About Sujata Anandan

Sujata Anandan was brought to political reporting by an old-time editor, kicking and screaming. She soon began to have fun, though. Today that kicking and screaming is mostly directed at her — by the politicians she writes about, with rarely a good word for anyone (there could be exceptions).  But she is never meaner or nastier than the subjects themselves and so lives to see another day, every day. Otherwise, she enjoys her job as the Political Editor of the Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times.

There is a bulbul on the clothesline in my window. She sings, or rather whistles, me awake every morning at 6.03 by my digital clock. Not a minute before, not a minute later. How does she know the exact time? I haven’t been able to work that out for the month that she has been nestling on my socks and Turkish towel that I leave out on the line each night – they do not dry indoors during the monsoon, which comes and goes on and off eventoday, and by early morning enclosed between an iron grill and a glass pane, they are probably warmer than the fresh cold mountain air outside.

Yes. I can see the Parsik hills in the distance beyond which are the Western Ghats. Opposite, the power house of the Maharashtra State Electricity Board has been planted with a dense jungle of trees of all varieties, and all types of birds, predatory or otherwise, screeching parrots, mynahs among them fly in between those trees with squirrels racing up and down and cats perching themselves up those trees quite frequently. The bulbul probably finds safety in the angle between the window ledge and a pipe where she has laid a nest – I soon discover the reason for her happiness: she has hatched three chicks and she is bringing up a family. She is wiser than the poor pigeon who laid a single egg on the extension outside the kitchen window and then had to guard it from all sorts of predators, We fobbed them, including cats, off with a stick every time one tried to steal her egg but then one crow proved too much even for the stick. Just for a second, when we were not looking and she had gone out for food perhaps, he swooped before we could shoo him off and was gone with the egg. The pigeon sat for days looking sadly inside the kitchen window and accusingly at us every time we came in and that has made us feel awful. We have not allowed her or another pigeon to nest there again but this bulbul quite escaped our attention until she began to call me awake. Her chicks are growing, she is teaching them to fly and they will all soon be gone.

No, this is not about a farmhouse.This is in the middle of a growing city where my sister has a small studio apartment which I have been sharing with her for a few months. My own home is in the middle of the highly polluted Mumbai, in an upcoming posh area of the ever expanding city and I used to think my sister lived in the back of the beyond.

But I look at her environs now with new respect — ever since Navi Mumbai got certified as the third cleanest city in the country last month following the government of India’s Swachch Bharat campaign (the first is Mysore) and the bulbul has brought me a fresh appreciation of what this means.

Actually, it is not surprising that Navi Mumbai has come up cleaner than Mumbai or New Delhi. It is a satellite town of Mumbai which was first envisioned in the 1980s by legendary architect, the late Charles Correa and the government of then chief minister A R Antulay which was into reclaiming a lot of land from the sea, which was proving still not enough. Urban planners had wanted to relieve the pressure on south Mumbai and they had come up with the idea of setting up five commercial business districts (CBDs) across the city, including one in Bandra-Kurla, Kanjurmarg, Vasai-Virar and, of course, Navi Mumbai, apart from the then sole existing CBD in south Mumbai. Correa had planned a lot of open spaces and the first homes that came up here were row houses built by the City Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO). In fact, CIDCO has been in charge of all the construction (and not the municipal corporation as usually happens with other towns and cities) and that is why Navi Mumbai is still clean and green with potentially corrupt politicians not allowed to grab all the open spaces and no unplanned development sanctioned. Roads are wider, green lungs are plenty even while industries and factories come up with ease and frequency. It already has one port (the Jawaharlal Nehru Port at Nhava Sheva) with another planned at Mansarovar were the CIDCO is building mostly housing and commercial spaces. Large areas of Navi Mumbai are still just overgrown villages.

Living in the midst of nature is a far cry from the years I spent living a few kilometres from a chemical zone with factories packed into dark, dank buildings and all I could see was a piece of dirty sky each morning – the chemical fumes from those factories would rise above my window and I was never urged to press my nose against the glass pane as I now do while the bulbul whistles on my clothes line.

