Friday, December 23, 2005

'Indian society is demanding accountability now'

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Interview/Shashi Tharoor/UN Under-Secretary General for Communication and Public Information

Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

In the West or Africa, or the Far East, would there have been such a furore over the Paul Volcker report?
I would not like to generalise. Because India is a turbulent democracy, we do tend, particularly with our thriving and proliferating media, to rake up a lot of issues once we seize upon them. There is a marvellous New Yorker cartoon, which had a television anchorman saying, “Those were the headlines and we will be back after the break to blow them out of all proportion.” That is exactly what has happened. [Former External Affairs Minister] Natwar Singh’s name was mentioned on a list of names annexed to the fifth volume of a report, which listed over 2500 companies and individuals. It was, by no means, a major finding. So, there is a certain mystification among my colleagues in New York about what a huge story this has become. But I think it is a tribute to our democracy. It is a tribute to the independence of our media and it is very healthy that we, as a society, are demanding accountability.
You mentioned the UN has no documents about Volcker’s findings? So what does the Indian government do then?
Though it was created by a resolution of the Security Council, the Volcker enquiry committee is completely independent of the secretariat. We have the same report that the media has. The only thing the UN can do is to facilitate contact between the Indian investigators and Volcker’s staff.
Do you think it was right to sack Natwar Singh?
That is not appropriate for me to say. I have the highest respect for Natwar Singh, whom I have known for many years.
You have said India is a growing world power but the exchange rate for the American dollar is still 46 rupees.
It is a growing world power, but the challenges are enormous. You should not worry about the dollar being Rs 46 but that there are 200 million Indians who live on less than a dollar a day and who are living on the wrong side of the poverty line. We have a lot to celebrate, including economic growth and the advancement of the middle class, but we cannot afford to forget those who have been left behind so far.
You have been in the UN in senior positions for several years. Yet, your writing has carried on unabated. Where do you get the time?
It is very much abated these days. Writing is very much a part of who I am. Some of my reactions to the world are manifest in my work at the UN and some are manifest in my writing. To be very honest, if I give up one or the other, a part of my psyche would wither.
It is very rare for a creative person to be practical, like you are.
In some ways, it is a legacy of growing up in India. I was writing from my childhood but my parents always said, you can write as much as you can but you had better do your studies because writers can’t make a living in this country. I think it has something to do with middle class parents who were afraid that their son would starve on the streets.
Most of your books have received good reviews but the sales have been poor. What is the reason behind this?
I have no idea. I am writing because I have something to say. But what will strike a chord, you don’t know. However, in the Indian context, I have not done that badly. Penguin India brought a list of books that have sold over 10,000 copies and three of my books were on that list. But I certainly have not had international commercial success.
You have had a lot of experience in various countries like the former Yugoslovakia. Yet, very little of it appears in your fiction. Why is this so?
That is a very conscious decision. I feel it would be incompatible now, with my obligations as an UN official, with the diplomatic reticence, the obligation not to cause offence to other member states and so on. One day when I will put the UN behind me as a profession, I would want to interpret some of my experiences as a writer.
Some people say working in the UN is not tiring at all: A cushy job, with a solid pay packet. Is this true?
That has been the image in some people’s mind but it is not only wrong but out-dated. The UN is a competitive employer in the international marketplace but by no means as generous as the private sector. And few of our jobs would qualify as cushy. We may have accountants or administrators leading conventional working lives but we also have people who have 18 hour working days in the field in refugee camps. We have people who are sleeping in tents right now in the so-called Azad Kashmir because of the recent earthquake. We have people in developmental projects in Africa who often don’t see a foreigner for weeks. We have all of these experiences within the UN. So to generalise about the UN, in that sense, is flawed.
You mentioned that one of your sons was shouted at in New York because he was brown. How have things changed in the US after 9/11?
There was an enormous tension in American society after 9/11. Mainland America, not counting Hawaii and Pearl Harbour, had not been attacked by foreign forces since 1812 when the British attacked. For the Americans, there was no historical memory of an attack and it seared the consciousness of people. Of course, many people reacted with a great deal of decency and nobility and grace. But some, in every society, always react badly. And those who did, were the kind of people who shot dead a Sikh because he was wearing a turban thinking he must be like Osama Bin Laden. Two persons shouted at my son, saying, “Dirty Arab, go back from where you came from.” However, this is not at all representative of an entire society. But it is a reflection of the extreme fear and passion and anxiety generated by that event. Today, all that has subsided. But I don’t know what it would be like if there is a second attack attributed to the same sources.
Are you amazed at the way your life has panned out? A Kolkata boy hobnobbing with the world’s elite. A Kolkata boy, yes indeed! But my parents came from villages in Kerala. My father had spent much of his childhood walking barefoot several kilometres to school. Yes, it is amazing. When I look back at my own family and my own experiences in growing up in Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi, I would not have been able to imagine the kind of opportunities that life has given me. For which I am deeply grateful to the forces beyond my control.
How do you define ‘forces beyond my control’?
It could be luck or destiny or divine blessing, but I am reluctant to talk about these things. I remember when Michael Chang won the French Open at 17, during his winner’s speech he said that God had made him win it. I thought to myself, ‘God is there for everybody. What makes him think God picked him instead of somebody else?’ There is an arrogance in presuming to interpret God’s wishes that I would not like to presume. Let me simply say, I have worked hard, and have done my best with as much sincerity and dedication I could muster. But I am also aware there are all sorts of people around the world who have also worked hard and honestly and sincerely and may have had different outcomes in life. Why this happens is beyond human comprehension. All I can say is hard work may not be enough but without hard work you are not going to get anywhere.

Sunshine at sunset

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In Ashray, despite Aids causing devastation, children smile and have a good time

Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

When you look at the smiling face of Rajesh Kamlakar you cannot imagine the tragedy that has befallen his life. His father died when he was a child, and his mother, who had an elder daughter, Shailaja, decided to marry a tailor, Sunil. Within a few months, Rukmini was pregnant, but when she went to the hospital, the doctor told her she was HIV positive. Despite this prognosis, she did not abort the child. Eventually, Rukmini gave birth to Anupama. When Sunil died a few months later, Rajesh began working as an assistant to a hawker. He would eat only vada pav daily, to save money and buy food for his mother.
One day, Rukmini, who had contracted tuberculosis, and was feeling low and desperate, decided to commit suicide. But Shailaja, who was 14 at that time, learnt of this and said, “What are you doing? I know of an organisation that might help us.”
The family came to project CHILD (Children of HIV Positive Individuals Living in Dignity)—a home-based care programme, which is run by Committed Communities Development Trust (CCDT). Says director Sara D’Mello: “The longer the mother is alive, the child will get emotionally stronger. And they will be better able to cope for the time when she is no longer there.” Rukmini died soon after and Shailaja was put into a government institution for young girls while Anupama was admitted to Ashray, a CCDT crisis centre for children in Bandra. Rajesh would visit his stepsister every Saturday, but, over a period of time, Anupama’s health began deteriorating.
“When Rajesh realised this, he stopped coming,” says Lucinda D’Souza, Ashray project manager. When Anupama died, the Ashray authorities delayed the cremation; they wanted Rajesh to be present. “We felt he deserved the privilege of performing the last rites,” says Sara. So, one of the social workers, Vimal Bagul, wandered all over Bandra for hours before she spotted him near the railway terminus. Reluctantly, and with fear in his eyes, he came to Ashray. Can you blame him? By the time, he was 12, he had lit the funeral pyre of his father, his stepfather, his mother and now he had to do it for his stepsister.
In Ashray, there are 58 children: 34 boys and 24 girls, all of them from poor families. Several are HIV positive; some are orphans, while many have parents who are dying from Aids-related illnesses. There is no segregation between infected and non-infected children because the HIV virus can only be transmitted through blood transfusion, an infected needle, from mother to child and through sexual intercourse.
But for these children, death is never far away. “You have to prepare children for the death of a loved one,” says Mugdha Wadivkar, project manager, HIV Aids programme of the CCDT. “They talk about illnesses and express their perceptions about death. In death, they say, their parents have gone to God’s place. Some children feel their parents are going to come back.”
But for children like Rajesh, it is an uphill road. “We need specially trained counsellors and we don’t have enough of these, especially in the hospitals,” says Sara. “These children are vulnerable because they have to cope with the stigma associated with HIV-Aids.”
Ashray, started 10 years ago, celebrated its anniversary on November 1. In the evening, after the children have returned from the municipal school, and had their baths, they sit on the floor of the high ceiling bungalow, which has been provided by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, watching the Cartoon Network on television. They range in age from 2 to 15 years. I am introduced to Meenakshi, whose face is suffused with a bright glow and one of the warmest smiles I have seen in a child. She is an orphan but, thankfully, is not infected. “She is a bright student,” says Lucinda. Meenakshi tells me her favourite subject is mathematics. There is Minal, who is lying face down, the only child in the sick room. He has sores on his legs and is sleeping. Then there is three-year-old Manish, who was supposed to live for a few weeks but is throbbing with energy two years later.
I am introduced to Pradip, who walks very slowly. But at 12, he has suffered a stroke and has meningitis. He shakes my hand and asks for a chocolate. I am saddened that I don’t have any. He looks disappointed but does not say anything. Just then there is a call on my mobile. After I put the phone back into my pocket, my hand touches something. When I pull it out, I am amazed to see it is a chocolate, which my colleague had given to me earlier in the day and I had forgotten all about it. I proffer it to Minal, who does not smile, but thanks me profusely and grips the chocolate so hard I fear he is going to crush it out of shape.
Their lives may seem to be out of shape, but because they are children, full of innocence and joy, it is sweet most of the time.

