2013, Essay, Journalism, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

Tejpal And Tehelka, Maker And Unmaking

As literary presaging goes, Tarun Tejpal laid out the markers of his recent life with admirable, even frightening, clarity: The Alchemy of Desire, The Story of My Assassins, The Valley of Masks — his three novels to date, in that order.

It seems a rending irony too how the littlest of Tejpal’s constructs have flown off his ingenious desk to taunt his current circumstances. When Tehelka was a fledgling tabloid, a raw and unwashed reincarnation of the hounded shell of tehelka.com, the resident wordmeister, Tejpal himself, minted the smarter of many pitches that would become bow-tie to the brand. “You can’t change the truth,” it went, “But the truth can change you.”

The jury has just begun to grind on violations that ring-sided Tehelka’s tarnished Goa celebfest, but the subterfuge that played out in the public space subsequently has already laid convincing claim to being called sordid.

This is not about the dark episodes that are alleged to have transpired between insistent boss and reluctant employee, this is about what light Tehelka’s protagonists have cast upon themselves in the aftermath of unthinking misdemeanour. Deceit is one word that comes readily to mind. Deception is another.

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2013, News, Patna, Telegraph Calcutta

“Why Is There Such Palpable Public Criticism Of You, Mr Nitish Kumar?”

His eighth anniversary as Chief Minister of Bihar is, technically, an unprecedented moment for Nitish Kumar — he has always come to his annual observations with a report card as head of a coalition. This time, it will be on his own, as head of the only JDU government in the country. 

For that reason, and more, this is also probably the toughest anniversary for Nitish — he has lost the cushion of a two-thirds majority in the Assembly thanks to the rupture with the BJP in June; he has earned a belligerent enemy in his former allies; he looks politically more vulnerable than he has ever been since he assumed charge of Bihar in the winter of 2005. But for all of that, Nitish Kumar, exuded a quiet confidence about his work being his best certificate. “Log dekhenge kisne kaam kiya kisne nahin kiya,” he told me in an interview at his 1 Aney Marg residence, “Log bewakoof nahin hain.” (People see who had done the job who has not, people are not fools.) Excerpts:

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Q: How do you sum up your performance over the last year, particularly now that you have broken with your long-term ally? Was that distracting?

A: What happened to the alliance has nothing to do with governance, that was a separate thing, that was politics and ideology. Governance has proceeded along the lines of the agenda of governance we have had all this time. I would say good progress has been made given our constraints. Especially in areas where huge expectations were attached. Power, for instance. I had made a promise in 2012 that if I cannot improve the power situation I will not go asking for votes. Power has improved. From 700-800 megawatts a few years ago, we are now generating 2300 megawatts, and the results are visible. This will improve further. One power unit in Kanti has been revived, Barauni is set to become functional again, there is a new facility in Barh. I know there are still problems with transmission and distribution but we are working on it. The encouragement to women and girls in many sectors has been amplified. Their participation has increased, that is a big thing to me. All schoolgirls are now getting a scholarship upto class X, we have been able to retain more and more at school. Infrastructure upgradation is continuing apace. Three new bridges have been sanctioned across the Ganga, they are all big projects. A bridge across the Kosi that I was pledged to inaugurat on January 14, 2014 will be opened a month ahead of schedule. Work on the Ganga embankment has begun, the state-of-the-art museum we planned is under construction in the centre of Patna. Things are moving.

Q: Why is there this impression then among people that governance in your second term has suffered, especially after you broke with the BJP? There is palpable public criticism which was absent in previous years.

A: It has not been hit one paisa. But what is one to say of this chattering class that sometimes says Ganesh is drinking milk, sometimes says the Gods are eating up salt. What is one to do about myth-makers? They (meaning the BJP) are more vocal, they have a grip on the chattering circles, that is true. But there are many who are silent, are they not going to vote? There is a reverse consolidation happening in the polity to the new noises you hear. A negative atmosphere is being deliberately created, there is an attempt to pervert the discourse. I am not going to respond to afwah (rumour) masters. People see who has done the job, who has not, people are not fools.

