On Rajiv Gandhi’s 25th death anniversary, I recall the devastation I felt when I was recalled for duty past my dinner time. I stayed closest to my place of work – a news agency – and there were no mobile phones at the time. All my colleagues were on trains on their way back home in the distant suburbs and by the time they got the message and started back, much time would have elapsed. So I was startled when some stones began to hit my third floor window and some one came tearing upstairs to inform me that two of my colleagues (peons) were at the gates, desperately asking for me. I rushed down in my night clothes and when they informed me about the emergency, my mind just went blank. I charged upstairs in tears and changed back into street clothes and got into the waiting cab to be driven back to office.

That night, I single-handedly operated the photo-fax machine and uploaded the pictures to all subscribers. Soon there were photographers from all newspapers in the city making a beeline to my office to look at pictures that I might not have sent across to them. We were the earliest to have got that technology in the city and the papers were eager for some ‘exclusive’ pictures that all would not publish the next morning. I was the first, perhaps, to see the devastating photo of Rajiv lying on the ground with clothes torn off his back and Tamil Nadu Congress leader GK Moopanar sorrowfully spreading a blanket across him – that was a picture never released and I do not know if any one ever published that in so many years. I kept up the transmissions till other colleagues arrived at four in the morning after a bath and change of clothes and then stretched out on a desk, in complete exhaustion.

Today as I see hash tags on social media avowing that Rajiv Gandhi was the one who first launched digital India and changed the way a nation came into the 21st century from the 19th century we were stuck in. I am also reminded about how my career graph shaped up parallel to India’s communication revolution. In 1984, I was assigned to cover the Lok Sabha elections in remote towns and districts – I remember strap hanging in the buses to reach the villages and then having to locate the nearest post office from where I could send either a telegram or a teleprinter message. It was a very painful exercise and there was no guarantee that the report would reach my head office the same day – some reports took three days between writing and publication.

The next election, in 1989, after covering Rajiv’s election rally in Solapur on April 14, after he flew to Mhau to commemorate Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, I trotted off to the nearest post office, again looking for another teleprinter machine and operator. The post master of that village post office was surprised. “Why do you want to send your message through teleprinter?” he asked. “We have a fax machine, Madam. If there is a supporting machine on the other side, your report will be there in minutes.”

We did have one and all I needed to do was make a long distance call to the news editor to make sure my report had not arrived garbled at the other end. In 1991, fax machines were everywhere and made use of with ease but by 1996, I was using a laptop – though I had to go looking for a working telephone to connect. By 1998, though, I had the luxury of e-mails but they might still take hours to reach the recipients. The situation improved through the elections of 1999 but by 2004, there was no doubt that my reports would be on the desk of my editor within minutes. In 2009, I was still using a lapop but now with the ease of a data card and in 2014, I did not have to tug along heavy computer bags. A tablet sat snugly in my handbag and the policemen checking me for security as I entered meetings of Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi knew exactly what it was. “Just switch on the tablet in front of us and switch on and off your mobile phone so that we are sure they are not wired for bombs,” they said. I obliged and they waved me through.

I agree the ease of communication today is entirely owing to Rajiv Gandhi – I still remember a visit to Russia in 1992 where foreign correspondents working for British and American newspapers told me India was an important transit point for their messages – the former Soviet Union had still not improved their communication facilities and only the lines to India worked. So they sent their reports to their New Delhi bureaus which faxed them onwards to their native countries. That was not just lack of development or backwardness – Soviet bosses believed in not giving too much freedom to communicate to their people lest information become a weapon in their hands against governments. Rajiv Gandhi, though, never thought of anything as bizarre as that. I remember attending one of his events where he earnestly and passionately told listeners, “The industrial revolution bypassed India. We cannot afford the information revolution to do the same.’’

There is much that I admired about Rajiv Gandhi but what I am very greatful to him for is this – I had to book fixed time calls to communicate with my parents when he first became Prime Minister. Gradually, I could get to a STD booth and wait in a long line to call my parents. Then one of these booth owners offered me the facility of the conference call so that I could sit at home and immediately connect with my parents. Then I got my first mobile phone in 1996 and suddenly I could talk with them whenever I wished.

Can anyone in the younger generation even imagine a life without that mobile phone? He/she has only Rajiv Gandhi to thank for that.

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At the tenth anniversary celebrations of his party, Raj Thackeray tried to gloss over his growing irrelevance in the nation’s polity by saying that everyone in the world – except perhaps Lata Mangeshkar – has been through bad patches and setbacks.

“Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee, greater leaders than me also had downfalls and went through bad patches,” so he was no exception.

While he is right about bad patches coming into the lives of almost all individuals or leaders, his is an exceptional case in the sense that he has brought about his own setback.

