Friday, 16 August 2013

I am off to Trinidad

I fly to Trinidad when I am ecstatic. I go there when I am morose. I visit the island when I have nothing important to do (that happens very often).  I am once again off to Trinidad. My routine there is monotonous. I meet the same people and visit the same places there but still I never get bored.

I will find Mohun waiting for me in his Prefect as I will emerge from the airport. He will wave at me and grin. I will also wave and grin at him in return.

We will drive to Mohun’s house in Sikkim Street in St James from the airport.

The house can be seen from two or three streets away and is known all over St James. It is like a huge and squat sentry box: tall, square, two-storeyed, with pyramidal roof of corrugated iron.

Once I am in the L-shaped drawing room, I can make out it has been spruced up for me. I find the floor freshly polished, the curtains rearranged, and the morris suite and the glass cabinet and the bookcase pushed to new positions. Heaped in one corner of the drawing room are old copies of Trinidad Sentinel, the paper for which Mohun works as a reporter. I flip through the copies of the paper as Shama, Mohun’s wife, makes tea for me.    

An article written by Mohun once caught my attention. It was –
                                          DADDY COMES HOME IN A COFFIN
                                                    U.S. Explorer’s Last Journey
                                                                    ON ICE           
                                                              By M. Biswas

Somewhere in America in a neat little red-roofed cottage four children ask their mother every day, ‘Mummy when is Daddy coming home?’

Less than a year ago Daddy – George Elmer Edman, the celebrated traveller and explorer – left home to explore the Amazon.

Well, I have news for you, kiddies.
Daddy is on his way home.
Yesterday he passed through Trinidad. In a coffin.

Mohun will later take me to the Hanuman House in the High Street at Arwacas. Among the tumbledown timber-and-corrugated-iron buildings in the High Street at Arwacas, Hanuman House stands like an alien white fortress.

The house is ruled by Mohun’s mother-in-law, Mrs Tulsi and her brother-in-law, Seth. The house teems with Mrs Tulsi’s sons, daughters and sons-in-law – Owad, Chinta, Sushila, Hari, Govind….Mohun has bitter-and-sweet memories about Hanuman House.

The house has a shop named Tulsi Store facing the street. Mohun was hired to paint signs (Mohum was a painter of signs before he became a journalist) for the Tulsi Store. He fell in love with Shama, Mrs Tulsi’s daughter while painting the signs and wrote a love-letter. The letter fell into the hands of Mrs Tulsi. But as Mohun belonged to a decent Brahmin family, Shama was married to him. Mohun’s four children (including the eldest one, a son, who won the Nobel Prize for literature) were born at Hanuman House. But it was also in the same house that Mohun was beaten by one of his brothers-in-law Govind (a cordial relation developed between them later). 
The third stop in my itinerary is The Chase where Mohun tried his hands as a shopkeeper. The Chase is a long, straggling settlement of mud huts in the heart of the sugarcane area in Trinidad. Few outsiders go to The Chase. The people who live there work on the estates and the roads. The world beyond the sugarcane field is remote and the village is linked to it only by villagers’ carts and bicycles, wholesalers’ vans and lorries, and an occasional private motor-bus that ran to no timetable and along no fixed route. 

The Tulsis had a shop there and beyond it, a house. Mohun lived in The Chase for some time before moving to Green Vale. It was in Green Vale that he decided to have house of his own. (The result is his house in Sikkim Street). Mohun tried to build a house in Green Vale but was unsuccessful and had to return to the Hanuman House. Mohun moved to a couple of more places like the Shorthills and Mrs Tulsi’s house in Port of Spain. I want to visit those places but I am too tired. Also, Mohun has arranged a grand party for me. The occasion is special. His son, VS Naipaul is turning 81 on August 17.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The difference between Indian politicians and American politicians

