Friday, 2 October 2015

Book Review: Making India Awesome, by Chetan Bhagat

Chetan Bhagat’s latest offering Making India Awesome is a work of non-fiction, a bunch of essays addressed to Indians who care and want to make a difference. Bhagat tells us that 80% of Indians don’t care about politics or government. Within the balance 20%, 80% are permanently aligned with a side, say with Modi or the Congress Party and will never criticise their side. Therefore, Bhagat’s essays are addressed towards the 20% within the 20% who are non-aligned and care. Bhagat calls them “Caring Objective Indians”. What comes out indirectly is that Bhagat is also not allied with any person or party – some of his essays criticise the BJP and some the Congress.

I agree with a number of Bhagat’s homilies. He is all for gay rights and empowering women. He wants men to support their wives’ careers’ the way Mary Kom’s husband Onler Kom has done. He has seventeen commandments for Modi and I agree with each of them. In a second essay on Modi, one analysing the "Modi effect", Bhagat says that Modi’s success is largely due to luck, since he only had to deal with the not-so-smart or effective Rahul Gandhi. BCCL’s monopoly and stranglehold over Indian cricket is questioned. Bhagat opposes the ban on porn and alcohol and wants Indians to watch their diet and eat less junk food.

Bhagat has a number of pieces addressed to Indian Muslims and though Bhagat simplifies issues, on the whole his advice is sound. Similarly, there are a number of articles addressed to women. I am not sure they’ll all go down so well, but I am convinced that Bhagat means well.

The best of the lot in Making India Awesome are two chapters on admissions to Delhi University (which could apply to any other prestigious college’s admission process) and the pressure to score high marks. Bhagat speaks from the heart and makes very valid points.

I do not agree when Bhagat says that the creation of Telangana was a mistake and that it does not make sense to break up states into more efficient administrative units. In fact, there is a very potent argument that it is time to restructure India into smaller states.

However, as usual, Bhagat refuses to revolt or stick his next out. In one essay he cribs about how a VIP, a Minister’s convoy held up traffic and nearly caused him to miss a flight. He does not name and shame that VIP. When advising the Congress, Bhagat asks them to weed out party members who are old, rusted and tarnished. I have some sympathy for Bhagat’s demand for young politicians, but even ignoring his beef against “old”, I wonder why Bhagat can’t name the Congress politicians he wants to be weeded out. Did he mean Sharad Pawar? Is he scared of taking names? Funnily, Bhagat tells us that India’s bureaucrats understand the system well and can fix the system, but according to Bhagat, Indian babu’s don’t have “guts”!

Bhagat also does not spell out things when he could. He wants the economy to be opened up and controls removed. What does he mean by this? Most controls on foreign investments are based on the principle that India is not ready for full capital account convertibility (the ability to convert Indian assets and currency into foreign assets or currency and to take them out of India without the need for the RBI's approval). Does Bhagat want India to permit foreigners to invest in Indian real estate without restrictions (which may drive up prices even higher?). On this aspect, I expected something much better from Bhagat – after all, he is a former banker!

Bhagat manages to discuss Godhra without offending or blaming anyone or adding any value.

On India’s northeast, he says that every time one visits the Northeast, the locals beg us for attention and to be treated as Indians. ‘The Northeastern people are beautiful and attractive. They also have slightly different, more oriental physical features as compared to the rest of us.’ Trust Bhagat to make matters simple. Isn’t Bhagat aware that there are a number of places in the Northeast where the people don’t think they are Indians, where plains people aren’t welcome? As for racism, surely it’s a two-way street? Just as many Indians think the North-easterners are different, many in the North East think Indians are too dark and different. Many parts of the Northeast have resisted integration with independent India because historically they have had very little to do with what’s now called India and because they are very different in terms of looks and culture.

When arguing for the replacement of Devnagri with the Roman script, Bhagat calls himself a Hindi lover. Yes, we were recently educated on that point by noted lyricist Gulzar, weren't we? Sorry, I’m being cheap and at the risk of digressing, let me say that as an emcee, Bhagat was only doing his job when he said something nice about Gulzar’s poetry. If in the midst of a headache, I respond with a “I’m fine” to your “How do you do?”, I does not mean I am a liar. It merely means I do not want to share my personal details (my headache) with you at that point in time. You get what I mean. I’m totally with Bhagat on this one. For the record, my Hindi is really atrocious and I've been trying to improve it with Bhagat's help.