Tinkle, tinkle

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The Reserve Bank of India’s monetary museum is a journey through Indian history

Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

When you walk down Pherozesha Mehta Marg, which is crowded with cars and taxis and shopkeepers shouting out their wares, if you are not observant, you might miss the monetary museum run by the Reserve Bank of India. But once you enter the air-conditioned museum, with its neat glass cases, and overhead lights, you are transported into a world, which is an obsession with most people: money. But it is not just money, but the history of Indian money: from coins dating back 2,500 years to the present ubiquitous Gandhi note.
The idea to set up a monetary museum was there for several decades but it was during the tenure of governor Dr. C. Rangarajan (1992-1997) that it gained momentum. The driving force behind the project was Bazil Shaikh, now chief general manager of the human resources development department of the RBI. “We wanted to demystify money,” says Shaikh. “Through the museum, the bank wanted to reach out to the public and the student community. It is also part of the bank’s communication strategy.”
It was not an easy task. It took two years to complete the research, groundwork, and to acquire exhibits. First, a web site was set up. Work on the physical museum, which was designed by the National Institute of Design, was taken up subsequently. Eminent scholars such as Dr R. Vanaja and collectors like K. Jhunjhunwalla helped with the background work. Says curator P.V. Radhakrishnan: “The majority of the coins have been purchased from private collectors.”
The museum has been divided into six sections: a) ideas, concepts and curiosities. Here, you can see money in various shapes, sizes and metals including some of the smallest coins in the world. b) In the coinage section, you can see ancient coins dating from the sixth century BC to coins of the Mughal Period, the Princely States, the British Indian coinage and commemorative coins of modern day India. It is, in one way, the history of India. When one empire crumbled, the new ruler used to issue new coins. In the Gupta period, the coins were issued mainly in gold. In the Mughal period, there were verses from the Koran on one side and the name of the Emperor on the other side. During Moghul Emperor Jahangir’s reign, he issued a nazrana coin, which weighed 1000 tolas (12 kgs), which was given as a gift. More closer in time: in 1968, a twenty paise coin looked like gold and the people started melting it, to make ornaments even though it was made of nickel brass or aluminium bronze.
In section C, the museum traces the journey from coins to paper money and it shows how the concept of “promises to pay” originated. You can see promissory notes, bills of exchange and cheques. There is a panel on hundies, which were used by local bankers. The other sections include one on paper money, on knowing your notes and the RBI and You.
“The museum also has interactive information kiosks through which children can learn various aspects of currency and coins,” says curator P.V. Radhakrishnan. The museum takes a visitor through a fascinating journey on how money has changed - from gold, silver and copper to fiat money. It also introduces the visitor to what the Reserve Bank, which plays an important role in the economy, means to the common man.

'The focus is only on the stars'

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INTERVIEW/Jahnu Barua, director, Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara

Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

Jahnu Barua, 52, was born in a village, Bokota, in upper Assam. As a child he would see a film once a month out in the open and became fascinated by it. It was only when he was five years old, he realised you could see a film in a hall. After graduating in science from Guwahati University, he did a three-year course for directors in 1971 at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. In a 25-year career, Barua has made 10 films, nearly all of them commercial hits. His films have won 12 national and 23 international awards, including the Silver Leopard at the Locarno film festival in 1988.
Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara is the story of the mental disintegration of an acclaimed Hindi scholar and retired Mumbai professor Uttam Chaudhry (played brilliantly by Anupam Kher) and the impact it has on the family. While the focus has been rightly on Kher’s performance and the rest of the cast, which includes Urmila Matondkar, Rajat Kapur and newcomer, Addy, very few people were aware the director was Barua. Excerpts:

Are you disappointed that, despite the critical acclaim, as director, you have been ignored?
The focus on the Hindi film industry is on the stars and rarely on those who are behind the camera. The result is that the public is unaware of the kind of hard work and effort that has been put by us. The filmmaker needs to be projected.
Where did you get the idea for Maine Gandhi Ko Nahim Mara?
Coming from the northeast, I have seen a lot of bloodshed, militancy and political unrest. Had it been tackled at the initial stage, with a non-violent attitude, the results would not have been like it is today. I felt the answers to a lot of problems we face are with Mahatma Gandhi and his ideology. But the unfortunate thing is that if you make such a film, nobody will see it. That was why I was looking for a strong story. Ten years ago, while I was doing research for another film, I came across a true story of a demented patient. The thing about a patient suffering from dementia is that he is truthful; whatever he feels he tells. So, through that character, I wanted to tell the audience that, maybe, Gandhi’s ideology might be relevant.
Is there an audience for your type of film?
I always feel there is an audience, but we are failing to project these films. We project all sorts of shallow things and ignore the main things. As a result, the audience has become allergic to films like Maine Gandhi Ko Nahi Mara.
How does Bollywood compare with Hollywood?
We have a lot of talent, at par with the best of the world, whether it is the regional or the Hindi film industry. But, despite that, we end up making ordinary products. In such a big industry we do not have any R&D. There is no platform where filmmakers can discuss where we are heading. We need to create a demand for a better cinema and the audience needs to mature also.
What is your philosophy of life?
I believe in simplicity. Today, there is a lot of unnecessary materialism. The world is becoming a market every day. Everywhere, people are talking about buying a product. The whole sense of life is being eroded.

All that jazz

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Deafness is no handicap for the dancers of the Clarke school

Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

As with all Astad Deboo productions, the moment the Contrapositions show by dancers of the Clarke school for the deaf ended at Mumbai, there was a stunned silence. And then the applause rolled down in waves. Later, the dancers stood up front so that audience members could come and meet them. One elegantly clad lady made her way to the front and quietly touched the feet of the dancers. “Would you believe it or not?” says Deboo, “but she was none other than Helen, the grand lady of dancing. Such humility! But the dancers did not who she was.” Deboo has been working with deaf children for the past sixteen years in places as diverse as Hongkong, Mexico, USA and, of course, India. And it all began rather casually. On a visit to Kolkata, he told Zarine Choudhury, the artistic director of the deaf company, Action Players, “Why don’t you take the advantage of my being here and do a workshop for the kids?” It was only after the third year that both Choudhury and Deboo felt that it was possible to create a full programme, half dance and half mime. And even though you see perfect synchronicity between the dancers during a programme, there is a lot of sweat, tears and frustrations behind the serene display. “The way I teach is that they all have to count in their heads… 1, 2, 3, 4. All have to count in the same rhythm, to be in sync.” Mostly, the dancers learn through sign language, body gestures and lip reading.
In Kolkata, they lip read in English, in Mexico, it is in Spanish and in places like Bhopal, it is Hindi.And it is not just a one-way process. Whenever he works on a new composition, time and time again, he would come to a dead end. Then he would tell the dancers, ‘Okay, show me what you have in your repertoire.’” So they would show something and he would try to see whether he could incorporate it in his choreography. “It is a creative collaboration between the girls and me,” he says. But underneath the affability, he is a hard taskmaster. “I am patient but after that, the girls get the fireworks,” he says. “When they start crying, I say, ‘I am not going to melt, so there is no point.’ I give them encouragement but I don’t say ‘Wah!’ because I want to keep pushing them. Because it is only then that they will get better and better through every performance.”
And, like in all dance troupes, he also has a diva. “She is very talented and she knows it,” he says, with a smile and shaking his head from side to side. “From time to time, she throws a tantrum in her coterie.” The youngest girl in the troupe is a thirteen-year-old and the diva, who is 22, decided to take her on as a protégé. “One day after a show, I saw the younger one massaging the feet of the older one. I said, ‘What nonsense is going on?’ And the diva replied, ‘My leg was paining and I just asked her to massage it.’”
And like ordinary teenagers, they also love to receive accolades. “Every morning, if we have a performance in a city, they will say, ‘In which newspaper are we in today?’ I try to make sure everybody gets an original copy. Sometime ago, there was an article in the newspaper and I had only one copy. And the diva said, ‘I want the original’. And we had to remind her that there was only one copy and she would get a photocopy like the others.”
Asked about his future plans, Deboo says he would continue to work with the Clarke School dancers. “We are going for a tour of Singapore and Malaysia and following that, we will be doing several shows in India which will keep us busy till the end of the year. And then there is a commission for the inauguration ceremony for the 2007 Winter Olympics for the Deaf in Salt Lake City.”

'To be caged is the most horrible thing'

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Interview/Pretti Jaiin

Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

One of the first things that strikes one when you see actress Pretti Jaiin is how petit she is. Even with high heels, she barely seems to reach 5’. Wearing a red t-shirt and pink trousers, she comes across as feisty and lively, even though, she says, she has “gone through hell”. The only child of a retired IFS officer, she was born in Cairo, and studied in London, Paris, Geneva, Brussels, Karachi and Delhi.
Are you still in love with Madhur Bandharkar?
I object to that question. I was never in love with him.
You had this relationship for five years.
Surely there must have been some feelings. I was never in love with him. I had a friendship with him, which later turned into a devastating rape. He would threaten me and my parents’ lives and forced me to do things, which I would never have done.
In the film Closer, there is this dialogue: “There's a moment, there's always a moment, where you say to yourself, ‘I can give in to this, or I can resist it.’ Do you regret the moment when you went ahead and slept with Bandharkar?
I regret meeting the man. It was the biggest mistake in my life. He enticed me by offering marriage and a lead role in one of his films.
Why did you take five years to report the rape?
I cannot understand why ‘five years’ is such a big issue. There are women out there who have undergone exploitation or rape for years on end and still don’t report it. At least, give me some credit for reporting it even after a period of time. In India, the social stigma is so great, it is not easy to come forward and report a rapist. What has been the reaction from society?
On the whole, it has been sympathetic.
Where do you think you will go from here?
I have great faith in God and in myself. Though I am suffering right now from the mental trauma that I am undergoing and the physical discomfort.
What physical discomfort?
I have just come from jail. I was in custody for 25 days. It was the most horrible experience that anybody can go through. I have suffered mental agony and physical trauma. Women constables pulled my hair and pushed me around whenever they escorted me to court. It was the most horrible thing to be caged like an animal and, that too, for something, which I have not done.
What did you feel then?
The very first thought was of committing suicide. For any person who enters a lock-up, the first thought that crosses the mind is suicide.
And then?
You keep contemplating it until God saves you from it.
You were with other women?
During judicial custody, I was placed with murderers and pimps. Then I was joined by Tarannum Khan [the bar girl dancer].
What sort of an encounter did you have with Tarannum?
It was two women facing the worst moments of their lives.
Is there a casting couch in Bollywood?
I would not say the casting couch is a normal thing, but it does exist. In the industry, there are a lot of professional producers and directors, who are very genuine about their work and who are looking for talent and would not compromise on that. However, if an actress is unfortunate she might encounter wolves in sheep’s clothing.
What is the percentage of these type of people?
Around 50 per cent.
So to get a chance with these people, actresses have to sleep around?
I would not like to comment on other actresses. I respect my seniors who are full of talent.
Are you getting any film offers?
Yes, but I have not given any confirmation to any project.
Are people afraid to touch you?
There is no need to touch me. You only have to direct me.

To be black is not pretty

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Africans complain of discrimination and social ostracism
Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

Charles Lawrence of Nigeria has a look of surprise on his face when I stop him in Colaba and say, “Can I speak to you for a few moments?” After introducing myself, this six-footer shakes his head and says, “You know, in my fourteen months here, nobody has ever approached me like a normal human being. Of course, I have been approached by shopkeepers and pimps, but never by an ordinary Indian, just to have a conversation.” When I tell him about how two South Africans were denied entry into a nightclub in Bandra, he says, “I am not surprised at all. Racism in India is too much. In Africa, we allow Indians to do what they want. But here, they do not allow us to do what we want.” Says John Baraza, a Kenyan student, whom I meet later, “Racism is there all over the world but in India it is quite disturbing. When I walk on the street, people shout kaala at me. Perhaps, it is the caste system, which encourages a discriminatory attitude.”
Social psychiatrist Harish Shetty says there is a stereotype association of blacks with drug peddling. This, he says, is manifesting itself in different ways, like denying entry to blacks in nightclubs. Charles, who plays club football, says there is also a social ostracism. “Indians will not allow us to communicate with their girls,” he says. “They just cut us off.”
When I tell this to Anita Gupta, (30), a BPO professional, she says it is difficult to get friendly with a black stranger who approaches her. “They could be drug runners and since they come from Africa, I am scared because it is the continent of AIDS. Also, from childhood, we have been taught to be wary of strangers and it is difficult to come out of that mind-set.” Adds Megha Kanakia, a marketing executive, “I don’t trust blacks. There are far too many negative connotations regarding them. Some of my friends have had bad experiences with them.”
It seems blacks are not helping their cause by their behaviour. Portly Emoy Emu, a trader from Nigeria, wearing a yellow T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, has come to Mumbai to see if he can drum up business. But he discovers an antagonism against Nigerians because several countrymen have cheated the local traders. “I have heard that they have behaved badly and because of that, nobody wants to do business with me.”
However, not all are pessimistic. Thomas Cronje, the consul in the South African consulate, has found a way out. “In India it is difficult to get into a social group if you are single. But if you know somebody and he then introduces you to the group, there is a complete acceptance.” But Cronje has one distinct advantage: he is a white South African. Meanwhile, Indians have a different take on the incident at the Bandra nightclub. Says Nikhil Banga, a student of Sophia College: “Indians are not racist. The nightclub might have had a bad experience with blacks earlier and hence they refused entry. But I don’t side with them: they should be punished in some way.” Shyam Tekwani, an executive in the hotel industry, classifies it as a once in a lifetime incident. “Remember, India helped black South Africans in their fight against apartheid,” he says. “But with the boom in tourism, we cannot afford to have incidents like this.”

