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Last Word Mallika Sarabhai
A Polish delight
They were not Polish concentration camps. They were German camps, situated in Poland, as transporting people to kill them was expensive. And we were a country they had taken over. They killed all intellectual Poles too, besides the Jews,” Ada, our new friend, says emphatically. We are driving from Warsaw to Gardzienice to attend and perform at the India Festival to celebrate 60 years of...
Remember the written word
When I was researching the biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, a decade or so back, I globetrotted to many places in search of people and documents that could illuminate his varied life. In Trinidad, in England, in the US, in Argentina, I collected scrappy letters, diaries, photos and even school reports from his teenage years as a student in the Caribbean. When I reached India,...
A lifetime of fellowship
This is coming to you from a charming 19th century mansion-turned-office in New Haven, a university town in Connecticut, USA. I am here for the Yale World Fellows Program, a thoughtful course on leadership, where eminent Yale professors and practitioners from varied backgrounds interact with us, a cohort of 16 fellows. Among us are the likes of a prominent Syrian Arab Spring activist, a...
Moving testimonies
We were fortunate to be able to view filmmaker Amar Kanwar’s installation at a group showing of contemporary art at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi last week. Named The Lightning Testimonies, the disturbing eight-channel video installation explores the often repressed, always sensitive and newly urgent subject of sexual violence against women in the Indian subcontinent.The issue of...
The power of one
I have written in this column earlier about my American friend, brought up in the hippie culture of the 1960s and flower power, who found all his friends join jobs they disliked and companies or enterprises that went against the anthems of that generation—to be good, kind, generous and sharing. Not wanting to completely abandon all that he truly believed in, he started a company to...
The lives of others
Earlier this month I had a strange experience: I spent an evening in a graveyard with a group of people I did not know. Some of them seemed familiar because they are public figures, like the presidents of Germany and Ireland, the British and Belgian prime ministers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the future monarch Prince William, his wife Kate Middleton and his brother Prince Harry. I was one of...
A telling story
Though you will read this almost a month later, I am writing it now on my way back from Broome, a place I didn’t even know existed till a few days ago. At times, things fall into your lap and you lap them up, because they are irresistible! Out of the blue, an Australian producer approached me to write a script about an Indian woman’s journey in Australia. There is a lot more to it,...
Cup of starvation
There is a common perception that the condition of workers in the organised sector is, in general, better than that of their counterparts in the unorganised sector. In the case of the tea plantation sector, which is the largest employer of organised primary sector workers, this impression is further reinforced by idyllic pictures of women plucking tea leaves against a green background.All,...
Melting pot and masala chai
Last month I, one of Gujarat’s tax payers, paid for the purchase of 3.6 lakh books that spread non-science, non-history, non-Sanatana Dharma and non-most other things like geography, medicine and geology. They also spread a dangerous swapna lok. Yes, I am referring to the nine books, eight of them authored by Dinanath Batra, of myth and fiction that the Gujarat government has distributed to...
For future reference
The future usually looks stranger and more distant than the past. If I asked you how the world will be in 2050, you might come up with outlandish sci-fi ideas—flying cars, families living on Mars, a virtual reality government. But if I asked you to go back in time an equivalent distance to 1980, the world looks thoroughly familiar—Indira Gandhi has come back to power after the...
Some home truths
I remember, when my son was tiny, writing about my fears of having to answer questions regarding the many paradoxes he would witness. For instance, I wondered what I would say to him when he would ask me, “Mama, why doesn’t didi (the nanny) sleep on a bed like ours, or eat with us at the table?" But today, I am even sadder as he has asked me no such question. He is almost four...
Salute the real woman
These days there is an overarching prominence of the electronic media. In a country with poor literacy, fast-changing access to information technology (reportedly, there are more people who have cell phones than access to toilets) and lack of means of wholesome recreation, this should not raise eyebrows. What should, however, is the blatant commodification of women’s bodies in movies and...
More power to energy
I am obsessive about sustainability. Have been for many years. In 1996, having preached it to all and sundry I decided to try my hand at organic farming. I bought a barren piece of land, ruined by long-term overuse of chemical fertilisers, and set out to see if I could make it verdant. I asked architect friends to design a small house for me there that would use passive cooling and could run on...
