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.”