If you are born a South Indian, you grow up with stories of Lord Ayyappa who, at one time, was not known to many North Indians as a God, the result of the consort between Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. It is from learning about Ayyappa that I discovered the story of the Samudra Manthan and Vishnu’s Mohini avatar that so fascinated Shiva that a child was born out of that attraction.
Ayyappa’s eternal dilemma, I was told, was a query he was never able to resolve – is Vishnu my father or my mother?
Elders used to say rather jokingly, “Perhaps that’s why women are not allowed in the Ayyappa temple – until he resolves this issue of who really is his mother!’’
But although I saw men around me throughout childhood head towards the Ayyappa temple in December-January after a month or more of austerities, I was never tempted to discover this God for myself.
Gods should not discriminate, so if you are a Keralite you might be more tempted to look out for Muthappan, said to be the living avatar of both Vishnu and Shiva and as powerful as Ayyappa – you never know when either God might enter a worshipper’s being but when they do, it is fascinating to observe that living avatar.
Muthappan is a less discriminating God and more democratic. Most of his priests belong to the non-Brahmin classes – it is into their bodies that the gods are said to enter once every month. And when that happens even high class Brahmins bend down to touch the feet of these lower castes and host them in their homes.
“Ordinarily, they would not let a man like me cross their threshold any time of the day,’’ one such priest once told a friend of mine. “But if they believe I am Vishnu avatar or Shiva avatar, they are all fighting with each other to invite me home and feed me with their own hands that day.’’
Muthappan will even hold hands with women, without caring whether or not they are menstruating that day, and read their futures – believers swear every word comes true. So most women down south don’t bother about Ayyappa at all and I think,despite the antiquated views of the Sabarimala administrator, South India has to be rather more evolved in this matter of temple entry to all and sundry.
For I recall an aunt of mine taking me to a Shani Mandir in Hyderabad where I stepped in rather gingerly, aware of the fact that women were banned from worshipping that god in his sanctum sanctorum. But I was startled when I was allowed to come close and even pour a cup of oil onto the God’s crown in Abhishek as well as light a lamp before his idol.
No priest fussed or bothered though we were hurried from the sanctum sanctorum because there was a long line of worshippers behind us – mostly men but you could also spot a handful of women among them.
Ever since I have wondered if Lord Shani could accept a woman’s prayers in one temple why could he not at another?
The tradition of banning women from the sanctum sanctorum at the Shani Shingnapur temple in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra has been ages old but I do not believe it has any religious sanction. But it is ironical and a travesty of justice that men who would worship Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga as the epitomes of wealth, knowledge and power, should deny women the right to pray at the temple of a male god who never at any time said or even decreed in the scriptures that women should be banned from his worship.
I wonder why this happens but to a large extent I believe women are banned from praying to these gods like Shani and Ayyappa because they have no female consorts. But then neither do Hanuman or Ganesh and I never heard of anyone stopping women from entering temples to these Gods.
So I believe the rules are largely man-made coming out of medieval prejudices when women were confined indoors and were discouraged from public participation and social,activities. I appreciate activists of the Bhumata Ranragini Samiti for having made an attempt to storm the Shani Shingnaput temple but for me a prayer to or a conversation with god is a private affair. I would not like to enter any premises where I am not wanted – including a temple – on the basis of any prejudice, gender, religious or even caste based. I would also not pray at the temple at Ayodhya whenever it is buillt for I do not believe any God will be able to hear any prayers drowning in the din of the screams of the innocent souls who lost their lives to the political agitation to have the temple erected.
Moreover, to me as a devout Hindu, the site of a former mosque can never be the siite for a temple.
So I will return to Hyderabad if I want to seek a prayer from Lord Shani again and I must advise people of my gender to try Muthappan instead of Ayyappa. He is a more democratic god – prayed to in Kerala (there is now a temple in Bombay too, discovered by all its cosmopolitan communities to which they make a beeline every month) by people of all castes, creeds, religions and genders and, yes, economic status – some put thousand rupee notes in his palm, others only ten or five rupee coins but he treats them all with equal attention.
As one cousin who gave up Ayyappa, the family deity, for Muthappan told me, “Tirupati is a place for crorepatis. Guruvayoor for lakhpatis. Muthappan is the god of the common man.’’
