Monday, November 30, 2009

Three Poems

By Rajesh Singh

I Have a Wish

I have a wish
That when I go, people say
Here was a man
Who lived and died
For love every day.

He saw the stars and praised the sky
He heard the birds and cheered their cry
He smelled the breeze that touched his face
He felt the tears that ran a race.

He hid his sorrow under the bed
And laughed and laughed till others went dead
He cried a lot but when alone
His heart was butter though face stone.

He made blunders and was a fool
If only he wanted he could rule
He lived simple and thought high
He was a dreamer searching the sky.

Well, he was a good man
His void will be felt
Though with time
Like snow it will melt.


I Shall Sleep

A soft pillow of assurance
To place my weary head on
A soothing touch of affection
Over my brooding forehead
Give me these
And I shall sleep.

The free spirit of a chirping bird
The nimble feet of flowing stream
The serenity of an ascetic brahmin
The glow of a bud turning flower
Give me these
And I shall sleep.

The eyes that do not weep
The heart that does not pine
The lips that do not quiver
The mind that does not segregate
Give me these
And I shall sleep.

Love but not betrayal
Truth but not hurt
Relationship but not conditions
Calm but not deception
Give me these
And I shall sleep.


I Wish I Could Die

I wish I could die
Earlier than I will.

Dreams lie before me
Shattered like broken glass
Sparkling, tiny
Like distant stars.

Daylight is so wondrous
Delightful, spread of moon
Others may bask in them
I have my dark room.

Happiness is on wings
Grief lingers long
But the strength of pain
Supports life when pleasure in gone.

Nine Lives:
In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
By William Dalrymple

Rajesh Singh

Ordinary people, extraordinary tales

How do you look for the sacred in modern India? One way is to seek out the contemporary religious-spiritual leaders who have impacted society and understand their strain of thought. The other is to delve into ancient texts to grasp the beginning of sacredness and its journey into the present. The third approach is to study the life and times of saints of an earlier era.

And there is a fourth one: get into the soul of the ordinary, unknown devotee who battles his way in life, facing challenges as may come across ordinary, unprivileged citizens – all the while refusing to let go of the God that guides him and clinging on to It in the most irrational manner. These are the people who have kept religion alive, and they are the subjects of William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives.

Dalrymple is by now an established Indophile and author of acclaimed books – fiction and non-fiction – on India. This is a travel book in the conventional sense and the journey he undertakes is to understand what makes religion tick in a country that is as materialistic as it is spiritual. It is a difficult task, to say the least, and the good thing is that the author does not make it more daunting by drowning himself in the swirling waters of religious complexities. Instead, he leaves it to the nine devotees that he meets to tell their tales – unencumbered and uncensored, except when he holds back the identity of a few for the sake of privacy. This ensures simplicity and innocence.

There is variety here. The author profiles a Devdasi, Jain nun, Dalit transformed into God, singer of epics, Buddhist monk, Sufi saint, maker of bronze temple-idols, blind minstrel and a woman tantric who has found abode at the cremation ghat.

These are ordinary devotees the world passes by without so much as giving a second look. Yet, their stories, as Dalrymple illustrates, are fabulous and at times sorrowful. They are of a heady mix of blind but endearing faith in Gods and Goddesses. The Dalit dancer, for example is ready to forget the pain of his social status for the few hours that he transforms into Lord Vishnu and has the upper caste at his beck and call.

Devdasi Rani Bai, dedicated to Goddess Yellamma and doomed to prostitution by way of a `religious tradition’ takes it philosophically. Her devotion to the Goddess perhaps helps her mitigate to an extent the suffering and indignity of the life she leads; a life that she dreams will end in peace and happiness. But as a doctor tells the author, the young and good-looking Devdasi is inflicted with HIV virus, and is unlikely to live long.

Manisha Ma’s (in `The Lady Twilight’) is perhaps the most touching of all lives that Dalrymple profiles in the book. Manisha Ma is a tantric who lives with the Doms at a cremation ground in West Bengal. The chapter begins with an ominous quote from her: “Before you drink from a skull, you must first find the right corpse.” Can this be a human being – and that too a woman – living in civilized society? But when she takes you into her world, you see a different woman; one who encountered hatred where love should have been, before she found peace and happiness at the cremation ground in the company of a good soul and the Doms. She collects skulls not as part of some cannibalistic ritual, but because she believes it helps her visualize the Goddess. “…. If you awake the skulls through sadhana, and tame their spirits, they will give you more power and help show you the path… They help you to invoke her and call her to you.”

