Evil Reporter Chick

Random thoughts in war and peace

Archive for the category “India”

Death: I’ve had 13 years to think

The most sacred cremation place in India: Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night.

A body lies on the steps of Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, where funeral pyres burn day and night. Concepts of death are very different in many Indian communities.

I’ve been immersed in writing about death after spending a week in Varanasi at a home where ailing, elderly Hindus go to end their lives. They want to die there because they believe dying within the boundaries of the ancient city of Kashi will mean moksha, or salvation for the soul.

The story — I will write more about that later — took me back to the deaths of my own parents in 2001. I cremated my father, Debabrata Basu, 13 years ago.

Every year, especially on March 24, I think about the events of that day. Of bringing his body home to our flat in Kolkata. Of going to Park Circus Market to buy garlands of marigolds and bouquets of white, fragrant Rajanigandhas (tuber roses). Of all the people who came to pay their last respects. Family. Friends. My father’s students and colleagues from the Indian Statistical Institute.

I think of how summer had already cut spring short that year. The temperature soared beyond 90 degrees as we made our way to the crematorium in Kalighat. I waited with my father’s body, under a hot sun. I felt exposed to the entire world, for seven hours. Time stood still then. I looked down at his gaunt face, his cold body. I touched his hand from time to time. Was it to make sure he really was gone? Physically, he was.

But his soul was free. He would be with me always, I thought.

I also lost a dear friend recently. Lateef Mungin, a colleague at CNN and before that, at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, died after suffering seizures. He was only 41.

I attended ‘Teef’s funeral at an African-American Baptist church in suburban Atlanta. Everything about it was so decidedly different than what I had seen at the cremation grounds in Kolkata and most recently in Varanasi. The way a body is laid out. They way we honor a person. They way we say goodbye.

In the last few days, death has again entered my life with the story of the missing Malaysia Airlines jet. I spoke with Mr. K.S. Narendran, whose wife. Chandrika Sharma, was on that flight. This is what he wrote to his friends last week:

I remain focused on what we have at hand by way of information, and stay with the knowledge that Chandrika is strong and courageous, that her goodness must count for something, somewhere. I carry firmly the faith that the forces of life are eternal, immutable and ever present to keep the drama ever moving. In the ultimate analysis, I am neither favored nor deserted. No one is.

(You can read the entire story on CNN.)

I admired Mr. Narendran’s quiet strength and how he coped with the knowledge that his wife may never come back home. It was a stark contrast to the way many of us display our anxiety and grief.

We all have to come to terms with dying. We will all die one day. That is certain. But there is so much uncertainty about what happens afterwards, about what we believe happens to us after our physical presence on Earth has ended.

Do you believe in heaven? In hell? Do you believe we possess souls?

Hindus believe in rebirth. They see it as another cycle of testing for one’s soul. That’s why people go to Benaras to die. That’s why they take God’s name and hope for moksha that will put an end to that undesirable cycle. It is an alien idea for Christians, Jews and Muslims. But who’s to say?

I am not sure I will ever come to any concrete conclusions. But I do know this. I feel my parents’ presence within me. And that will never go away.

With Malice Toward One and All. A legendary writer is silenced

Khushwant Singh was 99.

Khushwant Singh spared no one in his newspaper columns.

When I first started out in my career as a reporter, most of the journalists I admired were from America or Europe. There were very few English-language journalists in my homeland who really stood out. Khushwant Singh was an exception.

Singh died Thursday at his home in Delhi. He was 99 and by all accounts, he’d led an incredibly full life. Still, he will be missed in so many ways.

Singh was undeniably India’s most prolific writer. From countless newspaper columns to more than 100 books, Singh penned words that people remembered. He was uninhibited in his writing. Witty. Funny. Acerbic. His column was called “With Malice Toward One and All” and he made a reputation of sparing no one. He also was known for his love of poetry, something that endeared him to me.

Singh served as editor of several publications including The Hindustan Times in the early 1980s. They were positions that kept him surrounded by controversy. He was close to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi but that relationship soured after she instituted a state of emergency in India in 1975 and censored the press.

Singh even served in parliament — he was a member of the Rajya Sabha or upper house. But as a Sikh, he was deeply affected by the anti-Sikh riots after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. He received many honors, among them the prestigious Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award in India, which he later returned in protest of the Indian Army’s siege of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

On Twitter Thursday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called Khushwant Singh “a gifted author, candid commentator and a dear friend.. He lived a truly creative life.”

Writer and politician Shashi Tharoor tweeted this: “Mourning the passing of the irrepressible, inimitable Mr Original himself. A great loss for the world of ideas&letters.”

