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Farrukh Dhondi is an Indian born British writer, media executive and playwrite,was born in Poona in 1944 in a Parsi family.
He was the script writer for films “The Rising: Ballad fo Mangal Pandey(2005), The Path of Zarathustra(2014), and Kisna:The Warrior Poet(2005).
He worked for Channel 4 TV, UK, as commissioning Editor between 1984 and 1997.
Ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farrukh_Dhondy,
https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/farrukh-dhondy

Here we have, with his permission, showcased some of his early writings to various newspapers and journals


 Articles -1

1.

Jeremy Paxman, an interviewer on BBC’s daily late evening programme Newsnight, is at least as well known in the UK as Shilpa Shetty was (for two weeks last year). Except that Paxo, interviewing world politicians and relentlessly attempting to get behind their slippery statements and answers night after night, has a permanent and deserved celebrity.
He once asked Tony Blair if he and Bush prayed together – a sort of trick question. If Tony said ‘yes’ he would look a bit of a chump to Britain’s largely atheistic or at least non-practicing population because Paxo would push the point and ask if they got down on their knees side by side. If he said ‘no’ – which he did – he might have been asked ‘why not’ since they were sending a lot of men to heaven or hell in Iraq, and surely divine guidance would assist with the burden of guilt or responsibility.
Paxo has interviewed most British ‘A’-list politicians at one time or another and his specialty is provoking controversy. But last week, the nation has to agree, he hit below the belt.
In an e-mail, though not on screen, he complained about  Marks and Spencer’s male underwear and said he noted a distinct deterioration over the years in comfort and quality. He said his underpants were not ‘as supportive’ as they used to make ‘em in the past. The e-mail was leaked and widely reported. It became front page news. The nation concluded from this sally that Paxo hadn’t switched to anything as fashionable as boxer shorts which, as any man knows, may provide bedroom chic if they are the right colour and fit, but are not designed to provide ‘support’. So he still wears Y-fronts, the design of male underpants which Superman wears above his trousers.
According to Paxo himself, the reports of his complaint have brought him a deluge of mail, by letter, e-mail, post card, phoned-in messages to the BBC and no doubt remarks in person. He has had more mail about this than about his remarks on war, peace and policy.
Most of the communications, he says, are supportive – not in the way the knickers aren’t – but of his contention that quality has deteriorated at M&S. He told The Times that he had raised the issue because M&S was a national institution, not just a shop and he wanted to draw their attention to a possibility of improvement.
Paxo was, as we Indians know, wrong on one count – Marks and Spencer is not a national institution, it is an international one, as well known for its underwear as Napoleon was for his hat.
Some years ago my sister was on a plane from Kolkota to Mumbai. The man sitting next to her drugged her coffee when she took a loo-break and took the money out of her handbag when she was only half conscious. Through a report of the incident in the press, the culprit was caught. He was known to the police as a man who traveled all over the world on tickets bought with stolen credit cards and then drugged and robbed fellow passengers, carrying off their baggage at the destination stop after rendering them unaccountably unconscious on the plane. When the police went to his ‘office’ they found a room packed with M&S underwear, male and female, which he had unpacked from the stolen bags of returning Indians. A bonanza of bras and panties, not to mention sweaters and ‘gunjies’. Sad.
Paxo’s attack was taken in good spirit by the chairman of M&S, Sir Stuart Rose, not as a criticism but as a challenge.
Rose publicly replied that his underwear was as strong as ever and asked Paxo to bring in his samples and have them scientifically tested against the ones that M&S sold in the past. Obviously they have a museum of underwear from which samples can be made available to the elasticity scientists and design-judges. Rose did add, however, that as one ages, it has been known that some males need more support in that region. In other words it’s not that the bridge has become weaker, but the trucks have become heavier.
M&S sells 32 million pairs of underpants each year. The chain are pioneers of the policy that unsatisfactory goods can be returned and replaced or the money can be refunded. Curently, the returns on underwear are .08 per cent. Sir Stuart said they start talking notice when the figure reaches 1 per cent.
I can personally testify that M&S doesn’t sell the cheapest underwear in the High Street. I buy a lot of underwear because I tend to lose a lot of pairs( Quite how this happens is not so much a secret, it’s a mystery even to me, like the universal experience of the missing single sock of a pair). Now that the food supermarkets sell packets of them as bargain offers, I must say I have stocked up after comparing prices but with all the makes I’ve got I’ve never had the time or inclination to compare quality. It’s not something that bothers me. Paxo’s remarks, because they come from someone famous, make me resolve to live more consciously. I think observing which brand I am about to put on each morning followed by a few seconds of meditation may help me with some answers — and then I shall e-mail Jeremy.


