Reading a story this morning about India’s most popular radio story-teller Neelesh Misra in The Washington Post by Rama Lakshmi from New Delhi I was reminded of a post I wrote about him on January 11, 2011. (It just struck me that it was 1/11/11.) It was headlined ‘Meet Neelesh Misra, the mayor of Memory Town.’ I am republishing it because four years down the line it has a nice little juxtaposition in a leading American newspaper. So here is to Neelesh, again.
Neelesh Misra (Pic: www.neeleshmisra.com)
Neelesh Misra has a look of brewing melancholy about to give birth to poetry. More often than not it does. He also lugs on his young shoulders a disproportionate weight of nostalgia. At 37 he might have gathered enough of that but when you consider that he has been nostalgic about the life past since he was in his 20s one begins to get some measure of the man.
I have known the inordinately talented journalist for as long as he has been a journalist. That would be more than 15 years. Fresh out of a media school Neelesh came to my office in New Delhi in the 1990s, looking for a job as a journalist. Tarun Basu, my editor at what was then called India Abroad News Service and now Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), asked me to “see if he has it in him.” I did the only way I could. I gave him a raw copy from a particularly bad reporter and asked him to turn it around. He came back half an hour later with a decidedly improved version of that story.
Neelesh had none of the diffidence of a rookie but he did well to temper his self-assurance lest Tarun and I mistook it to be arrogance. Neelesh got a job at the IANS and went on to do a lot of excellent work. A couple of weeks into his new job he sensed that in me he had a colleague who was freewheeling and with a poetic/creative bent of mind. That’s when he started sharing his ambitions to some day become a song writer in Hindi cinema, author “serious” books and movie scripts, compose and sing songs and perhaps do a radio show. A decade and a half later everything that Neelesh told me he wanted to do, he has either done or is doing.
He has so far written three “serious” books and one novel, songs for close to 30 movies, finished two scripts, founded a band and, just yesterday, started hosting his own radio show. Other than that he wants to do something transformative in rural India. Neelesh carries his “small town” sensibilities with such gusto that one almost begins to feel guilty for having lived mostly in big cities. His radio show is characteristically called ‘Yaad Sheher’ (literally Memory Town) in Hindi and is broadcast daily on 92.7 Big FM at 9 p.m. India time. He sent me the first show before it was broadcast to seek my feedback.
My feedback to him was: “It is an excellent show in terms of atmospherics, voice modulation, song selection,thematic direction and narrative thread.
After an opening like that I am sure you apprehend a “however” rattling behind scraping the road. Well, there is. That however has to do with me personally and not you or your potential listeners. It has a wistfulness laced with a bit of melancholy which does not always work for me. As I said that has to with me personally, bereft as I am of many human attributes.
You are a broadcast natural from all angles. The only thing I would suggest is that you minimize a sense of longing. A bit of a zing would go a long way. Thoda Gulzar kum kijiye aur thoda Majrooh laiye.”
The last reference is something that only those who are familiar with the writing styles of various Hindi cinema song writers would understand. I can explain it but there is really no point. So I will spare my non-Indian readers.
In many ways I consider Neelesh to be a compelling example of the attitudinally transformed India of the past two decades, a country where young people are bursting with ideas and have both the talent and drive to accomplish them.
P.S.: The only creative collaboration that Neelesh and I engaged in was a short notice inside our wire service’s rest room asking its users not to forget to flush. The notice attempted to humorously tell the users about a magical invention called the toilet flush. I wrote it in English and Neelesh translated it into Hindi.
This is a question that has dogged me since childhood. Do we, the human race, increase the mass of Earth as our population grows and we produce/build more things? Or does our growth make no difference since we are not really creating new materials but merely rearranging what already exists? Is whatever we create artificially miniscule in comparison to the overall earthly mass?
It is obvious that when we were about three million people some 35,000 years ago we were less burdensome for Earth than what we became as a billion people in 1804 or 7.2 billion people now. My question is have we by our sheer numbers and industry in terms of all that we manufacture added significantly to our planet’s mass? I am not even sure if I am even asking the right question whether we actually do add in real terms?