Or, I must say after a visit to his temple, even woman.
I never had the good fortune to work closely with Dr Aroon Tikekar. I first met him when he was working as the chief librarian at the Times of India archives and there was almost a daily interaction with the man who then seemed to me stern and rather impatient with the lack of knowledge or a sense of history among budding journalists.
He carried that impatience with the younger lot of journalists to the end of his days, lamenting to me frequently that there were just a couple of journalists left among the existing lot in the country who could be expected to understand the issues and contexts thoroughly. I never dared to ask him if he counted me among those with knowledge and understanding. But, I must say, when I came across him again at the Indian Express building, he was the editor-in-chief at the Loksatta and despite my earlier fright of him, my daily contacts with him resumed — this time of my own volition.
The Shiv Sena was on the ascendant at the time and Loksatta was the singular newspaper that had not caved in to the demands of the Sena tiger Bal Thackeray. At one of my numerous interviews with him, Thackeray had once threatened to crush editors like Tikekar (and of some other Marathi newspapers) like an insect under his thumb.
Bombay then had just come through the worst riots of the century (in 1992-93) following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya which had been incited in no small measure by his incendiary writings in the Saamna.
But Thackeray was sore at the fact that while his Shiv Sainiks continued to buy the Saamna dutifully, they were more interested in what the Loksatta had to say each morning, and took Tikekar rather more seriously than their own editor and party leader. And Loksatta never had many flattering things to say about the Sena tiger.
Thackeray then emerged as the original troll of all times. Every morning without fail, Saamna would carry some or the other libelous piece about Dr Aroon Tikekar. Thackeray did not stop at anything, even compounding the Goebbelsian principle that a lie repeated a hundred times becomes the truth. So one day the Saamna carried an editorial about Tikekar, saying that every evening after he left work for home, he stopped by Kamathipura, which is Bombay’s notorious red light district.
We were outraged. So was the newspaper’chairperson Vivek Goenka. But Tikekar was only laughing through our rage and anger. He dissuaded Goenka from filing a defamation suit against Thackeray. “That is what he wants. The case will drag on in court for years. Besides that would be giving him the importance and legitimacy he craves. Unnecessarily we will be blowing it big. If we do not pay it any attention, we will deny him that legitimacy.”
That attitude taught me a thing two about dealing with my own Twitter trolls these days.
Dr Tikekar’s public reponse to Thackeray was, “If I really visit the red light areas after work, then only one human being should be hurt by it — my wife. Since she is not bothered, why should you care?”
Thackeray was left gnashing his teeth but I do recall the attacks on Tikekar did not go away and, at one time, there was a security blanket at the building we worked out of to prevent Shiv Sainiks from entering and assaulting the Loksatta editor.
Dr Tikekar’s courage and success was apparent from the fact that the Shiv Sena was ruling Maharashtra, then in an alliance with the BJP, and Thackeray’s writ ran all over the state at the time. The Maharashtra government had to provide security to a man against its own party leader because chief minister Manohar Joshi recognised the constitutional demands on his office and could not allow a state that he governed to become a law and order issue created by his own party leader.
That so-called betrayal annoyed Thackeray to no end and in many ways contributed to his growing disenchantment with the tallest leader in his party. It eventually led to Joshi’s marginalisation by Thackeray’s son, Uddhav Thackeray, in later years.
When I was writing my book on Bal Thackeray, there was no one better who I could have approached than Dr Aroon Tikekar. He was then heading the Asiatic Library and I still treasure the hours I spent there over many sessions, discussing the shape my book would eventually take. I have no hesitation in admitting that ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat – How the Shiv Sena changed Mumbai forever’ was entirely guided in spirit and content by Dr Tikekar. I could not have written the book, which is now being billed as the best-ever written on the subject so far by many critics, without the rich resource material, published as well as unpublished, provided to me by Dr Tikekar.
In one of my Wednesday columns after one of these conversations with Dr Tikekar I had reproduced a very telling point he had made about the Shiv Sena –- that it had pushed the entire Maharashtrian community back by a generation.
