Sunday, 2 June 2013
“Phaneesh Murthy has done it again!”
“How can a man be so stupid? ”
“How on earth did he become CEO of a company after having been in trouble once?”
All of these are legitimate questions, but some basic questions haven’t been asked amidst so much twittering and chattering over Murthy’s alleged peccadilloes.
According to reports, Murthy’s accuser Araceli Roiz is pregnant and Murthy is supposed to have forced her to abort the child she’s carrying. Murthy’s case is not helped by the fact that in the past he has faced similar claims. While working for his previous employer Infosys, Murthy was sued for sexual harassment by his executive secretary Reka Maximovitch, a Bulgarian American national. Around the same time, a similar charge was laid at Murthy’s door by one Jennifer Griffith. Murthy lost his job with Infosys as a result of the Maximovitch’s accusations which seemed to carry a fair amount of truth in them.
Sexual harassment can take various forms. Within a work place, sexual harassment is said to take place when a person is pressurised or coerced by the employer or another employee to provide sexual favours in exchange for keeping one’s job or for getting pay hikes or other perks. Use of sexual innuendoes or jokes or plastering walls with graffiti of a sexual nature could also be perceived to be harassment. After reports of Rioz’s charges against Murthy surfaced there have been legitimate demands that India Inc. should put in place better safeguards to prevent workplace harassment.
All employers in the West have detailed in-house rules which are meant to prevent sexual harassment within the work place. The requirement to report even a consensual relationship between two employees, which iGate had, is as much meant to prevent the possibility of one of the employees in the relationship doling out-of-turn favours for the other, as it is to prevent harassment. If Murthy had formally disclosed his relationship with Rioz, any pay hikes recommended by him for Rioz would be under the scanner.
Murthy’s job, running the US operations of an outsourcing firm, was not an easy one. In the US where there is so much anti-outsourcing sentiment, imagine a job which involves constant meetings with top officials of leading companies, with the objective of persuading them to outsource to India. By all reports, Murthy was very good at his job, despite having a first name which lends itself to a variety of interpretations and would not have helped him cold call potential clients. In fact, he built up such a reputation at Infosys that, even after his first downfall, iGate was willing to employ him. Murthy is supposed to have done a similarly good job at iGate too, though there are mixed reports about his performance.
Did Murthy sexually harass Araceli Roiz who was the Head of Investor Relations at iGate? If Murthy offered perks such as pay hikes or bonuses to Araceli Roiz in return of granting him sexual favours, yes it would be sexual harassment. However, it looks as if Roiz succumbed to Murthy’s request. Does consenting to the request, in other words, granting the favours that were sought, take away the fact that sexual harassment took place? I am not too sure. I guess it would depend on the facts and circumstances. A very junior employee who is forced to succumb and earns a few unwarranted pay hikes would be entitled to later on bring a claim of sexual harassment even if she had accepted such out of turn and unwarranted pay hike. An employee who is threatened with job loss and manages to keep her job on account of having granted sexual favours to a boss would definitely be entitled bring a claim of sexual harassment.
In this case, Araceli Rioz does not appear to be a very junior employee. She was Head of Investor Relations. For example, here Rioz and Murthy jointly present iGATE Corporation's First Quarter 2012 Earnings Call. More importantly, it has not been claimed that at the start of the relationship, Murthy threatened to fire Rioz if she did not give in to his demands. Of course, senior employees can also be harassed by those even more senior and so it is possible that Murthy did harass her.
What complicates the case is that Rioz is pregnant. In this day and age, people in the developed world don’t get pregnant just like that. Most pregnancies are planned and if they are unexpected, abortion is an easy option. Let’s assume Rioz was having a relationship with Murthy solely on account of his arm-twisting. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume that having a child would be the last thing she wanted and that she would protect herself against a pregnancy? It isn’t as if birth control pills aren’t available in liberal California.
On the other hand think of a situation where Murthy and Rioz had a consensual relationship. Murthy might have initiated it and Rioz might have gone along for a number of reasons ranging from actually liking Murthy to expecting him to grant her professional favours, in the form of pay hikes, bonuses or other perks. The two of them liked each other enough to want to have a child together. Maybe by then people in the office starting talking and Murthy had to stop giving professional favours to Rioz. Maybe he couldn’t justify to the Board of Directors more pay hikes or bonuses for Rioz. Also, it is a fact that like every other IT firm, iGate too was suffering on account of the economic downturn. There’s this report dated 30 march 2013 which says Murthy had to take a 40% cut in his own bonus because of the downturn and it’s quite possible that Rioz didn’t get the pay hike she expected. Maybe at that point the relationship soured and the couple decided to part ways. Rioz knows that Murthy has faced allegations of sexual harassment in the past. Any lawyer worth his or her salt would know that a mere claim for child maintenance will yield a lot less than a claim of sexual harassment.
