Sometime in the mid-1990s, I came upon Dr Zakir Naik in the back lanes of Bhendi Bazaar – I was looking for enlightened Muslim preachers and someone pointed me in his direction as somebody removed from the run of the mill mullahs and maulvis of the time. I could see he was suave, dapper, with perfect English speaking skills and young Muslim boys were fascinated by his talks on the Koran and the religion which he projected as pretty modern and advanced when it came into being in the areas of science, women’s rights etc.

I lost track of him over the years and then I was shocked when he resurfaced with a controversy after controversy – from propounding the positives of Islam, he was ridiculing other religions, he was poking fun at Lord Ganesha and other Indian gods, was advocating wife beating, saying it was allowed in Islam, etc. I wondered if it was the same man I had met years ago and indeed he was; only he had undergone a sea change and had become very rabid and provocative – no religion could equal Islam, which might have been okay per se. But then he thought he could teach Hinduism to Hindus, Buddhists didn’t know their Buddhism and Christians needed to be taught their Christianity, etc. I was shocked and horrified and wondered when he would be acted against by the Indian authorities for by then he was already banned by countries like the United Kingdom and Canada. But nothing happened and he was allowed to continue his rabid rantings on his free to air television channel Peace TV.

I could see why Muslim boys were fascinated by him – he was not a madrasa educated person, he was a medical doctor, his accented English was beyond their ken, he wore dapper suits (though with skull cap and beard) and he was a world traveller not confined to the bylanes of Mohammad Ali Road which most of them were condemned to forever and could never hope to break out in a lifetime or more.

But over the years I have noted that it is the English more than anything else that draws these boys to such preachers – and that is the reason Naik is hated by the traditional Urdu-speaking mullahs and maulvis of both the Deoband and Barelvi schools (he is a Wahabi but that is only one reason for the detestation). Of late, these young Muslim boys have had some new role models, notably the Owaisi brothers who they are following in larger and larger numbers every day. Both the Owaisis are similarly English speaking, have had a secular education, even spent some time studying abroad, they run premier educational institutions in Hyderabad and yet wear their religion on their sleeves and skull caps on their heads without glorifying terrorism (though the younger brother Akbaruddin Owaisi has been known to wish for the police to be removed for an hour from India to `teach’ all Hindus a lesson while his older brother argues that the yoinger man is not more radical than the Togadias ad Sadhvi Prachis of the country are) and they give the young Muslim boys hope that they can be part of the mainstream with similar education and English speaking skills.

Once upon a time there were people who would argue that since not many of us understood Urdu any rabid Muslim cleric got away with using Urdu to further his divisive agenda. But since Dr Naik is entirely English spoken I wonder why he has been left lone by the authorities for so long.

Perhaps that is because, as a police officer told me, they did not want to make a hero out of him. So long as they thought that not many believed in Dr Naik (and there are more in the Muslim community who oppose rather than support him), they did not want to make him better known that any action against him would result in.

Even now there is some reluctance to act against him for the same reason but I am glad to know that Dr Naik’s free to air channel – out of which cable operators earn nothing – might be taken off the air. But until his preachings are run through with a fine tooth comb and any case filed against him for inspiring youth to terrorism, I do not think anyone can be blamed — as Congress leader Digvijaya Singh is being subjected to – by anyone for sharing a stage with him. I agree with the Congress leader that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh who shared a stage with Malegaon accused Pragya Thakur is more culpable for giving a boost to terrorists of a different hue by similarly sharing a dais with her and what is sauce for the goose should equally be sauce for the gander.

In any case so much is the hate of the traditional Muslim clergy for Dr Naik that I think they might just do a better job of finishing off his pretensions than any action by the police or the government which will only turn him into a hero. For a lot of them he is the bigger villain.