Children of a nowhere God

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The progeny of the prostitutes of Kamathipura rebuild their lives in Navjeevan centre

Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

Santosh Prasad,* (13), was angry with his mother for a long time. One day, eight years ago, his mother, a commercial sex worker in Kamathipura, disappeared for three days. During that period, Santosh survived just by drinking water. When his mother returned, a famished Santosh said, “Amma, give me some food, I am hungry.” His mother replied, “Ja ke mard ko le ayo, usko mujhe tokne do, uske bad tujko kaneko dega (Go and get me a man, then I will have sex with him and after that I will give you some food).” He says, his eyes blazing, “This is my mother and she should not have spoken to me like that.” Says pony-tailed Rasheeda Khan (14): “My mother is a commercial sex worker on Falkland Road. I used to tell her to leave the profession. But my mother says she has so many debts, she does not know of any other way to earn a living to pay off her debts. Now I don’t ask her to leave because she looks so sad.”
Santosh and Rasheeda are among 160 children, ranging from three to fifteen years, who are living in Navjeevan centre in Khapri, 110 kms from Mumbai. Navjeevan is run by the Mar Thoma church and it caters exclusively for the children of commercial sex workers of Kamathipura. The idea to set up Navjeevan was mooted in 1994 when members of the Mar Thoma community went to Kamathipura to present a Christmas programme. After the programme, they posed the question to the women: what can we do for you? The women replied they did not need any help; instead they wanted help for their children. So, the Mar Thoma church first set up day and night shelters for children in Kamathipura, then a half way home in Kalyan and finally, the Navjeevan centre.
The centre is set in 100 acres of land, with paddy and corn fields and low hillocks and rivulets cutting across the property. It is green all around and when it rains, as it was on the day I visited the place, there is a radiant beauty about the place. Apart from donations from community members, it has received funds from the German government and now there are several buildings including an administrative block, a primary health care centre, a school, a farm house and bungalows where the children stay.
“In every bungalow, twenty children stay with house parents,” says Rev Dr Moni Mathew, the director. “The boys and the girls live separately.”And all of them are enrolled in the primary school, which has classes from kindergarten to class nine. Even children from the nearby villages also come to study. At the lunch break, when you look at the children smiling and teasing each other, you cannot imagine that their lives have been touched by tragedy. But take the case of Madhumita Sharma. She is seven years old and when she sees Fr Mathew, she comes up to him and says, “I am not going to talk to you.” He says, “Why?”
“Because every time you promise me that you will bring my mother to see me but so far she has not come.”
Fr Mathew smiles and tweaks her cheeks. What can he say?
Two years ago, Madhumita’s mother had died of AIDS. How do you tell a child her mother is no longer alive? And nobody has any idea of the father. “He could be a customer,” says the priest. Then there’s Ashutosh Mhatre, (7). He does not know that his mother, Manisha, several months pregnant, had an altercation with the madam of a brothel. The madam said Manisha owed her Rs 30,000 and, in a rage, she poured kerosene on her body and lit a matchstick. She was rushed to the hospital with ninety per cent burns. Says Fr Mathew who went to see her: “When Manisha saw me, she whispered, ‘Father, you are the papa of one of my children. Now you are going to be the father of my second child’. I did not have the heart to tell her that her baby was still born. She died a few minutes later.”
Life is so fragile for these children. The mothers are allowed to visit once a month. “When they come you should see the love that is expressed between mother and child,” says Fr Eapen Abraham, coordinator at the centre. Fathers are not allowed to visit unless the mothers can produce a marriage certificate. “We don’t want any bad influence on the child,” says Mathew. “Out of 160 children, only of 20 children are we sure of the father.” But not all children are happy about these visits. Some feel bereft and weep. “They are the orphans,” says Siby Pappachen, the principal of the school. “It affects them very badly that there is nobody to come and visit them. This disappointment affects their studies, also. So we have to do a lot of counselling before they become all right.” And so life goes on. And despite all what has happened, these children, like children everywhere, have dreams. Says Rasheeda: “I want to be a doctor. I want to serve the people like Mother Teresa. And then when I get a job, I will make my mother stop working.”
(Names of children and parents have been changed.)

'Lesbians face a lot of emotional violence'

Permisson to re-use or copy the article has to be obtained from The Hindustan Times

Interview: Harish Shetty/Social psychiatrist

By Shevlin Sebastian

What are the problems that lesbians face?
They are unable to come out of the closet and reveal to the world they are lesbians. The stigma against lesbianism is so bad that they suffer from enormous fears of exposure. When they are forced to marry they face a lot of guilt, boredom and a sense of dissatisfaction. If they refuse to marry, the parents find it very difficult to look at the cause, which is lesbianism. They say the girl is arrogant, stubborn or scared of marriage. There is a lot of emotional violence against lesbians. Most of the time they are isolated within families.
How do they deal with it?
They have nobody to share their problems with. The number of support groups is very small. They suffer from depression; some of them feel suicidal. Of course, a few have lovers, so that helps but the vast majority are alone. It is a constant struggle. Very few lesbians will be able to walk with their heads held high in a society, which is not aware of what lesbianism is all about.
What solutions do you suggest?
There is no need to come out in the open. The pain of being in the open is much more than the pain of being secretive. I teach them to accept themselves. I try to make them understand this is a normal form of sexuality. Then I help them to get in touch with their families. It is a long and arduous process but, in the end, many parents come around. I also help them to access support groups so that they have a sense of belonging, and have somebody to fall back on during a crisis.

'Invisibility is such a strain'

By Anita Talpade, 23/lesbian and clerk in a private sector organisation
(As told to Shevlin Sebastian)

I was eighteen when I realised I was attracted to women. Well, coincidentally, just then I had a sexual encounter with a classmate. I enjoyed it. I cannot compare it to anything. It was a unique experience. The next morning when I awoke I realised the experience cleared the confusions I was harbouring within me for a long time. I knew I was a lesbian. But it was a one-off relationship. She was not sure she wanted to continue with the relationship. So we decided not to carry on. This was around one and a half years ago. I met my current partner at a mutual friend’s place. We danced with each other and later, we met regularly and realised we had fallen in love. We have been living together for about a year. Like any relationship, we have our ups and downs. If two people live together, there can be differences and we do get on each other’s nerves. But we are happy together. I like the way she looks. She has a good energy about her. We connect intellectually. We talk about everything, from A to Z. Our landlord has no suspicion, yet. If he comes to know, I am sure he would not like us to stay. But we will be so angry about the homophobia that will come up. We feel it is irrational. Why can’t people be allowed to be the way they are? So far, he does not have a problem with my partner and me. So what kind of a problem will we create if he comes to know we are lesbians? If you are in a same-sex relationship in India, you don’t have any support, in terms of friends, family or society. It becomes difficult to sustain relationships.
In Mumbai, there are spaces for people to be themselves. There is a burgeoning community where we can meet and have a social interaction. But, apart from that, there is invisibility. Because there is invisibility, there is no acknowledgement. It is like leading a secret life. Invisibility can be advantageous to a certain degree in India because lesbians will not have to face homophobia, but it can be a huge strain. I have seen so many relationships breaking up because there is so social sanction. Nobody will recognise you as a couple. You have to answer questions like, “Do you have a boyfriend?” “What is your boyfriend doing?” and stuff like that. That is so painful. And if somebody asks, “Are you in a relationship?” and the person would want to say, “Yes, I am in a happy, fulfilling relationship with a woman,” but you can’t say that. If you say, “I have a great relationship,” you would have to add, “with him,” not her. But you know you are lying and that is so painful. Everybody wants to celebrate their lives. We want to celebrate who we are, and walk on the street hand in hand.