Kashmir is conspicuous by its absence. In his What Young India Wants, Bhagat had advocated negotiating with Pakistan over Kashmir, even going to the extent of suggesting that India be prepared to make compromises.

On the whole, Bhagat writes in simple English, which is grammatically correct. No, it is not beautiful or lyrical prose, but it is easy to read.

As I read Making India Awesome, I had this nagging feeling that some of it was familiar stuff and that I may have read these thoughts earlier. Was Bhagat plagiarising from someone else’s work I wondered and turned to the internet. What did I find? No, there’s no plagiarism and that’s because all the essays in Making India Awesome (except for one titled We The Shameless, which has been entirely re-written) are articles previously published on Bhagat’s own blog and are still available on-line. For this reason, the articles relating to Indian Muslims and women’s rights have a lot of overlap. In fact, two of the articles relating to women’s rights start off with a reference to the Bollywood movie ‘Cocktail’.

Hear, hear, all you Chetan Bhagat fans out there. You need not buy Making India Awesome. Instead, you can, if you wish, re-read his old articles on his blog. Below you’ll find the list of articles from Bhagat’s blog which have been compiled, with minor modifications, to create Making India Awesome. Of course, the introduction and conclusion are previously unpublished pieces. I do wish Bhagat’s publishers had disclosed upfront that Making India Awesome is almost entirely composed of previously published articles.



Seventeen Commandments for Narendra Modi

Games Politicians Play In The Silly Season Of Elections

Revenge of the Oppressed: Why corruption continues to be around despite the outcry against it

The Kings in Our Minds

The Telangana effect

Analysing the Modi Effect

Can India’s Backward Polity Ever Provide A Pro-Growth Economic Environment?

Rahul’s New Clothes, And The Naked Truth

Swachh Congress Abhiyan In Four Essential Steps

Once Upon A Beehive


Rescue the Nation

To Make ‘Make in India’ Happen, Delete Control

Pro-Poor Or Pro-Poverty?

The Tiny Bang Theory for setting off big-bang reforms


Time To Face Our Demons

We Have Let Them Down

Watching The Nautch Girls

Let’s Talk About Sex

The Real Dirty Picture

Saying Cheers in Gujarat

Our Fatal Attraction to Food

Cleanliness Begins at home

India-stupid and India-smart

Scripting change: Bhasha bachao, Roman Hindi apnao

Mangalyaan + unlucky Tuesdays

A Ray of Hope

Junk Food’s Siren Appeal



Ladies, Stop Being so Hard on Yourself

Five Things Women Need To Change About Themselves

Home Truths on Career Wives

Wake Up And Respect Your Inner Queen

Indian Men Should Channelize Their Inner Mr Mary Kom

Fifty Shades Of Fair: Why Colour Gets Under Our Skin


Section 377 Is Our Collective Sin


Letter from an Indian Muslim Youth

Being Hindu Indian or Muslim Indian

It’s Not moderate Muslims’ fault

Mapping the Route To Minority Success


Open Letter to the Indian Change Seekers

We the Half Educated People

Du-ing It All Wrong, Getting It All Mixed up

How the Youth Can Get Their Due

Scored Low in Exams? Some Life Lessons From a 76 percenter

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Book Review: Red Sorghum, by Mo Yan

Ever since Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, I’ve been planning to read Red Sorghum, one of his most famous works set in the time of the Japanese occupation and the Second World War. Since I knew that Mo Yan is a member of the Cultural Affairs Department of the People’s Liberation Army, I expected another Mikhail Sholokhov. I turned out to be totally wrong. Those who have read Sholokhov would know that Sholokhov paints good and bad (read that the good communists and the bad Czarists and petty bourgeois) in black and white. Mo Yan, on the other hand, at least in Red Sorghum, is a uniquely talented story teller who delights in portraying life in vivid contrasts, terrific joie de vivre suddenly being replaced by excruciating pain, delightful surprises being taken over by extreme sorrow. The setting for his novel, the Northeast Gaomi Township, is a place of extreme beauty, the land of sorghum, which the locals use to make wine. Sorghum is a life giver and entertainer – everyone in the Northeast Gaomi Township drinks sorghum wine. The narrator’s grandfather, Yu Zhan’ao, is a bandit who managed to marry Dai Fenglin, a pretty woman after killing her rich husband and father-in-law, all with her silent acquiescence. You see, Dai Fenglin’s husband had leprosy and her father had married her off to the leper just to get a black mule for himself. Yu Zhan’ao’s execution of the murders and his subsequent marriage to Dai Fenglin would not be out of place in a Bollywood blockbuster.

