Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Betrayal Begets Anger: Where Are The Acche Din?




Betrayal  Begets Anger: Where Are The Acche Din?

We have many questions from the grassroots that the good macro statistics have not managed to answer. The electorate has been fretting for a while, but persuaded itself to give the charismatic prime minister more time. But that patience seems to have run out with the drubbing it gave the BJP in three important states in the Hindi heartland.

The poor and dispossessed in the rural areas have run away to the promises of succour from a Congress desperate to make a comeback. The urban poor in the three states and even the elite Rajputs of Rajasthan have also voted against this government. Anti-incumbency and jaded chief ministers may have played its part, but rank anger at being ignored and cheated with unfulfilled promises by Narendra Modi himself was the dominant emotion. The assembly election vote says I have stopped believing in you and you have only yourself to blame.

Nationally too, first, there are the emotive issues on which those who backed the Modi government feel utterly betrayed. Where is the pro-Hindu government, in place of a pseudo-secular minority favouring dispensation, ask a phalanx of Hindu Nationalists, the poor and the youth?  This, even as Modi has found time and inclination to execute some initiatives to help Muslim women.

And why is the Kashmir Valley allowed to get away with its sedition, terrorism, murder and mayhem, while the government does nothing? It even allows the Army and Police in J&K to be censured! What about abolishing Article 370 and 35A to bring J&K into the Indian mainstream?

And if this government with a brute majority, the best in 30 years, cannot start the temple building at Ayodhya, then who can? What makes it think it can hide behind a partisan and unsympathetic Supreme Court and its endless delaying tactics?

Why is the Modi government hitting out at the small traders with taxes and sealings, when it is they, most of all, who formed the support base of this government long before the Rath Yatra undertaken by LK Advani ? Did he throw them over in favour of the poor rural/urban masses that he has also failed to satisfy?

Why has the middle class been totally ignored?  Why has the Finance Minister been allowed to ignore their aspirations in successive budgets and in-between actions like the fuel taxes?

Is this “Vikas” a mere slogan, no better than Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao”. Where are the troops of competent people from the middle class ranks who needed to be inducted to make this government run well? Why has the bureaucracy not been licked into shape to deliver fast and efficiently?

Why are BJP media spokespersons, almost always sub-standard?? They are unable to portray the achievements of the government in a favourable light.  

How do the dozens of seriously corrupt people from the erstwhile UPA government  era manage to cock-a-snook at this government? Why is Narendra Modi so timid about sending them to jail? And how did so many fugitive businessmen manage to run away abroad under this government’s watch?

The writing has been on the wall for some time. If a down and out Congress has benefited from all this, it is largely the BJP government and the party’s own fault.
Incumbency riddled Gujarat was won with difficulty, and yes, a Left enclave fell in with Tripura. But after that, there have been no more wins, not even municipal elections and a variety of bye-elections.

Karnataka was narrowly lost, and then the BJP failed to secure a government there, perhaps due to its own hubris. Congress stole a march from under its nose and formed the government there.

And now, there may be jubilation amongst those who dislike Modi, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, but there is sorrow in the hearts of Modi’s supporters. And this, not for the defeats themselves, humiliating as they are, but because it is true that this government has failed to deliver much by way of the promised Acche Din. It has become difficult to defend a non-performance.

The macro figures, though disputed by the Opposition, are good, and getting better. A fundamental thing like electricity to every village if not yet to every home has been accomplished at last. Cooking gas, both subsidized for the poor, and at full price to others, has indeed penetrated its way to 90% of households.

There are a plethora of yojanas aimed at the urban and rural poor that claim to have touched their lives, and subsidies do now reach the intended recipients. There is the banking of the unbanked, Mudra small loans, and many other things, and yet the public thinks these are just small efficiencies, and not the big expectations it had from Modi.
No incomes have gone up to speak of. There is no boom to be seen anywhere, property prices are depressed. There has been little creation of new jobs, or livelihoods for that matter. At least, none in proportion to the demand.

The taxation however, has increased substantially, either in actual terms, or because the net is wider now, ubiquitous, and better enforced.

The infrastructure development, always a BJP strength, will no doubt better lives in the long run, but accomplishes little for the people here and now.

The Opposition, particularly Rahul Gandhi, has got away with virulent criticism and outright lies, mainly because there is no one effective to counter him. The prime minister refuses to do so on a day-to-day basis, and no one else is tasked to do so either. Congress, on its part, has several articulate former ministers, mostly top flight lawyers, defending their first family and other seniors all the time.

It is surprising that not one prosecution worth the name has resulted in any of the corrupt from Congress actually being installed in jail. So much so, that the Congress is able to openly threaten the officials of the ED and CBI to beware of retribution when they return to power.

While the litany of woes resulting from ineffective governance, promises not kept, awkwardness and timidity, is long, the time has come to recognize that the BJP is in serious danger of being voted out of power altogether in 2019. If it doesn’t altogether lose, it is almost certain to be considerably weakened.

What therefore can it do in the remaining months before the Code of Conduct puts an end to any new initiatives? It must grab the attention of its core voters who have perhaps been taken for granted. So much so, that they stay home on voting day in many instances. This means delivery on some of the ignored Hidutva issues - such as J&K’s status, and Ayodhya, and a renewed promise to implement a Uniform Civil Code if it is voted back to power.

