In Long Conversation: Daniel Lak

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Former BBC correspondent, South Asia


(On his two books - Mantras of Change and India Expressed - and issues such as Pakistan, Obama's foreign policy and the war on terror)


This is the fully updated version of the conversation

How did you get the idea of writing a travelogue like Mantras of Change?

I had the good fortune of being the BBC South Asia correspondent during the 90’s – first in Pakistan between 1992 and 1995 – and then in New Delhi 1997 onwards. So when you travel for a big media organisation you’re very lucky because you get to see every corner of the country and the society you’re covering. But, in broadcasting, you don’t get to use all of the material – the encounters, the peoples’ tales you gather along the way. And at the end of the 1990’s, the pressure was too great to really start thinking about some of those stories and how to share them with people. Penguin India approached me after I had written a few columns in Outlook magazine while I was in New Delhi. And thus, Mantras of Change was the end result.

The book is a reporter’s notebook of sorts over 8-9 years of travelling within South Asia. I was mining stories which weren’t used as broadcast tales or even the newspaper work which I did. And I really wanted to tell these stories. But these aren’t incoherent stories and neither are they particularly bound together. Thus the sub-title – reporting India in times of flux.

Mantras of Change was written during the early 2000’s and you’ve written about the Bangalores and Gurgaons of India. How have these hubs changed over the last decade?

For starters, there was no Delhi Metro and there were no malls when I wrote that book. Also, Bangalore was just about beginning to suffer from the impact of its success. In those days, it was possible to get from central Bangalore to Electronic City quite easily on public transport or in a taxi. Now, it’s almost impossible and the traffic problems are immense. So the explosion of industrial capacity there has not been met and still isn’t being met by infrastructural capacity. Despite its new airport and new roads, the state of the city remains the same. In contrast, Delhi has chosen a car route and a metro route and, though a lot is left to be desired, progress is being made. In 10 years’ time I’d like to be able to compare Delhi to New York or London.

Things seem a little gloomy right now but that’s because people’s expectations have been dashed and there’s a global economic crisis to make it worse and an unresolved war on terror. In 10 years, we’ll have new challenges and new things to feel optimistic about.

Although the writing in your book is vivid and descriptive, there aren’t any photographs. Was this a conscious decision so as to make your writing get noticed or you just didn’t have the time to click any photos?

We (the publishers and I) didn’t really talk about it. And that’s my fault because this was my very first book. I wasn’t if could write 80,000 or 90,000 words as I was used to writing short pieces for radio and television and the occasional 1000 word piece for a newspaper. So, I was very stressed about whether or not I could accomplish the task of writing a book that I didn’t think about important things like photographs and cover design, which I left entirely to the publishers. My newest book India Expressed doesn’t have any photographs either although I had contemplated the India. And one of the reasons why people like me often don’t use photographs is because we don’t have the specific visual images of some of the stories we are using. For instance, if I go and sit with the Foreign Secretary of India, and out of that comes a chapter on how India thinks of itself in the world, what would I use for a photograph? Do I use a photo of the External Affairs ministry in South Block? So I don’t know. And if you’re going to use photographs, they have to be extremely good and they have to be relevant to the stories you’re telling.

So unless you do research or legwork, and keep photographs or illustrations in mind, only does it makes sense to use them. Otherwise, you’re just doing a disservice to the book. At least, that’s what I think.But, in future, I am going to keep that in mind and when I travel around doing my next book – on the Indian diaspora – I am going to carry a digital camera and record every visual image I possibly can.

Your second book, India Expressed, tackles the subject of India again. How different is this book from Mantras of Change?

It’s a more coherent argument. And it’s an argument aimed at the wider world. I wrote the book keeping North American and British audiences in mind because these issues – India’s poverty, political instabilities, population challenges, nuclear weapons etc - needed to be raised over there. Nonetheless, this is country which is thinking about ideas which will take it places in the world. My publisher wanted a title which would make the book jump off the shelves. My title was The Awakening Giant which was a little boring and neutral. So I’m glad we went with my publisher’s title.

When I do interviews in America, Britain or Canada, they ask all the details about the book and the challenges that you raise. In India, they say ‘How can you we’re a superpower! We’re not a superpower!’ So it’s here that I experience a more negative imaging about India than I do abroad. And it comes from the very members of middle classes who often take exception to the image of India.

Since you worked in Pakistan in the mid 90’s, can you give us a sense of what Pakistan was like back then and what it is now – in terms of politics, civil society and its perspective towards the world?

To start with, I’m glad that Pakistan has democracy of sorts, back again. The great disease in the political life of that country has always been the army, which has ruled it for more than half of its independent existence. If there are problems in Pakistan right now, I’d put them down to the army. They needed to take the responsibility and the blame for that and, somehow, suffer for it. When I went to Pakistan in 1992, it was ruled by Nawaz Sharif. But, I also got to know the late Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari who is now President. Benazir Bhutto was campaigning very hard against Nawaz Sharif; doing something called a ‘long march’. Initially, I thought it was something heroic – like what Mao had done in China – but basically, it was roaming around Lahore and courting arrest in the Gandhian tradition. I quickly got immersed in the democratic politics of the place. The army, though powerful, had stepped aside to the let the politicians have their go. There was an election forced by the removal of Nawaz Sharif from power by the establishment. It was a legal move under the Constitution but was overturned by the Supreme Court.

