& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, December 28, 2018

Bollywood The Films! The Songs! The Stars!

Probably for the first time in a decade, all the three of us have been at home during the yearend holidays (normally, both Mahrukh and I work).

And being generally unmoneyed (not in any desperate sort of way, but, well, sort of only generally), we don’t really have any option but to stay at home or loiter in downtown Toronto, go see a Hindi movie or take a long ride on a streetcar.

For the first time in a long while, I’ve been able to chat with my son Che, who’s now all grown up, and talks like a young man that he has become.

The conversation is fairly broad-ranging and encompasses esoteric topics such as life’s purpose, meaning of and need for power, and the need for human company.

But given that his parents passionately love the movies, the conversation inevitably veers to movies. His passion is gaming and movies no longer interest him, which is kind of not right, but it can’t be helped.

During the Christmas weekend, we went to see Shahrukh Khan’s Zero at the Cineplex at Yonge and Dundas Square. There weren’t many people in the audience (slightly more than the number that came to see Thugs of Hindustan).

The audience in Toronto is wise and unerringly decides what movie to watch on the android box and what to watch on the big screen. As always, there were a few non-Indian (I mean Caucasian) viewers in the audience. I find it heartening to see them so avidly coming to see a Hindi movie.

Zero is a disaster. Katrina Kaif will get the best supporting actor award for her role as movie star Babita.

After the movie, we were in a mood to loiter and went across to the BMV Books at Yonge Street, “just to browse” and ended up buying a few books “because they were on a discount.”
Among the books Bollywood, a coffee table book that is sweeping introduction to (mainly popular) Hindi films right from its inception (Phalke) right up to the mid-2010s (just before the release of Bahubali and its sequel).

Bollywood The Films! The Songs! The Stars! Dorling Kindersley Limited an imprint of Penguin Random House is the first American edition, published in 2017 in New York. 

Fittingly, the foreword is by Amitabh Bachan, who accurately condemns (albeit mildly) the use of the word Bollywood (making the Hindi film industry sound like a cheap immitation of Hollywood, which it isn’t).

He quotes his father, the poet Harivanshrai Bachchan, who, when asked about Hindi cinema, said, “I get to see poetic justice in three hours! You and me shall not see this in a lifetime…perhaps several lifetimes!”

The book is a joint effort and there are many contributors including the veteran film historian SMM Ausaja. The book divides the history of Hindi cinema into seven sections beginning with 1913. It’s richly-produced, with extraordinary details, vignettes, anecdotes, factioids, biographies of film personalities and detailed descriptions of some of the most important films and film stars of Hindi cinema. 

The book is a steal at just $20.

Continued in the post below.

10 most popular Hindi films

Continued from the post above

Rajesh Khanna
Some of my friends know that I’m an unapologetic fan of popular Hindi cinema, and I’ve reproduced interesting vignettes of nine most popular films of all times – roughly one films for each decade, beginning from the 1930s. 

They are 
  • Achhut Kannya (1936) 
  • Kismet (1943) 
  • Mother India (1957) 
  • Mughal-e-Azam (1960) 
  • Aradhana (1969) 
  • Sholay (1975) 
  • Mr. India (1987) 
  • Dilwale Dulhania le Kayenge (1995) 
  • Lagaan (2001) 

The book was produced before the release of Bahubali, but any list of popular Hindi films would automatically include at least the first part of Bahubali.

Achhut Kanya“questions the caste system through the doomed love story of Pratap, an upper-caste Brahman boy, and Kasturi, an untouchable, low-caste girl. Among the luminaries who saw the film were poet and politician Sarojini Naidu and the first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, who came to Bombay specifically for a screening of the film at the Roxy cinema.”

Kismet “was released at a time when the country’s freedom movement was in full swing, with the Quit India Movement of 1942 still fresh in the public mind. While the film’s main plot has nothing to do with India’s fight for independence, it nevertheless reflects nationalist sentiments through its music. In a stage show, Rani (Mumtaz Shanti) performs a song with the refrain “Door Hato Aye Duniya Walon Hindustan Hamara Hai”. Normally, the British would have never allowed such words. However, lyricist Pradeep, who had to go into hiding to avoid being arrested, cleverly added references to Japan and Germany, Britain’s adversaries in World War II, as enemies of the nation, and so the Censor Board had no choice but to permit its inclusion.”

Mother India “No discussion of Mother India is complete without reference to Nargis’s highly charged performance. Not only is it one of the finest seen in Indian cinema, it also earned Nargis the distinction of being the first Indian actress to win laurels abroad for her performance. In 1958, she was declared Best Actress at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic) and the renowned English-language periodical – FilmIndia exclaimed, “Nargis lives the role better than Radha could have lived it.”