In my salad days as a reporter, I had spoken to a lot of urban planners and the bureaucrat who had thought up the multiple CBDs had told me regretfully that they could not, unfortunately, achieve what they had envisioned when they decided to set up Navi Mumbai along with the other three CBDs. “We had wanted people to buy homes in Navi Mumbai and stay in. So we planned for schools, hospitals, factories all around the same housing complexes. But only people who could not afford homes in Mumbai bought there and still took the trains and buses to south Mumbai every morning. The idea was to facilitate amenities, like in other western countries – people move home along with jobs to make it easier for themselves and their families. But we did not reckon with the Indian mentality – our home is our universe and once we buy, we never sell unless compelled by circumstances to do so. The same with jobs — they prefer travelling miles and retiring in the same job than risking new ones. Thus living spaces do not get liberated unlike in London or New York and the pressure continues to build on public amenities.”

Years later I could not understand if I was a victim of the same mentality or if I had done what the bureaucrat had envisioned – I had the opportunity to buy an independent home in Navi Mumbai at the same price that I got a small poky flat in south Mumbai. I chose the latter because of proximity to my work place but now I see that is nothing to be happy about. I breathe in highly polluted air each morning, the stink from the garbage wafts into my home if I throw open the windows too early in the morning – I have to keep them shut until almost mid-day on the days I am home and open them only at night when I get home late from work. If I leave too early in the morning the garbage is spilling onto the roads because the municipal trucks haven’t yet found the time to collect. By contrast, practically every building in Navi Mumbai has huge wet and dry garbage bins neatly placed at the gates. They are shut tight against marauding cats ad crows and fumigation against mosquitoes is almost a weekly activity unlike Mumbai where they fumigate only when the insects reach epidemic threatening proportions.

Dinesh Waghmare, the city’s commissioner, is suitably proud about these measures and also about the 24 hour water supply and waste water management at Navi Mumbai’s state of the art sewage treatment plants and landfills, one of which (at Koparkhairne) has been scientifically closed and converted into a green space… one does not hear of such things in Mumbai or Pune or even other smaller, more manageable cities. Soon after the award was made pub[ic, he said at present levels Navi Mumbai has resources for the next 30 years which you cannot claim about Nagpur, Pune, Nasik and certainly not about Mumbai.

But it is not as though Navi Mumbai is perfect.

Nilesh Salunkhe is a driver by profession whose father bought a row house in Nerul in 1985 when no one was willing to move to New Bombay as it was then known. He has seen the city grow and highways and bridges come past his home raising a lot of dust and fumes from the tar and heavy traffic over the years. I have been complaining about long stretches of roads that are potholed and he tells me that this is a routine affair. “Even if it is the CIDCO, there are people who wish that there be no permanent job done because, he is blunt, “how else will they keep making money?” He is not so thrilled, either, about the clean green spaces and tells me rather cynically, ‘This Wonder Park you see? They will try it out for a few years. If they ae not able to turn it into a real tourist attraction and rake in enough money there will soon be high rises coming up here. You wait and watch. I have seen that happen all around my home.”

I hope not. And that hope may hold for some years because, as Samuel Verghese, a real estate agent from Kharghar tells me, the market is sluggish and no one has been buying here for months on end. “Each morning I come to my office and sit at my desk, hoping for a couple of rentals at least. For days even that does not happen.”

He does not know why that should be so. Distances from Navi Mumbai to Mumbai city have been cut short by the Eastern Freeway and you can reach south Mumbai in less than an hour now compared to the two hours it might have taken on a bad traffic day before the freeway came up But, Verghese thinks, the freeway which could be a precursor to the new airport proposed here, does not really help because most offices have now shifted to Bandra-Kurla or Lower Parel and negotiating the traffic to these CBDs is still a nightmare. “Who then wants to breathe in the fresh air of Navi Mumbai if they have to sit half a day in traffic jams or change trains and routes at least thrice to get to work?”

