at its source. The initiative is quite impressive because it’s completely people driven and free. No wonder then that people from Vishakhapatnam and a few more from Mumbai are couriering their plastic waste to them.

In 2009, the families of Tadpatrikar and Phadtare were vacationing in Kanha National Park. “During one safari, we were asked not to visit a track because a few deer had died. Later, we learnt that the animals had died after eating plastic. We realised we had to do something.”

The duo started finding out for themselves the ill effects and hazards of plastic. “We own a research firm called, Mantra. So researching, getting data and statistics was easy. But we also wanted to find out for ourselves the hazardous effects of plastic and how they could be reversed. So we began testing it. We knew plastic is made from crude oil, so can we go back to it? That was the baseline on which we worked,” she says.

The duo, along with engineers and designers, devised a machine to convert plastic into gas in 2010. But it wasn’t helping in environment conservation, so Tadpatrikar and Phadtare decided to experiment more.

“In 2012-13, we designed a machine that converted plastic into fuel. Before bringing the machine to the market, we decided to use it first, make more changes, etc. We also started talking to people, explaining about the necessity of segregating plastic at source. One lady asked, ‘What do we do with the plastic after the segregation? Even the garbage workers sift through good quality plastic bottles or ware and leave the rest. What do we with the remaining part?’ I replied, ‘I will come around and pick it up’. That’s how we began,” she adds.

Tadpatrikar and Phadtare drove around in her car to various housing societies to pick up plastic waste. The quantity didn’t matter. “It might not be possible for everyone to bring the waste to us on scheduled days, so we offered to pick it up for free. We started giving them free gunny bags in which they could store the waste,” she informs.

Depending on the volume collected, the waste is taken to one of the two segregating plants at Hadapsar and Jejuri.

The aim of Rudra Solutions is to spread awareness of ‘Our garbage, our responsibility’. The Pune Municipal Corporation does a tremendous job, but it’s short of manpower. So people have to pitch in. “Since we started, we have seen a change in mindset. There was a time when people asked us for money to take away the plastic. But we refused. We told them that they could sell good plastic like bottles, food containers, etc. But plastic waste like biscuit and wafer wrappers or polythene bags can be given to us, because they clog the drains and gutters,” explains Tadpatrikar.

Currently, Rudra Solutions picks up plastic waste from 6,800 homes in the city and areas like Bhima Shankar, Baramati, Baneshwar, villages near Mulshi and from forts like Sinhagad, Raigad and Rajgad. The waste that is turned into poly fuel is sold to villagers at a cheaper rate so that they can use it for kitchen fire, etc. “We want to pick up waste from 10,000 homes in the near future,” she concludes.

Writer and social worker, Mita Banerjee read about Tadpatrikar’s work and decided to get in touch with her. She and her colleagues were already a part of Team Miracle, which was engaged in social welfare. Further inspired by Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat campaign, the team wished to do something in that area.

“I first got in touch with Medha in March this year, and invited her for a talk at our Senior Citizen’s club, followed by another talk in Viman Nagar in May. At that time, Rudra had not ventured into this area. We started with a small bag of plastic waste from my household,” she says.

Thereafter, she rallied around various friends and neighbours, who in turn, spread the news to their friends and neighbours. “The initiative is so simple and sustainable that it soon caught on, and we began getting calls from various friends in other areas like Kalyani Nagar, Koregaon Park, DP Road, etc. We have formed WhatsApp groups and sub groups. The monthly pick-up route is fixed and well-coordinated by Medha,” concludes Banerjee.

Open your mind wide

Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal says that The Vagina Monologues has been written with the purest intention and has succeeded in achieving what it set out to do

Vagina. Say the word aloud. Can you? We tried to ask Mahbanoo Mody-Kotwal if she ever examined her private parts all by herself. We couldn’t twist our tongue to say aloud the word ‘Vagina’, hesitated and left the question incomplete.

“You are asking me a question, but feeling bad to pronounce it. Most educated people know that vagina isn’t a dirty word, they know where it is situated and know the pleasures it can give, the way the penis can give. Of course, everybody has and should examine it,” says Kotwal, who along with her son Kaizaad, has produced and directed the Indian production of the play, The Vagina Monologues.

