Darjeeling – where clouds skim uncertainty (travel trade)


The business of tourism – a traditional economic scaffolding -is facing a slump in the hills of Bengal in a strange paradox.  The swathe of the country stretching north from the district of Siliguri – and veering off at intervals into the tea lowlands of  the Dooars – has been a tourist attraction for over a century since the erstwhile British Raj – embedded in Kolkata – trudged up with entourages of carriages, mule trains and buggies hand-carted (palkis) to beat the Calcutta  summers till the onset of winter. The hill station of Darjeeling was the “ summer capital” of British India before the “vice-royalty” decided to move hub to New Delhi.

But in the last 100  years – or may be a few decades more – the hills have changed natural landscapes, but tourism has continued to boom despite the mercurial changes in the fortunes of undivided and divided Bengal till this day – when the terrain is in a midst of bloody tussle between the votaries of the autonomous Gorkha politics and the state dispensation in Kolkata led by the Trinamool Congress of chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The political and economic autonomy in the hills led by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has to hark back to tourism as the economic backbone to dredge resources for the battle despite the inherent “lag” in promotion of destinations between Siliguri to Darjeeling – an odd dozen of stops along the Hill Cart road looping through the lush slopes of the lower Himalayas. The Trinamool Congress is reluctant to espouse the cause of total determination of Gorkhaland – a separate state named after the dominant Gorkha people, an old ethnic stock of  Nepalese origin which make the bulk of the hill population with the “Sherpa” and “lepcha” communities.

The agitation began in 1980 with a call for a separate statehood by Gorkha frontman Subhas Ghising who spearheaded a violent movement that killed more than 2,000 autonomy  activists. The movement culminated into the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988 which has “administered” the hills for the last 30 years with “partial” autonomy. But the clamour for statehood has refused to die with sporadic agitation that turned violent in 2013 after the creation of a separate Telangana state out of Andhra Pradesh – and in 2017 – to protest the invasion of the ethnic cultural identity of the hills when the West Bengal government decided to clamp Bengali as an linguistic medium of instruction in schools.

In the scope of this fire has been the praxis of travel travel and the wild splendor of the hills – botched by shanty settlements, clogged tourist infrastructures – hotels clustering cheek by jowl like urban sprawls, makeshift bazaars, bad roads beset with illegal encroachment, auto-pollution and the “deplorable” Darjeeling Himalayan Railway cut off half way to make room for the growing fleet of vehicles smoking up the rain-drenched – and cloud fogged hills. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, once the pride of the hill station and an international heritage promoted by UNESCO, now plies tourists on joy rides from Darjeeling to Kurseong on sunny days; chugging like “badly” decked up tin trams fitted with barely a couple of coaches and a “loco” after it was torched by language protesters in a “frenzy of violence” in 2017.  The saving grace is the whistle that rings up from deep within the valleys during the day to whip up a slice of nostalgia that “stray” tourists – reconnecting to the hills of the childhood– want to recall from the deep recesses of the once-glorious memories of Darjeeling – the monarch of the hills in the east.

A surprise whistle-stop for 36 hours to the “queen of the eastern highlands” across the rain-washed bends of the Terai (lower) Himalayas this year (2018) opened the doorway to conflicting realities cornering West Bengal’s lone hill retreat to a “political” cranny in which the cross-interests of politics have spilled into the commercial space to squander the “boom” in footfalls, cutting the potential for revenue.

Darjeeling has several engagements with various sets of people – tourists over the ages and generations. The grand-folks, mostly octogenarians and nonagenarians, some having jumped the century bar, remember the idyllic summers in the hills nestled in quiet serendipity  and elegant luxury when Darjeeling was cash-flush with the addresses of the “who’s who” and the moneybags. The urban landscape sprawled in tandem with the fragile topography – bearing the burden of human encroachment in smooth proportion to the space, the density of built areas and visitors. The corridors were wide and verdant as the human factor fizzled out at the arrival of the first draught of fleecy snow. The colour of tourism then was colonial British – fragrant with the scents of the erstwhile Raj.

The shades began to morph post-Independence. In the first two decades into freedom, the hills were in the midst of transformation striving to shed the “British” colonial idyll and old terms of health tourism trade (it was designed as a sanatorium  for the British East India Company garrison in the early 19th century)  for a more fusion structure where the nouveau vied for leg-space with the old set. The dislocations of the economy were apparent in the boom in hotels   – the budget category with provisions for ethnic and native-style hospitality to tailor to the Bengali and the pan-Indian provincial psyches of the new segments.  The tariffs found slots from the top of the chain British-style property to the intimate “guest houses” with mountain side views for the middle level income group.  The postcard cottages owned by the former British residents were let out for bed-and breakfast shelters for the early platoons of back-packers – young explorers mostly from the academic campuses in India and abroad.

By the Seventies (1970s), the throng pushed at the frontiers of space during the summer months and even at the onset of winter for a glimpse of the snow atop the Kanchanjungha range  – rising to 29,208 ft- in the Everest chain of Himalayas that loomed over the tourist town like an icy wreath flanked by 16 lesser peaks stretching across Darjeeling, Sikkim and Nepal. Most of them were above 23,000 ft, a rare panorama for Himalaya watchers on a sunny morning when the sun broke through the milling banks on mists and dense clouds kissing the lower reaches of the Darjeeling hills.

The unchecked growth of tourist inflow to Darjeeling measuring barely 29 km in length and 26 km in breadth straddling the Jalapahar range (like an “Y”) led to a spurt in concrete construction, replacing the lightweight and traditional “wood” cabins spread across the earthquake-prone hills, with double and triple storied urban “ghettos” spreading in contiguous blocks up from Ghoom to the club-side bends behind the Mall off the Governor’s home in the heart of Darjeeling town. The little half moon of a space with three “sighting points” developed a quaint character with swanky addresses like the Mayfair and the Windamere – and “lower end” properties with “terrace gardens” and trim hedges huddled in dense clusters without spaces to navigate between two concrete structures in violation of basic construction norms that makes “separation space” between two buildings mandatory, more so on hill slopes vulnerable to landslips, earthquakes and cave-in during the rainy months.  The  Bureau of Indian Standards says the “desirable separation space” depends on the tilt of the top of two adjacent buildings so that “they do not hammer into each other vibrating during earthquakes” or other natural calamities like flashfloods and cloud bursts in the hills.

The rapid urbanization of Darjeeling and the concrete explosion acquired a new twist in the Eighties with the Gorkhaland movement that led to widespread violence, arson, damage to property and the economy as the rifts between the West Bengal state government and the autonomy armies in the hills widened. The polarization between the “natives” and the “visitors” to the hills became perceptible culminating into “enclaves” and cordon zones off the bounds for revellers from the plains.  The battering of the economy and the political fault-zones have not been redressed in natural cycles of peace and upturn – the slump is apparent in the trickle of trade transacted in the  bustling “bazaars” that break the monotony of the concrete jumbles.

The rows of vends that encroach upon the thoroughfare – the Hill Cart Road – and its arteries fanning out in terraces along the length of the town at varying elevation- deck out like rainbows from a distance. A closer look brings to the fore the morass that the “traditional” trades in the hills are caught in. The “woolies” do not find buyers, they rarely change fashion and hang like “replicas” in kiosks after kiosks peddling similar wares at different prices. The local government- the hill autonomous council – has  organized the refugee apparel traders from Sikkim and Tibet (who cross the borders in winter and spring) into souks, but Darjeeling does scant justice to the “sellers” in drawing well-heeled buyers and in firing their creative faculties into innovating the winter pret.  The spreads on offer are out of sync with the prevailing fashion trends across the country – and abroad in the international markets where wool is a fibre in demand.

The mire traces its origin – as local traders suggest – to a trough in the money market. The hills have been depleted over the years because of the political “war” of nerves between the ethnic lot and the plains people. The automatic vending machines (ATM tellers) rarely function except for in a odd couple  of banks that claims to “powerful” server networks and uninterrupted internet connection to log into the national loop. These money kiosks  are far-flung to the first-time traveller – entailing long treks across narrow alleys  between the wool “marts”, overcrowded taxi stands and the lines of millennials (hotels & residencies) –dotting the Hill Cart road that winds up from Siliguri, the urban base point to Jalapahar –Darjeeling. Hotels do not operate on the digital modes. The “plastic” card is deemed “irrelevant” by embarrassed hotel managers who struggle to put the swipe machine into the loop every morning.  “Network failure”. The message beeps with frequent alarm across the wool kiosks, the Ramada resort, the Darjeeling Gymkhana club and the intrepid Mt Everest Hotel. Rain becomes the great social “leveller” snapping the hills back into mists of artificial making.