 

2.

 

From beyond the grave their hands reach out to instruct us — whether it be the injunctions of Moses, engraved in stone or the contentions of the dead old dame of trash romances, Barbara Cartland, that ‘manners maketh the man’. Her publishers are today posthumously re-issuing Cartland’s guide to etiquette, a book that first hit the unruly British masses in the sixties.

Barbara tells us how to behave. It is a codification of the necessary art of being a lady or a gentleman. It tells wives to always make their husbands a good breakfast and to stay silent at dinner and let him initiate the conversation. Cartland subscribes to the idea that women should be obscene and not heard. These are serious injunctions — on a par with honouring your father and your mother – and they go seriously against the grain of anything that any British woman of any class would happily do today.

In reissuing the book, her publishers may have some comic or mischievous intent. I wait to see whether it will grace the ‘self-help’ shelves of the bookstore along with the Deepak Chopras and ‘How to Breathe in Order to Rid Your Lower Intestine of Toxins’ or whether it will be placed with the comic books. (I have often thought the categories on life-style and comedy ought to be merged)

In writing it, Cartland and her publishers must have noted a deterioration in the quality of life of Britain in the early and mid-sixties.

My father certainly did. When I came up to Cambridge in the mid-sixties, I was equipped by the Tata Foundation for the Higher education of Indians with a tweed jacket, a blue suit and woolen trousers in a style known as ‘Oxford bags’. On getting to the University I soon found out how out of step this made me. Rockers and Mods were growing their hair and were wearing jeans and donkey jackets. I converted and conformed quite self-consciously and a few years later returning to India confronted my poor father with what he thought was a betrayal of everything he had hoped for. He expected to see an Edwardian gentleman with a three piece tweed suit and tie speaking in the manner of Bertie Wooster. Instead he got a long-haired Parsee in a kurta-pyjama, Allen Ginsberg specs and a straggly beard, with a persistent Parsi lilt to the accent. He was horrified. Britain had gone to the dogs. Barbara Cartland’s book on dressing like a gent had escaped my attention.

I suppose Cartland thought it became necessary when manners and mores were slipping and sliding. That’s exactly what is happening to India in our times. The injunctions of the Vedas are no longer adequate to prevent people from spitting in the streets, openly ‘committing nuisance’ in public places against city walls and pushing into queues at banks and at airports oblivious of the fact that the need of others may be greater than theirs.

The only codification of ‘manners’ which I have seen in India is from the pop-artists whose pictorial charts on various subjects are published on the pavements of our cities. I have framed one which describes in pictures that good boys sleep on time, wake up on time, say their prayers, greet their parents, bathe regularly, salute the national flag, “attend the latrine”, study attentively at school, help old ladies across the street and do other things that good boys should. Bad boys lurk, shirk, smoke, are short on respect and become progressively dissipated with hollow cheeks and hooded eyes.

While these posters are a firm and necessary delineation of modern Indian morality, a greater effort is needed.

It is time that a publisher commissioned some third rate writer of romantic fiction to produce a book of Indian etiquette. I look forward to being instructed not to belch or fart at dinner parties or scratch oneself in suggestive ways in public.


 

3.

 

