2014, Journalism, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Vaidik, Hafiz Sayeed and the Sting on Journalism

New Delhi, July 14: An interview that nobody has read, and probably hasn’t yet been written, flamed into the headlines today, stoking partisan skirmishes in Parliament and ethical paroxysm, even some envy, across newrooms.

Should Ved Pratap Vaidik have taken himself into a Lahore safehouse for an hour-long conversation with Mohammed Hafiz Sayeed, amir of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the man India accuses of plotting the Mumbai terror assault and calls a clear and present danger to Indian security?

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But before that, Ved Pratap Vaidik, who? He seems a man convinced he escapes simplistic description and is entitled to a higher, multifaceted calling. He describes himself as a “journalist, ideologue, political thinker, orator”. His specialty is South Asia — “Aryavarta” to his preference —from Afghanistan all across the India’s northeastern periphery. He was once opinion editor of the Hindi daily Navbharat Times, then editor of Bhasha, the Hindi cousin of the Press Trust of India. Came a time, he forsook the quotidian yoke of employment, and turned freelance fount of varied wisdoms, an aspiring rishi to political rajas. He occasionally found them and offered them what he could. His current hat is Chairman, Council for Indian Policy, an institution of unclear provenance. He is also yoga teacher Ramdev’s best-known non-yogic impresario, and, should you happen to ask, high counsellor to a string of political leaders across party lines.

Congressmen, he revealed today, wanted him at one time during the P.V. Narasimha Rao days, to be elevated to deputy Prime Minister. Earlier this year, he delivered a “civilizational discourse” to a Delhi gathering attended, among others, by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Arun Jaitley and Ramdev. And earlier this month, on July 2, he was able to effect that first-of-its-kind cross-border tryst with Hafiz Sayeed.

Journalism took him there, Vaidik insists, no ulterior motive or undercover task. The bafflement remains he took the better part of a fortnight to announce his journalistic coup, and when he did, he appended no journalism to it. What he did put out was a photograph seated across Sayeed, between them a table with a jug of water, an offering he declined, this being the month of Ramzan. What he also gave out of his interview was interviews of his own — I told Hafiz Sayeed about Narendra Modi and him being a “brahmachari”, he told me he had three wives; I told him Indians accuse him of promoting terror, he told me he has never done any such thing, he’s only been defamed by America under Indian pressure; I told him more about Modi and he said Modi will be welcomed in Pakistan, he himself wants to come to Delhi and Mumbai and address gatherings, and that his mother escaped to Pakistan from Ropur (in Punjab), when she was carrying him. The tone would suggest this is not a senior Indian journalist interviewing a man India considers Public Enemy Number One; it approximates a Track II, no notes, conversation more.

Questions arise, several of them. For a start, what exactly was Vaidik doing with Hafiz Sayeed?

The Congress, scanning the board for pins to dig into the Modi government, was quick to raise the “traitor!” charge and demanded an explanation on why the government was dispatching emissaries to cosy up to an internationally proclaimed terrorist and professed India tormentor: we need to know immediately if this government is negotiating with terrorists instead of demanding they be brought to justice, as we have been.

The BJP rushed to rubbish the charge and dust off any hint of intimacy with Vaidik or his mission. “We have nothing do to with it,” protested parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu, “I have checked with the ministry of external affairs, there was nothing. We were neither consulted, nor did we consent to any such thing. For the record, Hafiz Sayeed remains an enemy of India.” Vaidik himself appeared diligently engaged all day today, trying to deflect Congress volleys, protect the Modi establishment from taking hits. “I went on behalf of nobody, I went on my own,” was his relentless song, “It was something I did as a journalist.”

Which begs another question. How did he secure access to Hafiz Sayeed?