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Whenever former Prime Minister VP Singh used to visit Bombay – and he was in the city almost every other week during his life time – it was my job to keep track of his activities and follow him around at the newspaper I was working for around the time. Every alternate day of his Bombay visit used to find him at the Bombay Hospital. I used to hang outside his private room at the hospital and after he became familiar and friends with me, he invited me in to his hospital room where he was always sitting up, reading a book or listening to music, with tubes running through his arm and a machine whirring beside his bed. I chatted with him for hours as he underwent dialysis and it is from him that I earnt that no patient of dialysis survived in India for more than two years – not because there were not enough good nephrologists in India but because there were not enough donors for all. The remaining who had to undergo dialysis all died in a short while, again not for lack of technology but for the water used in the dialysis machines.

“I have had all bottled waters available in India tested for germs. I was horrified to discover that except for one (Bisleri) every other bottled water has human faeces in them.’’

But that was nearly a quarter of a century ago. Now there are several premier bottled water brands and patients don’t need to die within two years because they cannot have the hospital set up water filters for themselves that use only Bisleri water for the dialysis process as Singh had demanded at both the Bombay Hospital and Apollo Hospital in New Delhi that helped him survive for long after the two years given to dialysis patients at the time. Kidney patients in Bombay have been on dialysis for years now without any discomfort or complications (indeed many prefer dialysis to transplant because they can lead a ner normal life with dialysis these days) – the reverse osmosis plants take care of impurities in water supplied by the municipal corporation and infection is rare. But I discover that while dialysis technology is safe and comfortable even today it is only Bombay, New Delhi and a handful of large cities that can offer dialysis with guarantees. But now there is an effort from Bombay to improve the chances of kidney patients for as Dr Shrirang Bichu (voluntary disclosure – Dr Bichu saved my life last year when I was admitted to hospital with many complications), a leading nephrologist of Bombay tells me, every year India adds two lakh kidney ailments patients to its health system. Nearly 90 percent of them die within the year because there are not enough dialysis centres and indeed very few dialysis technologists to man the machines and the patients.

Keeping this in mind now a consortium of leading nephrologists in Mumbai along with Rotary International and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences have come together to set up for the very first time in India a school of dialysis technology which will educate and train young professionals in dialysis technology over one to three years offering diplomas and a degree in dialysis technology. So far dialysis technologists have not had specific training in the processes and have been mostly self taught and trained on the job. Rotary Metropolitan Club of Mumbai is funding the training for 50 students in the first batch which begins in July at the Tata Institute of Social sciences which for the first time is introducing the B. Voc (Bachelor of Vocation) degree under the Skilling India programme of the union government. The course has been designed by the Apex School of Dialysis Technology, an offshoot of Apex Kidney Care which has been running both paid and charitable dialysis for patients at its numerous dialysis centres across Mumbai and Westerns Maharashtra but now plans to go national. According to Dr Shrirang Bichu who is one of the doctors in the consortium it took them two and a half years to design the course which offers students an exit option every year. The students have been handpicked from poor and deprived families and the three year degree course costing Rs 80,000 every year is free for these students. The tabs will be picked up by Rotary Metropolitan of Mumbai and the Rotary Club of New Jersey which have together already created a corpus of 45,000 US dollars for the first year. Students who exit in the first year will be offered a diploma. They will get an advanced diploma after the second year. Completion of three years will secure them a degree. “Thus every year they are offered the opportunity to enhance their job possibilities,’’ says Neela Dabir, the administrator of the course at TISS. “Usually if you quit after first year of graduate college, that education has no value. We are now making sure that if they are not able to sustain their education (though students will be offered stipends apart from free education), they can quit without losing a year and take up the degree whenever they are better placed.’’ The course will be only 12 hours per week of theoretical classes. The rest of the time the students will be mentored at dialysis centres cross Mumbai by senior technologists who have so far been self-taught and self-trained. “We hope in time we will have enough technologists who can spread across India into even the small tons and villages where there is a severe dearth of dialysis facilities where they can save many lives by use of their special skills. The nephrologists who are part of the consortium that runs Apex Kidney Care also have support from the Harrd Medical School in the US and the Universitt of Sydney in Australia.