The letter Khushwant Singh wrote to Harmeet.

The letter Khushwant Singh wrote to Harmeet.

Singh was mourned by millions in India. Even Bollywood stars came out Thursday to say  Singh had made their lives richer.

I never had a chance to meet Singh. I wish I had. But I wanted to share with you something my friend Harmeet Shah Singh posted on his Facebook page today.

Harmeet, now a producer in CNN’s Delhi bureau, was an up and coming journalist in 1998. He was looking for a break, took a chance and called Khushwant Singh. The latter took the time to write him back.

“He didn’t know me but wrote back to a cold call on this sweet 15-paise postcard,” Harmeet said.

That to me was so telling of Khushwant Singh’s greatness. That even after all those years, after establishing himself as India’s top journalist, he took the time to respond to a young man just starting out in the business. Believe me, this sort of stuff rarely happens in India.

Khushwant Singh, RIP. You are a man who was on the top of my list way back then. And you’ll always remain there.

Singh’s best books.

Read some of his columns in The Hindustan Times.

The world’s biggest election

Get this: Starting on April 7, nearly 815 million Indians will begin casting ballots in this year’s parliamentary elections. Yes, 815 million!

That’s almost 100 million more than there were in the last election in 2009.

How to accommodate the huge number of estimate voters in the world’s most populous democracy? Polling is staggered over nine days: April 7, 9, 10, 12, 17, 24, 30 and May 7, 12. There are 930,000 polling stations and 11 million personnel — including security forces — will be deployed to facilitate the voting.

The world’s biggest election pits the ruling Congress Party against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and comes at a time when India is at a profound point in history. Who will lead the nation as it figures out how to charge forward into the future.

The vote will be counted May 16. Balloting is electronic but God help the people in charge!

“Elections to world’s largest democracy pose immense challenges with respect to logistics and man and material management,” said R. Balakrishnan, India’s deputy election commissioner.

We Americans consider ours the greatest democracy in the world. But I firmly believe the task at hand in my homeland is enormous. And if things go smoothly, India should stand proud.

Varanasi (aka Benares, aka Kashi)

Varanasi or Benares, as the British called it, is known for a lot of things.

It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, the oldest, certainly, in India.

It is the holiest of seven holy cities for Hindus, known as Kashi in olden times. The might Ganges, flows through here and yes, thousands of people visit Benares every year. Hindus come here for obvious reasons. Foreigners flock here to take in the myriad rituals of Hinduism and walk the chaos of the city, now 3.5 million strong.

There are about 3,600 temples in Benares, I’ve been told. I walked through the old city last week and it felt as though there was a temple on every corner. Many of the ancient ones are gone, razed by Muslim invaders but some date back several hundred years. The city also claims 1,400 mosques.

I was mesmerized as I walked the narrow alleyways and snaking lanes of the old city. The smell of fresh cow dung mingled with motorbike exhaust and turmeric and cumin as I walked past homes and shops that all seemed stacked one on top of another.

Indians look down on Benares, a city that reminds me of how my native Kolkata was 30 years ago. Grimy, dusty, filthy with little order to the daily machinations of life. I, too felt that way about the city on my previous visits.

This was my third trip to Benares. I understand the magic of this city a little better now. I owe that to my superb guide Nandan Upadhyay, who a few years ago began running a tour company here. Nandan knows a lot about his hometown. If you are ever here, look him up. He has a website called Groovy Tours.

I’m posting a ton of photos with this dispatch. None capture the essence of the city, really. You have to not only see but smell, hear and touch Benares. And that’s not possible with a camera. Not even with a iPhone 5s.

Going to Goa

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I’d never been to Goa until last week. My cousin Rahul and his wife Shraya moved to Goa several years ago but I hadn’t had a chance to visit them on my rapid-fire trips to India before.

The western state in India is a haven for tourists who flock to its beaches and revel in a culture that is far more progressive than in other parts of the subcontinent.

At first, it was hard for me to believe I was still in India. I’d spent the first 10 days in India in Kolkata, where many of my friends and family still aspire to tradition and abide by cultural norms set decades ago. I love my hometown but sometimes, it can feel a bit oppressive.

Goa surprised me instantly. People seemed far more laid back in their bermuda shorts and sandals and t-shirts. It felt more like coastal Mexico or Nicaragua than India. It looked that way, too, because of the influence of Portuguese architecture.

It’s warm in Goa even in January and I was saved only by the ocean breeze that flows through Rahul and Shraya’s house.

