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”

2013, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

An Architect Of Fractures, or, The Man Who Could Be Prime Minister

This is a piece I wrote for Man’s World in the run up to the Gujarat Assembly elections following the carnage of 2002; I am reproducing it sans update or re-calibration for events, as they have turned out, rendered that unnecessary

Narendra Modi has a killer’s instinct for power and a hunter’s will to pursue it. What’s more, he has a diabolical sense of the hour and how to make it his own. As the run up to the elections have made it clear, his adversaries are the likes of  Sonia Gandhi and Pervez Musharraf and his battleground is not provincial but national. The Gujarat election results on December 15 might prove to be a turning point in our lives

by sankarshan thakur

There are many who believe that this man is headed not for Gandhinagar but for New Delhi, that the tide he has unleashed will soon gobble up his mighty mentors—Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and company—and deliver him at the helm of the Party and the Parivar, perhaps even of the country. In a skewed but probably telling sense he has already raised the bar of competition higher than any other Indian chief minister would; he is not in a contest with locals, he has pitted himself against Pervez Musharraf, or at least that’s what the pitch of his campaign is. And when he picks adversaries at home, he picks Sonia Gandhi, hardly ever Shankarsinh Vaghela, his former shakha-mate and chief provincial challenger. The psychological template of his battle is not provincial, it’s national, that’s the stage he is fashioning.

“Accuse Narendra Modi of being a Hindu communal bigot and he would respond like you had paid him a compliment. That’s like telling Ariel Sharon he is anti-Palestinian or Slobodan Milosevic that he is too pro-Serb. Those are the badges they want to wear. That’s the badge Modi wants on his chest, it’s his ticket past the turnstiles into power”


But there are many who hope he never gets there for if he does, they fear, he would already have charted a ruinous course for India as she is known. For here is an architect of fractures who can dream but a splintered design, who can deal but in debris. Here is a man striding divisions, driving them deeper, infusing them with greater hate and bitterness. Here is a man quite unabashed about what he is up to. Here is a man so focused on his distorted vision, he couldn’t care for correctness, political or otherwise. The Gujarat riots were nothing but a “secular reaction” to the carnage of Godhra; if tempers were such they spilled into murder and mayhem it was only a measure of the depth of public shock and anger. The relief camps had to be shut and the refugees sent back to their charred and sundered homes because the government was not interested in any more charity, not certainly for baby-making factories; the Muslims could go and turn their five into twenty-five and twenty-five into six hundred and twenty five but his government was not subsidising them. Continue reading “An Architect Of Fractures, or, The Man Who Could Be Prime Minister”

2013, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

Bombay 1993: The Blisters That Became The Bomb

Or, why we refuse to look where blame might lie

Sanjay Dutt was still only a celluloid khalnayak, protagonist of Subhash Ghai’s magnum, a wickedly stained and lovable villain. What we knew of his real life delinquencies were still juvenile of nature and evoked sympathy, the drifter son of Sunil and Nargis, struggling to emerge from his haze of addictions. What we knew was that posters of Khalnayak were in print. What we still didn’t know was that Sanjay Dutt’s personal life had surreptitiously imitated his public art.

Dawood Ibrahim was still a latter-day imitation of Haji Mastan, no more: a beach bandit, a gully don who had slipped away to Dubai to elude the law and grab more riches. Yakub Memon was still nameless chartered accountant working off a hole in the wall on the ragged Mahim shoreline.

The pigeons at Gateway of India hadn’t been acquainted to mid-flight expiry by explosion. The liveried valets at the Taj knew better manners than to usher guests to submit to metal detectors.

Mumbai was still called Bombay. And Ajmal Kasab was still 15 years adrift, a six-year-old scraping dust and deprivation in Pakistan’s Okara, quite innocent that destiny was setting him up to violently flame and be extinguished.

And yet 1993 seemed like it could never ever get worse for Bombay. An apocalyptic visitation that came well foretold, never mind those that chose not to take note.

A week-long street frenzy had erupted followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid the December just gone. The official toll of sectarian clashes: 278.