There is hope that the programme will have a twofold benefit – help kidney patients survive in large numbers, of course and bring many rural children into the health system as trained dialysis technologists. This year the students have been picked from maharshtra. All three promoters of the programme hope word of their effort will spread and more students from the parts of the country will take advantage of the course and bring the benefit to other parts of the country as well.

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As a non-resident Keralite who will not be voting at next week’s elections in that state (I am a registered voter elsewhere), I was more amused than outraged by Narendra Modi’s comparison of the state of my origin to Somalia. Only someone who has absolutely no idea of what Kerala means to its residents and diaspora would make such a bizarre comparison and perpetrate the perhaps not misplaced belief among South Indians that those north of the Vindhyas have little or no idea of what constitutes their culture and civilisation beyond dismissing them as all `Madrasis’ and dark-skinned Dravidians.

I have barely visited Kerala on a handful of occasions but even if many of us are born out of the state, live and make our homes in other parts of the country and the
world (and we are all across both), marry much into other communities and assimilate ourselves into other cultures, we continue to remain immensely proud of God’s Own
Country to which we belong. Driving down from the plains of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu towards Kerala brings home the beauty of its land and the simplicity of its people.

Kerala was always lush with the green of its vegetation, the red of its earth and the blue of its lagoons and, perhaps, to set off these rich colours the people, both men and women, are always dressed in simple whites and creams. I have always remarked on this contrast with Rajasthan where people dress in rich colours perhaps to offset the dreary uniform grey of the desert sands of that state.

But what makes us most proud, however, is the uniform culture of our communities – though I am no expert or social scientist, I have always believed that nothing distinguishes a Hindu from a Christian or both from a Muslim except their places of religious worship. They dress the same and eat the same unlike in Gujarat where even names of Muslims might be similar to that of Hindus (there will be Patels and Shahs among them) but food habits give them away – Hindus are strictly vegetarian and Muslims eat meat, of course. All communities in Kerala eat all sorts of meats – except the Namboodiri Brahmins who, I must admit, in past centuries, were much worse than Brahmins elsewhere in the country in terms of discrimination against other castes and communities. But then they discriminated against all castes and communities uniformly – there was not just untouchability in Kerala but also unseeability and unpproachability, which meant the Brahmins would be soiled even if they came within sight and distance of a non-Brahmin and had to jump into a pond to wash off that defilement. That is one of the main reasons why communism took root in Kerala and has stayed for decades, like in West Bengal where communism was a response to the equally discriminatory zamindari system in that state. Therefore, every Keralite, even if not a card- carrying leftist leans left of centre and perhaps that is why the BJP is finding it so difficult to make inroads into that state.

Of course, no one can claim that Kerala, despite being God’s own country, is as perfect as paradise but we are all reasonably proud of the literacy rates in the state (a lack of basic education is incomprehensible), the awareness among women that makes them equal partners in society and the clannishness that runs through all communities and religions. “Never employ a Malayalee,’’ a joke used to run through offices in Bombay. “You give a job to one and within a few months every vacancy will be filled by his friend, brother or village man and before you know it your company will be a mini-Kerala.”

I realised the truth of that when I was admitted to a hospital in Bombay one year and all around me the nurses and ward boys were speaking Malayalam rather than Hindi or Marathi. Even the doctors were driven crazy by their incessant chatter in Malayaam through their attendance on patients and although I did not seem as one of them (I dhto not speak the language too well) the moment they got to know of my origins, I had some extra attention and care from them.

One could be critical of that clannishness but such ganging together is limited not just to Malayalees but that is also something that makes Kerala a state where there has been no communal tension for decades. The last time a riot happened was more than 30 years ago and later it was proved that it was real estate and commercial interests that had set off the conflagration – my uncle then had complained that Gulf money which was being remitted to Kerala in huge numbers had been driving up costs and competition. But that fight had been equal between all communities and was soon quelled by firm government action. It is not a coincidence that there has not been a riot ever since.

