Thursday, May 31, 2007

Absolutely bizarre

This story came in our office wires this morning:

A New Zealand mother who needed an electric oxygen pump to breathe died after an energy company cut the power to her home because she owed them 168.40 New Zealand dollars (122 US dollars), her family claimed on Wednesday.

Police said they had launched an investigation into the death of Folole Muliaga, who was 44, on Tuesday, in the northern city of Auckland, which happened within two hours of state-owned company Mercury Energy cutting power to her house.

Mercury Energy's general manager, James Moulder, said the company was devastated by the woman's death and was conducting its own investigation to determine what happened. A spokesperson from Mercury Energy said they had been contact with the Muliaga family for almost two months over the outstanding bill. "There had been contact with them over the proceeding seven weeks or so about an outstanding amount. Something like 160-200 (New Zealand) dollars," Doug Heffernan said.

Muliaga had been off work since February with an illness when a Mercury Energy representative arrived on Tuesday to disconnect the electricity, said Brenden Sheehan, the woman's nephew in-law.

Sheehan said both Muliaga and her son told the technician she was dependent on the oxygen machine to stay alive and invited him into the house to see it.Muliaga's son, Letitaia, said the technician told them, "he's doing his job, he's here to cut the power off."

Sheehan described Mercury Energy's actions as "reprehensible". "It's absolutely disgusting what they've done," he said.Sheehan said the family's bills would prove Muliaga was trying to pay the account, and received no warning the power would be shut off. Heffernan said the information they had received from the contractor had not indicated that cutting of the electricity supply would be life threatening.

A moment for Sanjay

Just a couple of days after writing about the rather untimely demise of someone I was eminently un-fond of, I find myself writing about someone I had gotten rather close to over the years, despite the difference in our ages (in terms of experience with the subject), and the difference in the paths our careers had taken.

Sanjay Sangvai was someone I met many years back during one of my two or three trips to the Narmada valley. He was a journalist, who had committed himself in a big way to the cause of the displaced and still-not-rehabilitated people of the Valley, who continue their fight to this day. And while I am not one to gush, especially about a person who's just passed away, I have to say that in Sanjay I found a man who was totally committed to the cause, managed to have a balanced view of the situation (something a lot of others failed to do, not unfairly), and possessed a brilliant mind when it came to arguing issues and making complicated points.

When on one of those trips, Sanjay also gave me his book The River And Life to read, a fine example of exactly the brilliant argumentative mind that I referred to earlier.

I lost touch with the NBA, their activities and their activism once I left Tehelka and became a full-time sports journalist - and it was Sanjay's copious press-releasing that kept me abreast of the situation and the developments as and when they took place.

Sanjay's death is a big loss. And when people like Sanjay die, it is always untimely in many ways, simply because he still had a lot to do. For the record, Sanjay was just 48.

NBA Press Release
Sanjay Sangvai is no more.

The last two decades of his work with the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the National Alliance of People's Movements as well as the professional contribution through various organizations like Abhivyakti, National Centre for Advocacy Studies (NCAS) has proved that Sanjay was an activist of a different caliber, of unique capacities and rare commitment. He was not merely a ground level activist but also a journalist, writer and litterateur.

Sanjay was the most effective intervener and strategiser in the present world of corrupt politics, corporatised economy and increasingly consumerist society. He passed away at the age of 48, due tohis long lasted serious sickness of heart and lungs, on Tuesday, 29th May around 7 a.m. The funeral took place today, the 30th May at Pune.

Sanjay Sangvai learnt and taught journalism for years. His well-known qualities included in-depth study of history and politics, hard work as well as rich word power in at least 3 languages: Marathi, Hindi and English. He has written extensively and intensively on alternative development paradigm as well as politics. His articles and books, including those on Narmada, are testimonies on people's movements with aserious, reflective critique based on political ideologies and human value framework which he was well versed with. His prompt statements on the latest events or State actions were always looked forward and considered as the best of progressive, secular comment in the movement's framework.

