Evil Reporter Chick

Random thoughts in war and peace

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.

Water, water, everywhere: Gaining perspective on New Year’s Day

The boat docked at Uros Island. Jose came to meet us with a smile on his face and a totora reed in his left hand.

Totora are the living reeds that float around Lake Titicaca, a massive body of water between Peru and Bolivia that is almost 13,000 feet in elevation. It’s known as the highest navigable lake in the world.

I’d wanted to visit ever since I was a child and my father told me stories about the magical lake in South America. He’d always wanted to visit Titicaca. He made it as far as Cusco and Machu Picchu but never made it to the lake. I was feasting on its majesty for both father and daughter.

My friend Aditi and I made the journey to Titicaca on a chilly December day. We boarded a small boat full of visitors and made our way first to Jose’s floating island.

Jose lives in a small hut on an floating island built with totora. His people have been living that way for hundreds of years, ever since they were forced out of their lands by the Incas. They fish and make handicrafts for tourists (like us) to buy.

The Uros people have faces tanned heavily by the sun — the high altitude makes for high rates of skin cancer. They lead lives from another era. Simple. Honest. Back-breaking at times. Jose let me enter his hut. There was nothing in it but a floor of reeds, a bed and a small black and white television. He thanked former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori for bringing solar panels to the floating islands. Now he can watch TV and play music.

Oh and one other important difference these days: Human waste is taken by boat to dispose of on the mainland. That way, the water stays clean. Seemed fitting they would do that.

Jose explained how he and his family have to beef up the island as the reeds disintegrate. He then held up one of the reeds that look almost like sugarcane but are much softer. He peeled the outer layers and bit into the end. “Titicaca banana.” Ha.

From the floating islands, we traveled two hours to Taquile Island and marveled at the vastness of the lake. The people who live here also lead the simplest of lives, thriving on quinoa and vegetables they grow there. And trout — originally introduced to Titicaca from Canada — from the lake, though they must go to shallower waters for that. The water here is too cold and deep for fish.

There’s little pollution here. Or stress. Maybe that’s why the average life span is 95. Or so said our guide, Julio.

I thought of all the people I met on that trip that day as a new year is about to come upon us. I report on so much strife in the world. Of war, death, rape, torture. Of climate change and extreme poverty. Of sadness. Grief. And inhumanity. Sometimes, I crave the simplicity of the Uros.

I hope the world becomes a better place in 2014. Maybe there are some crucial lessons to learn from the people of Titicaca.

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.

Rest in Peace, Madiba

Nelson MandelaThe world turned dark today.

Nelson Mandela flew away. To a better place than this world.

My memories take me back to when I was a child in India, to class IV current events class, where I first learned about the cruelty and viscousness of apartheid. And then to my days at Florida State University, where I protested apartheid and urged divestment. The demonstrations over investments in South Africa matured me in so many ways. To February 11, 1990, when Mandela was released from prison. I could not take my eyes away from CNN, tears streaming down my face. It was as all the world had been freed. To the day in 2010 when I finally visited South Africa. Soweto and Robben Island were my two top destinations.

I stood in Mandela’s cell. Tried to imagine…

What a tower of a man he was. His name was synonymous with words that describe the very best of mankind. Courage. Virtue. Goodness. Strength. Love. Dedication. Honesty. Conviction. Fortitude. Brilliance. Soulful.

In the next few hours, days, weeks, I am sure I will read countless pieces on Mandela. But really, there are no words to describe the loss to the world.

Goodbye, Madiba.

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?

On Thanksgiving

newalipurI’m at work today, on Thanksgiving, surrounded by news that projects mankind in the worst sort of way — war, murder, rape. But I am also heartened by the best of humanity.

I was especially reminded of that as I wrote a CNN story about a Holocaust survivor who met his Polish Catholic rescuer for the first time since the war ended. The survivor told me how grateful he was to the family who hid hid from the Nazis. Because of them, he was able to continue his family.

I am not with my family today but I am thinking of them. Some are still here in this world; others, including my mother and father, have passed away. They remain in my heart and fill it with love.

I am thinking today of two dear friends who each lost a parent this year, Valerie Boyd and Jan Winburn. I know this holiday season will be especially tough for them. But I know their mother and father’s spirit will warm their gatherings.