So Keralites are quite unlikely to fall for the divisive tactics of parties which might want to drive a wedge between the various communities. And so their reaction to Modi’s equation of them with Somalia was typical. They all united and responded with humour – as my cousin admonished me, tongue in cheek, “Why do you call the Prime Minister divisive? He is a unifier – he brought Lalu and Nitish together in Bihar. The Left and Congress together in Bengal and now in Kerala!” Even their hashtag on Twitter was very polite in its dismissal — #PoMoneModi which does not bear literal translation any which way. It is a rather indulgent way of saying, “Son ,don’t mess with things you don’t know. So just go away.”

One has to wait and see if the same message will be given to the BJP at the hustings.

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When I retweeted my colleague Yogesh Joshi’s tweet on Sharad Pawar coming out in favour of Arun Jaitley on Kirti Azad’s allegations regarding a scam in the Delhi and District Cricket Association, I was startled by tens of responses asking me why they should believe Pawar.

I should not have been surprised. For when I first saw that message similar thoughts had run though my head. The Board for Cricket Control in India (BCCI) was never a bigger scam than wen Pawar entered the fray. Before then, at least, Jagmohan Dalmia and others, whatever their shortcomings, had kept the game up and running. Despite the match fixing scandal, Indian cricket had thrown up some greats like Saurabh Ganguly and Rahul Dravid – at the height of the scam, a senior Bombay police officer involved in investigating the match fixing had told me these were the only two cricketers in the Indian team who could not be corrupte. “They send the bookies packing by threatening them with legal action. The only other team as a whole which cannot be fixed is the English team. They play for the country and not for self, just like Ganguly and Dravid. Everywhere else we have come across evidence of match fixing in some form or the other.”

This cop had a diary full of transcripts of conversations between bookies and cricketers an when I asked why they had been tapping phones of cricketers, he said, “We were not. We were listening in to the bookies. The cricketers got caught in the trap.”

That is when he told me that as journalists we were barkng up the wrong tree in holding only cricketers responsible for everything going wrong with the game. “You must look at the administrators first. They are the ones who fix the matches. When players realise what is happening, they begin to argue that if the administrators are in for some extra money, why should they be left behind and then go ahead and strijke their own deals.”

The sleaze was just beginning to come in then but he shared the names of the people who could be involved in huge financial irreguarities in cricket administration ad ti was like a Who’s Who of India. No one could touch them with even a twenty feet barge pole – they were the country’s top reigning celebrities, politicians, businessmen et al. “And they all take care of each other – like `you watch my back and I will watch yours’ So does not matter whether you are down or out or reigning at the top, you have some one or the other who will cover you for sure,” he said.

That conversation came back to me when I heard Pawar come down in support of Jaitley. It is very difficult from the series of exposes by Azad and Wikileaks-India to believe that such activities at the DDCA were happening at with complete lack of knowledge of the powers that be – but in this regard, I would like to take Pawar at this word and believe that Jaitley was not involved in the corrupt activities at the DDCA on his watch. But that brings about a sense of déjà vu . It is almost like supporters of the Congress rooting for former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the argument that in a highly corrupt cabinet he was the most honest of them all. I believe that too but then I wonder if there is a definition for a man who sees corruption all around him and allows it to happen unchecked, doing little to stem the rot in his administration. The closest I can get to such a description is from our epicc – such a person surely is a modern day Dhritrashta and somehow both Dr Manmohan Singh and Arun Jaitley seem to fit that bill.