“You can pay in cash,” the manager fumbles an apology and a wan smile. “Not much to run to the ATM,” he adds as an afterthought. The hotel tariffs range between Rs 5,000 a night to Rs 2,000 or even less depending on the category. The unsuspecting visitor needs a word of warning to keep to the itinerary – a pool of Rs 20,000 in cash that covers four nights and three days with some extra “grands (Rs 3,000 approximately)” for the trip to and from Siliguri  in a private taxi. Food is a Spartan affair – a limited choice of erstwhile British continental flavours (though the old bakeries have palled in the quality of the dough cakes, doughnuts, cookies and puff pastries that taste like gelato flour baked in rancid butter and sour cream), the traditional Bengali fare of rice and fish, north Indian staple meals and the Sikkimese-Bhutanese fusion of momo (Bhutanese flour dumplings),  noodle soup, pork & chicken “chowmein” served with a strange assortment of fried meats in a glob of chilli, garlic and soy dips. Street food fetches brisk business in the evenings along the Mall Road and the delis are crowded.  “Strolling along the pathways and inclines whets appetite,” laughed a hotelier. Tea is a succour but the “tea cafes” are difficult to find.  “You can buy a packet of Makaibari or Happy Valley from any of the retailers down the road,” divulges a server at the Café Coffee Day, a coffee and snack bar on the Mall.

The tea is scented at Rs 3,000 a kilogram – worthy of being tagged “Darjeeling”. The price lines point to the state of the Darjeeling and the Dooars (foothills or the Marh) economy that sustains on the proverbial “two leaves and a bud” – the lush acreages of tea gardens which extend well into Assam along the Teesta Road to the Brahmaputra lowlands. Green and undulating, the moist hills drenched by frequent showers and cloud blankets heaves under the burden of sagging production, labour unrest, poor wages, militancy and inflation in the gardens that face the race from China, south India, Sri Lanka and south-east Asia. The chief  minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee is keen to solve the crisis in the gardens (she has announced a hike in the daily wage of the tea labourers in July, 2018), but the denizenry of the hills, who take pride in their autonomous status, have been on an unofficial “economic  squeeze” to press their demand for a separate Gorkha state.

Reports in the media estimate that “the tea industry in north Bengal” lost 70 per cent of its production in 2017 because of a three-month protest by the ethnic groups demanding a separate state. Operations in 87 gardens in the Darjeeling district were suspended for three months leading to an estimate loss of $ 535 million (USD), the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) said.  “It is expensive,” a buyer exclaimed at a retail vend. “The flavor is worth it,” the shop-keeper explained. Most visitors settle for a 100 gram packet to take home as a souvenir. The hills are forlorn. Restrictions on felling timber and a sliding tea exchange have robbed the lower Himalayas of their commerce feasibility – the timber barons of the early decades of the century have downed shutters in the flurry of legal enactments, environmental lobbying and “politics” to secure forest land to the original “ethnic” settlers who are integral to the movement for statehood – shrinking trade avenues.

Tourism is the only viable option to keep the hills economically afloat, but a conspicuous wanting in political will to promote travel as the economic lifeblood is taking Darjeeling gradually off the Himalayan destination map. The politics of “determination” and “identity” is detrimental to the promotion of trade of tourism in a tragic paradox – despite the relentless arrival of short-haul revellers for a weekend getaway to the hills.  The business of travel in north Bengal requires a planned fillip-  right from the approach roads to destinations like Sonada, Kurseong, Kalimpong, Ghoom and Darjeeling, optimal and eco-friendly hospitality to complement the weak ecology, a meeting of interests between the Gorkhaland advocates and the government in Kolkata, which pulls the shots, environmental awareness and investment in soft sectors to augment the “chaotic” tourist infrastructure with a measure of sanity to check the manic concretization, visitors management, civic resources and an efficacious money market to harness the power of Kanchanjungha. The tourist has to feel secure on arrival.

Only then, the tea, wool and the nostalgia will begin to weave their old spell.

Madhusree (Mopani R.) Chatterjee
Senior Editor/Foreign affairs analyst/Special Correspondent


To walk back in time: Indian politics needs to look to reel to redefine “monotony”

The passageway to the chamber of the minister of tourism in the nervecentre of the Indian government in New Delhi was bursting at the seams with clusters of mediapersons from across the divide of vernacular and the English publications for a glimpse of a star on the high seat. The year was an eventful cusp towards the beginning of this decade when the Congress government was making way for a right-wing structure led by the National Democratic Alliance in the country.

A nattily-dressed dusky hulk of a man with doe eyes and coiffed hair smiled endearingly at the throng, “I am new to this job. I have no experience or knowledge of how the government of the country works. Pardon my ignorance… But please do take a seat and have a cup of tea…” . The media was his cake walk since that fateful evening in the fluorescent corridor till a reshuffle of portfolio and an election coloured the chair of the minister in a different hue.

The star was the southern matinee idol Cheeranjeevi, who graced the ministry with charisma more than political heft – and the national media his faithful publicity machine. Cheeranjeevi grabbed more print space than many of his “politically grounded” compatriots because of his star status, a man who had climbed down the ivory turret of the tinseldom to the political grime and heat of reality from the fantasy “colourscape” of cinema. The media – and later fans – flocked to his chamber with meticulous diligence everyday . The star had flesh – for the common man and his electorate.

In January 2018, another southern superstar followed in Cheeranjeevi’s footsteps. Rajnikanth, often reckoned as the phenomena of the South Indian mainstream cinema after “MGR” and “NTR” announced his entry into politics with a pledge to form his political party. Political fellowmates from the moviedom, Amitabh Bachchan and Kamal Hasaan  tweeted their “greetings” for his shift to the political mosaic, moving away from the screen. “He gave his heart and soul to his art form and the people’s love him superstar Rajnikanth… the nobility of his intention will receive as much love as he announces his political entry,” the refrain found resonance across the legions of cinema spanning geography. The  67-year-old star acknowledged that it was a natural move – the only progression he could think of to “live up to his weight” on the screen.  The multi-million dollar Indian movie business have bequeathed a fair number of star-turned-politicians  over the decades. Several of these actor-politicians – who expanded oeuvres to allow their maturing sensitivities play out on bigger canvases- have been “adept at exploiting their screen roles” to strike familiar chords with the electors. “I suppose this was inevitable.. With the 24-hour news channels on television, a politicians needs to look good, appeal to an audience (bred on the mass entertainment of cinema), talk to the cameras – in many aspects of similar set of skills required of an actor,” says Robert Thompson, a professor of television at the Syracuse University.

Heroes – the protagonists of the mythologies, divine beings (deities), rulers from the texts of history, the knight and the even the crusaders of faith (the odd jihadi)  –  are the most easily identifiable as political entities to the “uninitiated” constituents.  According to the South Indian politician Vaiko, MGR took the Dravidian movement – a campaign to establish the cultural and the linguistic identity of the Dravida Samajam (the spread of the Tamil and Telugu languages)- with his gradual evolution as a people’s leader from  a screen icon. Tamil cinema in the heydays of MGR played a cataclysmic role in the furthering of Dravidian politics in South India. C.N. Annadurai, the first chief minister of Tamil Nadu from the Dravidian Party was the forerunner in inculcating the ideologies of the Dravidian movement in  movie scripts.

Parashakti (1952) was a turning point in the Dravidian political movement as it was a box office success for making “radical comments” against the tight social hierarchy engendered by the caste system that triggered the demand for the “self-determination” of the Dravidian cultural identity – as opposed to the pan Indian outlook to pluralistic nationalism.  M. Karunanidhi, the former chief minister of Tamil Nadu scripted the screenplay in which screen legends Shivaji Ganesan and S.S. Rajendran,  two founding pillars of the political party “Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam” DMK, made their screen debuts.    In the neighbourhood,  a new political identity was in the process of consolidation around the same time. Nandakumar Taraka Ramarao (NTR), a good-looking young man, made his screen debut in a social drama, “Manas Desam” in the Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh in 1949. He shot to fame in the decade of the 1950s starring in more than 300 movies. NTR, as he was known among his fans, identified with the masses as “messiah from the Indian mythology” for his portrayals of pantheon deities like Rama and Krishna – venerated as symbols of valour and redemptive icons. NTR struck a chord with the social fringe for his “braveheart” approach to machismo – in which the hero championed the cause of the “deprived” and the “relegated”. He founded the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in 1982 – and was elected to the post of the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh for three terms marked by din and political upheavals. The right wong rivals of NTR accused “economic chicanery” to appease the masses while the Left parties alleged that he “diverted government money to benefit his voters”.

At the national level, however, NTR wrote his own political writ.  He pioneered the third secular front – the National Front – an umbrella of non-Congress parties that ruled the country in 1989-1990. NTR was an advocate of a “distinct cultural identity “for Andhra Pradesh separate from the Tamil Nadu or the Madras state, an overpowering cultural entity in the political chauvinism of southern India.

The tradition of movie stars occupying the political terrain in south Indian politics was upheld subsequently by   J. Jayalalitha, who held a strangehold on Tamil politics for more than 14 years between 1991 to 2016 as the chief minister. “Amma”, as she was known to the legions of her political cadre, carved a toe-hold in the public consciousness as a popular film actor in the 1960s. She starred in 140 Tamil, Telegu and Kannada movies between 1961-1980 and joined the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party in 1982 when MGR was still the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. After his death in 1987, “Jaya” fought through the ranks of the rival factions led by MGR’s widow Janaki to become the supreme leader of the AIADMK till her death in 2016s.

