Looking like change in India

india-voter

Voters in India get their fingers marked with indelible ink after casting a ballot.

Today was the last day of polling in India’s mammoth parliamentary elections. Five weeks of voting; Nine polling days; 814 million eligible voters; 543 Lok Sabha (lower House) seats.

From all the exit polling I’ve seen, it looks like the worst loss ever for the Indian National Congress, the party of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi that for so many years led an independent India.

But people are fed up with corruption and inefficiency. The polls show a huge victory in the making for Narendra Modi, a self-avowed Hindu nationalist.

Modi has been a controversial and polarizing figure in India. Hindu-Muslim violence under his watch in 2002 earned him the nickname, “The butcher of Gujarat.”

But Modi’s Bharaitya Janata Party is known as entrepreneurial and business-friendly. That’s why a lot of people I know in India voted for Modi in the election, the largest ever in the history of mankind.

Exit polls have been proven grossly wrong in the past in India. But still, it’s not looking good for Congress. I think there are big changes looming in my homeland.

Read my story on Varanasi, a city that was the epicenter of the election on CNN.com.

Hotel Death

monimukti

My story on a home for the dying in Varanasi, India, came out on CNN.com today.

I spent a week reporting in the fabled holy city and was fascinated by its spirituality much more this time than I was on previous trips. Part of it was because I was reporting on faith. But another part of it was that I think I have transformed over the years; my rebellion against organized religion has mellowed.

As I have grown older, I have lost people who were close to me. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and good friends. I was in shock after I returned from India in February to the death of my colleague Lateef Mungin. He was 10 years younger than me.

That kind of loss makes you think about the things that are important in life and also about what happens to us after we stop breathing.

The people I spent time with in Varanasi were, for the most part, steadfast in their beliefs, though there is one man in my story who may surprise you.

moksha

Read my story, “Hotel Death,” on CNN.com

Vivian Maier: An unsolved puzzle

Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009)

Vivian Maier (February 1, 1926 – April 21, 2009)

I saw a remarkable film this past weekend. “Finding Vivian Maier.”

If you get a chance, see it. It’s well worth your times.

Vivian was an enigma. A puzzle that no one solved.

She worked most of her life as a nanny for wealthy suburban families in Chicago. And she had a Rolleiflex (and later, other cameras) around her neck almost all her waking hours.

She took thousands and thousands of street photographs. Of men, women and children. At parks, the beach, the stockyards, downtown. Her images are incredible yet she never showed them to anyone in her lifetime. She was a loner. Eccentric. Strange.

This is what the website about her says:

“Piecing together Vivian Maier’s life can easily evoke Churchill’s famous quote about the vast land of Tsars and commissars that lay to the east. A person who fit the stereotypical European sensibilities of an independent liberated woman, accent and all, yet born in New York City. Someone who was intensely guarded and private, Vivian could be counted on to feistily preach her own very liberal worldview to anyone who cared to listen, or didn’t. Decidedly unmaterialistic, Vivian would come to amass a group of storage lockers stuffed to the brim with found items, art books, newspaper clippings, home films, as well as political tchotchkes and knick-knacks. The story of this nanny who has now wowed the world with her photography, and who incidentally recorded some of the most interesting marvels and peculiarities of Urban America in the second half of the twentieth century is seemingly beyond belief.”

A young photographer and filmmaker, John Maloof, stumbled upon her works. He is determined the world know the talent of Vivian Maier.

See her work and read all about here on the website Maloof set up.

Sad news from Afghanistan

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 9.21.02 AMWe lost another amazing journalist today.

Anja Niedringhaus, 48, an acclaimed photographer for the Associated Press, died instantly after an Afghan policeman opened fire while they were sitting in their car in eastern Afghanistan, the AP said. Correspondent Kathy Gannon was wounded and is in stable condition in hospital.

“Anja and Kathy together have spent years in Afghanistan covering the conflict and the people there. Anja was a vibrant, dynamic journalist well-loved for her insightful photographs, her warm heart and joy for life. We are heartbroken at her loss,” said AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll.

Two days ago, Niedringhaus had tweeted about a tribute to another journalist, Sardar Ahmed, who was killed March 21 in the attack on the Serena Hotel.

I did not know Niedringhaus, though I am familiar with her incredible body of work. But I can imagine what kind of woman she was. Her fortitude. Her courage. Her convictions.

Just yesterday, I spoke on a panel at the University of Georgia about reporting on trauma. There was some discussion there about journalists in conflict zones. One student asked me how journalists deal with fear.

I did not have a good answer for her because the fear never goes away. It’s a matter of not dwelling on it and getting on with your work. But then, when news of tragedy comes, like today’s from Afghanistan, it’s difficult to remain composed.

Here’s to all my colleagues working at this very moment in places near and far where they are in harm’s way. They make me proud of my profession.

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.