He hopes this new certificate of the city being the cleanest city for miles around will generate new interest and his sluggish business will pick But he will not begin to hope as yet. Why ever not, I ask. “Look at your own attitude,” he tells me, “You are here for rest and recuperation after your severe bout of illness. If you hadn’t almost died, you would still have been thinking of your sister’s home as the back of the beyond. And despite your love for the birds and the bees, you don’t want to buy here – you are moving back to Mumbai, aren’t you? Just like your bulbul will soon abandon that nest, you will fly away too.”

He is almost poetic in his hopelessness. But he is right.

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Last Sunday, I was charmed to have been confronted by a slice of my childhood again. I woke up in the morning to see bowls full of chocolates, toffees and other goodies resting on the dining table, there were colourful ribbons and some scarves and handkerchiefs also neatly folded beside the goodies.

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For several years now I have been eggitarian (that is to say, I eat eggs occasionally when I have a protein deficiency). But that is not to say I have not tasted different meats ever – during my frequent travels abroad, I have eaten it all –foie gras, caviar, octopus (didn’t like any of them), duck, turkey, partridge, chicken (the fowl were okay), bacon, lamb, venison and, of course, streak – beef as well as reindeer (in Finland). For having beef steaks, I excuse myself with Veer Savarkar’s argument –he had had the same in the UK and wrote in one of his articles later that a British cow was not the same, or even holy, as an Indian one so he could be forgiven for having consumed cow’s meat away from Indian shores. My cow (indeed, if it was a cow and not a bull or a buffalo) was French and German though I stuck to fish and reindeer when I travelled closer to Santa Claus’s home near the northern lights (may Santa fogive me for having consumed a bit of his beloved Rudolf’s kin).

I now have no passion for meat, red or white, though for health reasons I am compelled from time to time to consume egg and occasionally fish. The Maharashtra government’s meat ban thus affects me in no way for they have excluded fish and eggs from their enforced restriction, so I should have no problem should I face a health issue in the fortnight of the ban and have to consume one or the other.

So why am I outraged by the ban? I think it is because this could be the start of invasion of all sorts of privacies – I still remember a visit to Romania where I learnt about a `bedroom police’ during dictator Ceausescu’s regime – they would make sure couples were not using contraceptives because the Big Leader wanted to increase the population of his country to make it as significantly big as India’s and China’s. With RSS ideologues already talking about going Indian in every aspect of life, I am afraid their invasion will not be limited to just our kitchens – I have heard whispers that toilets ae next because they believe commodes are British and the squatting type is more nationalist (I am not joking – there are published reports on this for there were some attempts during Atal Behar Vajpayee’s regime but they found no takers). So are we failing to read the signs of what is really happening to our polity and society in time? For there was a precedent to the meat ban several weeks ago when Gujaratis in a housing society in a western suburb of Bombay had picked a fight with a fish eating Maharashtrian family and that had polarised all Maharashtrians against Gujaratis. The matter was defused after a police complaint following fisticuffs between the Gujarati residents and the Maharashtrian family but there were enough of the Shiv Sainik types who had taken even to social media to express their outrage and avow that they will not be crushed by vegetarians, Gujarati or otherwise.

When I wrote about the history of a traditional warfare between the two communities which went back to the days of Mahatma Jyotiba Phule who had abhorred the sahukars from these communities for exploiting farmers of Maharashtra, I was told that I was deliberately trying to drive a wedge between the two communities and that they all loved each other so well.

Barely two months later, it is obvious that the Maharashtrians are not going to take Gujarati (or Jain) diktats lying down in their own state and cities – significant is the fact that both the Shiv Sena and the Maharshtra Navnirman Sena at last found common cause in this meat issue and took to defying the ban by selling meat openly on the streets. That the Sena should be an ally in the government with the BJP and fiercely resist the ban even in the municipal corporation of Mira-Bhayandar where they failed to block the move only because they had corporators missing durng the vote, is very telling.

The fact that serious fault lines have opened up between Gujaratis and Maharashtrians is made obvious by this food issue – it is not as if the BJP has introduced the ban. It has been in existence for years and was kept under wraps for a quarter century essentially because the BJP had allied with the Shiv Sena and wished to obliterate those fault lines in electoral interest. Now that they have broken away from the Shiv Sena, they are attempting to make a vote bank of not just Gujarati and Jains but of vegetarians per se and have completely failed to understand that more than sixty per cent of this nation is non-vegetarian and those include people who voted for the BJP at the last election.