No sooner had the planning commission declared that a person earning Rs 33.3 per day was not poor that the Congress leaders started giving absurd statements.
Raj Babbar said a person could fill his belly for Rs 12 in Mumbai. Rasheed Masood commented that a person could satiate his hunger with Rs five in Jama Masjid district of Delhi. Both wanted to please the Congress high command and tell the people that the party was doing enough for the poor.  
The statements amply prove that the leaders are not aware of the ground realities. If Raj Babbar and Rasheed Masood were aware of places where food is available cheap, then they should have taken journalists to those places. Journalists would have then not scouted Delhi and Mumbai looking for places where food can be bought at ridiculously low prices.
But Raj Babbar and Rasheed Masood are not the only leaders who have made absurd statements. Exactly a year back, P Chidambaram had said, ‘We are prepared to pay Rs 15 for a bottle of water, but we can't bear to pay Re 1 more for 1 kg of rice or wheat. We are prepared to pay Rs 20 for an ice cream cone, but we can't pay Re 1 more for one kilo of wheat or rice."
Wheat flour was Rs 16 per kg in a shop in my neighbourhood when Chidambaram gave the statement. The cost is Rs 21 at present – a rise of over 30 per cent.
Now let’s turn towards the US.
Every poor in the US is entitled to food stamps worth $4 every day.
Converted to Indian money, that comes to around Rs 240.
By Indian standards, Rs 240 per day is more than enough for food.
But most Americans do not think that $4 is enough. They want their government to increase the worth of the food stamps.
Governors of two states – Oregon and Colorado and mayors of four cities – Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Newark and Phoenix have spent $4 on food in one day for a week to see if the amount was enough to buy wholesome and nutritious food. They wanted to empathise with the poor of their country. Even celebrities and students joined the politicians.
Celebrated chef Mario Batali has lived with his family for a week on $4 per head per day.
An American university also asked its students to try surviving on $4 per day so that they can relate to the poor. 
Here lies the difference between an American politician and an Indian politician. The US is the oldest democracy. Hence, is it also the most mature democracy? Will the biggest democracy take time to become a mature democracy?
In India, why can’t a political leader – whether of the Congress or the BJP try living on Rs 33.3 for a day? We have witnessed Rahul Gandhi entering into the houses of the poor dalits unannounced and sharing food with them. Will he ever try living on Rs 33.3 for a day?
If Rs 33.3 is enough for a person, Sonia Gandhi should live on it for a day and show way to the people. Why only the Gandhis, Narendra Modi also can try surviving on Rs 33.3. He should gain some practical experience before attacking the Congress.

P.S. – Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi visited Amethi and Rae Bareli some time back. The death of students after mid-day meal in Bihar was the hottest news then. Couldn’t Rahul and Priyanka visited a school unannounced in either Amethi or Rae Bareli and shared food with children, just to check the quality of food being served? But they concentrated only in nurturing their constituencies.  

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Digvijaya Singh was once a staunch Hindu

Congress leader Digvijaya Singh did not lie when he said in his blog that he is a practising Hindu. He in fact was almost a staunch Hindu when he was the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh.

I got to know about Digvijaya Singh during my six-year long stay in Bhopal. Two persons were my sources – a senior journalist and a PRO of Digvijaya Singh.

Digvijaya Singh writes in the blog that he performs ‘puja’ for at least half an hour every day. But according to my sources, Digvijaya Singh as the chief minister would spend at least two hours every day in the temple he had set up in his official residence.

He would carry in his suitcase the idols of his deities while travelling.

Digvijaya Singh also strongly believed in black magic. As the chief minister, he only ate the food that was prepared and served by his trusted cook.

A Thakur, Digvijaya Singh relished eating meat. He loved eating barbecued rabbits that were found in abundance in his home in Raghogarh, once a principality; about 200 km north of Bhopal. He became a vegetarian when he became the chief minister.

The Indian Coffee House in Bhopal is the watering hole of journalists. Digvijaya Singh would often drop in and have a candid chat with correspondents. I think he does so even now.

On visiting the coffee house after Uma Bharati had replaced him as the chief minister, Digvijaya Singh sheepishly confessed to a senior journalist, ‘Maine phir se non-veg khana shuru kar diya hai.’

I chuckled when in October, 2011; I read Digvijaya Singh’s tweet – “Have come to Houston for my wife's treatment. Nothing else to do but cook for the family. My forte pork chops and steaks (not beef)”. So he specifically mentioned that he did not eat beef.
= = = =     
Many say that Digvijaya Singh often puts his foot in his mouth. That may be true. But I appreciate him for his sense of humour and his ability to laugh; at times even at himself.