If Rioz weren’t pregnant, a claim of sexual harassment would be believable, given Murthy’s past track record. However, the baby complicates matters infinitely. Even if Murthy’s initial approach was one of harassment and even if Rioz was forced to succumb to keep her job, the decision to have a baby suggests a fair degree of consent. The claim that Murthy tried to force Rioz to abort the child sounds horrendous, but actually it is not. Even if the baby was planned, when a couple decide to part ways after conception, it would not be unnatural for either of the parents to consider an abortion. Rioz does not claim that Murthy used physical force to have sex or to have an abortion. It is in fact so inconceivable that in the US of A, a man can force a woman to have an abortion against her will. Suggestions, requests, lack of support, yes. Physical force, no. According to this report, when Murthy discovered that Roiz was pregnant, he pressured Roiz to have an abortion. When she refused, he told her to leave the company, quietly, to protect his position as CEO. If the above allegation is true and it could well be true, then it would definitely warrant a claim against Murthy, but I doubt if it would count as sexual harassment. I mean, a married CEO has an affair with an employee. The employee gets pregnant. The CEO proposes an abortion. When the woman refuses, he suggests that she move on to another job so that she doesn’t embarrass him. All very selfish and nasty on the part of Murthy, but it doesn’t amount to sexual harassment within the workplace. Also, the fact remains that Murthy did not actually fire Roiz when her charges became public. In fact, she continues to be on the rolls of iGate.
Usually when a CEO has an intra-office affair, it doesn’t remain a secret for long. Murthy’s affair was no exception, according to this report. In other words, iGate’s management and board of directors must have known of it for long. Why then did they fire Murthy on the ground that he had failed to disclose his relationship? Possibly to protect themselves in the suit filed against iGate by Rioz.
Sexual harassment is a serious offence and everyone, employers, courts, the public at large, ought to take it seriously. However, the Murthy-Rioz matter semms to be more a case of a relationship gone wrong than one of sexual harassment.
Wednesday, 29 May 2013
My friend Sonal Shah, formerly a banker and marketing professional who worked for Kotak Mahindra Bank, was bitten by the start-up bug a couple of years ago. Turning entrepreneur, Sonal started Koonik, an online retailer of baby products. I met her recently and asked her a few questions:
Winnowed: Sonal, what prompted you to quit a secure job and start Koonik?
Sonal Shah: It’s funny actually. In 2011, my husband and I were planning to visit to California. It was going to be my niece's 1st birthday and I wanted to get her some awesome presents. I started searching for 'something good' and 'something different' but ended up dissappointed with every idea that we had. I looked both online and offline but most clothes for babies were very, very boring. Our options would start with 'Mummy's little boy' or 'Daddy's cutie' and end with a little butterfly. I went about looking for plain rompers which I could paint or print with something cool and awesome. And...well, I won't bore you with the rest of the story here. What started as a simple quest to get some awesome clothes for my niece is now, a year later, Koonik. Logically, I think I saw a gap and sat on it for a while. In fact, had my husband not supported me and been ok with us being a single income household till I set up and successfully run Koonik, I would have not been able to take the call. There were many ‘sinking feeling’ moments, but when you have family, friends and colleagues supporting you, things get relatively easier.
Winnowed: Tell us a bit about Koonik? What’s it all about?
Sonal Shah: At Koonik, we make & stock only 'Baby Safe' products. Our clothes are made from 100% soft organic cotton. We use nontoxic dyes and the entire treatment, from growing organic cotton till the final production is controlled, ensuring that nothing harmful goes onto the clothes. Organic cotton is the kind of cotton that we grew up with, much before chemicals and genetically modified seeds found their way to our farmlands. It is the kind of cotton that our Grandma would approve for our little ones!
Besides 100% Organic Cotton clothes, we also make toys. Our cotton softies do not use fur or embellishments that may irritate your baby. The wooden toys are made from Ivory Wood and are painted with natural vegetable, plant or fruit dyes.
At the heart of our efforts, is our simple philosophy – A Happy Baby and a Happy Planet! After all, this planet is where the little one will grow up in!
We launched Koonik in November 2012
Winnowed: Tell me a bit about yourself.
Sonal Shah: I have an MBA in Marketing from the K. J. Somaiya Institute of Management Studies & Research in Mumbai. Prior to starting Koonik, I had spent my entire professional life in the financial services industry; in marketing and digital media. After having worked for over 6 years in the banking industry, I decided that it was ‘now or never’ and decided to take the plunge and turn entrepreneur.
Winnowed: What are your hobbies?
Sonal Shah: I have many but too little time to follow all my interests actively. But I make time to go backpacking fairly regularly. I also love reading (in addition to shopping) about Indian textiles and weaves. I try and read when I find the time, but usually find time only for work related reading.
Winnowed: What would you have done if you hadn't started Koonik? Would you have continued with your salaried job?