Earth’s mass is supposed to be 5,972,600,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg or 5.9736 x 1024 kg or 5.9 sextillion tons. According to some estimates together humans weigh about 340 billion kilograms. The latest scientific wisdom suggests at any given time there are million trillion insects alive on our planet. If you weigh the entire population of ants they might end up weighing as much as us but that is not confirmed. There are so many variables once you begin to look at other life forms and how much they weigh. I presume Earth’s mass of 5.9 sextillion tons factors in everything that there is, including our hubris. I am pretty sure though that Donald Trump is not included in our collective mass. He is very rich and unique and has to be dealt with separately. (Sarcasm).
We also have to take into account the net gain in Earth’s mass because of cosmic dust, meteors, conversion of solar energy and so on to calculate the net gain. According to some estimates things that just fall on Earth on a regular basis such as cosmic dust and meteors add 400,000 tons annually. Then there are net losses to account for such as gas and heat escaping because of human activity as well as natural phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.There are many other losses that add up to a reasonable amount. In short, I do not know whether Earth has gained or lost over its 4.54 billion years of existence. If you use such a vast time scale, then it is obvious that there has been a very significant change in our planet’s mass.
My question is rather elementary. Did we, for instance, by building hundreds of millions of buildings add to the planet’s mass or did we make no significant difference because all that material essentially came from Earth? Even if one factors in all the artificially made materials that do not exist in Nature is their mass big enough to alter the planetary mass in a recognizable manner? These are the questions that trouble me occasionally. Of course, neither the questions nor their answers have any immediate value to my life or for that matter anyone else’s but that does not inhibit their existence.
Images: The European Central Bank website**
Let me invoke my bogus tangential connection to Greece as it struggles to pay up its spiraling debt. Quite apart from being a fellow debtor who empathizes with its plight, I also happen to belong to the Nagar community which claims its lineage to Alexander and many of soldiers who stayed behind in India* around 326 BCE and intermixed.
Growing up, I frequently heard elders in my family claiming Greek ancestry for whatever it is worth. It sounded hilarious then. It does so now. However, for the limited purpose of this post, I am going with their claim. So yes Greece, I feel your pain both as a debtor and as the place where my ancestors came from.
At its heart the Greek crisis is quite simple. It spent the money it did not have and continues to do so. That is how indebtedness works. I am not going to get into the whole complicated Eurozone politics and the jostling that attends the workings of the European Union and the tough love being shown by Germany. I am not going into all that mainly because I have not kept up with it. Nevertheless, I take a different view of the Greek crisis.
Greece is the fountainhead of the Western civilization. Europe is because Ancient Greece was. It is as simple as that. Millennial royalties of things Greek, including democracy, art, culture, aesthetics, the idea of cities and so on, alone would mean that Europe owes Greece and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future rather than the other way around. Everywhere you look in Europe you find a legacy of Greece. So purely as a matter of intellectual property the European Union needs to pay up and keep paying until Greece and Greece alone thinks it is enough. I am being somewhat facetious and facile but not wholly so.
Going by some reports, Greece owes 323 billion euros or $352.7 billion, which is more than 175% of its GDP. The wire service Reuters calculates it to be 242.8 billion euros or $271 billion. Irrespective of which number you choose that is a sizable debt but nowhere so high as to not being able to more than offset it against its civilizational dues from Europe. As I mentioned in the preceding paragraph, Europe owes Greece and not Greece Europe. This may sound like the argument of a lunatic—and at some level it may well be—but given that the whole international financial system is lunatic, so what? Remember we print some fancy designs on paper and call it money and then kill for it. What is so sacrosanct about it? Nothing at all. Print some more and distribute it. If you run out, print more.
* I use India in a modern sense. ** The Euros are the best designed currency in the world.
A World by Maximilian Lenz (1869-1948)
Zulf by Mayank Chhaya
This morning several subjects jostled in my mind to be written about. When that happens I visit the Google Art Project for a visual distraction. I found one in Maximilian Lenz, an Austrian painter, graphic artist and sculptor. This particular painting titled ‘A World’ struck me and I had hoped to do my visual tribute to him. Instead, as I began painting, I ended up with a painting I have called ‘Zulf’ which in Urdu means tresses.