The vanity of writers arises from their desperate wish for immortality. The Gods have granted them this serious personality defect in order to belittle these would-be Tolstoys and Shakesahabs who fashion worlds in defiance of their laws.
Success is of course the best literary Viagra, a modified pill which works for both sexes. J.K.Rowling doesn’t really need to go to ‘literary festivals’. That’s the compensation prize. All writers know that, but some of them justify their excitement at having been invited, listed  and, with any luck or notoriety, listened to, by saying to themselves that they were unique in condescending to the festival whereas the others really needed it.
I have been to several literary festivals though not as many as those who regularly do the circuit and shuffle from platform to platform in familiar company.  The last festival to which I was invited was Pablo Ganguli’s Bombay 2007 Lit Fest. It seemed at the time and after that a good festival was had by all. There were, for me, very minor ups and downs. My ticket from London had originally been routed through Sri Lanka in which country, or country’s airports, I would have to spend twenty-four fruitless hours. I negotiated, without any threats of withdrawal and as politely as I could, a direct flight to Bombay. Pablo, whom I had never met got my point about exhausting journeys and wanting to be at my freshest, so to speak, and put me on to a very efficient lady who subsequently decided that their sponsorship or budgets did stretch to giving me and some others a direct flight. I volunteered the fact I didn’t need hotel accommodation as the numbers of my extended family in the city could rival a small Nuremberg rally. Pablo was happy. It saved the cost of a room or, more likely, he could slot someone less endowed with hospitable cousins into the paid for facility.
The events seemed to go well. I made the acquaintance of several writers I hadn’t met before and enjoyed their first impressions of and insights into a city I consider my own.
One of them remarked on the English misspellings on Indian boards and hoardings. She laughed. I said it wasn’t funny but appalling and convinced her that BOMBAY DYEING was a misspelt oracular enterprise that predicted the fate of cities.
Arriving in Mumbai this year on my own steam as it were and to do my own writing, I find that there is a controversy in the press and in the gossipy literary circles about Pablo Ganguli. His 2008 Literary Festival was being boycotted by some Indian writers. The matter was that three employees of Pablo’s previous festival, the one to which I had been invited, had sent a public e-mail to all writers past and present (excepting myself) complaining that Pablo had not paid them and owed them thousands of pounds (even more in rupees) for their work. Other writers who had shared platforms and the 2007 fest with me had, it seems, written a round robin saying they supported the workers against Pablo.
Apart from the accusation about not paying their bills the workers accused Pablo of ‘racism’ alleging that the Indian writers had been treated as second class celebrities and the British ones were given preferential treatment and better hotel rooms.
Perhaps the round of parties and engagements made me oblivious to these conditions and tribulations at the time, but my recollection of the 2007 fest was that a mixture of Brits and Indians complained good-humouredly, about the accommodation, the cockroaches, the confusions attendant upon getting from one place to another and the other hitches on experiences at these affairs.
Pablo seemed to be swanning about and keeping an eye. Now he is being accused in a Calcutta paper, by their columnist Ian Jack of dressing flamboyantly and camping it up.
I hadn’t met Pablo before the 2007 fest but had spoken to him on the phone. I knew he was 24 years old and when I met him the Liberace streak was unmistakable. But it didn’t strike me as anything that anyone should complain about.
Pablo’s 2008 fest was ruined by the well-placed e-mails, petitions complaints and spoiler campaign. He retaliated with a dignified e-mail which he circulated I guess to the writers who had attended his international bashes. His reply said the people who were complaining about not being paid were themselves in charge of the disbursement of salaries and of raising sponsorship. They hadn’t in any case raised any funds.
There is no way of my knowing the rights and wrongs of the case, but I would have thought the same went for the other writers who attended the 2007 Fest and signed the collective e-mail from London taking issue with Pablo. Looking at some of the names, I was surprised. This wasn’t a petition saying ’I condemn global warming and slavery’. It was a specific accusation of financial impropriety and perhaps even fraud against an individual.
What got them going? I fear it was that little murmur about ‘racism’. Brit writers are terrified of not condemning it when it rears its head or hide its tail, even if the condemnation is issued from five star rooms while their Indian colleagues are sweating it out in the shanties. And of course it was partly that vanity which makes writers think that they, their opinions and signatures are somehow unsungly legislative.


 

4

 