Mughal-e-Azam “The film proved to be a happy ending for all involved except Madhubala. During the film’s shooting her congenital heart disease became worse by her having to drag heavy chains around – Asif had procured real iron chains to make the scenes more authentic. Yet she bore it all bravely, giving the performance of a lifetime as the doomed courtesan. However, the biggest tragedy was her parting ways with Dilip Kumar. The two completed Mughal-e-Azam under a lot of strain, not even speaking to each other during the shoot. However, none of this is visible on-screen and their love scenes are some of the most sensual and passionate to have ever been film in Indian cinema.”

Aradhana “is inextricable from the actor-playback singer phenomenon of Rajesh Khanna and Kishore Kumar, of which songs such as “Mere Sapnon Ki Rani” and “Roop Tera Mastana” were the stepping stones. Khanna maintained, “Kishore was my soul and I his body.” Although Kishore had been in the business for almost 20 years, he hadn’t come close to displacing top playback singer Mohammed Rafi. But with Aradhana, his journey to the top gained momentum. The soundtrack of the film captured key moments and beautiful sentiments in melody. The film’s music composer S. D. Burman was ill during the making of the movie. It is said that his son RD Burman, who also went on to become a famous music composer, may have stepped in to help his father.

Sholay “The gold standard for Bollywood films, Sholay was not only successful at the time, but enjoys unprecedented longevity. The film’s iconic characters, heartwarming songs, and dramatic storyline captivated audiences of all ages. Even the dialogues in the move proved to be so famous that the producers released a record containing only the lines from the film – a first for any Bollywood movie. Such was Sholay’s popularity, that it ran at Bombay’s Minerva Theatre, which had a capacity of some 1,500 people, for five straight years, from 1975 to 1980. In fact, the terminus near the theatre was called the “Sholay bus stop.”

Mr. India “…it is the villain Mogambo who has become the film’s most iconic character. Dialogues for Mogambo were still being written when much of the shooting was completed because Akhtar was still working out the details to his satisfaction. The famous dialogue “Mogambo khush hua” became a national catchphrase, but not without a tussle. When director Shekhar Kapur felt the line was being repeated too often and suggested editing out several instances, Akhtar convinced him to keep them, saying, “Even when Kapil Dev hits a six, people will say, “Mogambo khush hua.”

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge “has now become a part of Hindi cinema lore because of its memorable scenes, hit songs, clever script, and stylish costumes... Along with Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, DDLJ shaped the language of mainstream Hindi cinema through 1990s, especially when it came to romance and family. The film’s influence can be seen in many later films, which have tried in vain to recapture its magic. Most importantly, DDLJ opened up a huge, viable overseas market for Bollywood films among the Indian diaspora the world over. In India, it had a historic run at the box office and the film continues to be screened for well over 1,000 weeks at the Maratha Mandir cinema in Bombay.”

Lagaan “All (the) effort eventually produced a film that was a great success. Winning eight National Film Awards and nine Filmfare Awards in India, Lagaan also struck gold internationally. Despite the film’s running time of almost four hours – overly long by Hollywood standards – audiences were not deterred. People were reportedly lining up around the block for tickets in London’s Piccadilly Circus. Meanwhile, the movie reviewers in the UK and US were united in its praise, heralding Lagaan as the first crossover Bollywood. It broke ground around the world, making its way onto the UK’s list of top ten films of the year. It also became the first Indian movie to secure a nationwide release in China and enjoyed an unprecedented nine weeks of screening in Paris. Lagaan was also nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.”

Bahubali is not a part of this book, and it isn’t a Hindi film (it’s dubbed from original Telugu into Hindi and other languages), but it has become a pan-India (even global) monster success.

I'd also add Dewaar to this list because, in my very humble, opinion, it is Amitabh Bachchan's best film of all times.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker - Pavan K Varma

This blog post is not a review of the book

Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker by Pavan K Varma is an incisive book that is both a biography of the Hindu seer and an exploration into and an exposition of his philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.

Image result for adi shankaracharya pavan vermaIt is a great introductory book for a reader interested in understanding Hinduism and its complexities; it is not a book for the jingoistic, ultra-nationalistic proponents and followers of the political ideology of Hindutva.

Shankara (788-820 CE) brought a sense of purpose and direction to Hinduism which it had lost for several centuries because of its dogmatic following of ritualistic orthodoxy that increasingly emphasized differences amongst its adherents rather than the grand oneness of its message. It rapid decline led to the birth and growth of offshoots such as Buddhism and Jainism, which took their basic tenets from Hinduism but infused it with a distinct egalitarianism and inclusiveness.

Shankara redefined the practice of Hinduism by emphasizing upon its inherent intellectual strengths. He gave it a monastic order by establishing branches in four different parts of India. He traversed the length and breadth of India twice in a life that was woefully short (he died when he was 32-years-old).

The four peeth that he established to preserve and propagate Hindu religion – in Sringeri (south), Puri (east), Dwaraka (west) and Joshimath (north) – combined the worship of Shiva and Shakti. Shankara was deeply influenced by the three basic texts of Hindu philosophy – the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra, and the Bhagavad Gita. And instead of rejecting the five principle schools of Hindu religion – Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, and Purva Mimamsha – that preceded Advaita Vedanta, Shankara utilized the essence of their teachings to solidify the philosophy of Advaita Vedenta.