Sonal Shah: Definitely. I loved working at Kotak and probably would have never quit had it not been for Koonik
Winnowed: Do you have any partners or are you on your own?
Sonal Shah: Am currently on my own but am now looking for a co-founder
Winnowed: Where's your office located?
Sonal Shah: As a start-up I work out of many coffee shops across the city! It’s just easier to have meetings this way. On a serious note, I have a warehouse office in Borivali and the registered office is Kandivali. I have a serious home office. So essentially I am equipped to work from almost anywhere.
Winnowed: How many employees does Koonik have?
Sonal Shah: We are a small team. 2 of us work full time on Koonik and we have a Man Friday. We have a few designers who work with us part time. But everybody loves to help entrepreneurs, so Koonik’s models are my niece Sara and my best friend’s daughter Fiana. My husband helped me with the logo, blog and photo shoot. Friends helped with design ideas and colours.
Winnowed: Who are your main competitors?
Sonal Shah: Honestly, Organic Cotton and Fair Trade are not buzz words and hence not many are in this space in India. There are a couple of brands that are doing adult clothing in the space. But in the infants’ space, other than a one off season line by Benetton (and likes) I haven’t seen too many established brands. India produces more than 50% of the world’s organic cotton but consumes less than 1%. But things are starting to change and now there are exporters of organic cotton clothing who are seeing potential in the domestic market and launching their lines. But if you look at them, they are still running print based clothing, where as Koonik is focused on the fun slice of a baby’s life designs.
Winnowed: Where are your products manufactured? Do you outsource your manufacturing?
Sonal Shah: Since we design and not just source the apparels, the products are manufactured specially for us. Our entire apparel range is certified 100% soft organic cotton. We work with manufacturers who follow a fair wage policy and have employee friendly practices.
For our toys, we work with NGOs, self-help groups and rural artisan communities. There is incredible talent in India which is wasted for the lack of exposure. Our toys come from small groups who provide livelihood, create employment and gainfully engage the community. And to top all that, these groups are incredibly professional. They are managed efficiently and are ready to scale up as the demand grows for their products.
Winnowed: Do you have a warehouse or more than one warehouse? Where are they?
Sonal Shah: I have a single warehouse at Borivali where all the inventory is stored.
Winnowed: How do you deliver orders placed online? Do you use third party couriers?
Sonal Shah: Customers can log on to www.koonik.com, go through our range, add items to the cart and choose to pay via Credit Card, Debit Card, Net Banking, Cash Before Delivery and Paypal (for international orders). However, we don’t see Koonik as an ‘Online / E Commerce’ venture. Online is a great channel to make our products available in parts of the country where there is no easy access to physical retail. People are shopping online like never before and www.koonik.com is already in place to address that market.
Our products are retailing in 10 stores across 6 cities. We have the list of stores on our site as well. We are working at increasing the number of stores so that customers can find our products at their favorite store around the corner.
Delivery is pretty straightforward. Once a customer places an order online, we ship the item/s via Bluedart or Fedex in Indian or through Indiapost internationally. The customer gets the shipping details from us enabling him/her to track the shipment.
Winnowed: Has Koonik been affected by the current economic climate? Do you expect the Indian’s economy to look up anytime soon?
Sonal Shah: We launched Koonik in November 2012, so in a way we launched in the middle of a slump. But I think it’s the best time to start a business. People are looking for innovative, different and value for money products. The key I think is to tide over difficult times as things only get easier. So in a way, if you can succeed in a slow market, you can be sure about your concept.
I can’t be really sure about the Indian economy, but like all entrepreneurs I too am hoping for a recovery soon. With elections around the corner, I think some exuberance will return as it always does in a pre-election year. However, the overall news flow still seems to be more negative than positive.
Winnowed: What are your long term plans for Koonik?
Sonal Shah: Immediate plan – we plan to hire some interns! We are having a tough time managing all the aspects of running Koonik.
We want to reach out to stores and start stocking Koonik products with them. We want Koonik to be in hundreds of stores, but we have limited stock to send out. We have a plan and a list of stores that we want to partner with and we go about that on an everyday basis. Our focus, for now, is on getting sales up so that we can reinvest the money in expanding the designs and products.
As for the future, we want to expand our range, designs and product categories. We see Koonik as a ‘sustainable’ kiddie brand and there is much to do in the category. In the long term, I want to see Koonik become the most exciting and fun children’s clothing brand in the country.
Winnowed: Would you say that your previous jobs and work experience have helped you in starting Koonik?
Sonal Shah: Absolutely. In fact it is like Steve Job’s famous ‘connect the dots’ anecdote. Every single thing I did at work in the past has helped me with Koonik be it understanding web technologies, vendor management, online marketing and even writing. Once I had decided to try my hand at entrepreneurship, I told my then bosses about my plan. All of them were very supportive and in fact encouraged me to take the plunge. A lot of people tell me that you need huge guts to give up a fairly successful corporate career and start out from scratch on your own, but I think more than guts, it needs a great support system.