Woody Allen famously said that he didn’t believe all this stuff about getting married and getting a divorce –“just find a woman you hate and buy her a house!”
The ex-Beatle Paul McCartney has just been through a much publicized divorce from his wife Heather Mills, the one-legged model whom he seems to hate but for whom, carrying out Woody Allen’s dictum with a vengeance, he has bought the equivalent of ten houses. The arithmetic is based on the McCartney style of life, averaging a small house at £2 million pounds. If you are an ordinary British housewife, an average earner, that would be equivalent to fifty houses!
Now for that sort of money, I’d have a sex change, plastic surgery and present myself to Sir Paul as a possible future candidate for marriage and divorce. I’d even endure the insistent playing and replaying of Michelle My Belle or Hey Jude all day, but I would perhaps stop short of a leg amputation. (Come to think of it, my left leg has a knee impairment and has been pretty troublesome these last few years. Hmmm!)
At some point I suppose Sir Paul thought he was in love with Heather Mills. He told her all his secrets. After the settlement of the court case in which she won the £24 million, a £100 million short of what she had asked for, she told reporters that he was really worth £800 million and had told a lie in court when he said he was only worth £400 million.
Their marriage lasted four years and that relatively short period, the judge said meant she couldn’t have the higher sum. The judge was virtually assessing the quality of love in the ‘love marriage’. If the marriage had lasted fifteen or more years Sir Paul would have had to split half his fortune with his estranged wife. Fifteen years and more means fifty-fifty, because love has lasted or been tolerated that long. Heather should have hung in there!
At last the judge has put a legal price on British love and relationships. It’s true that in India the dowry offered by fathers to get their daughters married is a measure of the financial worth of the coupling but obviously not of the love between the couple, which is, in arranged marriages, zero-rated as the couple don’t know each other yet. Love is something that might grow when they belong exclusively, safely and indisputably to each other. And amongst British Asians a British girl’s passport goes a long way to being the dowry itself as it provides the promise of British citizenship through marriage.
Several British Asian communities mostly those which originate in Mirpur, Sylhet, Indian or Pakistani Punjab  send their daughters off at tender ages to be married In their native lands. The girls may be as young as ten or twelve but are most of school leaving age which is 16.
Britain hasn’t for the last five decades of immigration bothered with the social mores of its immigrants, but now with the growth of a vociferous Asian woman population who assess their freedoms in the context of general British society, Members of Parliament are sponsoring a bill to end the practice of forced marriages.
The ban will ensure that girls who are British citizens can’t be spirited off to be married against their will.
This new law is not an assault on our ancient system of arranged marriages. Horoscopes will continue to be aligned, castes will be assessed, pedigrees and medical certificates examined and dowries exchanged. Mangliks will be married off to trees, dogs, bits of furniture etc. (One dog says to another “Hear you’re getting married?” The other replies “ No, yaar, just a one-night stand”). No British law will seek to tamper with such  traditions and it will continue to be our mode of matrimony until women who are traded off in this way begin to feel they have a better alternative and cause the arrangement to atrophy.
An unwilling girl in an arranged marriage can, if the ‘arrangement’ is insisted upon, appeal to the law and be classified as a forced bride.
In this way, the new anti-forced-marriage legislation will make sure that arranged marriages have the consent of the girls whose marriage is being arranged for them. If they don’t like it, they can plead force and tip their family’s bandobast into the realm of illegal coercion.
This will be a long and powerful stride in empowerment. Do Pakistan, India or Bangladesh have a comparable law against forced marriages, or is Britain casting the template?
But then more and more of British Asians of a marriageable age are taking on the anti-arrangement idea of the West and going for love. For the Western woman of, say, Jane Austen’s day it was love, marriage and sex in that sequence. For the modern Western women it is perhaps love, sex and maybe-marriage; or sex, love and maybe- marriage; or just sex, disillusion and move on.
For the Asian girl it is traditionally and ideally arranged marriage, sex and then love, resentment or resignation. Now that they are shrugging off the tradition and putting love first, they may live happily ever after or end up like Heather and Paul in court with claims and resentment. Very few of course will end up with fifty houses.


 

5.

 