I got a sense of Pakistan when I spent my first full year there in 1993. What a crazy place it was! But in those days crazy meant something different. There were five changes of government in one year. There were four different Prime Ministers, three Presidents and two army chiefs – in one single year. But through all of that it was non-violent. It was rowdy, crazy and rhetorically pointed. There was no television back then but interviews with international media were really pointed. People were throwing accusations around. The violence was the kind you’d see in India during an election; a bit of coercion and clashes between supporters but nothing widespread. I felt perfectly safe to travel all over the country. I interviewed everyone, from Islamists of the most virulent variety – who, incidentally, were running in the election – to communists, human rights activists and everybody in between, including Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Those were innocent times back then. Even though it was rowdy and there were tensions with India, there was a sense that democracy had arrived. And through democracy, Pakistan’s problems might be worked out. But then, every couple of years, the army would step in and, through the establishment and using the Constitution, would dismiss the Prime Minister. That was part of Pakistan’s Constitution which the army had insisted upon when it allowed Benazir Bhutto to come to power in 1988. As a result, to this day, Pakistanis have never voted a government out of office. Governments have always been removed via Constitutional or extra-Constitutional means. So when Gen. Musharraf launched a coup in 1999, I was alone amongst the very few correspondents in saying that this was not a good thing. Yes, Nawaz Sharif’s government was a disaster – there was corruption, there were economic problems, nuclear confrontation (with India), the Kargil war – but I still thought, if the Pakistani people were disgusted with the Sharif government, they should have had an opportunity to throw him out, as it happens in India. It never happened and that’s why democracy is so unhealthy in Pakistan.

Musharraf’s rule was an unmitigated disaster. I have nothing good to say about it. I have nothing but contempt for the army, Musharraf and the way they handled Pakistan during their years in power. The war on terror gave him a new lease on life thanks to former President Bush, which he shouldn’t have had. Because I think he was deeply unpopular before 9/11; his government had not managed to create the jobs that Pakistanis needed, to address the real problems of economic and agricultural decline. The fact that they didn’t invest in the irrigation system bequeathed to them by the British and relations with India were never repaired. And this is because the Pakistan army exists – solely – because of hostilities with India which it then, artificially, helps maintain. I think everybody, including my Pakistani colleagues, would talk about that. And I don’t absolve India of blame in the relationship either. But, I’d blame the Pakistan Army more than anything else.

Now we have a troubled sort of Pakistan – very unstable with lots of power outside of State hands. Even outside of the hands of the army. These are the beasts that the army has created from the Afghan war onward and, basically, stepped up during the 90’s during the so-called ‘war on terror’ with Al-Qaeda affiliated and other militant groups, about whom – let’s face it - the Indians feel rightfully angry about their existence. They do a lot of damage in India and in Pakistan too. Minorities in Pakistan – Shia Muslims, Hindus, Christians – and people who chose to stay back during Partition and are loyal Pakistanis, are often attacked by Wahaabi organisations. These groups are often very corrupt and make money through their connections within the Pakistan Army and because of heroin smuggling along the Afghan border. So, today’s Pakistan is an utter mess. And it’s the result of the army meddling in civilian politics and civilians not being allowed to be good at their job. India, from time-to-time, takes a mature approach to Pakistan where it realises that it has to put up with a bit. Not just with outrages like Mumbai, but a bit more than that. People like I K Gujral and Manmohan realised that a lot has to be tolerated in Pakistan to encourage the development of democracy.

But it’s hard to be hopeful about today’s Pakistan; the economy is in a mess more than we can ever imagine, people are poorer, there are no prospects for the young men who are being born, the birth rate is extremely high, agriculture is in a steep decline and nobody’s putting foreign investment in there to open factories. There are still call centers and IT businesses there. Frankly, I think Pakistan could be a lot like India if only its people could be free from this horrible spectre of Islamism and the army, corruption, and all of the things that have plagued them till date. There could be Bangalores and Gurgaons in Pakistan, for better or for worse, but it would be a welcome change from what’s going on now.

So would it be fair to say that the messy Pakistan of 1992 was similar to what India was in 1996-97?

Exactly. It was messy in 1992, but it was a mess that came out of democracy. During that period, it was a coming-of-age for democracy in India. And you have to go through this mess to get to somewhere. And let’s face it, democracy is messy and we journalists, broadcasters, bloggers and analysts like it that way. We don’t want to live in Singapore. We want to live in India and Pakistan where people are free to speak their mind. Politicians are free to split up from their parties – it can annoy us – but if the alternative is authoritarianism like China or Pakistan, we don’t want it. So I don’t like the Pakistan of today. Although, I’m hopeful that there is a semblance of democracy trying to take hold there.

As you pointed out, Musharraf got a lease on life thanks to President Bush and the war on terror. But now, President Obama has taken charge and has already told Pakistan to ‘behave’ itself. How do you see the Obama administration’s foreign policy shaping up vis-à-vis India and Pakistan?

It’s a complicated relationship and it’s not just the President who sets the tone. America has had a long-standing military relationship with Pakistan dating back to the 50’s. And this was a time when America was close the Ayub Khan regime and India was seen as being on the other side of the Cold War, even though it wasn’t. The American military still has important links in the Pakistan Army and still hopes that it can transform the army into a proper civilian military. And it’s not a lost hope. So those links are important. But, I think Obama realises that Pakistan’s instability and its inability to control (or lack of desire) the tribal areas. Many Americans, Canadians, Dutch, NATO and Afghan people because of what’s happening in the border areas. Many people are dying around world because of drugs produced in that area; because of lawlessness and all directly sourced back to the fact that Pakistan is unstable and its Army is cynical in its exploitation of that instability. So, I think Obama has crossed that idea. He has an excellent South Asia team which includes Bruce Riedel and Susan (although she’s a Middle East specialist) who have South Asia credentials. There’s talk of Richard Holbrooke being appointed to a South Asia brief in the State Department. India is going to have a problem with that since traditional Indian mantras are ‘Don’t touch Kashmir. It’s a bilateral issue.’ Well, the world doesn’t accept that. But, apart from this, Obama has a lot on his plate which includes Iran, the Middle East, South Asia and Afghanistan. Besides, his own country is in an economic mess. But I think he does have an opportunity to affect real change – in Pakistan and in South Asia.

And Obama’s Defense Secretary is Robert Gates, who continues from the previous administration. How do you think Obama’s defense policy will shape with respect to the war on terror.