Vaidik’s doesn’t constitute the first Indian media effort to question Hafiz Sayeed, though the jury remains out on whether he intended to question the JuD boss in the first place. Dozens of Indian journalists have tried and failed. The truth is Sayeed remains a prized entity for formidable Pakistani state actors — the GHQ/ISI complex which dictates policy — and retains the benefit of their proctection. You don’t get to see Hafiz Sayeed by knocking at his Johar Town residence in Lahore; a likelier prospect is you’d get knocked before you get anywhere near if you make a solo attempt without travel documents. Phonelines need to be burnt, subterranean connections made, purpose and credentials verified and channels cleared, before such a meeting can come to be. Vaidik seems to have had the benefit of all of those; he has gone where no Indian journalist has ever been before.

Arriving as part of then foreign minister S.M. Krishna’s media crew at a Lahore five-star in the September of 2012, some of us caught a shivered whisper in the hotel lobby: Anyone here who wants to meet Hafiz Sayeed? What? Really? Or was it just a mischievous truth-or-dare trick? But how? When? Where? It can be arranged, the whisper offered, probably here, probably somewhere nearby, within ten minutes. He lives in a double-storey in Johar Town, after all, and he enjoys the way of his will. There were not a few excited and willing among us: Hafiz Sayeed, a scribe’s big story, let’s take it. But then, the whisper vanished, almost as suddenly as it had arrived. Only the electric ripple of it remained. The hive of spooks and securitymen, Indian and Pakistani, in the hotel atrium couldn’t possibly not have caught a sense of it. They swiftly banished the prospect of Hafiz Sayeed, even the floating spectre of the promise.

I would have taken the chance with both hands and two hooves, but even then, as now, there were those among us who declared, astonishingly,

that even offered an opportunity they’d decline on some cuckoo illusion that interviewing Sayeed would compromise their patriotism. It’s  a stance Vaidik dexterously used all day today to secure holes in the frayed masonry of his story: “As a journalist, I’d meet anyone, I’ve met the LTTE’s Prabhakaran, I’ve met armed Naxalites, I’ve met many enemies of the state, but that is my duty as a journalist.”

But all along, he himself issued reason for his “purely journalistic mission” tale to be doubted. Journalists don’t go on roving foreign missions — and should not — promoting home governments. Vaidik did. His own writing from Pakistan contains the best evidence of it. Among the things he told the Pakistani leadership, according the solitary piece he wrote for a home publication: “Modi hasn’t uttered a word against Muslims and is good for all Indians”; “Nobody has a bad word to say of Modi in Pakistan”; “All of Pakistan is looking forward to an early Modi visit”. Upon his return home, Vaidik penned a paean to Arun Jaitley’s maiden budget and titled it, “Modi kaa Manmohak Budget” (Modi’s Spellbinding Budget).

The reason why a “dubious” cry attends Vaidik’s journalistic-mission protestation isn’t far to seek. And we are still wondering where the core of all this clamour is? His “interview” with Hafiz Sayeed. What desk did he send it to?

 

2007, Essay, Journalism, New Delhi, Tehelka

Last Among Unequals

 

Chandra Shekhar was a deeply flawed politician but in many ways he embodied an ethos that has little resonance or currency in today’s India.

In this, his seventh anniversary year, an appraisal I wrote in 2007

In extant public consciousness, the facial stubble probably lies copyrighted as signature statement to Anil Kapoor or to Abhishek Bachchan. But that could only be a trick of not knowing. The stubble was launched as street vogue on the face of a fledgling socialist called Chandra Shekhar in the mid-1960s and has endured through the decades as trademark lean and hungry look of the smalltown neta with bigtime ideas and ambitions. There was a tribe of north Indian politicians that came to subliminally believe you had to have a stubble if you wanted to be taken seriously. In an era where there was still some political premium on being and appearing rustic and rooted rather than cityslicker-swish, the unkempt visage was what made first impressions. The stubble was, if you like, the fashion statement of a certain political species — rough and always ready for the road, no time for personal care because public life wasn’t meant to be about any of that.

