Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Short Story: Vertical Limit at the Murmuring Oasis

Phalgun stood with his back to the vegetable cart, both his hands gripping the rim of the cart from behind with such force that a vein in his forehead almost popped out. Salil stood beside him, tapping his fingers and occasionally his feet, to relieve the tension. There was no sign of the film producer who ought to have driven through the gates of the multi-storey apartment complex at least thirty minutes ago. Salil was growing more and more impatient and he increased the tempo of his tapping. Phalgun turned around and stared at Salil for a full two seconds to convey his irritation at Salil’s impatience. If they weren’t disguised as vegetable vendors with Phalgun’s pistol hidden under a pile of tomatoes, Salil might have had the opportunity to experience Phalgun’s anger in a more corporal manner, but at that moment, there was no way Phalgun could afford to slap Salil or give him a good kick.

The two pot bellied guards in blue uniforms were caged in the tiny booth, which adjoined the entrance gate. Phalgun and Salil could see them through the bars of the small square window as they lolled in their chairs, their only weapons a whistle each and a log book in which every visitor to the building was required to enter his name and address. Phalgun found it very hilarious. How on earth could those two guards with their whistles and log book provide any sort of security from a toughie like him?

A car drove up to the gate and Phalgun’s pulse quickened. But no, this was not their target’s car. Big Boss had given them the registration number of the film producer’s car. A middle-aged woman who was walking past, stopped, looked at the vegetable cart and came up to them. This was so irritating!

‘How much does the cabbage cost?’ she asked Phalgun.

‘Five rupees a kilogram,’ Phalgun told the woman who then decided to inspect all the vegetables in the cart. Phalgun was tempted to picked up a cabbage and smash it against the woman’s face. Why on earth did she have to shop at eight in the night?

‘Are you two fellows planning to spend the entire night in front of this building?’ one of the security guards called out to them, sounding as though he owned the entire apartment complex. Phalgun did not bother to reply. He saw that Salil had lifted up his shoulders and inhaled deeply, a prelude to an obscenity. So he quickly said, ‘Saheb, can we please stay for another hour? People from your building may want to buy our vegetables. If it is okay with you Sahebs …..’

Salil pursed his lips in irritation. Phalgun knew that Salil would love to kill the guards after they had killed the film producer, but it just wouldn’t do to kill anyone unnecessarily. Each additional dead body increased the pressure on the police to find the murderers, even if it was the body of a lowly security guard. That meant Big Boss would have to pay a bigger bribe. Youngsters like Salil had no discipline whatsoever. Things came to them so easily. They never experienced much hardship, never underwent any suffering. Phalgun on the other hand had done every menial job under the sun, including vending vegetables in a push cart like the one he was using now, before Big Boss hired him.

The woman finally decided to buy some cabbage, but she just wanted just half a kilogram of it. Phalgun expertly chopped a cabbage into two, weighed it and wrapped it in a piece of newspaper.

Just then, the car they were waiting for, drove up. The woman was fumbling with the change. One of the two security guards came out of the booth and opened the gate. For good measure, he saluted the corpulent man inside the car. Phalgun waved away the change which the woman proffered him and dug out his pistol from under the pile of tomatoes. He fired a shot into the rear window of the car and saw the bulky man inside slump forward. For good measure, he fired two more shots. Salil had pushed the cringing woman to the ground to make sure that she did not get in Phalgun’s way. The security guard who had come outside had his mouth wide open. Hs colleague inside the booth was dialling furiously.

Phalgun was tempted to kill the man making the phone call, but he desisted. A phone call to the police station would make little or no difference to their getaway.

Salil was dancing in front of the security guard who had opened the gate.

‘Sahib, can we please stay for another hour? Please Sahib,’ he mocked the guard and waited for Phalgun to finish him off, grinning like a demon from ear to ear.

Phalgun walked away, tucking his pistol under his threadbare shirt. Salil looked stunned for a second, then he quickly followed Phalgun like a dog.

Phalgun’s heart was thumping and he walked as though he were mounted on a set of springs. It took him an enormous effort to not to jump and shout with joy and exhilaration. He had not let the Big Boss down. This was his tenth big job and there would be many more to come. As they left the secluded cul-de-sac and reached the busy main road, they saw that the battered ambassador car waiting to take them away had its engines running. The driver must have heard the shots being fired.

‘All well?’ the driver asked as he put the car into gear.

Phalgun took a deep breath and said, ‘yes, it went off well.’ ‘The bastard looked like a circus clown when he fell forward,’ he added with a chuckle.

Once the car started to move, Phalgun gave Salil a pat on the back and said, ‘you idiot, you nearly messed up things.’ He gave another chuckle so that Salil did not get too upset. This was the first time he had worked with Salil. Most probably, this was Salil’s first kill, though he had earlier claimed to have gone with another senior hit man on a hit.

‘You could have killed that guard as well,’ Salil told Phalgun in an accusing voice, sounding like a kid deprived of candy
‘Listen, you wet-behind-the-ears-baby, you keep that big mouth of yours shut and watch and listen and you may make something out of yourself. That is, if you don’t get killed first.’

The driver broke into a loud guffaw on hearing that.

Three days later, refreshed and relaxed, Phalgun presented himself at Big Boss’s bungalow. The bungalow was a dream in white and the room where Phalgun waited to meet Big Boss actually had air conditioning. The only other person in the room was a bodyguard nicknamed the Viper, one of the dozen or so of bodyguards who surrounded Big Boss at all times.

Viper was bursting with gossip and Phalgun was not uninterested.

‘It was I who went and fetched Baburam for Big Boss,’ he informed Phalgun grimly.

‘Just you? No one else?’ I don’t believe it!’ Phalgun waited for Viper’s clarification.

‘Hafiz came with me.’

‘And did he make a fuss?’

‘Fuss? No way. We knocked on his door, told him that Big Boss wanted to talk to him and he just came. As meek as a puppy.’

‘Why didn’t he try to run away?’ Phalgun wondered aloud.

‘Or even try to kill us first?’ the Viper asked. I was quite scared to go and ask him. When Big Boss told me to bring Baburam, I actually thought of running off to my village and not come back at all.’ They both laughed at that.

‘You say that he just came along meekly?’

‘Yes, he did. And he was such a big guy!’

‘Was it Big Boss who fired the shot?’

‘Oh yes! That’s how it’s for traitors, isn’t it? Big Boss would not have it any other way.’

‘Did you see his body?’

‘Yes, I did. It was Charles who carried it to the sea.’

‘I wished I had been there. It must have been some sight to see Baburam go so quietly.’

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Then Phalgun asked, ‘Is Big Boss still angry with Charles?’

Viper sighed. ‘I don’t really know. There are times when Big Boss summons Charles and shouts at him. And then there are times when he sounds as if he is …

There was no opportunity for Viper to finish his discourse. Big Boss walked into the room and sat down, an affable old man who would not look out of place in a group of respectable senior citizens on a group tour to the Prince of Wales museum, the planetarium and the aquarium. Phalgun jumped up immediately.

‘Son, I’m very proud of you,’ he told Phalgun and patted him on his back before sitting down.

Phalgun stood tongue-tied in front of Big Boss who at times had an eerie resemblance to his grandfather.

Big Boss looked at Viper who left the room immediately.

‘How are things with you?’

‘With your blessings and by God’s grace, I’m doing well Big Boss.’

‘Ha! Ha! You don’t need my blessings if you have God’s grace.’

‘But Big Boss, you are God.’

‘I’m not God, Phalgun. I’m not.’ Big Boss sounded tired and exhausted.

‘How’s your wife? How’s your son? Vinayak? Isn’t that his name?’

‘Yes Big Boss. He is. Vinayak. That’s his name.’ Phalgun found himself floundering over simple sentences.

‘Vinayak must be, how old is Vinayak? Ten years old? Am I right?’ Big Boss scratched his head as he searched his legendary memory.

‘Yes Big Boss. He is ten. Almost eleven now.’

‘When’s his birthday?’

‘Oh, it was last month. He’s eleven now.’

‘Ah, is he? How time flies!’

Big Boss sat there in thoughtful silence and Phalgun stood politely in front of him. After a lengthy stretch of silence, Big Boss asked Phalgun, ‘son, are you ready for another job?’

‘Big Boss, I shall do anything you ask me to do.’

‘I know Phalgun, but are you ready to do it? To do it successfully?’

‘Yes, Big Boss, I am.’

Big Boss sighed once more. ‘There’s this builder called Hinal Mehta who has switched allegiance to that bastard from Vikhroli. He has stopped paying me money. Altogether.’

Phalgun kept quiet. He knew that Big Boss liked people to listen to him when he spoke.

‘He needs to be taught a lesson,’ Big Boss added.

‘I shall kill this Hinal Mehta. Definitely. Who is he and where does he live?’ Phalgun demanded Big Boss. ‘You only have to say the word.’

Big Boss gave Phalgun a sad smile. His next few words confirmed his disappointment in Phalgun. ‘If you kill him, how will he pay me?’

‘If you kill him, how will he pay me Phalgun?’ Big Boss repeated, drawing out the last syllable of Phalgun’s name in a manner that showed his irritation.

‘I’m so sorry Big Boss. I’m so very sorry Big Boss. Please forgive me.’

‘We will have to kill someone else, so that this man pays me. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, Big Boss. Someone else. Of course.’

Phalgun bit his tongue and waited for Big Boss to tell him who that someone was.

‘Hinal Mehta, he cannot be killed. But one of his friends can be.’

‘Yes Big Boss. That’ll make Hinal Mehta pay up. It will.’

Big Boss drew a sharp breath and said, ‘Now listen carefully. Every Saturday, Hinal Mehta likes to have a drink. With his friends. Three or four of them. I want you to kill one of Hinal Mehta’s friends when he does that. In front of Hinal Mehta. Can you do that?’

‘Yes Big Boss. I can do that. Easily! Of course, I can do that.’

‘And how will you do that?’

Phalgun gulped. He was another catch. What should he do now? ‘Whatever way you ask me to do Big Boss,’ he said.

Big Boss was pleased. ‘Listen carefully,’ he said once more. Phalgun clasped his hands behind his back, bent his head slightly and almost stood on tip toe so that his body was inclined towards Big Boss as he sat on the brown leather sofa.

‘Right now, Hinal Mehta is putting up a huge building at Kandivali. A fifty storey luxury apartment complex. The building is almost complete. All fifty storeys have been erected. The plastering is done. A set of lifts have been installed. There is some painting work left. A garden has been planted with a water fountain in its centre. Soon, people will start moving into this building.’

‘Yes Big Boss.’