“We received two setbacks in the past –- first when we lost the third war of Panipat to the Afghans and second when Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. In the 18th century, the Panipat loss restricted the growth of Maharashtrians by a generation and Godse’s act created a trust deficit between Maharashtrians and the rest of India. We were just beginning to overcome that set back when Thackeray arrived on the scene and with his extreme fundamentalism reinforced the impression that Maharashtrians were all violent and extremist. Even his own supporters suffered setbacks because he kept them from education and progress. It will take a long time for the Maharashtrian society to recover.”
“That comment should actually be part of a book,” Dr Tikekar then called to tell me. “Not just in a column whose currency might be over after the week.”
“I have already included it in my book.” I told him. And Tikekar laughed delightedly, though he might not have been very happy with the way my book eventually turned out — “Racy, like a thriller,” he said, rather disapprovingly. He would have wanted it to be more intellectual and academic but as I told him then, not all of us can bring intellectualism to bear upon our writings.
Dr Tikekar was the epitome of erudition and intellectualism. There was never a day when I did not learn something new from the man who was never my editor. I shall miss him sorely (Dr Tikekar passed away in Mumbai on January 19, 2015).
One New Year’s eve, I was caught travelling by train with a very down to earth politician for company. As I made his acquaintance, he came out with such gems that I have since given up on New Year’s resolutions forever.
“Rules – and resolutions are for pphools!” he told me in his typically Hindi-fied English. “One should set no rules for oneself and resolutions are merrily made with the knowledge that they will be shamelessly broken before 365 days are out.”
A New Year’s resolution is something like an electoral promise, he told me – you promise the moon to your voters knowing you are going to be doing nothing of the sort in the five years for which they might elect you. Still people are fools enough to fall for those false promises –just as your mind tries to block out the fact that you have broken every New Year’s resolution that you have made ever since you were conscious adult.
So I would suggest you do not spoil your karma by misleading yourself with lies and promises not intended to be kept,’’ he told me in a matter of fact manner.
I was young enough to be impressed by what he said and as a political reporter then began to take every promise any politician made with fistfuls of salt,. In 2016 that same politician reminds me of someone else who has made many promises that he perhaps mean t keep but has been unable to execute in nearly two years – I now know what my train friend meant by saying it might prove very dangerous to let down people – and more so yourself.
There is a home truth there for everyone – leaders as well as private citizens. But while failing to keep one’s private resolutions might harm only an individual or at best his or her family, failing at promises made to the people at large could be highly ruinous for the country as a whole.
This politcian – among many others from different spectrums – told me the secret of a successful political career is to make promises from behind the ramparts of your own party or its manifest. “Nothing personal should get into your promise. If you fail to deliver, you will always have the party to blame.”
Like, he said, even when you intend to build a little something like a school or a well (there was no talk of toilets in those days) for your constituency, do not say, `I will build this’. Use the third person or better still say ,”My party has promised to build this if we are elected to power.”
There was a tickling pink rider – you are relieved of all responsibility even if you win but your party loses and vice versa,.. And if the reverse happens, well then, it is the responsibility of the government or the winning candidate, In that cse either will deliver and you can sit backwith a smg smie and sy,`I told you so!’,”he added.
The rule applies to personal life as well, he said. If you do not make a new year’s resolution you are under no stress or pressure to deliver the goods to yourself. But you should always be in search of the opportunity to accomplish the change when it comes around and then you can take advantage and claim to self and friends and relatives that you have done a good thing – there will be less taunts and more applause for you through the year, he added.
Over the years I have seen many politicians from all political parties including the Congress, the NCP, the Shiv Sena and the BJP, breach that rule and fall flat on their noses. Yet either they do not learn the lessons or they continue to take people for fools but the existence of social media now proves that not all people are fooled all the time.
So this New Year’s I wonder what resolutions the politicians are making – for themselves an for the country and if they intend to keep them.
As for me, the only promise I am making myself today is that I am makingmyself no promises. In all these years, I have realised the folly of tall promises that do not come to fruition and make you so miserable on New Year’s eve that you have lost 365 days that you do not want to ring it out with hope and joy aad sit around home mournfully with a lot of regrets. I have begun to treat every New Year’s eve as just anther day – and the dawn of the next morning as just another sunrise. But, yes, I do hope to accomplish more every year than the previous one and I am hoping this new year, before it gets too old, will be kinder to me than the past one!
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!