In addition to this, having the jobs I did, helped me build savings that I have been able to invest in Koonik and also the comfort that ‘I do not need money for survival’ in the short term. This in turn gave me the ability to take a chance at being an entrepreneur.
Winnowed: Do you regret not having started Koonik even earlier in your life?
Sonal Shah: No regrets at all! Everything has a time and Koonik’s time is now. Ofcourse I do wish that I had started with a co-founder right at the beginning. But at that point, I think I was a bit foolhardy in believing I could manage on my own, plus finding someone with similar values would have been tough. (Koonik strongly focuses on Fair Trade)
Winnowed: Now that you are your own boss, have your working hours reduced?
Sonal Shah:I think the idea of working for oneself is slightly over rated. You need to be extremely self motivated to deal with all the mundane issues that crop up; the ones you take for granted while working at a corporate. According to me it’s tougher running your own venture – and I’ve seen both sides. Having said that, being a self funded start up, the most amazing thing is your company’s ability to be agile and make changes and move quickly to suit the environment. Also the amount of creative flexibility that your own venture can offer, I don’t think can be matched by a corporate job. Do the hours reduce – definitely no! In fact I have worked on almost all weekends and holidays. But being self- employed does offer you a degree of flexibility. I choose to have meetings during off peak hours so that I can avoid traffic, hence save significant amount of time. Overall I think I end up saving the unproductive travel time, but that’s about it. I am always at work!
Winnowed: Is there anything the government could do to help entrepreneurs like you?
Sonal Shah:Make everything a one window approach instead of having entrepreneurs go to various govt. agencies, offices, websites and people to get started. Also, I really would love to see all the filings become just one filing.
Winnowed: Would you be open to VC funding for Koonik?
Sonal Shah: At Koonik, we have many ideas but we are only limited by resources as I am investing our savings in Koonik. I know we will have to choose between slow and steady growth and accepting investors who will give us the money to expand the brand and the market. I want to make sure that we partner with the right people who share our vision and work with us to grow Koonik. We are evaluating both approaches.
Thursday, 2 May 2013
Yes, I believe India could have saved Sarabjit’s life. India could have brought Sarabjit home before his brutal Pakistani gaolers cracked his skull and killed him.
Whether India admits it or not, Sarabjit was accused of being a saboteur, of having planted bombs leading to Pakistani deaths. Whether it was Sarabjit himself who carried out those acts or someone else, neither Sarabjit nor India has been able to offer a decent explanation for Sarabjit finding himself in Pakistan. I mean, the average India, even those living in border areas, does not saunter over to Pakistan for shopping and other R&R activities.
Never mind all that, how could India have persuaded Pakistan to release Sarabjit? By making loud noices and chest thumbing?
There’s usually only one way to obtain the release of someone in Sarabjit’s place – which is to exchange him for a Pakistani held in an Indian jail. A few years ago, I had written a hasty piece for this blog arguing that Sarabjit could be exchanged for Ajmal Kasab. With the benefit of hindsight, I don’t think I made a good case for such exchange. Kasab was openly acknowledged to be a terrorist. Pakistan had disowned Kasab rather than deny the charges against him. This was not the case for Sarabjit.
However, the basic logic behind my plea was sound. India should have exchanged Sarabjit for one or more Pakistani nationals held by India. This could have been an individual(s) facing espionage or terrorism charges, ideally someone related to a powerful Pakistani politician or someone else well-connected. It’s not as if such exchanges are unheard of. Israel routinely exchanges its prisoners for its soldiers and spies held by Hamas, Hizbollah etc. During the cold war, the US and USSR used to have such exchanges. India has released convicted terrorists to secure the release of hijacked passengers and abducted civilians.
In every civilized country, captured soldiers and spies are given great importance and securing their release is a matter of national pride. India does not seem to have imbibed this value and no one within India’s officialdom was particularly keen to bring Sarabjit home.
India let Sarabjit down. India’s inaction killed Sarabjit.
Wednesday, 1 May 2013
You can’t help but like Indu Sundaresan’s Mehrunnisa. Just like Maria in Sound of Music, Mehrunnisa is both mischievous and honest, revolutionary as well as dutiful. Far too intelligent for a woman of her times, we are talking late sixteenth century here, Mehrunnisa is her father’s favourite child though she is neither a boy, nor his first born. It’s love at first sight for Mehrunnisa as it is for Prince Salim, aka Jahangir. Mehrunnisa sees Jahangir for the first time at Jahangir’s wedding ceremony as he marries his first wife, Man Bai, a Rajput princess. Mehrunnisa is only eight and she thinks Jahangir is beautiful. She is a constant visitor to the zenana, thanks to fact that Ruqayya Sultan Begum, one of Akbar’s favourite queens, likes her. As she grows older, Mehrunnisa gets to know of Jahangir’s vices – he is addicted to drink and opium, but she continues to adore him.