‘The fountain. Ever since the fountain was installed three weeks ago, that’s where Hinal Mehta has his weekend drinks. Most probably, he’ll do the same this Saturday as well.’

Phalgun grinned. It would be good fun to kill one of Hinal Mehta’s friends near the fountain.

‘I want you storm into that compound with four men, beat up Hinal Mehta and kill one of his friends in a special way. So that Hinal Mehta is scared. Really scared.’

Not a problem Big Boss. I can make the waters of the fountain run red. Have you decided which friend is to be killed?’

‘Patience Phalgun, I’ll come to that in a minute. I want to frighten this Hinal Mehta. Scare the daylights out of him. Convince him that the Vikhroli gang cannot protect him. How do we do that?’

‘I could beat up Hinal Mehta and all of his friends properly. Their mothers wouldn’t recognise them after I am through!’

‘Phalgun, use your brains. They will be right next to a fifty storey building. Would do you think we should so?’

Phalgun had a sinking feeling in his stomach. He caught his breath. He knew what was coming. His legs started to tremble. His worst nightmare was coming true.

‘I want you to nab them when they are drinking near that fountain, beat them up well and good, threaten to kill them all, make them beg and cringe, take them up the lift to the fiftieth storey, make them climb up the ladder to the terrace, stand them near the parapet with their backs to you and then, when they are all shitting in their trousers, push one of the friends over the parapet. Just one! That ought to scare Hinal Mehta. So there! Can you do it?’

Phalgun’s mind was in a whirl. If he had any sense he would admit to Big Boss that this job was beyond him. But No! He could never say No to Big Boss who had picked him from the crowd and made him what he was. ‘Yes Big Boss. I will do it,’ he firmly, trying to shut out a vision of the fifty storey building.

‘Can you do all this with just four men?’ Big Boss asked him thoughtfully.

‘I think so Big Boss,’ Phalgun reply, trying to sound confident. ‘That’ll be five people including me.’

Big Boss was silent. Then he asked Phalgun. ‘Would you do it, Phalgun? If you are cornered by a hit man who you think is definitely going to kill you and asked to climb a parapet, would you do so?’

‘No Big Boss, I would not.’

‘I know. You’ll need three men to pick up one of Hinal Mehta’s friends and throw him over the parapet.’

‘It can be done Big Boss. Two of us can keep the rest of them quiet when the other three throw one of the bastards over. It will be easier if we could kill the man before pushing him over.’

‘No, no, no. I want him to scream as he falls down.’

‘Or at least hit him on the head…’

‘I don’t care where you hit him as long as he screams when he falls down’

‘The tough bit will be to get the bastards to climb the ladder from the fiftieth storey to the terrace.’

‘They will do what you ask them to do if they are frightened properly.’

‘Yes Big Boss. I guess Hinal Mehta will have a bodyguard with him all the time?’

‘Two of them actually,’ Big Boss smiled. ‘And they are not ordinary guards. Apparently they are specially trained in martial arts and cost Hinal Mehta fifty thousand rupees each every month.’

‘They won’t be so special when we are through with them.’

Big Boss smiled. ‘Take Salil, Ramesh, Charles and Abdul with you. I know you can handle Hinal Mehta’s bodyguards, but don’t be overconfident.’

‘Big Boss, I can kill Hinal Mehta’s friend wherever you like. I can do it the way you just described. But if you like, I can also kill his friend in front of his family. Maybe in front of his wife and children. Whatever you like Big Boss.’

‘Phalgun, I don’t want to scare his wife and children. I want to scare Hinal Mehta.’

Phalgun’s shoulders slumped, but he tried not to let his fear show on his face.

‘I am going to rely on you Phalgun,’ Big Boss said, his attitude that of a grandfather entrusting his business empire to his grandson. ‘I want this to be done this Saturday itself. That gives you just four days.’

Later that evening, Phalgun took a taxi to Khandivali and stood in front of the Murmuring Oasis. It gave him the shivers just to look at it. Fifty storeys tall and the joker of an architect had encased the entire front façade in glass. Phalgun tried to imagine living on the fiftieth floor and shuddered.

He never had a head for heights, as far as he could remember. If he had his way, he would level to the ground all tall buildings in the world. His earlier memory of a tryst with vertigo was when his family visited the sacred temple at Saptasring Gad. His father had insisted on the entire family climbing the innumerable steps that led to the temple, which was on top of a hill. Phalgun had managed a dozen steps and then sat down dizzy with fear. His father had carried him to the top, only to have Phalgun cringing in fear during the entire visit.

Charles was responsible for fixing a security guard at the Murmuring Oasis who could get them access to the building prior to the raid. He had promised to get it done in a day’s time. Once it was done, he would be able to make as many trips as he wanted to in order to familiarise himself with the building. ‘We’ll never go there as a group,’ he had told Charles and the others. Charles was actually much more experienced than he was, but since he had got into some trouble or the other, he had been demoted. If not, it would be Charles who would be leading the team for this piece of action. Thank God for small mercies, Phalgun thought.

When Phalgun was in his teens he had a friend who lived on the fourth floor of a block of flats. Every time Phalgun visited his friend, he used to be terrified as he walked up the stairs. Climbing down was even worse. But after a few trips, his fear had been brought down to manageable limits. Could he do the same thing with this building? Phalgun doubted it. Big Boss had made his intentions clear. He wanted all four victims to be taken to the terrace of the building. The climb to the terrace from the fiftieth storey would be through the service ladder. No, there was no way Phalgun could climb a ladder from the fiftieth storey. He might have managed it if it had been an enclosed stairway. Maybe! Maybe not! And then there was that action planned for the terrace. Big Boss was very clear. He did not want them to kill or even stun the friend before throwing him down. He wanted Hinal Mehta’s friend to scream as he fell. The mere thought of doing all that made Phalgun tremble.

Maybe he ought to go to Big Boss and confess. Tell him the truth. After all, it was a genuine problem, wasn’t it? But no! Big Boss had this habit of not relying on a person who he thought had let him down. He would be instantly demoted and would soon be running minor errands and accompanying senior hit men, just as Salil accompanied him on his last hit. It seemed to be a no-win situation.

Two days later Phalgun made a visit to the Murmuring Oasis. The crooked guard had given them three passes, each of which when struck to a paint splattered shirt, allowed the wearer to ramble around the building, provided he had a paint brush in hand.

The moment Phalgun came out of the lift on the fiftieth storey, he was hit by vertigo. His feet trembled under him as he looked out through the sheet of glass in front of him. Fifty storeys of sheer madness dangled not less than ten feet from where he was. He quickly got back into the lift and hastily went down. Once on the ground floor, he lit a beedi and inhaled deeply. His heart was beating as if it was trying to break free from his body.

‘Shhhh, there’s a supervisor coming along,’ a workman told him as he walked past.

Phalgun gawked at the workman, who had a friendly look.

‘You idiot, you aren’t allowed to smoke in this building,’ the man told him and disappeared.

Phalgun put out his beedi. He got back into the lift and pressed the button for the fiftieth floor. He would make multiple trips and get rid of his fear. Ten trips to the fiftieth floor and he would be able to walk around, wouldn’t he? Tomorrow he would come again and practice climbing the ladder to the terrace. Of course he would do it. He, Phalgun Patil, had done so many things in life that other men only dreamed of doing. And he could bloody well climb up to the terrace if he put his mind to it.

He got out of the lift and took bold a step forward. Fifty storeys below, the cars and buses were tiny and ant-like. His breath hissed out of him and his legs buckled. No, this was impossible. He had absolutely no control of his body. If someone pulled a gun on him when he was in this state, he would be helpless. Phalgun slowly sat on the floor, his whole body trembling with fear. Thankfully there was no one nearby. He crawled back to the lift, keeping his eyes to the floor so that he did not have to look out through the glass.

The next day Phalgun went to the Siddhi Vinayak temple at Prabha Devi and prayed. Please, please God. Please take away this irrational fear, he pleaded again and again. On his way out, he gave away two thousand and two rupees to the various beggars who surrounded the place. For good measure, he also went to the Sai Baba Mandir at Borivali and repeated his prayers, sacrificing a large marigold garland this time. There was nothing more that a man in his position could do. It was all in the hands of God.

The day of the raid dawned bright and clear. Big Boss had expressed his fear that if it turned out to be a rainy day, Hinal Mehta might decide to go elsewhere for his drinks. Phalgun had prayed for rain desperately. But no, the rain gods let him down despite his fervent requests. If only it had rained and Hinal Mehta had gone to a good restaurant with his friends, Phalgun would have been the happiest man in the world.

Salil, Ramesh, Charles and Abdul were excited with the idea of throwing a man down fifty storeys while Phalgun tried to avoid thinking about it. He failed miserably. Time and again his brain conjured up images of the terrace, fifty storeys above the ground. If only his legs made it up the ladder, he could ask three of the others to throw one of Hinal Mehta’s friends down the building. To fall down fifty storeys! The very thought gave him the jitters. If it weren’t for Big Boss, he wouldn’t do this to his biggest enemy.

The van they used to take them to the building had been stolen that morning from the company which maintained the fountain. To be doubly safe, the guard supposed to be in charge of the entrance gate that day had been bribed. Charles had wanted to try and to fix one of the personal bodyguards as well, but Big Boss overruled him. The man who ran Top Shot, the agency which supplied the bodyguards, was unlikely to play along and if they tried and failed, word would get to Hinal Mehta.

They rolled into the compound at half past six when the workmen had left for the day and dusk had set in. The yellow lamps which dotted the garden had been switched on. Phalgun avoided looking at the building which looked very beautiful in the setting yellow sun.

Hinal Mehta and two of his friends had just finished a round of drinks when Phalgun and his team got out of the van, dressed as workmen. The two specially trained bodyguards didn’t have a chance against the five men. Even before they could suspect anything and draw their pistols, they were shot dead in cold blood. Hinal Mehta, a short pudgy man in his early fifties, and his friends cowered in front of Phalgun’s men.

Phalgun made sure that his back was to the building so that he was not reminded of the climb that awaited him.

Salil walked up to Hinal and kicked him in his groin. ‘You thought you could get away with it, didn’t you? he asked Hinal.

‘Why are there only three of them and not four?’ Abdul whispered to Phalgun.

‘Who cares? We just need to kill Wilfred. And he is here.’ Big Boss had decided on Wilfred the previous day, since he was closer to Hinal than any of the other drinking buddies. Wilfred was a tall thin man with a straggly French beard. He ran a health club at Napean Sea road which was frequented by the most happening people in Mumbai.