Q: Even so, there have been lapses recently. The bomb blasts in Gaya and Patna, the poisoning of school-children, the way mobs were allowed to run amok in Patna after Bramharshi Mukhiya’s killing last year. There is an impression the administration is losing grip.

A: I will address those issues one by one. In the Mukhiya case, it was a deliberate decision to let the funeral procession come to Patna. There was anger among his followers, they were intent on it, the issue was to conduct the funeral procession peacefully. That did not happen, unfortunately. But once distrubances began, again the choice was between confronting the crowd or letting the anger pass before action was taken against the guilty. I know there has been criticism about the way the incident was handled, but to my mind, intervening with an emotionally surcharged crowd would have sparked more violence. The school children’s deaths was very tragic, but it was not a case of neglect or food poisoning, it was pesticide. We learnt our lessons, processes have been tightened. I saw news of a rat found in another school meal today. Action has followed, people are on their toes. The blasts, who would have thought they would happen in Bihar? Our politics does not have a culture of violence, especially terror violence. Who would have thought someone will try to bomb a Gandhi Maidan rally? We had done routine checks, but you know how Gandhi Maidan is. It is impossible to sweep the whole ground, check everybody coming in. But now, those drills will have to be put in place, everyone will have to follow security protocols, go through metal detectors. Then people will say they are being harassed, people are not being allowed in. You know how things work.

Q: There’s a related issue here. Following the blasts, people have alleged your government is soft on terrorists because there is the question of the minority vote.

A: Absolute nonsense, let anybody come and make that allegation face to face with me and I shall respond to it. We have a government in Bihar, we have responsibilities, we are entrusted with upholding law and order. What is the evidence we have been soft on terrorists or on left wing extremists? Let anybody prove we have not done whatever needs to be done to tackle both. Irresponsible things have been said about the handling of the arrest of Yasin Bhatkal. Central agencies wanted him, why don’t people find out whether there were differences on what to do with Bhatkal between the IB and the NIA?

Q: Is it not true though that there is a change in the public mood? Do you sense it? Two years ago, you had told us Bihar was in a ‘Dil Maange More’ mood. Is that your sense even today?

A: Look, the work is proceeding as it was. I am committed to it. But there will be critics and criticism, that is the nature of democratic societies. When we got a huge majority in the last election, we still had about 40 percent of the vote, no more. So some people or sections are always against you, no matter what is done. I have drawn my lessons on what requires to be done in Bihar from small incidents in my experience. Over my many years in politics in Bihar, I have come to conclude that education, healthcare and positive discrimination for women and for underprivileged sections is absolutely necessary. That is what we have concentrated our efforts on. It is difficult to please all people all the time, but people will eventually understand the difference between good and bad and they will make a choice. Of this I am sure.

Q: Does Narendra Modi’s arrival on the scene worry you? Does the BJP’s belligerence worry you? After all you have to face both the BJP and Lalu Prasad as adversaries now.

A: I am not worried on that count. I do not have sleepless nights. What’s the need? I know I am doing the job as well as I can. The consequences will follow. As for people who are talking about a hawa, let me tell you that is hawabaazi (bluster). It is true I took a gamble, but it was based on ideology and principle. If others believe they will succeed on the basis of a section of the youth and corporate houses and strategists, they are deluding themselves. They are also trying to breach social peace and harmony. I know just how desperate they are to create disturbance and polarization. As chief minister I know more things than I can reveal. But the very fact we have failed their efforts is proof of the success of our efforts to keep law and order and to defeat their designs. Bihar is a very complex society. I have fought elections since 1977, so I can claim to have some sense of why people vote and why they do not. The BJP talks of a higher success rate. That itself gives the lie to their claims. Higher success rate for the BJP in the last elections means that our vote got transferred to them and theirs did not get transferred to us. Aba aata-daal ka bhaav maloom chalega (now they will realize the true nature of things).