It also needs to implement some economic benefits for Hindus in particular- traders, middle class, urban and rural folk- things that do not fight shy of announcing that they are not universal in nature, but specifically meant for Hindus of all castes.

It is a mistake for Narendra Modi not to put the corrupt from the UPA in jail, even if it is pre-trial detention without bail. Their supporters will, in any case, never vote for the BJP, and are busy exulting over their resurgence and comeback.

If this government chooses to carry on as if all is well and makes the mistake of thinking the recent assembly elections will not affect the general election in May 2019, they may be in for a big shock.

(1,255 words)
For: My Nation
December 12th, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee



Monday, December 10, 2018

Teaching English



Teaching English

I’ve never seen an English teacher manage much creative writing. Those who teach creative writing at universities are already established authors. But the ones who teach an English literature degree course are the ones I am talking about.

You can teach how every great one writes, why they wrote on their subject matter, how they wrote, when they wrote it, what their probable state of mind and circumstances were, who they were influenced by, what pressures they felt, what religion they had. You can compare their work with their peers and rivals.

You can teach it, and teach it most articulately. You can inspire and fire the imaginations of thousands of your students over the years.  You can go to this work for years, from being young lecturers and grow old doing it. But know that it gives you creative impotence as a side-effect.

Sometimes a book or two of poetry comes out, mostly after a decade or two of the daily grind forming the minds and literature appreciating abilities of generations of students - mainly because friends in publishing persuade you to write something.

Then there are forewords to other people’s books, articles for the feature pages in newspapers on Sunday and websites, notes from thousands of lectures, some interviews, play direction, but almost always very slim creative output.

This malady afflicts people in publishing too, and to a lesser extent those in journalism and the sloganeering world of advertising. Creative writing needs obscurity, solitude, the cocooning of a cloister.

Sitting in judgement over thousands of manuscripts, editing the work of aspiring and established writers, kills it for Commissioning Editors, Editors-in-Chief and Advertising doyens alike.

TS Eliot was an exception as Director of Faber & Faber. He published his own path-breaking and most beautiful poetry there that won him a Nobel Prize. But I wonder, did he write his poems before he took on the position with Faber & Faber?

Most English teachers who write poetry do it because it is oblique, open-ended, subject to multiple interpretations, a way to express bitterness, criticism, social comment, longing, beauty, without however being too specific. You can hide yourself behind it, because you who dissect writing for a living, are subconsciously afraid to be judged.

The famous English teacher Eunice de Sousa of St. Xavier’s College Mumbai comes to mind. There were Nisha da Cunha, Nissim Ezekiel and Adil Jussawala too.

But a few poets also live bold lives. Kamala Das, a contemporary of the above, didn’t just write direct poetry. But then, she used two languages, Malayali and English, and did not suffer the constraints of being an English teacher.    

But prose, a novel, a play, or a story, puts you out there in plain sight to a much greater extent. You have to let yourself go, open up to the recesses of your inner self and say something that matters to you. You have to be ready to be criticized, ridiculed or ignored altogether. So it is usually not what an English teacher or a Publisher, or the others in wordsmithing, so much the judge and jury already, can psychologically manage. He or she is trapped by a trained sensibility, and cannot rush in where angels fear to tread.

Some have the mortification of writing and publishing mediocre fiction that goes nowhere despite their stature and considerable promotion. But even this act takes immense courage because a reputation and an aesthetic sensibility is being staked. “I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours” does not come easily to someone ensconced on the other side of the table.

How many then have fought shy and not written anything at all? Some do translations. Gillon Aitken, born in Kolkata, schooled initially in Darjeeling, translated Pushkin from Russian into English – not his poetry, but Pushkin’s prose work. But the publisher and later literary agent of so many great writers including Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul, never wrote anything in his own write. Not once, throughout his long life as a man of letters.

Being too close to the subject is probably one of the problems. There is perhaps too much knowledge. What it ends up giving you is inhibition and self- consciousness, instead of insight and flow. And, strange as it may sound, the loneliness of a developed inner self that is very difficult to share.

English teachers and commissioning editors are essentially solitary, lonely people. Their marriages tend to be turbulent and often fail. Many never marry at all and don’t even have any special companions as they age. Books, films, travel, a pet, seems to take up the void instead.

These are by and large sensitive people. They nurse their hurts and betrayals. They are opinionated and headstrong. They refuse to suffer fools gladly. Often, they drink and smoke too much, these men and women of books, who don’t write themselves.

Some, amongst them have agonized, humiliating sex lives, that they seem relieved to dispense with as they age. A monkishness seems to go with the territory. A life that is spent reading and analyzing other people’s thoughts leaves little room to live, love, and create for themselves.

All the drama in the lives of English Teachers and Literary Agents tends to be of a tragic nature.  Affairs soured but never explained. Aborted aspirations. Subtle,  nuanced, hesitations.

Gillon Aitken, gentlemanly, elegant, six feet six inches tall, died in 2016, of cancer. But not before losing his estranged former wife to an untimely and accidental death from a nasty fall, and then his only child, a daughter, two days later, to a grief-fuelled drug overdose. When he died himself, a few years after from the cancer, and a cloud of constant cigarette smoke that caused it, it must have come as a blessed relief.  But just because he bore his sorrow with a dignified stoicism does not become a written statement of how he felt and not just about the hammer blows received late in his life.