As Varma says, 

“Shankara displayed an intellectual adroitness that assimilated many existing traditions without diluting his unwavering and fundamental thesis on the primacy of Brahman. He did not accept the dualism of Purusha and Prakriti of the Sankhya school, but many of the features of the quiescent and omnipresent Purusha are reflected in the grandeur of his concept of Brahman. He did not endorse the notion of a personal god in the Yoga school, but he accepted the physical and meditational aspects of the discipline of yogic training. He did not agree with the atomistic plurality of the Nyaya-Vaisheshika school, but he borrowed from its rigorous system of logic and reasoning. He decried the mechanical karmakanda or ritual exercises of the Purva Mimanshaks, but accepted that such rituals, if performed in a spirit of detachment, help to prepare the individual in the journey towards brahmanubhava. He may not have agreed with every aspect of tantric practice, but he saw merit in adopting those that, he believed, were conducive to the ultimate realisation of Brahman.”

More pertinently to the continuing malaise of caste in Hindu religion, Shankara attempted (albeit without success) to not disregard the significance of caste distinctions in the pursuit of the Brahman. Varma notes, 

“As we have seen, this was vividly demonstrated in his meeting with a chandala, a person of the lowest caste, in Banaras. The sheer disjoint between his belief that Brahman pervades all, and, the discriminatory social practices of the day, must have struck Shankara, motivating him to unreservedly embrace the chandala, and declare emphatically in his Manishapanchakam: ‘He who has learnt to look on phenomenon in this non-dual light is my true guru, be he a chandala or a twice-born man. This is my conviction.’”

Shankara also brought together the intellectual and the ritualistic aspects of Hindu religion. Advaita Vedanta not only propounded the philosophy of monism and non-dualism, it also brought together the six systems of Hindu worship: Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, Ganapatya, Saura and Kaumara (or Kapali). He propagated the four goals of Hindu religion: dharma (right conduct) , artha (pursuit of material well being) , kama (the pursuit of the sensual) and moksha or salvation.

There are some aspects of Shankara’s life that need closer veracity, especially those that require acceptance of an other-worldly realisation of the divinity. In his recent work Two Saints Speculations around and about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi, Arun Shourie has attempted an extensive research-based explanation of their “other-worldly” experiences. Shourie’s treatise is a helpful understanding of such experiences through neuroscience.

“…the studies document beyond any doubt that spiritual practices and pursuits greatly alter the relative strength of neuronal connections and the rhythms of their firing. The practices perceptibly change ‘the amount of real estate’ in the brain that is devoted to different functions. These results document what the sages have been saying for centuries, that the mind can be altered by working on the mind. It now turns out that the brain – as a physical organ – also can be altered by working on the mind, an alteration that will have further consequences for the way the mind works in the next moment or round. They also confirm that working on the body entails major changes in the brain as well as the mind. A lemma of this latter set of results is that the sorts of extreme austerities that our saints had practised – Sri Ramanna for three-and-a-half years, Sri Ramakrishna for twelve years – would have had drastic effects on their brains and minds, and, one can surmise, could have triggered some of the experiences…”

Shankara explains it simply, “When and to whomsoever the notion of the personal ego conveyed by “I” (aham) and the notion of personal possession conveyed by “mine” (mamah) cease to be real, then he is the knower of Atman.”

This blog post doesn't claim to be a review of the book (in fact, GAB doesn't ever do a review of any book that's featured on the blog), but is meant to give an idea about the book. In this context, it may also be said that 
Friedrich Max Müller in 'The six systems of Indian philosophy says, "A friend of mine, a native of India, whom I consulted about the various degrees of popularity enjoyed at the present day by different systems of philosophy in his own country, informs me that the only system that can now be said to be living in India is the Vedanta with its branches, the Advaitis, the Madhvas, the Ramanujas, and the Vallabhas. The Vedanta, being mixed with religion, he writes, has become a living faith, and numerous Pandits can be found to-day in all these sects who have learnt at least the principal works by heart and can expound them, such as the Upanishads, the Brahma-Sutras, the great Commentaries of the Akaryas and the Bhagavad-gita." 

Reproduced below are two extracts from the book that I found deeply insightful:

Nasadiya Sukta

(Video source: music: http://www.indianmusiccircle.com video : Eddie Boschma - http://earlysun.nl

This hymn, perhaps the first recorded rumination in Hindu philosophy on the origins of the universe, is remarkable for its eclectic tone and tenor. There are no certitudes; no injunctions for obeisance; no religious commands or call to ritual. There is awe, wonderment, but, above all, there is query, an emphasis on the need to probe, to go beyond conventional categories of thought to the realm of speculation, and an invitation to ideation. The questions signify an impassioned yearning for truth, but this yearning is willing to accept that the answers may need to embrace negation even as they seek to find the right assertion, and that, in this process, the path to truth can be many things but not simplistic or dogmatic. This wonderfully contemplative passage in the Rig Veda must have been written some two millennia before the birth of Shankara , but it indicates the foundational beginnings of a philosophical legacy that he would ultimately inherit .

