& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ashoak Updahyay's The Beacon



Ashoak Upadhyay is an idiosyncratic man. He’s a leftist intellectual, an economist, a journalist, a novelist and now the editor of The Beacon online magazine promoting long-form writing.

I’ve known him since the early 1990s. He was my colleague at the Observer group, though we worked at different publications, and then he was my editor at Business India, where we routinely argued over matters that, in retrospect, seem so utterly irrelevant. 

But he was a great editor to work with. In particular, I remember a report that he conceived and for which I did the field work on the burgeoning entrepreneurialism in Dharavi slum (in those days it was called Asia’s largest slum). Subsequently, another senior journalist turned the idea into a book.

A few years back, Ashoak published his debut novel – The Hungry Edge. It’s a layered tale consisting of stories within stories and is a commentary on urban Indians coping with the changes that globalisation is bringing into their social and moral lives. But it is also about memory and time and their role in shaping our passions and our self-perceptions.(Read an earlier blog about the novel here: The Hungry Edge)

Ashoak is a great guy to be around because he can (and often does) talk on every subject with great erudition. This erudition springs from his being extremely well-read and knowledgeable and also because he is opinionated and biased. 

It’s this combination of being expertise and bias that must have led him to launch The Beacon.

I'm sharing a recent email exchange with him where he talks about his website:

What motivated you to launch The Beacon?

The paucity of essay-length writings that are not knee-jerk responses to events as they occur or are boringly academic. Less journalism, even less pedantry, more readability, imaginative analyses, contemplation. Long form writing with long shelf lives that can be read after the contingent moment has passed.

What is it that you're trying to achieve through it

Different ways of seeing and thinking about, our diversities, differences and frailties. Conversations across races, communities, genders and cultures.    

In a crowded space will Beacon achieve that you envisage it should?

The space is crowded with platforms or media urging obvious thought, even more obvious actions on the contingent; there can never be enough platforms that make readers think heterogeneously and without the categories they have been told to think with.

And what are you doing to make it more relevant to a younger demographic?

Despite the dominating categories of homogenized thinking and action being pressed upon them, the young have the capacity to imagine, to see life in its variety, to see difference as intrinsic to the human race. The Beacon offers them the windows to the ineffable, the imagined, to the possible in the impossible.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

She knew India’s heartbeat

In the centenary year of her birth and thirty-three years after her assassination, Indira Gandhi remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

‘Indira is India’

To some, she was the daughter of India. To many, she was India. Dev Kant Barooah famously proclaimed, “Indira is India and India is Indira” at the height of her popularity in the 1970s. She was the Durga for MF Husain. Rabindranath Tagore called her Priyadarshini. To her critics, such as Ram Manohar Lohia, she was the “gungi gudiya”, a notion she dispelled quickly once her ascent to power commenced.

In a patriarchal society steeped in moribund traditions she epitomised the universal mother figure, revered, adored, admired, and on occasions feared and maligned. Throughout her political career and even after her assassination, Indians have both deified and demonised Indira Gandhi.

Indira was a political behemoth that shaped the destiny of India. From 1966 to 1984, she was, unarguably, the most popular leader in India.  It is a measure of her enduring appeal that several decades after she had passed into history, the people of India continue to remember her as one of the best Prime Ministers of India.

In her biography on Indira, her friend Pupul Jaykar, describes her as, “A woman so closely tuned to the country and its people; so complex, so skilful, so far seeing, so concerned, so capable of an insightful listening, so moved by beauty; and yet, at times, so primeval, so obsessive, so brittle, even trivial – a woman who refused to be measured, who laid her own ground rule.”

Ambition and zeal

Questions about her ability have continued to be raised both during her lifetime and surprisingly even after her death. There is a small yet vocal section that believes her ascension to glory was because she was Nehru’s daughter.  Indira’s rise was measured, and events in her life propelled her to gradually occupy the centre stage. Being born in an illustrious family definitely helped, as did being a father’s daughter. However, what contributed to her rise as a leader of the masses was an inherent zeal to be of service to the people of India and a matching acumen to realize her ambitions. 

Nehru, ever the democrat, had said, “This business of picking up an individual successor is something I find quite alien in my way of thinking. I am not trying to start a dynasty. How terrible it would be if I, after all I have said about the processes of democratic government, were to attempt to handpick a successor. The best I can do for India is to help our people as a whole to generate new leadership as it may be needed.”