As for Pawar, many havr wondrred why he has not come clean on his interests in cricket administration in his newly released memoirs, `On my terms’. Though he has promised a sequel to his autobiography to reveal the details, I I have been trying hard to understand why. I once made bold to ask him to explain to me his interest in cricket when he had never before exhibited any affiiation for the game. He snubbed me roundly saying I knew little about him or cricket and should stick to reporting on politics. “Then shouldn’t you limit yourself to politics?” I was brazen enogh to ask, whereupon he lost his temper and called off. But then asking around, as far as I can make out, his interest in cricket is definitely linked to his politics – as was his interest in kho-kho. kabbadi and other more home grown games. Hundreds of youth clubs for sportspersons proliferate at least in Maharashtra and Pawar who had also previously headed the kho kho and kabbadi federations meant to catch them young, But the overt interest in cricket definitely drew from the enormous amounts of money the game began to earn India – and the power hat brought to Indians over the rest of the cricketing world.

Pawar’s association with the Congress after splitting from the party in 1999 was not just a political need for governance in Maharashtra. The Congress also controlled many cricketing clubs and the party’s vote to him was crucial to enable him to get to the head of the BCCI and then the ICC. Of course, the non-politicians in the cricketing world like Dalmia and N Srinivasan outwitted Pawzr politically on many an occasion and he was not able to come to terms with his frequent sidelining by these stalwarts over the years.

But now with Dalmia gone and Srinivasan handicapped by a court ruling, I belive Pawar needs all the friends he can get. And what better way to attrsct Jaitlry, anothrt powerful cricket administrator, when he seems tob e down and out an and in need of being thrown a line to prevent him from drowning?

I do no claim to understand all the nuances of Pawar’s support to Jaitley. But I can be sure there is more seff interest and less altruism behnd that support anc perhaps it is as the top Bombay cop had told me – they are all watching out for each other. For cricket is surely the most secular game, every which way in India!

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During my travels all across Gujarat, there would always be a “store room” lurking behind the main dining room at the hotels I stayed at. I found that a very odd place to lodge a storeroom and wondered why so many men – sometimes foreigners – were spending so long in those storerooms. It was much later that I discovered these `store rooms’ were a euphemism for `bars’ – behind stacks of goods that made the godown look like a genuine store room, away from direct view there were set some tables and chairs and the drinkers were served in non-transparent coffee (or rather beer) mugs to escape notice in case of a sudden raid,

But those raids rarely ever happened because not only were the authorities kept rolling in bribes, many times cops were the basic source to secure liquor from. Prohibition is a bit of a joke in Gujarat as it was in Maharashtra for a brief while when it was in force during the Emergency era – even government clubs had their bars flowing though I do recall all the officers had to apply for licences before asking for a drink. That rule is even now in force in Maharashtra but no one enforces it – neither the liquor stores, nor the pubs and bars. But pubs do keep hundreds of licences handy – you can buy one for five rupees if you wish or not, for that is a stand by in case of raids. Names will be quickly entered and the permits (indeed many bars are known as `permit rooms’) handed out to drinkers at the bar. But, again, as in Gujarat, such raids hardly ever happen unless the establishment is running some other notorious activity like dancing girls or acting as a cover for criminals and their nefarious activities.

I notice Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s dilemma in banning alcohol throughout Bihar as part of his poll promise to women and the warnings that such prohibition will only end up enriching the law enforcers without necessarily stopping the men from drinking. But if Kumar wants to succeed and gain the confidence of the women at the same time, he has to look no further than Maharashtra and Sharad Pawar for a unique alcohol policy that will not only shut the liquor shops but also make the women feel – rather than just patronised by a chief minister attempting to make life easy for them.

The Maharashtra government is the only government anywhere in the world that has such a unique liquor policy and it is one of Sharad Pawar’s landmark achievements. In 1995, Pawar thought to attract the vote of women by giving them the power to shut down liquor stores and drinking joints in their villages. By this law, if more than fifty per cent of the women in any village are troubled by drunkard husbands and wish to get them off alcohol, they have the power to petition the Collector of the district to hold a referendum in that village. If more than fifty per cent of the women turn up to vote and the vote goes for the shutting of the bars and stores, the shutters are forcibly downed within 24 hours and stay down forever. There is no room for appeal.