Unless, one counts the piles of respectful obituaries for him - and all the others like him.

 (1,013 words)
December 10th, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Have The Big Powers Voted Modi Into A Second Term Already?



Have The Big Powers Voted Modi Into A Second Term Already?

There is little ambiguity about the stature of Narendra Modi on the world stage. The foreign gaze tends to be more detached and objective, and not just in his case.
 No doubt aware of this, approaching the end of his first five-year term, Modi  carried himself with the demeanour, deportment, and assurance of a much reelected Angela Merkel, wrong or right, at the recent G20 Summit in Argentina.

And the other heads of government - President Trump, President Putin, President Xi, Prime Minister Abe amongst them, met Modi as a familiar figure, and with the warmth reserved for an ally.

They not only appear to accept Modi in the first rank of world leaders, but take for granted that he is going to be at the helm in India till at least 2024. The two unique trilateral meetings Modi attended at the G20 underlined the strategic importance attached to India in the geopolitical order. One was with Trump and Abe, and the other with Putin and Xi.

Modi has managed, through his signature style of hugs and homespun sincerity, underpinning solid research by his foreign office teams, to befriend many who may be at loggerheads with each other.

Lest he gave the impression of grandstanding, Modi also attended a  series of bilateral meetings, and was careful to plump for a multilateral world order. And he pointed out, yet again, that the scourge of global terrorism spared no country. The new emphasis Modi laid, was on cooperating to nab fugitive economic offenders and their assets. This found its way into the final communiqué too.

All this earned him enough goodwill to shift India’s hosting of the G20 Summit to 2022, India’s 75th year as an independent nation. This too seemed to assume that Modi would be standing at the ceremonial gate to welcome the world leaders in 2022.

Modi has been making plans and issuing deadlines, such as housing for all by 2022, from the very first year of his government in 2014. Many of his initiatives tacitly assume a decade in power to see it through. Voters too may be well-persuaded of his honesty, sincerity, drive, to give him the time to execute his transformational vision.

This Indian Prime minister has acquired the stature of a man of destiny globally, and is still astonishingly popular at home. His unbounded energy, personal charisma, patriotism, and sense of purpose, has been noted with approval in the capitals of the world. By way of contrast, the amount of domestic abuse from the Opposition that Modi seems to eat for lunch daily is recognized as a virtue, almost a personal trademark of zen-like tolerance. In a related context, Modi has also put World Yoga Day into the calendar with India as its champion.

At the same time, India has strengthened its military and technological reach. Its fledgling nuclear triad capability is a reality. An indigenous aircraft carrier will join its navy in 2020. Naval ships in addition to land batteries and aircraft are armed with Brahmos, Barak, and other of the latest missiles. There are new howitzers and field guns from America and South Korea capable of hitting targets at 30 km. Armed Predator drones are on their way from the US. The Army will soon be equipped with India manufactured AK-47s. There are bullet-proof vests and night vision goggles. A new deep-strike commando force is being readied. Fleets of new attack helicopters are on their way, from both America and Russia. A most advanced missile shield has been ordered. 

ISRO is notching up success after success in the launching of satellites of all kinds. India is preparing for manned space flight. It is making ready to mine the seas for minerals.

The difficult economic changes the Modi government has wrought  in a boisterously democratic country are admired by all. Even totalitarian USSR fell, after all, because it could not be reformed by Gorbachev.

This new Modi style can-doism is in stark contrast to an India long regarded, with wry humour, as no more than a “functioning anarchy”.

India is the fastest growing major economy in the world, and has raced up the ladder in terms of ease of doing business. The World Bank, IMF and other multilateral lending institutions are very pleased, despite opposition bids to denigrate, doubt, and belittle it.
Major economic reforms such as GST, the bankruptcy code, massive digitization, internet connectivity, empowerment of rural hinterlands, strides in alternate energy production, have all scored good marks.

There is electrification of every village. 90% of all households are now converted to cooking gas. Rural roads, micro-finance, banking of the unbanked, health insurance, direct subsidies, and the provision of livelihood, if not the requisite number of jobs, are seen as dynamic innovations. Yes, there is rural distress still, despite  acquisition floor prices for crops and guaranteed off-take, farmer loans, subsidies. But much more needs to be done to modernize rural India in term two.

However, achievements in multiple priority areas has whetted international appetite for even more modernization. Foreign governments are beginning to visualize a developed India, one finally on the road to fulfilling its potential.

India’s massive appetite for oil, technology, nuclear power, armaments, electronics, and millions of other goods and services is both lucrative and most impressive. None of the powers-that-be want to see this political dispensation destabilized. The Indian stock markets, with a significant FII presence, seems to concur. 

And going into the last months before general elections, as luck would have it, oil prices have come down, the rupee has gained strength against the US dollar, even as bilateral currency swap deals have been executed both with Iran and the UAE, both major trading partners.

Inflation and the deficits are under admirable control, and bad debt problems in banks and NBFCs are being tackled. Infrastructure development has hit new highs, connecting business hubs, rural hinterlands and strategic outer reaches. Diplomatic initiatives have avoided sanctions for India’s purchases and dealings with Iran and Russia.