Phalgun nodded at Charles who dragged the third friend forward, pushed him down and kicked him in the face. Blood oozed out of his mouth. Ramesh and Salil joined him. They worked systematically on the three men, punching and kicking them all over their bodies, but taking care to avoid their vital organs. Phalgun stood back and watched, one eye at the entrance gate for any gate crashers. The crooked guard had been tied up in his chair so that he wouldn’t get into any trouble over his inaction.

The third friend whose name they didn’t know was the stoutest of the three men and he started breathing heavily. Phalgun signalled to the men to stop. They all did, except for Salil, who had to be prised away from Hinal.

‘Don’t you want him to climb up to the terrace?’ Phalgun chided him.

‘Noo. Please don’t kill us. We’ll pay you,’ Hinal started to beg. ‘I can ask my wife to deposit fifty lakhs in your bank account right away,’ Hinal pleaded. ‘Let me just make one phone call.’

Phalgun slapped them him. ‘Aren’t you shameless? You could have paid fifty lakhs to Big Boss and avoided all this. You disrespected Big Boss and now you must pay for it.

‘Why don’t you search them to see if they are carrying any weapons? he ordered the men who looked at him in surprise. This was not part of the agreed agenda.

‘Go on,’ Phalgun said and set an example by standing Wilfred up and patting him down. Salil quickly searched Hinal and Charles shook down the third friend.

‘Now walk,’ Phalgun said and pointed in the direction of the building block which was being painted in navy blue. As he looked at the building for the first that evening, dizziness hit him in waves. He would soon have to be on top of that miserable structure!

Wilfred turned around and started to plead. ‘I have a family. I have three daughters. I need to…’

‘We’ll take care of your daughters,’ Salil told him to the accompaniment of loud laughter.

‘Listen, I know you are going to kill me. So, why should I do what you ask me to do?’ Hinal asked them, his eyes flaring. ‘If you want to make a deal with me, let’s talk, otherwise, you can do what you ….’

Before Hinal could complete his sentence, Phalgun went up to him, grabbed him by the back of his belt and punched him in his solar plexus. Hinal gasped for breath and went down like a bag of rotting onions.

‘If you don’t walk, I’ll beat you to a pulp and then make you walk anyway,’ Phalgun said. He was breathing hard and sweating. Hinal believed him and tried to stand up, but couldn’t.

Abdul prodded Wilfred and the other friend with his pistol, none too gently from behind, and they started to walk forward.

Phalgun had another idea. ‘Let’s make them take off their trousers and walk in their underwear. It’ll make things easier for them.’

The men liked the idea. They formed a circle and Hinal and his friends were forced to stand in the centre.

‘Go on, take off your trousers. I want to see the colour of your underwear,’ Phalgun told them. They hesitated.

‘The last one with his trousers on will have a pistol shoved up his arse,’ Phalgun announced. Wilfred and the third friend did not waste much time in unbuttoning their trousers and taking them off. Hinal was still panting from the blow to his solar plexus and fumbled with his buttons as the men watched in amusement. When he finally managed to drop his trousers, a small black Berretta ultra-compact fell down from the inside of his trousers. Phalgun and the men looked at the pistol, transfixed. Hinal himself seemed to be puzzled and he stared at the pistol, which was so small that it could fit snugly in a man’s palm.

Wilfred, who stood near Hinal, moved first. He took two steps and picked up the pistol before anyone else could move. ‘Don’t anyone dare come near me,’ he stammered, his eyes darting about wildly and his pistol hand jerking up and down.

But Phalgun acted courageously and fast. He whipped out his pistol and shot Wilfred between his eyes. As he was shot, Wilfred pressed the trigger, but no one got hit. They didn’t even know which direction the bullet went. The pistol fell out of Wilfred’s hands near Hinal’s feet. Hinal dropped to his knees with the intention of picking up the pistol, but Charles shot him in his thigh and he collapsed forward.

Abdul ran forward and picked up the pistol and gave it to Phalgun who slid out the magazine. ‘It’s unloaded,’ he announced with a chuckle.

‘What a fool!’ Abdul said as he looked at a bleeding Hinal Mehta with disgust. ‘Carrying an unloaded pistol in his trousers and …’

‘I thought you had searched the bastard,’ Phalgun told Salil, making no effort to hide his sneer.

‘I did. I just don’t know ….’

‘What do we do now?’ Abdul asked.

‘I guess our job’s done,’ Phalgun declared. ‘Let’s go. Someone’s bound to have heard the shot.’

Phalgun led the way. As they got into the van and drove away, Charles told Salil, ‘if I were you, I’d do back to my village and stay there.’

‘Don’t you have a pistol exactly like the one which Hinal had? The one you got from that Pedder Road job?’ Charles asked Phalgun.

‘Oh that! No, I didn’t keep it. I never do. I had got rid of it immediately. It was tainted you know. It’s always dangerous to keep a pistol from a job,’ Phalgun said.

‘Are you going to get rid of this one as well?’ Salil asked him. ‘In that case, can I keep it?’

‘You stupid idiot! How many mistakes do you want to make in a single day?’ Phalgun shouted at him. He avoided looking out of the window until Murmuring Oasis disappeared from sight.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Will Mousavi go the Tsvangirai way?

You might wonder what Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Morgan Tsvangirai have in common. It’s very simple. Currently, Mousavi is treated as the angel of deliverance in Iran, the only human being capable of saving the people of Iran from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mad Mullahs. There was a time when Morgan Tsvangirai occupied a similar position in Zimbabwe. Out in Harare, evil was personified in the form of Robert Mugabe, a one time revolutionary and freedom fighter who had grown so drunk with power that he lost all his supporters outside Zimbabwe, with the possible exception of China and North Korea. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was a brave rebel who, despite being arrested and beaten up so many times, was leading the fight to bring democracy to Zimbabwe. In September 2008, Tsvangirai signed a deal with Mugabe under which he became the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe.

Things didn’t change much for Zimbabwe after Tsvangirai started to share power with Mugabe. The food shortages, unemployment and high inflation continue. On 6 March 2009, Tsvangirai and his wife Susan were involved in an accident. The car they were travelling in was hit by a lorry and Susan died. Morgan Tsvangirai escaped with minor injuries. Allegations of foul play flew thick and fast, including from Tsvangirai himself. The allegations had credibility since Mugabe has a record of using such ‘accidents’ to get rid of his opponents. Later Tsvangirai rescinded his statements and said that the ‘accident’ was just that – an accident.

Very recently, Tsvangirai went on a tour to Western Europe and North America to ask for financial aid, something that was denied to Mugabe when he was fighting Tsvangirai. Morgan Tsvangirai, darling of various western rulers and human rights organisations when he was in the opposition, did not have much luck in persuading western donors to give him money. Hoping to raise £5 billion, Tsvangirai managed to get £60 million from the UK and $73 million from the US. Neither government was willing to give the aid directly, considering Zimbabwe’s track record and history. During his time in the UK, Tsvangirai addressed a meeting of Zimbabwean exiles who used to support him till just a year ago, and was jeered at when he tried to explain his support for Mugabe.

Tsvangirai’s unsuccessful visit made me wonder if Mousavi will face a similar fate if he manages to come to power. Like Tsvangirai, Mousavi was never a saint to start off with. Just as Tsvangirai used to be an ardent Mugabe supporter and a member of Mugabe’s Zanu PF Party, Mousavi was a revolutionary who struggled for the ouster of the Shah. Later Mousavi became the Prime Minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989 when the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) took place and ten year old Iranian boys were being sent off to the battlefield as human mine sweepers. Mousavi is also a member of the High Council for Cultural Revolution, an organisation responsible for purging Iran of un-Islamic books, movies and other artistic works. Of late, Mousavi has not been an active member of this Council.

Will Mousavi manage to depose Ahmadinejad and become the President of Iran? It appears highly unlikely to me since Mousavi’s support seems to be restricted to the big cities. Let me clarify that I would personally like to see Mousavi in power and Ahmadinejad in permanent retirement. Mousavi may be just another ruthless politician, but he is likely to give the people of Iran, especially the ones who want a modern Iran, a better deal. However, it is much more likely that Mousavi will strike a deal with the evil regime he is battling and share power with them.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Short Story: The Telephone Preference Service

‘I wish I could take a day off and take you somewhere, but ……….’ Adwait gave Nimisha a rueful grin.’

‘No, that’s fine. I’m absolutely alright. There are so many things to do here.’

‘It’s because I took two days off for the house hunting, then I was in India for 3 weeks…’

‘Two weeks and three days. You rejoined work on a Thursday, didn’t you?’

‘I did. But Ralph manages to make it sound as if I’ve been away for four weeks.’

‘I’m telling you, I really don’t like the sound of him.’

‘No, he isn’t nasty. Almost all audit partners are like him. They are workhorses. They work hard and they want their assistants to work just as hard. If not harder.’

‘You will kill yourself at this rate. You’ve worked on all weekends ever since we came back.’

‘Just a few hours each day. That’s nothing. There have been times when I’ve had to work ten or twelve hours each on Saturdays and Sundays.’ Adwait couldn’t help but sound like a martyr.

Nimisha glanced at the clock and said, ‘You’ll miss your Tube.’

Adwait drew Nimisha close to him and said, ‘so what? There’ll be another.’

Nimisha giggled.

Later that afternoon, Adwait called Nimisha from office and said, ‘I don’t know when I will get to leave this evening. It could be pretty late.’

‘That’s okay. I went for a walk after lunch.’

‘How was it?’

‘Did you know there’s a park just ten minutes away?’

‘No, I didn’t. Actually wait. I think the letting agent did mention something like that.’

‘And you didn’t bother to verify it.’ Adwait could see Nimisha’s smile at the other end of the line. Thank God she was not one of those typical Indian women who couldn’t take care of themselves when in a foreign land.

‘Listen, I’ve got to go.’ Someone was standing behind him. Was it Ralph? Adwait hung up without waiting for Nimisha’s response.

No, it was not Ralph. It was Darren, a fellow flunkey like him.

‘Checking if your missus is okay, are you?’

‘Just a quick call.’

‘I just can’t believe you married a girl you met only three times before.’

‘It isn’t as bad as it sounds.’ Wearily Adwait launched into a hesitant explanation of how ‘modern’ arranged marriages were these days.

‘There is no pressure to get married. My elder brother saw fifteen different girls before he agreed to marry one. And the one he married, they sort of went out four or five times before they decided to tie the knot.’

‘But you didn’t get to take out your wife before you married her, did you?’

‘That’s because I am here and she’s …’ Adwait knew that his response sounded very un-English, which made him angry. No one had the right to judge him.

‘It’s worked out well for me. Touchwood.’ Tap, tap, his knuckles rapped his desk.

‘That’s all that matters mate.’ Darren tried to sound sincere.

‘Aren’t we going for that seminar tomorrow?’