The actor Sanjay Dutt has familiarised all of India with a very evocative Bombay-specific word — maamu. No, that does not mean maternal uncle as people in the north might presume but making a fool of someone very adeptly as Dutt’s character did in the blockbuster film ‘Munnabhai, MBBS’.
Now I do think that Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis has made a ‘maamu’ of Shiv Sena president Uddhav Thackeray and might be laughing behind his sleeve. For, I refuse to believe that either Fadnavis, who is a lawyer, or officials of the government of Maharashtra did not know the law or even of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the turning of government bungalows into memorials for departed leaders.
But on November 17 this year, as the Shiv Sena was commemorating the third anniversary of Bal Thackeray’s passing, Fadnavis made a grand announcement that a memorial to Thackeray would come up at the Mayor’s bungalow adjunct to the beach at Shivaji Park. Now the Mayor’s bungalow is not private property and Thackeray had held no constitutional position in his lifetime ever to merit government property as a memorial. Even former president APJ Abdul Kalam’s retirement home in New Delhi could not be turned into his memorial precisely because the Supreme Court had decreed against such conversions of government bungalows into memorials.
So did Fadnavis not know all this or, if he did, why did he string Uddhav Thackeray along? I am inclined to think that Fadnavis was getting his back on the Shiv Sena, which has been proving a troublesome ally, constantly yapping at the BJP’s heels and that Fadnavis made the promise knowing full well nothing will come of it.
However, in the meantime, he could play the regretful ally who had tried and had been overruled by courts and procedures. It would help to cool the Shiv Sena down and the BJP could buy time until the crucial Bombay Municipal Corporation elections coming up in February 2017. I wonder how long it will take Uddhav to realise he had been had and resume hostilities with the BJP once more.
For it is not going to be easy to overcome the Supreme Court ruling and now even Raj Thackeray, Uddhav’s estranged cousin and his own brother Jaidev Thackeray have been growling about what they see as the Shiv Sena’s land-grabbing tactics.
Raj, in fact, has categorically said so soon after Fadnavis’s announcement but few have paid attention to Jaidev Thackeray — he asked why, when the Thackeray family has ample land and property across Bombay, do they not convert one of these into a memorial. Or if none of these suits, he said, the Shiv Sena owns enough money to buy a suitable property for a memorial.
But still the Shiv Sena has been after grabbing a corner of Shivaji Park for a memorial ever since Thackeray’s funeral was conducted there. But the Maharashtra government is itself in dispute with the Bombay high court about who owns Shivaji Park — the government or the citizenry — and has been steadily refusing the Shiv Sena on this count.
But the idea to turn the mayor’s bungalow into a memorial, to be fair, comes not from the Shiv Sena or the BJP but from Sharad Pawar — the original doyen of all land grabbers, if I might put it that way. Sometime in 2013, Pawar decided to intervene in the dispute between the then Congress-NCP government and the Shiv Sena to suggest that the mayor’s bungalow could be converted into a memorial.
At that time he was looking at anti-incumbency being faced by both the UPA government at the Centre in which he was a minister and the Congress-NCP government in the state, and was hoping the resolution of the memorial crisis would ingratiate Uddhav to him to such an extent that the Shiv Sena would extend support to his party in event of a hung assembly in Maharashtra, if not in Parliament at the centre.
But with then chief minister Prithviraj Chavan taking a tough stance, nothing came of it and the results to the Lok Sabha were such that Uddhav had no need to feel grateful to Pawar for anything.
Now Devendra Fadnavis seems to have taken a leaf out of Pawar’s book and is taking Uddhav Thackeray for a royal ride. How long before Uddhav catches on, one does not know but one thing is certain — the mayor’s bungalow will not be turned into a memorial anytime soon and certainly not for Bal Thackeray. How long the truce then lasts is a toss-up and a million dollar question that might have no answer.
Sometimes a family priest can be a great source of gossip — and some good information. I have learnt many things from my own priest, a very practical man whose homilies are abundantly laced with material truths.
At the height of the Anna Hazare agitation, he told me nothing would be served by that campaign. When I asked how he had come to that conclusion, he said, “How much do I care about which minister is making how many crores? What I want is to be able to get services without having to pay bribes. So even if Hazare brings down the government, nothing will be served because at the common level we will have to continue paying bribes.”