As someone committed to activist journalism, he didn't waste but spent much of his time in such work of promoting movements and educating society instead of writing and producing a pile of books in his name. That was what made Sanjay an ideal for young journalists even amidst the commercialized corporatised media. It was obvious to anyone who engaged in dialogue with Sanjay that he had studied all political ideologies, the histories of nation states and civil societies well and developed a comprehensive, non-dogmatic view and vision of development as well as the future. He could best argue and debate onthe philosophies of Gandhi, Phule, Ambedkar, Lohia and Marx, but also put forth the Greek, Roman tradition and Sufi to other religious perspectives.

Sanjay would never boast of or show off his intelligence and knowledge base but it always reflected in his dialogue to writings which were of high quality and yet linked to the practical and popular actions.

Sanjay was however not just academic but a man of vision, strategy for transformation, and culture. His cultural moorings into Indian and Asian way of life made him committed to not mere preaching but practicing simple living, closeness to nature and sustainability in extraction. He raised the voice of the people of Narmada valley by becoming a part of their struggle short term as well as long term- widened his scope for analysisand action with people's struggle, as by being with NAPM. The beauty ofhis joining one and contributing any one of these fronts was never exhibited but highly facilitating and contributing.

Sanjay was a man of ethics. His commitment were not merely verbalized but practiced. His sensitivity and creativity was enabling him to lead a life committed to the common people- farmers, labourers, adivasis, dalits and others- and also gain aesthetic sense in every aspect. His deep interest in and knowledge of classical music, Sanskrit, Indian literature etc was a result of the same, and indeed led a 'progressive' life which was his goal, not just an avowed glamorous slogan.

The most unfortunate barrier in Sanjay's path of progress was his critically ill-health. When Dr Venugopal recommended replacement of his heart and both the lungs, none could take a decision. But realizing how risky, delaying and expensive process it was, he and his equally brave and creative mother stood against the surgery and instead took to Ayurveda andYoga. His fight against all odds, with the illness, continued for years but not without hard work and amazing output as a soldier in and for the movements. He continued to write and produce valuable results in documentation to strategizing. Being terribly disturbed with the corporatecrimes to unconstitutional plans such as SEZs, he insisted on joining actions- yatras to mass dharnas- and produced impactful writings and other tools for mobilizing masses against the same. This indeed brought him enormous health trouble and made him collapse, may be a bit early but peacefully.

With Sanjay Sangvai's demise we, as NBA and people's movements have lost the most powerful voice and advocate, the best of writers but most importantly an honest, brilliant and committed comrade creating an unfillable vacuum as one may unhesitatingly conclude.

BUT, many of artists, activists, researchers, journalists…political leaders in various parties too have lost a deeply spiritual and ideologically committed friend. He was a fighter, philosopher and guide with some awards, but the best of people's recognition- a human being with prosperous life and vision.

Many activists’ organizations- supporters are holding condolence meetings in various parts of Maharashtra and other states too, all of whom, are bound to take inspiration from Sanjay's life and carry forward the cruise on their shoulders. Only then will his soul rest in peace and a kind of "martyrdom" will fulfill the purpose.

Comrades at Narmada Bachao Andolan

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Thayee Saheba & The Bong Connection

Kasaravalli says Thayee Saheba is probably the best film he’s made. I don’t recall what he said to substantiate that, but if I am allowed to conjecture, I would probably put it down to the movie being very, very close to being flawless. I sat through the entire two hours of the film, thought about it long and hard afterwards, though about it again later while skimming through the Internet on write-ups about the film (close to zilch actually); I couldn’t think of a flaw.

It starts in a straightforward enough manner, with the story of the feudal set-up in Kannada-land, where the man of the house – Appa Rao – is a very serious freedom fighter and messiah for the farmers in his acres of cultivable land. His wife is Narmada - Thayee Saheba to the masses – stuck at home along the lines of Charulata, but in a much less bourgeoisie set-up.

There are a series of twists and turns as Narmada moves from being the opinionated but subservient woman of the house to the person in control of the script. A lot of storyline is along general lines, with differences cropping up courtesy the scheming second-in-command of the house, Appa Rao being bumped off and so on and so forth. But it doesn’t get loose even for a second. Right down to the end when Thayee Saheba chooses to go against the law to make sure her adopted son is allowed to marry the woman of his choice – daughter of Appa Rao’s mistress and therefore the adopted son’s sister.