A walk down the lane of time reveals the early crossroads between politics and Indian cinema.  In the 1960s, the heavyweight of Bombay (now Mumbai)’s leading  tinsel family, Prithiviraj Kapoor, was nominated to the Rajya Sabha for eight years followed by a tide from the movie town. Megastars like Vaijayantimala Bali, Hema Malini, Jaya Bachchan, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Dara Singh, Jayaprada, Vinod Khanna, Shatrughan Sinha, Mithun Chakraborty, Kiron Kher, Dharmendra, Sunil Dutt, Raj Babbar, Javed Akhtar, Shabana Azmi, Rekha, Smriti Irani among a few – lent their to glitter Indian politics in the 1980s-1990s in an endeavour to redefine the “parameters” of social identification that began to flag in the decades after 1970s because of the gradual decline of the Congress party (after a spate of deaths in the first line of leadership), the failure of the National Front to put up a people friendly face and the instinctive suspicion that the right wing Hindu parties – which clustered as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)- triggered among the masses for its inept attempts  at hitching a credible opposition contending for power in a chaotic House degenerating into small regional alignments without a political  master template.

One of the factors that helps an actor relate to the masses is the power of the articulation. The tutoring of the delivery on screen, honing of dialogues on screen, in-promptu extempores (despite the pre-conditions of the scripted drama), the display of emotions and the uncanny ability to tug responses – reciprocation from audiences – tickling their thought streams and teasing sentiments – linger on the mind-spaces of the electorates (like in the movies or on the stage), making it easy to push through political manifestos, issues and agendas. In the recent past – in the past two decades- two female protagonists from the realm of the reel have tumbled into the mosaic of the political reality with strident voices and opinions.

Jaya Bachchan and Hema Malini  – two powerfully – endowed actors – have crafted toe-spaces in the Indian parliamentary politics with the force of the gab and connections to the roots. The member of Parliament from Mathura, Hema Malini, often feted as the dream girl of the Indian contemporary Hindi cinema –  debuted in politics in 2003 when she was nominated to the Upper House of the Parliament as a Bharatiya Janata Party candidate on the strength of the screen lure and social presence as an informed people’s volunteer. She was elected to the Lower House of the Parliament in 2014 from the temple town of Mathura in Uttar Pradesh. Hema ji – who has been accoladed and ridiculed in virulent measures for her “dewy good looks”, “sultry oomph” and her pull at the electorate with by the more “macho” breed of colleagues and political rivals have made micro-issues like “rural women’s empowerment at home”, “education of the girl-child” and “population control in the muffosil towns” her planks to a home grown brand of development politics that her mother dispensation –BJP – has been consciously promoting as the integral to its populist manifesto in a desperate move away from the religion-based right wing politics it had espoused in the early decades of power. The 70-year-old manages to retain her own in the heavyweight “jostle” of old Hindutva proponents, who flock the echelons of BJP’s heartland politics – like the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath himself.

Jaya Bachchan, on her part, is a four time member of the Rajya Sabha from the “socialist-leaning” Samajwadi Party. A talented character actor, 70-year-old Bachchan, who hails from a clan of journalists-actors, has been known to espouse causes relating to safety of women, social equities, cultural definitions, citizenships – among other socially relevant issues including the promotion of Hindi as a pan-Indian language – in Parliament and outside. Her “pragmatic” and “forceful” deliveries both on and off the screen is vital to the no-nonsense persona that has cultivated as politico in the male-dominated party and milieus that he represents. Another actor, who traces her genetic lineage to southern India, Jaya Prada, follows in her cue. A former Samajwadi Party member of Parliament from Rampur in Uttar Pradesh, Jaya Prada, “finds the political road hard and thorny”.  “One has to be prepared to walk on a road of stones and thorns. Politics is not a two-and-half hour feature film,” the actor says. Jaya Prada   campaigns about women’s and children’s welfare issues and political “Instabilities”, twists of fortunes in the mercurial Indian politics beset with “sabotage and defections”. The former Telugu Desam Party member from Andhra Pradesh – who even held the post of the party President – defected to the Samajwadi Party from which she was “shown the door” for rebellion with “veteran” member Amar Singh with whom she formed her own party, the  Rashtriya Lok Manch. The party fared poorly in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. Jaya Prada joined the Rashtriya Lok Dal in 2014.

Actors in politics make headlines unlike the run-of the mill clutch of politicians – mostly seasoned ones – who carry on with de rigueur the chores of political everyday like automated cogs, often without creating ripples unless a political development merits media attention. Actors and glamour personalities draw natural audience for their lifestyles, “larger than life images” and rhetoric beyond the political ken of activity. Insiders say they even make sure “adequate” parliamentary attendance during debates when members – many who under normal circumstances choose to stay away from the “boring” gamut of core political verbiage – flock to the House to meet their screen “favourites” and exchange “few words like a peer”.   Former Bihar chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav has a fetish for Hema Malini – most notably her smooth apple cheeks – which he once compared to the “state of roads  one should ideally aspire to for his native turf- Bihar”. Politicians of late have been up in arms against the “female protagonists” from the screen who grace the Opposition and the treasury benches. “They are inept – wastrels, how can they lead the electorate,” is an oft-repeated refrain made to fiery trade-offs between the screen politicos and their weather-beaten counter-army from the heartlands of rural India.

Last year, in 2017 an Independent member of Parliament from Maharashtra Bacchu Kadu stirred a dust eddy when he declared during a debate on suicide by farmers in the state, “Hema Malini drinks everyday, but does she commit suicide?” he said, countering claims that farmers committed suicide because of alcoholism.
“75 per cent MLAs, MPs, journalists drink… even Hema Malini drinks heavily… but have they committed suicide?” he asked.

“Such quirks add a dash of the unexpected and glitz to the insipid sessions when the House is in motion,” admitted a political correspondent of a New Delhi -based television news channel. “They grab eyeballs… we take the cameras to them for comments,” the journalist added with a smirk. “Most of these politicos do not even know how to speak or face the camera. The actors are much more attuned to the act.”

The prime-time glamour notwithstanding,  media curiosity triggered by the brigade of actors who have moved to politics points to one worrying trend. Parliamentary democratic processes are losing their relevance in a “commercial” India, powered by concerns of economics rather than the traditional realpolitik of the Nehruvian model of a socialist-democratic political apparatus. Parliamentary debates were the staple of the media headlines  – held sacrosanct by the participants, people and media alike. Serious politicians were in the reckoning- political erudition was tagged like a stripe on the speaker’s sleeve.  The advent of television, cinema, internet and the “criminalization and commercialization” of politics have changed the collective outlook to democracy, calling for the necessary infusion of colour, speed and chutzpah to make “parliamentary democracy” identifiable with the voters – more than 70 per cent of whom are young and professionally mobile across the economic segments of the country’s geography. A writer-diplomat and public persona like Shashi Tharoor – the member of Parliament from the southern state of Kerala – is more in the news for the books he has written, the “mysterious death of socialite wife Sunanda Pushkar for which he faces a jail term and for his tweets” than a Congress Party or the Bharatiya Janata Party heavyweight involved in grassroots issues like the Ayodhya temple fracas or corruption within the political and civilian rank and file- two issues that keep haunting the Indian voting legions every election. Rahul Gandhi draws more “talk time” than Narendra Modi because “the former is young and good-looking”.

Stars seem to be the ensuing choice to forge the right connection. According to artist and critic Robert Hardgrave , “the politics of adulation, namely the idea that film stars are not necessarily associated to a particular group of population can explain why film stars entering politics are generally successful”.    India is bred on movies – the average voter runs to the neighbourhood theatre to beat the angst of a “demonetized economy”, slump, lay-offs and moribund social mosaic with “dramas” where the heroes and their prop crews hold aloft the noble dreams of the common man looking for a leader to emulate, to depend and to cherish as a role model. The time is not far when politics has to borrow from the reel to redefine the “core” ethics enshrined in the charter of democratic laws – to restore the glory of what was dreamt of as an ideal “Indian Republic”.

Madhusree Chatterjee (Marty)

Senior Editor/Foreign Affairs and Political affairs analyst/special correspondent
New Delhi/Kolkata