“What did we do without mobile phones?” is the buzz question of the chatterati of the West and of the chapaterrati of India.
The question always puzzled me. “We used the house phone or went into a coin booth,” would seem to be the obvious answer. But suffering teaches.
I now know what I wouldn’t have done without one. I wouldn’t have tried to read a text and send a curt answer while driving and crashed into a tree, denting my ribs, smashing my typing fingers and concussing my brain while writing off my car.
People keep sending me e-mails with a procedure to follow using a phone to open your car if you’ve locked your key inside it by mistake. You phone your home where there’s presumably a duplicate with and play the tone of the electronic key over the phone into your car door and hey presto! I haven’t tried it but a very prominent Indian journalist persists in sending me these tips so I take it to be true.
The real miracle is of course the phone memory. There’s the number memory and the text memory and working together they are a sinful combination as a man f my acquaintance recently found out. He was adulterously sending dirty texts to a girlfriend who, lacking his constant and loyal presence, stored them in her phone and stimulated further streams of them by writing filth to him herself. The girlfriend left the phone in a cinema and the man started getting blackmailing calls from the person who’d found the phone.
I know a lot of sinful people and one of these, a user of hard drugs which he discreetly ordered via his phone was recently rung up. The voice at the other end, using the name he used to retain anonymity from his drug-dealer said “John, I have some very sad news.”
Now only the drug dealer knew this person as John, so he was immediately suspicious.
“Who’s this?”
“This is Kali, the brother of Charlie. I am sorry to tell you that dear Charlie passed away last night.”
“Oh, yeah? Thanks for telling me.”
“And I want to say that we won’t let him down. If you need anything just call the same number.”
The sinful person was rather taken aback by this mixing of business and sorrow.  He couldn’t muster any emotion for the demise of Charlie so instead he asked “How did it happen?”
“Overdose of drugs,” came the reply.
‘John’ is thinking of giving up drugs or changing his dealer.
Then there’s the case of new telephonic strategy gleaned from another rather more sinful acquaintance whom I came across in my professional career. He was in long term custody at the President of India’s pleasure and lived a life of luxury in his jail through bribery, chicanery and charm. He had mobile phones, TV sets, a fridge, a computer etc. as any convict in our modern, enlightened liberal society should. An alleged terrorist was brought to the same jail and abandoned by the jail’s warders to the patriotic retribution of the murderers, thieves and fraudsters within. The protagonist of the story took the terrorist under his protection, threatening retribution on the other prisoners if they laid a further finger on him.
He befriended the terrorist and lent him his cell phone  knowing that it had a limited amount of battery charge.
Wile making his calls the phone went dead. Our Proto  said “no worries” (or words to that effect as he isn’t Australian) he would recharge it. Of course he had the call register’s record of the numbers the alleged terrorist had dialled. A valuable archive of the terrorist’s possible leads and acquaintances which he could transcribe (he actually memorised seventeen international numbers) and subsequently use as the bargaining chips of betrayal.
What did we do before mobile phones?


 

6.

 

The Mumbai police have declared their intent to make No Horn Day a permanent fixture. They will have to double and treble their efforts to arrest offenders and my personal recommendation, though I have never in my short and happy life ever had a policeman agree with me, is that they multiply the fine by ten or a hundred. It would act as a great disincentive to unnecessary horning if there was a spot fine of a thousand or ten thousand rupees for the merest beep.
The hazard of such a draconian approach is of course bribeability. The honking miscreant will flash fifty rupees before the constable and drive away happy. If I had a solution to the problem of corruption I wouldn’t be writing this column, I would be Prime Minister of China by now, so I admit that I don’t quite know what to do about that. Perhaps the only solution is to recruit a special anti-noise-pollution police force. Just as we have border guards to support the army and coast guards to police the coastline, the new force would wear a special uniform emblazoned with the slogan “NO HORN PLEASE, OK TATA.”
Now it may be suggested that this new force be spiritually trained in Gandhian ways and morals and after a year of such indoctrination set loose on the world. I have always found that faith in brainwashing is misplaced. It doesn’t work. The material incentive overrides all ideology. Recent history, in the form of the Soviet Union and its collapse bears me out. The populations of Russia and Eastern Europe were subject to a thorough ‘education’ in the Stalinist way of life and in Stalinistic ethics, for what those are worth. It didn’t work. The people in the co-operatives refused to co-operate. The workers of the world united in their offensive against work. And I predict that future history will also bear out my contention (I stole it from Marx) that the material self-advancement of a class will overcome and discard any ideology that holds it back. So groups of people may use one or other ideology to advance, but as soon as it begins to hamper future advance through its dictates they will abandon it and flee as genetically un-modified mosquitoes used to before DDT.
In short, if in the future it comes to open war between say Osama bin Laden and Ronald McDonald, I predict that Ronald McDonald will ultimately win.
But back to the NO HORN PLEASE OK TATA POLICE (NOHOPOTA Brigade). My solution to corruption would be to give material incentives to briber and bribed to report each transaction. So if I give a policeman fifty rupees to let me off after he catches me jumping a red light, I can immediately put in a call to a publicly announced number, report the incident and hand over the policeman’s number and identity and be given, say Rs 50,000 as a reward and exoneration from the red light offence as well as from the crime of bribing a policeman. The cop meanwhile is apprehended, jailed and cruelly punished – unless — and here’s the rub – unless he calls the same number first and claims the Rs 50,000  for reporting me and the bribing transaction. In which case I am apprehended, suitably fined, jailed and cruelly punished. The first party to report a bribe gets the prize, the other is subject to condign and awesome chastisement.
Come to think of it, this anti-corruption formula can be applied across the board and need not be restricted to  noise pollution in Mumbai. In fact, instead of TV news, the news channels could each day devote a whole programme to displaying the winners of the Dhondy Anti-Corruption Prize. The guilty parties in each transaction can also be paraded before the cameras and humiliated in public by suitably cruel and shameful punishments being enforced upon them.
My professional televisual instincts tell me that this will be a winning show and will contribute much more to the progress of the country than our useless and unpopular news bulletins. Jai Hind.