The etymological meaning of Veda is sacred knowledge or wisdom. There are four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva. Together they constitute the samhitas that are the textual basis of the Hindu religious system. To these samhitas were attached three other kinds of texts. These are, firstly, the Brahmanas, which is essentially a detailed description of rituals, a kind of manual for the priestly class, the Brahmins. The second are the Aranyakas; aranya means forest, and these ‘forest manuals’ move away from rituals, incantations and magic spells to the larger speculations of spirituality, a kind of compendium of contemplations of those who have renounced the world. The third, leading from the Aranyakas , are the Upanishads , which , for their sheer loftiness of thought are the foundational texts of Hindu philosophy and metaphysics . Because they come at the very end of the corpus

The authors of the Upanishads are not known, nor do we have their exact chronology or date. It is certain that initially they were, like all Hindu texts, orally transmitted from generation to generation, and only reduced to text in classical Sanskrit sometime around 600 to 400 BCE. The Upanishads do not constitute a single volume; in fact, the exact number is not known either, but by common consensus, there are about twelve principal Upanishads attached to the Sama, Yajur and Atharva Vedas. Shankara wrote commentaries on ten of the principal Upanishads: Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, and Brihadaranyaka.

But, as the Aranyakas and Upanishads show, as does the hymn on creation from the Rig Veda referred to earlier, there was, also from the very beginning, an equally strong strand that sought to understand the origins, meanings and purpose of life, and to explore what could be the one unifying force underlying the bewildering multiplicity of the universe . This strand was less taken up with ritual and divinities and the practice of religion and more with the philosophical substratum underlying the practice of religion. These two strands crystallised in time into two distinct schools: that of karmakanda, which privileged the paraphernalia necessary for the practice of religion, including all the rites and rituals, and jnanakanda which gave primacy to the pursuit of knowledge as the path to moksha.

Maroof Shah

While in Srinagar, N. N. Vohra, the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, arranged for me to meet Maroof Shah, reputed to be a scholar of Kashmir Shaivism, and of Hindu philosophy. The reputation, I soon found out, was entirely justified. I spent an afternoon discussing with him the intricacies of Shankara’s thoughts and their overlap with Kashmir Shaivism. Maroof, a diminutive man with a heavy Kashmiri accent, works, improbably enough, in the state veterinary department. Philosophy, however, is his passion. According to him, Shankara’s Advaita, and Kashmir Shaivism, have more similarities than differences. Both are non-dualistic; both believe that Brahman is the only ontological reality; both accept that the world is real at one level but illusory and impermanent at the real level; and, both argue that ignorance is the cause for our mistaking the ephemeral for the real. The difference is only on emphasis. Kashmir Shaivism, especially as elaborated upon later by Abhinava Gupta, believed that Shiva was Brahman incarnate, and his potentiality to create the phenomenal world was due to the power of Shakti within him. The worship of Shakti, along with its tantric associations, thus became one of the key distinguishing features of Kashmir Shaivism and were taken on board by Shankara.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Intertwined Lives PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi: Jairam Ramesh

Indira Gandhi and PN Haksar

Earlier in the year, I read the biography of PN Haksar by Jairam Ramesh (Intertwined Lives PN Haskar and Indira Gandhi). It details the history of the Indira era and the key role Haksar played from mid 1960s to mid 1970s in influencing and shaping policies that determined the political and economic future of India. Although, he was officially in the Prime Minister’s Office only for a little over five years.

The biography provides a balanced perspective of the tumultuous decades after the passing away of Jawaharlal Nehru and the ascendency of Indira Gandhi. It also gives extraordinary details of economic policies that Haksar initiated.

With the wisdom of the hindsight, and after witnessing the rapid reduction in poverty economic liberalisation has achieved in India, it would perhaps be easy to criticize these policies because by all accounts these policies put India in a backward trajectory economically.  

And so strong was the socialistic influence that even in the 1980s, when both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi governments tried to push through for some sort of liberalisation, they had to face daunting difficulties from entrenched political forces and had to satisfy themselves with half measures.

It was only in the 1990s, when the Indian economy was in absolute doldrums, that the governments of Chandrasekhar and PV Narasimha Rao had little choice but to reluctantly embark upon economic liberalisation. The rapid economic strides the abolishing of controls achieved was so stupendous that there was no looking back.

Today, irrespective of the political party in power in New Delhi, economic liberalisation is an established process. Being away from India and looking from the outside with a degree of detachment, one occasionally does get more than a bit frustrated at the sluggish pace of reforms. But the exigences of popular politics makes it impossible for any government to go forward wholeheartedly and rapidly and abandon unnecessary controls.