All politicians, irrespective of their party look petulant. The list has no end – Sonia Gandhi, LK Advani, Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav, MM Joshi, Mayawati…….So unlike the politicians of the US or UK.

Even those  who regularly appear on television seem to be dyspeptic – Manish Tiwari, Renuka Choudhry, Shakeel Ahmed, Rashid Alavi, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Nirmala Sitharaman……

Politicians like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Digvijaya Singh (I can’t recall any other political leader who is always ready to guffaw) are perhaps exceptional and rare.

Digvijaya Singh laughed loudly even when his party lost to the BJP in the assembly elections in 2003.
Power was a major issue in the elections and once the elections results were declared, the press said Digivijaya Singh has suffered an electric shock.

As the outgoing chief minister, Digivijaya Singh ending his press conference said, ‘Mujhe bijli ka jhatka lagne ka sawaal hi nahi hota. Kyon ki Pradesh mein bijli toh thhee hi hahin,’ and guffawed. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

About son-in-laws and fans

The first thing that I noticed was the crowd. The market in Bungalee Tola neighbourhood of Varanasi teems with people every morning but that day it was jam-packed. You had to turn and twist your shoulders to squeeze your way through the mass of shoppers.

The closeness of the market to the Ganga did not help. The shrunken river flowed languidly and no breeze rose from it. The day was hot and humid. My shirt clung to my skin.

Greengrocers and fishmongers to attract buyers, mostly Bengalis, were shouting with unprecedented fervour. The customers were also equally spirited. They haggled noisily before buying anything.

The combination of heat, humidity, stench of sweaty bodies and the noise was sickening and made my head reel. I wanted to leave the place immediately to get some fresh air. It was then I noticed fans; fans made of dried palm leaves. They were ubiquitous in the market. 

The fishmonger had heaped them along with his heaps of fish. The greengrocer had piled them beside the mounds of vegetables. Even urchins, clutching a few fans were tugging the koortah sleeve or the sari end of the shoppers, hoping to sell a fan and earn some money. They got only scowls. The handle of the fan was sticking out from bulging nylon shopping bags of those who had shopped and were returning home.

I was intrigued. I would often hang out at Bungalee Tola but had never seen so many fans being bought or sold frantically.

Was there going to be a major power cut in Varanasi? But the papers had not said so. Moreover, nearly every home had a power backup system.

I asked a vegetable seller about the fans.

‘Because today is Jamai Shashthi,’ he replied.

‘Jamai Shashthi?’ I barked in utter surprise.

Jamai means son-in-law and Shashthi means sixth. Jamai Shashthi is a Bengali festival, celebrated in honour of the son-in-law. The married man becomes a king for his in-laws on the day of the festival. He visits the home of his in-laws on Jamai Shashthi to be fed with the most delicious Bengali dishes and lavished with gifts.

The festival falls on the sixth day of Jayesthha month of the Bengali calendar; hence the name Jamai Shashthi.

But then what’s the link between Jamai Shashthi and fans? The vegetable seller was too busy and too brusque in his reply and dissuaded from asking anything more.

I thought for some time and talked to some Bengalis and some friends and came to a conclusion that seemed pretty logical to me.

Jamai Shashthi has its origin in Bengal in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The Jayeshtha month coincides with June when Bengal is hot and humid. The Jamai in those days must have trudged long distances or travelled by bullock cart or sailed on boat to reach the house of his in-laws. He would be bathed in his own sweat on reaching the home of his in-law. Electricity was unheard of in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. So the in-laws must have fanned the Jamai with a fan made of a palm leaf to soothe him. Every home in Bengal even today has fans made of a palm leaf. But to welcome the Jamai on Jamai Shashthi, people must have bought new fans.

Nowadays air-conditioners are quite common. Today, the Jamai most probably must be visiting the air-conditioned home of his in-laws in an air-conditioned car on the day Jamai Shashthi. Times have changed but not the traditions.  

A Bengali calendar or almanac graphically depicts festivals. Jamai Shashthi is depicted with a man sitting cross-legged on the floor, with a platter in front of him and a woman sitting beside him with a fan.

Today is Jamai Shashthi.  

Monday, 11 March 2013

Do all policemen who stand up to Raja Bhaiyya die unnatural deaths?