Hip hop to holy war
You might not have heard of Brother Abu Bara al Hindi. A few years ago, neither had he—the young man was still called Abdul Raqib Amin, a rowdy fan of football and hip hop, whose parents came to Scotland from Bangladesh when he was a baby. Amin seemed unremarkable until, in the words of a former friend, “He went abroad and came back with a beard, the whole Al Qaeda costume. It was a...
Old words, new meanings
I am fascinated by the ever-shifting relationship between words and what they mean. But it is worrying when their connotations vastly differ from their actual meanings. One of the most contentious in recent times is secularism. It has acquired a negative implication that even the framers of our Constitution could have never imagined. Its rather noble dictionary meaning, originally used in...
Living a lie
Travelling through the tribal regions of central India like Chhattisgarh, one is struck by the independence and visibility enjoyed by the women in public life there. Unlike women in many other parts of India where the culture of exclusion and seclusion seems to prevail, women in Chhattisgarh are articulate, visible and play a major role in all aspects of livelihood. They have a strong knowledge...
The dread in our hearts
I write this as an artiste and a woman. In both these capacities, I feel I am under siege. Of all the photos of victory and coronations that have flooded the media for months, the one that stands out, the one that haunts, is of the two young girls hanging from a sacred mango tree. But they were not the only girls to be raped and murdered, brutalised in life as well as in death.There is no dearth...
Indian fundamentalists
Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. When I travelled through India earlier this year on behalf of THE WEEK, taking the nation’s political temperature in advance of the general election, I did not anticipate the scale of the BJP victory. It was clear then that Congress was heading for a fall, that predictions of a stunning result for the Aam Aadmi Party were wide of the mark, that regional parties...
Echoes from within
I am often clueless about what I am going to write till I start typing. But as the first word comes out, I know I am veering towards things that disturb me, and at times those that inspire. Either way, it ends up being a serious piece, though I keep hoping to write something in a lighter vein. But sitting atop a hill, surrounded by tall trees and lush coffee bushes... in the midst of...
Goodbye comrades
In the last one month, the democratic movement in India has lost two important leaders. Sunil from Kesla in Madhya Pradesh left us on April 21, and Mukul Sinha, activist-lawyer from Ahmedabad, passed away on May 12.  Sunil’s was a remarkable life, spent quietly. Son of an eminent Gandhian economist, he himself studied economics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, before...
The art of change
She was a striking 78-year-old woman, toothless but with a merry grin and a hearty laughter—the head-woman of a cluster of villages in the tribal Sabarkantha district in Gujarat. We were at the wrap-up meeting of a seven-year project to empower women. Called Parivartan, it had started off in 30 villages, where locals auditioned as performers and trained over many months as actor-activists....
Bloated poll-time promises
The comedian John Oliver ran a recent segment on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, asking the citizens of the US why they were taking so little interest in the biggest election in human history. He played some entertaining clips comparing the talking (or shouting) heads of Times Now with those on Fox News, including an elderly American who inquired why he should be bothered with events taking place...
Quest for the True North
Last month I experienced a rather rare academic stimulation and the reflections have lingered on. For the first time after my little son, Vihaan, was born, I left him for so long, to attend a 10-day course at the Harvard Kennedy School. It had been ages since I last sat in a classroom on campus.The theme of the course was global leadership and public policy. My peers, almost 70 of them, were all...
Sorry state to glory state
The recent attacks on poll personnel and security forces that accompanied the elections in Chhattisgarh have raised many questions about the prevalent political and social discourse. In one incident, security forces are reported to have boarded a Sanjeevani (108) ambulance after election duty to return to their base, only to have the entire vehicle blown up in a land mine blast. In another...
Rwanda's forgivers
Five women from Rwanda, all awarded the Unesco peace prize in 1996, stood tall and with pride tinged with immense grief. I was there in Paris to perform my piece on violence, V For..., for the award ceremony. The women had just spent two years after the horrendous genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus-8,00,000 people were raped, hunted, murdered, burnt, tortured and rendered homeless. The women...