Also interesting is Narmada choosing Chandri – her husband’s mistress – as her comrade when she goes out to set the wrongs right. And the last shot is heart-wrenchingly gripping as Narmada sits down on the stairs of ‘her’ manor, and the old housemaid Radha-akka switches on the lights one by one to place her in a circle of lights– all as Narmada waits for the police to come and arrest her.

On the other hand, I had zero expectations from The Bong Connection, having seen Anjan Dutt’s Bada Din when it released. But The Bong Connection is actually absolutely brilliant. The humour – especially if you can follow the different Bengali dialects being used – is irreverent and educated; and some excellent acting seeps through from totally unexpected quarters.

Did you, for example, think that Shayan Munshi can actually be watchable? He is, as the America-born Bengali coming to Calcutta to make music with his American accent and affected Bengali strictly in place; scrapping with his opportunistic relatives and getting into a non-relationship with Raima Sen. Emerging quite the success story in the end.

Raima Sen is terrible. She can’t help it I guess. It was a role – the hard-nosed, hip modern Bengali woman – that even a moderately capable actor could have done wonders with. Raima cocks it up.

Parambrata Chattopadhyay is very, very good as the shobhyo, educated Bengali boy who reaches Houston to make a career. He leaves his girlfriend behind, but gets close to Rita, played by Peeya Roy Chowdhury…. The confusion, the culture shocks, all the brand new ways of life he is exposed to…it’s all very well done; and he looks even better because of Peeya’s absolutely mindblowing acting. We knew she was Shayan Munshi’s wife, so expectations were rather low from her as well. But she is totally wonderful, extremely watchable and lie I said, makes Parambrata look even better than he is.

And the effect of the freeflowing, rat-a-tat humour is made even better by a number of really competent members of the support staff. There isn’t a lot of time spent in fleshing out these characters, but Dutt touches the important aspects of their characters in the context of the film, and therefore people like Hasan the Bangladeshi taxi driver, Rakesh and the rest of the Bengalis in Houston, Munshi’s relatives in Calcutta, Victor Banerjee as the homophobic entrepreneur in Houston, etc all become memorable characters.

The only disappointment, however, was the complete wastage of Soumitro Chatterjee. Surely there’s no point in choosing him to be the wordless, comatose grandfather who dies midway through the film!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Not many mourners for Sonn

It's not appropriate to be critical of someone who's just passed away. That too, as in Percy Sonn's case, at the rather young age of 57. Even moreso when the man we are talking about played such an important role in bringing South Africa back into international cricket after all those years of ostracism.

But the little I've seen of the man, and the little I have interacted with him, had convinced me that while he was a good-natured man on the whole, he was really a buffoon and not much more. Not incompetent. He was a successful lawyer, I recall reading somewhere. He was a major advocate of equal rights for coloureds and whites in South Africa (maybe a bit too skewed towards the coloureds, leading to many problems with the South African team down the years, which continues to this day). He was a fairly popular man in most cricketing circles. He believed in knocking stuffiness out of boardrooms. A good thing.

Back in Barbados on the 28th of April, he was one of the people who was greeted with loud jeers at the end of the farcical World Cup final. Quite like at the 2003 final in Johannesburg, where he was shunted forward to shoulder the blame for an equally depressing World Cup (we in India forget how bad it was because we reached the final). So as chief of the Council that had hosted the worst, the most shambolic World Cup (for cricket, kabaddi, anything) ever, Sonn will be remembered as a poor cricket administrator.

But more importantly, the Sonn I remember was the one who appeared on the dais with Malcolm Speed back on the day before the Champions Trophy final (was it the 4th of November last year?) for a press conference in Bombay. It was two days after Speed had been quoted across the world media as having blasted the BCCI for thinking that it rules world cricket by dint of its money power, but having forgotten their basic task of improving the standard of the game in the country.

[As an aside, Speed was totally right; it's just that he said things no one wanted to hear. Especially from a foreigner.]