Mohit Shukla, a teenager living in Kanpur, did not return home from gym one evening in 1997. His family informed about his disappearance to police. The cops, as usual, did not take the case seriously and remained inactive. This despite the fact that several organised gangs had suddenly emerged in Uttar Pradesh and were kidnapping the rich for ransom. Mohit Shukla’s father was a businessman who manufactured chewing-tobacco and was a millionaire.  

The police wanted to convince the aggrieved father that as his son was a teenager, had car and money, he must have gone somewhere for some adventure.

One day passed and there was no trace of Mohit. Another day passed and the police remained idle. On the third day the cops realised something was amiss.

An FIR was finally lodged and the police started making efforts to trace Mohit. Soon it became clear to the police that they were dealing with a case of abduction for ransom. As investigations progressed the name of Uttar Pradesh legislator cropped up as a suspect. That was the first time when Raja Bhaiyya’s name hit the headlines.

Even the police at that time were not aware about the power and clout Raja Bhaiyya had. Police had thought he was just like any other legislator and questioning him would be an easy affair. The circle officer who was handling the case left for Kunda with a few constables. As soon as his vehicle neared Raja Bhaiyya’s mansion, the circle officer froze on seeing a private army. No less than 50 armed men were sprawling or hanging around in the lawns of Raja Bhaiyya’s mansion.  He took to heels without losing a second. The circle officer considered that he was fortunate as he and his men were in plainclothes and in a car and not a jeep. They escaped from Kunda unnoticed.

Raja Bhaiyya remained elusive. The press became active but what the journalists wrote was based more on hearsay. For example his pond with his pet alligators, his hatred for noise so strong that cars in his mansion were not driven but pushed.

Police strongly suspected the role of Raja Bhaiyya but could not take any substantial action against him. Mohit returned home a few days later and the case was more or less forgotten. Nothing changed much except that Raja Bhaiyya had a new nickname – Kunda ka Gunda and his standing as a Thakur leader had increased. Earlier, he would contest elections as an independent candidate; now parties wanting the vote of Thakurs were ready to patronise him.

In the meantime, Kalyan Singh replaced Mayawati as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. But soon Mayawati withdrew her support to Kalyan Singh’s government and left it tottering. Kalyan Singh’s government would have fallen but Raja Bhaiyya was one of those who rescued it. Once it survived Raja Bhaiyya’s clout increased all the more.

Mayawati became the chief minister of the state for the third time in May, 2002 and wanted to punish Raja Bhaiyya. She wanted him behind bars. Mayawati wanted every charge, however seemingly true or fictitious, against Raja Bhaiyya investigated. 

But by that time, Raja Bhaiyya’s stature and notoriety had grown manifold. Police officers who were known for their bravery excused themselves when asked to take charge of Kunda police station. No police officer had the guts to investigate any case against ‘Kunda ka Gunda’.

It was then that police inspector Ram Shiromani Pandey, a daring police officer, entered into the picture. The scene that was going to unfold has been the basic storyline of several Hindi movies – from Zanjeer to Singham.

Pandey was known as an encounter specialist and had been nicknamed Danda Pandey in police and media parlance of Kanpur. He had a very strong network of informers and had caught or killed several criminals. That he was an efficient police officer can be gauged from the fact that whenever an international cricket matches were held in Kanpur, Danda Pandey would be given the responsibility of security of both teams.  

I knew Danda Pandey quite closely because I was then a crime reporter. He would often describe me his ‘encounters’. One day, after he had finished narrating an encounter, he suddenly said, ‘I will take you to an encounter one day. The press says all encounters are stage-managed. I will show how I have to risk my life.’ I could only chuckle.

He was true to his words. One night he called me up suddenly and asked me to meet him at his police station immediately as he wanted to share an important piece of information. I noticed much activity at the police station when I reached there.

Danda Pandey saw me and asked, ‘Have you had your dinner?’


‘Have it quickly. We are going to leave very soon,’ he said.

‘Leave? Leave for where?’

‘For an encounter,’ he said as if it was a matter of fact.

= = = =

Like all encounter specialists, Danda Pandey was also accused to stage-managing an encounter. An inquiry was ordered against him and he was posted loop line. Loop line in the police parlance means being given an unimportant post.