Yours unfaithfully
In his 1995 book Trust, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued that economic prosperity tends to flourish in societies where business relationships can operate informally, on a ‘my word is my bond’ basis, while backed up by law. Both parties are able to work on the assumption that, for example, goods will be delivered and paid for. In societies where an individual has strong...
The invisible stories
Last month I coughed more than I breathed. And in that state I had to travel to Delhi to honour a commitment made to Khabar Lahariya. I tried excusing myself but their insistence and my desire to keep my word gave me the strength to travel. Though it left me physically tired, I came back energised. And I want to use this space to tell their inspiring story that may not otherwise reach you.When I...
Forgotten songbird
This year, on May 19, our aunt Amita Sen would have turned one hundred. She died in 1940, six days after her 26th birthday. Neither of us ever met her; however, she had been a significant presence in the family, even for those who entered by marriage. Amita’s life story is important to recall today, not only because we share the family’s pride in the remarkable achievements of her...
Missing ethical compass
When the Tarun Tejpal story was being played out in 70mm and 3D throughout the country, I was once again left asking myself where the truth was in a story of molestation between two adults who knew each other well. If there were no witnesses, how would one emphatically accept one person’s word against another? What if both were drunk? What if there were other mitigating circumstances?A...
Breaking United Kingdom
The United Kingdom may be facing partition later this year, when the people of Scotland vote on whether or not to become independent. As so often in history, the larger power, in this case England, is not taking the idea too seriously. But it may be in for a rude shock if separation becomes a reality. In terms of population, we would not be losing too many of our fellow citizens-a little over 8...
A dramatic experiment
When someone ventures into a new terrain, there are always questions and also admiration for the brave. The more the world plays safe and becomes straitjacketed, the greater is the need for innovations. And they are exciting even when they are not revolutionary and simply deviations from the well-trodden path.Cineplay is one such experiment. It is a new form that cinematically captures theatre...
Health care heroes
The Medico Friend Circle (MFC) recently celebrated its fortieth anniversary. A small group, it is not very well known except among those who share its passionate commitment to pro-people alternatives in health care.The members and fellow travellers of the MFC have contributed their own, often meagre, resources (no sponsorships allowed) for the publication of a bulletin that contains their...
Figures tell a tale
Anywhere one turns today, the Gujarat Growth Model is being flaunted. Be it in the print media or on television, in debates or on hoardings, the development of Gujarat is getting five gold stars. Most of the readers of this magazine, too, buy into it. So it is time to look a little beyond the hype and into the actual statistics of this model. (All the figures quoted in this piece are from...
An attack that never happened
A blogger from an obscure web site recently landed an unlikely scoop about Operation Blue Star, the bungled military raid on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. Using official documents released accidentally to Britain’s National Archives, Phil Miller revealed that an officer from the Special Air Service, an elite special forces regiment, had visited Delhi in February 1984 to draw up a...
Anna, Mina, Barcelona
I write this on my way home after finishing the second and final leg of the film, Traces of Sandalwood (working title), directed by Maria Ripoll. We shot the film over the past few months in Mumbai and Barcelona. I cannot help marvelling that the two cities that seem so different have many common threads. For one, both never sleep—although the Catalans do love their afternoon siesta, which...
Baul of fire
It is that time of the year again when rural Bengal (both in West Bengal and Bangladesh) comes alive with the Baul melas. It coincides with Makar sankranti, which is celebrated by preparing a variety of pitha (rice-based sweets and savouries) at home and also by taking part in Baul gatherings. Birbhum and Nadia in West Bengal and Kushtia and Jessore in Bangladesh play host to the best Baul...
Lowering the Bar
Anima Murayath is probably bemused at the national headlines she has captured. The young newly-minted lawyer from Kozhikode, Kerala, has been debarred for a month from the 125-year-old Calicut Bar Association and has become probably the first lawyer in India to be so treated because of a truthful Facebook post.Having joined the legal profession seven months ago, she started getting irritated and...
Squabbles with Uncle Sam
The rapid dip in the Indo-US relationship in the wake of the arrest last December of diplomat Devyani Khobragade represents a return to the norm—for most of independent India's history, America has been seen as a villain. When Bill Clinton became the first US president to visit India in more than two decades in 2000, his effigy was burnt in Delhi. One of the protesters, Swami Agnivesh,...