Sonn walked in to a packed conference hall with a bright smile plastered across his face. We all knew that Speed had been reprimanded and asked to button it up. Sonn came in and announced a couple of rather important things (I forget which), among which was the fact that Ata-ur-Rehman's ban for his role in match-fixing had been overturned and something similar was being planned for Salim Malik. This was the same Sonn making the announcement, who had gone on record saying after the Hansie Cronje issue, that he would make sure Cronje never even plays beach cricket.

I don't remember who it was, but someone did remind Sonn of that famous quote. "I bought that beach," Sonn replied, huge smile still in place. A witty reply, yes. But surely the issue at hand wasn't as frivolous as the answer suggested. This was also pointed out to Sonn, who got into Mode Abusive with the journalist in question.

I remember succeeding in putting Speed in a bit of a bother at some stage as well, to which Sonn turned around to Speed and said, "Mr Speed is going to shut up and not reply to any of these questions." I persisted. To which Sonn declared grandly that Speed was not sitting there to be cross-examined, and that it would make more sense if we "met outside".

No answers were given. Not to a single question. The press release says it all, Sonn announced. I remember an English journalist asking Sonn what the point of the two of them coming to the press conference was all about then. "We know what you look like, Mr Sonn," another journalist suggested; "why are you wasting our time if you don't have anything to say?" "You're free to leave...," Sonn offered.

All along, the humour was in place. All along, that smile was plastered across his face. It pissed me off, as I expect it did to all present in that meeting.

Unfortunately, as I see it, Sonn wasn't really cut out for the top job in world cricket. And I feel he wasn't quite the chief anyway - Speed has been doing that job for a while now. And that's where I think he appeared more incompetent than I am sure he was.

And as I see it, Percy Sonn's legacy could have been a better one, and his epitaph could have read better, had he not chosen to try and head world cricket. He was an achiever before that. Not many people have any bad things to say about him. Most people remember him as a fearless man who never hesitated to speak his mind. Others remember him as a man who got things done. It's the last few months, and everything he did and everything the International Cricket Council did in those few months, that might have spoilt it all for Percy Sonn.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Out and about

Ajitha’s been with Time Out since quitting Women’s Feature Service late last year, and it’s only now that we are reaping the benefits of the change. Actually so much happens around Delhi throughout the year in terms of cinema screenings and concerts and plays and whatnot, it’s virtually impossible to keep track unless you are part of the relevant circles. And obviously, with the attraction of Press Club a kind of constant in our lives, off days are usually spent watching a couple of DVDs at home and waiting for it to be 8.00pm or thereabouts… But Ajitha comes back home with all the information now, which is fantastic.

So last weekend was spent listening to Farida Khanum. When in Pakistan, I found a lot of Farida Khanums and Abida Parveens on their television channels. So many of them are similarly fat, white, draped in shiny printed sarees and have mind-blowing voices – voices that actually fill the room even if you’re only watching it on the telly. And all of them sing similar stuff – ghazals, thumris…Sufi stuff as well.

But hey, Farida Khanum is Farida Khanum, right?

The evening at the Kamani Auditorium started on a fairly inconspicuous note, with this moderately talented Indian sitar player jamming with his moderately talented Dutch cellist wife. The cello is not quite the Western cello and has been modified to appear slightly different and has a slightly different sound with the same kind of resonance. But both of them were rather average, and it did appear that the sitar and the cello are not quite meant to co-exist. Unfortunately, Farida was late in arriving, and we had to put up with it for even longer than expected, or necessary.

But she did turn up eventually…and is the most affable and sweet woman you’ll ever meet. I would seriously have been fine if she continued talking (which is what she did for about ten minutes before starting to sing) in that most conversational, uninhibited, humble way of hers. Interestingly, her speaking voice is a lot more next-door-Punjabi-aunty-type than he singing voice is, which, of course, doesn’t require any description.
From the first strain to the last – with Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo thrown in of course – the noise from the crowd (a huge number of Bengalis for some reason) seemed like it wasn’t even there. The entire auditorium just had her voice happening, and everything else was totally drowned out. And she was so not pricey. She sang for well over the hour or so that she was supposed to sing. Closer to two-and-a-half hours eventually.

I’ve been to my share of live concerts down the years…this plump, middle-aged woman beats everything else hollow.