The play, which will be staged in Pune on Friday, November 11 as a fund raiser by WE Network for the pre-natal care unit of Sassoon Hospital, has originally been written by Eve Ensler in 1996. Ensler interviewed about 200 women on their views on sex, relationships, and violence against women. And, their stories have been performed on stage.

It was in 2003 that the first Indian show of the play was staged. And, since then, it has been running houseful. When asked if any revisions were made to The Vagina Monologues, like focusing on the advertisements endorsing skin lightening cream for the private parts, Kotwal made it abundantly clear that she hasn’t “added or subtracted anything from the play.”

Says she, “Eve Ensler has written this play and has given it to me under the terms and conditions of the copyright and I cannot add or subtract anything from the play. I cannot do that till she gives me the permission or she writes it. So a lot of people tell me to include this or write about marital violence etc. There is marital violence in the play, but in an emotional form. The play covers almost everything, but whatever little has been left out, cannot be put in by us.”

The play, says Kotwal, has been written with purest intent of spreading awareness which it has achieved. “The word ‘vagina’ was considered dirty in India; today people are shouting it out at the shows. It’s just a biological name of a body part, of over half this world’s population. So why should we be ashamed to say this word? It’s perfectly decent word like ‘yoni’. I mean, it’s not a derogatory word like ‘chut’. Unfortunately, most people in India use the dirty words and that’s the sad part about it,” adds she.

A show meant for women and men both, it’s the reaction from the latter that spikes our curiosity. How would men react to what’s happening on the stage and the thought process in the mind of their spouse/friend sitting next to them?

“Most men in the audience come up to us to speak after the show is over. They open up about facts like how their mothers were abused by their fathers. In fact, one man recently wrote in our book, “The MCP in me died this evening’,” says Kotwal. That’s what the play on Friday evening, for which Sakal Times is the media partner, should be doing — open our minds.

Where time stands still

f you’d like to know what it means to soak in silence, visit Tambdi Surla, a Mahadev temple on the outskirts of Goa

We first read about Tambdi Surla in Manohar Malgaonkar’s Inside Goa. He says in the book: “A tour of Goa’s temples should appropriately end with Tambdi Surle or Red Surle. Red Surle is no more than a hamlet with perhaps a hundred inhabitants and it is called red because its earth is red. But the temple which is about half a mile away from the village is black, which means that the stone for its building must have been brought from some distance away. It is by far the oldest temple in Goa, perhaps built in 12th century or even earlier. Up until a couple of years ago, it was all but inaccessible.”

So having read this and the description of the Mahadev temple, accompanied by the detailed illustrations of the site, by cartoonist Mario Miranda, we were keen on visiting Tambdi Surla. This summer, as we drove down to Sacordem and then through the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary, we got an inkling of how the temple remained standing, undamaged throughout the Portuguese reign of the island state.

It’s so far away from habitation that possibly everyone forgot that the temple existed. While driving through the wildlife sanctuary and the smattering of hamlets and post offices announcing the names of villages that we were passing through, we often wondered if we had lost our way. And, no GPS could have guided us, because there was this dense foliage around us. As far as spotting wild animals or birds in the sanctuary was concerned, we only got lucky with langurs who lined our path all the way to the Tambdi Surla temple.

On reaching our destination, we spotted two men running respective stalls — one sold puja paraphernalia and the other was a gola and sherbetwala with colourful bottles stocked on his cart.

Inside the temple precincts, a serene silence engulfed us. And what lay before our eyes was something straight out of a picture postcard. A stone structure (the temple) was a few yards away, surrounded on all sides by manicured green lawns, lined with bushes. A tiled path led to the structure, which stood out against the green hills and blue sunny skies. The only thing missing in this picture-perfect image was a gurgling stream or a brook. Well, Tambdi Surla does have a stream which flows along the temple, but in summer, it dries up.

It’s one of the cleanest and efficiently-maintained temple precincts and gardens that we have seen, mostly because not many are aware of its existence. In a state known for beaches and booze, a temple so far from the main city, surely doesn’t figure in anyone’s must-visit list.