Lenz’s works tend to be dreamlike. From the few that I saw I found blue to be the predominant hue in his works. That partly explains why I, while trying to emulate him, began with blue.
Every time I see a master’s work it hits in my stomach how bereft I am of genuine talent. Let me just give you some detail of two of the women in Lenz’s work to make my point. It takes more talent to draw their hands than to whatever I am likely to produce in my entire life. I mean that.
I did the following piece for the IANS wire which has been distributed worldwide. I am republishing here because that piece had a couple of minor editing errors. Those have been fixed.
‘The Patels of Filmindia: Pioneers of Indian Film Journalism’
By Sidharth Bhatia, Published by Indus Source Books,
184 pages, Rs. 2000
By Mayank Chhaya
In a country swirling with cultural undercurrents there is one area that has remained largely underserved by writerly attention. Although in recent years there have been several books written about specific aspects of Hindi cinema, the field remains rich with possibilities.
Mining those riches with his fourth book ‘The Patels of Filmindia: Pioneers of Indian Film Journalism’ is journalist and writer Sidharth Bhatia who has emerged as an effective and efficient chronicler of India’s pop culture.
Published by Indus Source Books, ‘The Patels of Filmindia’ shows how rich the untapped Hindi cinema journalism and criticism from the 1930s onward was as a cultural resource. Beyond that, Bhatia brings to life the story of a film journalist with a withering gaze at the cinema whose foundation was still being sculpted. In Hollywood, the story of the legendary film journalist Baburao Patel and his equally illustrious wife Sushila Rani would have long been made into a larger than life movie. In India, it has fallen on a chronicler like Bhatia to serve it as a coffee table book.
Before this book, Bhatia had written three others ‘The Navketan Story: Cinema Modern’, ‘Amar Akbar Anthony: Masala, Madness, Manmohan Desai’ and ‘India Psychedelic: The Story of a Rocking Generation.’ All four books examine aspects of India’s popular, even urbane, culture and its evolution from the 1950s onward. It is a space that is rich with stories as long as someone patient and meticulous is willing to tell them. Bhatia now straddles that space.
Bhatia jumps into a rich resource in the past issues of Filmindia, later rechristened as ‘Mother India’ to construct a fascinating account of arguably India’s most inventive and feared film journalist and editor who began publishing Filmindia in 1935. Patel with his sharp unsparing wit and passionate interest in cinema and those who make it all happen became the most influential albeit it dreaded film journalist in Bombay during a period when Hindi cinema was still striking its roots. Along with his equally respected wife Sushila Rani the Patels were a power couple of the period.
“Baburao was an extraordinary editor—he practically wrote the entire magazine himself till Sushila Rani came and shared some of the burden with him. His rapport with his readers was tremendous— they not only admired and respected him but also adored him. He got letters by the hundreds, even thousands, asking his views on everything under the sun, and he gladly obliged. His question and answer column was extremely popular, running into several pages in the magazine and covering issues from the beauty of a film star to international politics,” Bhatia writes.
“Sushila Rani, as I found, was equally eclectic in her broad interests. Apart from being a superb classical singer, she had been an actress and a journalist. She came from a highly cultured and liberal family in which girls were expected to get educated and find careers, or at least have interests outside studies. She could, and did, talk about everything under the sun, from politics to the arts, and a lot about her passion, classical music,” he says.
Bhatia also quotes the legendary Urdu short story writer Sadat Hasan Manto as saying this about Patel: “Baburao wrote with eloquence and power. He had a sharp and inimitable sense of humour, often barbed. There was a tough guy assertiveness about his writing. He could also be venomous in a way that no other writer of English in India has ever been able to match.”
Reading early pages of the book one sees unfold the charming nascent history of Hindi cinema as captured by Patel and revived by Bhatia. The book offers eminently readable insights into the buildings blocks of India’s pop culture as it came to take birth and flourish in Bombay/Mumbai. That this year marks the 80th year of Filmindia’s founding underscores how closely it paralleled the trajectory of Hindi cinema itself.