Gates came in after Donald Rumsfeld had made an absolute mess of everything. In fact, he was the worst Defense Secretary in living memory – at least in response to the massive crisis of 9/11 and, subsequently, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, Gates came in as a pragmatist and a member of the old defence establishment that tried to maintain America’s multi-lateral links. So, I think Obama kept him on because, as I said, the Pentagon is an organisation that doesn’t change readily. Militaries don’t change readily – be it in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan or even Germany for that matter! Robert Gates is a loyal American who knows that Obama has a huge mandate in which change plays a major role. And Obama’s made it clear throughout his campaign about his intentions for Iraq, Afghanistan and South Asia. We’ll have to see what he does about the Middle East. But I think Gates will follow suit and will be an implementer of the change Obama talked about.

General elections in India are due in a few months now so what are America and the world’s expectations from India’s next government?

It’s now widely expected that India is a major player in the world. In my last book (India Expressed) I talked about India and super-powerdom and took alot of stick for that. But I still maintain that India is a global player of huge influence. It has to be involved in every multi-lateral issue – be it climate change or disarmament. So I think the Obama administration is looking for an Indian government which is aware of this. The Americans, Europeans and other major partners of India are very aware of what the political parties here stand for. And they are also aware of their limitations, given India’s coalition governments and India’s pressing demands globally for development and stability.

The world has a very sophisticated take on India now. It’s learning a lot more now in the last 10 or 15 years that I’ve covered this part of the world. Earlier, it was just about snake-charmers, famines and instability and now it’s a much more sophisticated take. So, in the next Indian government people will look for continuity of policy at a multi-lateral level and, I think, they’ll get it. Whether it was a Congress or a BJP-led coalition, there’s not much difference in their economic policy from 2003 to 2004, post-election. I don’t think the world has a horse in this race. Everyone knows Manmohan Singh because of his international experience. But governments don’t cheer for political parties in other countries because it s a losing game. I think the world is already making its plan for whoever emerges victor in the next election.

In India, the opposition has been quite critical about the Manmohan Singh’s government’s soft approach towards terrorism. Do you think the criticism is fair? Or is a mountain being made out of a molehill?

What emerged after the Mumbai attacks was that there was a lack of response by the security agencies. And we saw the same thing in the run-up to 9/11. I don’t know if modern democratic governments are really able to respond effectively to the horror that is terror. There was a great line written after the September 11 attacks by Robert Fisk which said ‘We thought it was nuclear weapons were our enemy. It turns out that it’s a box-cutter!’ That’s all it took to bring about that horrible attack. Similarly, in Mumbai, all it took was some people who were willing to take extreme risks and murder everyone inside (the hotels sic). I don’t know what government can be ready for that. You have to persist with doing what all governments are good at doing and i.e. intelligence-sharing, intelligence gathering and working to improve internal communications. And not many governments are good at that. It also means reaching out to communities – in this case, Muslims – and asking them ‘What can we do to help you isolate this phenomenon within your community?’ And I think that’s happening. I am very encouraged by the response of the Indian government to Pakistan and Islamic terror.

So far, there has been no backlash against Indian Muslims and, hopefully, there will be none. Manmohan Singh has spoken sternly and involved the world. He hasn’t sent any bombers on a fruitless mission to camps that would be inactive and result in a disaster that nobody would ever win from.

On a different note, the Indian media has come under scathing criticism for its coverage of the Mumbai attacks and other issues as well. Do you think that the criticism is fair and what is your opinion about the state of the Indian media today?

I’ve been a massive admirer of the Indian press. Many of the Indian newspapers and magazine – Outlook, India Today, The Indian Express, The Week, Frontline – are world class. However, television has taken a while. You don’t develop live television overnight. I am not a big fan of CNN or some of the BBC’s output on live TV either. What I know from the Indian media – and I know this because I have spoken to some colleagues who work for it – is that they too are aware to develop the instant analytical skills that are required for live TV reporting. And the curiosity about the country that anticipates challenges, problems and disasters ahead. So what I don’t see on Indian television today is the thing I see on the BBC and that is the considered report; you spend a week traveling somewhere, searching out information and talking to people who are affected by the situation and putting it together with craft and devotion. It is only after you’ve done this that you should have a live debate with talking heads, rather than just inviting a bunch of opinionated blowhards on air which, frankly, is not exclusive to India.

It happens to television around the world. But here, I don’t see enough of the conversation being setup first for the audience. I see opinions coming thick and fast; but it’s a stage and it’ll pass. Every TV journalist I know in this country wants to get out and get the stories and then hear from politicians or opinionators. That’s what I think will happen. What I would also to say to people who run TV stations is: pay your reporters well, have good travel budgets, keep your newsrooms lively and pay attention to your responsibility towards the country and keep the debate going

"Perhaps societies in political turmoil produce the best writing"

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(In conversation with Sunil Sethi, Senior Editor, NDTV and Anchor, Just Books)

You’ve been associated with the news industry for a long time now. How has the industry changed/evolved over the years?

Well, I started out as a print journalist with India Today in the mid 70’s. I was there for 10 years and was one of the founding members of the team. It was a very very different place then. There was only one TV channel – state-owned Doordarshan – and technology back then, as compared to today, was very primitive. We functioned on teleprinters. Phone very seldom worked. The communication problems were unbelievable by today’s standards. There was no fax – forget emails –and we had old Remington typewriters and no computers. So, the changes in these last 25-30 years have been absolutely extraordinary. And I think, largely driven by technology.

Apart from technological advancements, do you think that, editorially, TV news media has deteriorated or has it improved? And is there scope for improvement?

Well, there is always room for improvement in any industry. The thing about the media is it is both, industry as well as institution because it has great social and political responsibility. Yet, one must not forget that it is an industry driven by advertising. So, the challenge at editorial level is to somehow balance commercial drive together with judicial reporting and opinion. What has been staggering in the growth of television is the satellite revolution – as to how fast news, ideas and opinions can be transmitted. As we saw during the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The people who were trapped inside the hotels didn’t know as much as the viewers knew. In fact, it’s not only television but even a cell phone which has become a very powerful tool. So, the growth and the speed with which electronic media operates today is really fantastic.
However, it is also open to misuse. The competition – due to the growth in the number of TV channels – is so acute that often people tend to sensationalise or blow up inconsequential and really irrelevant news to gain TRP ratings. So it is this ratings which leads to this sensationalisation and subsequent lowering of standards. But, in the end – as in all flourishing institutions – the best, most competent and most fair always survive and succeed because, ultimately, what matters in the media is your credibility.