The Archaeological Survey of India board mentions the construction date of the temple as 12th century, perhaps built by the Kadamba dynasty, which ruled Goa. The lone structure is plain to look at, but its engineering is something to marvel at. No brick or mortar has been used in its construction. It’s just stones placed on top of another, like an octagonal puzzle.

After spending about 30 minutes in and around the temple, soaking in the splendorous beauty, we stepped out to chat with the vendors. The temple now had a few visitors besides us. The golawala told us that the temple sees a huge crowd on Mahashivratri, else it’s all quiet. And we thoroughly enjoyed the quietness because it was a huge refreshing change from the city’s din and rattle.

Love makes the world go round

In a tete-a-tete with romance novelist and fashion stylist Nikita Singh about her new book Every Time It Rains.

Bruised and abused Laila carries a lot of baggage. But she is no wilting violet and a real badass when it comes to running her bakery. She’s the present-day heroine of Harlequin romances. And, unlike the typical romance fiction, the hero here is goofy, fun with very life-affirming traits. That’s how Every Time It Rains, pans out.

Nikita Singh, who has penned her 10th novel, was impelled to carry forward Laila’s story from her previous novel Like a Love Song. Singh, who was in Pune for the launch of her latest, Every Time... says, “In my previous book, Like a Love Song, Maahi was the central character, and Laila was her friend. We see her from Maahi’s perspective and then a thought popped in my mind — What Laila does when she’s not with Maahi? I had this whole back story of hers, but there wasn’t space in Like a Love Song to justify it, so that’s how the initial idea of this book came about.”

The book doesn’t fall into ‘romance-romance’ genre, but is a well-rounded story about every aspect of a girl’s life, including love, points out the author, who revels in writing romances.

While her characters have defined careers and certain Obsessive Compulsive Disorders (OCDs), Singh has dabbled in several things while continuing to write. She wrote her first novel for Penguin Publishers when she was a third year student of Pharmacy. She also worked briefly with Wisdom Tree Publishers which brought out lists on religious, spiritual and historical titles. Later, she went to Manhattan to complete her grad school. On campus, she was handling the social media account of an art gallery and after graduation, she took up the job of a fashion stylist. “Why keep doing the same thing?” she says with a smile.

When it comes to her writing, Singh lets the idea, plot and characters simmer in her head for about six or seven months. And, then she sits down to write the novel in three months flat. “All I have got is a sheet in which I list down chapters 1 to 21. Sometimes not even that. First, I write three chapters and then the fourth automatically follows and so on. Sometimes, I take a break while writing,” she adds.

Over the years, she has seen a change in the way she develops her plotline. “My writing has become more atmospheric. I am showing people what I am seeing — how my characters dress, where they are going. I sort of spread out the details throughout the book so that the complete picture of the character is formed,” explains Singh.

In fact, she knows her characters better than anything else in the book. “I can visualuse them, how they will react to certain things, how they will change their expressions and so on. So while Laila is calm, reserved and driven, I wanted someone who could complete her. So there’s JD, who is goofy, boisterous, very positive and happy. As soon as JD enters, the book becomes so romantic, especially the first scene between them, where the health-conscious JD is eating his food. I knew he would eat some fruit or the other. So I thought of orange and the way he offers it to Laila, is quite funny,” she adds.

The romance writer has two books up her alley. “One is about Maahi and Siddhant’s story, this time told from the latter’s point of view. And, one of Sarthak’s story, who is Maahi’s brother,” informs Singh.

And, what about Laila and JD? “Well, they are in a good space right now. Their story might unfold parallel to Maahi and Siddhant’s,” she adds.

Love, the way they see it

Author Ira Trivedi talks about her new book Nikhil and Riya and how the characters find spiritual growth.