There are so many characters who are so exciting, so out of the ordinary that one feels a novel could have been written around each of them. There’s Arhat Liu, a man who loved his mules so much that he broke their legs, after they had been confiscated by the Japanese, and was skinned alive for his pains. There’s Nine Dreams Cao, an honest and upright magistrate who does not hesitate to use beatings to extract confessions and still does not always get it right. There’s Spotted Neck, a bandit whom Yu Zhan’ao admires and later kills. There’s Black Eye who heads the Iron Society, which believes in the power of black magic and whose soldiers charge at armed enemy soldiers chanting “Amalai” and achieve a certain degree of success, only to be mowed down later.

It’s not just the people who are so unique and interesting. The funerals one attends when reading the Red Sorghum are out of the world. In the midst of so much fighting and poverty, so much money and symbolism is invested in funerals. Dogs. I still can’t decide if Mo Yan likes or hates dogs. The narrator’s family keeps dogs, more as guard dogs than anything else. After a Japanese massacre when dead bodies are piled up on the outskirts of the Northeast Gaomi Township, dogs feast on the corpses. The narrator’s family go out of the way to chase the dogs away, using up most of their precious ammunition. The dogs on their part go back to their primitive traits and form gangs to eat the corpses and attack those trying to chase them away. The fighting is fierce and deadly and some humans die. The narrator’s father, Douguan, loses one of his balls. Toward the end when the Jiao Gao are desperately looking for a way to fight off hunger, cold and the Japanese, Pocky Chen suggests a way out, one which harnesses the dogs in the vicinity.

I always thought that a ride in a sedan chair carried by four bearers would be as comfortable as a ride can get. Oh no! For Mo Yan, the inside of the sedan, which carries Dai Fenglin to her husband’s home is like a coffin. The walls oozed grease and there were flies inside. The sedan bearers, when they want to have fun, tease the bride sitting inside and rock the sedan so violently that the bride throws up!

I’ve heard of feet binding practised in the China of yore, but I never really thought anyone would find a small foot (the result of many years of painful binding which cracks the bones and causes the toes to turn under) attractive. Mo Yan tells that the five feet four inch Dai Fenglin had toes which were three inch golden lotuses. When she walked, swinging her arms freely, her body swayed like a willow in the wind. When she was being carried in a sedan to her husband’s home, one of her tiny feet poked out of the sedan and the sight of that incomparably delicate, lovely thing nearly drove the soul out of the bearers’ bodies.

As I read Red Sorghum, I waited in vain for that rare reference to the Chinese Communist Party, which would show the Party as the defender of the common man and a force for good. I waited in vain. In the few confrontations between local Red guards and the poor farmers, the Reds don’t come out looking so good. There is a stray mention of the back-yard furnace campaign during the Great Leap Forward in 1958 which apparently resulted in the family’s wok being confiscated. Toward the end, the narrator visits Northeast Gaomi Township and finds that the place has been planted with hybrid Sorghum which he loathes. ‘Hybrid sorghum never seems to ripen, Its grey-green eyes seem never to be fully opened. I stand in front of Second Grandma’s grave and look out at those ugly bastards that occupy the domain of the red sorghum. They assume the name of sorghum, but are bereft of tall, straight stalks; they assume the name of sorghum, but are devoid of the dazzling sorghum colour. Lacking the soul and bearing of sorghum, they pollute the pure air of Northeast Gaomi Township with their dark, gloomy, ambiguous faces.’

Is hybrid sorghum used as a metaphor for change, I wondered? Is Mo Yan trying to suggest that the Communist Party has not made things better? After a great of thought, I have come to the conclusion that Mo Yan is not trying to say anything of that sort. Red sorghum has been replaced with hybrid sorghum. The narrator liked red sorghum. He does not like hybrid sorghum. Period.

Here’s an interesting article which suggests that writers like Mo Yan carefully criticise lower ranking Party officials once in a while, but never question those at the top, who are apparently unaware of the bad things that happen at the village level. Maybe that’s a fair comment, but Mo Yan is one helluva writer who, going by Red Sorghum, deserved the Nobel.