But these days most people criticise the media and say the standards (of news coverage) have lowered. Would you agree?

The media in India, just like in other parts of the world, is too big a place to generalise like this. Obviously, some TV channels are better than others. As I said it’s the credibility of the channel to report and to reflect opinion fairly, substantiate points accurately and with great speed. That is what makes a TV channel or a newspaper acquire that fantastic thing called credibility, which the quotient by which your reading or viewing audience will believe you. Of course, many people tend to misuse it as well. But, that has always been the case. When you’re reading a novel, you can either read a cheap, stupid and trashy novel. Or, you can read great literature.

Now that you’ve mentioned literature, 2008 was a great year for publishing in India. A lot of debutants, such as Mohammed Hanif, Aravind Adiga and Basharat Peer among others, have made a mark. What do you for see for 2009 and the years ahead?

I think there’s a popular view that, with the proliferation and spread of TV and digital technology, books will be devalued and that people will read less and less. I don’t think that’s true. For instance, when I started my weekly show Just Books six years ago, I thought translating books onto television would be a difficult job. In fact, I didn’t think the show would last six weeks! And yet, it’s six years and every weekend, without a single week’s break, the show is aired. So, obviously, there is a great thirst for books. And, for the written word. Not only for new ideas and information, but for the sheer pleasure of reading. If you look at figures for Indian publishing over the recent years, they’ve soared. There are more publishing houses in India today in search of new authors than they were ever before. A young journalist like Basharat Peer has given us such a moving account (Curfewed Night) of what it was like to grow up during the insurgency years in Kashmir. Or the proliferation of Pakistani writers; people like Daniyal Mueenuddin , Nadeem Aslam, Mohammed Hanif who have given us a unique portrait of Pakistan in their works of fiction. Hence, there’s always room for new voices and, in my opinion, the hunger for the written word will never die.

But even as publishing houses are sprouting up all over India, there isn’t enough coverage of books in the Indian media. Don’t you think coverage of books has plateaued if not declined?

I don’t think coverage has declined. I think, by and large, the coverage has been proportionately fair. On weekends, newspapers have a page or page-and-a half for book reviews.

But is that sufficient?

I think so. After all, if you wanted to read about movies alone then you would read a specialised movie magazine. You wouldn’t expect movie news to be splashed on the front page of the newspaper! So arts coverage, in some respects, may have declined. But, thank God for shows like Just Books. But most newspapers cover books and profile authors regularly.

But on news channels, one rarely finds books programmes.

Well, maybe because they are not easy to do. They are not instantly saleable or have that commercial cache that film programmes do. But, that’s not to say that there’s no audience for them and I do believe that there is sufficient books coverage in our weeklies such as India Today, Outlook or The Week. And newspapers do carry books news. Vikas Swarup’s Q&A - which is now Slumdog Millionaire – is a fine example.

Last quick questions: a) Are you planning to write a book yourself and b) which authors to look forward to in 2009?

I am always thinking of writing a book but I need to take time off from my journalistic and broadcasting commitments to be able to do so. I hope I will be able to do so someday. I have written books on Indian architecture and design. In 2009, the best books – particularly from fiction – will be from Pakistan. Perhaps there’s a point to this and the point being that societies in political and social turmoil produce the best writing. Authors like Nadeem Aslam, Daniyal Mueenuddin and Mohammed Hanif are the top literary stars of 2009.

Chat with Mohammed Hanif

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Author, A Case of Exploding Mangoes


What prompted you to write a such a dark and satirical novel about Zia-Ul-Haq? What was the basis for choosing the subject that you did?

I grew up during the time Gen. Zia-Ul-Haq was in power. As you know, he was a military dictator. You, probably, have not had the experience of living under one man's rule. So, it was a very bizarre time in our lives. I've always liked funny books, dark books and thrillers so even I wanted do try and do something like that.

The reason I ask is because the timeframe you chose for your book - the 80's - is interesting. A lot was happening in other parts of the world as well. The Soviet Union was about to collapse, there was a conflict raging in Afghanistan and Pakistan's relations with India weren't as good. Didn't these - or other subjects - interest you?

Well, basically, I wanted to write a murder mystery. And this has been a mystery in Pakistan as to who killed this guy? I mean, he was the all-powerful man in Pakistan for 11 years and people thought he is never going to go away. Suddenly, one fine day, his plane blows up and he dies. And nobody ever found out what might have happened. It was established that it was sabotage - that somebody had bumped him off - but nobody knew who. So, it's a readymade murder mystery. And I just thought I'll resolve it in a fictional way.

Evidently, your book reflects a lot of dark humour. What sort of books did you read and did those reading influence you while writing this novel?

Actually, I think more than books it's the talk on the streets which influenced me. During Gen. Zia's time, we had total censorship in Pakistan; whether it TV, newspapers or magazines, everything was censored. One could read books as long they weren't anti-government or anti-Zia. So, during that time, a sort of oral culture evolved. People would start rumours or jokes - and this was much before emails or SMSes had come about. So, it was quite strange that somebody sitting in Karachi would start a joke and, the next day, you'll hear it in Peshawar. Hence, this was a way for people to channelise their frustrations. I suppose it was also a kind of resistance. I guess that might have influenced the way I write.

A prominent Indian author, Chetan Bhagat, once said that, when you write your first novel, you put a lot of yourself into it. How much of yourself have you put into A Case of Exploding Mangoes? And does that reflect in any of the characters?

Sadly, no. I had a very boring and dull life. I never got into the kind of troubles that some of my characters get into. But, I have seen and observed people like that; I've read about them and met them. So, no, it's not autobiographical. But, obviously, a lot of the characters have been inspired by the kind of people I have met.

Any examples of such characters?