‘Yes, at four. It should get over by six. Six thirty, if a few idiots decide to ask questions at the end to show everyone how smart they are.’

‘There’ll always be at least one person who will have a question. Then someone else who was planning to be quiet until then will ask the second question, then a timid, balding man in the front row will overcome his inhibitions and ….’

Darren laughed at Adwait’s joke. ‘Ralph’s balding,’ he reminded Adwait. They both turned around guiltily to make sure Ralph wasn’t around.

‘Listen, the lads are planning to go out for a drink after that seminar. You game for it?’

‘Yes of course,’ Adwait replied with a sinking heart.

It was almost nine thirty as he got off the Tube and started to walk home. Wearily he dialled the home number. As soon as Nimisha said hello, he said, ‘I hope you’ve had dinner.’

‘No, I didn’t. But if you were late by another ten minutes, I would have.’

‘Atta girl, that’s the way to go!’ Adwait’s spirits rose. It would have been dreadful if Nimisha had turned out to be some one who couldn’t cope and sat around moping.

Later that night, he confessed to Nimisha. ‘I’m going to be very late tomorrow.’

‘Didn’t you say you would be home early because you were going to a seminar and you would come home straight after that?’

‘Yes, but we are supposed to go out for drinks after that. I just can’t get out of that. Most probably we’ll end up at Rhimjhim. That’s the curry house we always go to.’

‘So, you’ll have fun.’ Adwait anxiously searched Nimisha’s face for any signs of anger or sadness. There was none, thankfully.

‘I thought that everyone went out only on Fridays.’

‘These days they prefer to have office evenings on Thursdays. On Fridays, people tend to go home straight after work.’

‘So, will you come home straight after work on Friday?’

‘Yes, I will.’ The earnestness in Adwait’s voice made Nimisha smile.

‘By what time?’

‘Ahhhh! I just don’t know.’


The next evening, after the seminar, the reception after a seminar and a visit to a pub, they did end up eating dinner at Rhimjhim, as Adwait had predicted.

‘Ad-Wait Chop-Raa! How are you?’ Adwait couldn’t place the middle-aged man sitting opposite him, who addressed him by his full name, as he took the Metropolitan Line home.

‘Don’t you remember me Ad-Wait? Don’t you work for Stetson?’

‘Yes, I do,’ Adwait conceded. Was this one of their clients? Some one he had met during one of the audits.

‘All well with you?’

‘Yes. And how are you?’ Adwait was forced to ask.

‘Pretty good. Out with the guys?’

‘Well yes.’

‘How’s Chris doing?’

‘Chris?’ Adwait thought for a few seconds before he asked, ‘Which Chris?’

‘Chris Lambert of course.’

Adwait pursed his lips and thought hard. Finally he conceded, ‘I’m really sorry. I don’t know any Chris.’

‘Neither do I,’ his companion said gently as Adwait tried to shake off the effects of the two bottles of Cobra beer he had during dinner, the two pints of Carlings he had at the pub and the small glass of red wine he had at the reception after the seminar.

Adwait started at the man.

‘You know me, don’t you?’ he was asked.

‘Yes, I do.’ Adwait wanted to put his head between his legs and sleep.

The Tube pulled into Finchley Road Station. Another ten minutes and he would be home.

‘I’m getting off here Ad-Wait,’ the man said as he got up. ‘If I were you, I’d take that badge off.’ He gave the nametag pinned to Adwait’s suit a tap with his forefinger and walked off.

Adwait almost ripped off the plastic in his shame. After a furious minute, he started to laugh. He was just overwrought. Nimisha was coping well, much better than he had ever expected she would. They would soon settle into a routine. He would get used to life as a married man with a hectic workload.

He put the tag which said ‘Adwait Chopra, Audit Services, Stetson,’ into a pocket.

It was almost eleven thirty when he got home. Feeling very tired, he walked in on tiptoe and took off his shoes before peeping into the bedroom. Thankfully Nimisha had gone to sleep.

‘Please wake me up when you see this,’ the yellow post-it on the fridge said. Like hell, he would. Adwait quietly brushed his teeth and stealthily crept into bed. He must have been a bit clumsy after all that liquor since Nimisha woke up almost immediately. Adwait touched her face, more to reassure him, and said, ‘I’m back.’

The next day he was really busy in a series of meetings and didn’t have the time to even call Nimisha until eight that evening, when he was ready to leave for home.

‘I’ll see you in an hour. And I am not going to do any work over the weekend!’

After they finished dinner, Nimisha told Adwait, ‘I got a phone call today. Two calls actually.’

Adwait’s eyes furrowed in concentration. ‘Someone called you on this number?’

‘Guess?’ Nimisha teased him.

‘I don’t know.’ Adwait picked up the plates and took them to the kitchen to wash up.

‘You don’t have to,’ Nimisha said, but didn’t really stop Adwait from washing the plates.

As he rinsed the bone china, he said, ‘Was it Papa?’

‘No, it wasn’t him.’ Nimisha’s father had called them once so far, just to make sure Nimisha was doing okay. It couldn’t be Daddy and Mummy, no, his parents would never call.

‘Was it that woman? The one met at that Indian shop last Sunday. We gave her our number, didn’t we?’

‘And she gave us hers. I think she wants us to call her. No, it was not her. The calls were for you actually. The first call was a ‘He’. I told him that you weren’t here and later his colleague, a ‘She’, called back at seven hoping you’d be back. I had a long chat with the second caller.’

‘Shit! They were marketing calls!’

‘Yes. They wanted to sell us an insurance policy. They were very persistent. Wouldn’t take no for an answer.’

‘You ought to have slammed the phone down.’

‘I was irritated a bit. Especially with the woman who called second. She seemed to think I was a fool who would believe everything she said.’

‘Why didn’t you cut her off?

‘I should have,’ Nimisha said ruefully, but I just couldn’t be rude.’

‘For God’s sake, why can’t you be rude? I’m going to place our number on the TPS right away.’ Adwait went to the laptop and pulled up a chair.

‘Do you know what the TPS is?’ he asked Nimisha

‘No. What’s it?’

‘The Telephone Preference Service. You go to the TPS website, enter your telephone number, email and house address and they will send you an email.’ Adwait’s stocky fingers quickly keyed the information in.

‘I had done this when I was at my Ealing studio flat. Not a single bastard could trouble me then.’

Adwait went to his Yahoo mailbox and a new email had arrived. ‘It’s pretty simple. I just need to click on this link and……Done! But it’ll take twenty eight days before it becomes effective.’

‘What happens now?’ Nimisha asked. ‘What’s it for?’

‘Those marketing bastards can’t make any unsolicited calls to this number once this becomes effective. They won’t pester you at all.’ Adwait took a deep satisfied breath and he turned around to look at Nimisha.

Nimisha’s face had turned red. Her eyes were welling up.

‘Hey! What’s the matter?’

Nimisha burst into tears. ‘Oh! You shouldn’t have blocked those calls. They are the only ones I spoke with all day today,’ she sobbed.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Sarkozy Thinks Burkhas Undermine Women’s Dignity, But Not Prostitution

Sarkozy hates the Burkha! According to this BBC report, Monsieur Sarkozy feels that the Burkha reduces women to servitude and undermines their dignity. Sarkozy wants to establish a parliamentary commission that will examine whether the wearing of Burkhas in public ought to be banned. Readers may recall that France has already banned the wearing of any religious attire in schools, an act which resulted in French Sikh students being unable to wear turbans

I can see a lot of merit in the ban on Burkhas. To start with, I believe that Burkhas do undermine women’s dignity. Burkhas are worn almost always by women who were brought up to believe that women are inferior to men. The late Suraiya nee Kamala Das is an exception of course. Forcing women to give up the Burkha may force them to be liberal. No, I’m not joking. In Turkey, Pasha Ataturk forced men to wear western clothes and shave and Turkey is now one of the most liberal countries with a Muslim majority.

The only problem with this French proposal is that it goes against all that France stands for (at least on paper). The nation which gave the world Voltaire, Montesquieu, Rousseau, the statue of Liberty (they planted it in the US due to lack of space near the Eiffel) and the slogan Liberté, égalité, fraternité has not banned prostitution since it believes such a ban may violate individual freedom. Doesn’t Sarkozy think that prostitution reduces women to servitude and undermines their dignity? Evidently he doesn’t.

But Burkhas may be banned pretty soon!

Monday, 22 June 2009

Book Review: A Nice Quiet Holiday


Lawyer turned detective novelist Aditya Sudarshan’s debut offering borrows at least one idea from Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations. A Nice Quiet Holiday has two men working in tandem not unlike Sherlock Holmes and Watson. The detective is a portly, courtly and old worldly Additional Sessions Judge from Delhi, Harish Shinde. Shinde’s law clerk Anant, the narrator of the story, is not unlike Watson doing most of the spadework for the Judge who prefers to be an armchair detective. No, Judge Shinde does not smoke a pipe or wear a bowler hat, he’s too Indian for that. However, just like Holmes, Judge Shinde is a student of human nature and does not hesitate to spout arguments and analyses at the drop of a hat (or turban if you will).

It was not just Arthur Conan Doyle’s creations that Sudarshan’s work reminded me of. The setting for the crime, a murder, is a family home in the foothills of the Himalayas where lots of friends, family and guests have gathered, smacks of something from an Agatha Christie, with a heavy Indian flavour of course. Except for the first chapter of the novel, the entire story is played out in that family home.

Sudarshan writes well, in simple English and in a manner that is both elegant and pleasing. In fact, his style of writing is good enough to iron over the few minor cracks in the story. For example, as Sudarshan explains, clerking for Judges is not a common practice in India, especially in the case of District Judges. However, Sudarshan’s style of delivery makes it look very natural.

One of Sudarshan’s achievements is that he treads the fine line between pulp fiction and literature very well. A Nice Quiet Holiday has all the ingredients needed for a best seller. It has a murder, exciting court proceedings, a tall and intelligent lawyer (the narrator), a damsel almost in distress, mob violence and a philosophising detective. Despite the presence of so much spice (or masala if you so prefer), Sudarshan’s fine writing makes it difficult to label ‘A Nice Quiet Holiday’ as pulp fiction. The best bit about this novel is that Sudarshan keeps us guessing till the end as to the identity of the murderer.

A Nice Quiet Holiday runs to 224 pages and the word count doesn’t exceed 50,000 (my own estimate). In other words, it is a fairly quick and light read and is ideal for train journeys. It wouldn’t surprise me if the judge and his clerk make many more appearances in Sudarshan’s future works and solve more crimes.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

After Cairo, Will Obama Back Up His Words With Actions?