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Chandra Shekhar was no Gandhi, there can be no confusing them. (And even Gandhi was in many ways no Gandhi; didn’t Sarojini Naidu remark how she wished the world knew how much it cost to keep the Mahatma poor?) But if symbolism is a legitimate tool for setting norm and standard, we may have lost in Chandra Shekhar the last great villager-politician. Not because to the end of his days, the man wore nothing but rumpled dhoti-kurta, bandi, ahinsak chappals and, in the bitter cold, a khadi shawl; not because he preferred to squat and chat in the kutia he had had constructed in his 3 South Avenue Lane home; not because he kept open house there even when he was, for a trice, Prime Minister; not because he never went campaigning in choppers; not because he never got seduced by the dazzle of the celebrity-corporate complex that debuted harmlessly on Page 3 and has now extended its insidious grip, octopus-like, to all vital precincts of national life; not even because he was the only contemporary politician to have walked — his 1983 Bharat Yatra was no air-conditioned cross-country in a souped-up rath, it was a sole-splitting marathon at the end of which he had his feet wrapped in reams of gauze — the heart of the land.

It was because he was utterly unembarrassed about his lack of chic. It was because it would have embarrassed him to be seen as enamoured by it or aspiring to. That isn’t true any more of many of those who fashion themselves as sons of the soil. The list includes Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh, both of whom owed much to Chandra Shekhar that they aren’t generous enough to reveal. Mark this contrast — Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh have, in time, turned into prosperous and unabashed little dynasts; Chandra Shekhar, for all his years, access and influence, never promoted his family into politics. Sons Pankaj and Neeraj are private people, barely recognised beyond their departed father’s close circle.

It has become kosher, in some ways even obligatory, for the political classes to flaunt wealth, or the company of the wealthy, these days — the cocktail appearance, the shake-a-leg gig, the flash car or cell, the private jet courtesy so-and-so. In Chandra Shekhar’s book that was strictly schlock. Like most politicians of a generation getting framed up on the walls, Chandra Shekhar took a dim, even contemptuous, view of such ethics; he thought such exhibitionism uncouth and unseemly in a country still overwhelmingly populated by the poor. The last time I saw him — a brief meeting in the improvised hut at 3 South Avenue Lane several months ago — he lay already quite consumed by the rot in his veins but still typically irascible at the way things were. “Matibhrasht neta hain is desh ke jinko GDP ka das ank laakhon mare kisanon se jyada bada dikhai deta hai.” (The leaders must have lost their minds to view two-digit GDP growth as bigger than hundreds of thousands of dead farmers.)

It wasn’t as if Chandra Shekhar didn’t build personal wealth; the modest farmer’s son from Ballia in east UP came to acquire fabled — and dubious — estates in the name of the Bharat Yatra Trust at Bhondsi on the fringes of New Delhi and back in his native Ibrahimpatti. It was not as if he did not deal with big and dirty money; as leader of a political concern that had to be kept going and, later, as Prime Minister, he had to. But he had a way about money; money was not about personal ostentation, it was even less about losing sense of realities and perverting policy as a consequence. If ever he used one, Chandra Shekhar probably needed an aide to operate the mobile phone, but he knew his rabi from his kharif and was familiar with all the miseries that happen in between. And he wasn’t afraid to evoke that sensibility even if he was the only man doing so. He left the Praja Socialist Party to join Indira Gandhi because he became convinced that Congress conservatives were bent upon gobbling her — and socialism — up. He fought off the rightwing syndicate with Mrs Gandhi. He left her side when he sensed her turning autocratic and preferred jail to submission. He fought tooth and nail — and in vain — against the formation of the Janata Dal under VP Singh because he thought VP a Congress crony and an opportunist and said so openly. He wasn’t bothered to know if he convinced anyone.

But at the worst of times, he commanded patient hearing in the Lok Sabha or outside, whether it was running against the national mood and warning of the dire consequences of sending armed forces into the Golden Temple or, in the vortex of the post-Babri demolition turmoil, remonstrating with the Left not to push the Sangh Parivar so hard that there was no room for return. Too much a secular-socialist ever to agree with the Sangh and irate at the horror it had enacted in Ayodhya, Chandra Shekhar still counselled dialogue — don’t forget, they too are people who belong to this country, they have strayed, they need to be corrected, you can’t extern them. Not for nothing did the late PV Narasimha Rao say that the closest the Ayodhya dispute came to a resolution was during Chandra Shekhar’s premiership. But then that was a stint with “short-term” written all over it.