PS: The mention of Time Out was also because yesterday was spent at the India Habitat Centre after a very long time…we saw Girish Kasaravalli’s Thayee Saheba and Anjan Dutt’s The Bong Connection.

Thayee Saheba was part of the weeklong retrospective of Kasaravalli’s works that the Habitat Film Club had arranged. It wasn’t fantastic. But I found hardly a single flaw in the entire film, and that has to count for something. I had zero expectations from The Bong Connection, having seen Dutt’s Bada Din once upon a time. It was surprisingly good though, and the humour – a lot of poking-fun-at-the-Bongs – was brilliant.

Superb photograph

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

WORLD CUP DIARY: At the Kensington

Some more photographs from the West Indies...from Barbados actually. Courtesy senior colleague and friend Soutik Biswas of BBC Online.

The gentleman next to me is Charlie Griffith. Why I am looking the other way I have no idea. Griffith barks at you even if you mention Nari Contractor, because it's the one question he has had to answer - without any major reason really - ever since it happened. In any case, he doesn't give interviews, but if you want to chat with him, he will give you all his time of the day.

Looking pensive and chewing my fingernails without any reason during the Ireland-Bangladesh game. This is not at the press box though, it's at the stands, which is always a better place to sit and watch a game from. Except, of course, we are still talking about the Ireland-Bangladesh game.

At the Kensington Oval Press Box with a beaming Soutik.

Interviewing Red Plastic Bag (under the cap) and Smokey Burke at the Kensington Oval. They are both Calysonians who I have written about before. During the interview, RPB sang Stroke It and Smokey sang Kensington, their cricket calypsos. The two got together to also sing Gavaskar, the Real Master as well.

And with Smokey and RPB after the interview.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

WORLD CUP DIARY: Signing off

Last night was my last in Barbados, and indeed the West Indies, as far as this trip was concerned.

The World Cup got over on the 28th of April, and while I thought the 29th would be a good day to soak in the sun and do some last minute shopping, Malcolm Speed decided to mess things up further. He decided to call a press conference, along with Dave Richardson, ostensibly to say sorry for the way the World Cup ended. He did apologise. And almost got a whack on the back of his head - that would have been nice - around the time he was leading up to the apology. An ICC hoarding behind him came unstuck from the wall and would have caused some Spped-blood to spill, had it not been for Brian Murgatroyd's intervention.

Anyway, Speed apologised. But only just. Because for the rest of the time, he replied in the negative to everything the journalists threw his way. Including to say that Messrs Jeff Crowe, Steve Bucknor, Aleem Dar, Rudi Koertzen and Billy Bowden were all excellent match officials whose futures with the game were not in threat. What makes them all excellent after they collectively messed up a World Cup final in the most schoolboyish and ridiculous ways of course is beyond me.

But that meant a lot of work, compounded by BBC's revelations about Woolmer's death. And the shopping and beach-bumming had to be pushed back to yesterday, the 30th, which I had originally penned in as a 'sleeping day'. Many happy hours were spent at the Rockley Beach in Barbados with colleagues Sandeep and Ashish. Followed by a short but useful shopping spree at the Bridgetown area of Barbados. Bridgetown is the capital, but it's really only a small area in city/country/island. Barbados is really like Delhi, and Bridgetown would be like Connaught Place.

And then, after Sandeep left for India in the evening, Ashish and I went across to one of the Caribbeans' favourite evening pastimes - playing slots. It's a casino-like set-up, but without any of the complicated games. You have a number of slot machines, each of which has a different game. Ashish and I enchashed 50 Bajan dollars each and while we did end up winning more than that amount, we decided to play till we lost everything. That made it fun.

This was followed by one last flesh-hunt. The ostrich place was shut, so we made do with the equally compelling baby octopus option across at Pisces, a high-end outlet at St Lawrence Gap, the hip strip in Barbados. Apart from the baby octpus, we also tried out one of the local octopusses, along with some flying fish (which is almost a staple here) and some crab. Not bad, eh?

That's it. Sitting at the VC Bird International Airport in Antigua now. Waiting for the flight to London, where we will spend a few hours before taking the connecting flight to Delhi. Back on the morning of the 3rd of May.