A lot of political prisoners in Pakistan. There were also some people who were trying to overthrow Zia and were killed. So, one keeps hearing about such people and reading about them in newspapers.

Which character from the book do you like the most?

Without doubt, Zia-Ul-Haq.

And apart from him? What about the protagonist?

I think I like the protagonist's father, Col. Shigri, who's this old-fashioned father figure sort of guy. He's only there for a chapter-and-a-half but I quite like him.

As we know, first time authors find it difficult to get their work published. Did you also face any such problems?

No. In fact, I was quite lucky. I sent it out to a couple of agents. One of them liked it, signed me up and then she did the rest. It actually happened pretty quickly. It probably doesn't happen very often but I guess I just got lucky.

You know, after the success of this book, the joke doing the rounds was that since Mohammad Hanif is shifting back to Pakistan, he might do a sequel with Pervez Musharraf. Any such plans?

(laughs). No. I think Pervez Musharraf is far too dull. And I don't think any sort of fictional treatment would be possible.

But a lot had happened during his regime.

I guess one could start a mini-industry if one starts writing about all the assassinations that have happened in India and Pakistan! But, I think I've done one and that's enough. I'll probably try and write a different kind of book next time.

So what are you writing next?

Well, I'd say I'm trying to write. It's a love story but it's just begun so I don't know what's going to happen.

Will it remain just a love story or will it have shades of crime and humour as well?

I don't know myself! I hope it will be funny or sad or have some emotion in it. But, its still early days so I really can't say what happens next.

The buzz is that 2009 will be the year of Pakistani writing. From Pakistan - and from India - which author(s)' works are you looking forward to? And who's works have enjoyed reading in the past?

I read a lot of Urdu writers. I have just finished a novel by Mirza Athar Baig which was just fantastic. I haven't read much Hindi literature but there's this Malayalam guy who's works have been translated into English. I also enjoyed Vikram Chandra's short stories, Love and Longing in Bombay. From Pakistan, I waiting for Daniyal Mueenuddin's book to come out (In Other Rooms, Other Wonders). I have read a few stories which I think are absolutely fantastic. Kamila Shamsie's book new book is coming out. I have read the manuscript and I think it's quite emphatic.

Interview: Sanjoy K Roy

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Director, Jaipur Literature Festival

(Many people have been asking me what the litfest is all about and how it started. Who better than the festival director himself to answer these queries)

How did the concept of the Jaipur Literature Festival strike you?

It actually started as the Jaipur Virasat Festival (JVF) many years ago. Faith Singh was the JVF trustee and she saw what we did at the Edinburgh, Hong Kong and South Africa festivals and she approached me. We helped her initially to setup a festival, which was a performing arts festival where a small literature segment was introduced three years ago. At that time it was a very small section…maybe a few writers in conversation and not much more.  Because the festival was going through some difficulties, last year, we took it over and decided that the one way to grow a festival is to just make it mega. And the minute that happens, the scales, though daunting, sometimes tend to work because you are able to attract people to support you.

Last year, we decided to split the festival and now, the JVF happens in March. We did the literature festival and brought in the world - some 60 odd authors, incredible music and lots of audience. This year, it’s gone through the roof! We’ve got 167 authors and delegates have come in from Canada, France, the UK, Australia, and China. And this, in spite of the meltdown.  Mostly, I think because, when you engage with literature on a platform of this kind, you start reading and think why the world is what it is. And such a platform is rare because we are a very democratic festival. We don’t have green rooms where you tuck away authors. If somebody doesn’t want to interact, he/she goes back to the hotel. But mostly, everybody sits around. So, I don’t think there are any other festivals of this kind. You have to pay to attend the Galle (Sri Lanka) and Edinburgh (UK) festivals. I’ m not saying paying is a bad thing. In a sense, it’s a good thing because you’re dependence on sponsorships reduces to some extent. But I think in India, where you’re looking to making it accessible to different kinds of audiences – and we really have different audiences – such as local people and young people who, otherwise perhaps, would not come. And our philosophy is: catch them young. If they start reading, they’ll start thinking, if they start thinking, maybe you’ll have less violence!

Last year, you had Aamir Khan in attendance and this year, you had Amitabh Bachchan at the festival. Do you really think you need movie stars when there well-known authors in attendance?

Not at all. Stars are really accidental in a sense and, most of the times, not necessarily programmed by us.  Osian’s, who are our presenting sponsors, were bringing out a book on Amitabh Bachchan (Bachchanalia) and, therefore, wanted Amitabh Bachchan to come. It wasn’t a strategic thing to invite Amitabh Bachchan to draw crowds. Yes, if we get Amitabh Bachchan we will get crowds – but of a different kind.  Maybe some of them will be interested in literature. But, on the other hand, we have Nandita Das, discussing her movie Firaaq.  Vikas Swarup will be discussing Slumdog Millionaire and his novel Q&A and Deepti Naval will be reading some of her poetry. So, it’s really about creating the widest possible access to the widest possible audience base.  So if an audience is interested in Amitabh Bachchan and his book, for us literature, so why not? Similarly, if somebody is interested in Deepti Naval’s poetry, why not? At the end of the day, even film comes from the written word – you need a script and therefore you get a film. We even have food writing at the festival; Manju Malhi, who hails from England, writes about Indo-Brit cuisine. It’s ,again, very much part of what we think is literature.

 Your community on Facebook suggests that you target a lot of Delhi University students. Is that a conscious attempt?

Yes. This year, we have issued 67 bursaries to students across the country. These have gone through the British Council, Delhi University, Jamia Millia Islamia and Jadavpur University among others.  We are keen to bring young people together.  We are keen to make this festival, a festival of young energy.

Your festival features a lot of high profile authors such as Mohammed Hanif, Chetan Bhagat, Shashi Tharoor. Do you think this is an appropriate forum for aspiring writers?

Yes, I think so. There are a lot of people here who have not necessarily done a lot of writing. The criteria we keep in mind is- Is the book interesting? Is the author interesting? Is the issue that the book and the author are addressing, interesting? Does it fit into the broad themes (oral traditions, war on terror, travel etc.) that we’ve got?