Jahangir on the other hand sees Mehrunnisa for the first time after she is engaged to be married to Ali Quli, a Persian soldier. ‘Ya Allah! Was he in Paradise? Words from the Holy Book came unbidden to his mind………………………She was all that and more………………..The girl sat on the edge of a goldfish pond, her feet dangling in the water. It was a heat-smothered day, but the courtyard was cool. …………………………….Salim fell headlong in love with a pair of surprised blue eyes.’
One of the best things about Sundaresan’s The Twentieth Wife is her depiction of the state of women in those times and how Mehrunnisa had an uphill fight on her hands at all times. Well-educated, thanks to her father, Mehrunnisa realises very early on that women in the Emperor’s zenana wield more influence than women anywhere else, though they face a number of restrictions too. The harem could play as much a role in influencing the Emperor as the royal court did, especially when the Emperor is the easily influenced, wine/opium addict Jahangir. If history records Mehrunnisa to be a calculating and conniving woman, Sundaresan’s Mehrunnisa is an impulsive girl who doesn’t hesitate to flirt with Jahangir in the hope that Jahangir would persuade his father Emperor Akbar to cancel Mehrunnisa’s engagement to Ali Quli and allow her to marry Jahangir instead. We even see Mehrunnisa intentionally spill a goblet of wine on Jahangir just to make sure he notices her – this happens at the time of Mehrunnisa’s neice Arjumand’s bethrothal to Prince Khurram, the betrothed parties were later known as Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. Mehrunnisa is very much married to Ali Quli when she does the wine spilling. When one finally gets to the kissing scenes, by this time Mehrunnisa is a widow and a lady-in-waiting to Ruqayya Sultan Begum, we see a proactive Mehrunnisa kiss Jahangir and seduce him.
To top it all, Mehrunnisa knows her price. After Jahangir finally succumbs to her charms and offers to make her his concubine, Mehrunnisa rejects him. No, a concubinage won’t do. Mehrunnisa wants to be a wife, though she’s gonna be the twentieth one. As we all know, Mehrunnisa did get what she wanted.
The story ends immediately after Mehrunnisa weds Jahangir and is bestowed the title Nur Jahan, with the result that we don’t see Mehrunnisa running the empire in Jahangir’s name, as Jahangir spent his days intoxicated with wine and opium, though Sundaresan does show Mehrunnisa dying to play politics and be an administrator even before she marries Jahangir – we see Mehrunnisa wondering why the Emperor doesn’t play the Portuguese against the English. I understand that Sundaresan’s subsequent novel The Feast of Roses is all about Mehrunnisa’s reign after she marries Jahangir. The third book in the Taj Trilogy, Shadow Princess, is the story of Jahanara, Mehrunnisa’s grandniece and Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal’s daughter.
Wars of succession and rebellions by princes wanting to take the crown before the death of their father were common during Mughal times, a practice which actually started with Jahangir. Jahangir failed to win the crown by force and even as he revolted against Akbar, his son Khaurau was making plans to jump the queue and become King. Sundaresan’s book depicts these fights and the various schemes and plots that go with them, pretty well.
Sundaresan writes well, her language simple, but still elegant and even poetic at the right places. Sundaresan’s Mehrunnisa is a lovely lady, beautiful and honest, though impetuous. In one instance, we see Mehrunnisa, in a fit of anger, throw a gold bangle gifted by Jagat Gosini to her daughter Ladli, into a well. Other characters like Jagat Gosini, Ruqayya Sultan Begum, Ali Quli and Jahangir himself are equally well sketched, in depth. The rivalry between Jagat Gosini and Mehrunnisa is especially interesting, since very early on, Jagat Gosini sees a rival in Mehrunnisa for Jahangir’s affections. Mehrunnisa’s father Ghias Beg is another excellent portrayal by Sundaresan. At first we get the feeling that Ghias Beg is a noble and honest man, but later we see that he too has feet of clay.
