Saturday, December 16, 2006

A cut above the rest

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Master tailor, Madhav Agasti, has the Who's Who of Indian politics as
his customers, not forgetting his clients in Bollywood

Shevlin Sebastian

One day, in 1985, director Shekhar Kapoor and producer Boney Kapoor
went to a tailoring shop in Bandra. They asked Madhav Agasti, the
owner, whether he could make an outfit for 'Mogambo', an international
crime lord, played by Amrish Puri, in Mr India. "They promised they
would pay me Rs 1000 extra if I could make a good costume," says
Agasti, 57, with a smile. "Shekhar Kapoor told me the story and
explained to me what type of villain he had in mind."
In order to give Puri a foreigner's look, Agasti studied pictures of
Lord Clive and some other lords of the British period. "I made a black
suit with a golden monogram," he says. Both producer and director
loved the costume, they gave him the Rs 1000, and when Puri wore the
costume, he immediately said, "Mogambo khush hua."
The shop, Madhav's Men's Modes, is nondescript: glass-paned doors, a
modest air-conditioned interior and fabrics in rolls placed on shelves
alongside one wall. You might not look twice when you walk past but
what is most amazing is that India's Who's Who among politicians,
ranging from L.K. Advani to Bal Thackeray have been his customers (see
list), apart from Bollywood notables and santoor exponent Pandit Shiv
Kumar Sharma.
Inventive skills
Sharma tells me he has been Agasti's customer for the past twenty
years. "Agasti stitches two types of clothes for me," he says. "On the
stage I wear silk kurtas with special embroidery. I leave it to him to
invent different styles of embroidery and designs, which look good on
the stage. His strength lies in the combination of colours and the cut
of the kurta." For normal wear, Agasti makes simple cotton or silk
kurta pyjamas. "He is a great designer," says Sharma. "After seeing my
clothes, people always ask me who my designer is and some of my
friends from abroad have got their clothes stitched by Agasti."
Another customer is State Finance Minister Jayant Patil. Just before
he was going to present the budget in 2000, his ministerial colleagues
told him he should get a nice suit and they suggested the name of
Agasti. "So I went to him and got a suit stitched," he says. "And I
must say, the fit was perfect." He has remained a regular customer.
Politicians have become very stylish these days. Praful Patil, says
Agasti, wears all kinds of clothes: suits, sherwanis and dhotis.
Sharad Pawar wears kurta pyjamas, as well as jackets or suits.
Nowadays, if they wear dhotis, they like to wear stylish ones. "The
reason is that they have to appear in front of television cameras and
need to look good," says the master tailor. "Society has changed.
People no longer want to see their leaders only wearing khadi."
For Agasti, what really makes him court politicians as customers is
that all of them are good paymasters and are polite and friendly. But
when I remind him the public has a negative impression of them, he
replies, "Look, I have nothing to say about what the public thinks. My
interactions with them have always been good."
So, how did it happen that so many powerful people have become his
customers? He says it was word of mouth. The first politicians he
stitched clothes for were N.K.P. Salve and Jawaharlal Darda, both of
whom were from Nagpur. They then spread the word and Agasti's customer
base grew slowly. "I also have a deep belief in God," says Agasti.
"And that helps."
His wife Mrunal says that it has a lot to do with his nature. "Madhav
is a friendly and down-to-earth person," she says. "And, one must not
forget, he is a skilful tailor."
Making his name
Agasti was born in Nagpur, the son of an impoverished temple priest.
When he was in college, he developed a passion for tailoring. He came
to Mumbai in 1974 and became an assistant in a shop, Super, where most
of the Bollywood stars would come to get their clothes stitched.
There, he met many actors including Sunil Dutt. "He was a favourite,"
says Agasti. "He helped me a lot."
It was a hard time, remembers Mrunal. Agasti would go by 8am and
return only at 10 pm on most days. "We were in economic difficulties,"
she says.
The next year, Agasti opened his own shop in Dadar and began stitching
the clothes of many character artistes and villains like Gulshan
Grover. After ten years in Dadar, he moved to Bandra, where he has
been ever since.
Interestingly, nobody of the second generation comes to Agasti's shop.
"It is a generation gap," says Agasti's son Shantanu, 25, who runs a
designer store, with elder brother, Rahul, in Juhu. "Quite a few of
the sons have studied or travelled abroad, therefore, they are aware
of the latest fashions." He mentions the names of Vishwajit Kadam, son
of Minister for Co-operation, Relief and Rehabilitation Patangrao
Kadam and Amit Deshmukh, son of Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.
But it does not matter at all for Agasti. "I am happy with whatever I
have got so far," he says. "No complaints at all."

The political crowd
L.K. Advani
Bal Thackeray
Uddhav Thackeray
Gopinath Munde
Yashwant Sinha

Five chief ministers
Sushil Kumar Shinde
Sharad Pawar
Vilasrao Deshmukh
Narayan Munde
Manohar Joshi

Om Puri
Nana Patekar
Paresh Rawal
Gulshan Grover
Johnny Lever

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Heart of stone

Permission to republish this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Living in Mumbai can take its toll

Shevlin Sebastian

I am travelling on a train, from Mahim to Andheri, standing behind a group of men at the entrance. The sun has set, a summer breeze is blowing in and the mood is tranquil. The evening rush has not yet begun, so there is some breathing space.

Suddenly, there is a thudding sound, and the next thing I know, the man in front of me starts bleeding from the mouth. A stone has ricocheted from the side of the train and hit him. The man, in his early thirties, with close-cropped black hair, takes out a handkerchief and presses it to his mouth, as his teeth turns red.

“You are lucky, the stone did not hit your eye,” says a fellow passenger. “Some years ago, a girl lost her eye. The newspapers wrote about it.” Says another man: “The stone was thrown from the jhopadpatti.” We look back at the fast-receding slum and, as expected, the place looks harmless. “I thought people had stopped throwing stones,” says another passenger. An elderly gentleman shakes his head and says, “Have people ever stopped throwing stones at each other?”

There is a silence after this statement. As for me, I try to imagine the person who perpetrated this dastardly act. What sort of a man is he? (Can’t imagine a woman doing this.) Why did he do it? What did he gain from this act?
People who travel on trains are not affluent; otherwise, they would have been moving around in cars. So why is he taking out his angst on us middle-class people? Our lives are a struggle, just like his: the harrowing daily commute; the ceaseless pressure to make ends meet; to keep wife and kids happy; to save money for our sunset years.

I can understand his frustration: the lack of education and job opportunities, the grinding poverty, the overcrowding and the pervasive atmosphere of crime and violence in the slum. But does throwing a stone at defenceless and innocent people help alleviate his problems?

Meanwhile, the injured man gets down at Bandra. Apart from the few people around the entrance, nobody else is aware of this incident. In Mumbai, you might be going through hell but the person standing next to you is oblivious. You can’t blame him: he may be staring at his own hell. For days afterward, I am wary of standing at the entrance. And as I watch people being rude to each other, at traffic signals, in the market, at cinema ticket counters and I also hurl a sarcastic barb at a friend, the old man’s phrase keeps popping up in my mind: “Do people ever stop throwing stones at each other?”

Monday, November 27, 2006

The mistress of all she surveys

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Mumbai collector Valsa Nair Singh keeps a track of land records and helps social service networks

Shevlin Sebastian

One day when Valsa Nair Singh, the collector of Mumbai, went to the David Sassoon remand home in Mahim, he saw a boy, Hemant Wagle, (name changed), in the sickness ward, all alone. “When I enquired, I was told that Hemant was not allowed to take part in any vocational activities or community programmes because he was HIV positive,” she said. Upset, she asked the boy what had happened. Three years ago, when Wagle had come to Mumbai with his parents, at CST station, he was jostled and separated from his parents. The police picked him up and sent him to the Sassoon home.
The authorities tried hard but were unable to locate the parents. “Since Hemant was from Solapur, I got his photo published in the local newspapers and somebody saw it and informed the mother,” said Singh.
The mother and the child were reunited but, amazingly, Hemant did not want to return home. “He said he wanted to make a lot of money and only then would he return home. Sadly, Hemant and his mother did not know he is HIV positive,” said the collector.
This is one of the many incidents in the daily life of Singh. Apart from social service activities, her main job is revenue collection and maintenance of land records. “I want to fully computerise the land records,” she says.
She is also keen to make the system transparent. So, if somebody wants to make a property registration card, “I do not want people to complain that it is taking time or that the mutation took place in somebody else’s name, without their knowledge. This is due to bad upkeep of records.”
With that in mind, she has sent many crumbling survey maps to a remote sensing agency in Nagpur, where it will be digitised. This is one way of preserving them and it can be updated regularly. “So far, 80 per cent of the work has been done,” she said.
Apart from this, she has set up a task force to detect child labour. “Those children who are rescued, will be initially put up in the various remand homes of the city,” she said. Later, they will be rehabilitated. A pilot project for 50 children is being launched.
As collector, she is in charge of an area that runs from Colaba to Mahim and Sion, an area of 69 sq. kms. There are 35,000 landowners and 1500 pieces of property, which has been given on a lease.
Playing a mediator's role
On an average, she gets around 40 visitors daily who come to her with various complaints. They are usually members of co-operative societies, who have plenty of problems within themselves. “There are many cases of lease violations, so I act as a mediator and take action wherever necessary,” she says. “We usually conduct inspections where the lease terms have been violated.” She also ensures that all open spaces belonging to the government are free of encroachments. Last week, she launched a drive in Ganesh Murthy Nagar to demolish unauthorised constructions.
When I tell her of the public perception of the bureaucracy being inefficient and lethargic, she says, “For every 10 ineffective officers, there are 15 effective ones. The problem is that the rules are too many and, unfortunately, we have made these rules. Even for an efficient bureaucrat, it is difficult to break out of it.”
One of the things that stymies efficiency is, of course, corruption. But the amazing thing is that even though she is the chairman of the corruption eradication committee, and has publicised, through newspapers and television, that she will meet the public on the first Monday of every month, she has received very few complaints. “I am puzzled by the lack of response,” she says.
Appointed at the end of July, the general consensus of those who have interacted with her is that she is approachable and helpful. Kunti Oza, who is helping the Cuffe Parade Citizens’ Group and Cuffe Parade Residents’ Association to upgrade the Macchimar area, says, “Mrs. Singh is taking a lot of interest in our project and is always available.”
Nayana Kathpalia, a trustee of the Oval Trust also agrees. The Trust is planning to convert the Cross Maidan, which is owned by the government, into a designated garden for the public. There will be a children’s corner, a walking track, and a place for people to hang around. However, Shirin Bharucha, another trustee, says, “Since Singh is new to the job, she needs some more time and latitude to function.”
God’s own country
Singh is a Malayali, who grew up in Cochin and Thiruvanthapuram, the daughter of an IPS officer. She met Ashish Kumar Singh, from UP, when he was giving guest lectures at the IAS Training Academy in Kottayam. Love bloomed but it would take three years for them to get married. “My parents had no problems,” she says. “What I liked about him was that he is an intellectual.”
It is not and has never been easy to have a successful inter-community marriage. But Ashish does not feel so. “A marriage is about individuals, and not communities,” he says. “If, at all, an inter-community marriage is more interesting, it is because there is more cultural diversity. Ours is a marriage of the mind and soul.”
They have been married for 14 years and have two children, Aditya, 12 and Amartya, 8. Today, Ashish is posted as private secretary, minister of state, in the PMO in Delhi and has completed two and a half years in a five-year tenure. Since Valsa is from the Kerala cadre and Ashish is from the UP cadre, both have opted for the Maharashtra cadre. Valsa speaks Marathi fluently and says, “What I like about Mumbai is that it is a place where an outsider is made to feel at home. In fact, I consider myself as a Mumbaikar.”
For one who belongs to God’s own country, it is clear where her heart lies.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Syed Ahmad was India’s Osama Bin Laden