' I am trying to get the big picture of the universe'

Interview/Prof. Ashok Sen, one of the world's leading physicists

Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

The first thing that strikes you when you meet Ashok Sen, one of the world’s leading theoretical physicists, is his thick lensed spectacles. They are so thick that his cautious, intense eyes look enlarged behind it. (The power is –12 in one eye and –13 in the other: he suffers from myopia, with a touch of astigmatism, Sen says later.) He is dressed casually in a blue T-shirt and trousers and leather slippers and is in an animated discussion with a group of students of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. The discussion, though held in English, went, by a conservative estimate, a few kilometres over my head. I kept hearing the word, ‘coupling’, which, in normal life, should have been exciting but in theoretical physics, it could be as exciting as a bikini-clad Pamela Anderson standing in front of a gay man. Suddenly, a face popped in at the door and asked Sen where he would like to go for dinner. “Anywhere is fine,” he replied. “For me, food is just food.”
Excerpts from the interview:

In simple terms, could you explain the string theory?
String theory is based on the idea that even though the quartz and electrons and other elementary particles look as if they are the fundamental units, each of these particles, by themselves, are going through some specific vibrational state, like a string. According to the theory, there is a single type of string and this can vibrate in various modes, which appear to us as different elementary particles. One of the advantages of this theory is that one of the modes of vibration of the string turns out to have the property of a particle that can radiate a gravitational interaction.
What are the benefits for mankind?
I would think mankind would like to know how the universe functions. Whether it will have any practical benefit or not, we cannot say at this moment.
How many years have you been doing research on string theory?
Since 1985. How did you get interested in this theory? I started working on it at the end of my post doctoral fellowship at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in USA and that was the time when some of the new results in string theory had come up; and I got excited by that. I thought string theory seemed to be the most promising way to understand the universe.
Can you tell us something about your background?
I did my schooling and graduation from Calcutta, my masters in the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and my doctorate in particle physics at the State University of New York, Stonybrook. Thereafter, I went to Fermi Lab for a post doctoral fellowship, and from there I went to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre for my next post doctoral thesis. Then I returned to India, to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai in 1988. I was there till 1995 and now, for the past ten years, I have been with the Harish Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad.
What made you come back?
I always wanted to come back. Because I was working in theoretical physics, I did not think coming back was a disadvantage. In theoretical physics, the advantage is that you don’t need equipment. That is one of the problems that experimentalists face: their equipment gets stuck in bureaucracy and red tape.
When Indian scientists go abroad they do well. But they seem to lack the environment to shine here. Is this true?
I don’t know about other fields but in the area I work in, theoretical particle physics, scientists in India are doing well. In fact, string theorists in India are at a higher level than Indian string theorists abroad.
Is it true that theoretical physicists do their best work when they are young? Albert Einstein nailed The Theory of Relativity at 36.
That is hard to say. Some people do their best work when they are young, some when they are old. It depends on how you mature as a person.
What are the qualities of a good theoretical researcher?
You need the ability to solve problems. Even if it is not working, you should have the ability to endure the disappointment and carry on. You have to be very patient.Man has made so much of technological advancement. Because of stem cell research, we can do human cloning.
What are the moral implications of this?
All technological development can be used in a good or bad way. Society has to ensure that it is used in a good way. For example, electricity has given us so many benefits but it can also be used to electrocute people.
What is your philosophy?
I don’t have any philosophy. From the scientific point of view, life is just a consequence of the basic laws of nature, just like everything else.
Do you believe in God?
No. The concept of God negates what we are trying to achieve. We are trying to understand how the universe works. And the universe does not work because some power decides that this is how it works.
What happens when we die?
Scientifically, it is just a change in the chemical structure. Some people say they can communicate with the dead and can see ghosts.
Do you think all this is just in the imagination?
Since I have never encountered it, I cannot say it is true. I have to base my judgement on what I know. I cannot believe in another viewpoint, which contradicts what I believe is true scientifically. Everybody has their own way of looking at life. Not everybody wants to look at things scientifically. And I have no problems with that.
Do you have any hobbies?
I read science fiction: Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
I am told that, after Amartya Sen, you are, most likely, to be the next Indian to win the Nobel Prize.
That is completely wrong. I hope you will correct it.
What are your future plans?
I want to understand string theory. Previously, there were five different string theories. Now we know that the five different theories are basically different strands. The problem is when you view something from different sides, you never get the full view. What I am trying to do is to get the overall view, the big picture of the universe.

Pulling the right strings

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Rahul Sharma is the poster boy of the santoor

Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

When Rahul Sharma was in his twenties, he was struck by a sense of meaninglessness. He felt that life was maya (illusion), nothing made sense and so he went to find solace in the Osho ashram at Pune. “In fact, I wanted to leave everything behind and go and meditate in the Himalayas,” he says. But thankfully, for world music, his father, the famed santoor maestro, Shiv Kumar Sharma, told him he was being escapist. “My father said I was here for a mission and I must fulfil it,” he says.
And fulfil it he has. In the past nine years, this 32-year-old has brought out an incredible 28 albums, collaborating with such well-known musicians like Richard Clayderman and Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. He is now all set to take part in the Festival of India, a joint cultural programme by the Indian and Russian government, at the end of September in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Sitting in his neatly furnished office on Pali Hill, Rahul looks handsome with his long locks, broad forehead, sharp nose and pink complexion. Clearly, he is the new sex symbol in classical music. When I ask him, whether women are attracted to him, his face turns an apple red and he breaks out into an embarrassed laughter. Finally, he says, “Women appreciate talent in any field. They think you have something extraordinary. Painters, musicians, poets and writers—they exude a persona which is attractive.” Throughout this explanation, the redness remains and it makes him looks like a kid.
Rahul came to music only at the age of 13, unlike the children of other famed musicians. “My father never forced me to learn and my mother was not keen that I become a musician since my father had a hard struggle before he made his name,” says Rahul. But while studying in Scottish Church school, he used to take part in the choir and when he returned home he would play the same tunes on the keyboard or the harmonium. When his father saw that the inclination was there, he introduced the santoor to Rahul. When your father is your guru, the relationship can become complex. “My father is an extremely soft person,” he says. “He rarely scolded me but I would resent the long absences. Sometimes, he would be gone for four months or so. The credit goes to my mother, who brought up my elder brother [a senior entertainment executive] and me in a grounded manner. Of course, when I grew up and understood my father’s life all resentments vanished.”
Today, Rahul travels ten months of the year, performing in India and abroad and, so far, he has travelled to 40 countries. At the end of the month, he is going to Berne and Geneva and following that he is off to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
To be successful, apart from stage presence, you need to move into a high zone of concentration. What helps is the right ambience, the proper lighting, and a perfect sound system. “If it is a packed audience, I also feel inspired,” he says. “I remember playing at night in front of the Sphinx in Egypt, before 3000 people and the feeling was incredible: is this really happening? When you reach the zone, you become a medium for the music. Sometimes, you are surprised at what you have played and you wonder how you have done it.” However, the human being that he is, he is irritated by the ringing of the mobile phone or of people coughing. “If one person starts coughing, soon, there is a chain reaction,” he says, with an exasperated shake of his head.
Meanwhile, cough or no cough, the albums are coming out, in a relentless flow. Upcoming albums include one called White. “The colour white is beautiful,” he says. “Snowfall is white, Christmas is white, a mother’s milk is white.” He is also bringing out an album called Samundar (Ocean), on time travel and Maya. “So what are your future goals,” I ask.“I want to make a name for myself and create a fan following. When people go to a music store, they should ask for a Rahul Sharma album.” “But isn’t that a maya goal?” “It is a maya goal but I am not caught up in the maya.” “Isn’t that a contradiction? I mean, you are bringing out an album saying everything is maya.”
“Life is a paradox,” he replies, with a smile.

'There is a paradigm shift in Indian design today'

Permission to reprint or copy this article must be obtained from The Hindustan Times