Well, we do not know about that, but Nine Lives certainly calls upon the reader to embrace it.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Prism, prism, tell me the truth

Tehelka as Metaphor
Author :Madhu Trehan
Publisher :Roli Books
Price: Rs 595

Rajesh Singh

It can be said with some amount of accuracy that true sting operations in the country began with Tehelka’s Operation West End that ruthlessly exposed the politician-bureaucrat-defence nexus in defence deals. The revelations eventually destroyed political careers, seriously dented the image of public figures and put serving defence officers out of jobs. In the process, however, Tehelka itself came under attack — and not just from the Establishment — for some of the dubious methods it deployed to expose the rot. While the powers-that-be ensured it was reduced to near decimation, few peers openly backed the organisation — peeved that someone among them (and not they) did something noteworthy, and also because they had reservations on the ethics of the operation. In the end, for all its faults and alleged linkages with a political party, Tehelka and its brand of investigative journalism became important enough to be discussed, debated and written about. The latest in the line is a 580 plus page book by journalist Madhu Trehan who, incidentally, can also claim credit for investigative stories through her path-breaking Newstrack video series.

While the book traces the sting story from the very beginning and rounds it up with the denouement, the account is more than a mere rendering of a by now well known episode. Trehan goes beyond the story, into the merits of the methods used, the innocence of some of Tehelka’s reporters and the wiliness of others, the revenge by the State, the desperation of financiers who were concerned more about their investments than the “path-breaking” journalism being indulged in by the group led by Tarun Tejpal. The book recounts the frustration of journalists who worked tirelessly and under fear only to see the credit hijacked by more savvy people, who finally basked in the glory of the after-math. Although (despite her best efforts to sound ‘neutral’) she comes across as an admirer of Operation West End, the book does give adequate space to dissenting voices. In fact, the author herself expresses unhappiness over certain aspects of the Tehelka approach, and is unflinching in her condemnation when she feels it is due.

Who then are the heroes and the villains in the book? Mathew Samuel is placed on the highest pedestal, higher than his bosses Aniruddha Bahal and Tejpal. The author deserves praise for pushing into the limelight a journalist who did all the dirty (and dangerous) field work that led to the scoop. While Tejpal went on to become a national celebrity and Bahal stayed afloat on the Tehelka achievements — writing a book and managing a website that (you guessed it right) specialises in sting operations, Samuel almost slid into oblivion. Unlike the other two, he is neither seen on TV shows nor is he on the lecture circuit. Trehan has virtually resurrected him in the memories of thousands of people who relate the defence rip-off with the likes of Tejpal and Bahal.

It is, thus, appropriate that the book is laced with conversations with this remarkable but, by the account provided by the author, an unassuming person whose faulty English lends credence to his naivete. Samuel did all the damning interviews and the secret filming of his ‘victims.’ He bluffed his way when faced with technical queries from senior defence officials, and courageously handled the articulate and sharp Jaya Jaitley. He knew all along that one slip on his part would not just doom the project but his own career as well. But, for all the simplicity, it is difficult to believe him when he says he did not know he was breaking a few laws in the process as well. He professes innocence, for instance, when he was asked in the Commission set up to inquire into the episode about the criminal codes. He responded by expressing a deep respect for the Indian Penal Code but added he knew nothing about them. All that he knew was he was doing his duty as a journalist and that it was for a greater good. When the counsel of an alleged middleman (in the defence deal) claimed in the Commission hearing that he tried to lure his client, Samuel with a straight face replied that he did not understand what ‘lure’ meant. On another occasion, to a charge that he had political leanings, he said he was unaware what ‘leaning’ was, reminding the Commission he had admitted earlier to a poor grasp over English.

While heads rolled after the exposé, the issue ironically led to a parting of ways among the people involved. Trehan chronicles the rift between Tejpal and Bahal — the former refusing to categorically back his colleague when asked whether he had sanctioned the use of sex workers as bait and whether he approved of it, and the latter cribbing that Tejpal had taken credit for work done by him, and completely shutting him out of the loop. Samuel himself refused to have anything to do with Tehelka after it was re-launched as a weekly magazine.

The author has been more than fair to all the key players of the episode, from the journalists involved to the victims. She extensively interviewed them to get their perspective, and sympathised with their plight, alluding in some cases that the punishment to the victims exceeded the crime. She has been equally harsh with fallacious justifications, questioning motives — whether those of reporters or the ones caught on tape. One detects, for instance, a tinge of pity in her tone for George Fernandes, who was dragged into the controversy although he does not once appear on tape; and for Jaya Jaitley who could have simply accepted that money was indeed taken and that it was normal for parties to accept donation.

Madhu Trehan says, “…there is great wisdom in looking at life in shades of grey. It is in the hazy hue of grey that you will find a crystal of truth.” Perhaps it is this realisation that led her to adopt the ‘Rashomon approach,’ where every participating individual has the opportunity, in hindsight, to reflect on what happened from his or her own perspective. One crime, many interpretations (and justifications). The legendary Akira Kurusowa would never have imagined Rashomon swamping a book on sting operations.

Finally, here is my Rashomon on Tehelka: The only other major sting operation it has done is on the Gujarat riots, a little over a year ago. Is it a mere coincidence that all Tehelka stings have targeted parties opposed to the Congress?

(First published in The Pioneer)