In the last two decades, political cronyism in the name of economic liberalisation has led to unprecedented inequalities in income and wealth in India (and indeed globally). The gap between the rich and the poor is so vast and growing so rapidly that it will soon become impossible to manage, forcing the ruling establishment to reintroduce controls that PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi had introduced and that led to economic atrophy.

Haksar was a civil servant moulded by Nehruvian idealism and believed in the principle of secularism as fervently as he believed in socialist democracy. Like many others of his generation, Haksar saw in Nehru the future that India deserved.

Nehru epitomised the combination of all the right values. “Secularism in thought and action, honesty, integrity and hard work as ethical compulsions, austerity, national pride, sustained by intellectual and spiritual self-reliance and some regard for the scientific temper: these are some of the essential elements of the new value system.”

Jairam Ramesh writes, “When it came to secularism, Haksar was uncompromisingly Nehruvian— that the State had no business promoting the interests of any one religious community and that communalism of all kinds need to be combated unapologetically.”

About Nehru, Haksar said:

That imperialism was a curse which should be lifted from the brows of men, that poverty was incompatible with civilization, that nationalism should be poised on a sense of international community, and that it was not sufficient to brood on these things when action was urgent and compelling—these were the principles which inspired and lent drive to Jawaharlal’s activities in the years of India’s struggle for freedom and made him not only an intense nationalist but one of the leading figures of humanism … No particular ideological doctrine could claim Jawaharlal for its own … Never religious in the routine sense, yet the culture of his own land meant a great deal to him. Never a rigid Marxist, yet he was deeply influenced by that theory and was particularly impressed by what he saw in the Soviet Union on his first visit there in 1927 … He himself was a socialist with an abhorrence for regimentation and a democrat who was anxious to reconcile his faith in civil liberty with the necessity of mitigating economic and social wretchedness … So the story of Jawaharlal is that of a man who evolved, who grew in storm and stress till he became the representative figure of much that was noble in his time...

In one of his innumerable missives to Indira Gandhi, Haksar said:

We cannot practice superstition and worship science; we cannot practice communalism and preach secularism; we cannot incite regional and linguistic passions and claim to be the foremost protagonists of the concept of Indian citizenship; we cannot promote egalitarian concepts of socialism and remain tied to hierarchy of caste and class.
Haskar’s interpretation of secularism was classically European – the complete separate of religion and the state. It must be emphasized that the Nehruvian interpretation was that the state treat all religion equally. Haksar said:

If the words secular, secularism and secularization are to be understood as part and parcel of a universal process of secularization of the human mind, then we have inflicted enormous damage on the nation-building process in India, by totally unacceptable and false translation of the word secular and secularism by equating them to the doctrine of religious tolerance expressed in the words like Dharma-nirpekshta and Sarva Dharma Samabhava. These translations have produced great schizophrenia in our politics which, in time, has produced the situation with which we are now actually confronted in Punjab and Kashmir …There is one more question which needs to be answered: What is the relationship between religion, howsoever defined, and processes of secularization. Is this relationship inherently antagonistic? The answer is no. The process of secularization merely leads to finding the domain of each, both at the level of the individual and of society and state. That is why the word “Secular” …means “concerned with affairs of this world, not “spiritual or sacred”. It is to be hoped that if the Republic of India is not to degenerate into a state of anarchy, the time has come to come to grips with the real meaning of such words like “secularism” and "fundamentalism".
We have also added to confusion by saying that to be secular is to give equal respect to all religions. This is totally false. That we should respect all religions equally is the duty of all human beings who call themselves civilized for it embodies the meaning and substance of the word “tolerance’. Also, there is a misconception about the relationship between the words “secular” and “religion”. One can be deeply religious and yet be secular when it comes to matters relating to the public domains. And politics is concerned with matters of the public domain … When you mix the two domains in the name of religion, you have the phenomenon of rise of fundamentalism of one sort or another. I have also a feeling that despite my deepest respect for the life and work of Jawaharlal Nehru, it was a grave error to codify Hindu laws instead of having a uniform civil code. If we have one criminal law for all the citizens of the Republic of India and one law in respect of Income Tax, transfer of property etc., there is no reason to have separate codes for the Hindus and Muslims. All these distortions are the products of our not being able to think clearly about our past, present and future.
He goaded Mrs. Gandhi to follow the straight and narrow path of secularism when it appeared that the Congress would be losing its supremacy with the Indian electorate in the 1960s. He wrote to Mrs. Gandhi and said what probably nobody else would:

The election results will soon be out … One has to show accommodation too for those one may not quite approve of. But if the Congress wishes to produce bread for the people, gradually adopt the tractor as its symbol rather than the Cow or the Bullock and do all this while preserving our national dignity and without sacrificing our liberty there is no other choice except one. Otherwise the Cow and its dung will overwhelm us. One does not jettison one’s convictions about right and wrong merely because one comes up against difficulties. If the concept of secularism is right and valid, then those who believe in it must fight for it, whatever the consequences and difficulties. 
Haksar was also clear in his mind about the responsibilities of the capitalist class towards the society. He wrote to Mrs. Gandhi, after her re-election in 1980.