Corruption and criminality are being tackled. Extradition of criminals not only brought in a key Dawood aide Chhota Rajan from Indonesia, but again now, a British middleman, Christian Michel,  from the UAE, wanted in the Augusta Westland helicopter bribery case. Fugitive business baron Vijay Mallya, sheltering in the UK, could well be next.

Even the higher judiciary and the Supreme Court, long perceived to be partial towards the Congress, has started giving decisions that favour the Modi government. It has allowed Income Tax cases against Sonia and Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case to be reopened. The government has also moved at last against Robert Vadra.

Five Exit Polls on December 7th mostly predict a close contest in the Hindi Heartland. There is however no sweep in favour of the Congress. The BJP has managed to hold fast despite expected anti-incumbency, even though two of their chief ministerial candidates - in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, are seeking reelection for the fourth time. Rajasthan, which tends to alternate winning parties, might yet give the state once again to the incumbent Vijayraje Scindia. Telangana is likely to be retained by KCR, and tiny Mizoram may be the only state to stay with Congress.

Results of these so-called “semi-finals” will be announced on December 11th, coinciding with the first day of the Winter Session of parliament.

In addition, the Modi government also proposes to present an unprecedented full budget instead of a traditional vote-on-account on 1st February 2019.

Notwithstanding all this, there is a furious Opposition narrative of Modi on his last legs, about to be swept out on a wave of popular discontent. There are no jobs they cry. Farmers are dying. Statistics are fudged. This is a corrupt, communal and crony government. Institutions are being subverted.

But if  this negative sentiment fails to  deliver wins for the Congress when these assembly election results come, the prospect of even the broader Opposition reviving its fortunes in the general elections of 2019 appear bleak.

The global powers are a step ahead. India’s economy will double to $ 5 trillion before the next election in 2024, putting it ahead of all others, except the US and China.  There is no going back. And an aspirational India realizes as much.  It seems to have found the leader to take it where it wants to go.

(1,385 words)
For: The Sunday Guardian
December 7th, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

BOOK REVIEW THE WOMEN'S COURTYARD BY KHAJIDA MASTUR : TRANSLATED BY DAISY ROCKWELL


BOOK REVIEW

TITLE: THE WOMEN’S COURTYARD
AUTHOR:  KHAJIDA MASTUR-TRANSLATED FROM THE ORIGINAL URDU BY DAISY ROCKWELL. THIS TRANSLATION COPYRIGHT DAISY ROCKWELL
PUBLISHER : PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE INDIA, 2018
FIRST PUBLISHED AS AANGAN IN URDU BY SANG-E-MEEL PUBLICATIONS, 1962

Feminist Cry For Independence & A Dignified Voice Against Patriarchy

This is the latest translation into English of Khajida Mastur’s poignant book on the claustrophobia felt by Islamic women restricted within the house set during the run up to and the aftermath of Partition. For page after page it builds a tension of  living in a very proscribed universe.

The ignominy of receiving word of the world outside second-hand, based on what the men might have said,  the dynamics between the women and servants in the house, their hopes, fears, frustrations and aspirations. There is the radio of course, and newspapers.

There is value in this book in terms of its relentless sociological commentary that is relevant to this day amongst the rank and file Muslim communities certainly, and even in the rigid behavior of most Khap Panchayats and other such organisations amongst the Hindus. A recent stir about Brahminical Patriarchy only underlines the issue.

Partition came after the daily struggle between Congress and the Muslim League in the backdrop of  WWII, till the British, much weakened, finally retreated in 1947. And yes, the ruling dispensations did change on thee subcontinent. This gave power to the men, excited by their emergence into independence, but did little or nothing for the situation of or attitudes towards the women, restricted still to their houses and courtyards.  

Daisy Rockwell’s rendition of the book is, as if it was written originally in English, without the awkwardness of a translation from Urdu, a much more flowery language on average.

An earlier translation by Neelam Hussain titled The Inner Courtyard, published by Kali for Women in 2001, did use a more sonorous tone that Rockwell avers was not the writing style of the original.

This version then, a retranslation, has been undertaken by her to expose Khajida Mastur’s “ spare and elegant” writing style, this time in English. In this endeavour, The Women’s Courtyard certainly succeeds even though the  restrictions of a cloistered existence seem a little dated in this age of the Internet and television.

The only men allowed into the Women’s Courtyard and house were cousins and other elderly relatives.  There is an outside room, off the courtyard, with a service door from the inside for refreshments and the like, and another, leading directly to the outside for the men who came and went.

There is a touch of Anne Frank’s restricted and secret world in this story, with suppressed romances between cousins. Frank and her family were eventually discovered in their hiding place, transported, and eliminated by the Nazis. But, in this story, there is a desolate suicide, that of the protagonist’s elder sister Tehmina, the ending of life seen by the victim, as escape from a kind of prison and a life sentence. Aliya, the heroine of the piece, sees her elder sister’s suicide however, as weakness.

Rockwell, focuses on the feminist leanings of the narrative, remarkable for the milieu and time from which it has come, and likens Mastur, like others before her, to one of the Bronte sisters.

She hastens to add, that though the Brontes too lived circumscribed and extremely short lives, they were certainly free to wander outside in the Yorkshire moors.