7.

 

The rickshaw wallahs are on strike, resisting electronic metering on their vehicles. Living for a time in Marol, which is in relatively remote Andheri East, I feel stranded. Nevertheless as a general rule, the rickshaw drivers of Mumbai are law-abiding and almost inevitably charge you a fare after reading the meter. This is in contrast to the Delhi drivers of rickshaws. They will do anything to avoid turning their meters. When you state a destination, they begin to bargain and name their price, usually far in excess, sometimes a simple multiple, of the metered fare. One of their contentions is that the meter doesn’t work. They are smugly confident that no policeman is unbribeable and that the conned customer can have no recourse to civic law.
The one habit that Mumbai conveyancers share with their Delhi counterparts is a refusal to go to certain areas or short distances. Leaving a party late at night I walk towards a chariot-rank of rickshaws (I am always reminded of Ben Hur and Roman chariots when I see them en masse) and ask the first one whether he will go to Lokhandwala.
He looks into the distance as though I have asked him to solve a quadratic equation in his head. He shakes his hand, like a fellow playing the tambourine to tell me he won’t.
Another driver pipes up.
“Andheri Lokhandwala or Kandivali Lokhandwala?”
“I didn’t know there were two. Andheri,” I reply.
He gestures his refusal.
“What about Kandivali, then?” I ask.
He shakes his head in a nod. That he would do.
“And Borivali?”
Yes, yes, they would do that too.
“And Yugashvilli?”
They were foxed. One literally scratched his head.
“Where’s that?”
They repeated the name.
“Yugashvilli? Is it outside Mumbai? Ratnagiri Road”
“No,” I said.” It isn’t a place at all. It’s the actual name of the Russian dictator Stalin, who was a Georgian and born Joseph Yugashvilli. He was called ‘Stalin’ as a political name. It means ‘man of Steel’ a sort of Lokhandwala, if you like.”
They stared at me. If there was a thought behind the eyes it was ‘mad Parsi bawa!’
Then a third rickshaw driver joins in.
“I’ll take you to Lokhandwala,” he says. ”If Stalin means Lokhandwala, you’ve taught me something today.”

*

I am sitting in the office of a well-connected friend, talking movie-financing, when he takes a phone call. There is a distressed woman friend on the line.
“Still no joy,” she says, or words to that effect.
“I’ll fix it straight away,” he says, “But look why don’t you just take my offer.”
“No,” she says, “Nothing short of the original one will do.”
“OK, OK,” he says impatiently. “I’ll call you back.”
“Kohinoor diamond?” I ask.
“No, a bloody bicycle!”
This is mildly intriguing. I enquire. He calls a man in his office who deals with civic matters and instructs him, rather crisply, to ‘deal with that bicycle business, for God’s sake’. He doesn’t actually appeal on behalf of the Almighty, but this is a ‘family’ article….
The story?
This young lady, a budding starlet, (very ‘budding’ from her photographs), exercises on her  designer bicycle each morning or evening. The bicycle is stolen by, she suspects, the fifteen-year-old who lives in her building and moves with a gang. The next day she sees the same bike being ridden by a member of the boy’s gang and complains to the police. The bike is quarantined.
“So get it released,” I say.
My friend smiles.
“It has gone down into the inferno of Indian civil procedure. We can hand out bribes worth a few thousand rupees to get it loose, or we can buy two bicycles for four hundred, one to replace the quarantined one and one for the thieves. Everyone’s happy.”
“Sounds equitable,” I say.
“But she wants the original one and nothing else.”
“A matter of principle,” I suggest.
My friend looks at me pityingly. He doesn’t say it but his expression says it for him:
“No, you idiot, not principle, just the way women are, and if you don’t know by now, don’t mess with it.”


8.