There has never been any doubt that Obama is a good speaker and Obama’s Cairo Speech has only reaffirmed what everyone knew, that Obama is a master of rhetoric and linguistic finesse. With the exception of Churchill’s Blood, Sweat, Toil and Tears speech, I can’t think of any other address by any politician in the last hundred years that was so eagerly anticipated and which lived up to its promise. Yes, Kennedy’s Ich Bin Ein Berliner is equally important and memorable, but that was a one-liner and it is always easy to get a one-liner right, though Armstrong did goof up with his.

Obama’s speech confirms a clean break with past US policy on the Middle East, especially in light of his predecessor George Bush’s track record. Obama has made it clear that he does not think all Muslims are terrorists or that Islamic culture is not something to be despised or treated with contempt. It is only a small minority of Muslims who are extremists and Obama is very happy to do business with the rest, provided they are willing to meet with him halfway. To do all this, Obama did not hesitate to refer to his own Islamic background or to praise past Islamic contributions to art, architecture etc. Obama also promised to fight crude stereotypes of Islam and demanded that Muslim reciprocate in equal measure.

Can it be said that Obama spoke for all Americans? Can it be assumed that a majority of Americans are as appreciative of Islam as Obama is? I am not too sure of that, though it is clear than most Americans do want to make a fresh start.

A few times, Obama went a bit overboard in his speech, but I don’t think many people have noticed, though a few obviously did. For example, he said that the first nation to recognize the US was Morocco by signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796. What Obama failed to say what that Morocco was not an independent state and that the treaty was signed with the Pasha of Morocco who owed allegiance to the Ottoman Empire. Along with the other two Barbary nations Tunisia and Algeria, Morocco was officially in the business of piracy. Ships sailing in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic would be attacked by Barbary corsairs unless they were protected by a strong navy or had paid protection money to the Moroccans. After the US became independent in 1783, it no longer had the protection of the British navy and signed the treaty of Morocco under which it paid a large sum of money to the Pasha so that ships flying the American flag would not be attacked. A few years later, the Pasha wanted more money and there was a brief war between the United States and Morocco, following which a second treaty was signed. Whichever one of Obama’s speech writers thought this one up ought to be shot! In my opinion, the first nation to recognise the United States was Great Britain which, at the end of the War of Independence, signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783 under which the right to independence of the thirteen states that initially formed the United States of America was recognised.

Obama also said that America was founded upon the ideal that all are created equal. As far as I know, the founding fathers of America believed that all rich white land owning men are equal.

Obama said that he wants to create a nuclear weapons free world where no nation would have nuclear weapons and all nations, even Iran, would be able to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Splendid thoughts, but I just don’t see the US or any other nuclear power giving up its weapons.

I though the best bit of Obama’s speech came when he talked of US involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. And the worst bit, for me at least, was when he talked about Israel and Palestine. Obama rightly acknowledged US ties to Israel and the sheer horror and brutality of the holocaust. However he had me confused when he said,
On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people - Muslims and Christians - have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations - large and small - that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.

For me the way Obama used the phrase ‘pursuit of a homeland’ is worrying. You see, the Palestinians had a homeland before the Jews returned and it was the Jewish pursuit of a homeland (in my opinion, perfectly justified in principle, but executed with so many blemishes) that has caused so much misery to the Palestinians. Further some of the Palestinian suffering is the Palestinians’ own fault. But I just couldn’t figure out where Obama stood on all this. To me, it sounded as if he was trying to make a set of very safe statements without offending anybody.

Obama wants a Palestinian state and wants the building of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories to stop. Hurray! Very few people (like Libyan President Gaddafi) still believe in a one-state solution and I didn’t really expect Obama to do so. Obama doesn’t like violence (which he says is wrong) and he reminds Palestinians that all over the world, deprived and downtrodden people have won their rights through non-violence. Does the US have the moral right to make this statement when it is involved in so much fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan? I don’t think so. Mind you, I am not saying the US shouldn’t be in Afghanistan, only that Obama shouldn’t be sanctimonious and preach about non-violence.

From the time Israel won the six-day war in 1967, during which time Lyndon B. Johnson was the US President, the US had taken the stand that Israel should stop building settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Except during George W. Bush’s time, when the US was silent on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, US policy in this regard has not changed since 1967. The US has also always supported the idea of a Palestinian state. Bill Clinton (when he was President) actually went further than Obama did in Cairo and demanded that the Arab parts of Jerusalem (the Eastern bits) be under Palestinian control. Obama on the other hand was silent on the fate of Jerusalem, except to say that he wanted Jerusalem to be a secure and lasting home for Jews and Christians and Muslims, which doesn’t convey much. I would like to know if Obama believes Israel is entitled to the whole of Jerusalem. Or would Obama like to see East Jerusalem as a part of the independent Palestinian State?

If Obama were a doer and not just a talker, this is what he would do to force Israel to give up the occupied territories. Military and financial aid to Israel would be sharply reduced. No, I would not advocate a total cut since Israel does face many serious security threats and yes, it is in a very hostile neighbourhood. Hamas and Hizbollah would be recognised as legitimate political entities and treated with some degree of respect. Political parties in Israel which support the cause of an independent Palestinian state – I mean a fully-functioning state with its own armed forces and the right and ability to defend itself, not what Benyamin Netanyahu has in mind – will be patted on the back whilst the fundamentalists like Lieberman will be given short shrift. And all along, the US will keep reiterating the demand for an independent Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Yes, East Jerusalem should be part of the independent Palestinian state.

I am not too sure if Obama will do all or, even a part of, what I have mentioned above. The reason I don’t have much confidence in Obama is that I see him as a man unwilling to offend any one. And the Palestinian dispute cannot be solved unless the United States is willing to step on many a toe and twist many an arm.

Why do I say that Obama is unwilling to offend anybody? Look at Obama’s response to a totally different, but equally serious issue facing the United States. Yes, I am referring to the healthcare crisis facing the USA. Unlike Canada and all countries in Western Europe, America does not have nationalised healthcare. In the US, healthcare is provided by private institutions and is very expensive. Buying health insurance cover is a very common practice and most employers provide their employees with insurance cover. However, almost fifteen percent or forty seven million Americans do not have health insurance. Addressing this issue was a cornerstone of Obama’s election-time pledge to reform and change America.

And how does Obama address this issue? Does he want to create a country-wide, healthcare system akin to the British NHS funded by the taxpayer? No. Is Obama going to introduce legislation that will cap the total compensation payable in medical negligence cases? No, even though such a move would drastically reduce the cost of health care insurance. Does Obama have any plans to reform tort litigation in the US? No. The US is the world’s most litigious society. Unlike in the UK, plaintiffs in the US have an easy ride. Contingency fee arrangements are very common and attorneys will take on a case for no fees on the understanding that a big chunk of any compensation awarded will go to them. Contingency fee arrangements are totally illegal in India and are permitted only in certain limited circumstances in the UK. Further, even if a plaintiff loses a case which was proved to be frivolous, US courts rarely order the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s costs. In the UK, it is not only common for a losing party to pay a substantial part of the winner costs, on filing a suit, a plaintiff is usually asked to provide security for the defendant’s costs that would be payable if the plaintiff were to lose.

So, how does Obama propose to reform healthcare in the US? By introducing a government-run health care insurance plan that will apparently compete with private insurance plans. There is no guarantee that a government run plan will lower costs. “A Rasmussen Reports poll found that only 32 percent of Americans believed a government-run insurance plan would, lower costs.”

There is actually a very good chance that such a plan might turn out to be as expensive as private ones. It is very rare for any government in the world to successfully compete with private operators, even if it doesn’t intend to make a profit. In other words Obama does not want to seriously offend insurance companies or doctors or tort litigation attorneys who make a killing out of the present system.

If Obama is unwilling to say ‘Boo’ in the face of powerful insurance companies, will he say ‘Boo’ to Israel? Very, very, unlikely, I think.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Were the Iranian Elections Rigged?

Gideon Rachman, a very respected FT journalist thinks so.

According to Rachman,

The Iranian election bears all the hallmarks of a stolen vote. The official count has Mr Ahmadi-Nejad winning even in the home town of Mir-Hossein Moussavi, his main challenger. Mr Ahmadi-Nejad is said to have won even in Azeri-speaking constituencies, despite the fact that Mr Moussavi comes from an Azeri background. The official tally gave Mr Ahmadi-Nejad 63 per cent of the vote, which is way out of line with most pre-election predictions.”

Until I read Rachman’s article, I was under the impression that the media was wrongly assuming that the protests in Tehran meant the whole of Iran was in turmoil. During the time of the Shah, that is until 1979, Tehran was a relatively modern with a decent sized middle-class. It had discotheques and bars, whilst the rest of the country was very traditional. Even after the 1979 revolution remnants of that culture have survived through secret parties and tight-fitting jeans worn under the chador. It is therefore easy to assume that the desire for reform and change is restricted to Tehran.

There is a very good chance that Rachman is right. However, it must not be forgotten that (as mentioned in one of my earlier posts) the Azeris are a very well integrated minority and it may not be correct to say that the Moussavi is bound to get a majority in areas with an Azeri majority, just because he is Azeri. Ahmadi-Nejad has always been the rabble-rousing crowd-puller, ever willing to financially bankrupt his country with his populist policies.

Before I end, let me confess that I am no Iran expert and all my statements above are mere conjectures.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Romanian victims of Racist Violence in Belfast are mainly Roma

Belfast is supposed to be the racist capital of Europe. The recent violence against Romanians living in Belfast should therefore come as no surprise. On the night of 16 June, around twenty families consisting of about a hundred individuals were forced to move out of a neighbourhood and shelter in a church hall after a week-long orgy of violence targeting their houses.

Interestingly, most of the Romanian victims are Roma and look very much South Asian as this BBC video shows. I wonder if these immigrants were targeted because there are Romanians or because they are Roma.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Book Review: Rivals by Bill Emmott


Bill Emmott, a former editor of the Economist, has written various books, most of them on Japan. In ‘Rivals’, Emmott examines and analyses Japan, China and India, the power struggle between these three powers, their relationships with the west and tries to predict how they will shape up in the future.

Emmott raises scores of issues and pokes around in the most unlikely of places as he surveys the huge Asian landmass for the benefit of his readers. Is India likely to overtake China? Which of the three countries – Japan, China and India - will come off best in the struggle for pole position in Asia? Twice Emmott quotes a senior official at India’s External Affairs Ministry who told him ‘both of us (India and China) think that the future belongs to us. We can’t both be right.’ Does Emmott agree with this faceless bureaucrat? Was the US right in giving nuclear technology to India, though India is not a signatory to the NPT? Why does Japan refuse to make a proper apology for its war crimes during the Second World War? Should it do so?