With police officers refusing to go to Kunda, Danda Pandey realised he had an opportunity that could turn the tide in his favour. He was fearless and proposed to his seniors that he be sent to Kunda. The proposal was accepted. It was going to be Kunda ka Gunda versus Danda Pandey.

Like a reel-life hero, Danda Pandey, with Mayawati’s backing, barged into Raja Bhaiyya’s bastion and arrested him, his father and brother. They were charged under Prevention of Terrorism Act and sent to jail. He became a hero.

But the real life did not end like reel-life for Danda Pandey. Mulayam Singh Yadav replaced Mayawati as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. Now Danda Pandey was at the receiving end. Mulayam Singh Yadav wanted to get all charges against Raja Bhaiyya dropped. But the court refused and ordered that Raja Bhaiyya be tried outside Uttar Pradesh, in Jabalpur. Danda Pandey alleged that he and his family members were being harassed by the state government. Nobody listened to him.

= = = =

I met Danda Pandey in a train while I was returning from Kolkata to Kanpur in April, 2006. I was on the upper berth when I was woken up by a heated argument. I looked down and saw Danda Pandey engaged in an argument with another man in police uniform. I was unable to make out why the two policemen were arguing and again went to sleep.

I got down after some time and found myself sitting in front of Danda Pandey.

‘Do you recognise me?’ I asked.

He shook his head.

I introduced myself and he was able to recall me. On hearing that I was based in Bhopal, Danda Pandey said, ‘I will be testifying against Raja Bhaiyya in Jabalpur High Court very soon. Do cover it for your newspaper,’ he said.

‘I will,’ I said.

When we got down at Kanpur railway station, I noticed that Danda Pandey was surrounded by four police constables, all armed with AK-47 rifles. I had never seen a police officer getting so much security cover. Even the top police officer of a district has on only one constable armed with AK-47 rifle as shadow.   I understood how much threat he was facing

= = = = =

In January, 2007, I received a phone call from a former colleague who said, ‘Danda Pandey is dead.’ I was in Bhopal then. I asked him the details.  

Danda Pandey was posted at the site of Ardh Mumbh mela in Allahabad. He was returning home in his official jeep when he met with an accident and died. The constables accompanying him suffered only minor injuries.  

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Muse or love that remained unrequited?

Gopal Das Neeraj or Neeraj is almost 90, Dr Chand Kumari is dead. But the relationship that existed between the two remains fresh and intriguing even today among those in Kanpur who love Hindi poetry.

Neeraj took his bachelor’s and master’s degree in Arts in Kanpur.

Dr. Chand Kumari lived in Kanpur and studied medicine at the medical college in Kanpur.

I have spoken to some people who have been close to Neeraj and Dr. Chand Kumari.

One of them who was Dr. Chand Kumari’s junior by a few years in the medical college said, ‘Dr. Chand Kumari was extremely beautiful. Only a poet like Neeraj could have described her beauty in words.’

She said Dr. Chand Kumari’s family was very rich and conservative. ‘Dr. Chand Kumari’s family would have never consented of her marriage with Neeraj even if they had been in love. Dr. Chand Kumari’s family was conservative and rich whereas Neeraj was poor,’ she said.

According to the doctor, Dr. Chand Kumari was fond of poetry and would often visit poetry recital programmes. Neeraj was a student but had made his mark in Kanpur as a poet. ‘I think that Neeraj and Dr. Chand Kumari had met at some poetry recital,’ said the doctor.

‘Yes, they were friends but I do not know if they were in love with each other. Whatever the relationship, they did not make it public,’ she said.

Dr. Chand Kumari’s later got married to a doctor.

Several anecdotes and myths related to Neeraj even today remain fresh.

According to a popular myth, Dr. Chand Kumari and Neeraj lived at the two ends of the same street. Neeraj saw her ‘vidaai ceremony’ and the resulted was poem (later used as a lyric in a movie - ) ‘Karwan gujar gaya, gubaar dekhte rahe…..’(e The word ‘chand’ finds a place in the poem.  

I asked the doctor how much veracious the anecdote is. ‘I am not sure. But Dr. Chand Kumari’s marriage is a fact. Neeraj writing that soulful song is a fact. You have to infer things,’ she said.

