2015, Book Excerpts

Friends to Foes and Friends to Foes Again

As Bihar enters another election season, here’s the first of select excerpts from The Brothers BIhari, the lives and times of Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar and the state they have taken turns to boss for three decades now

***

Appan maath ke tetar kakro sujhaai chhai?

(Does anyone ever see the bump on their own forehead?)

—Maithili proverb

Midway through the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign that would decimate both of them, Laloo Yadav vehemently asserted his rejection of Nitish Kumar. Journalist Madhu Trehan had brought her multimedia portal ‘Newslaundry’ team to Patna and persuaded Laloo to sit down for a live studio interaction that would be aired on NDTV. I was among those invited to the makeshift studio on the upper floors of Patna’s Maurya Hotel and I asked Laloo if he would, in order to fend off what he called the ‘grave threat’ of Narendra Modi, consider joining hands with Nitish Kumar.

He stared coldly at me a moment, as if I had tossed him an incredulous query, then said: ‘But I thought you knew Bihar, Thakurji. This man (Nitish) has been sitting all these years in the BJP’s lap, he unseated me from power, he is the BJP’s pet. How could you even ask if I will join hands with him? Out of the question, Laloo Yadav is here to fight communal forces and those that connived with them to serve their own interests. Hum Nitish se haath milayenge? Hunhh! Kabhi nahin, never.’

Continue reading “Friends to Foes and Friends to Foes Again”
2020, Column, LazyEye, Telegraph Calcutta

Oh, but did you know this about him?

About me, rather. When they say about him, they are actually speaking for me and on my behalf, but they don’t want to embarrass me totally, you see, so they use the third person. That’s all right. That is only right. I am saying, rather asking, did you know this about me, and they are kind enough to put it another way so I don’t directly come in the way.

They are devoted people, they don’t want me to be seen as a publicist of myself, that is why they do it. They are well paid and looked after, do not worry, that much I do for services rendered to me, I have commerce in my blood, as I once famously or infamously said, you know, so I pay. Dhandho chhe, it’s business, and there is honour to keep in business. The honour of business is, you know, money. Money, money, money. Maal Baalendra. Oh sorry, I got that wrong, when everyone’s shouting your name aloud as if it were some magic mantra, the echoes can sometimes confuse you. It’s Baal Maalendra.

Continue reading “Oh, but did you know this about him?”
Telegraph Calcutta

What War Also Does

A meditation on the 21st anniversary of the Kargil conflict

Wars are lost and wars are won, but it is probably in the nature of wars to never end. They get seeded in memory, uniquely rigged and purposed — as vanity, and often vainglory, of victory, as twisting humiliation of defeat, as tenuous truce waiting to come asunder and settle what was left unsettled, a singularly human stain that refuses to wash, or only bleeds to all washing. What war did not beget another? What war did not begin to resemble the debris of lessons not learnt from the previous one?

Among modern-world reporters of war, Leo Tolstoy blazed a trail. In the mid-19th century, he travelled to the Crimea with the battery of his soldier brother Nikolai and began to write about what he saw; he would later join the infantry and fight on a front that is still alive with combat between Russian expansionism and Ukrainian resistance. His Crimea time would become The Sebastopol Sketches, a classic of war reportage. Tolstoy also ran raids against “rebel mountain tribesmen” — the Chechens — in the north Caucasus. He conjured from that stint a haunting novella called Hadji Murat, an allegory of empire and defiance, and valour and betrayal. Its sounds and setting have often reminded me of Kashmir. A century-and-a-half on, the Russians were still busy cutting the Chechens down. They pounded Grozny, the capital, to pulp, then resurrected it and put a neon-and-granite polish on it. They still haven’t put out the Chechen fires. Hadji Murat, a Chechen protagonist crafted by a Russian writer at the turn of the 19th century, lives on.

Tolstoy’s later work became a searing invective against war; it was not about glory, it was “chaotic, disorienting and humbling”. His critique became one of the reasons he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize — his work had “denied the right of both individuals and nations to self-defence”. It’s probably what war also does, it insists on its necessity to the human condition.