You mentioned War on Terror and it struck me that, in the original schedule, Ahmed Rashid was supposed to be at the festival. But now he’s not. What happened there?

He said that he personally had an issue about coming right now.  He had some family commitments that came up last-minute.  We were very keen to get Ahmed here because of his new book (Descent into Chaos) which was a reflection of the incredible times we live in.  But, maybe, next year.

So this year it was 167 authors. What can one expect next year?

Not more than 60-70 authors. We’ve already got acceptances from Orhan Pahmuk, Zadie Smith, Neil Ferguson and Kiran Desai. We’re looking to get J.K Rowling and Strobe Talbott.  But not as many as this time. It’s expensive.

Lastly, why Diggi Palace of all places?

It represents a little bit of Jaipur. It has romance, architecture, passion. It’s got three wonderful places where we can host reading sessions (Durbar Hall, Baithak and Mughal Tent). It’s exotic in a sense. And it’s really a platform; within one space, it captures everything that we want to do without making necessarily overpowering.  There are other wonderful venues which could be daunting, but this has got a very democratic feel, in spite of it being a haveli.

More about the Diggi Palace here

Interview: Sam Miller

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Author, Delhi: Adventures In A Megacity (Penguin India, Rs 499) and Former Managing Editor, BBC, South Asia

(On the Delhi of today and the yesteryears. And the current stalemate in India-Pakistan relations)

How and why did you start writing this book? What was the inspiration behind it?

I lived in Delhi in the early nineties and, to be honest, I hated it. I really didn’t like it in the city and I was posted back by my employers, the BBC, by the end of 2002. And to my surprise, it was a different city from the one I knew. It was a much more interesting city and I set out to try and find why and what had happened. I love walking and I don’t believe in researching about a city by reading books or talking to experts. I believe in walking, talking and meeting people.

It was also a very good way of improving my Hindi. But, basically, I walk the city streets in a route which I describe in the book, trying to explore what has happened to this extraordinary city and the most important thing was that, in many ways, it had become a world city. Before, it was quite a parochial place; rather small and dominated by an elite and, to a large extent, by a single community. Even now, it is still dominated by the rich and the elite but there are lots of different groups and elites. It is a very interesting place. It’s a place which feels it is moving ahead. It is not dominated by a single community any longer. Unlike other Indian cities, it has the right to decide its own fate because it has its government. I think all of these are positive signs. It’s far from perfect but that’s what interests me about it.

But the government in Delhi doesn’t have real powers. For instance, the Delhi Police comes under the Union Home Ministry, the DDA (Delhi Development Authority), which is responsible for the city’s urban development also comes under the Union government. Wouldn’t you say, then, that the government is a bit toothless?

Yes, its powers are not complete and they are not total. But they never are within a country. I would say look around in Bangalore, Calcutta, Bombay and look at how many of their problems are caused by the fact that they can’t make decisions the kind that Delhi can for itself – and make them quickly. And I think that’s been unfortunate for most of those cities. I think Bombay knows very well why it’s unfortunate. But, I think it is also very important for other reasons.

I think it’s important for the identity of the city. It is all about beginning to feel a loyalty towards the city. If they have a loyalty towards the city – and I don’t mean nationalism by that –then they will care about it. And unless a city’s citizens care about it, it will be a terrible place. And that is fundamental which people forget at their peril.

After the Bombay attacks, we saw citizens of the city actively protesting against the establishment. In contrast, after the September 2008 blasts in Delhi, nothing of the sort happened. In that sense, do you think Delhiites are laidback and just like to go with the flow?

I think there’s a real problem in Delhi that there is much less of a civic sense in the city and that has been damaging. I think it has improved a bit but still, people tend to care about their particular local area. So these RWAs (Resident Welfare Associations) have become a lot more active over the years. But, the attitude is ‘This is my turf and I’m trying to make it nice’. In comparison, Bombay has a much longer history of being a big city and of concerned citizens taking to the streets when they think there is something important to argue and demonstrate about. But, what they were also expressing were their powers to do anything and their discontent with the situation. So, the comparison to Delhi is interesting but not on a level playing field.

One of India’s veteran advertising professionals, Prahlad Kakkar, described Delhi as a city of jugaad (in local dialect, this is interpreted as fixing). Would you agree?


I think there are still a lot of fixers around but, no, it’s much more than that. Any of the old definitions of the city are wrong now only because they are incomplete. Delhi used to be described as a set of villages or as a retirement home for bureaucrats or just a sort of a ‘babudom’ place. Obviously, there’s something in all of that but there’s so much more. It’s a city of more than 15 million people; probably more than 20 million if you include Gurgaon and other suburbs. Now, no one is suggesting that there 20 million fixers. Remember, that more than half the population are children or recent migrants. And that dramatically affects the complexion of the city. And yes, there are a lot of fixers around. There are companies in Bombay that have their fixers in Delhi to get permissions. But, more and more companies have set up offices in Delhi because it’s an important city in its own right.

Someone I spoke to was praising elements of contemporary Delhi, such as the Delhi Metro. Do you fear that due to the development of contemporary Delhi, the city’s rich heritage and culture maybe forgotten?

I think such a fear does exist. There was a mosque – or half-a-mosque – that I used to visit on my walks which was demolished or razed forever 15 months ago. I tried to get people interested in it, but they weren’t. Delhi is so rich in history that there’s a kind of blaazeness about it – people just think ‘how does it matter if some old building goes?’ I think that’s very sad because these things can never be brought back.

That said, it is the richest megacity in world in terms of historical monuments and that shouldn’t be forgotten. No other city, which has a population of over 10 million people (except, maybe, for Cairo), has such a range. So it is an important subject. But I think there’s a kind of maturity, which means that they are recognising that as an issue. And, not just sentimentally. But, I do despair for the minor monuments. I think more will disappear.

What is your opinion about the political nature of Delhi?