INTERVIEW/ DR DARLIE KOSHY, executive director, National Institute of Design

Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

Why are there so few designers in India? Apparently, we have two product designers per million while Japan has 90.
This has to do with a closed economy. Till 1991, there was no scope for design. There was no disposable income, no competition, no imports. We were more involved in the building up of infrastructure and technology. Design is a creative profession. The education system in India was geared up for mathematics and engineering. Creativity was not regarded as an important streak of human nature, and was not valued. What does a parent want? They want their children to be in a respectable profession. Design never fitted into that.
Have things changed now?
Yes, today, the children of educated and affluent parents are studying in the NID or in other design schools. India is opening up. There is a per capita rise of income. The people’s aspirations are rising. Is it easy to design a thing? It takes a lot of investment and work to make any product succeed. A simple steam iron of Phillips took about 28 years to perfect and even now it is not perfect. Or the luggage rack in a plane. It took over 25 years to design but even now it is not perfect. So, design is not a simple task of changing a colour from yellow to purple. It is a process by which you are constantly discovering that something better can be done.What is the effect of design on a consumer? It gives a hedonistic pleasure. Communities are becoming more pleasure seeking. And design plays an important role in giving pleasure. Earlier, we only thought of appeasing our hunger. But now the standard of living has improved and the senses are awakening.
What qualities do you need to become a good designer?
The capacity to visualise and the capacity to dream. The capacity to connect different dots into a unifying synthesis. We are not seeking the brain of an IIM graduate.
Is it similar to the work done by artists?
There is an element of art in design but art can be done just for the pleasure of art. But for a designer, it is aimed for a user.
What other qualities?
They should have a pleasure in touching things. If you are a furniture maker, you should touch the wood, and know the texture. You have to be a sensual person. Lastly, you should have the ability to predict trends.
Do designers have short careers?
Some of the time. You should have the grit to elongate your career. That is, always be on the leading edge. You should look at life as a lifelong learning. Designers should keep on charging their batteries through art and music. In India, learning stops somewhere. They think that by knowing the earlier skills, they can pull on, which is not true.
Are there many opportunities for designers now?
Absolutely. There is such a shortage of designers, from urban design, architectural design, to museum and retail design. For the next 20 years, India will require too many designers.
Are Indian customers design-conscious?
In a function three years ago somebody said, “India is a Third World country with a third rate design style.” This is not correct. We have an evolved sense of understanding in certain products and cuisine. For example, we are the only country in the world, which has a astringent taste level. Of course, there has been a hiatus between global and Indian design. There was a vacuum of 50 years because of various historical reasons; somewhere along the way, we did lose our sense of design. But it will not take long to rediscover it provided we make some changes in the school curriculum.
Like what?
Earlier, we used to have a class called craft, where we made something with our hands. Today, that is no longer there. Educators and policy makers have to understand that a country can be differentiated in the crowd of globalising nations only through its creativity. If your country stands out in innovation, everybody will say, this is THE country.
Do we have the talent?
We have 40 lakh craftsmen in India. To train such a number with similar skills, the government would have to spend Rs 14,000 crore. But several of them are selling vegetables or books or balloons because their skill level has no use in India. If a country is not geared to understand what its weaver’s skills are, that we cannot have a dialogue of creativity with them. In India, a weaver and a craftsman feels so inferior he will sit at one corner of a room. But it is now beginning to change.
In the CII-NID design summit being held in Mumbai, one theme is the design paradigm shift? What shift is taking place now?
The first is from analog to digital. Whether it is a car control, or a photograph, or music, or broadband technology, it is all digital. In 2005, digital products exceeded the sales of analog products. So this is a paradigm shift. The second shift is India has become a major player on the world stage. The confidence of the economy is especially visible. We have been associated suddenly with a resurgence of intellect and economy. This is a watershed. The third shift: the manufacturing industry, which had been completely written off four years ago, is resurgent. For example, in retail, India has risen from the 18th rank in the world to number one in the global retail index.

The ABCD of sex

Permission to reprint or copy this article must be obtained from The Hindustan Times

The country’s one and only sex museum answers all doubts
By Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

The first thing you see when you enter Antarang, India’s one and only museum of sex, is a page from the Kama Sutra. “Vatsayana talks about the wonders of sex, how it helps to bring a man and a woman together and about the power of sexual energy,” says Bhanudas Mohite, a counsellor at the museum. There are models showing the cross-section of the vagina, the penis, the breast, the brain and the uterus. On a low table, there is a painting, which traces the journey of a sperm from the sac of the penis all the way to the uterus of the woman, till it meets an egg. The museum, on traffic-choked Jehangir Boman Behram Road, was started in October 2002 and is a joint collaboration between the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation and Mumbai Districts Aids Control Society.
“The idea is to make sex education and awareness of HIV available to the public,” says Dr Shah, who is in charge of the museum and a STD clinic, both housed in the same building. “But, so far, we are not happy with the response. Sex is still regarded as a stigma.” An average of 30 visitors come every day, ranging from students, couples and members of NGOs. There are three counsellors to explain the different sections and a female counsellor for women. “Most students enjoy it because it clears doubts in a scientific manner,” says Shah. “In our culture, parents don’t talk about sex with their children. They get the wrong information from friends or porn magazines.”
He says married couples also come to clear their doubts while foreigners, who are regular visitors, tell him there is nothing like this in their countries. You step into a gap between mirrors, which are placed at the front and back, above and underneath. When you look in the mirror, you see several selves. “This is what happens when you don’t use condoms,” says Mohite. “The population just explodes.” It is a nice way to convey a point.
As expected, there is a section on AIDS: the widespread misconceptions, how it spreads, and what are the precautions that need to be taken. There are graphics on the various stages of pregnancy and childbirth and detailed explanations on how to use condoms and diaphragms and Copper T. It is only when I see photos of sexually transmitted diseases—gonorrhea, syphilis and genital herpes—that I recoil. It is too much. “This is the normal reaction of people, especially students and women,” says Mohite. “But we persuade them to look again. Because, then, you will not indulge in unprotected sex.”
The only drawback is that all the information is in Hindi, so if you don’t know how to read the language, you will have to depend on people like Mohite. Nevertheless, it is a nice way to learn about sex in a clean and healthy manner

‘Sex is beyond morality’

Permission to reprint or copy this article must be obtained from The Hindustan Times

Interview/Rajat Kapoor

Shevlin Sebastian/Mumbai

Rajat Kapoor, the award-winning director of Raghu Romeo, has an office that has seen better days. The iron beams on the ceiling look rusted, the paint on the walls is peeling off, the bookcase sags and the chair and table looks rickety. A theatre actor in Delhi, he is a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of Pune, and came to Mumbai in 1988 to make his mark in films. He has been a model, acted in films like Monsoon Wedding and Dil Chahta Hai and made two short films, which won National Awards and a feature film that was never shown. He achieved success with Raghu Romeo, which was part funded by the National Film Development Corporation and through donations he asked on the Internet. It was shown at Locarno and other film festivals at Rotterdam, Stockholm, Oslo, San Fransisco, Toronto, Barcelona, Shanghai and Florence.
He has just finished shooting Mixed Doubles, which stars Konkona Sen, Koel Purie, Ranvir Shorey and Kapoor himself.
Excerpts from the interview:
What is the film all about?
It is the story of a couple who have been married for ten years and have a eight-year-old child. And the husband is looking to find a spark in the marriage again in the bedroom. That is the main issue. He tries various ways of making it work. And he wants to take his wife along. The theme of the movie is marriage and how to liven it up. It is an adult, contemporary film about sexuality.
Where did you get the idea from?
Last year there was a programme on Zee TV where couples, who were into wife swapping, were interviewed. I know some couples where the wife knows that the husband is having an affair. She is not happy about it but there is nothing she can do. She cannot walk out because of emotional and financial dependence. Once the basic needs are meet--food, clothing and shelter--we look to upgrade the rest. Whether it is our sexual or our emotional lives. In our urban life, where the joint family system no longer exists, suddenly you are in a two-bedroom room house in the suburbs, just the two of you and then sex is very exciting. But after a couple of years, it gets very boring. Then you want to upgrade that. That is part of our lives now.
Are you taking a moral stand?
No. I don’t think anybody should be judgemental about it. I think we attach too much morality to sex. Sex is beyond that. Morality should be about other issues. We cheat each other, we lie to each other, we look at the poverty around and not react—that is a moral issue. Who is sleeping with who is not a moral issue.
Tell us something more about the film?
Let me tell you a joke: Mr and Mrs Santa Singh go to a village for a holiday. They go past a diary where a cow and a bull are at it. Mrs Santa Singh asked the farmer, “This buffalo, how many times does he want to do it?” “At least three to four times a day,” said the farmer. “Four times. Tell that to my husband,” Mrs Santa Singh said. Santa Singh is very angry. So he asks the farmer, “Does the bull want the same cow all the time?” “No, it never goes back to the same cow,” said the farmer. This is the story of man. This is a biological thing. The difference between man and woman is that while man feels too much intimacy kills sexual desire, a woman feels more and more comfortable with a man she has known for years. These are biological reasons. Now how you deal with it, is where the success of a marriage or a relationship is based.
Do open relationships exist?
Open relationships exist and it should be allowed to exist, with more freedom and without moral policing. We are all hypocrites. We want to do everything that is taboo but we want to take a moral stand at the same time. We have not been able to accept our sexuality. What we need are education and more tolerance. I think we are an intolerant society. Think of this: homosexuality is illegal in our country. Which century are we living in? And we want to be an open society? What sort of an open society is this? We should be tolerant of other people’s religions and practices. But where is the tolerance? We have a Censor Board, which passes the film and then if anybody raises a protest, they can stop the film.
Is it tough to make it in Bollywood?
If you are an independent filmmaker it is impossible to make it. Bollywood does not have space for any other ideas except its own. I have been struggling for years. After Raghu Romeo, there has been a turnaround. Luckily, I have been modelling and acting and able to make the home fires burn. The first ten years I had no money, no jobs, but that is the choice you make. Film-making is a passion, otherwise why would anyone do it, whether it is David Dhawan or Sanjay Leela Bhansali or Mani Ratnam.