Now that cynical view came from practical experience – he had to bribe the corporation officer certifying cremations with a thousand rupee note every time he took anybody to the crematorium. He had tried to approach a local corporator for help persuade the man to cease taking such bribes – the official, who was performing the duties of a traditional `dom’ in these modern times, refused to allow the pyres to be lit unless one red note was slipped into his palm — and the corproator advised every family pay up. “Do you think it is easy for this man to live day and night at the crematorium, among burning bodies?’’ he asked. My priest realised he needed to be stone drunk every time he had to approach a body to make sure it is burnt properly and that no dogs get to the unburnt parts. “He is a poorly paid government employee, so where do you think he will get the money from, if not from the dear ones of the dead?”
My priest accepted the practicality of the situation and much against his conscience persuaded every client to pay up when they needed the service.
When he first came into our lives, he was somewhat male chauvinistic. We are three sisters, our father had just passed away and he was against girls lighting a funeral pyre. We fought back bitterly against that attitude and with the help of more modernist Arya Samajis, who decreed that a daughter was no less eligible than a son, we conducted the ceremonies. One of my sisters is a banker, the other poet and, for the qualities we showed, he labelled us as Laxmi, Durga and Saraswati. He had a little daughter barely two years old at the time and his wife was expecting again. He had hoped it would be a son but then he was worldly enough to stop at three daughters and change his mind about girls — today he labels them as the three goddesses of his life. Over the years he has developed the opinion that daughters were better children than sons, they took better care of their parents and were the more reliable insurance for their old age.
But apart from such homilies, he is also a great source of information to me. For example, some years ago, he brought me news, which had until then gone unreported, of a prominent politician whose wayward son had developed AIDS. “How do you know?” I asked him, quite disbelieving. “The doctor at the hospital who is treating him is one of my clients. He was sworn to secrecy under pain of death by this goonda politician who wanted him to fudge he hospital records to show the disease as something else. He was in deep dilemma – conscience versus his life and the safety of his family. He came to me for advice.”
Guruji then thought about it and decided that fudging the records was a minor transgression of dharma than risking the life of his family. “Yes, you a spoiling your karma. But the sin will be greater if you put lives to risk for not telling a lie,” he told this doctor.
I asked around and realised my priest might be telling the truth. For this son of that politician did look as though he was fading away from some illness and did a while later.
The next bit of information was about a young boy of 24, belonging to a rich business family who had been drunk driving one night and had been picked up by the police who did not allow him to inform his parents. He was gang raped 40 times in the police lock up all night and was a mad traumatised wreck by the time his parents got to know about it all next morning. They did not lodge an FIR as they believed they would not get justice since it had all been engineered by the cops in a police station; despite their clout and money they turned down the advice of friends and family to approach the police commissioner or the local MP as they wished to avoid a scandal that would mar the young boy’s future. They simply sent him abroad to his relatives and decided to migrate along with him a few months later. Again I asked around and while everyone knew they had moved to the US no one was quite sure why despite prosperity in India, they had to become immigrants in a foreign land. There was, of course, no question of reporting the incident without corroboration but I believed my priest had the facts right and I respected his plea for confidence.
Now a couple of years later, he brings me some information that astounds me about the capacity of self-seeking human beings to cheat, commit fraud and take advantage of the vulnerabilities of people in general. For the annual navgraha puja that he conducts for my family, I noticed that he had reduced the quantities of pulses to be placed at the worship from a couple of kilos to some grammes. When I asked him whym he said, “Everything today is adulterated. Cow’s ghee will turn from yellow to white a few days after you have opened the tin. Half raw bananas will ripen overnight and become inedible a day later. You cannot be sure the milk you have bought from the local gwala does not have quantities of detergent and urea in it.”
“But what about daal?”
“Do you know that there is a factory here which is producing stones that look identical to chana, urad and tuar daal?” he asked.
I was stunned – this was news to me. When I asked him where he got that information it was again a conscience stricken client who had brought the news to him. A retired man seeking a job had been hired as the manager of a marbles (kanchas) factory. “They do produce a certain amount of kanchas in the front side of the factory. But at the back it is full of artificial stones that will eventually be mixed with the daals and sold to customers.”