Indira’s education was mixed, varied, and one that encompassed different streams. It included stints at Tagore’s Shantiniketan, Oxford, schools in Switzerland, Delhi, Bombay, and Poona. However, she didn’t complete her studies. The atmosphere at home, and being Jawaharlal’s daughter and Motilal’s granddaughter undoubtedly drew her into the freedom struggle. As a teenager, she formed the Vanar Sena in 1930, when the Congress launched the Purna Swaraj movement; during the Quit India movement in 1942, when Indira was 22-years-old, she was imprisoned.

Earlier that year (1942), she married Feroze Gandhi, against her father’s wishes. She met Feroze in England and had been attracted to his radical, leftist ideas, but also confessed that “One of the reasons I got married was that I was determined to have children”.  A 30-year-old Indira greeted the dawn of India’s independence, working with the Mahatma in Delhi to bring calm to the victims of religious violence that had engulfed the subcontinent. She became Nehru’s shadow when he became India’s first Prime Minister.

Immersed in Congress

It was only a matter of time before Indira began working for the Congress party. She became a member of the party’s working and electoral committees in 1955 and earned notoriety for recommending the dismissal of India’s first Communist government in Kerala. The dismissal of the EMS Namboodripad government also revealed an authoritarian streak that would manifest more prominently a decade-and-a-half later.

In 1958, she separated from Feroze and began to devote more time to the Congress. She became the fourth woman President of the party in 1959 (Anne Besant, Nellie Sengupta and Sarojini Naidu had been the other three).  In September 1960, Feroze suffered a stroke in the Parliament, but went to the hospital only a couple of days later when the pain in his chest became acute and unbearable. Indira was in Kerala and rushed back to Delhi, but her estranged husband passed away the next morning – on 8 September 1960. For Indira, it was “as though somebody had cut me into two.”

After the Chinese debacle in 1962, when Nehru faced defeat both on the battlefield and psychologically, Indira ensured that VK Krishna Menon was sidelined. Menon was Nehru’s main adviser on the China policy. Nehru never recovered from this disillusionment and in 1964 passed away into history.

About her father, Indira said, “He was the humanity in a human being, He was deeply sensitive. He was far more of a poet than a politician. Someone one has said that out of a person’s quarrels with society comes out literature, but out of one’s inner conflict comes out poetry. I think in my father both these were there. There was a conflict with the status quo of the society as well as a conflict within himself.”

During the short-lived Lal Bahadur Shastri government, Indira was responsible for Information and Broadcasting portfolio. Upon his untimely death in Tashkent, the cabal of the Congress’s Syndicate (K. Kamaraj, Atulya Ghosh, S. Nijalingappa, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy) thought it fit to hoist Indira as the Prime Minister, harbouring delusions that they would be the puppeteers and Indira, their dumb doll, would dance to their tunes.

Durga incarnation

She had no patience for the old guard. After the Congress’s lacklustre win in the 1967 elections, Indira moved in with the stealth of a cougar, and split the party in 1969, jettisoning the geriatric leadership and creating her own Congress. She nationalised the banks in 1969 which gave a tremendous impetus to economic growth, and especially the agricultural sector. Bank nationalisation made it possible for farmers to avail of loans turning the green revolution into a success. Within the next two years, Indira created an aura of invincibility. She was determined to take a hard-line on everything.

1971 was a significant year for Indira and for India. In the name of equality, she also abolished the privy purses. She also turned American ambivalence in geopolitical equations to her advantage and signed a 20-year peace, friendship and cooperation treaty with the Soviet Union. Garibi hatao got her an overwhelming majority in the Parliament, and she used this new legitimacy to bury MA Jinnah’s two-nation theory by creating a third one – Bangladesh in the winter of 1971. The US President Richard Nixon dispatched the seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal, but Indira couldn't care less. Atal Behari Vajpayee, always the one to capture the nation’s mood in words, declared Indira was “Durga astride the tiger,” and later denied ever having said so.

Such was her cocky confidence, recounts Sam Maneckshaw, the field marshal who gave the Indian armed forces their finest hour, that when they met after the war, she summarily asked him about the rumours that he was planning to overthrow her elected government and bring in army rule. “What if I did?” asked Maneckshaw. “You wouldn't dare,” replied Mrs. Gandhi calmly.