Continue reading “What War Also Does”
State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Compliant and complicit (September 1, 2020)

We are living a future that we are not recognizing as our present; it is taking us in, layer upon layer, in ways that we probably need to recognize if we are to be able to combat its consequences. Else we run the peril of leaving ourselves irredeemably diminished. Continue reading “Compliant and complicit (September 1, 2020)”

Telegraph Calcutta

Pinch for punch (July 2, 2020)

 

Those who live by the sword don’t always die by the sword; they are able to hold on, for a time, with the pretence of a sword. It is when that pretence is no longer sustainable that they perish. Often, there is not even the requirement of a sword at that stage; the accumulated consequences of the pretence are enough to sound an end.

Scarcely a year on from his “ghar mein ghus ke maarenge” pyrotechnics against Pakistan — a hyper-chested fire-breather act post Pulwama that delivered him a handsome electoral endorsement — the strongman image of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has suffered blows that he appears too shocked and shaken to even admit to.

The military purchase of the Balakot air-strike remains clouded in a welter of claim and counter-claim but there was a swift and dramatic response to the horrific terror-strike at Pulwama for which blame was summarily nailed on Pakistan. Fighter jets were scrambled and sent across the LoC for the first time since 1971. They did exhaust their lethal payloads over Pakistani territory before returning home. A punch was delivered, an intention stated: “Hamara siddhant hai, hum ghar mein ghus ke maarenge.” Modi received vociferous applause at every stage he mounted thereafter. He made many belligerent speeches on the back of Balakot and became the Rambo pin-up of the 2019 election. He earned a wholesome victory as Papa-Protector.

Last summer seems funnelled so far and deep in the past this summer. The Chinese — not some proxy mercenary infiltrators, as in Kargil, or a shoot-and-scoot terror outfit, as often in Kashmir, but the uniformed People’s Liberation Army — have ingressed deep into what India considered its flank of the conundrum that is the unmarked Line of Actual Control. Not at one point, and not a furtive breach. At multiple points, with a brazen dare — come get us. They have come in large numbers. They have come with construction and military hardware. They are settling down, as if it were their rightful squat. They are pitching tents where Ladakhi horses would go summer grazing, they are digging kitchens where Indian patrols would often take breathers. In the course of achieving all of this, one day they killed 20 Indian soldiers, injured dozens of others and took 10 captive, whom they later released. A few days later, Beijing’s envoy to Delhi issued a chit of paper blithely proclaiming the Galwan Valley as Chinese real estate from his office a stone’s throw away from the prime minister’s residence. 

Continue reading “Pinch for punch (July 2, 2020)”

Telegraph Calcutta

In Ladakh, Kargil echo and variance (June 14, 2020)

The reported deep incursion by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into eastern Ladakh — now the trigger for growing concern over a full-blown military confrontation — has eerie and uneasy resonances to the origins of the Kargil war of 1999.

There is one significant, probably ominous, difference

Continue reading “In Ladakh, Kargil echo and variance (June 14, 2020)”
State of Play

A mildewed life – The migrant is trapped between the home and the world

In a succession of thousands of years,/ In years of poverty and disaster,/ What existed was not a person,/ But countless disfigured cripples.

One spent his whole life as a cobbler/ Formed no judgements higher than his boot tree./ Another turned two millstones all his days:/ Behind their pointless turning he turned grey./ A third man plowed the soil from childhood on/ And never visited the nearby town...

... And in the villages, emptied of people/ Where brutish fear of the city prevailed/ A mildewed life, barbarically wretched,/ Limped from one hut’s doorway to another,/ Like a blind old nag, ribs sticking out,

Walking in its sleep around/ The same old pile of manure:/ The wooden plow, the tavern, the priests...”

“Fragments and the Whole” — Nikolai Bukharin

We can all now sigh in relief and feel a little pleased too, why not? We are sending the workers home. They are not having to walk any more, we are sending them back in chartered buses and special trains, never mind who paid for tickets, who didn’t, at least they are going home. Washing comes highly recommended these days, we can give our collective conscience a collective wash. Very soon we will stop being haunted. We will no longer see images of our countrymen and countrywomen trudging thousand-mile routes through the heat of day and the darkness of night, often smacked or whipped along the way, often forced to frogleap, sometimes sprayed with chemicals, sometimes tear-gassed. But no longer that ghoulish everywhere spectacle of them dragging their trussed worldly goods, their bewildered kids, hungry, thirsty, hapless, exhausted, and yet so tormented by their present that it had to be fled and a future chased. A future that lay in most of their pasts, their homes, those homes that they had had to forsake to arrive here, from where they are now being driven, hither-thither, in panicked tens of thousands, like frantic wildebeest droves in crocodile-ridden waters.