Patel practiced what could only be described as activist, advocacy journalism which frequently prompted him to be a guardian of Indian culture still reeling under British Raj. India’s independence was still a good 12 years away when Filmindia began but Patel was already in the activist mode regularly reprimanding those he thought were undermining the essence of India.
Bhatia writes: “He (Patel) was extremely critical of what he saw as anti-Indian propaganda by American producers, especially of their tendency to use Indians in stereotypical roles such as rajahs, yogis and crooks. That, he said, was forgivable, since it showed ignorance, but lately there was anti-Indian propaganda that was objectionable. He mentioned a film, Kid Millions, wherein Gandhi was made fun of; “we are glad to report that when our representative called the office of United Artists (the producers of the film), he was assured that the portions objected to as holding Mahatma Gandhi to ridicule in caricature have been expunged.” Kid Millions was an American comedy with Ethel Merman and Eddie Kantor, who played a Brooklyn kid who had to go to Egypt to claim a fortune he had inherited.”
‘The Patels of Filmindia’ is rich with images of hand-painted posters of the movies and film stars of the era that lend it the kind of flourish ideal for its coffee table format. However, at its heart, given Bhatia’s discipline as a seasoned hard news journalist, it is a serious reflection on the historic times when a nation-state was discovering itself. The book also talks at some length about Patel’s reinvention of the journal more as a political platform.
For instance, in the August 1947 edition titled “15th of August” Patel wrote: “We must patiently accept Pandit Nehru’s outbursts, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s jibes, Gandhiji’s platonic prayers, Mrs Sarojini Naidu’s Shakespearian melodrama and a thousand other vagaries and vacillations of our new ruling aristocracy born in the British jails, if we must have even this bit of adulterated independence.”
Bhatia takes care to cover all aspects of Patel’s rather compelling and colorful personality of the kind that has not been seen since in film journalism. For someone who began as a movie journalist Patel’s savvy as a political mind and that too avowedly right-of-the-center is also effectively captured here.
One of the things pointed out about my blog, apart from its eminent readability, is its quirky diversity. Of course, people do not use those exact words. I am distilling an assortment of comments into my own words which do accurately represent the essence of what the few who read it regularly say.
Speaking of quirky diversity I have decided to republish something I wrote on June 5, 2013. So here:
(Left) Beena Rai as Mumtaz and Pradeep Kumar as Shah Jehan in ‘Taj Mahal’ (1963)
I have never quite seen any point to marking anniversaries of anything but in so much as it helps me peg this post, let me mark the 50th anniversary of this movie and song. ‘Taj Mahal’, directed by M. Sadiq, was released in 1963 and it featured Pradeep Kumar as Shehzada Khurram, later to become Shah Jehan, and Beena Rai as Arjuman Banoo, later to become Mallika-e-alam Mumtaz.
To make it more graspable for the less informed, it is a love story that purportedly led to the creation of the Taj Mahal. Shah Jehan or A'la Azad Abul Muzaffar Shahab ud-Din Mohammad Khurram, was the fifth Mughal emperor of what is now India. He reigned between 1628 and 1658. Mumtaz was his queen for whom he built the Taj.
This particular song, “Jo baat tujh mein hai”, has been playing in loop both in my mind and on YouTube for the past few days.The only way I can purge myself of it is by writing about. It’s a lovely song sung with his trademark mellifluousness by Mohammed Rafi, brilliantly composed by Roshan and written by the great Sahir Ludhianvi. You don’t have to know the language to enjoy its cadence and to know that it is a romantic number where the Mughal emperor is reminiscing about his queen’s beauty, saying things like, “What you possess in person is so lacking in your portrait”. Trust me, it sounds so much more telling in Urdu.
He also says “Rango mein tera aks dhala, tu na dhal saki, Sanso ki aanch, jism ki khushboo na dhal saki. Tujh mein jo loch hai, Meri tehrir me nahi” (The colors capture your image but not you, Not the warmth of your breath, nor the fragrance of your body. The delicateness that you possess is missing in my description).