He was a die-hard inclusivist because he was grounded in the contrary pluralities of India and understood that contradictions cannot be fought, they would have to be managed. No wonder his friendships ran deep and across ideological lines. No wonder that little Chandra Shekhar wanted done went unrequited in the power corridors. The man only ever held one post — Prime Minister for seven lame-duck months — but he wielded influence far in excess of what he let on. He became much reviled too for the strings he could pull over the phone from 3 South Avenue Lane. Did he care? He didn’t much. On the contrary, he continued to offer plentiful fodder to critics. His weakness for Thakur aggrandisement — wasn’t the rivalry for the Rajput crown at the bottom of his visceral differences with VP Singh? — his loner’s inability to create an organisation, his clumsy late-life grab for high office, the sordid company he often kept. Suraj Deo Singh and Chandraswami, one a dreaded Dhanbad mafia don, the other a high-flying conman. It can’t be he didn’t know the truth about them. But here again, it was that stodgy streak of personal conviction working against public perception — they were friends, Chandra Shekhar couldn’t be bothered what the world thought of them.

For more than the last decade, Chandra Shekhar stood in the Lok Sabha as lone representative of a party that had no brand recognition and that has probably died unlamented with him — the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP). But being solitary seldom shook him. He was, from the beginning, an as-is-where-is man, like me, lump me. A little before the end, he made another contentious, and solitary, flip — vote Shekhawat for President, not Pratibha. He was nearer to the Congress than he was to the BJP but then, Shekhawat was a friend. The stubble had by then turned from pepper to salt-and-pepper to pure salt on his face and now it’s turned to ash. But that was the original one and it lies copyrighted in his name.

 

Telegraph Calcutta

Not At The Placenta

papaIn the fifteenth year of Janardan Thakur’s passing, representing an old essay from an MW anthology on Fathers and Sons  

The jacket on the man in that picture is nearly fifty years old, only a little younger than I.  The first time I saw it was in a photograph sent back by my father from a long trip to the United States; it is the colour of lightly burned ochre and it has leather buttons on it the size of baby chestnuts. That man is Janardan Thakur, my father, and the boy on the arm of the chair is me. The picture was taken the day Bangladesh was born. To the right of where we sat, still flows the Ganga. To the left was what used to be the residence of the Principal of Patna College, a two-storeyed British era mansion with a deck overlooking the river and a portico up front where cycle rickshaws would lumber up and halt.

Patna had very few cars those days, and you saw fewer around the university; my father had a white Vespa, and when I went out with him, I liked to stand in front, between him and the handlebar, a vertical obstruction that impeded vision and skewed the scooter’s centre of gravity. But it was a thrill riding the prow, even with all the dust and fleas flying into my face.

The Principal of Patna College at that time was a man called Mahendra Pratap, a fiesty votary of the liberation of East Pakistan and a friend of my father’s. He’d hung up a large red-and-green of the new nation in his living room, and he’d called my father that morning for a celebratory breakfast. He was a big man, so big it seemed incongruous to me he could be chirpy as a bird, which he was that morning. He’d hugged my father as if he’d just been bequeathed a personal kingdom. He seemed not to know how else to employ his jollity; he pulled out his Rolliflex and took pictures. This one was among those he sent my father several months later. I remembered quietly sliding down the out-of-bounds bank to the river as my father and Mahendra Pratap engrossed themselves in conversation. He wanted to know what the Americans had been saying about the sundering of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh. “So Mr Kissinger couldn’t prevent it, heh?” he grunted triumphally, “Nor his Seventh Fleet, heh? Come back in the evening and we shall raise a toast, but meantime tell me the mood in America.”

My father had only recently returned from a studyship in the US ; he’d been gone six months, probably a little more. He mailed close to a hundred picture-postcards during that time to populate his absence and to relentlessly promise return. I can’t quite tell what they should mean to me today now he’s gone somewhere nobody ever gets postcards from. They are all there somewhere in my cloister of my abandoned treasures, rubber-banded and curling at the corners, my father’s wad of notes to me. They came from far, and at that time, magical places – Bangkok, Kowloon, Osaka, Maui, Honolulu, San Francisco, Salem, Phoenix, Denver, Cincinnati, Missouri, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Boston, Long Island. There was a line common to all of them, a default appendage, like a signature: “I am missing you but I will soon be back.”