They own a multi-level space atop a hill. Their house is teeming with all sorts of art (Shraya is an artist) and colorful paint and textiles. On the top level is a massive terrace, where we sipped a cool drink at sunset and watched darkness descend.

Over four days, I ate delicious food — fish is a staple in Goa, as is chorizo. The Portuguese settled here and brought with them their culture and religion. About 27 percent of the Goan people are Catholics.

On Friday night, Rahul took me to a birthday party for one of his relatives. The crowd was largely expat. I didn’t get to speak with them much but I gathered they liked it in Goa because here, they could afford to live the kind of artsy, beachy, easy-breezy, stress-free lifestyle that appealed to them.

I’ve posted other photos of my trip on Facebook. You can check them out there.

Now I am back in Delhi. Back at work. And Goa seems distant again, as it always had been. But it was a great break. I am thankful to Rahul and Shraya for their generosity. I see another trip for me in the future. Very soon, I hope.

Suchitra

suchitra_sen

In my childhood, there weren’t too many Bengali women who had made it big enough to attain celebrity status. But there was Suchitra Sen, goddess of cinema.

Her films, usually with Uttam Kumar, were wildly popular in Kolkata.

To me, Sen was the ultimate beauty. She had a certain Bengaliness about her. She was feminine but strong. She had a “no-nonsense gravitas to care out a persona that has never been matched, let alone surpassed in Indian cinema,” film critic Saibal Chatterjee told the BBC.

I just remember my older cousins talking about her. They referred to her with only her first name. Like Greta. Or Marilyn. Legends don’t require a surname. In fact, it’s been said that idols of Lakshmi (goddess of prosperity) and Saraswati (goddess of knowledge) were modeled after Suchitra. Now, that’s some star power.

In all, Suchitra acted in 52 Bengali films and seven Hindi films. The first movie of hers that I saw was “Kamal Lata,” based on a story by famed Bengali author Sarat Chandra Chattapadhya. I was riveted by her performance, made all that much intense by the power of black and white imagery. I gazed into Suchitra’s big eyes and wanted to be like her one day. Talented, smart, strong, beautiful.

Suchitra died today in Kolkata — at the same hospital where my mother died.

Thank you for the hours of entertainment but mostly for inspiration, Suchitra. Rest in peace.

Beam me up, Scotty

panipuri

Pani puris, known as phuchkas in Kolkata, can be found on many street corners. I can eat many, many, many of these. And I will. Soon.

 

Dreaming of warm, dry winter days, pishi, pani puris on the street, a wedding, speaking Bengali and dear friends.

Wishing today were Saturday.

Wishing I could be across the world in an instant. Beam me up, Scotty.

Panesar

panesar

The etching Panesar took off a gallery wall and gave me.

A headline in my hometown newspaper brought me to tears this morning. B.P. Panesar had died.

He was a renowned artist. Water color. Oil. Etchings. He was also made a name as mentor to Shakila, a poor village woman who gained fame for her collages.

He gave away his earnings as an artist to charity. He never married and lived for many years in one room at the YMCA in central Kolkata. He died in an old people’s home, still holding paint and brush.

panesar2

Uncle Panesar and me when I was about a year old.

I knew him as Uncle Panesar. My father taught at the Indian Statistical Institute, where Panesar worked, and from the instant they met, they became fast friends. My father became an advcate for Panesar’s art. In time, he became a part of our family, especially in the years we spent living on campus in north Kolkata.

He loved to listen to my mother sing Rabindrasangeet and spend hours with my brother and me.

He held me as a baby, played with me when I was a child, encouraged me to paint as a teenager and inspired my creativity as an adult.

From early on, I found Uncle Panesar to be a calming force in my life. I’d peer into his eyes, under his thick bushy eyebrows and try to imagine what was swirling inside his head. What genius, I thought, to be able to produce such visual feasts.

I was especially enamored with Panesar’s collages made with magazine and newspaper cuttings, old pictures, bus tickets and other things people tossed in the trash. Panesar gave up his own collages to train Shakila. He was so taken with her talent. I was sorry at first until I went to visit Shakila and saw for the first time the mastery within that Panesar had helped awakened.

In the late 1980s, I visited Uncle Panesar at the Y. He had moved onto etchings by then and showed me his small studio. He invited me to go see his show at the Birla Academy. I was so taken with an etching of Mother Teresa — I’d volunteered at one of her organizations many years before — that when his show was over, Uncle Panesar took it off the gallery wall and presented it to me. It hangs by my dresser. I look at it as I begin each day. And think of all the good in the world.