Interview/Ramgopal Varma

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‘I am interested in people who push the boundaries’
Shevlin Sebastian\Mumbai

Ramgopal Varma’s office, The Factory, is a work of art or sheer madness, depending on how you look at it. There are protruding rods and exposed pipes everywhere while a black, partially open wooden door is nailed to the ceiling. There are brick walls, with the cement showing while polished tree trunks frame doorways. In the reception, there is a wall to ceiling mirror, where wannabe actors can check out their faces and clothes before they go in to meet the boss. The boss’s office is at one end and the temperature is at a soothing 21 degrees centigrade. Varma sits on a platform, at one corner, a glass-paned window at one side, a man of medium height, dressed casually in a T-shirt and jeans. The most striking feature about him is his eyes: they bulge out but there is an obvious intelligence in them. My Wife’s Murder by his protégé Jijy Philip was released two weeks ago to mixed reviews while James directed by another newcomer Rohit Jugraj is coming out in mid September. The Factory is rolling out the films, with the occasional hit and flop all rolled together.
Excerpts from the interview:

In one way, you have revolutionised Bollywood. Earlier, people had to assist for years before they got a chance to direct.
It is an old-fashioned concept: to assist somebody for years before getting a chance. Or that you need to go to a film institute. I have never assisted anybody nor have I been to an institute. Neither has Shekhar Kapoor or Mani Ratnam. Today, it has become irrelevant. Anybody with a digital video camera can make a film.
What is the idea behind giving chances to newcomers?
To be a director all you need is clarity of vision, the desire to tell a story and passion. I don’t look at anything beyond that. Rohit Jugraj, the director of James, is a doctor and he assisted me only in Bhoot. But his sincerity appealed to me and the way he wanted to do James was exciting. A first-time director puts in more time, passion and energy into a film than somebody who has done 20 or 30 films.
Do your plots begin with a character?
For me, it is always an idea. The idea for the film Satya began when I read that a prominent personality had been shot dead. Somebody who knew him told me that he had a habit of recounting whatever he did. He got up at seven o’clock in the morning, at 7.30, he made some calls, at eight o’clock he had his breakfast, and so on and so forth. When this gentleman was talking, I was thinking, cinematically, in the intercuts what the killer was doing at the same time. Did the killer wake up early or late? Did he have his breakfast before the killing or after? Then it suddenly struck me: We hear about gangsters only when they die or when they kill. What do they do in between? That, for me, was Satya.
Your films on the underworld are so realistic. Have you interacted with gangsters?
No. I have only read about them in magazines and newspapers.
How do you get them so accurately?
I have an understanding of the psychology of a human being. Bhiku Mhatre, (Satya), if he was an engineer, would be a go-getter. He just happened to be a gangster. He comes home and his wife nags him; it is that which the audience connects with. So when people say Ramu makes such realistic underworld films, how do they know it is realistic? They don’t have any contact with the underworld and neither do I. Basically, they are connecting with the characters and because the characters look so real, the audience think the events are real. Most of your films focus on the dark side.
People keep telling me that. I like to make films that are larger than life. The characters should matter in the larger scheme of things. I am interested in people who push the boundaries.
Can one predict which movie will become a box office hit?
You can’t. If I tell a story to three people at the same time, each of them will have a different reaction. One guy might be bored, another might love it, while the third might get what I am aiming at. So if I cannot get an unanimous reaction from three people, how can I generalise about lakhs of people? We all use the word audience very easily. But the audience is not a singular entity. If a film works, filmmakers themselves do not know whether it was the dialogue, the background score, the way the shot has been cut, that is creating the effect in the theatre.
In what way has Hollywood influenced you?
Lots of ways: Alfred Hitchcock, McKenna’s Gold. I am more interested in Steven Spielberg-type movies than the classical films. I haven’t see Citizen Kane or the films by Sergei Eisenstein. Even in Bollywood, the influences have been either Manmohan Desai or Ramesh Sippy in Sholay. I haven’t seen Guru Dutt’s or Bimal Roy’s films.
You don’t feel like seeing them?
Right. Those films must be classics but it is in a time warp. Today, the modern director is making films that are far superior than in the past because he has the time and the advantage of new technologies.
But does he have the depth?
But does anybody want depth these days? When I watched a rerun of The Exorcist in New York, the audience was having fun in the theatre. They were eating popcorn, talking to their children on the cellphones and in between, they were enjoying the movie. They treated it like a party. They were not so focused in watching the film.
You have given breaks to so many actors: Urmila Matondkar, Vivek Oberoi, Antara Mali, Fardeen Khan, Manoj Bajpai, Randeep Hooda and others. Is there a reason behind giving breaks to unknown people?
I don’t like the phrase ‘giving a break’. It sounds like it is an act of charity or giving alms. It is demeaning to anybody. For me, I believe in a certain actor, it could be for a particular film or, maybe, just as a talent by itself. But you don’t test them before?
How do you test?With a previous film they have done.But, eventually, everybody has to have a first film. I don’t look at the box office success of people. I don’t say, “Friday me kya hua?” If I believe in a person’s talent, I will believe in his or her talent for life. See, there are two types of film-makers. One is the guy who follows the market; who will always bring out a tested product: the film, story, actors and technicians are experienced. There is another kind of maker, like me, who creates a market. It means having a vision. Sometimes, the vision might fail, sometimes, it will succeed. But as long as you keep doing it, it will work.
Among actors working today, who is the greatest?
There are no great actors, only great performances.
People are always trying to meet you. Can you give an example of what wannabe actors have done, to get your attention?
There was this guy who called me up and said he was doing a documentary on the top directors of the country like Satyajit Ray, Mani Ratnam and others. He said, ‘I would like to explain the concept to you.’ So I called him. When he came in, he said, ‘Sorry Sir, I am an actor. I didn’t know how to approach you, so I tried this method.’ I was so angry I did not know what to say. I felt like a fool. I did not have anything to do with him.
What are your future plans?
I want to try my best to convert audience’s taste from the Yash Chopra-Karan Johar type of syrupy films to my kind of realistic movies.

Stamped with beauty

Permission to reprint or copy this article must be obtained from The Hindustan Times.

Philately erotica has been around for two hundred years
Shevlin SebastianMumbai

Philately erotica: Not many know there is a subject like this and not many people know that in Mumbai, there is an avid collector who has been collecting erotic stamps, postcards, first-day envelopes and paintings for the past 30 years. He is none other than the eminent sexologist Prakash Kothari. “Erotica is a subject that transcends barriers of history and culture,” says Kothari. There are two types of collectors. One collects old stamps and tidbits. And the other collects stamps around a particular theme. Kothari belongs to the second category and his theme, to use his words, “is the thematic exploration of the history of erotica from around the world.” Whichever country he goes for a talk, be it Japan, Britain, USA, Canada or Cuba, he sets aside one day to prowl the philately shops and would spend a maximum of $100. Once in London, Kothari went into a philately shop and saw hundreds of love letters. He picked up one and it turned out to be an erotic letter addressed by a commandant of a brigade at Malaga, Spain to his wife in Boulogne, France: “I have kissed your blood over and over again (two drops of blood can be seen on the letter) and I shall cut it out of the letter and put it behind your picture. In return, I shall send you some of mine from my lips, it will convey my kisses to you.” Asked how he developed an interest, Kothari says, “I collect erotic art in general, so I thought to myself, why not philately. It was a virgin field and I do get excited whenever I enter a virgin territory.” He pauses, his black eyes twinkling, and bursts out laughing, clearly enjoying the double entendre. So far, Kothari has collected 5,000 stamps and around 500 varieties of postcards, (all actually posted), which includes hand-drawn, fantasy, autographed, humourous, silk, bookmark, embroidered, embossed, silhouette and voyeuristic postcards. And he has several erotic drawings by Indian artists like Manu Parekh, Satish Gujral, Naren Panchal and the Kolkata-based Sunil Das who had drawn on a bull, a sexual symbol, on the back of a postcard and sent it by ordinary post and it reached Kothari in Mumbai. Who says the Indian Post does not work? Asked about the market value of his collection, Kothari says, “This is a passion for me and passion is always priceless.”