 

Earlier this year Ken Livingstone, while he was still Mayor of London, did a tour of India, visiting Delhi and Mumbai with great fanfare and enthusiastic headlines. He advised the cities to improve their public transport systems, a necessity which may have eluded their long suffering citizens. He may have handed out some more useful tips, but they were either not reported or not important enough to recall.
Ken’s India trip was part of electioneering for this month’s London mayoral contest. A good twenty per cent of London’s electorate is of Indian origin and politicians have to learn to dance the garba and the bhangda in ludicrous attempts to win them over. Ken’s ‘ethnic’ advisors had us London tax-payers pay for his trip and theirs to the Punjab, Delhi and Mumbai.
His other West Indian ethnic advisors proved to be his downfall. One of them is alleged to have passed thousands if not millions of the Mayoral budget to dubious ‘race’ and anti racist causes and is being prosecuted for alleged fraud.
The scandal of these schemes broke just before the election and sank ‘Red Ken’ in the May election. The electors of London voted in the Conservative Boris Johnson, long denounced by Ken and his allies and by a vast spectrum of the press as a buffoon and a clown with no proven administrative abilities and therefore no qualifications to take on the formidable task of being Mayor of London. Boris was a Member of parliament sitting for Henley on the opposition benches, and he had been for years the editor of the Spectator a right-wing stalwart weekly publication which is very much part of the British journalistic tradition.
In a debate just before the election, addressing members of a Chamber of Commerce, Ken was keen to point out Boris’s unpreparedness for the job and took a dig at his days at the Spectator saying that the most difficult decision Boris ever had to make was which restaurant to go to for lunch. Ken got a laugh. Boris said “Even there I showed leadership,” and got a bigger laugh.
As it happens, I have had dealings with both Ken and Boris in their former official capacities.
Before Ken was mayor of London, in the ‘80s he was the Head of the Greater London Council, a sort of mayoral post. He decided, laudably, to start a Black Arts Initiative which would bring together the disparate ethnic groups doing theatre, music, poetry etc. in the capital and give them access to some funding. I was a member of the Asian Co-operative Theatre at the time and was asked to join an Arts Advisory Committee by Ken’s officers. I did.
Among the schemes presented to this Committee was one to turn a very large building, once a railway engine workshop, into a Black Arts Centre for the country. After a few weeks of investigation it became apparent to me that the activity of ‘Black Arts’ at the time couldn’t sustain such a building. There wasn’t enough to put in it the whole year round. There’d be no audiences and it would result in loss and disillusionment. Better to have two or three much smaller venues, one for drama the other as an arts gallery. Things could grow from there.
But no, Ken wanted his grandiose showcase and the rest of the Committee members saw this scheme as a milch cow which would deliver easy money for made-up activities. I was the only dissenting member when they pushed this scheme for £6 million through. I gave a little lecture and resigned.
Sure enough the Centre took two years to convert to purpose, cost £11 million and entailed a few fraud and corruption cases along the way. It closed within a year for lack of content and support. It was not a great testimony to Ken’s planning skills.


9.

I am back in London after a week at the Cannes Film Festival. For the last ten years the Festival has seemed very much like a transplantation to the French Riviera of the Marriot Hotel, Juhu, Mumbai’s lobby and bar.
This time it was a little different. There were some of the usual suspects and certainly some had brought their film and ideas to sell, but the great Indian circus a sort of Kumbh of Cannes had thinned out. Even the Indian media circus seemed to have discovered that a party thrown in a hired villa by Indo-capitalist ‘A’ doesn’t mean that the Prince of Monaco’s position as premier host has been superseded. Or the fact that starlet ‘B’ is photographed for the Indian papers doesn’t mean she is in line for an Oscar. They are on holidays which they have paid for. The purpose for being at Cannes is to impress not the French, the Americans or the International press and audiences, but to boost the ‘share-price’ of the individual or company in the Indian vanity stock-market.
In the Indian pavilion — most countries pitch a tent by the sands on the ‘croisette’, which is a bay, half the size of our Mumbai Walkeshwar-to-Nariman Point ‘Back Bay’,  at the south of Cannes on the Mediterranean – there were at least two discussions on why there were no Indian films at Cannes.
For years there have been no Indian entries. French selection juries don’t want to know. The speakers and audiences at these earnestly debated and naively confounded seminars, thought it may be a case of not appreciating Indian culture. They thought it may be due to a lack of self-promotion. They thought it may be that the Indian government wasn’t pushing hard enough. Indian films represent Indian culture as McDonald’s lamb-burgers represent Indian food. Indians promote themselves as hard as Lady Di used to and the Indian government pushing anything would make it roll backwards. No, the answer to why we don’t get picked is because our films are at best locked in a myth of nationalism and sublimated religion from which none escape, and at worst trapped in crass imitations of Western plots, clothes, scenes, ill-conceived imitations and bad-taste pastiche. It amuses the Indian public and turns over the crores? Great! But what are Cannes juries after?
Taste and see. The Palm D’Or the biggest prize was won this year by Entre les murs (The Class), a film made with real pupils and teachers and no actors, following for a year, and making narrative out of, the life and activity of an inner-city French school. Can you see any Indian producer getting his or her head around such an idea? Would one get five seconds with anyone in Bollywood to outline it? Dream on.
And move on. The opening film of the Festival was called Blindness. It was an adaptation of Nobel laureate Jose Saramago’s novel in which all humans, all but one character, lose their sight. This is not some sentimental tear-jerker or a test of the audience’s credulity. It is an allegory in the science-fiction-reality category with chilling and subtle political overtones for our times. Bring on the item numbers with scantily clad gipsy dances choreographed in perennially imitative Travolta style to liven up the message? Er….perhaps not.
Then there was Linha de Passe a film about four brothers in a Portuguese slum. It’s grim, real, moving and convincing. And no, one of them doesn’t become a cop and the other a playboy and they don’t all celebrate the triumph of the poor boy over the rich girl in the end.
Should one dare to mention Dance with Bashir a devastating animated feature about the massacre at the Shabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon? The Palestinians, the victims, don’t win. Now how does one get a Shahrukh into that one?