I am guessing the emperor and his favorite queen are not together for some reason, which is a great excuse for Shah Jehan to break into poetry as imagined by Sahir. This is, of course, a Hindi movie which may not necessarily accurately depict a day in the life of a Mughal emperor. Presuming it does, it must have been a great life, matching the colors of his royal silken robes with the tapestry, upholstery and linen of his king-sized bed. They are all various hues of ochre and it is hard to decide where the tapestry ends and upholstery begins and where the upholstery ends and the robes begin. It may not sound like that but I am actually praising this color coordination.
The indolent hedonism of the Mughal sultanate lording over a fabulously rich India must have been some life for its emperors. Even the vain royal white pigeons seemed to obediently curtsy in the courtyard as Mumtaz dances gently, caressing her face with a giant feather from a different bird. She also teasingly lifts the sheer white veil to the strains of the Sarangi and smiles in apparent acknowledgement of her lover’s poetry. The Mughal emperors, with the exception of Aurangzeb who disdained poetry, music and entertainment in any form generally, were known to be partial toward the pleasures of the senses. They did find a lot of time from their statecraft to indulge themselves. It is hardly surprising that Aurangzeb, not distracted by such things that distracted his father Shah Jehan, managed to pull in a hefty annual tribute of over 3.8 million pounds in 1690. In any case, what dad splurged on the Taj had to be recouped.
Coming back to the song which has triggered this post I wonder what Sahir might have said if Shah Jehan was a 21st century ruler. Perhaps “Jo baat tujh mein hai tere Instagram mein nahi” (What you possess in person is so lacking in your Instagram).
None of my snickering mockery reduces the loveliness of the song, nor the opulence of Shah Jehan and Mumtaz’s lives. As if to rub it in, I write this sitting in my unfinished basement from whose overhead beams spiders and other insects occasionally fall on my desk.
The Emergency in India happened so long ago that some people now remember it with fond nostalgia. It was yesterday, 40 years ago (June 25, 1975) that then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, feeling besieged by perceived and real threats to her power, imposed it.
I was 14 then and remember it vividly albeit mostly as billboards full of lofty big brotherly exhortations. One of them, which I remember even now, was in the Gujarati language and went “Athaag parishram no koi vikalp nathi. (There is no alternative to hard (relentless) work.”
The effects of Gandhi’s brazen political excess on the ground were rather useful. Although I had no bank account then because I had no money (I have a bank account now but still no money), I remember that the otherwise lazy bank employees came to work at sharp 9 a.m. and actually worked. I also remember the local post office and its staff in Sharda Nagar, Ahmedabad, becoming courteous to the point of being obsequious. Buses and trains were cleaner and ran on time and bus conductors returned precise change while train ticket black marketers disappeared.
If one uses only these trivial and unintended consequences, then the Emergency was a good thing and deserves to cherished with fondness. The problem is it was not and it never is. It was the response of a deeply paranoid leader who thought the rest of the country was ganging up against her. Political opponents were jailed, dissent ruthlessly stifled, newspapers shockingly censored and political power grabbed and concentrated in a handful of, well, hands of those close to Prime Minister Gandhi, predominantly her out-of-control son, Sanjay. Sanjay Gandhi became a notorious symbol of a mass and forced sterilization campaign. “Nasbandhi” (Vasectomy) became the most widely understood and dreaded word of the era across India. Coercive vasectomies became the order of the day. The imposition the Emergency seemed to resoundingly prove Western doomsayers that India was incapable of and undeserving of democracy.
Tragically and as it inevitably happens during such times large sections of the Indian middle class seemed to have taken to the Emergency rather well because in their limited world things appeared to have improved dramatically. So what if a few politicians were picked up during midnight raids and dumped in prison and newspapers were censored as long buses and train ran on time and police constables stopped asking for bribes? I am speculating here but I think Indira Gandhi sensed that the Emergency would work well, even if it for a limited period, within the middle class.
For Indians of my age then, the Emergency meant something distant and of next to no consequence. I sensed things were wrong but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The billboards, or hoardings are they are called, in Ahmedabad that carried portraits of Sanjay Gandhi and Indira Gandhi did not seem particularly ominous. I vaguely recall some neighbor using the declaration of the Emergency as an effective child-disciplining tactic. It was a version of “Tofan karish to Sanjay Gandhi pakdi jashe (If you misbehave, Sanjay Gandhi will arrest you).” The Emergency came handy for the middle class parents and as if getting arrested by Sanjay Gandhi’s goons was a picnic.