Indira could do no wrong. But such admiration resulted in heightened expectations, and she wasn’t equipped to deal with them. Inevitably, the rot set in. Her lack of patience for her opponents and a complete absence of scruples caused major problems. Unfulfilled aspirations can be a dangerous thing in a democracy, and Indira realised this in 1973-74 when out of nowhere Jayaprakash Narayan (J.P.) launched the Nav Nirman agitation and George Fernandes called for the great railway strike. The nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1974 did not help her fight the rising tide of anger.

Emergency’s excesses

The Allahabad High Court set aside Indira’s election in 1975 on technical grounds; she appealed, but Justice VR Krishna Iyer who heard the appeal only issued a conditional stay on the Allahabad judgement, permitting Indira to attend the Parliament but preventing her from voting. The opposition immediately demanded her resignation.
Her son Sanjay and other Congress leaders urged her not to resign. Indira agreed to their advice. As she told Dom Moraes, “What else could I have done except stay? You know the state the country was in. What would have happened if there had been nobody to lead it? I was the only person who could, you know.”

In June 1975, Indira declared an internal Emergency, and suspended democratic rights. She sent the entire opposition behind bars and muzzled the press. She argued that when the opposition advised the armed forces not to take orders from the government, a grave and unprecedented situation had been created which would have led to anarchy and chaos. The only way to effectively deal with this eventuality was to declare an internal Emergency.

Indira justified Emergency thus: “Our opponents wanted to paralyse the work of the Central Government and we found ourselves in a serious situation. And we took certain steps. But many of the friends in the country were rather puzzled as to what has Indiraji done? What will happen to the country now? But we felt that the country has developed a disease and, if it is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine even if it is a bitter dose. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure…So we gave this bitter medicine to the nation…Now, when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus we were not very pleased to take this step…But we saw that it worked just as the dose of the doctor worked.”

Unquestionably, the Emergency was an abomination. Nothing can justify it, and the excesses that followed in its name – such as the forced sterilisations – alienated the people from Indira. Sanjay’s rise during this period also ensured that effective power moved away from Indira and vested in her son.

Democrat at heart

What needs to be emphasised (and it is something that is not explained by any of the numerous Indira critics) was that she need not have called for an election in March 1977. Why did she do it? No dictator in the world has done that or not ensured his/her own victory after having called for an election. Indira lost decisively.  However, even when she was routed, her magic worked in south India, and the Congress won all the 153 Parliament seats at stake in the four southern states.  About her electoral defeat, Indira said, “People have always thought that I was imagining things and overreacting, but there has been a deep conspiracy and it was bound to overtake us.”

The Janata interregnum proved to be a comprehensive disaster politically and the experiment disintegrated within a couple of years. Indira’s persecution under the Shah Commission helped in hastening her return – first to the Parliament in 1978 and then to form the government in 1980.

Sanjay, clearly her favourite son, died in a plane crash in 1982, a dénouement that perhaps Indira had anticipated. She worried about Sanjay in a letter written to a friend, “Rajiv has a job but Sanjay doesn’t and is also involved in an expensive venture. He is so much like I was at that age – rough edges and all – that my heart aches for the suffering he may have to bear.” In a move that left nothing to the imagination about her dynastic designs, she forced a reluctant Rajiv to join public life.

Indira’s return and second stint were fraught with uncertainty. She was now keen to abandon her pet prejudices. She was aspiring for a prominent place in history, comparable to the one her father had and was not going to settle for anything less. To help build that image, India hosted the Asian Games in 1982, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in 1983 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Goa.

However, India had changed and Indians were not as susceptible to their leaders’ charms. Moreover, the Indian media, after having been made to crawl during the Emergency, was in no mood to give any quarters. Arun Shourie, a World Bank economist, who was emerging as the enfant terrible of Indian journalism, had already changed the rules of the game. His grand expose of Abdul Rehman Antulay, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, (‘Indira Gandhi as Commerce’) had set new benchmarks in investigative journalism in India.

Coinciding with the NAM Summit, Shourie (and Shekhar Gupta) pieced together the story of the Nellie massacre (1983) in Assam.  India Today published it and timed it to coincide with the NAM Summit to create maximum havoc. The Summit was inaugurated on March 12 and India Today’s cover on Nellie hit newsstands on March 15. The global media gave precedence to the Nellie massacre and not the NAM Summit.

Punjab crisis

The crises in Punjab, which had been simmering slowly for a few years, suddenly boiled over with the meteoric rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the monk with a machinegun. He turned the holiest of holy Sikh shrines into an armed fortress and began to mastermind an operation that would have led to another vivisection of Indian. Indira approved of the controversial Operation Bluestar in June 1984 to flush out the militants from the Golden Temple complex.