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

A new book suggests that Wahhabism, the creed that Al Qaeda believes in, existed in India in the 18th century

Shevlin Sebastian

“I think it would be better if I take off my spectacles,” says British historian Charles Allen, 65, when photographer Hemant Padalkar gets ready to take pictures. “I look different.”
Allen is feeling nervous because his book, God’s Terrorists (The Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad) has ruffled a few feathers, especially among Muslim groups in Britain.
The thesis, as the intro suggests, is that the modern day jihad has its roots in the late eighteenth century, in Saudia Arabia, when an intolerant strand of Islam is adopted by a preacher, Al-Wahhab. He takes it from the teachings of Ibn Taymiyya, a 14th century jurist of Damascus. This is later called Wahhabism and, as Allen says, “it is deeply belligerent and hostile towards Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Jews and Hindus. Their argument is very simple: you either believe in our version of Islam or you die.” It is this creed that is the religious base of Al Qaeda and other jihadi outfits.
But the stunning revelation is that Wahhabism was present in India since the late 18th century. A young man, Syed Ahmad, “who is the Osama Bin Laden of his day,” according to Allen, goes to Mecca for the Haj and returns with this new ideology and starts preaching it all over the country. In Mumbai, the Sunnis unite to condemn him. “Most Muslims in India rejected the ideology,” says Allen.
Ahmad’s first jihad is against the Sikhs but in the famous massacre of Balakot on May 8, 1831, he is killed. The movement goes underground and members hide in a camp up in the hills, north of Peshawar. And remain there despite numerous efforts by the British to destroy them. In 1857, a group of Wahhabis take part in the Sepoy Mutiny in Delhi but, as is well known, the British crush the uprising. Among the Wahhabis are two fighters, Muhammad Qasim Nanautawi and Rashid Ahmed Gangohi, who later establish the famous Deoband Madrassah. “The Deobandis in India are law-abiding,” says Allen. “However, there is a Wahhabi element which they acknowledge but do not emphasise.”
The book is easy to read because the writing is lucid but it is difficult to understand because there are so many ‘Muhammads’ and ‘Ahmads’ peppering the narrative that it can get confusing. And Allen does not explain clearly how the movement has survived to the present in India.
Allen, who was born in Kanpur, won the Sir Percy Sykes Gold Medal given by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs in 2004 for his contribution to the understanding of Asian affairs. “I have mixed feelings about this award,” he says. “My work has contributed to the understanding of the British in South Asia but it has not contributed to the understanding of South Asian history. It is very one-sided.”
There is a feeling among Muslims that God’s Terrorists is also one-sided. Reviewing the book in Asharq Alawsat, an Arabic newspaper, journalist Amir Taheri writes: “Because Allen is unable to cite evidence that the anti-British rebels were Wahhabis, he falls back on spurious suppositions.”
When I read this out to Allen, he agrees it is a valid criticism. “My book is a work in progress and I have been drawing only on British sources,” he says. “The problem is that I can’t speak Urdu and, therefore, cannot access Urdu works.”
Allen has now moved off to other subjects. His next book is a biography of Rudyard Kipling, even though “he is a dyed in the wool imperialist. But Kipling had many good sides to him and loved India. This biography is about the first half of his life.”

Living life, kingsize!

Heart bypass patient Reza Beg, a former pilot, has hair-raising adventures all over the world

Shevlin Sebastian

M. Reza Beg kneels down on the floor of his apartment in Bandra and spreads out a large map of Asia. With a black felt pen, he has already marked out the route for the Autocar India-China Silk Road expedition, a distance of 18,000 kms. This expedition, which will take place in June 2007 and will cost over Rs 50 lakh, starts in Kathmandu, goes all the way west to Mount Kailash, around the great Taklamakan Desert, and down into the hellish depths of Turfan, hundreds of feet below sea level, where the maximum summer temperature exceeds 50 degrees Celsius. Most of the journey is at altitudes of 18,000 feet or more, and the team will return via Tibet to India. Around six motorcycles, a few cars and SUVs will form part of the expedition. “My teammates are half and one third of my age,” he says.
That is the charm of Beg. He is young at heart, even though he is 67 years old. In 1988, a massive heart attack nearly killed him. But this former Air India pilot, who flew for 33 years, (he retired in 1999), did not miss a step when retirement loomed up. He has run in marathon races all over the world; sky-dived from 14,000 ft in the USA; climbed Mount Fuji solo at night; has participated regularly in the Dubai Desert Fun Drives; and done the world’s highest bungee jump in New Zealand. I ask how he did all this after his by-pass surgery and he says, “Always have a positive attitude and a sense of humour.”
Bouncing back
This positive attitude resulted in an extraordinary achievement. After his heart attack, he was immediately grounded and made Assistant Director (In Flight Service, Air India). “I am not a desk person and hated the job,” he says. So he read up on the aviation rules in the UK, USA and Australia, where they have allowed heart bypass pilots to renew their licences if they could pass a series of strict medical tests. Armed with this information, Beg was able to persuade aviation medical authorities to allow him to do a complete blood profile, stress thallium, a treadmill and an angiogram, among other tests. In February, 1992, he passed all the tests and was declared fit to fly as a co-pilot, the first person in Asia to be back in the cockpit after a bypass surgery. But he persisted with his desire to become a full-fledged pilot and won his spurs in January 1997, again, after passing a series of tough medical tests. Later, he would be the first in the world to fly the Boeing 747-400, after a heart by-pass.
Now the story gets interesting. Two years ago, former Pakistani cricketer Zaheer Abbas and Anis Ahmed, a Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) pilot dropped into scriptwriter Salim Khan’s apartment at Bandra. During the course of the conversation, Khan heard the story of how Ahmed suffered a heart attack and was grounded. A friend in Canada, who, co-incidentally, was a friend of Beg’s, got the necessary medical papers from India and forwarded it to Ahmed in Pakistan. The Pakistani used Beg’s example to get himself reinstated in PIA, after passing the necessary tests.
When Salim Khan heard this story, he said, “Do you want to meet Beg?” Ahmed replied, “Of course, I would love to meet him. I regard him as my hero.” So Khan, who has been a friend of the former Air India pilot for 20 years, and calls him “an extraordinary person,” invited Beg for lunch. The fitness freak that Beg is, he arrived on a cycle. And there was a tumultuous exchange of hugs and an intense conversation about flying that lasted several hours.
Flying is something Beg has thoroughly enjoyed. “You are playing the world’s biggest video game and getting paid for it,” he says. “It is an addiction.” But he does not envy today’s pilots at all. “There are so many gadgets which do the navigation for you,” he says. “Pilots are just flight managers.”
And not heroes like Beg.

Real life hero
Apart from Ahmed, Beg has been an inspiration for several people all over the world. The New-York based clinical psychiatrist, Beverly Anderson, who is originally from Bandra and was known to Beg, works at Premier Health Care, an organisation that serves individuals with developmental and learning disabilities. “I have discussed, with my colleagues, with disbelief and admiration, Beg's medical condition and accomplishments, as an example of a man who pushes the proverbial ‘limit’ to fathomless heights.”
Dr Hemant Telkar, a radiologist, says that whenever patients are told they have a heart block, they tend to step back and slow down their activities. “That is when I give them Beg’s number,” he says. “Because he can tell them there is no need to feel crippled. Nature has given many collaterals to a heart, that in spite of a block, a person can still continue carefully with his normal activities, under medical supervision.” As for Captain Beg, he is ready for takeoff all the time.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Vroooom… to the top of the world

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

A young Mumbaikar, armed with a camera and a bike, travels to the remote Changthang Plateau in Ladakh and returns with treasured sights and insights

Shevlin Sebastian

At the Chumur monastery, 350 kms from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, Gaurav Jani, 33, of Mumbai was struck by the sight of an embalmed body of a monk. Around 50 years ago, the monk, who lived in the gompa or monastery, had said he liked the place so much he did not want to leave. So, when he died, his body was embalmed, and his face was painted in gold.

Right next to it, hanging from a wall, was the hand of a woman. The story went that she had seduced some men in the village, and killed them. “The monk called her to the monastery and chopped her hands off,” said Jani. “Later, she was killed. People said she was a sorceress and had committed evil and deserved to die.”