Emmott picks out five flash points and danger zones in Asia where trouble may erupt, leading to involvement of world powers and a massive shake up of the world order. Surprisingly Kashmir doesn’t figure in this list, though Pakistan and North Korea do. Emmott’s analysis of North Korea is especially excellent and one gets to know facts about North Korea that aren’t easily available in the public domain for a lay person.

Through out the book, one finds various mentions of the War Crimes Trial held in Tokyo after the Second World War. Emmott, very rightly in my opinion, calls the trials a farce since it was more to punish Japan for using war as an instrument of foreign policy (something that Britain and other western powers routinely did) and having the temerity to attack the west (and western colonies), rather than for actual war crimes by Japanese soldiers. Emmott quotes with approval in more than one place the dissenting judgement given by Justice Radhabinod Pal, India’s nominee Judge.

‘Rivals’ is written in a manner not much different from articles carried in the Economist. There is no hyperbole or rhetoric or melodrama and statistics pop out of every page. At times Emmott presents facts (the contrast between the elegant and modern interiors of Reliance’s office at Maker Chambers IV in Mumbai and its rather dirty surroundings) and talks of his experiences in Asia (having a champagne and caviar dinner with communist politicians in Kolkata) in order to buttress his arguments. I was reminded a lot of Paul Kennedy’s ‘Rise and Fall of Great Powers’ as I slowly made my way through ‘Rivals’.

What I liked most about Rivals is that Emmott is very sympathetic to the point of view of each of Japan, China and India, without losing his objectivity. For example, while explaining that India is aggrieved by China having a seat on the UN’s security council, he says that “it feels especially odd to India that China became a founding P5 member when its colonial invader, Japan, was defeated, but India did not, though it dispatched its own colonial master at the same time, peacefully, as the UN Charter would prefer, rather than in war.”

Towards the end of the book and in some cases, even before that, Emmott starts setting out his various conclusions to each of the issues he raised initially. Emmott also makes various recommendations, addressed to the US and to the rising powers of Japan, China and India. All of Emmott’s conclusions and recommendations made a lot of sense to me. I sincerely hope that the powers-be listen to all or at least some of them. Rather than disclose what the extremely knowledgeable Emmott’s conclusions are, I’ll leave it to you to read this excellent book to find out for yourself!

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Short Story: The Trade Unionist’s Son

'I will have nothing to do with trade unions when I grow up,’ Bimal told his father with tears in his eyes.

The dramatic declaration only elicited a chuckle from Chittaranjan who fondly patted Bimal on the back and told him, ‘that’s fine. When you grow up, you can go into business and make more money than you know what to do with.’

‘And I won’t give you any!’ Bimal added in between his sobs.

‘My boy Bimal is going to be a big businessman and make a lot of money,’ Chittaranjan told his wife who was standing nearby. However, Chittaranjan’s wife shared her son’s resentment of his father and she refused to play along.

‘Don’t worry. He is only ten years old. Soon he will realise that there is no point in asking his father for anything. He might as well learn to fend for himself. Just like me.’ The last bit was added after a thoughtful phrase.

‘Come on. Don’t be so nasty. What do you lack?’ Chittaranjan asked his wife who gave a toss of her head and went back to her work. As for Bimal, he stalked out of the house, muttering curses about a father who could not buy him a bicycle, something which all his classmates seemed to have. Bimal knew exactly why his father could not afford to buy him the bicycle, despite being a supervisor at the jute factory. His mother’s railings against his father made it difficult for either Bimal or his younger sister to not know that Chittaranjan’s trade union activities had brought them all to the brink of destitution. If only his father had not been a unionist, he would not have been suspended from his job so many times, he would not have his salary withheld for such long stretches and he might even have managed a few promotions.

The worst sin committed by his father in his mother’s eyes was that he was agitating for the rights of workmen in his factory, even though he was a supervisor and was meant to keep the workmen in line.

Bimal never forgot how important it was to have nothing to do with trade unions. After he finished school and scored a very high rank in the IIT entrance exams, he opted for the IIT in Mumbai, rather than the equally good one at Kharagpur, just to make sure he was as far away from the corrupting influences of trade unions that permeated the state of West Bengal.

Every term break, he went home to be with his parents, more out of necessity than choice. He would have liked to travel around India rather than spend his vacations in Howrah, but he just didn’t have the money for it. However, he made it a point to behave like a tourist while he was with his parents. He pretended to not remember the names of any of his school friends, especially the ones who were around in Howrah, and whom he could have visited. When his father talked of his union activities which still took up a huge chunk of Chittaranjan’s waking hours, he listened with a very disinterested air, as though he were listening to a report on sub-Saharan Africa on the BBC.

As soon as he passed out of the IIT with a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering, he was snapped up by a Japanese car maker for its factory in south India. Bimal called up his parents to tell them the good news.

‘Son, I’m so happy,’ his father told him. ‘But I wish you had found a job in our state.’

‘Thanks to the unions, we Bengalis are forced to work else where,’ Bimal observed quietly.

Chittaranjan quickly changed the topic. ‘Who cares? Your starting salary is going to be much higher than what I earn after almost thirty years of service!’

‘I wouldn’t have achieved this if it hadn’t been for you and mother,’ Bimal had the grace to say, though he didn’t mean any of it. If his father hadn’t fooled around with unions, he would be earning a lot more than what he did now.

After working for three years in Chennai, Bimal persuaded his employer to sponsor him for an MBA at the Asian Institute of Management in Manila. Being an engineer was good fun, but management was where the big bucks lay. After his MBA, Bimal was given a two-year posting in Japan.

‘Why don’t you ask them to post you in India?’ his mother wondered over the phone.

‘Do you seriously expect me to prefer India to Japan?’ Bimal asked his mother incredulously. ‘In any event, I’ll visit you people once or twice a year, irrespective of whether I am in Japan or in Chennai.

Next time you come home, we’ll get you married,’ his mother told him gaily. Bimal promised himself that it would be a while before he went home.

Japan was a revelation to Bimal. Until he went to Tokyo, Bimal thought that Calcutta, Howrah and Mumbai were the most crowded places in the world. Tokyo showed him how even a clean and modern city could be so incredibly congested.

The people were unbelievably polite, but the food was horrible, so much different from what he was used to. Why can’t they cook the fish? Bimal wondered again and again when faced with a sushi or a sashimi.

The people were all law-abiding, but some of the rules seemed to be quite draconian to him. He was required to carry his passport with him at all times. This was a nuisance. Bimal knew how painful it would be if he were to lose his passport and had to approach the Indian embassy for a duplicate. He was relived when he found out that as a long term visitor, he was expected to register himself as an alien and obtain a Gaijin card. The Gaijin card too had to be carried with him always, but Bimal was sure that replacing the Gaijin card would be easier than obtaining a duplicate Indian passport.

Bimal made his way to the city hall, wondering how he would figure out where the foreigners’ registration desk was, since all the signs were in Japanese. He needn’t have bothered. A middle-aged man, most probably a bureaucrat, came up to him and asked him very politely in very bad English if wanted to register for the Gaijin card. It was plain sailing after that.

After a month in Tokyo, the trouble began. Bimal had another month to move out of the apartment arranged by his employer and find a place of his own. He was told by the first agency he rang that they had nothing suitable for him. They were very apologetic about it, the apology taking a few minutes of his time. The second agency was a little bit more curt, but they too did not have anything suitable for him. Could they take down his details and call him when they found something appropriate? Oh no! They could not. They were very unlikely to find anything suitable for someone like him. Bimal spoke to five agents with varying degrees of politeness before one agreed to find an apartment for him.

‘Why should I have so much trouble finding an apartment,’ Bimal asked a few Japanese colleagues who shrugged their shoulders.

‘You ain’t one of them man,’ an American in his department told him, when they were out of earshot of every one else.

Bimal was shocked. This was horrible. Why should Japanese landlords mind renting out to an Indian? There didn’t seem to be any answers on offer, until his agent told him very politely that all Asians, other than the Japanese, are very dirty. They cooked everything they ate in oil, didn’t they, which did not help keep the kitchen clean, did it? It took the agent almost three weeks to show Bimal an acceptable flat, though it was a basic affair with peeling paint in a predominantly Korean locality.

After his ordeal in finding a flat, Bimal tried to settle down in his job. He had to spend another twenty months in Japan before he could go back to Chennai and there was no point in moping about. He was learning so many things at his work place which more than compensated for the flat-hunting ordeal.

Even though Bimal’s neighbourhood was not at all posh, his ethnic Korean neighbours were very friendly towards him. Soon Bimal found himself reading up on the history of Koreans in Japan. Many of them had lived there for two or more generations, their parents and grandparents having migrated to Japan when Korea was a Japanese colony. A large chunk of the Koreans who came to work in Japan during the Second World War had actually been conscript labour. Even though they were all now eligible to become Japanese citizens, and many of them had accepted Japanese nationality and taken on Japanese names, they continued to face a lot of discrimination in all spheres.

Bimal found a Korean maid to clean his apartment and wash his dishes every morning. Soo was always cheerful and friendly and soon Bimal found himself looking forward to her visits in the mornings before he went to work. All said and done, Soo was the only local person other than a colleague whom Bimal had befriended in the last two months. Soo’s English was very rudimentary, but eventually Bimal worked out that she was taking classes in English in the hope of eventually working for a good hotel.

‘What sort of job will you get in a hotel?’

‘Oh! I be maid.’ Soo giggled.

‘Is it easy to get such a job once you learn enough English?’

‘No. Not easy. And I, Korean.’

Bimal was incensed. ‘You Koreans ought to form a union and fight this sort of discrimination you know,’ he said.

Soo was silent.

‘I could show you people how to start a union,’ Bimal added.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Short Story: He and She

Everyone said he was the best creative brain Agya Anderson had. No one ever called him handsome or even good looking, but when a jealous colleague suggested that he was the most eligible bachelor within the Indian advertising world, there were no sniggers. He was of less than medium height, his beard always unkempt, the grey hairs in them prominent and visible, his glasses always dirty and his hair always slightly longer than it ought to be. However, his clients ate out of his hands, the big bosses respected and trusted him and all the women in Agya Anderson’s Mumbai office had a crush on him. He was a loner and did not have a single close friend in the office. He had a past, they all knew that, but he never talked about his divorce even after a couple of pints with the boys after work.

Only once a month when his secretary placed the alimony cheque under his nose did he grumble and ask, ‘Is there any way I can avoid sending this cheque?’

And his secretary would soothingly reply, ‘we don’t want another contempt of court case against us, do we? It’s not really worth the trouble, is it? You won’t go broke if you sign this, will you?’