Getting and spending we lay waste our hours, is there nothing in this world which is ours” From time to time you speak feelingly about things. You spoke of the ‘healing touch’ in 1980. It just failed to get translated into action. You have spoken again about a healing touch … I was just wondering whether it is beyond the capacity of the Birlas, the Modis, the Tatas, the Mafatlals, et al who have lived off the fat of the land to gather together in response to your call for a healing touch, to bring sustenance, succor and support to those families— be they in Bhiwandi or Punjab, who have suffered …

Haksar was a key member of the Indian team led by Mrs. Gandhi that negotiated the Simla agreement in 1972 after the Indo-Pak war of 1971. Ramesh notes:

Haksar had called on President Bhutto at the latter’s residence in Islamabad on 27 July 1973, and at the end of the conversation, this exchange took place:
Haksar: Finally, if you permit me, Mr President, I would like to say something most respectfully. I am not a historian. (Pointing to the picture of a Buddha on the wall). What do you feel about the picture? Is, or is not that a part of Pakistan?
President Bhutto: I respect Buddha.
Haksar: Then, Mr. President, May I humbly ask, why do you talk of confrontation of thousand years? Are you in conflict with your own history? Is Pakistan in conflict with its own personality? To talk of confrontation has impact on the minds and hearts of people in India and Pakistan. It will be picked by the wrong type of people in India. Is that a contribution to durable peace in the sub-continent … You said Sindhi language is 5000 years old. Is there a confrontation in Sind between the last one thousand years and the previous 4000 years? I beg of you, Mr. President, to think it over the implications of the pronouncements about confrontation of a thousand years …
President Bhutto: I will say less of it in future (President looked embarrassed and confused and said “it was for internal …” but did not complete the sentence).
Haksar’s contribution to the defining, building and remaking of the Indian nation continued for the next three decades almost until his death. The biography is a remarkable account of the man not many in India would remember today.

The post below is a reproduction of the exchange of letters between PN Haksar and JRD Tata.

Image: https://www.thequint.com/lifestyle/books/how-indira-gandhi-emotionally-blackmailed-pn-haksar-to-come-back

JRD Tata and PN Haksar exchange

Image result for intertwined lives jairam ramesh
JRD Tata’s Letter

Dear PN: 

You have asked me whether it is not time for me to reflect creatively and constructively on the state of our country. I have done so, and for a long time … I was a little puzzled by your own puzzlement … I don’t know by what criteria you compared us … with our European and Japanese counterparts, and what you would expect from them, but if it is initiative and creativeness in their field of activity, I would imagine that … men like Jamsetji Tata and his sons fully measured up to their counterparts elsewhere in the world , including America, In a smaller way, men like the Wadias who built men-of war for the British Navy, or the Sarabhais for their contribution to science and culture, also measure up …

The advent of independence brought a dramatic change in the situation which would normally have provided the same vital base as in other countries for great projects, ventures and adventures by Indians. An essential pre-requisite, however, would have been freedom of choice, of investment and of action … Instead of releasing energies and enterprises, the system of licences and all-pervasive controls imposed on the private sector of the country , combined with confiscatory personal taxation, not only discouraged and penalized honest free enterprise but encouraged, and brought success and wealth, to a new breed of bribers, tax evaders and black marketeers … The nationalization, on expropriatory terms, of insurance and banks, conveniently created a state monopoly of investible and lendable funds, while fiscal policies, combined with the use made of the Companies Act, the Industries (Development and Regulation) Act, the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act and innumerable other enactments, regulations and administrative decisions effectively concentrated all economic power in the hands of the politicians in power and the bureaucracy.

Under such conditions, efforts at promoting and bringing to fruition large projects, however desirable, became nightmarish and time-consuming one, or ended in outright rejection. I need only cite the example of the great Tata Fertiliser Project of 1967 which would have brought immense benefits to the Indian economy but was rejected outright on the ground that Tatas were already too big … I am sorry to inflict this long tirade on you, for which my excuse is that you, albeit innocently, provoked it yourself by your question: I began my 55-year career as an angry young man because I couldn’t stomach the foreign domination of our country … I end it as an angry old man … because it simply breaks my heart to see the continuing miserable fate of the vast majority of our people, for much of which I blame 35 years of ill-conceived economic policies of our Government. 