A boarding school. He with a limp. And, she a runner. They fall in love, until death pulls them apart. This is Ira Trivedi’s latest offering — Nikhil and Riya. Written from Nikhil’s perspective, it talks about love, longing and finally, redemption. In between, you also get a glimpse of life in a posh boarding school — Residency School —and the stories of bullying, one-upmanship and rivalry. Targeted at young adults, Nikhil and Riya is a Harlequin romance brought out by HarperCollins India. Here’s chatting up the author:

We believe the book was earlier written from Riya’s perspective. Can you tell us about it and the changes that were incorporated to make Nikhil take charge?
The book was ready to be sent to the editors six-seven years ago. But when I read I felt that this wasn’t good enough yet. So I waited for a bit. I was also in the midst of writing India in Love, so I put this one on hold. After India... came out, I went back to Nikhil and Riya.
When the story was being narrated from Riya’s point of view, the focus was not just on Nikhil. Like Nikhil was completely focused on his girl. She could do no wrong in Nikhil’s eyes. But for Riya, it was different things like running, and the process of accepting her death.

Love has been portrayed very differently by the protagonists. Are you trying to bring out how males and females perceive it?
There’s no one way to love. Nikhil loves Riya the way only he knows how to. And, the same can be said for Riya. People assume love is what is shown in Bollywood. But that’s not the case, everytime.

The book has many sublime emotions. Is that a result of you being a yoga practitioner?
Well, I was on my spiritual journey, while writing the book. I read Bhagwat Purana. I knew I had to grow as a writer, so I decided to wait and rewrite the book. It’s not a sad book, but it’s quite profound and touching in many ways.
The reason I chose to write on love is because I think that the first common spiritual experience one has is ‘falling in love’. It’s the spirit of the emotion and the spirits finding each other. That’s why it’s the journey of the soul, through love.

Your earlier two books also had Riya, as the protagonist.

This isn’t planned. It’s just that I end the last character with Riya and I begin the new character with Riya. I think to myself that I will change the name later on. But it doesn’t happen.
However for this book, Nikhil’s name was changed quite a few times. I don’t quite recall what the original name was. I also toyed with the name Prashant and a few others. But then Nikhil and Riya kind of fit. It became a nice title. Prashant and Riya, Sunil and Riya don’t have that ring to it.

But is there a little bit of your life in Riya — the way she has been portrayed?

I don’t think so. She is someone I aspire to be. I think Riya is a very exceptional character. Of course, I was a runner in my boarding school too. But that’s about it.

So is this a story that talks about your youth?
I think Nikhil and Riya’s generation is exactly like my generation. The world I experienced in my boarding school, is the world I put in the book. If I would have set the book in today’s time, then it would be more virtual. There’s so much of love, break-up and make-up happening on WhatsApp. That’s how love stories happen nowadays.
My next love story would be a virtual love story. But before that, I would love to write a sequel to this book. The narrator would be young Riya.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Who is a man? Who is a woman?

Kannada play Akshayambara explores the male-female fluidity on and off stage. Director and actor, Sharanya Ramprakash dwells on this

It’s the scene of Draupadi vastra-apaharan, Dushyasana pauses in the middle of disrobing
Draupadi; the moment passes and then he begins to disrobe her again. At the end of the scene, both the actors (Draupadi and Dushyasana/Duryodhan) sit in their green room, silent, but communicating their vulnerabilities to each other and to the audience.

While watching the Kannada play Akshayambara (akshay means unending, while ambara means cloth and together it refers to Krishna coming to the aid of Draupadi in the vastraharan episode), one tries to comprehend — What does it mean to be a man? And should a woman symbolise femininity and nothing else?

These are the questions that we grapple with in our everyday lives. Watching them unfold on the stage, we gain a third eye perspective. That’s because the role of Kaurava or Pradhan Purush Vesha was played by a woman actor, and Draupadi was enacted by a Stree Vesha or a male actor.

The Kannada play is in many ways unique and simple — simple, because we are used to male actors playing the role of women. However, when a female actor steps into a man’s shoes, the tradition is questioned. That’s the USP of this play.