Monday, 14 September 2015

What’s Going On In The Maldives?

I’ve always been fascinated by the Maldives, a chain of twenty-six small islands in the Laccadive Sea. The Maldivians trace their ancestry to South India and Sri Lanka. Some of them are possibly descendants of Prince Vijaya who travelled to Sri Lanka from Kalinga. Before being converted to Islam by travellers from North Africa, Maldivians were Buddhists. In 1887, its Sultan opted (voluntarily?) to make Maldives a British protectorate, giving up the islands' sovereignty in matters of foreign policy, but retaining internal self-government, something akin to an Indian princely state. Maldives became fully independent in 1965.

My earliest memory relating to the Maldives is watching President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom on television, holding forth at a SAARC Summit. At that time, I used to think that Gayoom was the perfect ruler, so calm, serene and well-meaning, but now I am not so sure.

Maldives had its first proper presidential elections in 2008, that’s right, in 2008 and Mohamed Nasheed was elected as president. Nasheed had a tough time as President. Street protestors claimed that he was anti-Islam. When Nasheed ordered the arrest of a Maldivian judge, one Abdulla Mohamed, who was allegedly blocking the prosecution of Gayoom’s allies, the public poured into the streets to protest. When Nasheed ordered a crackdown, the police turned on him instead, protesting against his rule. In February 2012, Nasheed resigned.

After his resignation, Nasheed has faced a number of charges, including in relation to his arrest of the Chief Justice. His has been arrested many times. Once (February 2013) he took refuge inside the Indian High Commission for a few days (or weeks, I am not sure). In March this year, Nasheed was sentenced to thirteen years in prison under the Anti-Terrorism Act of Maldives for ordering the arrest of Abdulla Mohamed in January 2012.

Noted human rights lawyer Amal Clooney (Mrs. George Clooney) has been representing Nasheed in his fight for freedom. Recently Amal Clooney stated that her team would pursue international sanctions and travel bans against the Maldives as part of its efforts to secure Nasheed’s release.

Interestingly, the Maldives Government is represented by Cherie Blair.

Last year, Nasheed had claimed that Islamic fundamentalists have made deep inroads into the Maldives. Apparently over 200 Maldivians are fighting for ISIL in Syria. Nasheed has even said that Maldives might fall to ISIL the way Mosul did.

I do not know enough about Maldives to form a view on the current situation. Therefore, I pose the following questions to Maldivians out there and request them to answer in the comments section below.

1. Did the British acquire control over Maldivies in a peaceful manner?

2. How did Gayoom come to power even though proper elections weren’t held? How did he stay in power for 30 years? On the whole, did Gayoom’s rule have a positive influence on the Maldives?

3. Is Nasheed truly the hero is portrayed to be by the Western media?

4. Is Amal Clooney justified in calling for sanctions against Maldives?

5. Has fundamentalist Islam actually made deep inroads into Maldives?

Monday, 7 September 2015

Learning Hindi With Chetan Bhagat

I’ve been trying to learn Hindi ever since my late teens. I learnt some Hindi at school, but a small dusty town down South is not the best place to learn the most widely spoken Indian language. As far as I can remember, I had a Learn Hindi In 30 Days with me for the entire five years I spent at law school in Bangalore. I made some progress, I could easily count up to hundred, but I could never bring myself to speak Hindi fluently.

After I moved to Mumbai, my comprehension skills improved tremendously, I could understand everything I heard, but I still couldn’t speak Hindi with any degree of fluency. My interest in learning Hindi waxed and waned, but the real reason I never learnt Hindi properly is that I couldn’t bring myself to watch either Bollywood movies or Hindi soaps. For someone who is otherwise surrounded by a non-Hindi speaking crowd, that’s fatal.

After 4 years in Mumbai, I went to the UK and didn't return for 8 years. I forgot almost everything when I came back.

Recently I re-kindled my interest in learning Hindi. I actually hired a teacher to take me through the basics once more, until I could read Hindi text with some speed. The problem was that my Hindi vocabulary is so very poor, I need to refer to a dictionary every two minutes to understand what I read.

In order to improve my vocabulary I tried a number of tricks. I would buy Hindi newspapers and read them. I tried reading schoolbooks, but Indian school books are essentially meant for children whose mother tongue is Hindi. Unlike English textbooks which seek to teach English as a foreign language, Hindi textbooks seem to assume that the learner can speak Hindi well.