Image result for JRD Tata PN Haksar
PN Haksar’s response

I have your letter of September 26. It moved me deeply. It moved me because you wrote it with such passion, sincerity mixed with compassion for the “continuing miserable fate of the vast majority of our people”. Please do not misunderstand me. It was not part of my intention to enter into polemics. Problems of our country, howsoever one may view them, are much too complex to yield to an attempt to score debating points. Is the essence of what you say is that all these years, following our Independence, the government policies have brought us to the present situation? Apparently, a simple-minded Adam Smithian policy would have done the trick in India. But even this proposition needs to be worked out. It is not so self-evident in India. And even Adam Smith before he set himself out as some sort of an Economist , had a very strong feeling for morality … It is true that Jamshedji Tata along with men like Walchand Hirachand or Ambalal Sarabhai articulated the deeper urges for modernization of our social, economic and political order. No such urge is visible today at the collective level of our industrialists and men and women engaged in trade and commerce. Be that as it may, the sole object of my raising the question which I did was to invite your attention to the fact that the entire process of historical transformation of an ancient society such as ours, where human beings are deeply enmeshed in all kinds of valid or invalid traditions, thought processes, social structures, etc., cannot be subsumed within a category called ‘Economic Policy’, howsoever conceived … Might I conclude this letter by saying that I deeply respect your anger, but from what little experience I have of life, anger has always been a bad counsellor.

Excerpts from Intertwined Lives PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi by Jairam Ramesh

Sunday, December 23, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 20

A number of global legends from diverse spheres passed on into history in 2014, among them were Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Richard Attenborough, Robin Williams. 

All of them contributed to deepening our understanding and appreciation of the arts. Marquez is unquestionably one of the best novelists of all times. 

If you’re interested in reading about what I wrote when he passed away, click here: Marquez

Similarly, Attenborough contributed to a better appreciation of Mahatma Gandhi achievements and contributions to making the world a better place. Attenborough’s Gandhi was a cinematic masterpiece and deservedly swept the Oscars in 1982 (unfortunately, Spielberg’s ET lost out). Gandhi the movie introduced the Mahatma to a global audience especially to a younger demographic. 

Che and Mahrukh
Attenborough was also a consummate actor and admired by the discerning moviegoer for his portrayal of General James Outram in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977).

Robin Williams acted in too many good movies, making it difficult to pinpoint his best. But I believe that he will be remembered for his portrayal of John Keating, the English teacher, who adopts unusual methods to teach his students' poetry and understand life better in Dead Poets Society (1989).

The list also included two individuals who were well known in their spheres and who I could claim to have known personally – Chelva Kanaganayakan and Vasu Chanchlani. Coincidentally, both passed away at a relatively young age of 62 and both were immensely active.

Vasu Chanchlani was among the most prosperous Indo-Canadians and a person deeply committed to philanthropy. His prosperity hadn’t changed his innate decency. He approached me to do a write-up on his nomination for the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award.
Che and Durga

What I found endearing about him was that he never let his wealth determine his relationships, or his identity. He’d happily accompany me to an ordinary Indian restaurant near the Chamber’s office and agreed to take turns to pay.

I got to know Chelva because of my association with the Festival of South Asian Literature and Arts. We were both members of the core group that worked to organize the festival curated by MG Vassanji and Nurjehan Aziz.

Read about him here: Chelva Kanaganayakan

With Mahrukh
Asghar Ali Engineer made a name for himself for his resolute opposition to religious fundamentalism. He passed away in 2013. As a journalist in Bombay, I’d come in close contact with him. On a couple of occasions, I’d gone over to his modest home in Santacruz East near Golibar to discuss current affairs. 

In the mid-1980s, his Centre for Study of Society and Secularism had published a report of the unstated but obvious bias against Muslims in finding jobs in the private sector. I’d taken views of a cross-section of influencers on the report. 

The best reaction had come from Datta Samant, the fiery trade union leader, famous for the textile strike of 1982. Samant looked at me quizzically when I asked him whether employers discriminated against Muslims. “They will exploit everyone. They don’t care about their workers’ religion.”

Engineer continued to be active, but we lost touch when I quit journalism in the late 1990s. 

When I went to Bombay in 2014, I made it a point to visit his Santacruz office. I took Che with me to introduce my son to the significance of a person such as Engineer and his contribution to ensuring that fundamentalism is challenged.

As a matter of principle, I have not told my son what dogma (religious/ideological) he should follow (I'll be happy if he doesn't follow any). I believe every human being has the right to choose, or better still, not choose at all. I believe that every human being has the right to not be indoctrinated, especially by family,  culture, upbringing and rigid family values. 

Where I make an exception is to tell him to be on the side of the oppressed. Engineer and his kind always stood (and stand) with the oppressed.

Unfortunately or fortunately, Che doesn’t remember that we visited Engineer’s office and met his son Irfan Engineer who has continued to do all the good work that his father initiated, and in his efforts, he’s been joined by Ram Puniyani, a former IIT professor, who even during his teaching days, was a resolute activist fighting the good cause of secularism.

Read about Asghar Ali Engineer here: Striving for Peace and Harmony


My journey to discover authors and poets continued and I assisted  Meenakshi Alimchandani in organizing the South Asian component of the first (and last) Inspire Toronto International Book Fair. It was a great event, where the who’s who of Toronto’s literary world congregated to discuss what they know best – reading, writing, and books.