But Mastur,  who died at 53, said to be meek and unassuming in person, wrote with conviction on patriarchy, classism, chauvinism and misogyny. She saw them as “systemic poisons that destroy and kill women intellectually, emotionally and physically”. Additionally, Mastur points out the role of elderly women like her mother and grandmother in “perpetuating the rigid bonds of patriarchy and class hierarchy”.

Here in the Women’s Courtyard, liberation of sorts comes after the partition. Aliya, the protagonist, leaves her Indian amours, unrequited as they are, and part of her extended family behind in India. She gets a job outside, once her lower middle class family moves from somewhere in Uttar Pradesh to Pakistan. She becomes the primary breadwinner there, being educated, and is able to come and go at last.

Aliya teaches children during the day, and volunteers at a refugee camp in the evenings. But her mother waits up for her, and complains that she has become like her dead father, always focused on the outside world.

At the refugee camp, after endless years of sheltered domesticity, a well-to-do doctor proposes to Aliya. Tempted though she is at first, she turns him down. What is the point of selling my soul for secure domesticity she thinks? Her dead sister’s one time suitor Safdar appears, fortyish, after over a decade, this time in Pakistan, and proposes to her. She turns him down too. This is the ironic triumph of feminism in the Women’s Courtyard, a lonely refusal to submit to patriarchy. That it flew in the face of a sensitive woman’s natural hopes and desires was just the price that had to be paid.

 (798 words)
For: The Sunday Pioneer, AGENDA, BOOKS
November 27th, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

WHAT IS MY NOVEL CARIGNANO ABOUT?


Foreword

There are those amongst us who prefer a good story to be a "true story,"  stressing on the authentication of "reality," little realising perhaps that all storytelling is, in the event, a process of embellishment.

This one however, is indeed based on fact; even if rather loosely, and drawing considerably more on the footnotes than the exalted reaches of the main text. In fact, most of the key players, were, even without benefit of my tampering, rather obscure creatures, not badly done by at all for the footnotes they did receive.

This is not to say that my hero Peliti was not well known in the Calcutta and Simla of his day. He is mentioned frequently in the restaurant and hoteliering annals of his day, but never extensively, and mostly for the piquancy of the fact that his establishment on Chowringhee was one of the few public venues where upwardly mobile Indians could mingle socially with Europeans. This, at a time when all the celebrated clubs, the boxes at the theatre and so forth, were reserved--"For Europeans Only."

In addition, all the references to Peliti point out that he was in fact an Italian aristocrat, and the very first and only viceregal pastry chef ever appointed. Peliti, the "historical," is also remembered by a series of excellent photographs of Mashobra tea parties, hunts and the like that he took, using the huge glass plate negatives of his day, in what was the first flush of the art under development. And to prove that the world I have talked of in my novel did, in fact, exist, the Italian Embassy still puts them on show internationally from time to time…

And that his mentor, Robert Lytton, was indeed that elegant jingoist, of the "Empress Durbar," the "Forward Policy" in Afghanistan and the muzzling of the "vernacular" press; while being, at the same time, the Italy-loving poet and literateur, the stylish gourmand, the visionary keen on inducting Indian maharajahs into his privy council. And that he was the first of the two Lytton viceroys, father and son, in the position from 1876-'80; is also duly recorded.

Also on record, is evidence of the only Italian villa ever built in the Simla hills, by none other than my hero, Signor, and later Chevalier Peliti, who named the edifice "Carignano", after the baroque palace and garden in Turin. But the hero of my story talks of a more ancient "Carignano", a hereditary estate on the banks of the Po, quite distinct from the historical palazzo commissioned by the deaf mute Emanuele Filiberto and built by Guarini in the 1600s, even though it too was associated with  much Piedmont history. So much so, that it today houses the Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento Italiano…

The Indian "Carignano," built of pinewood and stone atop a mountain near the Simla suburb of  Mashobra, was  in fact turned over to the United Services Club for its retreat by Peliti and destroyed by fire around the time of Indian independence in 1947. But the area where it stood, still bears its name  Indianised to a more pronounceable "Craignano."

Another leading character of my tale, Bonsard, predates Peliti a little in the historical record, but he too was a viceregal chef who served Lytton's predecessor Northbrook, (1872-'76). But there is no historical evidence that the two ever got together. In fact, they are much more likely to have been rivals, because Bonsard too ran a lunch establishment at Dhurromtollah in the 1870s, ponderously named the "Hotel Grand D'Europe."

There is no Guiseppe Peschi or Rex Knott in the history books at all; nor is there a Malini, as delectable as mine or otherwise; but a Giovanna Peliti was indeed buried in Simla, even if there's nothing to suggest what relationship she bore to the restaurateur, if any…

A rather benign "Leopard Fakir" also walked the earth at the time per the unofficial record; but the poor man was nothing like my malevolent villian! Except, that is, for the fact that he too was French, and went to Bishop Cotton School from where he ran away with a band of itinerant sadhus. But the "real" fellow only came back some years later to sit quietly in meditation at the Hanuman temple atop Jakko. And in any case, his name was never Jacquemont, though a French travel writer by the name of Victor Jacquemont did spend some time in the Simla hills during the same broad period...