I looked through an old album last night and found this photograph of my father’s family. It was taken at my grandfather’s house, in the backyard, in Kolkata in 1970. I’m sitting in the front row, my parents, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great aunt around me.

I wish we could all be together today. I am thankful for each and every one of them being a part of my life.

Tejpal, Tehelka and scandal

Tarun Tejpal

Tarun Tejpal

Tarun Tejpal. Tehelka.

Maybe my friends here in America have never heard those names. But in India, they stand synonymous with investigative journalism.

Tehelka has lived up to its name, which means sensation in Hindi, since it entered the Indian media scene in 2000. Early on, the startup almost brought down the Indian government by exposing bribery in defense deals. Tehelka got the story by engineering a videotaped sting operation.

Several years later, in 2007, Tehelka dropped its biggest bomb when it exposed bloody riots in the state of Gujarat not as Hindu backlash but the state-sanctioned killing of Muslims under the state’s chief minister, Narendra Modi. Modi, by the way, is now a prime ministerial contender.

The magazine did not always employ orthodox methods of investigation and came under fire for stretching the limits of the law by using secret cameras and false identities. It defended itself by saying that uncovering the darker side of India would otherwise not be possible.

With Tehelka’s success, Tejpal, the magazine’s editor, skyrocketed to stardom. He was called the rock star of Indian journalism; someone who set a new bar for media standards in the subcontinent. Charismatic. Terribly smart. Curious.

Now, all of it hangs in the balance.

Tejpal admitted “misconduct” against a fellow journalist this week and stepped down from his post as editor-in-chief of Tehelka for six months to “atone” for his sins. The journalist, according to media reports, is alleging Tejpal sexually assaulted her.

“A bad lapse of judgment, an awful misreading of the situation, have led to an unfortunate incident that rails against all we believe in and fight for,” Tejpal said.

Some pointed out Tejpal’s language was inappropriate. It was almost as though he were writing about one of his fictional characters.

Tehelka’s managing editor, Shoma Chaudhary’s remarks didn’t go over well, either.

“There has been an untoward incident, and though he has extended an unconditional apology to the colleague involved, Tarun will be recusing himself as the editor of Tehelka for the next six months,” she said.

A statement from the Editors Guild of India said this: “There ought not to be any attempt to cover up or play down this extremely serious incident. Self-proclaimed atonement and recusal for a period are hardly the remedies for what the allegations show to be outright criminality.”

The Tehelka controversy has lit up Twitter and Facebook. That a media institution known for outing the worst of Indian society should be in the midst of a sexual abuse scandal is shocking to many. And Tejpal’s political enemies — he has many —  have come out with sharpened knives. Arun Jaitley, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, accused Tejpal and Chaudhary of “a private treaty” in what he called an attempt to suppress “a clear case of rape.”

Whoa. Let’s give Tejpal his due. We don’t know yet what the truth is here; whether Tejpal is guilty of his accuser’s actions.

I hope that if he is innocent, he will be reinstated and allowed to carry on with his journalistic endeavors, even though I believe his name will now forever be tainted.

But more than anything, I hope there is a fair and exhaustive investigation of what happened. Often in India, that does not happen.

And I hope that Tehelka will help lead the way in that effort. That is what the magazine stands for, after all — to do the right thing.

The Tejpal story hit a nerve with me for a number of reasons — CNN.com just published a story I reported from India in which I revealed my own rape. Sexual assault happens in all sectors of society. I have never worked full-time for an Indian media institution but I know from friends who have that abuse is widespread.

Reading about Tejpal all over the Indian media today, I came across an interview he gave to CNN-IBN in 2007, after the stinging story about Modi.

“It’s never personal, I keep saying that,” Tejpal said. “It’s not even finally about him. The story is about an extremely dangerous and poisonous school of thinking that is part of the national blood stream now.”

In this case, it is personal. Deeply so for the woman who alleges the assault. But it’s also the latter part of what Tejpal said.

First-person fire

In my 30 years as a journalist, I’ve written a lot about victims. Many sorts of victims. Of war. Murder. Illness. Natural disasters. And man-made ones.

I always try to be sensitive and to highlight the incredible resiliency of human beings.

I was lucky enough to have won a Dart-Ochberg Fellowship from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. I learned many things during that fellowship; how to improve my own reportage about people who have suffered.