Halloween’s Masquerade: Slice of the Untold

The souls have converged upon the living to party on Halloween- the “official” carnival of the spooks  on the festival roster – tracing its roots to ancient Celtic ceremonial rites to recall and appease the dead. In a majority-Hindu nation like India, where one person departs the world of the living every minute, as rough estimates cite, souls jostle cheek by jowl for place at the doorstep or at the ghouls’ masquerades to revel in “mortal warmth” and goodies. Too many to make room for in too confined a space. But snatches of “unexplained” knocks by old souls – from the mists of history, often unknown – is the haunting of Halloween.
They live, often too near for comfort, whipping up disquiet in some unchecked crannie in the head, not always warm to reason. In the past few weeks since leaving my work-desk – under a set of co-incidences (which are often known to have another-worldly connection) – to scout for new and fresher pastures, the staple of reminiscences among colleagues has been of “spooks” and “spirits”- withering recollections of souls long departed  – who inhabited the spaces between the present and past in my last (erstwhile) organization, nearly 275 years old – a publishing house that marked the beginning of English print journalism in Hindustan (India). Some are friendly while others cold – a whiff of chill that rustles the tips of the nose, trailing in a swish of old skirts, swirling bits of smokes, dissipating vapours and footsteps in the arching stairways amid the rubble -heaps of dismantled built spaces and concrete blocks- in odd hours of the night  .
A posse of old English “lairds” and ladies, who set the lathe grindstone in motion at the turn of the 19th century and in the early decades of the 20th century till after Independence (on August 15, 1947) – 10 years or less – continue to vie for space in the memory with their tales of grisly rivalry, near starvation, wastings, Calcutta floods, famines, chills, wars riots, murders (fable like legends of the 1930s and 1940s Calcutta) and their eventual demise – and sometime somnolent retreat into twilights in day care homes far away in England- the land both cherished, hated and coveted by the natives and the lords of Raj then- for more than one reason.
Some were banished from the crown, others sought exile driven by disgrace or under pressure to serve in the dominions, some fled penalties and while others were barred access (mostly the desi stock of dubious antecedents).
The lone refuge – for the illustrious babu-turned sahibs of the colony, the renegade Englishman with money and a fetish for the fine print but no carpet walk on the Queen’s roll of honour and eager wannabes – was the “English” bulletin that covered the city and the world to the honest possible extent- culling, lifting, coaxing, contributing, observing and pasting on the type set. The tales were falling off the closet like pennies – old but tingling, replete with the “hoos-hahs”, “m’ gawd”, “I don’t believe this” and “scary, yeah! Boy)- the stock of the nippy Halloween night. Till someone complained of “spooks” literally in the closet!
After three days of relentless October rain, the walls and floors of the old Calcutta homes had begun to gather “damp”- patches of moisture that seeped in through cracks in the ceilings and the loose reinforcement on the walls. The floor felt clammy. In the scuffle that the deluge brought to the riverine lowlands – inundation of the conclaves along the Ganges – the closets at home began to show signs of a strange wetness. I spied – along with several others who were still part of the organization and common friends – wetness in eerie patches on the wood of the cupboards, on clothes , in edibles stashed in the pantry and on the pages of books in closed shelves. The fluids were sticky and musty in smell tempered with brown at the edges, not exactly colourless like water. The vine was abuzz with possibilities and wistfulness.
It reeked of “old blood”- ooze from old wounds that had been cut open afresh and were still alive. The stains were real – contained in small patches – not the seeping spread of the monsoon moisture, but little “botches of rain-washed blood”.
The stains are yet to dry on the wood and the clothes – faint – but we have allowed them to linger on our mortal skins and memory like a bridge between this and the other world. Some suggested they were -checks against “recurring patterns” from history, recalling lores (or may be true stories) of a “lady of bearing” being mauled on the premises of the organization by a tiger owned by a whimsy “babu” that roamed the lawns like a pet cat, a young English lady being tortured to death on the job and yet another dying of chill in a city hospice – they were apparently the early crop of English lady editors, as the legend goes down the generations – meshed in a bitter battle of pride between a section of the “desi trading class” (a community of moneyed businessmen who wanted to secure a social toehold in the hallowed corridors of English journalism) and the English owners, who refused to cede inches.  It was another mutiny played out in the elite corridors of the intellectual heart of the city- silent, ruthless and aggressive between the early masters and their novices. It was not on the official log. The women, it was rumoured, paid the price behind the Gothic colonnades of the concrete hulk – that remains a crumbling testimony to two hundred years of Kolkata’s and India’s colonial history and discord. And to the city’s forgotten tragedies.
A few unmarked gravestones in the city and in England were swamped by rain almost simultaneously in a waking call to Halloween- they were all makers of the history of modern Hindustan and “women” from the pulse of the British Raj.
The souls called – rather knocked in blood on their “official resurrection” in the Gregorian Christian calendar. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!

Madhusree Chatterjee
Senior Editor & Foreign Affairs Analyst

In the crosshairs: Human cost & people’s polity in the Middle Eastern and West Asian conflicts

One of the worst wars in the history of human civilization puts the great Nazi-Allied conflicts of the 1930s-1940s to shame. The scope of the atrocities played out in the reigning West Asian war – the protracted and ongoing clash of diverging political, social and religious interests in Syria and Iraq is nothing less than cleansing of a quarter of the human race that helped draw the demographic parameters of the Asian landmass over the centuries. In the crosshairs is the citizen on the street jammed between the army and the militias – more than 475,000 dead and over 100,000 missing in Syria alone in the last five years and more than 65,000 in Iraq since 2014 when the civil war tore apart the fragile socio-economic machinery rebuilt after the 2003 war that felled more than 500,000 in the Levant region (including civilians and the armed forces).

The numbers cutting across the swathe of the Asian conflict zone – from Iraq to Afghanistan in the last decades – address the scope of the human tragedy that refuses to ebb despite interventions by the big powers that be. According to the Cost of the War Project- a stock-taking platform of 35 scholars and legal experts working since 2011 – in the last 15 years, US involvement in the region have cost more than 600,000 military and civilian lives – ousting over 700,000 people from their homelands – at tabs running up to nearly $ 13 trillion in financial costs and still counting. The coordinator of the project Catherine Lutz of the Watson Institute of International Studies, Brown University  says “on an average for every person killed in fighting, four other people have died because of the indirect consequences that can be felt for months and years later”.

In Iraq alone, more than 215,000 deaths were documented between 2003 and 2017, says Statistica, a portal that disseminates war deaths across conflict zones. The period  between August 1 to August 11, 2017 witnessed more than 11,000 documented deaths in Iraq resulting from stray assaults and suicide blasts on civilians by “jihadis” and those caught in the crosshairs of army operation.  The number of undocumented deaths is almost as high as those registered in the government and army logs. Analysts say civilian deaths in the wars raging in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan can be slotted into categories – those caused by direct confrontation between the army and the marauders (in this case the radical Islamic militias) and the regime forces in which civilians bear the burden of the bullets and loss. The second and the more protracted kind is rooted in vendetta- ensuing guerrilla raids after full-scope conflicts. The maximum collateral damage unleashed by the 2003 conflict and the ongoing war in Iraq since 2011 has been wrought by the stray explosions and the suicide attacks by “jihadi” cells in busy public spaces – except for areas like Mosul where the government forces are locked in a two-edged battle with the radicals and “indirectly the civilians” in the populous areas of the urban habitats where the militants are holed up among civilians – using them as human shields against the firing squads.

Rough estimates say more than 200,000 people are still trapped in Mosul despite the official victory of the government forces in July – and the United Nation warns that civilians are still paying the price of carpet air strikes on the Islamic State posts. The city is a virtual crematorium- gutted, dismantled and buried under mounds of rubble. Sporadic airstrikes continue to haunt civilian enclaves as the battle moves beyond the borders of Mosul.

“We feel that civilians are in an increasingly dangerous situation as the air strikes and the ground conflicts intensify, possibly resulting in many more casualties as well as retaliatory assaults by the IS in densely populated civilian areas,” UN high commissioner for refugees Prince Zeid Bin Rand said.  A report in the Iraqi News says the Iraqi government plans “to swivel its firepower to other Islamic State havens in Anbar, Kirkuk and Salauddin  – and last IS outpost in Iraq, Nineveh, which can be invaded any time”. The Iraqi Defence ministry said the army was waiting for orders to enter Nineveh, a historical city. Operations by the pro-government militias, the Popular Mobilisation , isolated the town from Mosul and from the Syrian  borders. The militia has already taken over several border villages, holding the residents at gunpoint

Iraq is a victim of a protracted civil war like Syria  and Palestine – unlike many other west Asian and Gulf nations, where conflicts have been short-lived following in the cue of intense civil wars or internecine strife. One example of this is Yemen, where a war between the regime, coalition forces and the Shia rebels or the Houthis – allegedly backed by Iran- has wiped out nearly a quarter of its population in a span of two years. The war which began in March 2015 is now being waged across multiple spaces –  drawing in the Islamic State and the al-Qaida militant organizations which are fighting for space against the Shi’ite Houthis – and a hostile regime  – harvesting the milieu of political breakdown (with a president in exile) and control vacuums.  The consequences have been devastating.  As the civic infrastructure crumbled with continuous aerial strikes by the Riyadh-led coalition forces – deployed to bring the government back to the helm  –  and dwindling flow of aid, citizens have been put to the mat by outbreaks of epidemics. The foremost among them are cholera and malnutrition.

The first outbreak of cholera was reported in October 2016- a bout that could be contained. The scourge witnessed a resurgence in April 2017 – and by June, the UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that the total number of cases had exceeded 200,000 with 1,300 deaths and 5.000 new cases each day- with a quarter of the deaths among children who are still dying for want of medical care.

Iraq has been in the crosshairs twice – in 2003 and in 2011 – and onwards till this day. One of the reasons for the ongoing war is that it is being waged on the native terrain of the IS – the Levant region – where it began as a backlash against the regime and western occupation forces in the early years of the decade of 2000 when Abu Musab al- Zarqawi began to train extremist militants under the banner if Jama’at al- Tawhid wa’al. After swearing allegiance to the al-Qaida, it shifted focus to Syria besieged by retaliatory strikes by the regime armies. The group remained muted till 2013 – involved in covert operations through various front organizations till in 2013, it changed its name to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The “jihad” that the soldiers of the “caliphate”- as the Islamic State  describes its rank and file– is fighting to establish a Islamic hegemony (historical caliphate) has long ceased to keep its spotlight on the government and the forces of establishment. The war in the name of religion and political power grab has spread across as tools of mass terrorism intimidating and killing innocent civilians – to whip up psychosis of fear in the society as a ploy to bend political wills and turn international attention to the civilian excesses in an organized publicity initiatives by owning up to “mayhems” in formal official communiqués. In the past three years – since 2014 – civilian pogroms have been accorded official legitimacy in the conflict zones of west Asia (and in the middle-east).