Sharanya Ramprakash, who has written and directed Akshayambara, also enacted the role of the two Kauravas. The format of the play was Yakshagana, which has been a male domain until recently. Ramprakash won a scholarship to study Yakshagana art form at its centre in Udupi. Explaining about the male-female fluidity as seen in it, she says, “I wanted to tell a story that questions assumptions and challenges status quo in a traditional set up. The play examines how the entry of women into the intellectual discourse of Yakshagana can affect traditional interpretation of the male-centric narrative. What happens to the interpretation of gender when a Stree Vesha and an actual woman occupy the same stage? What happens when this woman is cast as the Pradhana Purusha Vesha? Who then is the real woman and the real man?”

The Yakshagana art form, prevalent mainly in Karnataka, is performed through the male perspective. It is a tradition of argumentation, so it gives great freedom to varying interpretations of our epics and gods and goddesses, depending on the scholarship and ability of the performer. “But,” Ramprakash points out, “since female roles are performed by men, the representation of women and their arguments and positions in performance are also in the male perspective.”

The crux of the play is how the real life equations change when genders are reversed in performance. When tradition allows a man to be accepted as a woman, can the same tradition accept the reverse?

To expound on this question, Ramprakash chose the Draupadi vastra-apaharana episode. A woman in the garb of a man plays the rapacious Dushyasana, driven by lust and power, while the man plays Draupadi, who has to beg Dushyasana to spare her dignity, appealing to the court and espousing the cause of a woman.

“Off stage, in the cauki (green room), the power equations between the two actors are completely reversed. The play shifts constantly between the prasanga and scenes in the cauki. I wanted to explore the many conflicts this situation throws up and ask questions about tradition, gender, power and morality,” explains the actor.

So in future, can we see women enacting the role of men in Yakshagana? To which Ramprakash replies, “This is not important. What is important is that women are able to find their own space for intellectual discourse and debate — whether it is within Yakshagana or in a corporate office. This is the real concern. When a woman enters a male dominated space, things change — assumptions are questioned. I want this performance to be the beginning of a new artistic journey, I want to undertake as a woman and a performer. I want to negotiate and challenge both modernity and tradition, for I feel the answer lies in both and neither.”.

Men in the city

Neel Chaudhuri’s Still & Still Moving, which will be staged today at the 9th Annual Vinod Doshi Theatre Festival, is about a fractured love story with the Delhi Metro used as a metaphor in the interactions between men commuters.

The introduction of Delhi Metro has changed the way people travel in the capital and NCR.
That’s also the premise of Neel Chaudhuri’s play, Still & Still Moving. The Tadpole Repertory production tries to track how the dynamics of relations between men have changed with this mode of travel. The metro, says Chaudhuri, in the play is also a metaphor for the ‘distance’ that the two lovers are trying to overcome. We chatted up Chaudhuri prior to the staging of the play.

Title tale
‘Still & Still Moving’ is a phrase from the poem by T S Eliot — T S Eliot — East Coker. Says Chaudhuri, “It’s a poem I was reading while I was writing the play and the phrase seemed very apt. It’s a beautifully summarised feeling of moving towards something — in this case, it’s the relationship between Partho and Adil. It also captures a feeling of being trapped in one place. Still & Still Moving also alludes to the metaphor of a train. As Partho says in his opening monologue, ‘In the vestiges of train, everything is still. Outside everything has changed.’ There is a stillness within movement...”

What happens in the metro
The metro became an interesting factor for Chaudhuri because he was trying to establish the emotional distance and the closeness between his lead characters. “I was interested in finding out how men exist in the city and use the metro as a space. So in the play there are about seven-eight scenes that are set in the metro and each of them looks at different interactions between them. It does two things — first, it punctuates the love story and second, it’s about two men, who live in the city and in some kind of a metaphorical way try to get closer to each other, bridging their age and cultural gap,” says Chaudhuri, who has previously directed Taaramandal.

Some things unsaid
When this play was being written, the director faced certain challenges on how to portray the relationship. Chaudhuri, in his works, often tries to leave things unsaid. Says he, “I don’t always want the characters to say everything. So there are silences and pauses. In my earlier drafts of this play, there was a lot of silence. All those who read it said it was too muted. That was a challenge for me — how to tell a love story without telling everything.”