The owners of the factory were salvaging their conscience by convincing themselves that they only manufactured the stones, “We do not mix or adulterete the daalsl; these are bought by the traders and they do the mixing. Our hands are clean,” they told their shocked manager.
He refused the job offer and they doubled his salary – it is not the money but the morals which count, he told the priest when he came to him for advice.
This time Guruji advised him to steer clear of this fraud for it affected the lives of more than just one family – with daals selling at 200 rupees or more per kilo, the shooting prices seem to have given rise to a completely new industry but there is no way that this will make it to the media. For the factory is a tightly closed enterprise and no one they cannot trust to keep a lid on the fraud can get past the front office.
I did think of a sting but Guruji discouraged me from venturing into any stupid campaign. “They are already upset with my client for turning down the job and if they get wind of anyone else knowing about what they are doing, many lives coukd be endangered,” he warned me.
We must then inform the food and drugs administration or the income tax officers, I said. “They already know,” Guruji said wryly. “They all are party the fraud – you have to agree to be bought off or you will be silenced forever.”
That is what he is afraid will happen to his retired manager client. We are all keeping our fingers crossed for the man.
“Sorry, Sir,” the bouncer at the entrance to the dance bar told Pramod Navalkar. “This is not a restaurant. We do not serve food here.”
“We know,” piped up my woman journalist colleague from a Marathi newspaper. She and I had bullied (the late) Navalkar into bar-hopping that night.
As a Shiv Sena leader who kept a sharp eye out for the underbelly of the city, Navalkar knew most of the bar owners and much of the nether elements of the city. As a Shiv Sainik, one would have associated him with being in the forefront of moral policing but somehow Navalkar, who once got into trouble with Bal Thackeray for holding aloft a glass of champagne in full glare of cameras and had to pass it off as apple juice, did not support then Maharashtra home minister RR Patil’s bid to shut down the dance bars (in 2005).
He was now taking us to some of them so that, as we persuaded him, we could see for ourselves what really happened in these establishments.
The bouncers’ eyes popped out as we said we wished to spend some time watching the dances. “This is not an establishment for women like you.” he said weakly.
“Oh?” said my friend. “What do you mean by women like us?”
He knew he had overstepped the mark. “Not a family place Ma’am,” he stammered.
“We are not with families. We are here on our own. We want to meet the other women inside,” we insisted.
He was even more reluctant to let us in once he heard we were journalists but then Navalkar had some pretty strong influence with the owners and the doors were opened for us reluctantly.
The reactions of the men inside the dance bar, stretched and relaxed on sofas, nursing a drink each, was equal to that of the bouncers at the doors. They couldn’t believe their eyes — we were obviously not dancing girls but what place did women who seemed different have in a dance bar? Surely we could not be dancers but we could not be customers either.
But then Navalkar shooed us upstairs to a private room with a huge dance floor and plush sofas lined against the walls. This is where men with loads of money to shell out in a single night were privately entertained and two girls, who were also startled to see a man with two women in the dancing room, put up a fine show for us for an hour.
Later they told us they hoped and prayed each day that RR Patil would change his mind because they had families to look after and children to bring up, and with their lack of education they had no idea what they could do to earn a living but dance.
“Are you afraid you will have to turn to the flesh trade?” we asked. Pain welled up in the eyes of the girls very visibly and they turned their faces away without an answer.
Patil had told me the dance bars were already prostitution rackets and I was sure there might have been much contact between the men entertained in this room and the dancing girls but the bar owner assured us it wasn’t so.
“Sometimes there are men who simply can’t resist one particular girl (buri tarah se dil aa jaata hai kisi ladki par), They are then willing to sacrifice (nyochaavar) everything on her. We just facilitate the privacy so that the girl can earn as well as we. But there is only eye contact. We do not allow anyone to touch or physically manhandle our girls.”
I was not quite sure of that but there have been stories of men who have thrown away as much as one crore rupees in a single night on these girls and made them rich overnight.
Talking to the girls at this and other dance bars that night we came to the conclusion that RR Patil was wrong to look upon these establishments in black and white terms as dens of vice.
Yes, there were a fair amount of girls who might have been simultaneously involved in prostitution but there were an equal amount of them who developed some permanent relationships with these men and others who danced their hearts out all night to simply make both end meet. And they were no different from the traditional lavni dancers of Maharashtra who were living in the same trap under the same circumstances but outside the modern milieu of those at the dance bars.