The American military acknowledges in private  – as insiders in the defence point out – what non-government monitors have been trying to highlight for years. The United States coalition and the government (Iraqi, Syrian, and Saudi axis) fighting the Islamic State and other rebel forces like the Houthis and al-Qaida since 2014 has been killing “civilians at an astonishing rate – more so in the months since President Donald Trump assumed office” and pulling powerful players like Russia, a pro-regime ally in Syria – into the middle-eastern conflict. It has drawn a contiguous geopolitical map of conflict from Afghanistan, where new alignments are making the pitch difficult for the Taliban with the presence of Islamic State, al-Qaida and the Haqqani forces aided reportedly by Pakistan and by proxy China, locked in a conflict with India and on hostile engagement with the US because of Trump’s aggressive stand on North Korea and the South China Sea conflict. The result has been a staggering loss of civilian life, says the United Nations Independent Commissions of Inquiry into the civil war in Syria.

The civilian toll has shot up because the battle has moved deeper into the populated areas of rebel towns like Raqqa- the centre-stage on the current war between the Syrian regime forces, the coalition forces, the US-aided Kurdish militias, the Russians and the Islamic State- and earlier in Mosul.

Over the decades, the wars in the middle-east have changed dynamics – beginning with faith as in the Israel-Palestine conflict between the Arabs and the Jewish people – to terrorism and proxy wars by the big powers to dislodge tyrannical regimes detrimental to bilateral defence engagements, manoeuverings and commerce between the west Asian & middle eastern nations and the global power blocs led by the US, Russia, the European Union with its trade interests, the NATO with its agenda to maintain an armed status quo in the Atlantic, Suez and the Baltic regions and the recent entrants – China and an east Asian caucus. The change in the nature of regional conflict that has raised alarm in the fraternity of international rights monitors, political observers and the corridors of the power capitals across the east and the west is the human cost of the middle-eastern and west Asian conflicts.

Armed conflicts with conventional warheads – ground assaults – have been pushed to the fringe with the high incidence of carpet air raids which have often gone haywire as in the recent bombings by the US-led coalition forces in Syria and Iraq, use of killer chemical agents, strategic cutback and destruction of essential infrastructure like food and medical aid necessary to keep the civilian population out of the war lines – alive – to the maximum extent possible- in a throwback to the World War eras.

The war on radical Islamic terror – the chief driver of the West Asian and the middle eastern conflicts  since 2011 and even before – (since 2003 after the overthrow of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussain and the ensuing birth of ISIL in the aftermath of the Iraq war)  – has metamorphosed the strike patterns from planned assaults by terrorists on stragetic targets of vital importance – like on world leaders, key military establishments, business hubs like the 9/11 carnage of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre by the al-Qaida, public venues and commercial utility capacities – to guerrilla hit-and-run raids on civilians to enhance the scope of civilian damage, triggering public outrage and fear among the softer targets of insurgency. The car bombings of Iraq, serial bombings in market places and crowded urban hubs, the stray assaults on civilians, beheadings and mass killings in Syria – and even in Israel where the assailants have picked up smaller weapons like knives and pocket firearms to kill in public spaces in an attempt to rivet maximum eye shares – and elsewhere across the world in Europe (auto-attacks on civilians), suicide attacks in Africa, the market bombings of Turkey,  and even in US (like the mass shootings of civilians in utility and entertainment facilities) point to a concerted change in the tactics of “jihad” emanating from the middle east and West Asia. The ‘jihadi’ warriors are moving away from macro to micro-level conflicts –precision, small and serial – to kill the man on the streets- unwitting, unprepared and unprovoked victims of a war fought among a complex praxis of forces – operating beyond the portals of everyday haunts, access and concerns (like faith) removed from the struggle of livelihoods.

On a sweeping estimate, a quarter of the civilian infrastructure in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan (where the Taliban is fighting The establishment and the spillage of Islamic State militancy desperate to acquire greater footprint in the Muslim bloc and South and East Asian turfs to form greater linkages with west Asia and middle eastern jihad) has been wiped out in the last two decades. A report in the media says 11.5 per cent of Syrian population (according to Syrian Centre for Policy Research) have been exterminated since the beginning of the conflict in 2011). Nearly 13.8 million Syrians have lost their source of livelihood.

A World Bank estimate (for 2016) says the cost of rebuilding war-ton Syria may touch $ 180 billion – a figure that is likely to notch northward by several billions in the years to come. Analysts say it could cost “anything between $ 84 billion to nearly $ 500 billion to rebuild Iraq- ravaged by two decades of conflicts.

Aid, say observers, is hard to come by despite entreaties by the United Nations fending off cuts in fundings by hostile nations like the US and Israel and an internal power tussle among the “big five” – and the governments concerned. All civilian advocacy measures to propagate de-escalation of conflict in civilian zones and ensure safety of the citizens have foundered in west Asia and middle-east with players – the coalition, regime and the enemy “jihadi” forces intent on holding out till the fall of the bastions to either side like in conventional warfare. Citizens in Mosul and Raqqa have been used as human shields by terrorists – in the old quarters of the city – either to ward off regime forces or as hostage walls to flee the strongholds.

A section of the regimes – like in Syria, Iraq and proxy superpowers like Russia, US and even Britain – believe that terrorists (jihadis) have spilled over into the civilian mosaic  in a manner making the dividing line very thin and blurred. Any crackdown on the radicals – who have sought shelters in crowded residential neighbourhoods to dodge precision raids on hideaways- takes its toll on the civilian population despite intents to the opposite. The terrorists melt into the throng with strategic meticulousness to divert counter-insurgency drives that put civilians in the crosshairs. The “grand” magnitude of the human tragedy in west Asia and the middle east – and the growth of the culture of jihad – has transformed the geopolitics and polarized the demography of the region – early hinging on clash of faith (conflict of civilizations) to a sectarian and internecine pockets of discords with the wars diminishing in ideology to target Shia-Sunni and ethnic animosities (like between the Turks, Iraqis and Kurds) with the superpowers arming one against the other.

The prospect of contiguities appear to recede to the misty margins – as the desecration of cultures and history of the ancient lands rage on in a construed attempt to wipe out the lineages that crafted the geo-boundaries of the middle-eastern nations and its living cultures to put in place polity blocs and commercial swathes engaged along the alignments of the new cold wars being fought over economy, oil and territories to push trade agendas. Religion – the preserve of the common man as an emotional and cultural pivot – is a tool of subversion by the “jihadi” (soldier of the caliphate) and their world coalition alike to deepen the fissures in a multi-polar world – where each order or rather dispensation jostles for space. In an irony, the dispensations of the smaller power blocs are directly or indirectly aligned in trade or bilateral cooperation with the “big five” – or the handful of rogues (like Iran or north Korea – which too have proxy alignments) as the media observes that vetoes in global comities of trade, commerce, and geopolitics. In the crosshair- is the dishevelled Muslim, the Semite or the odd Christian – the conflict zones of Asia – for whom the search for food and medicines transcend the greater implications of the politics of the conflict and the “jihad”. The warring regimes are mute to this simple code of existential dilemma – who is the enemy, the protector and the target segments. The common man. A middle east or west Asia without adequate number of people – an estimated 11 million people have fled Syria alone since the outbreak of the war – and urban infrastructure is a dead-end; wastelands on the global map useless in its geopolitical relevance to the superpowers.

Madhusree Chatterjee
(Former Editorial Consultant
The Statesman, Kolkata)


A narrative of exile and reconciliation: Nkosi Sikelele Africa


“The sun comes down and fries us – ndopatigere pano
The rains come down and we have no shelter- ndopatigere pano
The wind tosses us about like dry leaves – ndopatigere pano
The cold is in us and we are numb- ndopatigere pano- this is our home now…”

The stray refrain – ndopatigere pano- in the Shona language of central and south Africa is from a song by Jordan Chitaika that speaks of forced relocation, exile,  nostalgia, collective memories and long-haul migration which churned the socio-political fabric of the contemporary Africa of the 1970s- during the swell of the apartheid movement when the colour crusaders had begun to hammer at the walls of quarantine.

It is also the essence of Marion Molteno’s lyrical tale of a young woman’s journey from the battleground of Bloemfontein and Johannesburg in South Africa to the immigrants’ London of the early 1970s – when the city became a melting pot of cultures, colours, tongues and lives of a plethora of “relegated” nations clubbed as the “third world”. London was the “rainbow” that the young surge sought as the shelter at the end of long crossings across oceans, deserts, mountains and bordered air spaces.

The book which trails Jeannie de Villiers odyssey across a swathe of 14,000 km from South Africa to London as an “anti-apartheid” fugitive and political migrant of white origin from the old Scottish stock of settlers in the sharply polarized “black-vs–white” Africa probes a gamut of historical realities drawn on the canvas of the faraway strains of the continent’s folk music and its fusion with the west – that bailed legions of young battle hounds out of a catastrophe of loss to spread the gospel of freedom.