For Jani, this was a once in a lifetime experience because he is one of the first outsiders to come to this tiny village of 50 families. In fact, the National Geographic magazine had been denied permission, because Chumur is only eight kilometres from the Chinese border.

Chumur is part of the Changthang Plateau of Ladakh, one of the remotest regions in the world. It was to fulfil his twin passions of travel and film-making that Jani undertook the trip on his 350cc Bullet Enfield over 50 days. He transported his bike by train from Mumbai to Jaipur and then set out on National Highway No 1 with 300 kgs of equipment, which included a tent, fuel, clothes, food, a sleeping bag and a Panasonic DVX-100 e Mini DV camera, to shoot his adventures.

He had no assistants; it was a solo trip. So, when he had to take a shot, he had to unpack the camera, place it on a tripod, wear his helmet, zoom away from the camera, come back, and check to see that the scene has been shot well, pack his cameras and start riding again. “I know it sounds like a lot of work but any film-maker would go to any length to get a shot,” he said.

Jani shot 40 hours of material, which has been pared down to a 94-minute film, Riding Solo To The Top Of The World. It won the Golden Conch for Best Documentary in the Indian section and the National Critics Award at the Mumbai International Film Festival. K. Hariharan, director of the Chennai-based L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy and chairman of the jury, said the freshness of approach by this one-man crew was one of the factors in awarding Jani the prize. “His discovery of new people and places was a big plus,” he said.

Nrupen Madhvani, a photographer and film-maker, who has visited Ladakh, was impressed by the truth and integrity of the film. “It is rare to see a film where there is no compromise on the intellectual and emotional front.”

Riding Solo also won the Best Documentary Award at the Signs Festival, conducted by the Federation of Film Societies of India (South-West Region). And Discovery Channel has bought the telecast rights for the Indian territory.

Simple and compassionate
At Changthang, Jani befriended the nomadic shepherds, the Changpas. They moved from place to place, in small groups, with their goats, sheep and yaks in tow. He stayed with a Changpa called Tsewang, ate with the family and spent hours talking with them.

Tsewang told Jani he kept hearing stories of people dying of hunger in other parts of India.
“That is so strange,” said Tsewang. “This can never happen in Changthang. If we know somebody is suffering, or is sick, we just adopt that person and his family. Nobody in Changthang has died of starvation. The village will take care of that family for as long as it takes.”

Jani said he could not help but contrast this attitude with city dwellers. “In Mumbai, people lead such selfish lives,” he said. “We only get in touch with each other when we need something.”

There was a time during the trip when Jani himself needed help. One evening, at a place near Datta, Jani realised he had lost his way. It was getting dark and he needed to protect the footage that had been shot. The exposed shots were the most important thing he was carrying. So, rather than risk trying to find his way in the dark, he decided to set up his tent even though the temperatures were at sub-zero levels. At an altitude of 16,000 feet, the oxygen levels were also low. “Once I zipped up the tent, there was very little ventilation,” he said. “I was breathing in the same carbon dioxide that I was exhaling. “As a result, I experienced a lot of restlessness.”

The next morning, suffering from a headache, he managed to locate a group of Changpa dwellings some distance away and made his way out of danger.

At Hemis, he experienced one of the highlights of the trip when he was able to see the religious festival at the Hemis Monastery. This particular festival, which takes place once in 12 years, is celebrated only in the year of the monkey in the Tibetan calendar.

Lure for adventure
Jani worked for a brief while as a fashion designer in Ahmedabad before he moved to Mumbai and worked as an assistant director on Ram Gopal Verma’s Jungle. But he could not ignore the siren call for adventure and finally succumbed and is into this full time. For the Ladakh trip, because he wanted to do a trip without any prior planning, he could not get any sponsors and had to depend on family and friends for funds. So far, he has spent Rs 18 lakh on the film and has barely recovered one-fourth of the cost.

At his home in Malad, Jani sets up the DVD for me to see. His sincerity and love for the Changpas is palpable and the scenery is breathtaking: the high mountain ranges, the clear streams, the blue skies, the tankas, (the Buddhist prayer flags), flying carelessly in the breeze, the tranquil and weather-beaten faces of the Changpas, as they go about their daily life, the children, with their open faces and sweet smiles, playing with the sheep, the women shaving off the pashm from the pashmina goat, which will form the highly expensive pashmina shawl and the haunting prayer meetings: the monks in their red tunics banging on drums and blowing long horns as hypnotic chants are mouthed, and all these scenes are accompanied by the soul-stirring music of Ved Nair.

The long-haired Nair, a freelance music composer, who is at Jani’s place when I watch the documentary, says, “We wanted the music to be a progression of Gaurav’s journey. So, we started with an electric guitar and as he went higher and higher, we used humming and whistling and flutes, which the Changpas use.”

It is a remarkable documentary, and hats off to this young and brave film-maker to go where no Indian has gone before.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Waugh ka Jawaab Nahin

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Why don’t more Indian cricketers get involved in charity work, wonders Steve Waugh, who keeps returning to India for his charity commitments

Shevlin Sebastian

In March 1998, Shamlu Dudeja, 68, honorary director of the Calcutta Foundation, was watching the telecast of an India-Australia Test match at Kolkata when she caught Australian cricketer Steve Waugh get run out on 80. Dudeja was struck by the fact that the Australian, though clearly disappointed, did not hurl abuses or spit on the ground or question the umpire’s decision in any way. Coincidentally, she remembers, “That morning, I had read a newspaper interview in which Waugh said he was interested in doing charity.”

A couple of days later, on an impulse, she wrote Waugh a letter, and asked her driver to drop it off at the reception desk of the Taj Bengal hotel. It was the fourth day of the Test and Australia was heading for defeat and Dudeja wrote, “By the time this letter reaches you, the match will be over. But don’t despair! There is probably the hand of God in this. So, tomorrow you will have the day off. Instead of going to the Tollygunge Club to have a drink and play a round of golf, why don’t you come and see one of my projects?”

The next morning at 9.15 am, Dudeja received a call. It was from Waugh. Within 15 minutes they were on the way to Udayan, a centre for the rehabilitation of children of leprosy victims, on the outskirts of Calcutta. At the time, the centre had a wing for boys that could house 300 and needed funds to build a girls’ wing. The boys immediately recognised Waugh and started shouting, “Steve, Steve!” An impromptu cricket match was organised and one of the youngsters became an overnight hero when he clean bowled Waugh. Later, a moved Waugh pledged to dedicate himself to the cause, because, he said, it felt like the right thing to do. “And that is how Steve’s association with Indian charities began,” says Dudeja.

Eight years later, Steve Waugh, now 41, and retired from cricket, is still busy helping other people. This time, it is at Patan, a village near Lonavla, where Habitat for Humanity is building 100 homes for the underprivileged. He is one of 2000 volunteers from around the world. Even though it is an extremely hot morning, Waugh, wearing a yellow bandana, goes about his work with unwavering concentration.

As he sips on a Diet Cola, I ask him how he landed up at Patan. A few months ago, he says, George Macdonald, the CEO of Habitat Australia, who he met at a charity event, told Waugh about the Patan project. “I said it sounded like a good idea, and I’d like to get involved,” he recounts.

Macdonald tells me he contacted Waugh because “of his interest in working for charities and for his popularity in India.”

Yes, Waugh is popular and is increasingly spending a lot of time in India. He has set up The Steve Waugh Foundation in India, has business partnerships, appears in advertisements, gives talks and writes for Indian newspapers. So what is it about India that draws him? “India is so vibrant and never boring. It confronts all your senses and makes you feel alive. Besides, the people are so friendly,” he explains

But not all Indians have a social sense, especially our cricketers. “I am a little surprised by it,” he says. “More Indian cricketers should become involved in charity work. Because if they get involved, they can have a massive impact on a charity.”

Wilting under pressure

Which is true. But for the past six months, they are also failing to leave an impact on the cricket pitch. I ask him the inevitable fan’s question: why do Indians wilt under pressure in matches? He says a friend of his described it this way: Australian kids are usually put at the back of the bus, because they tend to make a lot of noise and can be unruly. The Indian children, on the other hand, always sit at the front and are well-behaved. “If someone takes a go at the Australians, they’ll fight back,” he says. “Indians are gentle and humble. They don’t like a confrontation—except on the roads.”

Former wicketkeeper Nayan Mongia, who has played against Australia many times, says, “I don’t agree with that statement. I think we Indians are aggressive enough. But, of course, compared to Australians, who are very, very aggressive, we do come across as mild.”
Waugh, who Mongia calls, ‘gutsy’, is one of Test cricket’s most successful captains.

And he is also one of a small group of players who has made a smooth transition to the post-playing era. He says he does not miss the excitement that competition provides. “I can get my adrenaline flowing by setting up a charity or by playing with my kids in the backyard or watching them play football or do ballet,” he says.

But, in the end, he concedes, there is nothing “that can replace the feeling of playing in front of 1,00,000 people in a Test match at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata.” Still, he points out, “You have to move on. You can’t live in the past.”

By this point in our interview, I’ve finished my list of prepared questions and am asking impromptu ones. Suddenly I go blank: a question hovering on the tip of my tongue is unable to make the journey to the outside of my mouth. A few seconds pass in silence.

“That’s pressure, mate,” says Waugh and grins. “Now you know what happens to India when they have to score six runs in the last over of a World Cup final.”

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Naach Meri Jaan

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Tough, blunt and bold, judge Saroj Khan once again makes an impact on Nach Baliye 2

Shevlin Sebastian

“Sarojji was bleeding,” says Pinky Chinoi, a dancer cum choreographer. “She would then go back to the trailer, put a new bandage and come back again.”
Chinoi, who is on the sets of Nach Baliye 2 at Film City, is talking about the shooting of a dance sequence for Vinashak, which starred Suniel Shetty. A day earlier, Khan’s appendix had burst and she had been rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation. In the end, 24 stitches had to be put to stanch the blood. But despite her doctor’s misgivings, Khan appeared on the set the next day, as she did not want to delay the shooting. “I told the doctor not to worry,” says Khan, with a smile, as she sits on a diwan in an air-conditioned trailer. “I would go inside the trailer and change the bandage, as the blood kept oozing out. Thankfully, the stitches did not rupture.”