But what surprises me now is that the government of Devendra Fadnavis, which is as Maharashtrian as it could get, somehow seems to be working against its own constituency and is kowtowing to a line set for it by its leaders from outside the state without taking time to understand the local sentiment and how badly such moves might go down with its own voters.

Maharashtra is a state where even sections of its Brahmins are routinely non-vegetarian, eating mutton and fish, if not beef, which on occasion is also offered as prasad after some ritualistic events. In this they are no different from Bengalis or even Kashmiri Pandits whose Shivratri celebrations have a lot of meats thrown into the fare at their feasts or even sections of Rajasthanis who make sacrificial offerings of, well, the lamb to appease the divine powers from time to time. But now so fierce has been the resistance, not just from the Sena and the MNS but all Maharashtrians and other communities living in cosmopolitan Bombay that the government has had to beat a hasty retreat – they wanted an eight day ban, they got four because of the Sena’s resistance. Now they have limited themselves to two days which is what previous governments had done to appease the filthy rich Jain community without whose funds no political party might be able to survive the rough and tumble of politics.

But it is not just the election funds why in this meat ban what is sauce for the goose is obviously not sauce for the gander – meat and chicken are banned but not fish and eggs. I do not understand the logic of letting eggs be but fish has been exempted for the same reason that they banned meat – the votes of Kolis, Bombay’s traditional fishing community whose livelihoods will be affected by the ban and who would be more than willing to take to the streets to protest. That exemption was a silly move given that they have had to chicken out within days because of the same reason – the millions of votes of Maharashtrians and other meat eaters compared to a few lakh Jain and Koli votes that they might lose to the ban. The government excuse is that fish is not slaughtered. Whoever thinks that has probably never visited a fish market to see how the huge fish are cut into pieces and the floor of the market left slimy with blood. The government obviously believed that abattoirs affect the livelihoods of only the minority they abhor — the Muslim minority which need not be appeased, But the appeasement of Jains, of course, is no big deal, I am sure.

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Over the years, the Maharashtra Bhushan award has been given by the state government to a galaxy of writers, poets, journalists, even singers, among them Lata Mangeshkar. Just about anybody who has done Maharashtra proud, in fact.

This year it was awarded to Babasaheb Purandare and his nomination has once again upset the political equations in the state. There were bitter objections to his name by everybody to the left of the government – even the Nationalist Congress Party which is professing support to the BJP-led government in the state. In fact, the NCP was more bitterly opposed than even the Congress but there was a common thread to the objections that was not immediately apparent. A lot of young journalists called to ask me if the award was meant only for historians – that is the only feasible reason they saw for the objections.

But neither is the award meant only for historians, nor is Purandare strictly a historian, he is simply a balladeer who in the past decades has popularised the legend of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj through his poems and plays. But it is therein that lies the conflict. Purandare is not only accused of characterising Shivaji as anti-Muslim, focussing on just four incidents in the latter’s reign, among them his escape from Aurangzeb’s Agra jail and his killing of Afzal Khan which make him seem like an anti-Muslim king — which he was not.

Had he been anti-Muslim, former Maharashtra chief minister A R Antulay would never have ordered the writing of a 12 volume history of Shivaji in the 1980s which was, sadly, abandoned by a succession of Maratha chief ministers, among them Shivaji’s descendants, through the 1980s and 1990s and even this century. Nor would Antulay have attempted to bring back Shivaji’s legendary sword of Bhavani – he never went to wr without it — from Buckingham palace where it still sits proudly in the Queen’s collection. When I quizzed Antulay about his love for Shivaji, he had told me Shivaji was against the Moghuls and their subedars. That is not the same thing as being anti-Muslim, he said.

“In fact, more than a third of his army and half his most trusted generals were Muslim and he had also adopted the Moghul court dress as his own. He was against their expansionism, not against their religion.”