Molteno’s association with “Save the Children” as a caregiver and her exposure to Orientalism in India and Pakistan – through the study of Urdu and her extensive travels across Asia and Africa – sustain the scaffolding of the story that actually begins in Bloemfontein, where her protagonist Jeannie spends her childhood in a home bustling with brothers, a devoted dad and a dedicated mum. Music weaves its way in with older brother Richard’s flute that harks to the exotica of Okavango swamp, Nyika plateau and the Zimbabwe ruins – landscapes that etch the impressionistic contours of Jeannie’s childscape in colours of these landmarks that her older brother treks to for soul succour.

The music opens the road to revolution on the campus in Cape Town – where the white and black students alike run afoul of the authority cracking down on the coloured stock, standing up for their rights. Jeannie is caught in the melee of anti-apartheid – in which the colours blur to spill into the melodies of Africa. She is forced to flee with war-fellow Kevin after Jonas – the black guy – is whisked away by the police in yet another unaccounted for “disappearance”. Jonas is the shadow mascot in Jeannie’s life – “You can’t get away from it, Jeannie”. The anguished prophecy becomes the denouement of the narrative bringing Jeannie’s life to a full circle – from South Africa to London and back to Africa across Kenya, Malawi and Zambia again to organize the kids- all of them from the villages of Nyika to the shanties of Sweto in the outskirts of Jo’burg- to give them a voice in their incarceration and then freedom in their adopted home-turfs that is as a unwieldy as the black thunderclouds and spurts of rain that swamp the land.

The story of an individual war on colour is tempered to softness by love – an unlikely romance between Jeannie who marries Kevin Cartwrigth for a passport to England fearing jail in a students’ movement trial and Neil, a composer of structured sounds who holds his “personal retreats” from long-term entanglements with women and “freedom to create music for those who assimilate sounds to break challenging grounds” between paid concerts- like a flag. Jeannie is a migrant in the teeming alleys of 1971 London cloistered in a tenement of rainbow women – who have drifted in search of new livelihoods from across European cities in political ferment, Asia of shrinking opportunities and Africa hunger, civil war and apartheid.  Kevin flows on in his British birth tide unable to meet Jeannie in bed with his detached ardour and loud ways.

The two, legally husband and wife, meet for occasional meals to keep the foreign office procedures in fettle. The passport arrives two years later in 1973 – at a time when Jeannie has found solace in the viola at Neil’s home, at the local arts council organizing children with cognitive itches and at the School of African Studies understanding “the inheritance” of her homeland- in musical notations and ethnic languages.

Jeannie is a revolutionary – a rebel who refuses the confines of conventional grammar in life and music. She epitomizes an anachronistic antithesis of the apartheid movement – a legion of veterans who jumped the colour bar to pitch for the persecuted “black” multitudes. In the De’ Villiers clan, the compassion and empathy for the black communities of South Africa are rooted in the secular cultural mosaic of the old settlers from Europe with their genteel breeding and affinity to finer sensitivities of th music, arts – and education – which brought on an universalism of consciousness and homogeneity of intellect among the old “coloured natives” and white settlers alike – distinct from the Boer (Afrikaners of Dutch origin) aggression at the turn of the last century.

A gentleness that binds the kinships of the clans like reinforced concrete – and human warmth- are the underlying threads of the journey beginning at home and smoothening the twisted paths of the narrative beyond – spanning disparate topographies such as those of the village Mbabane on the South Africa-Swaziland border, where Jeannie expends her soul to teach Charity and her African friends English as the kind “Mlungu” (white-skinned foreigner in the local ki-swati dialect)   -to the Victorian shanty sprawl of a townhouse in London where Jeannie finds sleeping room in an attic, led by the Portuguese immigrant rebel and poet Maria from the lunch-bar. In the warren of inhabited spaces, Jeannie meets Jaswinder from a Asian (Punjabi) home. Jas is runaway who trawls the downside to find toe-hold as an individual – a Londoner of Indian descent replete with Mumbai film music and elaborate cuisines – and Paula, a lesbian who can transcreate the blues and music in Jeannie’s soul like the crystal gazer.

“ku le zo nta a ba
bo-li-BA- mba linga sho-o-ni
On those distant hills, catch the sun before it sets
You who are mourned
I am now just a song that everyone sings
I loved a young man but they took him
Gone to seek work in the mines…

The nostalgia of Swazi hill melodies meld seamlessly into the free lunch hour concerts- where the string quartets of Corelli and Albinoni lift the chords of her existence to find resonance in the humble “mbira”- an African string instrument which Jeannie works on diligently in her attic. The warmth is the winds of her destiny – that propel her to Neil’s apartment to encounter the viola and to child -mind Michael, slow on the uptake. The strings bear portends of shifts- transformation in Jeannie’s life. A short brush with the archived academy of African music at the School of African Studies in London – bears her to a non-profit job in Nairobe and further on to the official de rigueur of the United Nations – the feeding duct of a striving Africa and shelter for the black kids on the rebound from Cape Town and Johannesburg. A short commission to engage with those fleeing in the camps and rehabilitation teaches her the stresses of bureaucracy – liaisoning and currying room to accommodate the itinerants.

The music brings Neil – a die-hard Scotsman – to the high velds and hills of Kenya and Zimbabwe to explore the music of the Nyika plateau. The beats of Africa unfurl in all its pagan riots (of colours and sounds) to unleash passion – dredging up the primal ambiguities of adult relationships in Jeannie’s doubts, insecurities, temporal qualities of love and dire need of free space between two thinking minds to manoeuvre.

Molteno laces strange dichotomies of politics, oppression, romance, officialese, migration, living on the edge of sustenance, engagement across cultures, landscapes and continental divides into a riveting narrative  of personal redemption that begins at home in the imagination of a South African girl child – free to explore the niches of the undefined – and ends with the timeless bonding between the mother and the daughter – the girl as a young woman tending to an old widowed mum at home. It is a story of exile, repatriation and homecoming – played out in million ways in the lives of the South African apartheid warriors in the two decades between 1970s and the 1990s when the African National Congress helmed by Nelson Mandela came to power.

Molteno  employs the lilt of African folk to convey her narrative through the language of music, a literary device that draws and flags off in unfinished endings- deflating at times. The exchanges are tiresome in snatches – rambling monotones which sags under the weight of words. But then it is a deeply psychological investigation of cross-cultural assimilation, growing up and acceptance – of freedom and realizations within the self. The writer can therefore be acquitted with honour.

BOOK- If You Can Walk, You Can Dance
Author – Marion Molteno
Publisher – Niyogi Books

Madhusree Chatterjee
(Editorial Consultant, The Statesman. Kolkata
In-charge of international affairs)
India Coordinator, Asia News Network)


(Article for The Statesman)