In some ways, it has become less political. When I was there in the nineties, the political elite and the bureaucrats were dominant figures on the social scene. Some high-profile secretary would always be attending some high-profile party. Now, who cares! It’s not a big deal anymore! There are all types of people. There’s a much bigger international community. There’s a much bigger elite community from the rest of India; not just the old Delhi families or people directly connected with politics. Of course, it’s the national center for politics and will remain so and that colours it. But it has outgrown it. It’s sort of sold one of its few descriptions.

So would it be fair to describe your book as a travelogue or as a wanderer’s findings about the city?

I would describe it as an attempt to describe a modern city. That I did it by way of wandering is my way doing it. Others do it in different ways. But, the key is to try and understand what makes our modern cities change and try and think how we can make them better in future. I’ve raised a few questions and got a few amusing stories to tell about what is an extraordinary city – with still a lot of wrong with it.

On a different note, after the Mumbai attacks, India-Pakistan relations hit a stalemate. This time, war is not an option; diplomacy doesn’t seem to be effective. How do you think this stalemate will end in a manner which is satisfactory to both countries?

I don’t think it will end in the kind of resolution you’d like. Key constituencies in both countries don’t want this stalemate to end. I think there is a lack of sophistication and knowledge in India about Pakistan. I wish more people would travel there and meet people. This festival (Jaipur Literature Festival) is a great opportunity to meet people from Pakistan.

My old friend from the BBC, Mohammad Hanif, has written an exceptional novel about modern Pakistan, (A Case of Exploding Mangoes) which shows that the country is just as vast and complex as India and we should stop thinking about it in binary terms. It has a range of people and ideas that you would expect from any country of a 170 million people. There are people there who hate India. I don’t think they are huge in number though they’ve caused a great deal of damage over the years. But, we can’t blame all of Pakistan and say that all people in government and civil society were directly involved in what happened in Bombay. It is very clear that some Pakistanis were involved, and that needs to be dealt with. But trying to tar everyone with the same brush will only make the brush useless.

Pakistan’s President, Asif Ali Zardari, described these terrorists as ‘non-state actors’. Do you really believe that they were just non-state actors?

I don’t know enough about it. But, according to my instinct, I think the people who trained these terrorists were, at some point, associated with the State directly or indirectly. However, I think it is very unlikely that a senior person, who is now part of Pakistani bureaucracy, gave an order for this to happen or organised this happening. I can’t swear it’s not the case. But that’s what my instinct and sense of knowledge about Pakistan tells me. Strangely enough, the confession that was printed of the one terrorist who was arrested rang true. He described how he became a terrorist and how he did what he did. It was a slightly banal story.

I haven’t read Tarun Tejpal’s book (The Story of My Assassins) but I think it’s important to understand what makes people into killers. And that every killer was once a sweet, smiling kid and what happens in between. If we don’t understand that we’ll have them haunting us wherever we go, as we have done for centuries.

President Obama has taken over from President Bush and, already, he’s reprimanded Pakistan. How do you see Obama’s foreign policy shaping up vis-à-vis Pakistan, India and the war on terror?

I think he will be driven by a much wider picture than the previous president and his team and not by what India and Pakistan want. India and Pakistan want people to agree with them and they’d win a moral victory. I think Obama is committed to trying to find ways of making the world a safer place. And if the means of doing that offend or delight India, is not really the point. India is a major world player and will be listened to by many other other countries. But the task that Obama has set himself is to make the world a safer place. And he needs to find a way of doing that.

In the current mess that Pakistan is in right now, do you think that there will be a coup and the army will assume direct control of the country? Or will the civilian government remain in power for a while?

I’ve got no reason to see a coup happening immediately. I think it would be very unpopular in America. I see no particular reason why it should happen now, but, there will be a coup sometime. We’ve had so many of them in the past. There’s no reason to think that the army is permanently out of politics.

The reason I ask is because India doesn’t know who is in control there. The President makes a statement one day only to be contradicted by the Prime Minister the next day. At least when Pervez Musharraf was in power, India knew who it was dealing with.

(Laughs) The only people in the world who are missing Musharraf are the Indians! There is this bizarre irony! Of course, when you have a dictator there is clarity in the command structure. Zardari is not a natural politician or a natural diplomat as anyone who’s seen his appearance will know. He admits that there are parts of the country which he doesn’t control. And he may not have a very good handle on making sure that everyone in the government speaks in one voice. But that’s not a reason to want a coup! I think democracy is again proving itself as not the very best of alternative options of government in Pakistan. And it forces the political community to take responsibility for what they’re doing. But, he (Zardari) is not in control of his country, he knows it and he says it. India has got to understand that he may not speak the truth about everything but he’s being very frank about it – he does not totally control the whole country.

Let’s just remind ourselves of what the Indian Prime Minister said some time ago. He talked about Naxalites in India who are playing a major role in a quarter of the country. So, it’s important not to become too high and mighty about this issue (of internal control). There are lots of serious problems here and in Western countries. And it’s very rare that a government or a Prime Minister feels in total control.

India will soon witness a general election in the next few months. What sort of government does the West expect from us? Would they like Manmohan Singh back as Prime Minister?

I don’t think the West has thought terribly deeply about this. I think most governments – if they’ve got existing good relations with the country – are happy to continue it. I don’t think there are major problems. India is seen as a bit prickly at international fora but much much better than it used to be in both, Congress and BJP times. In American and in Britain, it onside in the battle against terrorism. Whether that’s a good thing or not is another matter. But, obviously, there has been a closening of relations with America which is important. But, I don’t think there are preferences in terms of BJP or the Congress. I think what they want is a degree of stability. I think the idea of instability – political and economic - in India would worry them a lot.



The one issue that has defined this government has been the Indo-US nuclear deal. Do you think it has overshadowed or, in a sense, affected India’s bilateral relations with other countries such as Russia or China?