Tagore, 2014 edition
In these times of hyped-up national assertion with statues, runs and rhetoric, it may be interesting to review Rabindranath Tagore’s engagement with issues of the nation and its major social institutions. This has recently been the subject of several books and journal articles.Tagore’s anti-imperialist positions, like his return of the knighthood conferred upon him following the...
Get your own safetipin
Last year has been a watershed in the attention that violence against women has drawn. While largely an urban phenomenon, the uproars have brought to the fore what many of us women have experienced first-hand. The threat we face is all too common—a perpetrator can be lurking anywhere, anytime. A scary thought for every woman, in any place, of any age. And, unfortunately, the burden of...
In the name of culture
My maid has an abusive husband. Over a 22-year marriage, he has broken her ribs, pulled out her hair, put kitchen implements up her vagina and broken an ear drum. When she started working for me five years ago, and I learnt of this, I tried persuading her to file a complaint with the police, and to file for divorce. He is a drunkard and brings in no income. He also lives with another woman and...
Homosexuality is God-given
When the Supreme Court recriminalised male homosexuality on December 11, the foreign media deduced that Indian society remains traditional when it comes to personal relations. According to the BBC, “in deeply conservative India, homosexuality is a taboo and many people still regard same-sex relationships as illegitimate.” This is only half true. Certainly the majority of parents still...
Borderline perceptions
I am writing this as I leave the Wagah border after two glorious days in Lahore. I was there for a conference called the South Asia Conclave that explored 'The Power of Collaboration'. But the conclave seemed mostly an Indo-Pak summit given that more than 80 delegates were from India and barely five from other South Asian countries. But they must have rightly thought that the...
Matrimonial mysteries
Empty stomachs and infected lungs
The shoddy nature of our public health care system can be illustrated by the national strategies to combat tuberculosis. India is the single largest contributor to the global burden of morbidity, mortality and drug resistance in TB. It affects an estimated 8.5 million Indians annually, with 87,000 cases of multi-drug resistance and 3,70,000 deaths.It is common wisdom that tuberculosis affects the...
Fighting unfair with fair
Will you act in a Malayalam film by the award-winning director T.V. Chandran?” an acquaintance from Thiruvananthapuram asked me on the phone one day in 2000. I had always wanted to be more involved with Kerala, my mother’s state, and was interested in getting back to cinema of a more serious nature. The offer excited me. I immediately showed my enthusiasm to know more but was...
In praise of lost causes
Growing up in Delhi, over the years I have seen many protests at Jantar Mantar. It was not unusual to see a passionate bunch, often on hunger strike, screaming, with or without a mike, about causes close to their heart.  Sometimes, the crowds were huge, even thousands, and on occasion, the  ‘unruly elements’ were forcibly dispersed with lathi charge or tear gas. Though most...
Sinister, sickly politics
Watching the Assembly elections unfold in Chhattisgarh after a long gap has been a revealing experience on several counts. There is, of course, the usual flurry of election-related PR exercise: full-page advertisements in major newspapers, leaflets distributed through multiple channels, hoardings at major points in the cities, loved and unloved leaders beaming down at the public from their many...
Hands-off do-gooders
Come April, big corporations in India will be mandated to spend 2 per cent of their profits on being responsible citizens. For many years, they have been spending 1 per cent on being socially responsible, and even this sum adds up to a hefty amount. But, to the best of my knowledge, no large-scale survey has been conducted to view the overall effect of this spending on the nation’s...
For the love of family
An interest in hereditary politics is one of those things, like drinking too much coffee or alcohol, that can easily turn into an addiction. Whenever I notice that a new MP or a chief minister has the same surname as a previous one, I make a mental note—and there is nothing so far about Akhilesh Yadav’s tenure as CM that makes me think he would have got the job if his father had not...
Penny for my thoughts
For a child, money matters little. For me, while growing up, it mattered even less. I never got pocket money, so did not have to worry about managing, spending or saving it. I never saw my parents having any financial considerations in the choices they made. Money was never a talking point at home. Also, words like career and success were not part of our vocabulary and all we were told was,...