All the other characters with the exception of the various viceroys and sundry others mentioned by their readily identifiable names, are quite fictional; though again I must admit that some do bear more than nodding resemblance to actual historical characters. 

In this category I must insert Theophileus Howe, loosely modelled on Allan Octavian Hume, the founder of India's independence winning Congress Party; but the original article, I hasten to add, was respectably married, and with a penchant for ornithology, eventually donating his formidable collection to the British Museum.  He did perform heroically in his first North West Province district in the 1840s, but it wasn't called Medha. And in any case, he had none of the fictional character's sexual predilections to worry him as he went about his noble pursuits! Similarly, my Madame Zhirinsky's portrait does owe something, despite the elaborate and irreverent licence taken, to Madame Blavatsky, the founder of the very respectable Theosophy Movement in India and parts far flung.

My Joseph of Kandahar, too, is based on the equally mysterious parlour-tricking, invisible turning A M Jacob,  previously  featured as "Lurgans Sahib" in Rudyard Kipling's "Kim."

Jacob or Yakub as he originally was, did in fact also sell a diamond named after himself to the Nizam of Hyderabad, according to newspaper reports of the time. And this action did involve him in protracted litigation in the Calcutta High Court. It raked up issues of the "doctrine of paramountcy" in the conduct of administration between British India and the Princely States around them. Jacob eventually won his court case, after years of proceedings that bankrupted him, but to little or no actual benefit. And, like the "Joseph Diamond" of my story, the "Jacob Diamond" is still very prominent amongst the erstwhile Nizam's jewels, even if it is mostly wrapped up out-of-sight in a State Bank of India vault in Bombay.

And Oonch Vihar, the semi-fictional locale of the early part of my story does draw upon aspects of Cooch Behar for its stated ambience, its Indo-Saracenic palace, its famous hunts; but the literary landscape is peopled with creatures of my imagination, their thoughts and actions entirely different from anything that adheres to the historical record on the place.

Similarly Madrassabad stands in for the rich state of Hyderabad, but only the very literal minded would find it necessary to react to its inaccuracies in the context of my story.

Lastly, all the models for the main characters of my story did inhabit the small mountaintop called Simla from where the British administered India for the better part of each year. But, despite the documentation of their individually interesting lives, there is nothing in the history books to suggest that they ever interacted, for magic or the mundane, whether it was to share the warmth of friends, or to hurl around the vitriol of enemies...

Gautam Mukherjee
New Delhi, September 2018

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Has The Opposition Peaked Too Soon?


Has The Opposition Peaked Too Soon?

The keystone of the Congress Party’s “tarnish Modi’s incorruptible image” strategy has fallen out, despite the hysterically high-decibel campaign. This was the one that was designed to destroy Modi’s credibility and send him tumbling, head-first from the tower. Instead, it is Rahul Gandhi that seems to be slipping, his ice-thin plausibility denied in the full glare of the national and international media.

And this, most damagingly, long months before the general election. It was a risky, desperate gambit to start with, and has become a festering self-inflicted, possibly mortal wound for the Congress.

Gandhi’s theatrical hullabaloo is about the 36 fighter Rafale government-to- government deal and its “offsets” involving Anil Ambani and others. This campaign of calumny has been going on from before the monsoon session of parliament, and is gasping for oxygen now.  

Even HAL, the spurned suitor, on who’s behalf Rahul Gandhi says he’s out jousting, is not willing to engage in the debate.  Well aware of its shortcomings, despite being well invested, staffed and government owned, it does not want to involve itself in this controversy. It wants no part of the argument on whether Dassault, the French makers of the Rafale aircraft, if not the Modi government itself, unfairly sidelined it to favour Anil Ambani’s firm. Perhaps it knows itself better than Rahul Gandhi does.

But Gandhi, in an “in for a penny, in for a pound” avatar, has not hesitated to call the prime minister a “chor”, and Dassault CEO Eric Trappier a “liar”.

He has sought to whip up a misinformation campaign that suggests that the Modi government has contracted the 36 Rafale fighters in fly-away condition, armed to the teeth with sophisticated weapons and gadgetry as they are, at a much higher price than was being negotiated with the previous UPA administration. The inapplicability of the apple and orange comparisons are deliberately ignored.

Gandhi’s inner coterie and analytics team are probably telling him the age-old strategy of- “fling enough mud around and some of it will stick”, is working.
The attempt to treat the Rafale purchase deal as Narendra Modi’s Bofors moment, is crumbling in the face of increasing divergence from the facts.

Ironically, the first howitzers from America and field-guns from South Korea, since Bofors supplied some 30 years ago, have just been introduced, greatly strengthening Indian artillery capabilities at the borders.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is now appraised of the deal process and detailed pricing under sealed cover, and will shortly be faced with the inevitability of giving the government a clean chit – except for perhaps some points of procedure at best. Gandhi wanted the details in the media or at least before a select committee in parliament, but will have to settle for an SC verdict without knowing what it is based upon.

By way of contrast, watching a CNN programme on the celebrated and enduring fragrance Chanel No.5 recently was edifying. The current “Nose” was asked what it is about the complex perfume that made is such a favourite. He said it was a mystique best not put into words.

Chanel No.5 is known to be made of a host of ingredients, including the light pink “May Rose” grown at Grasse in the South of France. It contains our own Sandalwood, a large, possibly accidental dose of aldehyde, natural civet and musks, jasmine, orris root, iris root, other Grasse flowers. Yet it remains a formulation secret.