In his memoirs, the former President of India Pranab Mukherjee said, “Some believe that this course of action could have been avoided. But the reality was that Bhindranwale and his followers had occupied and taken control of the Golden Temple, disregarding its sanctity. Extremists had turned it into a fortress and a base for operations aimed at the separation of Punjab from India. I still vividly recall Mrs. Gandhi telling me, ‘Pranab, I know the consequences.’ She understood the situation well and was clear that there was no other option. Aware that her own life was at risk, she took a conscious decision to go ahead in the best interest of the nation.”

Indira achieved a decisive military victory but permanently wounded the Sikh psyche. On October 31, 1984, in retaliation to Operation Bluestar, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, Indira’s two Sikh bodyguards, showered her with a barrage of bullets, even as Peter Ustinov waited to interview her for an Irish television channel. She had disregarded her intelligence apparatus’s advice to replace her Sikh bodyguards, stating it would negate India’s secular principles.

Coincidentally, a day before she was assassinated, at a rally in Orrisa, Indira, as if having a premonition about her assassination, had rather grandiosely proclaimed, “I am not concerned whether I live or die, and till I breathe, I will continue to serve, and when I die, I can say that each drop of my blood will be for India.” 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

When Gavin met John


‘Do you mouthwash when you toothpaste?’

Gavin & John Irving

Although both of us are from Bombay and must’ve moved in contiguous circles of friends in the 1980s, I met Gavin Barrett in 2009 in Toronto.

He is that guy every newcomer from India with some experience in media goes to meet in the hope of making the right connection and to get a career start.

He didn’t belie his reputation. He informed me of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce job that I eventually got (my first real job in Canada).

Gavin has since become a dear friend, applauding every small milestone of my life in Canada, cheering every small achievement, egging me on to go a step further. He has always been there for me, a quiet but strong presence.  

Inexplicably, he prefers to remain in the shadows, and hide his awesome talent as a poet, for which he has a well-established reputation in India.

He is one of the 14 featured poets in a formidable collection edited by Ranjit Hoskote (Reasons for Belonging – Fourteen contemporary Indian poets) published in 2002.

Let me present one gem from that collection:

Dream in a Train, of a Library

Thoughts and taxicabs fly,
Head rests against cold steel,
Sunned mind turns to sky,
Samples rest, simple rest.

Air-conditioned magazine racks,
Face on cool table, muted avocado whispers
Opposite gigantic Zoroastrian figures, holy wood
     firestacks
A cat eats a college, wipes its whiskers.

A rock shatters in a hundred strokes, brings new order
Where kittens shred the weather into clouds.
The ninety-ninth stroke becomes a border.
Nuns break habits, wear beige shrouds.

But light bends through reluctant lashes,
What once were visions are now flashes
Of an evening’s soft-lit sky –
As dreams begin, they die.

John Irving scribbling on Gavin's copy of Son of Circus

G
avin got his first poem and his first ad copy published almost at the same time and decided (wisely) that advertising was where is future was. After a few years at Lintas, he immigrated to Hong Kong in the early 1990s and from there to Toronto in 1996.

In Toronto, he launched Barrett and Welsh, a Canadian ad agency specializing in multicultural marketing. He’s obviously good at this because the agency continues to win many awards.

Gavin is a believer, but a firm adherent to the principles of secularism, pluralism and human rights. He was among the band of activists who opposed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Toronto in 2015 by shouting slogans and raising black flags. 

And, of course, he continues to write exquisite poems.  

We continued to meet and interact on social media. When my debut novel Belief was launched, he was at the launch, when my first piece of fiction (a short story) was published in TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto, he was at the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto library, when I was a panelist at the Spur festival, he was in the audience.

The only time he didn’t participate in my reading was when the Festival of Literary Diversity invited me to read. He couldn’t come to Brampton but made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

Gavin proposed I co-curate with him a reading series. He called it the Tartan Turban Secret Summer Readings. The raison d'etre of the (not so) secret reading series was to celebrate Canada.

“The idea is to provide a platform for minority writers who have very few such platforms, but at the same time the idea is not to leave out others who may want to celebrate Canada’s multiculturalism, diversity and indigenous heritage, and have the talent to share,” Gavin said.

The readings were held at the B&W patio, and series caught on like wildfire. We originally planned to wind up after summer, as it’d get chilly in the fall but we’ve continued inside the always-expanding offices of the agency. 