All that really hit home last week when CNN published a story I reported from India about a woman who was raped four decades ago. You can read the story here: The Girl Whose Rape Changed a Country.

In the story, I revealed that I, too, had been raped when I was 18. I broke a 33-year silence. I wrote about some of the reaction to the story and how it made me feel in a follow-up. I was reporter and victim all at once.

I so appreciate the outpouring of support from women from around the world. It’s been a very difficult few days, reliving a memory from my past — one that I had put away in one corner of my mind. I tried to forget. But you can never really forget. The good thing is that it is possible to move on.

This post is to thank those who reached out to me. And for my dearest friends who took the time to make sure I was doing OK. Thank you.

I’m moving on to the next story. But I will not be afraid anymore to write about rape.

A very difficult story

Me, reporting in Maharashtra. Vivek Singh, the photographer on the story, took this in Nawargaon.

Me, reporting in Maharashtra. My friend Vivek took this photo. He was the photographer on the story.

I have reported difficult stories before. It was never easy to tell tales of tragedy from places like Iraq. But a piece that published on CNN.com today is the hardest story I’ve ever told.

Because it became very personal. Because it was raw.

The producer, the photographer, the cameraman who went with me to Maharashtra for this story had no idea how I was feeling. Even I did not know, really, the emotions that would surface and then haunt me as I returned home from India and began writing the story.

But in the end, I felt it would be disingenuous not to reveal a horrible truth about my own life.

I hope you will read the story on CNN.com. Here is the link:

http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2013/11/world/india-rape/?hpt=hp_c4

As always, I have indebted to my editor, Jan Winburn. She edited the story with her usual brilliance and grace. But most of all, she believed in me. Again.

I hope rape survivors will be inspired by the quiet strength of Mathura. I know that I am.

Iraq’s forgotten tragedy

I met Ahmad in 2007 in Nineveh province. I wonder how he is doing today. I don't even know if he is alive.

I met Ahmad in 2007 in Nineveh province. I think about him and all the people I met over the years in Iraq and wonder what their lives are like today.

I just read an excerpt from Peter Baker’s new book, “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. It’s being touted as the most comprehensive account of the Bush-Cheney years, at least until historical archives are opened to the public.

What’s clear from the book is that Cheney was a major driver of the Iraq War. And a  senior administration official is quoted as saying that America was looking for a fight, looking to kick someone’s ass.

So the Iraqi people paid the price.

I am looking forward to reading Baker’s book. I met him in Baghdad in 2002, when he was with the Washington Post and I was with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That was four months before the invasion and all foreign journalists were made to stay at the Al-Rashid Hotel — the one that had a mosaic of Papa Bush’s face on the entrance floor. You couldn’t enter the hotel without stepping on the presidential mug.

I read about Baker’s book today along with the latest media reports of more bloodshed. At least 43 people were killed Sunday. Dozens more were wounded.

A suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded coffee shop in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in southwest Baghdad, not too far from where I was in March when I was last in the Iraqi capital. Many of the victims were young men gathering to drink tea, smoke hookah and play games, officials told CNN.

Earlier, in mainly Sunni Anbar province, three attacks killed six people.

At least 350 people have been killed in October.

Take a look at these numbers compiled by the United Nations mission in Iraq. They are nothing short of shocking:

September: 887 killed; 1957 injured

August 2013: 716 killed; 1936 injured

July: 928 killed; 2109 injured

June: 685 killed; 1610 injured

May: 963 killed; 2191 injured

April: 595 killed; 1481 injured

March: 229 killed; 853 injured

February: 418 killed; 704 injured

January: 319 killed; 960 injured

Adding to the horror is a new survey that estimates the civilian death toll of the war to be much higher than believed — 500,000.

Yet Iraq is but a blip on the news. Iraqis are not a part of the global conscience, at least, certainly not a part of the American conscience.

My heart bleeds for Iraq. I think about friends I made there; how so many of them lead lives marred by hatred. It’s difficult to read about daily death and destruction now, more than 10 years after Bush and Cheney made the decision to attack.

Few American news outlets are covering events in Iraq the way they should be, I believe. It’s a mistake not to focus attention on the bloodshed. Terrible to ignore tragedy, worse to forget.

You can read my last story from Baghdad on CNN.

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