At least the girls in Bombay had a chance for escape once they had made enough money to sustain themselves. Not so the lavni dancers who are condemned to their miserable existence until they die.
The arguments of the government at the time — that the dance bars were corrupting the rural youth was both fallacious and facetious. At the time Patil quoted the case of a youth in a village who had killed his mother when she denied him the money to blow up at a dance bar (which had extended to smaller cities on the outskirts of the villages).
The moral policing was, however, hypocritical because these were the very same politicians who patronised the lavni artistes in the villages — and they were doing nothing less than what the girls in Bombay were, with a difference — the girls in Bombay had a fair bid at escaping prostitution; the lavni dancers, traditionally, did not.
Even today, lavni dancers cannot just dance and go home, sleeping with all the men comes with the territory — until they find a patron who would stay with them through their lives. And then they stay loyal to that one patron (called yajman) who takes care of her and her children though he still does not marry the lavni dancer to make an honest woman of her.
So why was Patil so adamant on shutting down the dance bars? It had to do more with the failure of the law enforcers and also of some disappointed politicians who did try to patronise these dance bars on the pattern of lavni dancers, but failed.
These girls were not bound by tradition unlike the lavni dancers and most of the time made fools of the besotted men and escaped their clutches.
Many cops were part owners of many of these dance bars and that angered Patil no end for he was then trying to discipline the police force which had nothing but contempt for the state home minister.
Yes, some of the bars were operating prostitution rackets but the then president of the dance bars association Manjit Singh Sethi is on record saying that they regularly pointed them out to the police but the police never raided them because these unsavoury establishments had partnerships with the law enforcers themselves.
We might need statistical studies to prove this but on a rough call, I noticed the shutting down of the bars also meant that the police began to lose their informers — they were good hanging out joints and a good resource for undercover cops — a lot of crime went unsolved in the last decade essentially because the police had no informers to fall back on due to the shutting down of these establishments.
Informers were simply afraid of meeting cops openly or keeping up in other ways lest other corrupt cops give them away, The bars were a good place to bump into people (though many were also bumped off inside or outside these establishments).
But the biggest fallout of the shutdown was that straight away nearly a lakh or more of such bar dancers were forced to go into prostitution — even those who might have escaped the profession given the purported strict hands-off policy of many dance bars.
I asked RR patil then what alternative programme of livelihood he had evolved for the dancing girls. His reaction was that of a typically unfeeling politician – “They can go back to their home states. We did not ask them to become dancing girls.”
Ten years later, as the Supreme Court rules against the shutdown, it is apparent that nothing was accomplished by that order accept putting more girls out into prostitution. And the original aim of saving lavni dancers fell by the way side, too, for modern youth, the sons and descendants of former feudal lords who patronised lavni dancers, some of them educated in the cities or even abroad, are simply not interested in propping up a tradition which is a throwback to undemocratic times when slaves and vassals were the norm.
They were attracted by the dancer bars, too, where they could spend some time seeking pleasurable pursuits without having to carry the burden of the dancers and their children for life.
Still, it is interesting to see how the dance bars issue continues to unite politicians across the board — every political party has raged against the Supreme Court verdict and their arguments remain ad nauseum the same. One must not forget the very famous politician-lavni dancer pairing of Gopinath Munde of the BJP and Barkha Patil from Chaufula.
She belonged to Sharad Pawar’s constituency and Pawar is credited with bringing their liaison to light. Out of pique or pure malice that such a beautiful dancer came to the lot of a non-Maratha BJP politician when traditionally it was Maratha Congressmen who were patronising them, one does not know!
With the Shiv Sena you never get what you see. Years ago, all of a sudden, they began to oppose Valentine’sday celebrations for no rhyme or reason. For years, celebrating couples were beaten up but, more importantly, shops displaying Valentine’s day cards were vandalised and what very few of us noticed was that their target was one particular card and gifts company which had popularised this festival in India.
It was years later that I realised what had been behind those demonstrations – and never as simple as it had seemed. When the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde’s relationship with a tamasha dancer had been exposed, Bal Thackeray had quipped `pyaar kiya toh darna kya!’ Then what had suddenly happened to this man who was not ashamed of declaring love, I wondered, for was he not, at the same time allowing his favourite daughter-in-law to hold Valentine’s dinners at her numerous restaurants across the city?