 

10.
The Shame of it! On Monday this week the BBC’s prime current affairs slot Newsnight featured the drought in Ethiopia and in the same item ran fifteen minutes on starving children in northern Madhya Pradesh. The Ethiopian coverage, featuring a five year drought that has wiped out the ground vegetables, the staple food of the region, was full of horrific, sad images.
(Before any reader objects that there was no such BBC programme on Monday last, may I point out for umpteenth time that the BBC World that one receives in India is not the BBC that the British population sees. BBC transmissions in Britain are the Channels BBC 1,2,3 and 4 and then some specialist and archival stations. The BBC presenters on Indian screen don’t appear on the programmes transmitted in the UK. They work for a different station with completely different schedules, programmes, presenters and universes of discourse specially tailored to the non-British ‘World’.)
Newsnight showed images of starving, emaciated babies covered head to toe in flies. Their mothers, with eyes hollowed by hunger, couldn’t raise an arm to brush them off. Infants in arms struggled to swallow the gruel that volunteer nuns attempted to feed the fortunate few who had made the trek to the relief camps.
Then the programme went to Madhya Pradesh. It featured a clinic where starving mothers had brought their staving and emaciated children. A doctor who was caring for these infants, trying to keep them alive, explaining to the camera what the symptoms of starvation were, said she and the proffered assistance belonged to a Non Governmental Organization.
On the same day in the newspapers there was an item about some Indian capitalists who had paid millions of pounds to buy over a media enterprise in Britain. When Ratan Tata buys Tetley tea or the Jaguar brand and factory, it makes news, if not on the front pages, at least in the business news. I expect the British public is by now bored with news of the Russian or Indian take-over of one or other of their failing, ailing or even prosperous companies – steel, cars, tea, radio networks and very soon some banks or bush funds, or whatever they’re called.
The media cliché about India is that it is a burgeoning economy, one of the great superpowers of the future world with more billionaires than ears of corn. We are conquering the world in commerce and manufacturing. Yes there is the balancing picture of shanties, but these slums are usually buzzing with activity.
And then the BBC exposes the real sore. Dying babies, as in Ethiopia. The shame is not that this is exposed. The shame is that it is happening and that what we call a democracy with burgeoning and boastful capitalist classes has no solutions and despite all the exposure in the national and international press won’t contemplate any.
When talking about India, trying to characterize it in journalistic or conversational contexts I have maintained a conviction that in my boyhood I saw people starve and at least that is not so sixty and more years after Independence. We have made progress – no one needs to starve. But I have been wrong, so wrong. Our politics are snared in corruption and in power-trading as a means to corruption. Doctors from the Non Governmental Organizations treat the dying infants.
Is it beyond India’s Gandhian tradition of compassion, Nehruvian tradition of progress, Indira’s political posturing about eradicating poverty, India’s vaunted ingenuity in taking a lead in world capitalism to see that the infants of northern Madhya Pradesh don’t starve to death?
If the BBC did transmit this programme to India the predictable reaction would not be “We must compel the system, political and social to solve this instantly.” It would be “The racist British are undermining our deservedly great image”. By screening the real Hard Facts?

 


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