They gave no quarter
Director Ranu Ghosh’s movie Quarter number 4/11 has been screened to acclaim at several international film festivals, including the 'OzAsia: India on Screen' festival, in 2012. However, there has been no public screening in India.The film documents the story of Shambhu Singh, a courageous, second- generation migrant worker from Bihar who works in Kolkata’s Jay Engineering...
Lobby of death
I do not believe that smoking is injurious to health. I have a 98-year-old uncle who has smoked cigars for 60 years. His 90-year-old friend smokes 40 cigarettes a day. And I myself have been smoking for the past 30 years and am as fit as a fiddle,” said a friend at a party some years ago. This was after a 30-year battle in the US, starting in the 60s, during which hundreds of thousands of...
America's Iron Curtain
It may be no comfort to hear this, but it's not only people with names like Shahrukh who get driven up the wall by US immigration authorities. In my experience, the Department of Homeland Security strives to be an equal opportunity insulter. I used to think India’s high commission in London in the 1980s was the worst visa issuing authority on earth. There wasn’t a queue, or a...
Every inspiration counts
My whole being often longs to be out in the open, away from the city, close to nature and with rooted people. Thankfully, there is no dearth of such places in the country. So every few weeks, I try to escape with my little son to a place more peaceful and conducive for reflection.Last weekend there was a show of my play in Baroda, so I jumped at the prospect of going to the Vinoba Ashram on the...
Engage the fringe dwellers
The Mumbai gang-rape of a 22-year-old photojournalist, less than a year after the December 16 gang-rape in Delhi, has demonstrated once again that women’s bodies continue to be sites of brutal violence despite all the advances we may have made as a nation. The gravity of the situation can be understood when we recall that these two events were among many others, some of which, like the...
Tied down by traditions and trauma
Khushi is four. She is a bright and smiling girl and always gets top marks in her class. She also invariably gets asked to dress as a fairy for festive occasions by her teacher. She lives with her mother, 20, her maternal uncle, 17, a rickshaw driver without a licence, and her maternal grandmother, 39. Every night, they are also visited by her grandfather, an abusive drunk who takes this...
The Other India
Another week, another story about a foreign woman being harassed in India. This time it was a University of Chicago student who told the CNN web site how she had been stalked on the streets, groped and worse during her stay. She wrote: “This is the story you don’t want to hear when you ask me about India.” Reactions by readers to what she described ranged from sympathetic to...
Learning to unschool
My early July went by in patient sessions in my son’s pre-primary—Saifee, his first step into a school. It is a lovely little place tucked in Walkeshwar, Mumbai. They take children only at 2 years and 9 months, and only if they have not gone to any play-school before. I was told that it was easy to spot those who had hidden this pre condition, as the children were more aggressive than...
The sweet poison
India has the largest number of malnourished people in the world. Various surveys like the third round of the National Family Health Survey have documented the extent of this problem. Among children, one in every two is below the standard weight, and half the deaths are associated with malnutrition. One-third of all adults in the country suffer from chronic hunger. The National Nutrition...
A deadly route
Friday the 26th of July was a red-letter day for many of us. It was the day of the release of the Indian People’s Charter on Nuclear Energy. A clarion call from all of us (and I hope some of you) who truly believe that nuclear power is a deadly route for India to take.Grassroots movements for a safe energy future have been around for close to two decades. Every time there is a disaster, the...
A sepia-tinted visit
Painters, novelists and creative artists often like to convince themselves and other people that they are not in it for the money: the art comes first. This is true, up to a point. Anyone who becomes, say, a sculptor hoping to make a fortune, is likely to be disappointed. But historically, artistic creation has been intimately bound up with economic influence, initially through patrons and more...
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freewheeling  |  Derek O'Brien
Bullet points
One of the blockbuster announcements of this year’s railway budget was the bullet train. To be constructed with international collaboration, the bullet train is expected to run at about 300kmph and will operate ...  
grand slam  |  Sania Mirza
American dream come true
It is sheer love for the game that nurtures an upcoming tennis player.  As one begins to follow the sport with a growing passion, it is Grand Slam tournaments that capture your imagination and, soon, for a ...  
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