I had hoped to see you in a few days in Kolkata. But you did not wait. You have flown away to a better place.

I will miss you, Uncle Panesar. Always.

Cat fight between homeland and home

I just read a CNN-IBN report on the Devyani Khobragade episode that made me squirm.

“Devyani’s arrest,” the report said, “has rattled the Indian Diplomatic Corps.

“It is forcing the government to hit back at the U.S. According to Indian diplomats serving in the Western countries, paying lesser than what is actually on official papers is a common practice among the Indian diplomats. They claim that the salary fixed by the U.S. government is too high for the Indian diplomats.”

Indian diplomats say they cannot afford to pay $4,500 a month for domestic help. They say they, themselves, make just a little bit more than that a month.

What? Really?

In that case, diplomats should not be hiring live-in help.

They certainly cannot expect to treat domestic workers like they are often treated in India — underpaid and sometimes abused in other ways.

The row that has erupted over Khobragade’s arrest and strip search has turned into a Cold War-style standoff between two countries that have enjoyed warm relations in the past few years.

Many of my Indian friends are upset the United States that Khobragade was strip-searched. How dare America treat a diplomat like that? America would not stand for it if one of their own was treated this way. I see their point.

But my guess is that some Indian politicians may be taking a staunchly nationalist stance ahead of critical elections to drum up support for themselves. It pays for them to take a tough position against the United States.

Khobragade, meanwhile, has been transferred to the United Nations mission and can apply for diplomatic immunity. That’s not right if indeed she is guilty of a crime. She, like any other Indian in this country, should be held accountable if she broke the law.

It all seems very stressful as I prepare for an upcoming trip to India. I am stuck watching a political match between my homeland and the nation I now call home. Not good.

Bhopal’s forgotten tragedy

Bhopal_GasTragedy050This tragedy has been forgotten by most people. It shouldn’t be.

It was 29 years ago on this night that tank 610 exploded at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal. A milky fog that spread silently across the sleeping India city, spreading toxic gas in the densely populated slums nearby.

Within minutes, people poured into the narrow lanes and alleys. They grasped their throats as they gasped for air. Their eyes, mouths and bellies were on fire. They vomited blood and frothed at the mouth.

At first, some people thought the chaos was political — India’s prime minister, Indira Gandhi, had been assassinated weeks before and there had been rioting in the streets. But they learned soon enough that at five minutes past midnight on Dec. 3, 1984, 40 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas had enveloped their city.

In areas near the plant, it was impossible to walk without treading on the dead.

Bhopal native Nadeem Uddin told me many years ago that he saw tents — colorful ones used in weddings — at a government hospital. They were filled with the dead. “I can’t explain to you how I felt,” he said.

Union Carbide said 3,800 people died that night. The Indian government said 12,000 people were killed. Health workers in Bhopal estimated at least 20,000 people have died from MIC-related diseases like lung cancer and tuberculosis. Another half a million people suffered illness or gave birth to deformed babies.

The legal wrangling goes on, even after 29 years as survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster are fighting for financial compensation for their suffering.

In 1989, the Indian government agreed to a $470 million out-of-court settlement. In 2010, the survivors filed a petition with the Supreme Court demanding the case be reopened. They say the numbers of victims were underestimated.

Besides the compensation, a criminal case against Union Carbide in a Bhopal court and a class-action lawsuit in a New York district court are ongoing.

Bhopal’s mission continues to hold Union Carbide and its parent company, Dow Chemical, accountable. Some Indians have called the gas tragedy a holocaust.

Amnesty International, the global human rights organization, said this about Dow in July:

“The company has been ordered to explain why its wholly-owned subsidiary, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), has repeatedly ignored court summons in the ongoing criminal case concerning the 1984 Bhopal disaster, where UCC is accused of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder.

“Dow has always tried to claim it has nothing to do with UCC’s liability for Bhopal, but the court has today made it clear that Dow itself has a responsibility to ensure that UCC faces the outstanding charges against it. Dow can no longer turn its back on the tens of thousands still suffering in Bhopal.

“Almost three decades after the Bhopal disaster, victims and their families have yet to receive adequate compensation from UCC or the Indian government.”

Amnesty’s research shows that about 100,000 people continue to suffer from health problems. That’s today, almost three decades after tank 610 exploded.

A friend of mine in India said Bhopal was the most callous manifestation of corporate insensitivity. Had the victims not been poor Indians, Dow and Union Carbide would have been held more accountable. Look at what happened with BP on the Gulf Coast, my friend said. “How is it that no one was made to answer for Bhopal?”

How is it, indeed?

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