A love story
When asked why was it important to stage a love story between two men, Chaudhuri replied, “I didn’t begin this story from the political perspective. I was thinking about two characters and their place in the city, and then the characters, as they developed in my head, were men.”
He further adds that it doesn’t mean that the politics of homosexual bonds is not important. “When we talk about gay rights, we talk from an intellectual and political point of view. One of the biggest struggles that people who are advocating gay rights is that the law is about gay sex, an ‘unnatural act’. But it’s not about love. When you are talking about love, how do you distinguish between a man and a woman’s love and the one between two men? One of the things that plagues our society is that a large percentage of people look at homosexual act as abnormal. And, therefore it stigmatises the love aspect as well,” he explains.

Chaudhuri finds our society paradoxical. He says India is a homo-social society. Male friendships here are far more affectionate than most others in the world. “For that reason, we wanted to look at the story simply as a love story. To me, if someone comes and watches Still & Still Moving and thinks it as a love story with heartbreak and wonder, and beauty, then I feel that the play is a success,” he concludes.

She watches your back

Corporate lawyer and investigator Sagarika Chakraborty heads a company, which helps in solving espionage and money laundering cases amongst other things. She talks about the risks involved in the job

As glamorous as it may sound, Mumbai-based Sagarika Chakraborty’s job involves great risk too. A corporate investigator, Chakraborty has to solve high-end corporate espionage and money trail fraud cases. Here she explains her unconventional career choice...

You have done law and then MBA. But chose to be a protection agent. Can you explain your journey?
I am a corporate lawyer from National Law University, Jodhpur. I had a three year stint with corporate law, before deciding that intelligence management and security studies was my calling. Unfortunately, the same is not a chosen field of study in India and therefore there is a lack of graduate courses. I then chose the best available option by doing an MBA in Strategy Management from Indian School of Business, Hyderabad.

What does your work entail?
I am a corporate investigator and a security risk consultant. My work entails a myriad of things — right from solving one of the high end corporate espionage cases, to doing money trail about the NPA / fraud cases you read in paper, to conducting event security for a corporate, securing one of the latest releases against piracy, doing information security forensics for a corporate giant, interviewing a suspect or taking care of a corporate honcho through executive protection.

Why did you choose this career?

The profession chose me. It called out to me one day during my stint as a corporate lawyer, when I was assisting in an anti- money laundering case. I realised that I am made for detection, analytics and that nothing gives me more pleasure than strategising security codes and making an investigation plan.

What are the qualities required to become an investigator?

There is no school that can teach you to be an investigator or a risk professional. A sharp memory, good sensory approaches, heightened analytical and logical reasoning ability are a few skills that shall help you.

Do you have a team who helps in the groundwork?
I am the CEO of a startup called IIRIS with a team of over 70 people (in India). We do our own ground work — for unless you know how to dig intelligence yourself, you cannot truly be an investigator. So based on the skill set and trainings obtained, we conduct surveillance, enquiries, trails, research, interviews and so on.

What’s a busy working day in the life of a protection agent/spy?
We are always working and on guard, for you never know when an investigation will need your attention. There have been times when I have gone without sleep for three days, working as per different time zones and yet wished that the days were longer.

A typical day involves client meetings, presentations, on ground investigations, forensic analysis, data analytics and a host of other things. It also involves playing with a lot of cool gadgets and getting to shape the newspaper headlines of the next day!

Have there been any incidents when you were taken for a ride?
To say a ‘no’ would be to lie. Like with every profession, there are inherent risks — however, here the level of risks is quite often very high. The threats that we receive are sometimes subtle and sometimes direct. There are often informers and sources who betray you. You learn along the way, how to mitigate trouble and create back up plans.

Does this work involve co-operating with police? How do they treat you?
We often need to work very closely with the police department. Contrary to the popular belief, the Indian police is actually extremely co-operative and very perceptive. The senior and junior officers alike, are eager to help and I am proud to say that I have picked up a few of my best skills from their tips and while shadowing them in investigations.