Meenakshi had her favourite South Asian authors for the panel discussion and included friends such as Jasmine D’Costa, Manjushree Thapa, Anirudh Bhattacharya, and the effervescent Pricilla Uppal, who succumbed to cancer earlier this year. 

Read about it here: Inspire

My friends Yoko Morgenstern and Joyce Wayne published their debut novels in 2014. Yoko’s Double Exile was released in July when I’d left for India. Joyce’s The Cook’s Temptation was launched at our common friend Sang Kim’s restaurant Wind-Up Bird Café (named after Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Joyce’s second novel, Last Night of the World (published in 2018) is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.
With Yoko

Read their interviews:

For a brief while, Sang’s restaurant became a hotspot for literary dos and attracted an esoteric group of people all of whom shared their love for great food and great books. Sang, an award-winning author, is these days pursuing his passion for creating exquisite cuisines. 


Except the last photo with Yoko, the other photos are not connected to the blog. I've just placed them here because they were clicked in 2014, and Che looks smart in them.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 19

2014 turned out to be an unexpectedly tumultuous year.

Outside ICCC's previous office at 45 Sheppard Ave E
Just when you feel you’ve made it, have put your struggle behind you and as you eagerly look forward to building a life that you deserve, things come crashing down.

The year began propitiously, as I entered my fifth year of employment at the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce. The institution, being one of the most democratic organizations in Canada where the Indian diaspora could (and does) fulfil its ambitions and aspirations, has forever been a hotbed of political shenanigans and chicanery. But the political jostling rarely, if at all, affects the employees, who, without exception, service members and directors.

However, the acquisition of a building by the Chamber led to an unseemly controversy that became messier as days passed. As the senior-most employee of the Chamber, I was unwittingly drawn into the ongoing tussle between the two groups.

There was little doubt in my mind that the meagre resources at the disposal of the Chamber hadn’t been utilised judiciously, especially in the way the building’s interiors were designed and renovated. Whether there was malfeasance involved is anyone’s guess.

Recently, after four years of wrangling, the Chamber’s board agreed to close the investigation after being satisfied by the responses it received.

The then leadership of the Chamber was no longer comfortable working with me because of my vocal opposition to the payment of brokerage to a board member who was also the broker for the purchase of the building.

There were enough indications that the situation would turn for the worse for me, because of my, at time vociferous, opposition to many patently objectionable decisions made by the then leadership. But I was unwilling to see what must have been clear to everyone at that time - that my days at the Chamber were numbered, primarily because I considered many members of the then leadership to be my friends,

At the office of ICCC
The mid-year elections led to the consolidation of the existing group that has wrested control of the Chamber a couple of years ago. 

I’d already prepared to go on my once-in-three-years trip to India in the summer and left for India in July 2014 for a month. We returned from India in the third week of August and were excited to take oath as citizens on 27 August 2014.

The next day, 28 August 2014, when I reached the office the then president, the immediate past president and a vice president called me to the president’s office and within 15 minutes terminated my services, citing restructuring of the organisation in view of the acute shortage of finances. There was little consideration for all the work that I’d put in for the Chamber.

My world came crashing down. I had a humongous mortgage which was due every month; I had insubstantial savings that could possibly tide me over for two to three months, but then my family would be on the streets.

Even today, four years later, when I look back, what surprises me is not so much the decision of the then leadership of the Chamber to remove me, but the silence of all those who I’d imagined were my friends and people who I could depend upon. 

I’d like to give them the benefit of doubt that they were blindsided by the act and were not in a position to move fast enough.

Fortunately, working at the Chamber for nearly five years had brought me in contact with innumerable influential and successful Indo-Canadians. And when I was scampering around trying to meet potential employers, realizing that not everyone can be a friend when you’re in need, three individuals stood by me and offered to pull me out of my troubles.

Yudhvir Jaswal, a young media baron, who has a footprint in print and broadcast media, was more than willing to take me. Yudhvir is a sponsor of the Chamber.

With Puneet
Haresh (Mike) Mehta, a highly successful entrepreneur, a veteran community leader and an important functionary of the Sanatan Mandir, offered me the Executive Director’s position at the newly-launched Cultural Centre of the temple. Haresh had been a director of Chamber.

Puneet S Kohli, a young lawyer, who was at that time vacationing in Italy, agreed at once to take me. He’d have to create a special position in the law firm to accommodate me. Puneet had been a corporate secretary of the Chamber.
Simmons da Silva LLP
Finally, in mid-September, I decided that I’d join Simmons da Silva LLP. It was a decision that changed my life for the better. I was there for the next three-and-a-half years, before returning to what I believe I do best – working in a bilateral relations promotion organisation – the Canada India Foundation in 2018.

I will never forget the kindness and the generosity of Yudhir and Haresh, and especially Puneet. All relations change over the years, especially when friends become colleagues or when colleagues become friends. But I will always remember Puneet’s support at a time when almost nobody else did.