Continue reading “Bombay 1993: The Blisters That Became The Bomb”

2013, Essay, Telegraph Calcutta

The Swan Whose Song The Aussies Won’t Miss

At Mohali in 2010,VVS Laxman revealed why for the last time 

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

–William Blake

They counted on that sore lower vertebra of his too much and forgot the man had a spine attached to it. In the first outing, pain had chained his reach and rasp. He came late and left early, half cocking a benign dipper into the slips: VVS Laxman, caught Michael Clarke bowled Nathan Hauritz for two.

This morning he put a bone to his back, like a warrior would put sword to scabbard, and strode into the field of slaughter, unbothered that it was already soaked in blood and more would leap from the spoils to stain his whites. For him this was a classic triple-relish moment. Laxman favours the second innings, he favours a fight to the finish even more. But ever more than any of that, he has a fondness for favouring the Aussies with silken dictatorship. It began as an adolescent fancy, punishing the men from Down Under, then flowered from hobby to habit to hallmark.

Continue reading “The Swan Whose Song The Aussies Won’t Miss”

2013, Essay, Kashmir, Telegraph Calcutta

Kashmir’s Kolyma Tales: An Excerpt Retold

Put together in a volume these could become a chronicle from our own Gulag. Or pages fallen off Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales” from deep Soviet Siberia, grim tales of misery that man can wilfully bring upon man.
There is nothing new or extant about these stories. They come, in fact, from two decades back.

Only, they haven’t been told enough. Kashmiri ears are so stuffed with them by now, they can’t accommodate any more. They have turned numb to their hurt. Perhaps they have also come to bore because there is nothing to them beyond repetition. “I am in a peculiar quandary,” says their bewildered author, “I think these are stories to be told but whenever I begun to tell them people say we’ve heard it all before, so what?”

These are stories in search of an audience. These may begin to explain to us how nettled the sutures can be between law and justice, between the clinical application of the former and the emotional implication of the latter. These may probably also annotate to us why a moment such as the hanging of Afzal Guru turns momentous, what sores it rubs into, what carbuncles it opens up.

Continue reading “Kashmir’s Kolyma Tales: An Excerpt Retold”

2002, Essay

Zia to Musharraf: Impressions of Pakistan 2002

This essay on Pakistan first appeared in “On The Abyss”, a HarperCollins anthology shortly after Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup.

A Peshawar street; photo by cricrich in Flickr

Chacha said he was like a father to me. He would not let me go. “In any case, I don’t think the flight will leave, it never does at times like these,” he announced. “I’ll wait for you outside, you’ll come back.” An ashen, monster of a storm was flaring above Peshawar. Rain and wind were about to stir a reckless cocktail of the elements. “The plane won’t go, you’ll come back,” Chacha repeated as I bid goodbye, adamant I had to leave. Chacha’s prophecy of my return would come true, but not that day. I had appointments to keep in Islamabad. Besides, the telex lines from Peshawar had proved as unreliable as promises that one of the mujahideen groups would smuggle me across into ‘liberated’ Afghanistan via Khyber Pass. I had a pile of rotting stories to file. I had to leave. Continue reading “Zia to Musharraf: Impressions of Pakistan 2002”

2006, Essay, Tehelka

Orhan Pamuk: Prize and the Literary Pursuit

This piece was written at the close of 2006, the year of Pamuk’s Nobel Award.

A snow twist in Pamuk's Kars
A snow twist in Pamuk’s Kars

There is an eccentric paradox embedded somewhere in the business of writing. All writing is a function of solitude, a private ramble between writer and daguerreotype, at once alike and apart. Yet writing can seldom hope to achieve its station unless it is able to evoke from its isolations the utterly universal.  Aloofness and belonging are like atom and whole to writing, one doesn’t quite make sense without the other. We have no agreed answers on what makes writers out of people. Perhaps the search for contexts is one of them: Where do we fit in, where does anything? Writing is only minimally the physicality of it, it’s never about a set of words strung into grammatically correct sentences, it’s about the ideas they might, or might not, contain. Continue reading “Orhan Pamuk: Prize and the Literary Pursuit”