2013, News, Patna, Telegraph Calcutta

The Big Test: Old Nitish Versus New Nitish

Patna, Nov 23: This is the most challenging and adverse power anniversary Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has arrived at in his eight years at the helm.

The deficits of a long incumbency are coming into play. The many aspirations he kindled on the derelictions of Laloo-raj are seeking fulfillment. He no longer enjoys the luxury of shining in comparison to Laloo Yadav; he is measured against his own manifesto of hope. Most of all, he must now square up to the political consequences of the ideological gamble he took in cutting off the BJP and deciding to sail solo. Nitish Kumar is on choppy waters infested with adversaries sharking in; his test will be how he negotiates them.

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2013, Bombay, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

A Reward Unto Himself, A Reminder Unto Another

Mumbai, Nov 16: A thought may have travelled far across the globe from here and struck Roger Federer wherever he is: Time to go?

Could there be more to the reason why Federer became the first non-cricketing sportsman to tweet Sachin Tendulkar farewell than just that they have made a habit of meeting during the Championship at Wimbledon each summer? Could it also be the tennis star has sighted in the cricket icon the grey apparition impending closer upon him? Retirement?

Like Sachin, Federer has already moved into the lofty and lonesome manhattan of achievement. He has spared no trophy left to grab. His exploits have defied earthly gravity. His following is its own Christendom. His coffers must cough to suffocation. His mantel must groan with the burden of achievement. His body, like Sachin’s, has begun to reveal that unconquerable thing called age. He’s only 32 to Sachin’s 40, but if modern turns on a brutal treadmill, international tennis is rubber on an F1 lap. It burns you out.

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Federer’s down seeded sixth on the ATP charts, behind David Ferrer and Juan Del Potro. He’s lost bouts recurrently to the others who make up the top five: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovich, Andy Murray. He’s begun to snarl at play and gnash in defeat. He’s unrelenting yet to what his body might tell him. He will give up his serenity and turn to scrapping, if that’s what it’ll take hereon to bark the competition off court. He’s busy banishing approaching ghosts and said somewhere recently he is still planning, as always, 18 months ahead. Which means he’s already thinking Wimbledon 2015. Which may well mean, he’s also mulling what the arrangements of what transpired at the Wankhede this afternoon.

It came to pass that at high noon Sachin soaked up the shadows of a matchless journey under his hat and said goodbye.  A tear fell, or several, Sachin will best be able to tell, and became an ellipse of full stops. Game’s end.

A cruelly truncated end, for he may have rightfully bargained on ten last days out on the park and four last outings with the bat. The West Indies were keener on a triumphal sendoff than Sachin probably cared for. They lasted two and three quarter days at Eden and fewer here on Sachin’s home ground. Their woeful deficits made a moth-eaten series of it and ended up robbing Sachin an entire game’s playtime. It was a 2-0 defeat conceded, improbably, in the time it takes to conclude one Test.

This morning, the Best Men of Sachin’s farewell party put some of their calypso abandon on display, but none of the fearsome authority that was as much part of the West Indian credo. They extended lunch, but showed no stomach for a fight. They made a meal of themselves, bowled out for far fewer than Clive Lloyd alone hit up (242) at Wankhede’s inaugural game in January 1975. Lloyd isn’t the size that’s easily concealed, but through the course of this match, the Big Cat may have been looking for a suitable place in the Wankhede pavilion to shake off the blushes.

Came another crown a little later in the day that may have waited on the glow of Sachin’s final tryst with cricket to abate. Intimation with grace is not an undue demand to make on the highest honour this nation bestows on its citizens, a divined moment, a well-lit place, a standout assignation. The Bharat Ratna hurtled off the government’s cooling rooms to join the end of a scrummy beeline extended before Sachin: a commemorative stamp, a BCCI cap, a STAR India trophy, an MCA trophy, a Mumbai Police album, a Sri Lankan government medal, then Bharat Ratna.

The crown Sachin has signed off wearing is mostly the aggregate of his own singular labours; the Bharat Ratna could have displayed lesser haste than to lunge and want itself pinned on it rightaway.