‘It’s the principle of the thing,’ he would say. His secretary would then sympathetically nod her head, but stand right next to him till he signed the cheque.

He would then moan, clench his jaw and finally sign the cheque, after which he would sit back as though he had just signed away half his wealth.

He was aware of her existence, but he ignored her as he did so many other people. She smiled at him a couple of times, once near the photocopier and another time near the coffee machine, but he refused to smile back. Finally she had managed to almost collide with him at a cocktail reception, the glass of Bloody Mary in her hand, mere inches from his dinner jacket. Instead of showing some gratitude for having spared him from a disaster, he bared his fangs and snarled, ‘you ought to be more careful.’ Which was very rude since that almost collision was so obviously contrived and nobody would have failed to notice that it was just a pass and nothing more.

That incident had the effect of hardening her resolve. A week later when they were all standing around the silver trolley, drinks in their hands, celebrating the scooping up of India’s second biggest toothpaste manufacturer, she went up to him and asked, ‘have you already put your very intelligent brain to work for these bastards?’

This time he had no excuse to be rude. ‘No, I haven’t,’ he said. ‘Not yet.’

She drooled over him. ‘I so wish I had a little bit of creativity in me. I would give an arm and a leg to be in your team.’ Conversation around them died. People were openly staring at them. Agya Anderson was a very liberal place by Mumbai standards, but such an open pursuit was definitely unheard of.

‘I guess I had a very narrow escape,’ he told her with a wry smile and ignored her for the rest of the evening.

She did not lose heart. She smiled at him whenever she could. If there was anyone else present, she made it a point to ask him a question, even though his replies were curt and snappish.

A month later, he came up with a brilliant campaign for the new client, one that had a three-year old girl walking around with a smile that made passers by blind. The client was delighted and the production team, in which she was a lowly assistant, went to work.

One evening after they had wrapped up a shoot at a local school, she went up to him and said, I’m likely to go broke in a month’s time.’ He looked at her with irritation, but didn’t say a word. ‘I’ve told the gang that I’ll get you to take me out on a date in a month’s time. If I fail, I have to take five of those good-for-nothings to the Dum Pukht for lunch.’ He continued to be silent. ‘That’s a month from yesterday,’ she added wistfully.

‘Why don’t you take them to lunch right away?’ he asked her and walked off.

Two weeks later, she had made no progress. The whole office was watching her lack of success with merriment. Unlike him, she had many friends in office since she always had a kind word for everybody. None of her friends understood why she was behaving thus. She merely smiled when they demanded an explanation. ‘But you are so very different from him, as different as chalk and cheese,’ they told her. ‘Even if you are successful, you will not be happy.’ She merely tossed out one of her warm and generous smiles in reply.

The month she had under the wager slipped away and she took her friends to the Dum Pukht for lunch.

‘You lost, didn’t you?’ he asked her when he met her at the coffee machine a day later.

‘Hmm,’ she said, her face downcast. Then she looked at him and said sweetly, ‘at least I tried.’

He turned his back to her and started to gulp down water from the Styrofoam cup.

‘You always drink some water before you drink coffee or tea, don’t you?’

‘Yes, do you mind?’

‘But why do you do that?’

‘Why don’t you do it?’

‘Because it’s not done. Just not done.’

‘And who says so?’

‘You Maharashtrians always drink some water before you drink coffee or tea, don’t you?

‘You’re well informed.’

‘Is it because it’s bad for the teeth to drink cold water after a hot drink?’

‘If you knew this, why did you have to ask me?’

‘Oh! Just polite conversation.’

‘Why can’t you leave me alone?’ he lashed out, the sudden burst of fury distorting his face. ‘We don’t have a thing in common,’ he added, a trifle gently.

‘Okay, I won’t trouble you ever again,’ she told him with very sad eyes.

‘Try not to forget your promise,’ he told her as he walked away with a cup of cappuccino.

She stayed away from him for a week, followed by another week. She looked away with sad eyes as he walked past. And then, he started to miss those conversations, those flirty comments, the obvious come-ons. It took him a few more days to realise that he had been a fool.

‘Listen, I’m sorry,’ he finally managed to tell her.

‘For what?’

‘I’ve been a nasty bastard.’

‘You don’t have to feel sorry. You owe me nothing.’

‘Like hell, I don’t. Listen, let’s go out for dinner today.’

She pursued her lips and pulled a face. ‘You’re kidding me.’

The whole office soon got to know that he and she were going around. She received numerous pats on the back and even more warnings. He is too selfish. He is not a one-woman man. He is too cold blooded for someone like you.

‘Oh, let me be,’ she always responded in her usual good natured way. No one had the guts to rib him about it though.

They maintained a professional relationship at work.

‘When will you tell your parents?’ they asked her.

‘Why should I tell them anything?’

‘What happens when they want you to get married?’

‘That’s a long way off. Why worry now?’ She could afford to make light of such questions since she was only twenty-six and her parents had given her two more years.

One day she told him, ‘why don’t you shave off your beard. You’ll look a lot better without it.’

‘Like hell I will.’

‘And you could cut your hair shorter.’

‘Go to hell.’

She never repeated those suggestions, but when he suggested that she move out of the flat she shared with a friend and move in with him, she refused. ‘Let’s carry on the way we are doing now.’

‘I’d rather have you with me all the time. I love you.’

‘So do I.’

‘So move in with me. And we should get married as well.’

‘No. I don’t think so.’

‘Move in now. We can get married later.’

‘I doubt it. I like you a lot. But I don’t think I can live with you forever.’

‘You mean, this is temporary?’

‘Well yes.’

‘But it was you who …’

‘I who chased you? Hmm, yes. I did do that.’

‘Why?’

‘I liked you. I was curious. And hey! I did give you a chance.’

‘What chance?’

‘Never mind. We are bound to break up. Eventually, that is….’

‘You mean you want to break up?’

‘Well, now that we’ve started to talk about it, we might …. we might just as well.’

‘So, if hadn’t asked you to move in with me, we would not be breaking up?’

‘Well, yes. Not immediately. But eventually we would have…’

‘What the heck do you want?’

‘Nothing. Not from you. Not any more.’

He walked away.

Two days later he cornered her alone. He had shaved off his beard and cut his hair short. ‘Let’s do dinner,’ he said.

‘What’s the point?’ she asked.

‘The only two things you ever asked me to do, I’ve done.’ He gave her the best smile he had in his armoury. ‘People are already laughing at me,’ he added grimly.

‘There are a lot of other things which I didn’t ask you to do.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like not dropping cigarette ash all over the floor in your flat. Like brushing your teeth in the morning rather than using mouth wash, like taking a shower more often rather than relying on a deo, like …’

‘I can do all that for you.’

‘Can you stop being so arrogant?’

‘You were just checking me out?’ he accused her.

‘Well, yes’ she agreed, giving him her usual warm, generous and good natured smile.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Is The Demand For Eelam Valid? A Response to Tamilnet’s Question

Tamilnet, the LTTE’s unofficial website has posed a question to the world at large. According to this Tamilnet editorial “the world has an obligation now to tell the Tamils whether its opposition is to what it has perceived as 'terrorism' or to Tamil nationalism.” In my view, this question assumes critical importance in light of the statement released by Selvarasa Pathmanathan, Head of LTTE’s International Relations Department since January 2009, after the LTTE Chief Velupillai Prabhakaran’s demise.

Selvarasa Pathmanathan, who is now the senior most among surviving LTTE leaders, has said that despite Prabhakaran’s death, “it is our undivided duty to keep the flame burning until the freedom for the Tamils are achieved.” Subsequently, Pathmanathan stated that “the Tigers would now use "non-violent" methods to fight for the rights of Tamils.”

If the LTTE and sections of Sri Lankan Tamils are to commence a non-violent movement for an independent Eelam, would they be justified? In other words, is there a case for an independent Eelam?

Just as the ends don’t justify the means, the means also don’t justify the end. Merely because the LTTE has decided to (or has been forced to) give up violence, its struggle for an independent Tamil Eelam in northern and north eastern Sri Lanka will not automatically be justified. It is imperative at this stage to objectively examine whether there is a case for such an independent Eelam. If a legitimate case for Eelam can be made out, the late and much lamented LTTE and the various atrocities which came in its wake (forcible recruitment of children, ethnic cleansing of Muslims etc.) should not be an excuse to prevent Sri Lankan Tamils from pursuing independence.

If it can be shown that an independent Eelam is justified, the world may even tolerate the use of force by Sri Lankan Tamils against military targets. There are numerous examples of insurgent groups which have enjoyed global support despite resorting to force. The East Timorese insurgents who fought a successful campaign against Indonesian forces come to mind. The LTTE itself used to enjoy a certain degree of support and respectability until they started to stoop too low. If a valid case is made for Eelam, the fact that India will find it difficult to accept an independent Tamil state to its south will be irrelevant.

On the other hand, if it is shown that Eelam is not justified, even a peaceful movement for independence should not enjoy any support or sympathy, though it may not be legally possible (or even correct) to stop or restrict such a movement.

Before I proceed any further, let me say that what I say henceforth are my very personal and very subjective views. A different person may, after examining the same facts, come to a very different conclusion.

It is a matter of dispute as to how long the Tamil and Sinhalese have lived in Sri Lanka and who arrived first. The Sinhalese are said to be migrants from eastern India who arrived over 2500 years ago. Tamil Kings led frequent incursions into Sri Lanka. At one point (during the 10th and 11th centuries), the Tamil speaking Cholas from South India had the whole island under their control. A large scale invasion of Sri Lanka by a King from eastern India in the early 13th century forced the Sinhalese to move to the west and south of Sri Lanka. There were independent Tamil kingdoms in the north of Sri Lanka when the Portuguese arrived in the early 16th century. The rest of the island was under the control of various Sinhalese Kings. The Dutch followed the Portuguese and the British arrived after that. The British followed a policy of divide and rule and favoured the Tamils over the Sinhalese. Tamils dominated the bureaucracy and business.

In 1948 when Sri Lanka got independence without a freedom movement, there was no demand from Sri Lankan Tamils for an independent state of their own. Nor did Sri Lankan Tamils identify with Indian Tamils, many of whom had been taken to the highlands in central Sri Lanka by the British to work in its tea plantations. From anecdotal evidence, I understand that Sri Lankan Tamils only had contempt for Indian Tamils, who were referred to as Indian ‘coolies.’ The movement for Tamil rights gathered steam slowly as the Sri Lankan government instituted various affirmative action measures meant to put the Sinhalese on par with the dominant Tamils. Sinhala was made the only official language of the country under the Sinhala Only Act of 1956. This legislation was partially reversed in 1958, just two years later.