If there was one thing about The Twentieth Wife that I didn’t like, it is the manner in which Jahangir’s interest in Mehrunnisa waxes and wanes and Mehrunnisa catches Jahangir’s attention time and again, only to run away like a frightened doe at the last minute, though she has been wanting to become his queen since she was eight. Of course, Sundaresan offers various explanations for such capricious behaviour, but I didn’t buy most of it. As mentioned earlier, Jahangir sees Mehrunnisa for the first time when she is already engaged to marry Ali Quli. Jahangir is bewitched and bedazzled by Mehrunnisa, but does not make any effort to find out who she is or pursue her. Mehrunnisa keeps hoping that Jahangir would contact her and arrange for her engagement to Ali Quli to be called off, but nothing happens. A few days later at a Mina bazaar, a veiled Mehrunnisa manages to catch Jahangir’s attention once again, when she audaciously frees two pigeons she was meant to be holding for him, but nothing much happens after that. A few weeks later, a third meeting takes place, this one arranged by Ruqayya Sultan Begum, who hopes that ‘some sense could be drummed into them’. I couldn’t figure out why Ruqayya Sultan Begum would think a meeting would make the couple come to their senses. This time they kiss, Jahangir tells Mehrunnisa that she smells of roses, Mehrunnisa tells Jahangir that her mother makes rose water for their baths and other silly stuff as may be expected in such circumstances. Finally Jahangir offers to send a proposal to her house through the Emperor. As I expected Mehrunnisa to jump with joy, she tells Jahangir that it wouldn’t work, that she is already engaged. Mehrunnisa is worried that breaking off her engagement will dishonour to her father!
Many years pass before Mehrunnisa meets Jahangir again. Jahangir has finally become Emperor, Mehrunnisa has become the mother of a girl and Mehrunnisa's husband Ali Quli has fallen afoul of the Emperor, having sided with Jahangir’s son Khusrau as he rebelled against Jahangir. Mehrunnisa’s neice Arjumand’s is getting engaged to Prince Khurram. Jahangir doesn’t even remember Mehrunnisa and Mehrunnisa needs to spill a goblet of wine on Jahangir to make him notice her. And notice her he does – ‘she had an aristocratic nose, rosebud lips and a slender frame. The court painters would die for a sitting. Her breasts heaved under the silk choli. She was blushing, the colour lending her charm.’ Jahangir is bewitched enough to invoke the Tura-i-Chingezi, the law of the Timurs, whereby any man could be ordered to give up his wife for the King.
We are told that the invoking the Tura-i-Chingezi is an honour for the man ordered to give up his wife and that it would be unusual to invoke it on a rebel like Ali Quli. Nevertheless, Jahangir goes ahead with his plan, though he is warned that Ali Quli would not feel so honoured and might resist. And resist he does, in the process killing the Governor of Bengal, Qutubuddin Khan Koka and getting himself killed. The soldiers who were with Koka ransack Ali Quli’s house and Mehrunnisa is nearly killed or raped! You would think Governor Koka would be properly briefed by Jahangir regarding the object of his affection and that some contingency plans would be made to secure Mehrunnisa, but you would be wrong. If a brave man named Haider Malik had not taken it on himself to protect Mehrunnisa, the Mughal empire’s history, as narrated by Sundaresan, would be different!
It takes Mehrunnisa six months to reach safety, with Haider Malik’s help. Once again she becomes Ruqayya’s lady-in-waiting in the zenana, where she stays put for four years, during which time Jahangir makes no effort to contact her. When a meeting does happen, it is fixed by Ruqayya Sultan Begum, this time because she wants Jahangir to meet Mehrunnisa and induct her into his harem as a rival to Jagat Gosini. We are told that Jahangir ‘was stuck dumb by the sight of her. Four long years. And every day he had thought of her, every night she had come to his dreams. He had known she was in the zenana, but had not gone to seek her.’ But once Jahangir sees Mehrunnisa, all caution is thrown to the winds and a courtship ensues, during which we see Mehrunnisa resist Jahangir, ask for a week’s time to decide and then finally accept Jahangir, only to reject him again when she is offered concubinage rather than marriage.
I was conscious of the fact that Sundaresan’s writing was constrained by history as it actually happened. For example, history does record that when Jahangir finally married Mehrunnisa, she had been in his court for four years. Thus, it is not possible for Jahangir to have married Mehrunnisa as soon as she got back to the zenana after Ali Quli’s death.
Amongst books set in the Mughal period, I would rate The Twentieth Wife much higher than the first two books in Alex Rutherford’s Mughal Quintet, namely “Empire of the Moghul – Raiders From The North” and Brothers At War. I think Dirk Collier’s The Emperor’s Writings is a much better book than The Twentieth Wife, but then, The Emperor’s Writings is a work of non-fiction and its air of authenticity cannot be matched by a work of fiction. It is not uncommon for fiction writers to take extreme liberties when writing fiction based on well known historical figures. For example, in Tariq Ali’s novel based on Saladin the Great, which is part of his Islam Quintet, Ali tells us that crusaders attacked and sacked Mecca. Sundaresan doesn’t take such extreme liberties with her narration.
To sum up, on the whole, The Twentieth Wife is a good read and gives the reader a genuine feel of life in the days of the Mughals.