New Bengali cinema: A contemporary genre to anchor the vernacular



Bengal is the new regional Hollywood in the making – and the hives can’t just stop buzzing about it. A wave is sweeping through the consciousness of contemporary Bengali cinema – powered by multiplexes, higher entry tariff, younger audiences, Internet, deeper penetration of arts awareness, proactive engagement with story-telling – and finally literature that is reaching out to the masses in non-formal ways moving beyond the confines of fine print.
A couple of years into the eastern metropolis of Kolkata – the nerve-centre of Bengali regional cinema – have changed the Bombay and Hollywood-centric cinematic awareness among several of our generation of returnees, who have reconnected to this bastion of Bengali culture that thrives and progresses amid the rubble of stagnant economics and a dusty political milieu. I have not been spared of the dawn of the new fathoming.
Cinema that has mirrored the social transformation of the Bengali ethos of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties  – well past the millennial decades into 2016 – has acquired a global hue which is cosmopolitan and universal in its interpretation of realities and literature- two primary sources of narratives in the Bengali cinema down the decades.
The contemporary cinema in Bengal – the current  platter of releases in the last two years or so – points to two trends. A fusion of parallel and commercial mainstream of ideas and a more refined treatment of narratives  – accompanied by crisp and meaningful scripting of dialogues, editing and deployment of hi-tech special effects on screen. Consequently, it has acquired an edgy pace that has set it apart from Marathi and southern regional cinema – two other vernacular oeuvres that vie of spotlight in terms of powerful storytelling and theatrics on the screen.  Popular literature is also being adapted more intelligently to suit the sync of the audiences – who are bred on action thrillers and slick content of Hollywood and Mumbai – with considerably less attention spans rejecting meandering and oversized dramas.
The notion of contemporary universalism paints Bengali cinema at this juncture with the greater cultural contiguity of the west – the stories have to be sharper and easily told with greater movement of characters and narrative structures that should not deviate widely from the linear pattern that characterizes modern mass fiction books.
Bengali cinema has a traditional advantage in this sphere – the Calcutta realism wave which gave to India the pioneering parallel hits of the 1940s the 1950s- enshrined by filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta and Gautam Ghose (later in the decades),  has helped the mainstream industry evolve a distinct identity of its own.
If Pather Panchali captured the social dilemma of an angst riven Bengali middle class dialectics that dictated the discourse of the cultural consciousness of a Bengal in the cusp of a sociological change in the 1950s  – then movies like Praktan, a 2016 release by Shiboprasad Mukherjee and Nandita Ray starring Prasenjit Chatterjee and Rituparna Sengupta probes the disintegration of the contemporary social mosaic with the narrative of a broken marriage  – played in a journey on train. A decade ago, marriages were sanctified on the Bengali screen as the denouement of climatic storytelling in the commercial mainstream. Melodrama, romance and happy endings followed a Mumbai stereotype – harking to the lifestyle gamut of an economically resurgent Bengal under a Left rule where the average cine-goer – the “Bengali” from the city and the suburbs – would relive their own experiential odysseys of love, sorrows, bitterness, prosperity, social churnings and happy endings on the screen.
But life on the fast lane has forced the cinematic narrative to take contemporary detours.
Last week, a chance visit to a neighbourhood theatre on an idyllic afternoon threw up a revelation – the Bengali conservatism and insularity of the 1970s-1980s have made way for the universal western language of the hip and the reckless manifest in the social rot that gnaws at the metropolis – in its purple mists and blues. “Devi”- a Devdas-meets-Streetcar Named Desire remake (rather crude though) of the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay classic in which the leading light dons a female avatar of a spurned blog journalist turned junkie in Thailand- who dies of heartache, urban angst and cultural alienation.
The movie, directed by Rick Basu, is an exercise in aberration and confusion but strangely ground-breaking at the same time with its audacious reference to debilitating social fads like drug-addiction, disconnected relationships, clash between old and new sensitivities, rural-urban social dislocations brought on rampant urbanization, migration, aspirational living and changing politica; power equations. The contemporaneity aside, the movie mirrors the cross-cultural assimilations that are transforming the root perceptions of the Bengali society and its arts consciousness – hued by opening up of the economy and geographical boundaries, English-oriented education, younger audiences and multi-linguistic and cultural crews & casts on screens.
An award-winning movie, Shankachil –  an Indo-Bangladesh production by noted director Goutam Ghose is a case study of the cross-cultural osmosis that has set regional Bengali on a new trajectory travelling the sub-continent to a greater audience and social connecting threads.
Intelligent story-telling in an universal language to engage with the global audience – and the formidable Bengali diaspora population – began in the 1950s – post Independence when the modern educated “Bengali” migrated abroad  sporting an indigent culture instead of the “legacies” of British colonialism – combining the modernism of the west with the progressive traditions of a free India. A new culture revolution was raging across the capitals of the country with the progressive arts movements.
The trend was enshrined in the iconic classics of 1950s-1970s created by filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Rittwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha who translated the urban deconstruction on screen to address issues like the corporatization of a political Bengal, Left awakening and progressive cultures in the art-house movement. But the cinema post-2000 in Bengal is a watershed in the growing trade and aesthetics of regional filmmaking – standing on its own with brazen narratives and empathy for young realities of a well-heeled class that came of age in the 1970s-1980s with Ivy League grooming.
If the 1980s- 1990s were an era of decadence  and pedestrianism in mainstream Bengali cinema – characterized by slump in trade statistics, closure of standalone movie theatres, insipid film-making and degeneration in consciousness, the decades around the millennium and those ensuing witnessed a surge – shot of life into the cinematic morass with multiplex theatres, steeper tariffs, production budgeting, intelligent movie-making and projecting cinema as holistic entertainment complemented with shopping sprees and lifestyle accoutrements in the age of retail revolution at mega consumer arcades to  draw new segments of cine-goers into the tinsel loop- with sharper consumer focus. Consequently, Kolkata and the adjoining cities have seen a spurt in the number of one-stop entertainment and lifestyle facilities- malls as they are monikered – kitted out with PVRs, the ruling movie multiplex brand across the nation.  Observers point out the evolving experience of cinema as a lifestyle add-on in tandem with “direct” consumption of consumer goods have brought the studios back from the precipice in Tollywood- Tollygunge- the nerve-centre of Bengali regional cinema. Bollywood or Mumbai has also contributed to the process of recuperation of Tollywood – with migration of names, resource and know-how to and fro between Kolkata and Mumbai.
In sync, Bengal has stepped out of box  to combine art-house with the mainstream commercial to develop a language of its own championed by new-age directors like Anjan Dutt, Rituparno Ghosh, Srijit Mukherjee, actor-turned filmmaker Aparna Sen, Shiboprasad Mukherjee, Sujoy Ghosh to name a few.  The string of engaging narrative-driven movies – like Dark Chocolate, Baastu Shap, Cinemawala, Angaar, Gansgter to name a few –  addresses a new audience which is well informed, jet-setting, affluent, young and discerning.
Literature – a powerful narrative fountainhead for cinematic story-telling – has lent itself ingenuously to Bengali cinema over the decades to convey the march of the socio-cultural politik of the terrain – rich in the lores of people, history and change. Instances of adaptations of Rabindranath Tagore’s, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s, Manik Bandopadhhay’s and Bibhuti Bandopadhyay’s short stories  are galore  on the Bengali screen post-Independence.  The transcreation of popular literature into the cinematic oeuvre is a continuum- though the nature of translating literary content for the mass audience has tailored itself to address the demands of the racier and younger segments of cine-goers. Literature embellishes in the movie script with colourful dollops of thrills, frills and tweaks in the tale to context in the modern times.
A 2016 release from Tollygunge, Zulfikar, directed by Srijit Mukherje, was  an adaptation of two of William Shakespeare’s tragedies, Julius Ceaser  and  Anthony and Cleopatra. The movie set in the milieu of a contemporary Bengal wove its narrative around a prodigal, Zulfikar Ahmed, a ganglord of a powerful crime syndicate, throwing his journey across the maze of the underworld into the spotlight against his inter-personal relationships. The movie did not smash the box office – but its score and innovative adaptation were both critiqued and appreciated unlike Hemanta, a transcreation of Hamlet, by director Anjan Dutta, which earned lukewarm reviews.
Monchora directed by Sandip Ray, released in January 2016, was an adaptation of Bengali writer Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s  story of the same name. Set in the Bengal of the 1950-1960s, when light romances, mild mysteries and family soaps were reflecting the languid socio-political state of a pre-radical West Bengal, the movie revolves around the life of a thief, who comes across as a pleasant anti-hero.
The drudgery of romance – drama – and laughter have in the last decade made room for darker tales with edgy thrills in Tollywood spurred by the pervasive influence of Hollywood and the television action movie spectrums that beam western potboilers to young adults and the upwardly segments of movei-goers, as the old timers.
One of the most enduring spin-offs has been resurgence of thrillers as a cinematic genre on the Bengali screen. Five releases between 2015-2016 have taken Tollywood on a hunt for hitherto untold stories from the vast repository of “mass mystery fiction”- that has carved a premium slot for itself in contemporary Bengali literature over the last 100 years. Critics and literary reviewers concur on the ingenuity of filmmakers like Aniket Chattopadhyay, Anjan Dutt, Arindam Sil, Anindya Bikash Dutta, Sandip Ray and Pratim Gupta, who have harked back to the archives of fiction writers like Nihar Ranjan Gupta, Saradindhu Bandopadhyay and Satyajit Ray to exhume gripping thrills – adapted into tight narratives and slick film-making for the growing segment of younger audience.
Titles like “Kiriti O Kalo Bhramor”, “Kiriti Roy”, “Byomkesh O Chiriyakhana”, “Byomkesh Parbo”, “Double Feluda”,  “Chorabali”, “Gwenda Shabor: Eagaler Chokh”and “Saheb Bibi Aur Ghulam” drew serious audience bred on fiction- but with a affinity to the esoteric and the racy to the multiplexes and the theatres across the state – to keep the thrills spilling on to the fantasy space of the average movie-goer.  The genre of thriller as a cinematic movement has rendered commercial Bengali film-making fresh life fluids – with the PVRs eyeing possibilities of revival in business that had witnessed a slump in the last few years because of the paucity of funds in the movie industry as a whole- despite the outbound experiments across cultures, language and physical turfs.
The intelligent handling of the Bengali mystery classics trace their refined treatment to the television where snoop masterpieces like “Byomkesh” have been serialized – the small screen setting the template for the bigger screen to improvise on and stretch the mosaic of the narrative and visuals. Television has established  a  seamlessness with the big Tollywood screen – like in the rest of the country – with its glut of commercial soaps and tele-cinema that follow the blueprint of the Mumbai television.
The serialized dramas known as “serials”  meld into the bigger format of commercial cinema without much deviations – at times it is difficult to distinguish between the original screenplay for the television and its broader manifest on the cinema screen. This explosion of creative television in Bengal has imbued Tollygunge with resources – both in terms of spice, human resources and faculties to juggle bigger frames on tighter tele-budgets.
In many ways, the Bengali cinema reflects the trends – though on a micro-canvas – in Bollywood (Mumbai movies) where the multiplexes and changing movie-goers’ curriculum vitae are dictating the rules of commercial filmmaking on smaller budgets for an educated overseas markets. It also resonates with Hollywood – though on a much subdued scale – in its near epic scope of narratives, adaptations of classic literary theatres (the holistic genre of modern literature and drama) and creative thought-spacing of expression.
Bengal is a regional genre that will hold the parallel industry of vernacular cinema aloft in the years to come when the linguistic languor and the fatigue with Hindi as the “linear primary” of communication seeps into the viewer.