When, just before the Lok Sabha elections, Thackeray had a meeting with Nitin Gadkari and very few people noticed that at the time, Gadkari had had no locus standi to ask Raj to refrain from contesting against the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra.

That is an appeal that should have come from either Narendra Modi, who was then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate or at best from Rajnath Singh, the then BJP party president.

Gadkari had not been authorised by either and, indeed, he had not been overstepping his brief. He was actually meeting Raj merely to appeal to him to withdraw his agitation against the toll nakas in the state, which had been causing damage to a lot of vested interests including the Indian Roads Bureau and Gadkari even then had interests in the IRB.

Raj did halt the agitation but went ahead to contest the Lok Sabha polls against both the BJP and the Sena for that is a promise he had not made to Gadkari or any one else.

But the public perception that he was running with the hares and hunting with the hounds caused him lasting damage and he was unable to recover from that duplicitous image even during the assembly elections six months later.

Raj’s politics has always been reactionary, he derives his strengths from opposing various governments than from implementing or formulating policies of his own and that is something now even his supporters are able to see quite clearly. In the intervening period, he found little to oppose the new government’s policies unless it was to point out the flaws in the policy regarding smart cities but that hardly made for a street agitation.

Then he found a burning issue in the government’s decision to give 70,000 permits to new auto-rickshaws in Mumbai and decided that these will be reduced to cinders. But like the toll agitation, this was not so much about concern for the common people or even the Marathi-speaking people of the state as an opportunity to make good again. For those auto-rickshaws were all coming from the Bajaj factory in Pune and now Raj had someone to target.

Rahul Bajaj, however, has his measure and when he said, “We know where he is coming from and where to send him back.”

I knew the agitation would not last long. But even I was surprised at the speed with which Raj Thackeray withdrew this particular agitation. He modified his statement within just two days to say that no new auto-rickshaws were being seen on the streets and if the government was issuing these permits to old ones, those vehicles should be spared from burning.

There was, indeed, a clamour to slap sedition charges on Raj Thackeray for inciting violence but I do not believe that is what frightened or persuaded him to retreat.

I believe Rahul Bajaj knew exactly how to turn the screws on the MNS chief and I must doff my cap to the government – for all that the Congress was clamouring for his arrest, I am glad the state did not fall into that trap and turn him into a martyr.

The Congress, when in power, had been unable to take much action against him except after things went terribly out of hand. But, perhaps, with some good advice from Bajaj, this government did not even have to wait that long to defang this crouching tiger.

As a result, Raj Thackeray seems to have made himself even more of a laughing stock than he was before and many of his workers and supporters are sorely disappointed with him for not just withdrawing the agitation with lightning speed but for having started something, in the first place, that could only have ended up endangering their lives and liberties.

Raj Thackeray ought not to lose sight of two facts — he is no Bal Thackeray who could ask his Shiv Sainiks to jump from the 17th floor of a building for no good reason and they would do it for him eyes shut, no questions asked.

Secondly, no political party is ever built on blackmail, bargaining or setting one group of people against another. Bal Thackeray built the Shiv Sena on the plank of Mumbai for Maharashtrians. At the time, most Maharashtrians were a deprived lot and poor in their own city whereas the rich were almost always non-Maharashtrian and exploitative of the locals.

That is no longer true and the Maharashtrian youth is as aspirational as the rest of India.

They do not want to get stuck in jobs like auto-rickshaw drivers or peanut vendors. If he does not evolve a programme in keeping with the name of his party — navnirman – I am afraid, the temporary setback he talks about will become permanent and the downfall will be everlasting.

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I wrote the following article for ‘Femina’, a few years ago when hey wanted a debate on why one loves India – or not. I chose to `love’ India – another senior colleague had very valid reasons to make the contrary arguments for many of the things happening today that were happening even then on a smaller scale.

But many of my arguments would be seen as anti-national today. Eunuchs will be spat upon, anybody throwing even a barb at Narendra Modi would be slapped with sedition, sitting in dharna against the government to protest your rights would be a strict no-no. But do you know? I thought hard about it and decided I still love India, her warts and all, and will fight hard to keep her spirit and chaotic freedoms alive.

What is happening today is an aberration, civil society and fellow journalists are finally sanding up to the government and I have hope.

Here is the text in full:

Why I love India

I don’t have any big notions about why I love India – I just do. India is my one big love affair and I think that affair began several years ago on the edges of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the middle of a group of transvestites who had tripped me up, one frosty winter night, with a stocking tied between two trees.