Today, Khan is in the spotlight for her ‘take no prisoners’ attitude as a judge on the dance show, Nach Baliye 2. Like in the earlier show, she has struck a chord with viewers for her honesty. Of course, some call her style ‘abrasive’. But Raja Chaudhary, who was voted out last week with his partner Shweta Tiwari, supports the judge. “Whatever faults she points out is always correct,” he says. “Her bluntness is her personality. If she becomes soft, she will sound artificial.”
Khan says she is blunt because “I want them to be good choreographers, not copycats. For example: I know all the movements in Ek Do Teen in Tezaab. Now, if they show the same movements, I will not accept it. I am looking for creativity.”

For the young choreographers, despite the tough words, most of them are in awe of her. There they are, sitting outside Stage 7 in Film City, and Chinoi, who does choreography with Rajeev Khinchi, 26, says, “We respect Sarojji so much. She has been completely dedicated to her profession.” Vitthal Patel, an upcoming choreographer, says simply, “I have worked with Sarojji and she is fabulous.”

Endless steps
Khan has had a fabulous career, having done choreography for hundreds of films, and is now regarded as one of India’s greatest choreographers. She is now in her 55th year in the industry. Incidentally, her age is 58.
The family came to India from Lahore during the Partition. Her father died immediately because of throat cancer and there were severe financial problems. But dance came to Khan unbidden. At the age of two, she would look at her shadow and dance. In her business-oriented family, they had no idea of art. So, it was no surprise that her mother took her to the doctor and told him her daughter was retarded. But the wise doctor told the mother that Khan just wants to dance. He had contacts with the film industry and encouraged Khan’s mother to send her for some assignments.
Khan’s first scene was of her sitting on a cardboard imitation of a moon and singing. She was supposed to be actress Shyama as a child. She acted in several movies and when she was 10 years old, she became a group dancer and remembers dancing with Madhubala in Howrah Bridge. At 13, she became an assistant to dance master Hiralal. At 14 she did her first choreography for Dil Hi To Hai, directed by P.L. Santoshi, the father of Rajkumar Santoshi. In 1974, she got her first picture Geeta Mera Naam. Thereafter, she choreographed numerous dances for years, till Ek Do Teen in Tezaab rocked India in 1988 and there was no looking back.

“I had no idea it would have such an impact,” says Khan. “It was the fastest composed dance in my life--25 minutes. But it took me 17 days to teach the steps to Madhuri Dixit. She was a Kathak dancer and did not have a lilt. She trained from 10 am to 10 pm.”
The French connection
Earlier, as I wait to talk to Khan, I meet Julian Bouissou, 28, a radio correspondent of Europe-1, who is doing a story on dance in Bollywood and had just spoken to Khan. “The Indian film dance is fascinating for us Frenchmen because there are so many different elements, slow, techno and Indian classical, in one dance, while we are only adept at doing only one style in one dance,” he says.
So the French are also mesmerised by a dance form, which has also held India in thrall for decades. And yet, there is clearly a technique behind the skilful moves. “Don’t make it only a dance number,” says Khan, the winner of seven Filmfare awards for best choreography. “The story should carry into the dance and lead out of it. So the dance should not look like a patch.” She says it is important to look at the hands and the feet of the artistes. “If it is a cabaret, the palms will be open,” she continues. “If it is an Indian dance, the palms will be closed, like when you do a mudra. I also concentrate on facial expressions, which is my forte.”
Till Nach Baliye resurrected her in the public eye, Khan was going through a rather barren patch. She admits the younger stars are avoiding her. “It is only the producers and directors who want me. But that’s okay. I am taking it easy for a while.”
She has been ringside as a choreographer for forty years, an encyclopaedia of filmic history. So I ask her how have things changed over the years?
“The sincerity and the love of work is gone,” says this mother of three children, whose husband is a businessman. “The only thing that matters now is money. And how fast you can pull down another person and take his place.”

High and mighty

The global Vipassana pagoda, rising magnificently in a verdant landscape, promises to be a haven of peace—and a tourist attraction

Shevlin Sebastian

The first sight of the hall of the global Vipassana pagoda is awe-inspiring. There is a spaciousness and expansiveness about it that offers an immediate sense of tranquility, especially for one who lives in a crowded city. And this, though the pagoda is still under construction.
At its completed height, the pagoda will soar 300 ft high and will be one of the world’s largest dome structures built of stone. And it is being built with the ancient technique of interlocking stones instead of concrete, cement or metal.
The pagoda has currently reached the 100 ft mark, forming the base on which three more domes will be constructed. A total of 55,200 stones have been used so far. Brought from Jodhpur, they weigh 500 kg each, says Rajesh Singh, the chief engineer of the project.
The massive meditation hall inside the first dome can seat 8000 people and as I stand under the great dome, I am struck both, by its sheer size and the determination of those who have set out to construct it.
When I climb my way up to the top of the dome, I can see trees all around and vast open spaces. On one side is the Gorai creek, on the other, Essel World. And in the distance, one can see the numerous buildings of the townships of Borivili, Marve, Bhayandar and Dahisar.
The land for the project, around 10 acres, has been donated by Subhash Chandra, chairman of the Essel group, and a Vipassana practitioner himself. The total cost of the project is estimated at Rs 80 crore. According to Madan Mutha, a trustee of the Global Vipassana Foundation, the project is funded entirely by donations. “We have received donations ranging from Rs 1 to Rs 10 crore,” he says.
“The original relic of the Buddha will be kept here,” he continues. These are the ashes of Gautama Buddha, which have been brought from the Mahabodhi Society in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. Emperor Ashoka (273-232 BC) would enshrine relics of the Buddha in pagodas or stupas as they were then called, because it was believed that they would emit positive vibrations. In the global pagoda, the idea is that the Buddha’s ashes will also emit positive vibrations for those who are meditating.
On Sunday, October 29, these relics will be enshrined in the centre of the dome in a special ceremony in the presence of State Home Minister R.R. Patil and other dignitaries.

Vipassana meditator Ajit Parekh says the pagoda has been built along the lines of the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon in Myanmar. “It was only in Myanmar that the teachings of the Buddha were preserved in their pristine form and they were brought to India by S.N. Goenka, (founder of the Vipassana Foundation), who was born and brought up in Myanmar,” he says. “So we are trying to say thank you to Myanmar with this pagoda.”
With the Foundation having 125 centres worldwide and a membership of 50 lakh, Vipassana practitioners from all over the world are expected to make their way here.
Inside the hall are a group of Sri Lankan visitors. One of them, V.R.K. D’Silva, the former CEO of the Lakehouse newspapers group, one of the largest in Sri Lanka, says: “This is a stupendous achievement. But I must make the point that the ancient Sinhalese kings used the same type of material 2000 years ago.”
But then, that is the precisely the charm of this modern-day dome – that it puts a modern face to an ancient technique.

What is a pagoda?
From Java to Mongolia to Japan, the pagoda or stupa was built as a memorial to a great leader. Pagodas have been built from ancient times. In the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, it has been mentioned that ten stupas were built to house the remains of Gautama Buddha.
Emperor Ashoka, a staunch follower of Buddhism, built 84,000 stupas, each of which had a relic from the original ten. The best preserved is the one at Sanchi.

A cover-up job

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Indian books, from the 11th to the 19th century, had the most unusual cover designs, involving elaborate art work and jewellery

Shevlin Sebastian

Tushma Kothari, 22, a jewellery designer, carefully takes out the book cover from a brown envelope. In her air-conditioned room at her home in Sion, the only sound is of the rustling of paper. The cover is made of silver and there are delicate etchings of the sun, moon, horse, elephant and other animals. And she tells the story of how she obtained it.

“I was at a flea market in the city,” she says. “As I was walking around aimlessly, I saw something colourful and when I went in for a closer inspection, I realised it was a book cover.” The silk lining was torn but the frontal beadwork was exquisite. It looked like it belonged to the 16th century. “But the price quoted was Rs 10,000, which was too high for my budget,” she says. “I quoted Rs 1000 and in the end, got it for Rs 1,500.”

The story became interesting when Tushma returned home. When she showed it to her parents, her mother loved it, “but my father, being the jeweller that he is, scrutinised it with his eye-glass.” And she noticed a glow on his face, “like he had discovered a treasure. And he had! He said the beads were not just that, but real emeralds and rubies. I could not believe what I had heard; it was a pleasant surprise. The seller did not know what he had sold, and I did not know what I had bought: a priceless piece of art.”

Tushma’s eyes glows as she recounts the story. Soon, she is in the grip of excitement as she shows me an 11th century book cover, which she found in an antique shop when she was travelling in south India. Instead of paper, palm leaves were used. Another cover depicts the 14 dreams of Trishaladevi, Lord Mahavira’s mother and the eight Jain ashtamangalas, which are symbols that Trishaladevi saw in a dream before her son was born.

“All covers are checked by experts to verify the authenticity,” says Tushma’s father, Shekhar, 48. One of the experts was the late Pandit Amrut Lal, a Jain scholar based in Ahmedabad.

Incidentally, there was a historical reason for the profusion of these book covers. In 1299, when the Muslims had conquered Gujarat, writes Albert Skira in his book, Indian Paintings, “the Jains continued to control trade and banking, and since their undiminished wealth could not be used, when tolerance was uncertain for the building or embellishment of temples, they spent it on small objects which could be easily preserved and secreted away.”

Noted Ahmedabad-based art historian Prof. Prabhat Tandan says that wooden book covers and Palmyra strips were used for illustrating manuscripts from the 11th to the 14th century. Quoting from Indian Miniature Paintings by R.K. Tandan, he says, “Thereafter, paper was mainly used and the output was prolific. Later, cloth was occasionally used when the composition demanded a larger surface area. The use of gold or pearls or precious stones on covers was not uncommon.” And even skin.

Tushma points out one cover, made from the skin of a tortoise, which belongs to the Mughal period when Emperor Akbar was on the throne. “I found this in an Ahmedabad flea market,” says Tushma. “Apart from the cover, there was a Mughal manuscript. It seemed to be a romance, because there were romantic pictures.”