Today, Sachin could have been afforded just his own radiance, just his own easy eloquence which few knew existed until he began to speak, just the gathered rewards of his own realm — a cuddled family, an engaged coach, a praying mother, a father somewhere in the radiance overhead, a fondness of mates past and present, a reclusive mentor-brother somewhere in the shadows, a lachrymose constituency rooted round the stands interminably long after Mohammed Shami had castled Shannon Gabriel and coaxed a Peter Pan cackle of joy from the 40-year-old at square leg. He’d only just retired and was clapping his own curtains down.

PS: If Sachin Tendulkar is synomous with Indian cricket, it remains, hearteningly, on good shoulders: his last lap of honour Sachin concluded borne by two men named Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Virat Kohli.  Roger Federer will have to trek off court solo, whenever he calls it quits, and with his own shoulder to carry the kitbag on.

2013, Bombay, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Pablo Neruda’s Swan, Sachin Tendulkar’s Song

 

Mumbai, Nov 15: In his redolent memoir of a life fully lived, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda recounted a childhood fragment of hunting swans — big unwieldy birds, clumsy of flight, easy to strike down. As a boy, Neruda once tended a battered swan as big as himself for several weeks, until one day its neck twisted and the swan keeled. “It was then that I learned,” Neruda wrote, as only he could, “that swans don’t sing when they die.”

Should some quirk of magic-realism have brought the laureate to the Wankhede for Sachin’s swansong this morning, he may have considered revising his evocation of how swans die.

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This one danced all the way to sudden death, laying back, stepping down, swinging, twisting, flicking, flickering on like a flame nobody save eleven West Indians on the park wanted put out. He brought the spectators tiers to sing and swing along. He was on a waltz that held the swell and ebb of a million pumping hearts, temporarily the sole conductor of diastoles and systoles.

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Bombay, Mumbai, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Sachin Tendulkar: Where No Man Has Been Before

Mumbai, Nov 14: History is unbeaten on 38 and has taken an overnight break. The future resumes in a while. A little past nine in the morning, millions of hearts will leap back into mouths and begin to palpitate like prayer.

Sachin Tendulkar’s last stand on the cricket field has interrupted this long and cheerless season of cynicism, drowned out unseemly political blame and claim, smothered the clamour on many embattled barricades and brought a whole nation to exult in unison: “Saachin! Saachin!!”

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Despondency and dissonance can await restoration on prime time; at 33 minutes past three this afternoon, Sachin began to cause a happy disruption, however temporary, with a kilo and a half of willow at the Wankhede.

He brought it sheathed in India colours, and wielded it like a wand of undiminished magic. He made it seem an outrageous travesty he is hanging his cap on it after this one and taking it home forever, signing off at a chosen peak because he can see none else left to climb.

Every moment he has spent on the playing park in recent years, every single run he has scored, has become a new space no man has ever been before. No one has played as many Tests, no one has scored as many runs; maybe he is bored on this solo run, weary of pushing the boundaries so far his company has fallen out of sight.

He pushed a little further on today for cricket and country, and progressed farther afield, a little more solitary in that zone. Six missives to the ropes in his unfinished essay — four exquisite taunts to gaps on the off boundaries, a delectable paddle to fine leg, and the last, a signature posting of authority to long on. Fourteen singles, squeezed about and caressed, 51 other offerings patiently seen through, as if he were determined to make his last fling more than just a one-night stand. He was correct as a textbook throughout; only, the Windies, who have given a torrid description of themselves thus far, couldn’t read him.

Darren Sammy’s men stood Sachin a gracious guard of honour as he walked in, then immediately laid an elaborate snare — slip, close in, short point, forward short leg, a fine leg so short he could pick Sachin’s back-pocket, and wicketkeeper Denesh Ramdin breathing down his bootlaces. Shane Shillingford, the lone Caribbean shark on tour, had the blood of openers Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay fresh on his fingers; he was finning in for another kill. Sachin dabbed and padded and then twirled one to square leg and called ‘run’, oblivious that Cheteshwar Pujara couldn’t possibly have heard him at the other end. The roar lifting off the Wankhede was such, it was pushing the risen tides of the Arabian Sea on the close by shore. “Saachin! Saachin!!”