Tuesday, 9 April 2013
Osama Bin Laden, the world’s most wanted man, was killed on 2 May 2011. Even after his execution, bin Laden remains an enigma. Why did the privileged child of a wealthy Saudi family give up a life of comfort and turn jihadi? What motivated bin Laden to resort to terrorism when no one else in his family adopted such violent tactics? Why is it that none of bin Laden’s children, especially his sons, have become terrorists? In order to find answers to these questions, I got hold of an account by one of Bin Laden’s sons and his first wife, which was published in 2009, two years before he was killed.
Najwa Bin Laden, a Syrian lady, was Osama Bin Laden’s first cousin and first wife. Omar Bin Laden was Nawja’s fourth son.
Jean Sasson is an American writer who has spent a big part of her life in the middle-east and has penned a number of books set in the middle-east.
Bin Laden’s father Mohammed Awad bin Laden was a Yemeni immigrant who rose to become one of the wealthiest men in Saudi Arabia. Osama’s mother divorced his father when Osama was very young and remarried his father’s employee Mohammad al Attas. Osama was brought up by his step father al Attas and rarely saw his father Mohammed bin Laden. Osama grew up to be a good boy, pious and obedient. A stickler for rules, Osama slowly became a fanatic Muslim, imposing his feudal and medieval values on his submissive wives and children. He forbade them modern comforts and expected them to live rough. To toughen up his family, he made them trek in the desert and sleep in the open. He made sure that he always had four wives, his women being little more than vehicles for reproduction, expecting all his children to become soldiers of Islam.
When Osama got into trouble with the Saudi government, he fled to Sudan, taking his family with him. When he had to leave Sudan, he went to Afghanistan, living in the caves of Tora Bora as a guest of the Taliban, his family with him. Bin Laden was a weirdo and it’s a surprise that his son Omar turned out to be so peace-loving and “normal”. Please read this fascinating book to find out more about bin Laden’s personal life.
Saturday, 30 March 2013
The Research & Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, has had its share of defectors and moles – is there any decent-sized intelligence outfit in the world which has been totally spared such embarrassment? One of the most-known cases of infiltration involved an officer named Rabinder Singh who in 2004 fled to the US via Kathmandu, taking his wife with him. Rabinder Singh had already fallen under suspicion and was under surveillance by R&AW’s Counter-Intelligence & Security Division (CI&S). Amar Bhushan, author of Escape to Nowhere, headed CI&S and was largely responsible for the various decisions taken, including the decision to not to arrest Rabinder Singh until CI&S found out who exactly was his handler and the recipient of the information he was giving out. At that time, C.D.Sahay was Secretary (R), as the Head of R&AW is referred to. After Rabinder Singh’s flight, Amar Bhushan got a lot of flak. C.D.Sahay did not escape lightly either. Escape To Nowhere is literature and in the guise of fiction, albeit thinly disguised, Amar Bhushan attempts to explain (not justify) his actions.
Amar Bhushan calls himself Jeevnathan (sic) or Jeev for short. His boss C. D. Sahay is given the moniker of Wasan. Jeev has a wife, the ever suffering Manini or Mani for short. Rabinder Singh is called Ravi Mohan. The Principal Secretary and the National Security Adviser (NSA) to the Prime Minister at that time was Brajesh Mishra, christened Saran in this novel. R&AW is called the Agency and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) is called the Bureau. CI&S is called the Counter Espionage Unit (CEU).
Escape To Nowhere is an engrossing read, and as may be expected, it doesn’t show the R&AW in a good light. One gets the feeling that the bulk of R&AW employees are not in the Great Game for the greater good or even personal glory. Rather, they are normal government employees and behave just like every other employee of the Central government. There is corruption galore. Not just the big ticket type, but a lot of misdemeanours, drivers selling petrol in the black market, officers creating small nests for their post-retirement life, men watching porn in office and the like. But the worst culprit for me was CI&S itself. After Ravi Mohan falls under suspicion, we see Jeev and a few others hard at work, trying to decipher what the suspect is up to. They follow him and his wife round the clock, place video cameras in this office, put bugs in his car etc. Despite a lot of hard work, they are unable to figure out how he contacts his handler or who his handler is, in the first place. R&AW is meant to hand over matters like this to the Bureau, but Jeev doesn’t, though the IB has more resources and greater competency in this sort of work. Professional rivalry between the two organisations comes in the way.
Shockingly, the watchers don’t consider the possibility that the suspect might be in touch with his handler through the internet. Not once do Jeev and his underlings consider or even mention words such as internet or email, let along VOIP, which was how Ravi Mohan was communicating his handlers. Jeev and his assistants do know that Ravi Mohan has an effective cross-shredder at home, which he uses to shred documents after photocopying them, but they do not even think of the possibility that he might not be handing over hard copies of stolen documents to his handler! Towards the end, after the bird has flown, we are told that Ravi Mohan had two laptops, but Jeev isn’t shown to be surprised. There is no mention of the two laptops prior to that, but if Ravi Mohan was being watched all the time, including when he was at home, it is unlikely that the watchers did not know of the laptops.