 Madhusree Chatterjee
(Editorial Consultant, The Statesman)
The Statesman/ANN Coordinator

Kolkata moves step closer to Arts Biennale with arts festival

The history of Kolkata’s cultural soul is evolving with its political maturity – capturing the imagination of growing segments of young practitioners and lovers of art with its contemporary sensitivities and its manifests on the canvas.  Art as a medium of the mass dialogue and propagation of social awareness has acquired wider connotations to include the continuum of living cultures and the political ethos of the geography in which it flourishes. Festivals are the best showcases to collate the diverse strains – and oeuvres – of artistic movements for the viewer to appreciate, understand and engage with the practitioner.
In India – the concept of art showcases like festivals of literature – has seen a spurt in the last decade with the explosion of the Internet, penetration of education, heightened aesthetic awareness and rising disposable incomes in cities for the common man to take time out for the arts – thus bringing complex practices out of the schoolrooms in the process to involve a gamut of stakeholders. The Kolkata Art Festival which began 5 February – 4 March like the Kolkata Book Fair is one such endeavour to integrate the arts into the mainstream of the greater cultural and social-scape of the metropolis with multi-disciplinary expositions.
An initiative of the Art Heritage Foundation, the festival has been woven around the promotion of young artists from across the country with the CIMA Awards on 4 February to help the arts and their practitioners sustain – with a head start. The buzz is yet to gather around the festival – unlike the India Art Fair in the national capital, but as the director of CIMA pointed out non-commercial activity in the arts require time to take off in the popular cultural consciousness.  She described the initiative as the countdown to a full-scale Kolkata Art Biennale.
“The  purpose of the award (and the festival as well) was that while we were working for CIMA for the last 24 years, we were not being able to get to the backwaters of India and know what was happening outside the bigger cities unless we did something that would bring out new talent. We have a hierarchy of artists and a whole system over there … it creates a back. How do we evaluate artists who are young,” director of the CIMA Rakhi Sarkar told The Statesman.
The awards were up in 2015 is across seven categories carrying a prize purse of Rs 500,000 for the winner –a solo show and participation in an international residency. The first runner-up trophy carries a bourse of Rs 300,000 followed by Rs 200,000 for the second runner-up, two jury awards of Rs 100,000 each, two special mentors’ prizes of Rs 50,000 each, four merit awards Rs 25,000 and a director’s booty of Rs 25,000.
“The shortlist of 15 finalists are selected by a two-tier jury – one early set and a final line-up . This year, out of the 1,500 entries for the awards, works of 196 artists are displayed across five sites,” Sarkar said. The age group caters to the burgeoning tribe of the young Indian contemporary artists –  between 25 and 45 – most of them art school graduates and relatively unheard of – “but talented”.
The artist has to be an Indian resident. “We prefer Indian curators and artists to do the screening for us,” Sarkar pointed out.
This year, the preliminary jury comprised artists Shreyasi Chatterjee, Partha Pratim Deb, Sushen Ghosh, Sanat Kar, Paresh Maity, Pankaj Panwar, Ajit Seal, cinematographer Abhik Mukhopadhyay and Rakhi Sarkar. The final jury was made of author Kunal Basu, Arpita Singh, Paramjit Singh, MA Palaniappan, Prabhakar Nolte, Anju Chaudhuri, NN Rimzon and Shreyasi Chatterjee.
The entries were diverse spanning a range in acrylic, graphic, pencil, ink, lightboxes, paper and thread – including odd solid works. The exhibits, according to Sarkar, threw up few startling trends. Artists were using “less of colours” on their canvas – choosing monochromes, unicolours and muted colour palettes instead of “brightly coloured compositions”. Artists are using less of oil paints now. “We have no oil paintings this year – because oil takes a longer while. Life has become fast and we don’t want to give so much. Artists look for easy mediums, excitement, bigger counters…” she said.
The mediums speak of the evolution and transformation in the art of Bengal –the crucible of modern Indian art dating back to 200 years – and the larger aesthetic psyche of India developing a global language and homogenous practices, embodying similar concerns. Bulk of the winning works on display is in acrylic, collages and mixed eclectic mediums on bigger and bolder formats – expanding in size and scope than on glitz. The works were more profound, Sarkar said. “More and More artists are refraining from using colours. Is colour fading out of our lives- the jury was discussing this. Lot of works are very dark,” she said.
The CIMA 2017 winner, Kolkata-based Harendra Kumar Kushwaha lives to the spirit of the jury’s observation in his stark and simple installation fashioned out of Nepali paper and thread – a swathe of rattan spread woven like  cane thatch and threaded in white tendrils of asymmetrical lines. The ends hang loose – and shed is propped by bamboo batons, whose surface and knobby hinges are left untouched by the artists. “The awards have given young creativity and innovation a huge fillip. The winning entry is a fantastic installation work – it needs a lot of imagination to show something like that – what’s this all about… It is very sensitively done, a very profound piece. It could be a part of a shelter, an ambivalence or the insecurity inherent in so inherent in society, the rough edges of our lives. It is very spontaneous, fragile,” Sarkar explained.
Convention and quality are the underlining threads in the choice of award-winning exhibits- dominated by installations and innovative use of mediums. “We are not going to promote a kind of art – but all that we consider of merit and excellence. If it is a bad piece of work, it is a bad piece of work,” she said.
Two of the highlights of the expositions of the shortlisted artworks are “experimental use of space” and an “education module” designed to help students and lovers of art understand the movements and linkages of the arts – on local, national and global scales for more discerning appreciation. The once derelict Gem cinema in Entally – a popular relic of our childhood- which called the curtains down in the slump in cinema business over the two decades along with a crop of nostalgic cinematic landmarks like Tiger, Globe, Jamuna, Lighthouse, Minerva (Chaplin), Orient and New Cinema – has been resurrected to a new incarnation by the CIMA initiative.
“We are using it as a wonderful space to showcase contemporary art,” Sarkar said. The theatre has been remodelled on the lines of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Centre in New York – though on a makeshift scale to fit the festival’s time table. Sarkar hailed Studio Gem as a “precursor to a movement in promoting alternative art space”- a concept that is yet to catch on in the metropolis and in the country as a whole where “spaces” abound. The movement rolled out in its nascent concept on the night of the award on 4 February at the Oberoi Grand, where CIMA and Art & Heritage Foundation felicitated Alana Heiss, the creative motif force behind the P.S.1 Centre of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – whose journey across the alternative space was narrated in a brief-capsule. The spatial experts’ panel was graced by Chris Dercon, former director, Tate Modern, intendant of Volksbuhne in Berlin. Heiss paid her tribute to the spatial opulence of the metropolis by suggesting that “she should move to Kolkata” in her pursuit of her calling – developing alternative display sites.
Initiation into art corollaries such as these – and emerging concepts – have found platforms in staggered education module of seminars that will connect world art histories, spaces, movements, designs, aesthetic storytelling, systems, pedagogies, technicalities and semantics by panels of experts- both national and international, institutions  like the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), CREDI, the Architecture Association of India and 18 city schools spread across the Oberoi Grand, 3 Dover Park, the Studio Gem, Academy of Fine Arts, Studio 21, the Bengal Club and CIMA gallery.  The showcases and “symposium” will be complemented by performance arts capsule, television broadcasts and cinema- a core component of the contemporary arts movement worldwide.
“We have not conducted too many art education programmes,” Sarkar said. Consequently, it is watershed for CIMA and Art & Heritage Foundation with the involvement of several collateral organisations to spread awareness about arts – and educate new segments of viewers, collectors, aspiring practitioners and students.
Sarkar said the festival will push ahead as a two yearly affair similar to the Kochi Biennale in Kerala – in contiguity with the India Art Fair and the Kerala government initiative to bring West Bengal and the country on the bigger arts canvas globally and project the metropolis as a cultural destination. “I want to develop it more as a festival – theatre, music, food… Next time, we are planning to approach the state government for a street food festival in different parts of Kolkata so that the fringe sections of the metropolis get activated in a positive and efficacious manner. The state has plenty of hasta shilpa – handicrafts tradition – we wanted to have it this time (both food and crafts) but the municipality controls the hawkers. We need permission from the municipality. They (government) can help do it – an east-west north-south Kolkata Arts Festival. It will be good for the economy, good for tourism – Kolkata has everything to do it. We are testing the format this year,” Sarkar said.
The festival, the director of CIMA pointed out, has been built on a unique model apart from Kochi – a non-profit venture – and the India Art Fair, a commercial showcase with awareness programmes. The Kolkata Arts Festival is planned around an award, Sarkar said.
“You have to have balance between non-commercial activity and commerce in arts. You cannot do the big projects without non-commercial activity. Our’s is an award centric programme which does not exist anywhere in India. We want to bring out the evaluation system – support the arts with non-commercial projects,” she said.
The stakeholders are diverse from the (ProHelvetia) Swiss Arts Council, Alliance Francaise to the Japan Art Foundation and Star Television – among the few. And the festival promises integration – of the city, sensitivities, global-local and national cultural codes. “We have to hold each other’s hand,” Sarkar said.
It is a bustling beginning to the spring tide in the city of the golden renaissance.

Madhusree Chatterjee
Editorial Consultant
Foreign Affairs (inc-charge)
The Statesman, Kolkata
Asia News Network (The Statesman/ANN) Coordinator