Tushma did not want the manuscript; she was only interested in the cover, but the seller wanted to sell it as a set. “To my good luck, a manuscript collector arrived at the same time and bought it instantly,” she says. “So, I got the cover, he got the manuscript and everybody was happy.”

So far, Tushma has collected 30 covers, bought from places like Kutch, Jaipur, Mumbai and Orissa. “One reason why Tushma found her book covers in several regions,” says Tandan, “is because affluent Jain traders commissioned artists to make these covers in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.”

She seems to be the only one in the city who collects books covers. So what attracted her to them? “The cover gives a lot of insight about the content,” she says. “What also attracted me was the rarity factor and the beautiful workmanship.”

The father and daughter are careful about preservation. They wrap the covers in plastic covers and put in cloves. “This prevents bacteria from attacking the paper,” says Shekhar. “Every six months, we just air it out and replace the cloves.”
So, in one corner of Mumbai, historical material is being preserved, thanks to the enthusiasm of a young woman.

Carter works non-stop; so do the volunteers

Permission to reproduce the article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Shevlin Sebastian

At precisely 8 am on October 30, former American President Jimmy Carter lifts a slice of cement with a trowel and places it on a concrete brick to start building a wall for House No 73. With that, he inaugurates the Jimmy Carter Work Project (JCWP) for Habitat forHumanity's project of building 100 homes in Pathan, near Lonavla.Carter, wearing jeans and a cap, and accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn, and son, Chip, is concentration personified as he goes about his work with a skill and confidence that comes from doing this for 23 years in several countries. And since he is no ordinary mason, a phalanx of photographers record his every move.

Standing right behind him, with a persistent smile on her face, and in a bright orange saree, is house owner Sadhiya Aziz Sheikh, 30, of Varsuli Village. Her husband is a driver in a car rental company and they have two children. Her in-laws live with them. She helps Carter in providing the cement in a tray and tries to be helpful.

During the lunch break, she says, "We were introduced to Carter Saab before the work began. I wanted to take his autograph but because he is so busy I will do it later."

All around volunteers, both foreigners and Indians, are busy slapping cement on bricks. One of them is government servant Priscilla Deegan, 25, of Ireland. "I just want to make a difference in the lives of these people. That is why I have come."

The burly Dave Kirk of the US spends six months of the year working on projects like this. "It is a great feeling to see the joy of the families when they receive the house keys on the last day." Cobb says he gets no money to do this volunteer work but has no regrets. "I just go back home and work harder to pay the bills."

Sumit Mehdiratta, of Whirpool company, says, "We Indians should get out of middle class bubble and help other people."

Our Indian celebrities are also at hand. There is Pooja Bedi, in sunglasses and black dungarees, who says she want to build with her hands. "Habitat makes charity fun," she says. "There is good food, good music and the ambience is great." Dolly Thakore says Bedi encouraged her to participate in her first project. When a crowd of people chase former Australian cricketer Steve Waugh,an American says, "Who's he?"
"He is a cricketer," says somebody.
"Oh," he says, looking completely puzzled.
Brad Pitt suddenly appears suddenly from Pune and there is a frenzy, but he studiously avoids looking at the grizzled bears of the media.And goes about quietly helping in his own way. In the end, Carter evokes the admiration of all present. Apart from ahalf an hour interval when he interacts with the media, he works non-stop from 8 am to 12.30 pm. Bear in mind he is 82. People half his age are panting in the noon-day sun.

The 100 houses will be completed on Friday, November 3.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

President Carter comes to lend a helping hand

100 houses to be built in Lonavala in a week

Shevlin Sebastian

Former American President Jimmy Carter, 82, and his wife Rosalyn is coming to town. Through the Habitat for Humanity’s Jimmy Carter Work Project (JCWP) 2006, he, along with 2000 volunteers, will be building 100 houses in Patan, a village near Lonavala, from October 30 to November 3. Incidentally, Carter’s mother, the late Ms Lillian was based in Lonavala when she was working as a nurse in the Peace Corps. Carter and his wife have earlier built houses in the USA, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea and the Philippines.
Habitat for Humanity has tied up with a local NGO, the Abhinav Cooperative Credit Society, which has selected the beneficiaries. The aim: to provide for a future where every man, woman and child has a decent place to live.
For foreign volunteers, the participation fee is $800. Says Lani Leigh, a professional modern dancer from New York: “Building a home for a needy person in a JCWP brings out the best in us volunteers: the energy, the intensity, passion and teamwork in a blitz build for me is akin to the focus in my dance performances.” She adds that it is a more enriching way of travel in terms of getting to know the local people.
“We want to help the national programme through this project, so that Habitat can build more houses for people in need in India,” says Ernesto Castro, project director, JCWP 2006.
The main sponsors are Citigroup, Dow India, Vedanta, Whirlpool, Aditya Birla, HDFC and Posco of India. Says Rakesh Chitkara, Director, Public Affairs, Dow: “We want to play an integral goal in Habitat’s goal to eliminate sub-standard housing in India and around the world.”
One interesting thing is that corporates are being encouraged to roll up their sleeves and actually build houses, instead of just donating. Chitkara says it has been part of Dow culture for employees to volunteer on the builds.
A newly built house will have a living room, a kitchen, a toilet and a bathroom, comfortable for a family of four. Habitat for Humanity wants to build 50,000 houses in the next five years under the IndiaBuilds programme. At present, 350 million people lack basic housing in India.

Close encounters of the unexpected kind

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

A meeting with a film director leads to an enriching experience

Shevlin Sebastian

As a journalist, sometimes, you go to cover one event, stumble on to another one and have an interesting experience in the end. One day, I had gone to see a particular documentary on the flamingos of Sewri. When the documentary ends, and as I get up to leave, Niranjan Prakash, General Manager, Communications, of E-City Ventures, which runs Fun Republic, announces the screening of the much-acclaimed Shwas, as part of the ‘First Films’ by directors festival.
This Marathi film, as is well known, was India’s entry for the Foreign Language competition at the Oscars this year. Prakash also mentions that director Sanjay Sawant, 40, is present and will take questions after the screening.
The movie, of course, is powerful: it is about the relationship between a man and his grandson, who is suffering from ocular cancer. They come to Mumbai for treatment and the film delineates the effect the illness has on the duo and the family, which lives in a beautiful village in the Konkan. Made with honesty and passion, there are moments when I could not breathe, such is the intensity of emotion that is generated. So, when the movie concludes, I decide to meet the director.
But, by the time I come out, a small group of people already surrounds Sawant, who is wearing an untucked shirt, with long sleeves. “Sir,” says a young man, “if you make a Hindi film, please consider me. I have been working in television serials.” Another man, with an intense, pleading look in his eyes, says, “Please read my script and tell me what you think about it.” A muscular young man clicks open his phone book on his mobile and asks for Sawant’s number. He punches in the number and says, “I’ll call you.” To all of them, Sawant nods and smiles. Then, a middle-aged couple offer congratulations and walk away. Finally, I get a chance to introduce myself and Sawant agrees immediately to have a chat.
We sit in the outdoor quadrangle and order tea, although it is 10 pm. Naturally, my first question is about the young people who had surrounded him. “Because, I have made some sort of a name, a lot of people approach me,” he says. “To be honest, I never get irritated since I am deeply aware of the frustrations and difficulties of being in a creative profession. This is a struggle I have experienced first-hand.”
He goes on to say why he selected the story and decided to make it in Marathi, and not Hindi, “because the condition of the industry was bad. Of course, I never expected it would have such an impact.”
He smokes often, sips his tea rarely and is intently focused on the conversation. He talks about how he trained the child actor in the film: “four months of rehearsals”; the reaction of the audience in different countries to the movie: “People had a sense of peace when they came out after a show”; his future plans: a Hindi film is in the works and, lastly, I ask him his artistic philosophy.
“Whether you are a painter or singer or director, it is very important to surrender to the muse,” he says, as his eyes bulge out in intensity. “Basically, you have to give your heart out to what you are doing. Then your art becomes powerful.”
I tell him that a couple of days earlier, I had read something similar by American writer Joyce Carol Oates: “To write well, you have to write your heart out.” He nods quickly and says, “I agree.”
It is 11 pm and time to say goodbye. A cool breeze is blowing and as I set out towards Andheri station, I feel a sense of elation that I had the opportunity to talk to somebody like Sawant. In the past one year or so, thanks to my job in HT, I have had the privilege of talking with a sexologist, a photographer, a publisher, a temple priest, a former cricketer, a diplomat, a judge, a lesbian, a belly dancer and a jail warden, among numerous other interesting people. So, it is no surprise for me that an evening, which began with the flamingos, ends with a conversation about the muse with an artist whose stunning debut film suggests a brilliant oeuvre of work ahead of him.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Getting the script right

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Scriptwriter Jaideep Sahni is basking in the unexpected success of Khosla Ka Ghosla

Shevlin Sebastian

One day, a few years ago, scriptwriter Jaideep Sahni, 35, went on a reconnaissance trip to Australia with director Ram Gopal Varma. They were looking for foreign locations for the underworld film, Company and landed at the Queensland branch of the Australian Film Commission. When the duo mentioned they were looking for locations for a Hindi film, the lady there got very excited. She said she knew of a bridge, where hundreds of the dancers could stand. For fights, she had another location. She promised she would get all the extras that would be needed and rattled off the names of A, B, C and D grade hotels for the unit. “We told her we make those movies, too, but this is not that type of movie,” says Sahni. “She kept saying ‘Bollywood, Bollywood’ and I kept saying, ‘Hindi films, Hindi films.’ She thought we were some jokers who did not know what we were doing. In the end, she was so disappointed with us.”
Sahni laughs when he recalls this incident, as he munches on a burger at a fast-food outlet in Bandra at 9.30 pm. A bespectacled man, with an intense way of speaking, he has a glow on his face, thanks to the unexpected success of Khosla Ka Ghosla. Sahni has written the story, screenplay, dialogues, the lyrics, and has been the creative producer.