To mark the anniversary there has been a debate in India whether an emergency can be declared again. Lal Krishna Advani, the deeply slighted grandee of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who was a prominent opponent of the Emergency and was in fact jailed, thinks so. Of course, it is always possible that a power-drunk paranoid leader might do so but I think it would be infinitely more difficult to make it effective even if someone was a dick enough to impose it.
For the record there is nothing even remotely redeeming about such an imposition even if it means buses and trains run on time because all it means that you are reaching on time a place where there is no freedom and civil liberties are severely curtailed. So stop looking for ways to mitigate it. There are none.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (Photo:www.bobbyjindal.com)
Notwithstanding that he is a gifted bore and that I share none of his values and perspectives and views, I wish Louisiana Governor the very best in his quest to become the president of the United States of America. What he is is a product of his naturally endowed intellect and hard work. He is doing the perfectly honorable thing of seeking a higher office than what he already occupies. The man has a larger good at heart. All of that is commendable stuff.
I could not care less about his rejection of his ethnically specific description as Indian American and instead insisting on being just called American. I have zero emotional response to the fact that his parents come from India. It holds no significance for me that his lineage is Indian which he has now all but rejected. All of those things are extraneous to his run for president. I will have no particular reaction if he becomes president or fails to win his party’s nomination. I couldn’t have less stake in things.
There is something about a preamble like this that tells you instantly that it will be followed by giant skepticism. Actually, what I am going to do is republish a post I wrote about him on May 8, 2011. Here it is:
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal's birth certificate
Let’s start, just for the heck of it, an utterly churlish, mean-spirited and unfounded controversy about Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s gratuitous decision to release his birth certificate. And to achieve that objective, let’s use the very argument his own Republican Party (at least some of them) uses when it comes to the question of when life begins—at conception, actual birth or somewhere in between.
Jindal, whose given name was Piyush, was born on June 10, 1971 in Baton Rouge to Amar and Raj Jindal. Amar Jindal secured a green card under a 1965 law allowing persons with "exceptional ability in the sciences or arts". Raj Jindal got hers as a spouse. The problem is by the time they arrived in the United States on February 1, 1971 Raj Jindal was three months pregnant with the future Louisiana governor. This is where things can be made, if you are a nut case fueled by zealotry, controversial.
If life begins right at conception, as many Republicans and others so firmly believe it does, then technically Jindal was already a person formed in India. He arrived in utero. Does that disqualify him from seeking the presidency of the United States? He may have been “delivered” in Baton Rouge but he became a “person” outside the country. Is that going to be an issue? Can that be used against him by precisely the kind of fanatics he seeks to preemptively and causelessly outsmart?
Also, what he has released is a “Certificate of Live Birth”, which was derided and rejected in President Barack Obama’s case by the very people the governor is indirectly pandering to. What about his long-form certificate? Does that really exist? Or does it contain some incriminating information such as whether he did a bhangra jig the moment he was born? Why did he feel the need to change his name from the very Indian Piyush to the very American Bobby? Was his conversion to Christianity a pose and a politically expedient move? Did the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of Indian freedom fighters in 1919 by the British officer General R E H Dyer in the state of Punjab from where his parents come form their view of the white people? And did that connection, by implication, influence the young Piyush’s views too? And if it did, what are those views?
Do you see how quickly and easily this could be turned into a vicious little campaign flirting with racism? That’s the point I am trying to make. The move is superfluous.
I am assuming that before anyone rises to any high public office, most of all the president of the U.S., he or she has gone through enough official scrutiny to have already met the standards of authenticity.
It is not for me to second-guess Governor Jindal’s motivations behind releasing the certificate. Perhaps it is his genuine conviction that all those who have aspirations to seek U.S. presidency must prove upfront that they were indeed born in this country. Perhaps he is taking a principled stand of practicing what he might preach. Perhaps it is a combination of these two plus its potential to score some brownie points.
Whatever may be his case, for me it is a political ploy which is worthless.