The policy was slow to take off – women did not notice it in 1995 and Sharad Pawar’s government was voted out of power receiving a major drubbing at the assembly elections that year. But, by and by, women realised that they did not need an Anna Hazare to tie drunkards to a tree and beat them up until the transgressors fell in line. In the two decades since that policy became law village after village went in for a referendum and banned alcohol. There are whole talukas now which are alcohol free though this status has not come without inherent struggles. Women sarpanches, who have taken the lead in banning alcohol in these villages, have been under threat by the liquor mafia, the process does not come without the inherent bribery and corruption – attempts are made to influence officials to rig the results, women are threatened on voting day, sometimes tied to furniture in their own homes by their husbands, many of them go into hiding before surfacing minutes before voting commences, even Collectors are sometimes threatened from declaring the results. But the policy is succeeding on a grand scale — to such an extent that men from the villages have to travel to nearby towns to find their supply of alcohol. As a result, the Maharashtra government was in the process of considering extending the policy to areas governed by municipal councils to make it immensely difficult for the men to find liquor in a hurry.

All this is happening despite the fact that for the past 15 years during the Congress-NCP regime, largely run by sugar barons, many ministers were seeking ways and means to maximise not just revenues but even personal gains. Shutting down liquor stores meant huge losses in excise duties but the sugar barons also needed to find an end use for the molasses generated in their factories and they tried many a trick to overturn the policy but to no avail.

Sharad Pawar might be remembered for many things not too savoury or sweet but the rural women of Maharashtra largely associate him now with making their lives less miserable than before the liquor policy was introduced. It has given them a sense of empowerment – not just the Sarpanches or panchayat samiti members but even the ordinary housewife in the village feels she has a right to govern her own life and that she can make it happen.

Nitish Kumar should try this route to banning alcohol in Bihar. As such women voted for him in large numbers. He will never lose their vote again if he empowers them thus rather than just imposing a decision from above in a manner that is guaranteed to fail. Sharad Pawar is just a phone call away.

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The last time I plucked an orange off its tree was in Greece. When I landed in Athens, I was startled to see orange bushes acting as dividers across the roads. They were in season and the orange fruit hung low from the branches. But, of course, unlike in India, it was not possible to just hop across and pluck one fruit. The laws were strict and Greek cops stricter. But, then, one day I wandered into a garden in the middle of the city to rest my tired limbs and as I stretched out on a bench, I discovered I was sitting right under an orange tree and ripe fruits were dropping off by the dozens all around me. I picked one up and then stood and plucked one off the tree, convincing myself it was no crime to take fruit that would be falling off by its own in a few minutes anyway.

I come from orange country in India — Nagpur – and I cannot describe the pleasure it gave me to find oranges right in the middle of Europe. Since then I have tasted Maltese oranges and had what they call Clementines in Europe but I have come to the conclusion I love my Nagpur oranges the best – even at Indian supermarkets which today are stocked high with imported fruits, I give the foreign oranges a wide berth, though I may pick strawberries from Denmark, which are sweeter than the Indian variety and definitely go for apples from New Zealand and China against my grain simply because our very own Kashmiri apples are neither crisp nor juicy and always seem over-ripe and aged by the time they come to the metropolitan stores. (I think we lack the transportation and storage techniques. I have plucked an apple off the tree in Kashmir once many years ago and it never tasted more good!).

So this week I was delighted to come across groves and groves of orange orchards as I drove through our orange county , for the first time in many years during the season. The oranges are just beginning to appear in the markets but they are still raw and sour and it will be a couple of months before the oranges begin to turn, well, orange on the trees. But even so, I was tempted so we stopped our car beside the highway and found a kachcha lane leading into one orchard. The gardeners were delighted to see us and allowed us to pluck dozens of those oranges for just Rs 20 (we gave them Rs 50, because anything less would have been just pennies — or paise).