As Jeev hunts for clues to Ravi Mohan’s handlers, we see Wasan argue for a quick end to whole episode, by confronting Ravi Mohan with the evidence they have and either forcing him to resign or even arresting him and giving him the third degree treatment. But Amar Bhushan will have none of it. He wants to do things by the book, follow the letter of the law as well as adhere to its spirit. He doesn’t want a repeat of the fiasco where two scientists working for ISRO were accused of passing secrets to two Maldivian women, arrested, harassed, put on trial, only for the courts to later dismiss all charges against them and criticise the Intelligence Bureau and the Kerala government for having proceeded against them on very flimsy grounds. There’s also the Samba scandal where a number of serving army officers were arrested and tortured on the mere suspicion of having sold military secrets to Pakistan, only for the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court to exonerate one of the prime suspects for lack of evidence. Bhushan suggests that the army men involved in the Samba case might have been really guilty while the two ISRO scientists were actually innocent. Jeev even goes to the extent of persuading Wasan to not inform the Principal Secretary and it is only on the 75th day after the watch was mounted that Wasan puts his foot down and gets Jeev to prepare a note for Saran the Principal Secretary. When Princi is informed, he is much more worried about the impact of the possible scandal on Indo-US relations and wants the matter to be handled quietly.
Ravi Mohan and his wife flee to Kathmandu on the 92nd day. Finally after the horse has bolted, we see Wasan take as much flak as Jeev and I ended up feeling sorry for Wasan (C.D.Sahay), but not for Jeev (Amar Bhushan), though Jeev comes across as a very honest man.
Bhushan’s English is functional, very much desi-English and his grammar slips on a few occasions, but the 332-page book has been reasonably well-edited, making it an easy read. Jeev’s long suffering, but loyal wife Manini makes pithy and sarcastic comments every once in a while and these serve to spice up the narrative.
Here’s a link to a very good review of Escape to Nowhere by B. Raman, former head of R&AW’s counter-terrorism division. Naturally, B. Raman takes a much more charitable view of Bhushan than I do.
Wednesday, 27 March 2013
Senior journalist Kishalay Bhattacharjee is a veteran of the North East. Not only did he grow up in Shillong, he also covered the conflict in the North East for seventeen years, while working for NDTV. Bhattacharjee’s offering Che in Paona Bazaar has a series of snapshots from Manipur, twenty two in total. Each of these vignettes offers a glimpse of life in Manipur and the rest of the North East for the common man. Bhattacharjee uses a fictional character called Eshei to tell his stories. Eshei seems to be the typical Manipuri girl. She can speak the lingo and knows the culture and food, but has spent a substantial part of her life outside the North East, in Eshei’s case, in Delhi.
Bhattacharjee writes well, his touch light and sure. When food is described, the reader gets to taste it. When Manipur’s or the North East’s history is narrated, we get to witness it. When Bhattacharjee tells us that the tribal areas of Manipur and Nagaland have been stripped of all wildlife due to excessive hunting, we feel outraged. The book’s title is derived from Paona Bazaar, Imphal’s most popular street which offers terrific bargains for those interested in buying Chinese goods. Umbrellas can be had for Rs. 50, mosquito-repellent tennis racquets for Rs. 90, fake Levi’s canvass shoes for Rs. 100 and pirated DVDs for Rs. 35 each. A majority of the items sold in Paona sport Che’s image.
However, the most important takeaway from Che in Paona Bazaar is that the people of Manipur are tired of the insurgency. Militants enforce their diktat through coercion. Bhattacharjee tells us that the man on the street wants ‘good roads, a salary without percentage cuts, drinkable tap water, electricity, good schools and security’. The average militant is a goon, out to extort money and doesn’t have much ideology. We are told that ‘six months after two dozen ageing women stripped publicly in protest against the Assam Rifles, a Meitei girl walked into a room to make love to a young army officer. There was nothing political about it. He had come from thousands of kilometres away and had connected with someone. Sex had nothing to do with borders and roots. It was merely an impulse to feel alive and desired.’ Bhattacharjee tells us that every Manipuri supports Irom Sharmila. ‘Not supporting Sharmila would be tantamount to treason in Manipur, but the support is only a posture. Her struggle has been painfully lonely.’ To be honest, I was not fully convinced that these anti-militancy feelings are Eshei’s and not Bhattacharjee’s.
Towards the end of the book, Bhattacharjee tells us that though he went to school in Shillong, he did not learn any Khasi. Shillong has the air of an educational town, like many hill stations developed by the British, but the locals are not educated in those institutions. Bhattacharjee wonders what is at fault – ‘the inability of the locals to assimilate the outsiders into the system or the haughty stubbornness of the plainsmen to adopt any of the local attributes into their own lifestyles?’ The key to resolving the militancy in Manipur and the rest of the North East could lie in the answer to this question.