I tried reading novels, but most Hindi novels have a lot of Sanskrit or Urdu words which aren’t in day-to-day usage. I wanted a novel written in the simple Hindustani spoken by the common man. It was then that I remembered Chetan Bhagat, the man who writes for the Common Man, in the Common Man’s English.

I have read all of Chetan Bhagat’s novels and have even reviewed some of his most recent works, such as Revolution 20/20, What Young India Wants and Half Girlfriend.

And so I bought Five Point Someone, which I had read many, many years ago at the time of its release and its Hindi translation. Bingo! The translation was practically sentence-for-sentence! I got started. I would read a couple of lines of the Hindi version, then read the English version and then go back to Hindi version again. My progress has been slow, but there has been progress. Right now I have covered around 80 pages and have another 140 pages to go.

On the whole, the (unknown) translator seems to have done a good job with the translation. Is it my imagination (for I am in no position to form a judgment) or is the prose a lot smoother than the English version?

However, there are a few bloopers. For example, “for the record” is translated as “records ke liye” In another place, where Hari, after taking his balcony seat inside Priya Cinema with his girlfriend Neha, cribs that paying Rs. 35 per ticket to watch Total Recall is a total rip-off, the Hindi translation says that the seats are ripped up! Rs. 35/ticket, total rip-off" is translated as 35 rs. prati ticket, poori phati huyi seat.

Wherever, Hari, Ryan and Alok say “Screw You”, the Hindi translation uses the same phrase, which I guess makes some sense since Hindi doesn’t have an equivalent which would convey the same meaning in a given context. However, every time our heroes say “Fuck You”, it’s been translated as “Bakvaas”! Why this discrimination I wonder? "Bakvaas" simply doesn’t convey the same meaning as “Fuck You”.

Let me stop nitpicking here - the Rs.125 I paid for my copy has been worth every paise. My only serious grievance about Five Point Someone’s Hindi translation (published by Prakash Prakashan) is that the translator is not named or given any credit.

Another 140 pages to go. Please wish me luck!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Pay Them More Not Less

Everything I hear someone crib about the salaries paid to our M.Ps or M.L.As or the perks given to them, such as subsidized canteen food, I feel like shouting that we should pay our politicians more and not less.

The logic is this. Unless an M.P or an M.L.A is paid a living wage, the possibility of such M.P or M.L.A stooping to corruption is much higher. Also, by offering our M.Ps and M.L.As a salary which is comparable to what one would receive in the coporate world, one would attract talent which would otherwise not enter politics.

Currently Indian M.P.s receive a salary of Rs. 50,000 per month. In addition, they receive a number of perks, such as free train travel etc. A Parliamentary panel has proposed that MPs salaries be revised and I’m totally in favour.

MLA salaries vary according from state to state. In Delhi, an MLA gets a basic salary of Rs. 12,000 a month, but various allowances add up to another Rs. 45,000 or so. In Maharashtra, legislators receive a salary of Rs. 74,000 per month.

It can be argued that these salaries are sufficient for a simple lifestyle, that one should not enter politics if one is not willing to lead a Spartan life in the service of the people. The counter-argument would be that politics requires not only honest people, but also competent ones. In fact, we need people like Raghuram Rajan more than ones like Anna Hazare. Can you imagine someone like Rajan working for peanuts?

In western democracies, elected representatives are paid well, way better than Indian politicians, taking into account the differences in exchange rates and purchasing power. In the UK, M.Ps receive an annual salary of GBP 74,000 per annum. To give you an idea how much this amounts to, a G.P working for the National Health Service would earn between £55,412 p.a. and £83,617 p.a. Over and above their salary, MPs are reimbursed for the cost of running an office, employing staff, having a second home in London and travelling between Parliament and their constituency.

However, better pay does not automatically exclude corruption. For example, Italian politicians are the best paid in Europe and also among the most corrupt. However, paying our politicians a decent salary will make it morally easier to clamp down on corruption.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

A Very Short Story: Betrayal

‘Purohit, cheer up. Your job’s done and we’re celebrating.’ A brief hesitation and then Purohit smiled. It was a genuine smile which lit up his gaunt face, despite the large black bags under his eyes and then it was gone, just as abruptly. Another pat on the back from someone from behind, but Purohit didn’t look up. They were crammed into the meeting room, half of them didn’t have a chair to sit and everyone was sweating. For fuck’s sake, someone turn up the a/c, Purohit wanted to shout. A plate full of pedas appeared in front on him and he helped himself to a couple that were stuck together, using a leaden thumb and a forefinger which seemed to have forgotten how to bend.