So was the opposition of the NCP and to some extent of the Congress to Purandare’s award on account of his portrayal of Shivaji as anti-Muslim? I do not think so. I think it was a caste battle at its ugliest – a fight for the OBC vote that has shifted towards the BJP after one of their own, Narendra Modi came to power at the Centre.

Only Sharad Pawar’s convoluted thinking in formulating an opposition to a Brahminical order (the RSS) through targeting a balladeer and playwright, albeit one who wrote on a popular historical figure and one who is, conveniently, a member of the RSS, which could bring such ferocity to the campaign.

But why it has also ben convenient to raise the rhetoric on Purandare is because his ballads make out Shahaji to be an absentee father and hint at an unusual friendship between his mother Jijabai and Dada Kondadeo, Shivaji’s tutor, who had a lasting influence on the Maratha warrior king. Purandare not only projects Shivaji as a protector of the Brahminical order (which may not be true, considering the Peshwas refused to recognise him and boycotted his coronation – he had to bring in priests from Benaras to do the honours). But, as emerges from American professor James Laine’s book, which has heavily relied upon Purandare’s interpretations of Shivaji’s life and times, Shahaji might not have been Shivaji’s biological father. For that one line, Laine’s book has been banned in India and, moreover, the Sambhaji Brigade (Sambhaji was Shivaji’s son) which ta draws its sustenance from the NCP, had ransacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute for its help to James Laine in the writing of the book – that controversy and the successful campaign against Laine propelled both the Congress and the NCP, in alliance with each other, to power and kept them in government for 15 years.

Lately both the Congress and the NCP have been losing their OBC base, including the support of Marathas to the Shiv Sena and the BJP and this was too opportune an occasion to let go of – I am sure Pawar knew he would accomplish nothing by opposing the award to Purandare – the government was not likely to cow down. But that was not the intention which was more to once again drive a wedge between Brahmins and others. And the fact that Purandare is a member of the RSS while the state’s chief minister belongs to its political wing and is a Brahmin besides were convenient tools in this game of consolidating the anti-Brahmin votes in the state.

The government, of course, determinedly went ahead and awarded the honour to the 93 year old balladeer and the ceremony itself went off rather well despite all the noise preceding it. It is worth reminding readers that, while in power, the NCP organs had raised objections to a state government sports award – the equivalent of the Arjuna awards – named after Kondadeo. The award had been given out annually for three decades through several term of Pawar as chief minister with no one bothered about it. It is only when the NCP began to feel the ground slipping from under its feet that the Sambhaji Brigade came forward with similar noises and ultimatum. The Congress gave in. But neither that nor a 11th hour reservation for Marathas and Muslims ahead of the assembly elections in Maharashtra in October 2014 did much to salvage the parties’ electoral prospects. But now obviously the NCP realises that it cannot afford to be in the saffron space for too long and must consolidate its vote bank before it is too late. The award to Purandare was just tailor made for the purpose and it is not surprising that the agitation ceased abruptly after the awards ceremony.

In Maharashtra, I have noticed, there is almost a controversy a day with regard to Shivaji, even over matters as innocuous as the date of his birth. The government believes he was born in the month of Phalgun and so declare s a holiday in February-March, the Shiv Sena believes he was born in the month of Chaitra (two separate sets of historians have established both facts) and there are major celebrations around April-May as well. The next controversy is likely to be over the building of the 300 feet high statue of Shivaji in the Arabian Sea –a project started by the Congress but now being continued by the BJP and the Shiv Sena who are currently in power. They have appointed Purandare as consultant and there are already noises that his appointment will distort Shivaji’s image. How? I fail to understand. In writing his ballads he may have interpreted Shivaji’s life differently but how does a Brahminical mindset distort a physical image of Shivaji?

Only the NCP which claims a long line of his descendants have the answers.

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I am getting rather tired of venting steam against trolls but I have to do this again – not for myself but for friends and fellow female journalists who think alike. There are many journalists who quickly switched sides once Narendra Modi came to power but I am glad to note that there are an equal number of people who did not. And I do not see why any of us should be apologetic about not believing in Modi or believing in the philosophy of the Congress party and by extension in Rahul Gandhi, its vice president.