“Won’t your employer, the owner of the orange orchard mind if we take these oranges away?” I asked.

“it is a bad season,” one of the gardeners said, flummoxing me completely. “He will be only too glad to get rid of some of this thus.”

“How is it a bad season when the trees are heavily laden with fruits ripening on the trees?” I asked.

That is why it is a bad season, he said and as he explained, for the first time I understood why orange farmers never commit suicide, only cotton farmers in Vidarbha do.

Orange farmers are never worried about how their crop fares because this is one fruit whose wholesale prices always cover the dearth or plenty of the crop. “If we have unseasonal rains and lose much fruit, the prices of oranges in the retail and wholesale markets will shoot up. The farmer will always recover his costs. But if there is a bountiful season then he has to sell the crop cheap but then there are so many oranges to sell that he still recovers the costs. Orange farmers make no losses any season.”

I haven’t checked the truth of this claim out statistically but, yes, I have never heard of farmers’ suicides among the cultivators of oranges and there is no orange politics in the state unlike that with cotton. No one demands remunerative prices for oranges as they do for cotton and the only time one politician did so, his own party men laughed him off. This legislator had brought a truck laden with the fruit to the assembly premises in Nagpur one winter session of the legislature and, I remember, the oranges disappeared in minutes as all fellow politicians, legislature staff, security guards and even us journalists commandeered dozens of those oranges for ourselves. Even the MLA who had tried to make an issue of the oranges was laughing at the speed with which they were consumed and the farmers who had accompanied him were not unhappy either for they had a bountiful crop that season — while they needed to sell heavily to recover costs on the low wholesale prices, they had enough and more not to want the fruits to go rotting on the roadsides.

And indeed this season, too, already mounds of the fruit are arranged on the roadside by villagers who have just picked them off the trees for free and were selling them at half the price that it is now beginning to be available in the city markets.

Vidarbha is both cotton and orange country and I wonder if cotton farming is really so fraught with the danger of failures and low cost recoveries, why don’t more and more of them shift to oranges? The black cotton soil of the region is very fertile and these trees, including lemon trees, grow just about anywhere, including in pots. My mother planted a small lemon sapling in a giant pot in her potted garden a few years ago and today it has grown huge enough to enable the neighbour upstairs to lean across and pluck some lemons off our tree each evening as they sit down for a drink or two with their friends and visitors. Last year, we even managed to pickle the lemons and make a squash out of some more in sufficient quantity to last the year. I thought we might do the same with oranges and asked the gardener for a sapling but he said there was a technique for planting an orange tree — and they could not grow in pots.

But since then I have got thinking that perhaps Sharad Pawar was right when as Union agriculture minister he advised the farmers of Vidarbha to go in for cash crops including tomatoes – for tomatoes are another crop that grows in a small patch in your garden and comes up with heavily laden fruit.

Now that is something which is being encouraged by NGOs from Nagpur – one particular group, Zero Gravity, run by Maitreyi Jichkar, daughter of former Maharashtra minister Dr Shrikant Jichkar, who was a farmer himself, organised a direct sale of vegetables from farmers to consumers at half the retail prices in the stores. The sale was a big hit and the vegetables, crisp and farm fresh, sold out in less than two hours. I believe if more such efforts are made, farmers should not be in distress at all.

Just like the oranges I picked off the trees, the vegetables too were crisp and almost raw. The tomatoes I bought from the Zero Gravity sale a week ago are still sitting on our kitchen counter, crisp and juicy as ever. The oranges which were a little tart to begin with are ripening and turning sweeter each day, And every time I peel one, I am still guilty that I paid just Rs 50 for five score and more. How much does that work out to per orange? You can guess. And I am told the orchard owner was glad to be rid of them at that price!

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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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