The first one he sent me was from Bangkok of the floating vegetable markets on the Chao Phraya. He must have posted  that within hours of waving us off from the Dum Dum tarmac and arriving in Thailand. I can still sense my quiet grouse from that morning, looking at the PanAm jumbo parked in the haze, convinced the only mission of its sortie was to steal my father away, an abduction I confusedly watched and he air-kissed his way to. Could this be a good thing, him vanishing into the neck of that blue-white whale of a plane? He seemed happy to go; I never did make up my mind, although over the next few months, I missed him to tears. I was eight, and provincial. I had no notion of where my father was headed, or why. I only knew he was excited. He’d bought a pair of Chinese shoes the previous day from Bentinck Street, he clicked his way to the plane, turning once, then again, but always headed farther and farther until he became a blur climbing up the ladder, and vanished. Swallowed. I stood there, on the open Dum Dum gallery, refusing my mother’s hand, angry that she had allowed this to happen, let him go. From the moment he had taken the stairs down to customs and entered a space I had no passport to, everything had slipped out of grasp and become irretrievable. I had no way of reaching my father anymore; and he was completely taken by the notion of flight. When the ladder was unhooked from the aircraft and rolled away, the great abductor was free to fly. It revved its engines and  began to nose away into the morning mist, and took off in a great groan of bereftness.

That first postcard he sent me already had that line at the end: I am missing you but I will soon be back. He had begun a chain and every subsequent postcard would become a link in the journey back to where we would be together again. By the time he returned, they had become such a daily high, I was almost wistful my father wasn’t still out there mailing them from faraway geographies.

It was during that time that I first got a glimpse of the jacket. It was in a photograph he had sent back, tucked between sheets in a par avion envelope. My father stood wearing it on a promontory across the Grand Canyon. It was an eve-of-twilight photograph, that splice of day between glare and gloom when all the world seems burnished in Macenna’s magic. He sported thick sideburns those days and he stood looking back into the camera in fawn Levis and that corduroy top. I know I say this of my father but I haven’t seen a handsomer sight. There are some things that get so irrevocably imprinted in the eye that there isn’t any need more to revisit them for recall. A Vishwanath square-cut, or Nargis lapsed on Raj Kapoor’s pectoralis major mid-street on a night of torrents, or those airliners sharking into the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. That picture of my father is one such. It is in the albums somewhere that I haven’t revisited in a while but I have never needed to; I can see each detail down to his lengthening shadow travelling out of the bottom right of the frame. He filled out that jacket like I have never been able to although I have now owned it for more years than he ever did. And for all the trips it has taken to the cleaner’s and for all the petrol and weaker scouring agents it has been subject to, it still smells of him. Or perhaps it is just the memory of him ionising around my nostrils at the sight of burnt-ochre corduroy.