They were mostly Latin American and they hated women – that’s all they saw me as, a threat to their business. Paris was then the world capital of transvestite prostitution and that morning on my way to work, I came across the police hauling up a magnificent sample of a sex change operation: High cheek bones so beautifully coloured, mascara running down his/her teary cheeks, such long endless legs, sheer stockings, all dressed in black. Her only colour — the red slash of a mouth.

Curiosity led me to look for a story in the woods of Paris where these transvestites hung out but they didn’t want me around. I thought it might be my skin or the fact that I was Asian but it was just that I was born a woman.

As I picked myself up resentfully and ran for my life amid their screeching threats, I could not help but recall how a few years earlier back home in India, on a train from Bombay to Howrah (enroute to Nagpur), I found myself in a `Ladies’ compartment full of eunuchs, dressed in saris and calling themselves “srimatis”.

The sight of them gave me the fright of my life (I was the only woman in that six-berth compartment) and then it was I who was screeching – at the ticket checker. When my hysteria subsided, I realised they were no threat. Far from wanting to molest or murder me, they had decided to ‘adopt’ me. They gave up a lower berth for my upper one to help me avoid trouble climbing up and down going to the toilet at night, one of them woke with me every time to hold the latchless toilet door for me against the men lolling in the aisles, did not allow me to get down even once to fetch water, shared their dinner with me – and all they wanted in return was that I read to them from their colourful film magazines (they were all unlettered) stories about their favourite heroes and heroines!

“That is my country,” I told myself even as I ran through the woods for the nearest metro station. “So what am I doing here?”

I had a five-year residence permit and I gave it all up in less than two years to return to India. As I told my African and other Asian colleagues who thought I was a fool to give up the joys of the West for the troubles of the East, “I think it is more worth my while writing about eunuchs of my own country than about the transvestites of Paris!”

They did not understand, nor did I expect them to. I just could not explain to them the innumerable freedoms of a democracy that India provides which other countries don’t.

I can squat anywhere in India with a placard to protest for my rights; in Japan, that’s just not possible. As part of Sunil Dutt’s team during his anti-nuclear walkathon in the 1980s from Nagasaki to Hiroshima, we were denied permission for even a maun vrat in the parks of Japanese cities en route. We can throw a stone at our Prime Minister and break her nose (remember Indira Gandhi’s bleeding nose in the eighties?) and the world will soon forget who did that (I don’t remember, does anyone?). But why is an Indian scientist who dared to voice criticism against then President George Bush still rotting in a US jail today?

We can walk through the streets of India in large groups, shouting slogans, singing, dancing. It would not be a crime. I and my Pakistani colleague were hauled up (thankfully, not arrested) by the Paris cops for singing Bollywood songs at the top of our voice on our way home one night because they could not understand the words and thought we were indulging in some unique kind of protest!

And, yes, no beggar in my country would tell me, “Me today, you tomorrow,” as one in London did, trying to bully me into parting with my money.

So with all the real and intractable problems that India may have, that’s why I love her, warts and all!

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Recently a BJP ideologue from Gujarat, Hemant Fitter, called me to express his anguish. “I will never vote for the BJP again in my life. It will be ghor paap (a cardinal sin) if I do so and I will have to burn in hell.”
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Nearly a decade ago, I found myself appointed, out of the blue, to the advisory panel of the Censor Board. I did not known why I should have been there, I was no film critic nor a political affiliate of any group or party. Read more

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I wonder how many people in India know that before Shakshi Maharaj who wants every Indian woman to produce four children and former RSS sarsanghchalak K Sudershan who had wanted us to produce five and remain barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen all our lives, there was a creature called Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania who had had the same idea about women in his own country? Read more

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As the reconciliation talks between the Shiv Sena and the BJP got underway on Friday, my colleague Sayli Mankikar tweeted rather tongue-in-cheek – reporters hanging outside Matoshree with Odomos. Last time many of them had caught dengue! Read more

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Writing on Children’s day, I cannot help but recall a childhood/teenage wish that will never be fulfilled, at least not in this life – I wish I had been born old enough to romance Jawaharlal Nehru. Read more

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Years ago after a rather scintillating interview with Bal Thackeray, I thought I had a sort of `scoop’ of the century. The Shiv Sena was ruling Maharashtra in alliance with the BJP and the 13 day government of Atal Behari Vajpayee had just reinstated the Srikrishna commission probing the 1992-93 Bombay riots, which had earlier been dismissed by the state government. Thackeray was livid. He sent for me when I called him for a reaction – it was worth every minute spent at Matoshree to watch him letting off steam. I recorded the entire interview. Read more

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On Teachers’ Day today, I can see a lot of tributes being paid by all people to all their teachers. I learnt a lot from most of them but the tributes I saw got me thinking if there was any one in particular that I could pick out as particularly influencing my life, education and career – sadly in early life and school days I cannot think of one. Read more

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