It was only when Thackeray’s son Uddhav had a major falling out with his sister-in-law Smita Thackeray (Balasaheb’s favourite ) that I got it from the horse’s mouth. It was all about money.
Smita Thackeray at the height of the Shiv Sena rule in Maharashtra had set up a foundation to support AIDS victims. One year she decided to organise a show by Bollywood artists which was sponsored by a leading card company. Bur as is the norm with the Shiv Sena, neither Smita nor Bal Thackeray felt it prudent to repay the company fpr expenses incurred or keep part of their deal for a share in the profits.
Next year, when Smita approached them again they refused, citing losses from the previous year and yet unpaid dues. By then word had spread among potential sponsors and no one came forward to lift the bill for the show by the Mukti Foundation (we don’t hear of the foundation any more). Thackeray tried everything to cajole, persuade or threaten the company but they did not budge. But then they had reckoned without the annual damage they would have to put up with as a consequence. However, they stoically bore the loss through the years – until Smita’s divorce with her husband came through and Uddhav and Raj then had no interest in pursuing an agitation that Thackeray had started in the name of his favourite daughter-in-law. Have people noticed that these celebrations are disturbed no longer and the only groups still taking it up are the fringe elements of the BJP like the Bajrang Sena’s support even their opposition is rather half-hearted and generally ignored by all concerned.
So when it comes to Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali I suspect I know what is afoot. I am convinced there is something similarly fishy in the background. For this is not the first time that the Sena and, in particular, Uddhav Thackeray has opposed his singing in Bombay – they had done the same several years ago and the excuse of him being afrom an enemy nation even then did not go down too well. Of course, Shiv Sainiks had once torn up the cricket pitch at the Wankhede stadium to prevent an India-Pakistan match in 1991 but that now is much water under the bridge. At the time they first targeted Ghulam Ali there were a lot of Pakistani actors in India working actively in Indian films as they are now, including on various television shows and it is doubtful if any Sena leaders even know who they are.
The one time that Pakistani artistes were targeted and thrown out of India for their country’s role in the 26/11 attacks was when Raj Thackeray of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena had rounded them up and put them on planes at the Bombay airport. But many of them are now back and India Pakistan matches too are being played without harassment. And, most importantly, a few months ago, Ghulam Ali had even sung bhajans at the Sankatmochan Mandir in Varanasi, Narendra Modi’s constituency.
So why not in Bombay? Cut to the Michael Jackson show of the mid-1990s. The Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray had similarly raised objections to the MJ show though they could not bring an enemy nation into the picture. Here they had sought to stop the organisers by raising the bogey of the corruption of Indian culture but then MJ paid a visit to Thackeray at Matoshree and flattered the Sena tiger by even using his personal toilet – Thackeray could not stop dining on that story for years. But, I suspect, the organisers also cut a deal with the Thackerays for all members of the family got prime seats at the show, never mind that Michael Jackson was corrupting Indian culture with his songs and dances that night.
But I have heard Ghulam Ali is uncompromising in these matters – he will not pee in other people’s toilet and he will notn cut a deal to entertain the audiences with his mellifluous music. That must bug the Thackerays because even Javed Miandad, former captain of the Pakistani cricket team and Dawood Ibrahim’s samadhi had paid a visit to Thackeray and smoothened his ruffled feathers. It must come as a shock to the Thackerays that there is someone not willing to kowtow to them (actually Shahrukh Khan was another but then he is Indian and he had the government backing him up all the way). So what better than to stall the show at the last minute – waiing for Ali to turn up and use the toilet at Matoshree. When that did not happen it was clear it would be a no show.
So this is no simple political play between two allies, considering chief minister Devendra Fadnavis had offered complete security to the show against its ally. It is much beyond petty power play and cuts closer to the bone in how the Shiv Sena has always conducted its business.
Sadly Bombay and Jagjit Singh – for the show was in his honour – is the loser.
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.
Paris. My most favourite city in the world where I spent two years in the 1990s studying for a diploma in journalism and making many friends, among them a large number of Muslims mostly immigrants from the Maghreb – the former French colonies of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Read more