'Atonement is the best we can hope for’

The notes and references for An Era of Darkness runs into 22 pages. Despite this, Shashi Tharoor’s work shedding light on the British rule in India is neither a heavy tome nor is it meant only for erudite scholars. In his book, the Congress MP makes a case for India’s humiliation under the British rule and insists on at least an apology from the British Prime Minister. Excerpts from an email chat:

When you say that British kids need to know of the atrocities perpetrated on the colonies that went into making of their nation, do you think our students too need to study history more neutrally? Indian students are caught in the Left-dictated historical interpretations vis-a-vis the Rightist view.
I see no harm in our schoolchildren being aware that history is often contested territory, to be exposed to a variety of points of view and to make up their own minds on it. The most important purpose of education is to teach children to think for themselves about such things.

India’s share of manufacturing exports fell from 27 to 2 per cent during British rule. In this context, do you think PM Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative will do Indian economy any good?
It may be a bit late to reverse the long-term effects of our de-industrialisation, but full marks to PM Modi for trying. The problem with ‘Make in India’ is that none of the major announcements, trumpeted by foreign companies so far, have actually translated into factories on the ground. And increasingly automation is making it unnecessary for Western companies to relocate to low-labour cost economies like India, something that was not true when China began its rise through manufacturing.

How would the French and Portuguese powers have ruled us, in the event, they had outmanoeuvred the British? The Portuguese rule in Goa was also brutal and ruthless.
Absolutely. What I would have wanted is for no colonial power to rule us! Kanhoji Angre taught the Portuguese a lesson or two, after all. It’s hard for any nationalist to concede that colonial rule was “inevitable”. Of course it could have been resisted, and in many places it was, but the Brits’ superior weaponry and organisation, and our own rulers’ disunity and opportunism, prevailed.
The main difference with the French (or the Portuguese, for that matter) is that the British were not interested in assimilation. No brown-skinned Indian was ever empowered to say “I am British” before 1947, the way a black Senegalese or brown Algerian would proudly say, “Je suis francais”.

In the chapter on ‘Did British Give India the Political Unity?’ you have mentioned that our epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, were the cultural threads and reflect the same national idea. But now these epics are touted as an idea of a Hindu nation.
I feel strongly that the whole idea of Indian nationalism was welcoming, open and inclusive. As a secular liberal, I am proud to cite the epics with pride as a vital part of my cultural heritage. I think something corrective is indeed necessary for our excessively Western-centred education, which was itself a colonial legacy (as I show in the book) — but the chauvinists have gone too far. I am totally in favour of teaching the Mahabharata, the Ramayana and the works of Kalidasa in our schools. I would also agree with offering Sanskrit, Tamil or one of the languages recognised by the Government of India as “classical”.
It’s when the Hindutva agenda wants to go beyond all this to impose the beliefs of Savarkar, Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya in the classroom that I draw the line.

There is a larger issue here. My basic analysis of colonialism should be acceptable to Marxists and Hindutva types alike, as well as Congress nationalists. But we disagree when I speak of 200 years of foreign rule — and they speak of 1200 years, to include Muslim rulers as well.

As far as I am concerned, the Muslim rulers were unlike the British, because they stayed and assimilated here, married into Indian society and made this country their home. And even if you argue that these rulers looted India, they also spent their loot in India, whereas the British drained our resources for the benefit of their faraway homeland.

In the chapter ‘Residual problems of colonialism’, you have referred to the present day issues rooted in colonialism. Can the solutions too be found in the past?

I have argued that an apology would help: you can’t undo the wrongs done in the past but you can cleanse the pain with an apology in the present. How do you place a monetary value on all that India suffered and lost under British rule? British rule deindustrialised India; created landlessness and poverty; sowed seeds of division and inter-communal hatred that led to Partition; and was directly responsible for the deaths of three and a half crore people in unnecessary and mismanaged famines.

There’s really no compensation for all this that would even begin to be adequate, or credible. Atonement is therefore the best we can hope for. An apology by their Prime Minister to India, as Canada’s Trudeau did recently over the Komagata Maru incident, would signal true atonement.

Imagine a British PM, on the centenary of Jallianwalla Bagh, apologising to Indians for the massacre and by extension for all colonial injustices — that would be better than any sum of reparations.