Continue reading “A mildewed life – The migrant is trapped between the home and the world”
State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Ruled by decree (April 3, 2020)

Where we all are today has left us deeply shaken and worried, but this will pass. We do not yet know when or how, but the Corona shadow will pass. We will still have those clouds to contend with that the pandemic swept over and temporarily shunted from our attentions and apprehensions. 

Where we all are today has left us deeply shaken and worried, but this will pass. We do not yet know when or how, but the Corona shadow will pass. We will still have those clouds to contend with that the pandemic swept over and temporarily shunted from our attentions and apprehensions. 

Continue reading “Ruled by decree (April 3, 2020)”
Telegraph Calcutta

RUN, RAHUL, RUN

Fact: Rahul Gandhi is the Congress MP from Wayanad in Kerala.

Fact: Rahul Gandhi is not only the Congress MP from Wayanad in Kerala.

Fact: Rahul Gandhi is nobody in the hierarchy of the Congress party.

Fact: Rahul Gandhi cannot be nobody in the hierarchy of the Congress party.

Fact: Rahul Gandhi does not want to return as president of the Congress party.

Fact: Rahul Gandhi wants to return as president of the Congress party.

Continue reading “RUN, RAHUL, RUN”
2020, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

The Delhi violence is a symptom of a vastly altered India (March 4, 2020)

“Mobs smash, loot and burn”

“Fires and bomb wreck town…”

“Furniture and goods flung from homes and shops…”

“Bands rove… plunderers trail wreckers… Police stand idle…”

Familiar headlines. Headlines we’ve seen leap out nearly ten days now from a strip of Delhi gone phosphorescent with hate and the mayhem it often spells. These could well have been headlines from Delhi. They aren’t. They are headlines from more than eighty years ago, from a faraway place called Germany and its overrun neighbourhood whose uneasy resonance amidst us we must begin to sense.

Here are the real, fuller headlines. Continue reading “The Delhi violence is a symptom of a vastly altered India (March 4, 2020)”

Politics 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

Prashant Kishor and his improbable power map

Politics is the art of the possible”, said Otto von Bismarck. And then there are those who make it their business to attempt the art, or risk it.

What’s the bet Prashant Kishor will pop up in Bihar next, having posed his happy hug with Arvind Kejriwal and left the celebrations of Delhi? But whatever for? He’s just been rudely cut cold by Nitish Kumar. He doesn’t have a backroom in Patna. Nor a client. He doesn’t have a party in Patna. Nor a post. What might he be headed to Bihar for? Continue reading “Prashant Kishor and his improbable power map”

Miscellaneous

Home is where the heart is (October 28, 1995)

There is perhaps no reason for an inconsequential little dead girl to be occupying this space. perhaps the editorial pages of newspapers should concern themselves with larger things — with men and women and events that make eras and epochs and history, however horrible a job they do of it. So why this inconsequential little girl? Why Shahida? She made no history. She made nothing; her life, in fact, was a life of constant and dreary unmaking. Continue reading “Home is where the heart is (October 28, 1995)”

Telegraph Calcutta

Our nation to keep and guard

 

Someone in the shivered hubbub around the Shaheen Bagh picket did bring up the mention of Sharmila Irom of Manipur and how long she fought against the AFSPA before she pulled out the feeder tubes, ended the hunger strike and proceeded with her life. Sixteen years she battled. Irom is now off stage; AFSPA remains.

The state is powerful, in time it breaks the will and bones of those that stand in its way. But the thing about protests is not always whether they have surmounted, but often just that they have been waged. Continue reading “Our nation to keep and guard”

Telegraph Calcutta

Modi-Xi ‘chemistry’ exam

The Telegraph. Edition of September 10, 2020

Thursday’s scheduled engagement between foreign minister S. Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) ministerial session in Moscow could prove a watershed in finding a peaceable way out of the border belligerence in eastern Ladakh or an ominous washout for India.

Continue reading “Modi-Xi ‘chemistry’ exam”
LazyEye, Telegraph Calcutta

How About An Act Of Dog?

Depends on which. Local dog? Or vocal dog? Biting dog? Or barking dog? Or dogs that are capable of both? Local dogs that are also vocal dogs? You’d know these. If you grace the nights long enough, you’d know. They do not allow the nights to be nights any more. If you live where most of us live, you’d know. Continue reading “How About An Act Of Dog?”