The first call for Tamil independence and a separate Tamil state was raised only in 1973 by the great Sri Lankan Tamil leader Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam. Though this movement was peaceful, armed groups supported by India soon took over. One of the youths who took to violence was a shy young man named Thiruvenkadam Velupillai Prabhakaran who formed the Tamil National Tigers or TNT. The rest they say is history. You can read Prabhakaran’s life story in this excellent article by the inimitable DBS Jeyaraj.

The traditional view of a nation is one where a people are unified by a common language, customs, culture and territory to the exclusion of others. This principle was developed as various nation states in Europe come into their own at various stages starting from the Renaissance. If this theory is applied, Tamils can be said to be a nation, one of many in the Indian subcontinent. However, it is difficult to use this traditional theory in the case of Sri Lankan Tamils for various reasons. The main difficulty in applying this theory is that only around 5% of global Tamils live in Sri Lanka. With 60 million Tamils in India and around 3 million in Sri Lanka, it is not easy to say that Sri Lankan Tamils form a nation on their own.

What makes it even more difficult to apply this traditional test of a nation to Sri Lankan Tamils is that a large section of Sri Lanka’s Tamil speaking population do not consider themselves Tamil and do not form part of the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil nation’ that is seeking independence. Yes, I am referring to the Muslims of Sri Lanka who form 8% of Sri Lanka’s population. Of this, around 92% are Tamil speakers. Muslims form around 28% of Sri Lanka’s Tamil speaking community. You can find detailed statistics on Sri Lankan Muslims here.

Muslim Tamils in Sri Lanka prefer to be considered as Muslims rather than as Tamils, even though non-Tamil Muslims form only 8% of Sri Lanka’s Muslims. Not only are Tamil Muslims estranged from the other Tamils, in October 1990 the LTTE evicted over a hundred thousand Muslims from areas controlled by them in northern Sri Lanka. The Muslims forced out of their homes by the LTTE had only 48 hours to pack up and leave and they could only take with them three hundred Rupees each and some clothes. In 1972 when the infamous Idi Amin expelled the South Asian community from Uganda, he gave them more time (72 hours) to leave his fiefdom!

Even before resorting to ethnic cleansing of Muslims, the LTTE had massacred many hundreds of Muslims. Currently one finds many Tamil Muslims serving in the Sri Lankan army and intelligence services where their knowledge of Tamil is put to good use against the LTTE. This state of affairs further eats into the claim that Sri Lankan Tamils form a nation which is entitled to have a state of its own.

I found it interesting that a few renowned (now late) LTTE commanders appear to be Muslims because of their Islamic names. Names like Gaddafi and Lt. Col. Akbar come to mind. One of the most reputed LTTE fighting units was the Imran-Pandiyan Regiment, named after two of Prabhakaran’s bodyguards, namely Imran and Pandiyan. However, my research shows that Gaddafi’s real name was Amuthan and Akbar was the nom de guerre adopted by one Veerapathirar Pernibarasa. Like all other LTTE fighters, these two men had adopted different names after joining the LTTE. I do not know if Imran was a Muslim or just an alias. I’d be grateful if someone could enlighten me on this.

In my view, for reasons explained above, it is not possible to justify an independent Eelam by applying traditional notions of nationhood and statehood. The fact that at the time of independence from Britain, Sri Lankan Tamils did not demand a separate state of their own, only buttresses my view. If at all an independent Eelam can be justified, it can be only on the ground that Sri Lankan Tamils have been victimised by the majority Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan state and that the type and degree of discrimination and harassment faced by Tamils are at an unacceptable level and are unlikely to abate in the near future.

It cannot be denied that Sri Lankan Tamils have been discriminated against and subjected to state sponsored violence. As mentioned above, when the British vacated Sri Lanka, the Tamils dominated Sri Lanka’s economy and bureaucracy. Discrimination against Tamils stemmed from the apparent need for affirmative action that would propel the Sinhalese majority forward and place them on par with the relatively better educated and economically prosperous Tamils. Sri Lanka is not the only country to initiate affirmative action programmes. India has a number of such programmes at the central level and the state level. Interestingly, the Indian State of Tamil Nadu is one of those states which have aggressively implemented affirmative action programmes that have yielded good results with a certain degree of collateral damage. In fact, if one were to compare the affirmative action programme in Tamil Nadu with that in Sri Lanka, one finds many parallels.

At the time of India’s independence, the Tamil Brahmin community dominated Tamil Nadu. Most university posts, government jobs and other white collar positions were held by members of this community. A limited affirmative action programme had already been initiated prior to independence. However, in the 1960s, Dravidian parties like the DMK and AIADMK came to power and increased the tempo of affirmative action programmes. Total reservations soon went up to 69% and they still remain at this absurdly high level, the highest for any state in India. As a result of such an affirmative action policy, a large section of society belonging to lower castes and classes benefitted. I would say that social mobility in Tamil Nadu has been among the highest in India, on account of such policies.

Along with such an aggressive affirmative action policy, Tamil Nadu also took steps to promote the Tamil language. Not only did Tamils in Tamil Nadu successfully prevent the imposition of Hindi, they also elevated the Tamil language to the level of a deity and practically worshipped it. A Pure Tamil Movement was launched to purge words that had roots in Sanskrit from the Tamil language.

However, the impact of Tamil Nadu’s affirmative action policies on the Tamil Brahmin community was catastrophic. Many Brahmins were forced to migrate to other parts of India. Of the ones left behind, many were reduced to penury. On balance, I feel that the affirmative action programmes implemented in Tamil Nadu served their purpose, though the collateral damage was immense. What happened in Sri Lanka after its independence was not much different from the developments in Tamil Nadu. The minority Tamils were the Brahmins of Sri Lanka. The affirmative action policies promoted by the Sri Lankan government marginalised the Tamils and empowered the majority Sinhalese. I do wish that in both cases, the governments in power had paid some more attention to those at the receiving end. However, I cannot say that affirmative action is a bad idea in general.

Other than the collateral damage caused on account of affirmative action and the Sinhala only policy, the other major hurt inflicted on the Sri Lankan Tamil community was during the 1983 riots when around 3000 (the numbers are of course disputed) innocent Tamil civilians were killed. The riots followed an LTTE ambush of a military convoy in Jaffna which killed 13 soldiers. By all accounts, the pogrom was sponsored and supported by the Sri Lankan government and was in a sense very similar to the anti-Sikh riots that place in India after Indira Gandhi’s assassination.

What are the chances of the 1983 riots repeating themselves? The answer to this question can be found in a letter written by one Mohan Sekaram and published by DBS Jeyaraj on his website.

“In 1996 a raid on a Military camp in Mullaitivu by the Tigers, 1,500 soldiers were killed, yet there was no repeat of 1983, or for that matter since 1983 several thousand soldiers have lost their lives and we did not see a repeat of 1983.”

It must be remembered that Sri Lanka has seen a number of riots and insurgencies over the past 100 years, some of which didn’t involve the Tamils at all. Let me mention a few which I think are relevant.

In 1915, there were large scale riots by nationalist Sinhalese who targeted Sri Lankan Muslims who lived in coastal areas.

In 1971, the Marxist outfit Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna led by a Soviet trained youngster Rohana Wijeweera started an insurgency that sought to take over the Island. The government forces were caught napping. The Sri Lankan government was forced to seek India’s help. I quote from Wikipedia which says, “Indian frigates patrolled the coast and Indian troops guarded Bandaranaike International Airport at Katunayaka while Indian Air Force helicopters assisted the counteroffensive. Sri Lanka's all-volunteer army had no combat experience since World War II and no training in counterinsurgency warfare. Although the police were able to defend some areas unassisted, in many places the government deployed personnel from all three services in a ground force capacity. Royal Ceylon Air Force helicopters delivered relief supplies to beleaguered police stations while combined service patrols drove the insurgents out of urban areas and into the countryside. After two weeks of fighting, the government regained control of all but a few remote areas. In both human and political terms, the cost of the victory was high: an estimated 15,000 insurgents, many of them in their teens, died in the conflict, and the army was widely perceived to have used excessive force. In order to win over an alienated population and to prevent a prolonged conflict, Bandaranaike offered amnesties in May and June 1971, and only the top leaders were actually imprisoned. Wijeweera, who was already in detention at the time of the uprising, was given a twenty-year sentence and the JVP was proscribed.

Between 1987 and 1989, the JVP repeated its previous attempt and launched another insurgency in the south of Sri Lanka. This was at a time when Indian peace keepers where fighting the LTTE in the north. The Sri Lankan government crushed the JVP by using extra-judicial methods, which included killing suspects with ‘necklaces’. It was at this time that a young human rights lawyer named Mahinda Rajapaksa started his political career in southern Sri Lanka by working with the Mother’s Front and fighting for the rights of poor Sinhalese who were arbitrarily arrested by the security forces, only to disappear forever.

The point I am making is that it is not only the Tamils who have led insurgencies in the Sri Lanka or been victims of state sponsored violence.

According to the 2001 census, Sri Lankan Tamils form 11.9% of Sri Lanka’s population and 11% of Colombo’s population.

If a Tamil Eelam were to be formed in the north of Sri Lanka, there would still be many hundred of thousands of Tamils living in other parts of Sri Lanka who would become an even smaller minority in Sri Lanka. Unless those Tamil civilians are willing to give up all their properties and move to the north, they will be stranded amongst a hostile Sinhalese population and will continue to face the same problems, on a larger scale.

It is clear to a neutral observer that Sri Lankan Tamils do face even now some element of discrimination and harassment at the hands of the Sinhalese majority. On the other hand, South Asian standards for human rights, non-discrimination and equality are not particularly high and Sri Lanka does not appear to be below the South Asian median. In any event, I don’t think the discrimination faced by the Sri Lankan Tamil community is widespread or acute enough to justify an independence movement (peaceful or otherwise).

The LTTE, in the last few months before its extinction, was responsible for the death of thousands of Tamil civilians it held hostage as it battled the Sri Lankan army. Around 20,000 Tamils may have died in the final battles as the Sri Lankan army juggernaut rolled over the LTTE. This figure has been disputed by B. Raman, who says the numbers are likely to be much lower. In any event, the LTTE is, in my opinion, much more responsible for these deaths than the Sri Lankan army. To put matters in perspective, do remember that 18,000 French civilians were killed during the Battle for Normandy after the D-Day Landings (the 65th anniversary of which is coming up shortly), even though they were not being held hostage by the Germans!

The Tamils living in Sri Lanka are unlikely to have a rosy picture of the LTTE any more, after what they have suffered on account of the LTTE. If only the Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora in the West can be persuaded to not rekindle the dying embers of the insurgency, the Tamils living in Sri Lanka might be able to get on with their lives!