‘The Director will be here any moment,’ someone standing behind him promised a weary colleague.

‘I still can’t believe we pulled it off.’ Purohit did not have to turn around to see who the speaker was. Among the dozen odd members of the back-up team, Ashok must have contributed the least to the entire operation and yet he was speaking! The person standing directly behind him exuded the heavy smell of sweat and at times the odour overpowered the fragrance of the air freshener.

‘I can’t believe you didn’t want to be around when the bastards were arrested.’

If you can’t believe it, then don’t, you fucking bastard. As Purohit remained silent, his admirer continued, ‘you had seen so much of them, you must have seen them at their worst. Didn’t you?’

‘Well yes,’ Purohit was forced to concede. Once again, an arm was thrown around his shoulder. He realised that a number of people were staring at him and he was forced to smile and make some conversation.

‘We were lucky,’ he said lamely.

Three newspapers were spread out on the table, plates of sweets circulating among them. ‘ROBBERY GANG BUSTED. TEN GANG MEMBERS ARRESTED.’

‘You stuck with it,’ his boss spoke again, his voice full of pride. ‘Fourteen months embedded inside such a ruthless gang and you held your nerve. If they had found you out, you’d have been dead meat.’

Next time, you do it yourself, Purohit silently told his boss. Silence was golden. People wouldn’t get offended with silence. At least not as much as they would if he were to express his thoughts.

The door opened once again and everyone held their breaths. No, it was not the Director. However, the bearer was welcome as he carried a tray with paper cups with coffee and tea. People parted way so that they could be served.

Most of the men were in their mid-thirties, just like Purohit. There were a few in their late twenties and a handful who were in their forties. ‘What sort of bastards were they? Really, really nasty and vicious or just hoodlums?’ a man in his late twenties asked him across the table. When Purohit remained silent, he repeated his question.

‘They were vicious,’ Purohit responded gruffly. But each of them had another side to them, he was about to add. No, it wouldn’t do. He would never be able to explain that to anyone else.

‘I saw the video of their last plan. Where they planned to break into that Noida farmhouse, not knowing that they were about to be nabbed.’ Sharmila giggled into his ears. Earlier he would have been delighted to receive such attention from Sharmila, but now, he couldn’t think of an appropriate reaction. Also, Sharmila seemed to have aged, her jowls disgustingly fleshy.

The door opened again and this time it was the Director, his tie slightly askew as usual. Those who were sitting, including Purohit, stood up. He was popular, the Director was, and he did not waste much time. Occupying the chair kept aside for him at the head of the conference table, he said, ‘I wish we could do more to honour our heroes, but we can’t. We knew that when we signed up and we might as well accept it. A man who spends over one year undercover deserves something more than a pat on the back and a medal.’ He then turned to Purohit and said, ‘we’ll need you to give evidence at the trial. Can you do that? It'll be in-camera and quick,’ the Director added.

‘Yes sir.’ Purohit had to clear his throat before he could speak.

‘Make sure he gets some R&R,’ the Director told Purohit’s boss. ‘Anyway, you’d be relieved to know that only nine of your former friends will be on trial.’

Bile rose up from inside Purohit’s stomach ‘Which one is not’

‘Pratap. What was his nick-name? Chappan? He was the least co-operative of the lot and our boys got carried away. He committed suicide using his bedsheet.’

Everyone laughed. ‘It’s amazing, the quality of bedsheets in our jails and police-stations.’

‘Was Chappan the most vicious of the lot?’

‘I don’t know. He had a terrific sense of humor. I always laughed at his jokes.’ Purohit looked very earnest and the Director suddenly looked puzzled.