Another anecdote says that Neeraj would write a letter to Dr Chand Kumari nearly every day.

‘The protagonist in one of Neeraj’s poems writes a letter nearly every day and sends it to somebody by post. In the same poem, Neeraj mentions the neighbourhood in which Dr. Chand Kumari lived when she was young,’ Kamal Musaddi, a poet and professor of Kanpur told me.

Neeraj’s two lyrics start with khat and pati, both Hindi synonyms of letter.
One is Phoolon ke rang se, dil ki kalam se, tujh ko likhi roj pati…… (,  and the other one is Likhe jo khat tujhe, who teri yaad mein….(

‘It can be said that Neeraj’s writing letter to Dr. Chand Kumari are reflected in the two songs,’ said Musaddi.

‘Going by the way his lyrics and poems ooze with love, it can be definitely said he was very, very deeply in love with somebody. Chand Kumari is no more. Either God or Neeraj can say what relationship existed between the two persons. But then there is no smoke without fire,” said Musaddi.

“At the same time, there is much of hearsay about Neeraj and Chand Kumari. After reading his poems, it is very clear that he was deeply in love but that love was platonic. It was more of Sufism,” she said. 

“I have known him closely but he has never talked about his love. Today it will seem very incongruent to ask a person who is almost 90 to ask about his relationships,” said Musaddi.

Recalling the times spent with Neeraj, a former councillor of Kanpur, Anil Bajpai Bhullar said, ‘Once, around thirty years back, I was taking Neeraj to a kavi sammelan. We were travelling in an Ambassador car when we had to stop as the car broke down. As the car was being repaired I casually asked Neeraj to explain the line baadal, bijli, chandan, pani jaisa apna pyaar that’s repeated in the song phoolon ke rang se, dil ki kalam se…..

 ‘Neeraj said “baadal jaisa vistrit, bijli jaise swabhimaani, chandan jaisa pavitra, pani ke jaisa nirantar behne wala – aisa hona chahiye pyaar.” I had goose bumps,’ said Bhullar.  

Pramod Tiwari, a veteran journalist of Kanpur who is close Neeraj, said, ‘The word Chand frequently appeared in Neeraj’s poems and lyrics so people concluded that he was in love with Dr Chand Kumari. Neeraj has never given a direct reply. He smiles or chuckles or keeps mum when asked about the relationship,’ Tiwari had said.

‘I you are so interested why don’t you talk to him? He is Bombay nowadays and I have his number,’ Tiwari suddenly asked me.  

‘He is almost 90. Don’t you think he will feel uncomfortable in giving replies?’

‘If Neeraj comes to Kanpur today to participate in a programme, many people will ask him about his relationship with Dr Chand Kumari,’ Tiwari said.

My fingers shook as I dialled Neeraj’s number. There were many reasons – I was overawed by Neeraj’s personality as a poet and lyricist.

People in Kanpur who are or were close to Neeraj say with their chest puffed out how once they made drinks for Neeraj before Kavi sammelan or lit his bidi. Secondly, I had to ask him an uncomfortable question.

I swallowed several times. Finally I took some deep breaths and dialled his number. But my throat became dry the moment I heard the ring of the other side.

‘Hello,’ said a hoarse voice on the other side. I could make out that the person on the other side was sick and having difficulty in talking.

I politely introduced myself and asked, ‘Am I talking to Gopal Das Neeraj?’

‘Yes!’ came a hoarse from the other side.

I introduced myself and said I was writing a piece on him for Valentine’s Day.

He coughed, cleared his throat, chuckled and said, ‘What have I got to do with Valentine’s Day?’

My dilemma was increasing. I decided to come to the point directly.

I bluntly asked, ‘What was your relationship with Dr. Chand Kumari?’

‘I have been asked this question thousands of times. Everything said about me and Chand Kumari is trash. We had a very pious relationship. Like that of a mother and son,’ said Neeraj.

‘Okay. Thanks a lot.’

After much research, I still had not got the answer to many questions – Were Neeraj and Dr Chand Kumari in love? Did Neeraj’s love remain unrequited? Or was Dr. Chand Kumari Neeraj’s muse and nothing else?