Gavin curated the first series, I did the next, Terri Favro did the third one, Sang Kim did the fourth, Koom Kankesan the fifth one, Rashi Khilnani will do the sixth one in November. We hope to go on for at least a year.

While planning for the fifth series, I asked him whether he would be interested in accompanying me to the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) program where the legendary American novelist John Irving was to chat with John Boyne, the bestselling Irish novelist.

Unquestionably, Irving is one of the finest novelists we have, and in my opinion, The World According to Garp (1978), a genre-bending, deeply-humane, although peppered with an incredible degree of violence, is one of the finest 20th-century novels. (Read the previous post on the novel here: Garp)

Gavin was ecstatic to know that Irving was in Toronto (read on to know the reason). He readily agreed to accompany me and was in fact at the venue – the functional yet aesthetic Fleck Dance Theatre at the Harbourfront Centre, which is the traditional home for IFOA – long before I reached all the way from Brampton.  

The chat between the two Johns was interesting because it focused on the craft of writing. Then, after the chat, both the Johns sat at the book signing table to sign their books. Gavin and I stood in the queue, too to meet Irving.

When it was our turn at the table to talk to the legendary author, Gavin pulled out Irving’s Son of the Circus (1994). The book is set in Bombay and quotes an ad headline ‘Do you mouthwash when you toothpaste?

John Irving autographs Gavin's ad headline

Would you believe it? This was Gavin’s first ever ad headline, and when he showed the headline in the novel to Irving, the author’s jaw dropped in amazement. 

“Don’t tell me,” Irving exclaimed, “you mean, you’re the guy who wrote that line? I’m so thrilled to meet you.”

Gavin stood there like a schoolboy, beaming from ear to ear. I stood beside both taking photographs with my smartphone. Louise Dennys, Irving’s legendary publisher at Penguin Random House took some more photos of the three of us.


It was a memorable day for Gavin. 

Broken Images


Shabana Azmi is an Indian institution. In a career spanning nearly five decades in cinema, she has invented and reinvented herself and her craft on innumerable occasions. She has earned the respect of auteurs, actors and audiences.

Her activism gave her an edgy profile and a new dimension to her fame that was unnerving to the establishment. She was a part of a group of actors and filmmakers who spoke their mind.

Many of Azmi’s fans have not experienced her acting prowess on the stage, and it wasn’t surprising that hundreds turned up at Mississauga’s Living Arts Centre’s when Anu Srivastava’s newly-formed ARRA Arts announced Broken Images, a play, written by Girish Karnad in 2004, directed by Alyque Padamsee and produced by Raell Padamsee’s Ace Production.

Broken Images is about two sisters Manjula and Malini and their troubled relationship. Karnad presents it as Manjula’s monologue. She is the author of mediocre Hindi novels, who is suddenly shot to fame because critics and readers have loved her debut English novel.

She revels in this glory, albeit momentarily before self-doubt and inner turmoil take control of her emotions. At this stage, the play swiftly turns into a disturbing thriller as it explores the relationship between Manjula, her husband, her sister Malini.

The monologue is presented on the stage as a conversation Manjula is having with herself – with the main protagonist on the stage and the other on a giant television screen. This technological innovation appears to be gimmicky initially but becomes inherent to the play as the monologue progresses.

Monologues are challenging in theatre. The absence of a dialogue between two actors is always constricting and therefore a major hurdle to any actor. Additionally, in this play, the use of television as part of the monologue poses another challenge because it restricts improvisation and gives it a static, non-dynamic quality to the interplay between the two sets of monologues.

Azmi does well to ensure that there is continuity and no awkward or embarrassing silences or miscued timing during the chat that Manjula on stage as with Manjula on television.

Once we move past the innovative use of technology, Karnad’s play is about human relationships. It explores the relationship between the two sisters, the husband and wife, the sister and husband, the attitude Indians have to any creative work in Hindi as opposed to English.

It is a stunning depiction of infidelity and portrays the tremendously soul-destroying capacity intellectual infidelity as opposed to mere physical dalliance.

Having paid for our tickets, we were in those sections that John Lenon famously asked to clap (cheap seats). The others, whom Lenon just wanted to “rattle jewellery,” were in better seats. 

Much to my chagrin, I learnt that many of those occupying the better seats were invited guests of the main sponsors of the production.

Well, I guess, it pays to know the right people, and it doesn't pay to pay for your tickets.