‘Anyway, you’ve earned this medal.’ He got up and started to walk towards Purohit, but Purohit was halfway out of the room by then.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

An Interview With A Wiccan, An Author And A Lawyer

Deepta Roy Chakraverti’s is a Wiccan, an author and a lawyer, all rolled into one. A few weeks ago, I had reviewed her book, “Bhangarh to Bedlam - Haunted Encounters”. Those who have read my review would know what Wicca means and how Deepta’s mother Ipsita is an established practitioner of this newly revived ancient religion. What would be of great interest to many of my readers is that Deepta is a corporate lawyer who obtained an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Delhi University and went on to do her undergrad law degree from Kings College, London and now works for an oil and gas major in Kolkata. I managed to persuade Deepta to answer a few questions about herself, Wicca and her book for the benefit of Winnowed’s readers.

Winnowed: Have you been interested and involved in Wicca from birth?

Deepta: I think Wicca happened to me very naturally and gradually. I remember, as a very young child, being aware of Ipsita’s books, her papers and her work. I would come home from school, and spend time in her study, where as long as I was quiet, I could sit there and go through some of her papers. I remember the glow of the silk shaded lamps, the glint of crystal and the red roses strewn in crystal bowls. A beautiful combination of the monastic, the scholarly and the aesthetic which appeals to the senses. I think that what Wicca is, seeped into me, through the way of life and Ipsita’s attitude to what happens in the world around us. Wicca is about strength, about dignity and about the individual. It is an ancient branch of learning, which delves into esoteric lore of old, into comparative religion, anthropology , and much more. It is about a perspective which delves into the unexplained, without the blinkers of superstition. And it is that whole which came within me from an early age.

Winnowed: Let’s forget Wicca for a bit. When did you become interested in the Law? When did you decide to become a lawyer?

Deepta: Perhaps I first thought of Law when I was completing my Mathematics degree at Delhi University. That’s when I applied to a couple of law schools abroad and started my course of legal studies.
What made me go into the study of law? I think there were two very strong individuals who I had grown up hearing about and who influenced my decision to go into law. And even though I myself had never met them (they had passed away earlier) their imprint remains as strong today as in their lifetimes. One of them was Nisith Chandra Sen, my great grandfather. He was a renowned criminal barrister, who was feared and regarded equally. I grew up hearing about how at the time of the freedom movement, he would fight for the downtrodden and those the administration of the day tried to choke off. He was a rebel, a fighter, and the British authorities of the day were afraid of him. They had no control over him, and they could not buy him off with a peerage.
The other remarkable person who I feel influenced my decision to go into law, was the enigmatic Carlotta (written about in Ipsita’s ‘Beloved Witch’). She was the one who initiated Ipsita into the Wiccan way, many decades ago in a chalet in the Laurentians in Canada. Carlotta was a lawyer who had studied law in Madrid. Her husband was high ranking in the Spanish army and came from a political background. They were living in Montreal at that time. She was, apart from being a lawyer, a scholar of the esoteric and ancient traditions of the world. I remember hearing about her, and seeing a few black and white photographs. Her strength, her scholarship, and her compassion. My mother’s Teacher. When I looked at her picture, and when I heard about her, I felt tangibly as if Carlotta’s knowledge was living on through Ipsita’s teachings.

Winnowed: Would you say you are a different lawyer on account of your practice of Wicca or are you just another corporate lawyer among the hundreds of Indian corporate lawyers?

Deepta: Is a Buddhist a different lawyer because he or she follows that path? Is a follower of the Sufi way a different lawyer because he or she is a Sufi ?

Winnowed: Point taken. Which year did you complete your law degree and what did you do after that?

Deepta: At the time I went to study law, I had just completed a first degree in Mathematics Hons from Delhi University. I graduated with an LLB Hons from King’s College London in 2005. After that I worked for a few months in the area of film production. Then I worked briefly at a law firm in London. Then I joined an FMCG in India. Then I switched to an oil and energy major – where I am currently.

Winnowed: What’s your average working day like? Does Wicca have any space in it?

Deepta: Wicca is the way I live my life. It is not something one can switch on/off. It is part of the person I am.

Winnowed: What’s your average week-end like? Does Wicca have any space in it?

Deepta: I love Sunday evenings- that’s when we (usually) have our Wiccan Brigade meetings led by our Teacher Ipsita. We do out study, our discussions, and come together. Throughout the week, all of us in the Brigade lead our day to day lives. The members are of all ages and from all walks of life. Some are 25, and some are 65. Some are in academia, some are in medicine, some are in finance, some are engineers, and many more. Some have large families and some are single. But we are all together and part of the Wiccan way in the gurukul system of old, a bond which perhaps was forged many lifetimes ago and still endures. We walk together on this path, which is a quest.