For the better part today, the Wankhede centrestage was actually the fringe — deep fine leg, or third man, or long off, where Sachin stood as the West Indians crumbled yet again around the pole of a promising start. For all the merry wreckage Pragyan Ojha, Ravichandran Ashwin & Co were causing mid-field, the arena’s attentions roved and settled where Sachin went. It was a crowd unwilling to concede cricket is an eleven-a-side game; it was there just for that one diminutive giant minding the fence in a floppy hat.

To behold Sachin unmindfully tapping grass and enacting that trademark pre-stance crouch in the face of such imploring adulation was to be in the vicinity of a transcendent presence. How may a man contain the reverberation of a million jangling nerves, let alone his own?  How may a man remain calm in the eddy of high-decibel arousal and expectation he has come to cause? Sachin looked so removed and disengaged under his helmet from the reverence rippling around, it almost seemed a rude thing to do.

But then, he may have been otherwise occupied. He may have been paying final obeisance to the craft that has made Sachin Tendulkar what he is — beyond adjective or ascription, Sachin Tendulkar himself. The Chief Editor of my newspaper is possessed of quirky inventiveness with metaphors. He discontinued describing the few things he reckoned world-class as world-class a while back; he began to call them Tendulkar-class.

The world saw Sachin salute the Wankhede turf before he took guard today; what he may have kept to himself was a bow to mother Rajini whose first match-day out at the stadium would be her son’s last. And to guru Ramakant Achrekar, who arrived on the viewing deck in a wheel-chair to watch his ward play one final time.

Sachin’s elders may have to make that effort one more time tomorrow. History is still in the scripting. And when Sachin enters the Wankhede bowl tomorrow, he might well render the future for his cricketing peers a little more unattainable. Breathe easy, this man has nothing more to prove than the undying expectations of his following.

2013, Bihar, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar’s Chhatth: Pre-Vedic Gift To Post-Modern Consciousness

 

“Chhatth ke argha taa deyli babua,

Tabhiyo Bihar naa sudhri…”

(I’ve done the devotionals of Chhatth, young one,

But even so Bihar shan’t redeem itself)

— play on the refrain of a popular self-deprecating Bhojpuri ballad

 

For far too long Bihar’s name was, in good measure, infamy. It exported hungry migrants, bad news and an outcrop of civil servants. The first two did Bihar little credit. The third came at such a premium it became not a Bihari thing but exceptional of Bihar — they were uber-Biharis, those that had overcome Bihar rather than come off it. Bihar: boondock of malignant cargo.

That unseemly signature has begun to cure itself lately, and may already have become a stylized curl along fringes of water across the land. From the Juhu beachfront in Bombay, to the Ganga ghats of Varanasi and Calcutta, to the shallow moats of Delhi’s Boat Club and punctuations of rivulet, stream and pond strewn betwixt, an iridescent frill has erupted and put new colour and contour to what Bihar or Bihari might mean — pre-Vedic Chhatth has brought to its devotees the gift of a post-modern consciousness, the opening of a grand frontier of their mostly hard-pressed migration.

It’s what N.K. Singh, technocrat, politician and notarized fellow of Bihar’s ruling elite, calls a “cultural watershed” in the annals of his people. “The journey of Chhatth out of Bihar and to far places is, finally, evidence of the confident assertion of Bihari identity,” he says, “It represents a phenomena far beyond migration, this is high-value migration. Like Diwali has travelled to the White House, Chhatth has taken others parts of India in its sweep.” What Singh picks out as most remarkable is that “Chhatth is not something Biharis are sheepish any more to observe outside their domain, they are doing it with pride wherever they are.”

Continue reading “Bihar’s Chhatth: Pre-Vedic Gift To Post-Modern Consciousness”