The Khosla success story
It is the story of a middle class family in Delhi. The head of the household invests in a plot of land, which is taken away by a land shark. The family tries desperately to get it back and when that fails, they concoct a plan to outwit the hoodlum.
It has, Sahni admits, some autobiographical overtones. When he was in Class ten, his uncle and aunt had invested in a plot of land in Delhi with their life’s savings, but a member of the Mafia captured the land. “After that, for the next few months, they tried everything to get the land back,” says Sahni. Like in the movie, they went to the local politician, the courts and the police, but nothing happened. In the end, after months of harassment, they were forced to sell it to the Mafia at a pittance.
Interestingly, his uncle and aunt went to see the movie and Sahni was nervous about their reaction. Would they get upset or disturbed or, maybe, end up crying? “Instead, they felt poignant and laughed a lot,” he says.
The movie clearly has struck a chord among viewers and trade circles are now calling it a runaway hit. “The movie has entered the fifth week and the number of shows have gone up,” says a delighted Savitaraj Hiremath, the CEO of Tandav Films Entertainment, which produced the movie. Says director Madhur Bhandarkar: “The screenplay was very tight, with one scene flowing into another and it engaged the audience easily. The performance of Anupam Kher and Boman Irani was flawless”
Director Govind Nihalani expressed his admiration for Sahni’s sensibility and “his talent to combine a realistic situation with black humour. He has a bright future.” And David Dhawan feels the only way a small budget film like Khosla could do well is because the script is good.

And this is not the first success for this talented scriptwriter. After a so-so success with Jungle, he wrote the well-received Company and Bunty aur Babli, which was a huge hit. It is unusual to find somebody who is good at different types of cinema: from a film about the underworld, to two small-town crooks to a middle class milieu in Delhi. “I love working in different genres,” says Sahni, who latest screenplay, Chak De India, is set in the world of sports. “For me, characters are everything. The characters determine the form, the look and the feel. As a writer, I create a world and populate them with people who fascinate me and then one day, directors and cinematographers and actors come in and add their magic, and soon, it is up there on a 70mm screen. It is a great thrill.”
It is a thrill he never imagined would happen to him.

Unusual life
Like the Khoslas, he has had a middle class upbringing in Delhi. His father was a civil servant and his mother a teacher. As a child, he was torn between arts and science. Since he could not do both, he studied computer engineering: ‘It seemed as close to an art form as I could think of’. Later, he worked as an IT consultant, spent a few years in advertising and as a communication consultant, before he drifted off to ad film-making.
One day, he bought several books and one of them was a screenplay of Gandhi by John Briley. He read it and felt that he could do it. At that time, through a friend, he met Ramgopal Varma, who was looking for a new writer. “I told him I have never done a screenplay before but I think I knew how to do one,” says Sahni. “He replied, ‘That’s okay with me.’ The advantage was that Varma is never scared of working with new people. So, I started writing Jungle.”
Apart from screenplays, he has another gift: that of writing lyrics. He has written the songs for Bluffmaster, Company and Salaam Namaste. The lead song for Salaam Namaste was written in a day, in between surfing the Internet and reading the writings of Po Bronson. He has also written a song, Maaeri, for rock group Euphoria, and for Shobha Mudgal. But it is scriptwriting that is currently occupying all his attention.

Writing is R & D
On the oft-repeated charge by producers and directors that there are no good original scripts, Sahni says, “In the film industry, writing is the R&D. Yet, except for some exceptions, do these people allocate time, money and resources to a writer? Is writing important for them? Will they give a writer six or eight months to write a script? In Hollywood, they are given a year or more to write a script. It is not fair to expect writers to be great revolutionaries and go hungry while everybody else is partying at the Marriott.”
The burgers are over and it is near midnight when we step out. As we go past Barista, we see a group of young people sitting around a long table and just for a lark decide to ask them whether they have seen Khosla Ka Ghosla. They have all heard of the film but only one has seen it: Kaushik Shah, 24. “It is a very good movie,” he says, as he shakes Sahni’s hand. Sahni is on a roll and audiences will be hoping Chak De India will be as true to life as Khosla Ka Ghosla.

The power of pink

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

The flamingos of Sewri are captured in a stirring documentary by a sister duo

Shevlin Sebastian

Ashima Narain, 31, is shooting a courting sequence of flamingos at Sewri. The problem is that the flamingos, around 20,000 of them, are walking on the sludge, which is created by the waste coming from the nearby factories. But this sludge is dangerous: if you are a hefty person and step on it, you will sink. It is like quicksand. “But I wanted to take a shot of them courting and I needed to get close,” says Ashima, who is slim and of light build. “So, just before the tide came in, I went out.” Soon, she is so engrossed in the filming she forgets that the water has started to come in. “Then I realise my feet is wet and I start to walk back quickly,” she says. “But, when I am about 15m away from the edge, I start sinking. I am holding my camera and tripod above my head and I am in sludge, which is thigh deep and I could not get out.” There are 15 men watching Ashima and they are unable to do anything, because if they step on the sludge, they will also sink.
Suddenly, one of the men has a brainwave. He goes to a nearby home and calls out to his six-year-old son. “He walks easily on the sludge and takes my camera and tripod and it is only then I could use my hands and am able to come out,” says Ashima.
Work of love
For the first-time director, this is indeed a close shave. But she smiles when she says this, because in the end, it is worth it. A commercial photographer, the idea to do a documentary on flamingos came rather accidentally, when she read in a magazine of how every year, thousands of flamingos would fly from the Rann of Kutch and, possibly, Iran to the mud flats of Sewri for several months. They came because of the prevalence of algae, which they love to eat. Ironically, the effluents and sewage that is spewed into Sewri bay accelerates this algal growth.
“When I went to see them for the first time, I was appalled,” says Ashima. “There were all these factories all around and a shipyard and beyond them was this huge mud sludge. But then you saw this sea of pink…” Ashima’s voice trails off and there is a look of bliss on her face.
“I took a year to shoot the documentary,” she continues. “Because, unlike in feature films, where you can plan the shoot because human beings are acting, we cannot tell the flamingos that, even though it is not the mating season, ‘please do the mating dance for us.’”
And she discovered one interesting phenomenon during the shooting. Whenever she wore pink, she could get much closer to them. “So I would always wear the colour pink,” she says.
Asked why she made the film, her sister Ruchi, a Bollywood director and scriptwriter, who acted as producer of the documentary, says, “Ashima felt that we had this amazing phenomenon in the city and nobody knew about it, let alone, the rest of the world. In other countries, they will just have three pelicans or tortoises and they will make a park and people will come from other countries to see them.” Interestingly, the film has been funded by the sisters themselves; Ashima saved money from the fees she got as a commercial photographer.

Desolate and silent
One hot afternoon, I do go across to see the mud flats. Of course, at this time of the year, there are no flamingos, (they come in November and return in May) but there is an Afghan moneylender, Abdul Hamid Khan, 32, who is here to collect money from the workers of the nearby Colgate factory. It is silent and a stiff breeze is blowing. There is the Sewri fort at one side and a grove of mangroves on the other and the mud flats in front of me. “The sight of the flamingos is lovely,” says Khan, 32. “I come here often to see them.”
I go down to the edge and press my feet on the sludge. It is hard and when I mention this to Khan, he laughs and says I need to go about 10 feet further and then I would sink like a stone.

Soaring sight
On another evening, I go across to Fun Republic to see Ashima’s documentary, ‘In the Pink’. It is being aired during the ‘First Films’ feature film festival. It is a moving documentary, with an excellent script by Jerry Pinto, with touches of humour and pathos, and stunning cinematography by Sunjoy Monga. The sight of flamingos in full flight makes the heart soar. It is also funny, the way they bend their knees while walking. (see box). Out of 40 hours of footage, only 24 minutes were used. However, the documentary highlighted a bit of bad news. Studies have shown that there are alarming levels of heavy metals in water and sediment, which, in turn is affecting the algae. So the question is: how long will it be before it starts manifesting in the flamingos?
After the screening, teacher Shilpa Megharaj, 27, tell me she likes the documentary. “They have covered various aspects and presented the facts well. The photography and the commentary are good.” Another enthusiast is Laxmikant Deshpande, of the Center for Environment Education: “This is one of the best education movies I have seen in a long time. It is short and to the point and easy to understand.”
So what next for Ashima? Well, she has got a fellowship from the UK government and Discovery Channel to do another documentary on the dancing bears of north India. So, after flamingos, it’s bears and it looks like, for a while, commercial photography will be taking a backrest.

Flamingo Fast Facts
There are six species of flamingos found worldwide. Out of them, two come to Mumbai: the greater and the lesser.
The former is the tallest of all the flamingos, while the latter is the smallest.

The staple diet of flamingos is algae, which contains a carotenoid pigment that turns their feathers pink.

The greater flamingo has a more varied diet of crutaceans, insects, small fish and algae.
The lesser flamingos eat more algae, and therefore they have stronger coloration.

Flamingos are born gray. It takes 3-5 years for a flamingo to acquire its pink adult colouration.

All flamingos are filter feeders. To feed, it holds its beak upside down in the water, then uses its tongue as a piston to pump water through a fine grid of interlocking hair-like structures, which trap food.

The lesser flamingo can sift through 32 litres of water an hour looking for food, although it only requires 60g of algae a day.

Flamingos are naturally gregarious birds. They indulge in flamboyant and infectious group courtship displays.

Life expectancy is about 50 years

Monday, October 09, 2006

'Vanity publishing is the real problem'

Reproduction of this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Veteran poet Keki Daruwalla speaks out

Shevlin Sebastian

Keki Daruwalla, 69, has beads of perspiration on his forehead and is taking rapid breaths. It is clear he is unwell. In Mumbai, for a reading of his latest book, Collected Poems-1970-2005, he manages to read two poems and then feels faint. After a while, he apologises and leaves the Theosophy Hall. But the show goes on. On behalf of Daruwalla, fellow poets, Adil Jussawalla, Gieve Patel, Anju Makhija and Arundhati Subramaniam read from the book…
A couple of days later, I meet Daruwalla at his brother’s house and he looks far better. “It was a viral fever,” he explains.

