Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Ali Babas of Iraq


Photo: Satish Jacob
Credit: Kurian Pampadi

By Shevlin Sebastian

When the Delhi-based former BBC correspondent Satish Jacob was in Iraq, in April, 2003, during the fall of the regime of President Saddam Hussein, he saw groups of looters going around Baghdad doing systematic looting. After Satish spoke to a few, his driver cautioned him, “Be careful, they are Ali Babas.”

The name sounded familiar and, after some enquiries, he realised that it originated from the Arabic folk tale, ‘Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves’, which most middle-class Indians read when they were children. When the piece was published on the BBC web site, it received 80,000 hits. “The story struck a chord,” he said. “When you go abroad, you should always write from an Indian perspective.”

Satish was delivering the fifth K.C. John Memorial Lecture on the concluding day of the Kovalam Literary Festival. His subject: ‘The state of journalism in India.’ While he praised “the ocean of talent in India,” he bemoaned the fact that the marketing departments of newspapers were deciding which stories had to be carried. “The editor is losing his importance,” he said. Nevertheless, the media is thriving. One interesting statistic: there are 334 television channels in India, while another 130 have been granted the license by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.

In the audience, listening avidly was Asha Gopinathan. She is a scientist working at the Sree Chitra Institute for Medical Sciences and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram. How come a scientist at a literary gathering? “Why not?” she said. “More people in the sciences should take an interest in literature, arts and culture, and it should be vice versa also.”

Since the Prime Minister’s daughter, Daman Singh, was present, the Special Protection Group (SPG) from Delhi was there in full force. The previous night, they prevented a group of musicians, led by Kudamaloor Janardanan, from bringing in their instruments, and hence their performance had to be cancelled. So, it became the first item this morning.

And what a scintillating and mesmerising performance it was, with the flute, drums, tabla, keyboard, bass guitar and the mridangam creating a wall of hypnotic sound. The last song, Rabindranath Tagore’s classic, ‘Ekla Chalo Re’, was played with breathtaking skill by Janardanan on the flute.

Following the performance I went across to a SPG security personnel and asked him why there was such an ‘in your face security’. “You have to understand that we are trained to treat every person as a threat,” he said. “Madam Daman is the daughter of the Prime Minister. If anything happens, we will be blamed.” So, there are two sides to an issue.

But the issues can be contentious also. Pakistan author Mohammad Haneef broke the audience’s heart by saying that there is nothing common between the people of India and Pakistan. “And the divide is increasing by the day,” he said. “When we meet each other at cocktail parties, we are just being polite.”

But Chinese author Lijia Zhang was not being polite. She was being honest. When asked how much a Dolce and Gabbana spectacles cost, she replied, “It’s probably a fake.” Made in China, of course.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)