If only the present Congress Party, like Coco Chanel’s perfume, knew anything about holding back and leave people wondering.

Indira Gandhi was secretive and naturally very good at it. She often left friend and foe guessing. Narendra Modi, a loner, also plays his cards very close to his chest. He is also lucky- oil prices are descending once again.

But Rahul Gandhi, once shy and tongue-tied, has developed a programmed and spiteful motor-mouth. And his very persona has evidently induced matching parental anxiety. It has elicited an ill-conceived volubility in his usually reticent and Sphinx-like mother.

Sonia Gandhi boasted coarsely that she would not allow Modi to come back in 2019 “under any circumstance”. And this was as far back as the India Today Conclave 2018. She said it with a twisted, vainglorious smirk on her face, even as the Cambridge Analytica scandals, not just here, but in the West, had already been outed.

The tone had been set much before, in parliament, at public meetings, and on the street. There has been an unending display of brattish and entitled rage, but not much else.  

“Before & After” Rafale, has been bracketed by a series of loud-mouthed  rabble rousers, arsonists and murderers, gathered together to assist. There is the toxic trio of the Gujarat campaign - Jignesh Mavani, Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor. 

Thakor was identified recently as the instigator of an exodus of Bihar and UP workers from Gujarat, an action that will not help Congress prospects in both the very important states electorally. There is the sly catch from JNU- Kanhaiya Kumar, reportedly going into the electoral fray from Bihar soon. There are other criminal elements, lesser known, from Bhima-Koregaon.

And the Congress senior leadership- dignified while in office, has had to pony up with their own version of heckling coarseness to match their intellectually challenged leader.

Mini-fires, treasonous and anti-national, were brazenly set at New Delhi’s Far-left infestations in JNU. And a suicide, that of Rohith Vemula, was exploited amongst the Dalit students at Hyderabad. Pro-Pakistan and Kashmiri separatist movements were encouraged. Award Wapsi tantrums were orchestrated. 
Infantile campaigns were unleashed on the social media.

All this was gloated over by the nearly 50 year-old Rahul Gandhi in person. But despite national media coverage, these taunting antics, including winks and insincere hugs, have collectively failed to conflagrate.

The divisive Lingayat controversy raised did more to put HD Kumaraswamy into the CM’s chair than help the Congress. There have been bizarre attempts at juneaudharism, and temple hopping in saffron. The Congress has also developed a recent affection for cows and gaushalas. It is yet to make up its mind on which way to jump on the Ram Mandir, probably trying to guage the reaction of its remaining Muslim vote banks.

If there was a solitary hook-or-by-crook success for Gandhi and the Congress, it was in Karnataka. And another probable, if the in-fighting amongst the state Congress leaders permit, is widely expected to come in Rajasthan. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh however, are likely to be retained by the BJP. Mizoram too may well slip into the BJP camp along with the rest of the North East.

If this is the outcome, where are the sweeping results the campaign of vilification was expected to yield?

Congress has also been depicting the BJP as a destroyer of institutions and the economy, a culturally divisive force at home, and foolish in foreign affairs. So much so, that it must be uprooted if the “Idea of India” is to survive. Much as it tries to fish in troubled waters - at the CBI, RBI, the banks and their defaulters/absconders, most of the finger pointing backfires. Its top leadership is being indicted and tried in the courts right now even as it bleats “vendetta”.

Meanwhile the Modi government scores with the GDP, infrastructure development, improved defence preparedness, ease of doing business, farmers and SMEs. Foreign policy gains are evident in Iran, Russia, the US, Israel, UAE, Saudi Arabia, the ASEAN, even China. GST is a massive economic reform accomplished, as are acts like the bankruptcy code. Terrorism in Kashmir and Maoist violence in Central India has been hit hard.  

The broader opposition’s attempts to form a mahagatbandhan suffers from   a lack of conviction, and an agenda beyond wanting to oust Modi.

Modi, on his part, is poised to make the better battle of it in the 2019 elections. He controls the central government and a large number of BJP/NDA states. He has a massive war chest of campaign funds. He is popular at home and influential abroad.  Very importantly, he has, as yet, kept his powder dry. Nobody quite knows where or what he will attack, nor its intended intensity.

This, while Rahul Gandhi and the disparate opposition has fired almost every bullet in its possession, ruining anticipation and the element of surprise . It stands exposed, transparent,  obviously craving power, but has peaked altogether too soon to seize it.

For: The Sunday Guardian
(1,392 words)
November 14th, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee




Wednesday, November 7, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: MOHAN BHAGWAT BY KINGSHUK NAG


BOOK REVIEW

TITLE: MOHAN BHAGWAT-INFLUENCER IN CHIEF
AUTHOR: KINGSHUK NAG
PUBLISHER: RUPA , 2018
PRICE: Rs.500/-

 The Bid For Hindu Rashtra :  Mohan Bhagwat Sets The Agenda For Bharat

The visit by Pranab Mukherjee, former president of India, to the RSS headquarters at Nagpur, earlier in 2018, has set the ideological stage for the 2019 general elections.