Daruwalla is sturdily built and does not look like a poet at all. When I tell him this, he laughs and says, “In An Area of Darkness, V.S. Naipaul says Indians like to play their designated roles. So, the poet has to look dishevelled and be drunk all the time. But that is not how it happens.”

He says he knows of poets who work in insurance, banking and publishing. “And, of course, there is the famous case of T.S. Eliot who worked as a director of [publishing house] Faber & Faber.” Daruwalla, himself, has retired from the Indian Police Service; he was once Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

So what are the themes he has written about? “History, myth, travel, dreams, violence, the Emergency, the inner life and landscapes,” says Daruwalla. Says poet Anju Makhija: “He is extremely prolific. The poems have strong imagery, and you can read them over and over and gain something new each time.”

Eunice D’Souza, the retired English professor of St. Xavier’s College, says Daruwalla is versatile. “He has written on a wide range of subjects, many of which no one else has dealt with,” she says.
However, one of the criticisms the Indo-Anglian poet has faced is that he is emotionally distant in his poems. “Yes, I agree,” he says. “But that is part of the culture of Western poetry. You write according to the culture that permeates you. In Indian and Asian poetry, the tendency is to write with your heart on the sleeve.”

Emotional or not, in the modern-day money-obsessed publishing scenario, poetry is way down the list, in terms of importance. But Daruwalla says this has nothing to do with the calibre of the poetry. “We have some good younger poets like Jit Thayil, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Priya Sarukkai Chabria, Ranjit Hoskote and Arundhati Subramaniam. Unlike our generation of poets, they can make a line sing.”

When I convey this praise to Subramaniam on the phone, she sounds surprised. After a few moments of silence, she says, “Daruwalla is being generous about us. It is rare to see this kind of generosity shown by one generation to another.”

The biggest problem for poetry, says Daruwalla, is vanity publishing. “Any rich housewife who can scribble a few words thinks she should come out with a book,” he says. “That destroys the credibility of poetry. If a reader goes into a bookstore and picks up one of these books, he will think, ‘Oh God, is this what Indian poetry has come to?’”

By now, Daruwalla begins to tire, so I pop in one last question: what role does religion play in his life? “Not much,” says this father of two daughters, whose wife died in 2000. “I am a rational man. I am reminded of the joke when [French philosopher] Voltaire was dying. A priest came to him and said, ‘You must denounce the devil.’ And Voltaire replied, ‘This is no time to make new enemies.’”

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

‘The book is interpreting the world in these confusing times’

Permission to reprint this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

John Makinson/Chairman and Chief Executive, Penguin Group

John Makinson, 51, was in Mumbai recently for the launch of Portfolio, Penguin’s new business imprint with the release of The High-Performance Entrepreneur (Golden Rules of Success in Today’s World) by Subroto Bagchi.
Excerpts from an interview:

Shevlin Sebastian

The Economist has foretold the death of the newspaper in a couple of decades because of the spread of the Internet. What does that mean for book publishing?
I don’t think the pressures that apply to the newspaper industry apply in the same way in the book market. The book is a very different kind of product, whether it is a book read for entertainment or information.

What about children these days who go straight to the computer and avoid the book? What happens when they reach a book-buying age?
The challenge for book publishers is to make the product attractive to children who are used to working in a screen-based environment. So, that means, the use of design, illustrations and graphics in books. Of course, there is more competition in the form of play stations and televisions. But Harry Potter has shown one thing: the right book can appeal to young people in enormous numbers.

How big is the audio book market?
The audio book market is starting to show a lot of growth. And that is partly because of the format change from cassette to CD. The application of audio that is really starting to grow is the downloadable audio. So, audio books that can be listened on MP3 players and Ipods have become a big growth market. However, the numbers are small. Our sales are around a million dollars, in a business worth more than a billion dollars. So, it has to grow a lot.

Does that mean, there is no market for it?
No, it will grow at different speeds in different areas of the market. For example, the downloadable audio for travel publishing is doing well. If one is visiting Mumbai, it will be very attractive to walk around with an audio product, telling you where you are, and where you need to go. However, it is a complement, rather than a substitute for the travel guide. A lot of the applications of audio will supplement books.
What are the global trends in publishing?
There is a big demand globally, and certainly in this country, for intelligent non-fiction. Books like The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen have become bestsellers in India and globally. We live in a confusing and fast-moving world and these books help to interpret that world to people who are, at some level, confused.
Another trend is the hold that one generation of American airport best-selling writers had on a global audience, authors like Stephen King, John Grisham and Danielle Steele, is dipping; because readers are becoming more experimental. Rather than read the fourth book of a particular author, they might try a new one.
Word of mouth is very powerful in propelling a book to bestsellerdom. And that is a significant trend.
There is an increasing focus by publishers on a limited number of best-selling authors, in terms of how they allocate the marketing support. If you take the new Vikram Chandra book, globally, this is huge and every publisher of that book around the world is putting in a lot of marketing investment behind that book in order to make it a success.

Is it true that self-help books are one of the biggest sellers?
Self help books have always been an important category. People have always looked at these books as a way of improving themselves. Whether it is in their personal lives or business performance or in how they raise their children, books are a good guide on how to lead a better life. If you look at the market in China, self-help books are a tremendously important category. The Chinese have a huge appetite for self-improvement.

Is there any particular reason?
They are very ambitious for their children. So, there is a big market for books that tell them how to educate their children, how to equip them with skills, whether it be the English language or technology or business information that will enable them to live more prosperous or fulfilled lives.

Which is the hottest market for Penguin worldwide now?
India is hot. Penguin is, by a long way, the leading English language trade publisher in the country. This year, we have had a 27 per cent growth, as compared to last year, and this is the highest percentage of growth in the world for us. What is helping is the rising prosperity, the growth of the middle class and the increasing use of English.

Yet, if a book of fiction sells 5,000 copies, it is regarded as a best seller.
Traditionally, 5,000 copies is regarded a bestseller. As a rough mean, that stays the case. What has happened now is the big brands have become much bigger. Which means, Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games has already sold 20,000 copies. Earlier, this would sell a total of 10,000 copies.

Portfolio: this new business imprint. Do you feel there is a market for business books in India?
There is a huge market. We are aiming it at business people and those who have an interest in business. There is an interest in India, in what makes businesses successful in the enterprise economy and what that means for India. Outside India, there is an enormous interest in the Indian economic success story. What we are hoping with Portfolio here is not just that we will bring some of the books that Portfolio in the US has published successfully to India but there will almost certainly be a worldwide audience for some of the books that we originate in India.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

“Pollution and crowds made my son faint”

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Dad defends a seven-year-old son who runs 70 km and collapses

Shevlin Sebastian

“Just one second,” says Padmacharan Mandal. “Mritunjay felt faint for one second and you guys in the media made such a hullabaloo. He was okay immediately.” He is talking about his son who collapsed at the 70 km mark, at Kemp’s Corner, on his run from Kalyan to the Gateway of India, a distance of 80kms on Sunday morning.
“You have to understand he is a boy from a village in Orissa,” continues Padmacharan. “All of a sudden, he is running in front of crowds, in front of such huge buildings he has never seen before and there was so much of pollution. So he fainted for one second.”
Mritunjay, who is sitting next to his father, in a blue tracksuit, says, “Just one second. My reputation has been spoiled.”
It is a big sentence for a seven-year-old. I try to visualise myself at seven and all I could recall was the desire to play football all the time and how to avoid going to school. So, clearly, this seems to be a tutored dialogue.
Padmacharan, 42, with a grey stubble, thin hair and chapped lips, looks 15 years older. He is an ayurvedic doctor and has an elder son and two daughters, besides Mritunjay. When asked whether he was exploiting his son, he says, “Not at all. He loves to run. He has been running ever since he could walk.” He says that as a doctor, he ensures that Mritunjay gets a medical check up every six months. “He is perfectly fine now.”
It’s bad manners but I lean forward and touch the boy’s forehead with my palm: he is cool as a cucumber.
“There is no exploitation going on,” says Shrikant Kumar Padhi, president of Rashtriya Oriya Yuvak Pratishtan.
In the midst of the questioning, Mritunjay suddenly starts drumming on the table with his fingers. He looks relaxed except for this tiny hint of nervousness: every now and then, his right leg twitches.
As the photographers come closer to take pictures, his father whispers something in Oriya and the son immediately comes up with the ‘V’ sign.
So what are the plans for the future?
“I want to run in the Olympic Games and win a gold medal,” says Mrintunjay. “What is the Olympic Games?” is the question put forth. For once, the boy’s eyes blink and there is a silence all around.

Monday, September 25, 2006

“I want to play for India once again”

Permission to reproduce this copy has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Newly married and completely recovered from a shin injury, a confident Vinod Kambli wants to play for Mumbai first

Shevlin Sebastian

“I was 13 years old,” says stylish left-hand batsman Vinod Kambli. “One day, there was a match at the Azad maidan. Our team was batting and I was at No. 3. When a wicket fell, my father came into bat. He got 110 in just 60 balls, while I got out after scoring 50. Later he took eight wickets. How many sons have a chance to play with their fathers in the same game? This is one of the best memories of my life.”

We are talking in an exercise room in Leena Mogre’s fitness gym in Khar. A few minutes earlier, he had come with his wife, Andrea Hewitt, a model, whom he married on September 8.

“You are twenty minutes late,” says the pony-tailed Mogre, as music pulsates from the several speakers around the gym.

Kambli smiles and shrugs his shoulders. He is broad shouldered and sleek, in white T-shirt and shorts, with silver earrings, while Andrea is slim and pretty, in black leotards.

Andrew Leipus, 36, the former physiotherapist of the Indian cricket team, waves out. Kambli raises a hand in greeting. The Australian is helping the injury-prone bowler Ashish Nehra with some weightlifting and is also guiding Kambli’s fitness regimen.

Kambli has the look of happiness of a man who has just tied the knot. Husband and wife stand so close to each other, there is no space for a knife to go through. So how does it feel to be married?

“Andrea loves me for the person I am,” he says. “We were friends earlier, but it turned to love later. In the past few years, I have gone through bad times, with a serious shin injury and jaundice. During all these times, Andrea stood beside me.”