Memory is only a little about memorising, it’s one in a constellation of things that make up that magical thing called memory. Sense and sensation, association, connection, smell, colour, time, distance, space, voices, silences, genes and the chemicals that make them up, behaviour and its weird geometry. My father never actually taught me to clip my nails but I do not know when or how precisely, I began to clip my nails exactly the way he did, with my fingers splayed and the blades sniping in arches. I was familiar with my shaving rituals long before I sprang facial hair, just what swathes the blade would cut into foam, just those arcs across my face.. My fingers had been choreographed for a typewriter keyboard before my brain trained in Pitman lessons. I see my handwriting from early school on a few Enid Blytons that survive in the household and I see my hand now and can’t decipher the route it took from an awkward squarish scrawl to a stylized slant. Too many years of seeing my father’s writing; too many postcards received from too many places. He never actually taught me. But that is the tango genes dance with behaviour on the helix of memory. There will be pitfalls and missteps in the perilous architecture of the helix but if the tangoing can override them it will eventually spin the dancers into a trance of subconscious fusion. Among the many things —good and bad—I took from him is my habit of smoking, my love for cigarettes and each little act that goes into reducing them into ash. The manner of lighting matches and the manner of bringing the flame to tip, the lips wrapped around the filter in a kiss, eyebrows screwed on the little box of light in closed palms, and then the first puff of smoke shot out like a plume of gunfire. And the fingers yellowed from years of holding and burning the tip too close. I don’t remember if it was he who told me this or I who told him but Graham Greene once indulgently and romantically described his nicotine scars as the “golden fingers of a smoker”. Quite late in our years together —  late enough for us to have been comfortable in each other’s company latenights at Leopold’s (a bar in Mumbai’s Colaba district fabled for its libertine, even risqué, nocturnal turnings), which is saying a lot considering the conservative stable we came from and the stable whose rules both punctiliously respected while there – I briefly developed a habit of flicking away burnt out cigarettes with a pincer thrust of the index and the thumb. Soon enough, I noticed him doing the same with rather easy facility.

In the years that he has been gone, I have often spied my mother looking at me in a strange sort of way, in a way I have never seen her look at me, almost as if she were looking at someone else and I just happened to be in the way. I used to shrug it off as my imagining but one day, leaving home and headed for and appointment in peril of being missed, I stopped and asked her, rather irritable, “What is it? Why are you looking like that at me again?” She capped her brow with a palm and said, “Nothing, nothing, it isn’t you, it’s your father, sometimes, with some things, it is like he were blowing through you.” Here’s memory in unfathomable dimensions; it is the memory of one man but it has come to reside within me through various conscious and subconscious routes, and finds various exits —  gait, voice, temper, manner, gesture, agitations, the trajectory of my eyebrows, the way I peer over my half-moons sometimes. To my mother, that same memory is an external, even physical, construct. She should know. She has spent more time watching the two of us, together and apart, than we could ever manage.

We all come attached to our mothers and keep going through a series of dis-engagements starting with the placenta at birth. There isn’t a choice about it that we have; attachments to mothers is one of the most essential givens of nature. Fathers are the variables of this equation. Their quantum is a matter of being worked out, about being deciphered through unwritten formulas. Fathers and offspring discover each other along the way or they don’t.

On the first night of my first real disengagement from my mother—my father had taken me, on my great insistence and on my many promises not too cry, to out north Bihar village to attend yearly rituals – I wailed so disconsolately for my mother, my father almost had to scrap the visit and ferry me back. In the event, he didn’t have to but that was achieved by unleashing his fury – one of the few times he did so – on me. I was barely four then and I was told I would never be going out with him again. I did. More times than I can remember. Then on, we never were on a journey not together until he turned the alley where entry is strictly by invitation. I remember him at the point where he forked off alone and forever.

It had to be Bombay, the city that he had grown to love so in such short a time that it could not have just been the sea. Or perhaps it was, I cannot yet reckon. I was on my way back from assignment in Goa to New Delhi and had stopped over to see my parents. But my stopover was shorter than short. Kargil, where military attrition was fast spiralling into what would become the war of 1999, was pressing, and I had to get the first flight out. We spent the morning together in my parents’ Colaba apartment and then my father said he would take a ride with me to Dhobitalao where he had ordered sets of old classics in a second-hand bookstore. He got down en route to Sahar and I touched his feet, as I always did at meetings and partings, and he crossed the road and waved. He was wearing, by some quirk, an ochre shirt and he beamed in the high Bombay noon. I remember thinking on the way to the airport what an odd father and son we made. We drank together and discussed Anais Nin at Leopold’s but it wasn’t ever that I left him without seeking his blessings the old-fashioned way, at his feet. He never demanded it but I have a sense he would have been disappointed if he didn’t. I never felt like not doing it, and that was only because I did not want to disappoint him. He borrowed cigarettes from me but there was something about him that forbade me to puff in front of him. I never did. He disliked me smoking, especially smoking too much. But all he ever did was to scribble advice and leave it in my books as markers. It takes two to tango and we both knew the rules.