It stands to reason that the BJP which was earlier making fun of Rahul for not taking off successfully, is today stung by some of his actions – most notably the `suit boot ki Sarkar’ comment which derailed Modi’s land bill and lately by his attack on the government for shielding corrupt ministers. And whether one agrees or disagrees with his views, it has to have hurt the BJP for Arun Jaitley to say something like ‘the more he ages, the more he immatures’.

As quips go, that’s a pretty remarkable one-liner and even if Rahul may have come off the worse against Sushma Swaraj in the debate on her alleged `humanitarian’ help to a fugitive from the law (Lalit Modi), there are enough of us who think she really had no answers to the questions asked by Rahul Gandhi and so was raking up the past instead of speaking in the present.

Many of us who dislike Modi do not necessarily adore Rahul Gandhi but there might be some who do. Fellow journalist Neeta Kolhatkar is one of them – but even if she does think well of Rahul, she has enough neutrality to write a tongue-in-cheek piece on the Congress vice president, advising him what he must and must not do to revive the Congress party.

Now what has upset me and other women journalists is that that piece brought forth a rather pre-pubescent kind of commentary from a blogger who calls himself `Chaiwala’ and who accuses Neeta of ‘orgasming for real’ over Rahul Gandhi.

It once again reminded me of how senior journalist Swati Chaturvedi was targeted for her charitable comments about Rahul Gandhi in virtually the same terms. Chaturvedi filed an FIR, Kolhatkar has complained to the Mumbai police’s cyber cell to locate this blogger who has been harassing female journalists in particular and to block the website and IP address he is using to post his blogs.

I do hope the Mumbai police will take some action against such anonymous trolls who have got away for far too long with attempting to cow down particularly female political commentators who refuse to go gaga over Narendra Modi. I must say even if many of us are non-believers in the supreme leader none of us resort to abuse, obscenities or unmentionable words to describe Modi or his supporters– not even when it comes to allegations of his affections for a certain woman when he was chief minister of Gujarat. And I may point out that while his own BJP party men make snide remarks and smirk about his affections for Smriti Irani, it was Rana Ayub, a fellow female journalist, bitterly opposed to the BJP and Modi, who took up the cudgels on her behalf and in a scathing attack on these BJP men said she would not tolerate any nonsense from them about Smriti unless it related to her work as HRD minister.

For all they call us `sickular’ and paid journalists, it is a fact that it is the BJP which pays an army of trolls to target those opposed to Modi and his policies and when General V K Singh called Arnab Goswami a `presstitute’ he did not even bother to look up the dictionary meaning of the term. In fact, it is the pro-Modi supporters who might be legitimately called that because a presstitute is someone who swallows the government, well, hook, line and sinker and does not even bother to investigate the facts. If those supporting Rahul Gandhi are not buying Modi’s rhetoric, then they are the exact opposite of presstitutes, even if they be on the Congress payrolls – which I doubt greatly. Because as was seen from the fiasco in parliament, the Congress had no intelligence and to manage its case and absolutely no ideas on how to manage the media – if they had they would have done better with their government for ten years and not lost the plot and the battle of perception to Modi so miserably.

But sometimes I believe these trolls are actually the Congress’s best friends – because the more they attack those not with them, they drive the dissenters closer to Modi’s rival.

I, too, began with a lot of scepticism about Rahul Gandhi’s ability to take the reins in his hands firmly. I did not ridicule him the way the trolls did but I wished he could do better than just that interview with Arnab Goswami. But now that he has begun talking and formulating his own witticisms, the trolls don’t seem to like it one bit and such is their lack of understanding that they are not even able to differentiate genuine admiration from tongue in cheek comments.

But I have learnt a thing or two from Neeta Kolhatkar – she told me she did not want to accord these trolls with more publicity by lodging criminal complaints against them. She has learnt to laugh off their comments – and, in fact, she knows she is doing something right when they go so wrong. On second thoughts, I suppose this is the best way to deal with trolls like Chaiwala. But I wonder, in the privacy of their homes, alone with their own thoughts do these trolls realise the kind of despicable human beings they might be? I seriously doubt they do.

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