Later, Andrea confirms what Kambli has said. “I liked him as a friend,” she says. “It turned to love when I realised what a nice human being he is. He is caring, loving and sweet-natured. And, despite all the bad times he was going through, there was always a smile on his face.”

This is Kambli’s second marriage. His earlier marriage to Nicole ended in divorce and they had no children. Understandably, a week after his wedding, he did not want to talk about it.

“It is in the past,” he says.

In and out

As for Kambli’s cricketing past, it’s been quite a few years since he played for India. So does he miss the limelight? “Not at all,” he says. “People still love me. They keep telling me I can play for the country. But my first goal is to play for Mumbai and do well and then play for India.”

It does seem like an uphill task. At 34, time could have run out for this prodigious talent. “Age is not a criteria,” he says. “I just need another chance. I have made nine comebacks so far; this is a record by itself. Whenever I was dropped from the Indian team, the Mumbai team would help me to make a comeback.”

And the feeling from Mumbai is mutual. “If he is fit and scoring hundreds, which he is capable of, he can easily stage a comeback,” says Milind Rege, chairman of the Mumbai selection committee. “He is that good. But the desire to come back has to be there. It is not enough to say ‘I want to come back’. We are all frustrated that Kambli has not started playing for Mumbai.”

Kambli’s father, Ganpat Kambli, 72, feels his son can play for India if he starts practising regularly. “There is a little over a year’s difference in age between Sachin and Vinod,” he says. “If Sachin can still play for India, so can Vinod.”

Tough life

Kambli’s initiation into cricket happened because of his father. When he was three years old, Ganpat used to take him to watch him play the Kanga League matches. His father was a bowler and Kambli would lie on the grass and sometimes go to sleep. “During the lunch break, my dad would give me his big bat, and I would start playing,” he says. “That is how I started enjoying the game.”

The turning point in his career came when, at 12, he came under the eye of famed coach Ramakant Achrekar and moved to Sharadashram Vidyamandir at Dadar, where he met Sachin Tendulkar and their destinies intertwined. They scored that memorable world record of 664 in the Harris Shield in February 1988, and things started changing. “All the breaks in our careers came after this record,” he says. Today, the childhood friends are still close. “Sachin Tendulkar is my friend, philosopher and guide,” says Kambli. “We say a friend in deed is a friend indeed and he has always been there for me. We have kept alive the friendship because we respect each other.” It has been an unusual friendship because of their differing backgrounds.

While Tendulkar had a middle class upbringing, Kambli came from straitened circumstances. His father, a machinist at Guest Keen Williams, worked in Bhandup, and the family initially stayed at Bhindi Bazar, before moving to a chawl in Kanjur Marg. Since school started at 7.20 am, he set out at 6 am. After school, he would play cricket at Shivaji Park till 7 pm, hang around with Tendulkar, eating vada pavs, till the latter went home at 8 pm. Then Kambli would go to a friend’s place and spend some more time. Because the trains were crowded, and he had a large kit bag, he would only take the last train home. “I always travelled in the luggage compartment and I can still recall the smell of the fish and the vegetables,” he says. His mother would be waiting at the station at 1 am and take him home. After a few hours sleep, he would be back on the grind.

Kambli made his one-day debut in 1991 and his Test debut in 1993. However, while Tendulkar has soared, Kambli has stuttered. “People should not compare me with Tendulkar,” he says. The striking thing about Kambli’s career was how short-lived it was, especially his Test career, which lasted around two and a half years. His one-day career totalled nine years, with many breaks in between. He would be in and out of the Indian team; there was talk that he was distracted by the glamorous life; there were disciplinary problems, too.
“Kambli did not have a mentor who could have guided him at that young age, like the way [elder brother] Ajit Tendulkar kept an eye on Sachin,” says Rege. His wife Andrea agrees. “If he had somebody to help him when he was young, he would have been able to avoid the mistakes he made,” she says.
But then, you live and learn. And the good wishes of the fans will always be with him, because he is a nice guy. As Rege says, “Even after 10 years, Kambli is the most popular guy in the Mumbai team.” So, with a little bit of luck, sustained commitment and lots of runs, he should be back: first in the Mumbai team, then Bharat Mata!

Career stats

Test debut: January 1993, Versus England
Last Test: November, 1995. Versus New Zealand
No of Tests: 17; Average: 54.20; Runs: 1084; Highest score: 227. 4 centuries. 3 fifties
One-Day Debut: October 1991. Versus Pakistan
Last One-Day Match: October 2000. Vs. Sri Lanka
ODI’s: 104; Average: 32.59; Runs: 2477; Highest score: 106. 2 hundreds. 14 Fifties

Sun, sea, sand, surf… and danger

Permission to reproduce this copy has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Lifeguards risk their own lives to save others but rarely get any gratitude in return

Shevlin Sebastian

Gap-toothed Arvind Kelvekar, 54, will never forget this incident. “Two men were drowning at the same time,” he says. “I held both and was trying to bring them back to shore. But it was proving to be tough.” He realised he had to leave one man, in order to save the other. Both were over fifty years of age. When Kelvekar brought one man to the shore, the members of the other family said, “Why did you save this man? The good man died.”
Kelvekar later discovered that the man who was saved was working in a bank while the man who died was unemployed. “I had to make a split-second decision,” he says. “I do feel bad that I was unable to save both of them.”

For Manohar Keshav Patel, 55, he remembers how, some years ago, four men were drowning. Both Kelvekar and he managed to save three of them. When he went to get the fourth, a 25-year-old, the man grabbed him and did not let go. “We were going up and down,” says Patel. “I begged him to leave me and he said, ‘No, I cannot, because I will drown’. I said, ‘My job is to save you but he did not believe me.’ Patel gave up hope but when the man swallowed too much water, “he let go of me and I managed to swim around and pulled him by his hair to the surface and later to the shore. I did CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] and that revived him. Later, I gave him a cup of tea.”

Kelvekar and Patel are one of six lifeguards, employed by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, who have been doing the job on the Juhu beach for the past 29 years. Six others have retired and now another four-- Anil Vasan, 20, Rohit Patil, 19, Sunil Jadhav, 27, and Dinesh Mangela--have joined the team, on a five-month contract, at a monthly salary of Rs 6000.

On a breezy Wednesday afternoon, the youngsters come into the lifeguard’s room at the YMCA building, near the Shivaji statue, in a rush for the 2 pm shift. The room has a table, which is so rusted, it is amazing it is still standing. Rust is running riot on the steel almirahs and the lockers. A clothesline runs across the room and, through a small window, the sea breeze blows in constantly. However, in a marked contrast to the gloomy surroundings, are the brightly coloured yellow buoys and red tubes placed at one corner and they look in very good condition.

Vasan puts on a blue T-shirt. This is part of the kit given by the BMC: swimming trunks; a whistle; anti-fog swimming goggles; a pair of binoculars; a life jacket and two T-shirts.

These lifeguards were selected after passing swimming tests conducted by the Fire Brigade. Thereafter, they had to undergo a course on how to rescue people, administer first aid and CPR conducted by H2O Water Sports Complex at Chowpathy.

They had barely started work when, in a joint operation, these boys saved eight men who had come to swim in the morning and suddenly a hole was formed below where they were standing and they started to sink. When there is high or low tide, holes develop because the sand is swept away. Rohit Patil and the others rushed in and threw tubes and buoys. “I felt good when we saved them,” he says. “However, the people who we saved just walked away.”

This is one of the unusual experiences of the lifeguards. Time and time again, they have saved people but the gratitude has been desultory. “They rarely give us anything,” says Kelvekar. However, there was a businessman from Khar, who had been swimming with the help of a tube but it slipped away from him and he started drowning. “I saved him and after a few days, he came and gave me a shirt and trouser length,” he says. Amazingly, this was the only gift that Kelvekar has received in 29 years on the job.

On another day, I go across to see Dr Kiran Harsora, deputy executive health officer at the BMC, at his air-conditioned office in Lower Parel. “Owing to super-annuation and retirements, a few vacancies for lifeguards have come up,” he says. “So, we decide to fill up the posts.” So far, 23 men have been appointed and they have been distributed on the beaches on Dadar and Girgaun Chowpathy, Goregaon, Andheri, Malad, Gorai and Juhu. “This is a temporary appointment for five months,” says Harsora. “The BMC has yet to decide on whether it should have regular posts.” Harsora says there is a growing awareness in the BMC and the public about the need for lifeguards.

Advice by lifeguards
The most dangerous months: May, June and July, because there are strong undercurrents.
Just go in till the water is at waist-level and remain there. Don’t go further than that, especially if you don’t know swimming. People get excited and love to go deep.
Swimming in the sea is different from in a swimming pool. There are currents and whirlpools in the sea; in the pool, the water is still.
The most deaths take place on Sundays and public holidays.

The elusive lifeguard

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I land up at Girgaum Chowpathy. There are the usual couples, snuggling with each other, families taking a walk and a group of schoolboys having a blast in the sea. But where is the lifeguard? I walk up and down the beach and he is nowhere in sight. I ask a group of fishermen who were having their lunch, sitting cross-legged on the sand and they tell me to go to the nearby H2O Water Complex run by actor Sunil Shetty. But the H2O employees say the lifeguards sometimes come for a chat but they usually stand on the beach. So I go back and notice a small shack on one side. I part the sack, which acts as a curtain, and ask the man who is sleeping there whether he has any idea of the lifeguards. He works for the BMC but says he has not seen him. He asks me to ask some workers who are cleaning up the beach. One of them says he sees a lifeguard in the early mornings and has not seen anybody now. From the beach, I call up Dr R.P. Dengle, medical officer, health, ‘D’ ward and he says, “A lifeguard, Kiran Gardhe, is supposed to join at 3 pm but he does not have a mobile phone. He is wearing a white shirt and shorts, with a BMC cap.” Unfortunately, I am unable to spot him. A day later, he tells Dengle that because it was low tide, he was hanging around the bhelpuri plaza. But I had wandered around the plaza and had not seen him. Dengle says there are two other lifeguards, Manoj Balekar and Santosh Patil on the roster.