Winnowed: You are based in Kolkata. You have worked in Delhi and London. Do you miss either of these places? Are you at a disadvantage because you are in Kolkata?

Deepta: Let me put it this way. The Wiccan Brigade and Ipsita’s classes are based in Kolkata. As far as I’m concerned, this is the centre of my world!

Winnowed: Do you have any advice for budding lawyers/law students who may want to explore Wicca or other similar belief systems?

Deepta: As I see it, a belief system does not have anything to do with your profession. It impacts who you are as a person, and your perspective generally. But how can it change your skills in say law, or engineering or accountings, or medicine or any other profession?
Any advice? I would say, always have a mind which is free and unencumbered by conditioning. Think your own thoughts. Draw your own conclusions. Explore. Don’t follow. Lead.

Winnowed: How do colleagues in the legal fraternity look upon your Wiccan identity?

Deepta: There is interest, and sometimes there is curiosity. I think many lawyers appreciate the academic aspects of Wicca and the learning which goes into it. The fearlessness with which one looks at new ideas and new perspectives. The overcoming of conditioning. The spirit of adventure.

Winnowed: Do you find that people view your area of research (the supernatural) as ‘irrational’? Given that you are qualified with two very orthodox degrees (mathematics from Delhi University and law from King’s College London) , what do you feel about it?

Deepta: I think it is mostly superstition and fear of the unknown which makes people call the supernatural irrational. Almost like a defence mechanism. Perhaps even a lack of awareness. If you look at it, in the west, we have scientists from NASA, experimenting (successfully) with spirit orb photography. We have string theory of physics which talks of parallel dimensions. We have researchers from universities in Berlin and Southamptom, who are delving into survival of consciousness after death. And in India – we have superstition and fear.

Winnowed: You had some trouble with your publisher and you had to find a new publisher. What happened?

Deepta: I was shocked when a south Kolkata mall threatened and bullied the first publishers (Alchemy) into withdrawing the book in April this year. In fact, I couldn’t believe it when Alchemy wrote the mall an apology along with notice of their withdrawing the book! This was all against the backdrop of the mall not having read the story. I had referred to newspaper clipping which named the mall, in context of certain tragic accidents which have taken place there in recent times, and whereas the mall had not objected to national dailies reporting on it, they reacted to my book and wanted to stop it. Their management later admitted the same to the press, that they had not read the story.
When Life Positive Books took up this book, they did so completely. The mall had again written to them (Life Positive), but this time, the book was supported fully by the publishers.
When the book was withdrawn under pressure from the mall, Kolkata’s youth erupted in outrage, and this movement, “right to read” garnered tremendous support. Social media went wild, and I was deluged by people writing in to me, in support. The press in most major cities covered this news, but in Kolkata it was silent. Given that the mall is a big business conglomerate, there was much speculation amongst the people in Kolkata as to why the press in the city did not cover the issue.
The book was formally launched by Life Positive at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi on 15th July. Within a week of the launch, the book was rushed into first reprint! Then on 9th August, there was a city launch at the Taj Bengal in Kolkata, hosted by The Wiccan Brigade. The book was sold out at major retail outlets in Kolkata within about 5 days of supply!
I believe this book has a strange destiny of its own.

Winnowed: Is South City Mall one of your favourite haunts? Do you still go there?

Deepta: Oh yes, I definitely go to South City Mall. It is unfortunate that South City has such a tragic past and has seen so many deaths. In January 2014, newspapers reported a horrible accident where one worker was killed and three injured when a stairway from which they were hanging up banners suddenly collapsed. In June 2013, a young autistic girl fell to her death from the 20th floor of one of the high residential towers of South City. In August 2012, a woman with her two daughters jumped off the 35th floor of one of the residential towers there. In October the same year, a man jumped to his death from the 30th floor of one of the towers. In January 2012, a young man in his 30’s jumped to his death from the residential towers. The Hindustan Times Kolkata called it the “death parade of South City” (in article ‘Girl jumps to death from South City’, June 18, 2013 , Hindustan Times Kolkata). And to come to present times, just a few weeks ago, in August 2015, newspapers reported how the blood splattered body of a young 25 year old man was found in the parking lot of South City mall. So many deaths, so much blood. It is a place which has seen much tragedy.