The horse as sex symbol
By Prakash Kothari

The horse is a symbol of the male and female sex. During sexual intercourse, the partner that is riding, that means, on top, is in control. So therefore, when you ride, you feel a sense of control. It is no accident that riding is a sexual term. Sitting on a saddle stimulates and strengthens the perineum in both the male and the female. A horse is visually exciting. Reduced to its components--prominent buttocks, sleek surface, swinging gait and long mane--the horse has many features associated with a sexually attractive woman. The physical appearance also inspires raw strength, grace and elegance, qualities that men aspire to and women desire in their lovers. An unbridled horse is considered a symbol of unbridled passion and vibrant sexuality. In ayurveda, the section on potency is called vajeekaran, (making a man like a horse).

* The first stamp in the world was released on May 6, 1840 in England.
* The first erotic stamp, a nude, and triangular in shape, was released in South Africa on September 1, 1853.
* The first Indian stamp, released in Sindh in 1854, was called Scinde Dawk. ‘Scinde’ was the British spelling of Sindh while ‘Dawk’is the anglicised spelling of ‘Dak’ or post. To this day, India’s first stamps are referred to simply as The Scinde Dawks.
* The first international postcard was released in 1865. In India, the first erotic postcard was released in 1879. · The concept of the adhesive stamp was introduced in England on May 6, 1840. Prior to this, the correspondence was done was in folded letters known as pre stamped letters or stampless letters. This was carried by foot runners or riders on horseback posted a few kilometres apart. The postage was paid by the sender or the addressee. The facility was usually reserved for royalty or officials of the state. The first thematic collection was exhibited in 1908 by philately auction house Stanley Gibbons. They offered stamps arranged according to the subject.

The Miss Marples of Mumbai

Permission to reprint or copy this article must be obtained from The Hindustan Times.

Women detectives are a rare, though rising breed in the city
By Shevlin Sebastian

S. Usha, of the Venus Detective and Security Services, remembers one of her most interesting cases. “The parents of a Hindu girl said their daughter had gone missing,” she says. “They told me they were getting a phone call every day and could hear the sound of a girl weeping. I stayed at their house for three days but no call came. I began to have my doubts: were the parents telling the truth or not?” Since they had lodged a complaint at the local police station, Usha went there to enquire about the case. There she discovered the girl had run away earlier, with a Muslim boy but she was brought back because was under 18. Through painstaking investigation, she located the couple in Thane district. “We produced her in the court and under oath, the girl, who had converted to Islam, said she had turned 18 and had left on her own will to marry this boy,” says Usha. “She came from a very rich family while the boy was just a mechanic. So, the client misguided me by saying she was kidnapped because they did not want society to know that the girl had run away with a Muslim boy.”
Women detectives are a rare, though rising, breed in Mumbai. There are Usha, Indira Bawa of Littlemore Services, Rajani Pandit of Rajani Investigations, and detectives of the Globe Detective Agency, among others. So what are the advantages of being a woman detective? “It is easy for me to enter a house because nobody can suspect I am a detective, especially in India,” says Usha. “When I ask questions, I get answers easily.”
Says Colonel V.V. Pai, zonal adviser of the Globe Detective Agency (GDA): “A woman will not speak to unknown men. Usually, another woman is the best source to obtain the information.”But women have their disadvantages. “They cannot work late at night,” says Pai. “Neither can they do surveillance work, because they immediately draw attention to themselves, by being a woman.” Agrees Usha: “For example, if I have to go to a dance bar, I would definitely need the presence of a male colleague.”
But Indira Bawa says times have changed. “Women have become so bold, I don’t think they have a problem in working at night,” she says.These women handle different types of cases. Usha does pre and post employment checks and financial fraud. Indira deals in surveillance, pre and post-matrimonial enquiries and background checks.
In GDA, women detectives do pre, mid and post matrimonial investigations while Rajani does pre-marital background checks of men and women. It seems like an exciting job, but there are dangers. “I was investigating a power theft in Oshiwara,” says Usha, who has been in the profession for 14 years. “Once, I had gone at 11.30 p.m. with a couple of male colleagues and it was very dark. The next thing I knew I was being beaten up by goons.” She received a few cuts on her forehead, and started bleeding. The doctor had to put a few stitches but next morning, she was back at work. A philosophical Usha, who is a spinster, says, “I always tell my mother if I come back, I am your daughter and if not, then I have become God’s daughter.”
Rajani gives another example. “A woman had her husband killed because she had fallen in love with somebody else,” she says. “Then she had her son killed because she heard he had hired a detective to find out how the father had died. I worked in the woman’s house as a maidservant for six months. The killer used to harass her for money. I overhead her tell the man not to come to the house because the police were keeping a watch but he did not listen. I informed the husband’s family members, who had hired me and, with the help of the police, they were caught.” For all the dangers they confront, are they adequately compensated? “I charge Rs 3,500 a day,” says Rajani. Usha charges a lump sum, which includes travel and all other expenses. Indira’s charges range from Rs 10,000 to Rs 2 lakh, depending on the case. In Globe, for an employee background check, it ranges from Rs 5000 to Rs 70,000 (depending upon the designation). For surveillance, the firm charges Rs 650 an hour. So, if you come across a woman, wearing an ordinary saree, and showing an inordinate interest in your life, have no hesitation in raising your eyebrows: this could be Miss Marples in disguise. .

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

End of the road

End of the road

By Shevlin Sebastian

When I was at home in Kerala, India, recently, my mother asked me whether I could take her to visit a cousin’s wife who lived nearby and was dying. So we got into the car and went across to the house, painted in white and encircled by pole-like rubber trees. The woman was lying on a narrow bed, placed against a wall, in a small room. A white sheet was draped over her body. Only the head was uncovered. We stood silently and gazed at the face: the parchment skin, the jutting jaw, the hollowed cheeks, the eyes and lips pressed together. My mother had told me earlier that the woman’s kidneys had failed and doctors had given up hope. I thought to myself, this is how the end of the road is for some people: dying bit by bit.
In Kerala, where people live next to each other for generations, you can see the last chapters of people’s stories, unlike in fast-paced cities like Delhi or Mumbai where you only see middle chapters: nobody, except your immediate family, knows what happens to you when you retire and fade away from the scene.
We drove back in silence. I felt strangely uncomfortable: I just did not want to know about the end of life while I was in the thick of it, with a wife and two kids to look after.
At home, my mother said, as she made orange juice for me in the kitchen, her eyes pools of sadness, “You know, she had married a few months before me, 50 years ago, and I still remember how radiant and beautiful she was. Who could have imagined she could end up like this? I mean, she is of the same age as I am.” And the unsaid feeling: ‘Will I end up like this?’
My mother, touchwood, is fit. She has dyed her hair: it is jet black. Her face has hardly aged, even though she is 70. It is only at the back of her hands that the skin has wrinkled. And her cousin’s wife: could my mother ever have imagined at that time that one day she would see this elegant woman, her flawless skin crumpling up, the beauty ravaged by time, the body shrinking into itself and then sinking into that terrible loneliness just before death arrives. I could understand now why my mother looked so sad. Suddenly, I remembered what a girlfriend, whose father had just died, told me years ago, as we held hands and sat on a bench in a park in Kolkata, “Death is the only reality. All the rest are theories.”