Pranab Mukherjee’s political career has spanned the decades from the long innings of absolutist Indira Gandhi, all the way through to the present dispensation. He has been a consummate Congress politician and man-for-all-seasons at the highest echelons of government.

Kingshuk Nag, in this, his 8th book, has used Mukherjee’s illustrative and unabashed tribute to the importance of the RSS today, for his insightful study on RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat.

Earlier, Nag, a veteran former Times of India staffer, has written books on Narendra Modi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Subhas Chandra Bose, The BJP, fugitive businessman Vijay Mallya and the Kingfisher Airlines imbroglio, and the infamous Satyam scam featuring its key actor, Ramalinga Raju.

The symbolism of the RSS and its Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat at centre-stage in today’s politics, stands in stark contrast to the RSS’ much vilified past during the decades of Nehru-Gandhi domination and this book is therefore very timely.

The RSS, indicates Nag, prefers to paint on a much wider canvas than the Nehruvian reference points of Western inspired modernism. It draws inspiration from “Bharat”, albeit an inclusive continuum, that is centuries old, rich in history, tradition, knowledge and culture.

That the time has come to acknowledge and incorporate this broader view of India’s nationhood is possibly why Pranab Mukherjee went to Nagpur. However, other, more politically opportunistic reasons, have also been advanced for the visit.

The RSS, often painted as an anachronism by the Congress, seeks to derive its vision of Hindu Rashtra from the gaze of millennia. That this automatically tends to dwarf and render shallow the Nehruvian vision of a “secular” India is the very problem according to the Libleft.  

The RSS and the NDA has gained traction however precisely because the idea of Nehruvian secularism has been moulded to discriminate against the majority community of Hindus.

The Indian electorate has awakened to this discrimination against Hindus combined with a distaste for the blatantly dynastic politics promoting the Nehru family gradually. This found its first expression in voting in non-Congress governments in the eighties and nineties as the erstwhile captive vote banks began to migrate to other political parties.

Then the seeming anathema of voting for a “communal” BJP, as opposed to a socialist and diverse Janata Dal, was also penetrated when the AB Vajpayee government completed a full-term in power.

The induction of more and more RSS stalwarts into key positions in the BJP, both in the Party and Government has marked a shift during the current Bhagwat-Modi  period. However, despite this, effective in governance has not exactly been stellar.

Vajpayee tended to hold the RSS at arms-length in governance. Modi has a much better equation with Bhagwat, the same age as himself, as Nag points out. Both are 1950 born, well after independence.

The lines have indeed blurred between RSS as the ideological compass, and BJP as the vehicle of governance. However, some differences in emphasis are apparent. Modi tends to regard development  or “vikas”  as a universal panacea. The RSS wants Hindu Rashtra and some historic  wrongs against the Hindus righted on a priority basis.

It is clear Modi and the BJP could not have won without RSS support in 2014, though the magnitude of the win, took the RSS by surprise.   

This sort of majority win may repeat in 2019, given a weak and disparate Opposition. This, despite Narendra Modi having failed to keep many of the promises he made. And the effects of controversial decisions such as the sudden demonetization, that is thought to have hurt small businesses and the poor.

Also, the Modi government has done next to nothing to promote the RSS agenda for a Hindu Rashtra.  Still, the RSS may be constrained to back Modi once again as its best hope for realising its vision in the future.

The construction of the Ram Temple at Ayodhya is a sticking  point, as is the unchanged status of J&K, despite RSS inductee Ram Madhav being in-charge of party matters in the latter state.  The Mandir construction, long pending, is coming to a head now. The pressure is coming from the VHP, the SS, groupings of seers and mahants, members, some union ministers of the Modi government,  and, of course, Mohan Bhagwat and the RSS itself.

Interestingly, there is support for an urgent commencement of the Ram Temple construction from the Shia Wakf Board too. The Supreme Court however continues to drag its feet on the title dispute.

Nag refrains from putting words into Bhagwat’s mouth throughout the book. Instead, he lays out the multiple concerns of the RSS as very much a work-in-progress.  

Of paramount concern to a pragmatic and modernising Bhagwat today is BJP’s and particularly Modi’s winnability.

 Today, even as the RSS exerts its influence on the choice of electoral candidates, policy matters and union ministers alike it has not made much headway on core issues. The commitment therefore to a second term for Modi and the BJP is perforce intact.

This is the 8th decade of the RSS’ existence though Bhagwat is only the sixth sarsanghchalak. Because of Bhagwat’s relative youth, ascending to the top job at 59, the reach of the RSS has been markedly extended. It is active in Bengal, and more effectively, in the North East, for the first time. In terms of inclusion, the Muslims and Dalits feature significantly in the RSS structure today.

Bhagwat has been less successful in influencing educational policies of the government, possibly because of a large cadre of entrenched Leftists.

The fates of Narendra Modi and Mohan Bhagwat are, on the face of it, intertwined, looking at 2019. But waiting in the wings, is Nagpur’s first choice for prime ministership, should Modi falter.

Nitin Gadkari, elected from Nagpur, is the only union minister who has had a free hand in the Modi government, and the only other senior leader with both Modi’s development credentials, BJP organizational experience, and consummate RSS backing.

For:  The Sunday Pioneer AGENDA BOOKS
(1,011 words)
November 8th, 2018
Gautam Mukherjee