I don’t actually think it’s a major worrying issue for other countries. I think it was being made a bigger fuss of in India than anywhere else. It didn’t attract the kind of attention in America as it did here. I don’t think it was that kind of an issue. I think a lot of it here was about people dealing with old business and to which side you were on – stuff related to the cold war times. The debate here was about how close you get to your own enemies. The Left, in some ways, couldn’t stand it in their guts even if they saw some logic in it (the deal).

I think the Indo-US nuclear deal is a bit of a mistake to see it in global strategic terms. I don’t think it’s hugely significant. It is significant in terms of India’s attitude towards the rest of the world and its relations with the greatest powers of the world. Also, what this deal has also done is that it has de-hyphenated India-Pakistan as one subject. And it is India which has done it; not the rest of the world. And India should have done this a long time ago. Compared to India, Pakistan is a small country. India always behaved as if Pakistan was its equal and lowered itself to have an archaic battle at international fora about the wording on Kashmir which most people don’t understand. It’s just too complicated for even professional diplomats. For instance, the British Foreign Secretary (David Miliband) was unwise to say what he said. But, overall, there’s a sort of maturity about Pakistan and let’s see if it goes away again.

(There's also a facebook group for Delhi: Adventures In A Mega City. Click here to get re-directed)

Interview: Siddharth Varadarajan

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Associate Editor, The Hindu

(On how to become a political writer, state of the Indian media, relations between India and Pakistan and Obama's foreign policy for the next for four years)

A lot of young people today are interested in political commentary and analysis but don't know how to do it. As someone who reports and writes on these matters, what insight can you offer?

In the old days, anybody aspiring to be a commentator or writer on politics or international affairs was, by and large, constrained by the lack of a platform other than that of a daily newspaper or a weekly magazine or, if you're an academic, you had academic journals. Invariably, for most of these forms, politics and foreign policy were fields that journalists got to write on after putting in years of hard labour doing crime or city reporting. 

But most people don't want to do that these days..

Exactly. Now, one of the beauties of modern technology is through the internet - via blogs and news sites - it is entirely possible for any aspiring writer to present his/her views and analysis on politics and foreign policy to as wide an audience as exists out there. This is something I would tell all frustrated and aspiring writers to do. It is much better to have an article published in The Times of India or The Hindu or any mass circulation newspaper or to appear on a TV channel. But, until you build up a profile which would then give you access to those kinds of platforms, nothing prevents you from opening your own blog site focusing on politics or international affairs and writing and giving your own analysis. I think that's what people should do. 

It is said that one must specialise in these subjects to make an impact or to be taken seriously. Is it true?

I think it is essential to have, as part of one's educational background, some training - ideally a degree - but some training in an academic discipline. But, not necessarily because some of the best writers on foreign policy are those who studied english literature in college or even physics. But, what a rigorous undergraduate or postgraduate degree does is that it gets you accustomed to reading and doing research and I think you cannot be a good analyst of contemporary affairs unless you have a good knowledge of history, a good grasp of current affairs and unless you're reading, not just newspapers and magazines, but books. One should also take part in seminars and talks. As a writer, my tentacles are always up and I'm constantly receiving material, whether it is through TV, books, seminars and journals. And it is only when you feed on a wide variety of sources that your own ability to analyse and think will get developed. So, it doesn't matter if you don't have a degree in political science or economics; you can still aspire to analyse the world. But what that needs is a certain humility, certain application of mind, a willingness to read and to not be arrogant with the belief that you have the right answers.

On a different note, the media has come under increasing criticism especially after the November 26 terrorist attacks in Mumbai about the manner it projects issues. Your take on the state of the Indian media today.

Your question is quite vast so I'll break it down. The Indian media's handling of the Mumbai terror attacks between November 26 and 29 left a lot to be desired. The electronic media was too breathless and the amount of competition led them to make too many mistakes of fact, interpretation and judgment which, in a sense, worsened the situation. And I'm not talking about the three days. A lot of tension and war hysteria was also the product of a media that totally got out of control and lost its own bearings as media which reports what's going on. Everybody became an activist. I think no matter how intimately a journalist feels or is involved in an event that's happening, you have to resist the urge to become an activist. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have passion or commitment. But, above all, you should have fidelity to the truth and report what's happening in as dispassionate a manner as you can. So some sense of detachment is necesary. I think the Indian media did not display a sufficient degree of detachment during these attacks and the aftermath. It keeps happening all the time and this was an egregious example.

People these days interpret activism as taking a stance. Is there a difference between the two or is the line blurred?

Good question. I think journalists have views and should take a stance. But you should know where to take a stance and what's the platform. As a writer and somebody in print, I should respect the boundary between a news report and an opinion column. When I'm reporting  an event, there's no reason why any stance taking is necessary. But, when I analyse or write a commentary, obviously it is my view and the medium/platform requires you to take a stance. And people should take stances which lead to democratic solutions and oppose violence. The two things shouldn't be confused. If I allow my own personal opposition to the politics of the BJP to colour the way in which I report on an event involving the BJP, then that will be a big mistake for journalist. So, the boundaries between news and views should be respected.

I asked you this question because after the Jessica Lal case verdict was declared, the media started this 'Justice for Jessica' campaign. The argument given was that at times the media has no choice but to take stance. Who decides which issue the media should take a stance on?

I think under all circumstances, events should be reported objectively. There are no two ways about it. The problem arises in the electronic media because in print, we have a neat separation between news and editorial columns. So, I am reporting facts and loopholes of the Jessica Lal case on the news pages and I do so without inserting my opinion as a writer that 'I think XYZ is guilty' or 'I think ABC is guilty'. In an editorial column, I have a platform to criticise the judge or judgment and register my opinion that the guilty were let off. In TV, such a neat separation is not possible. An anchor is, at one and the same time, somebody who's reporting an event but who also, in a sense, giving his/her opinion. That's why in the Jessica Lal case, the boundaries got blurred. Having said that, those same TV channels, which asked for justice for Jessica, didn't cover the trial or the facts surrounding the case in a wrong way. There was no distortion of fact. So, yes, everybody is entitled to a view and a channel can have an editorial stance which gets blurred because you can't separate the two (news and editorial stance) physically. But, if you were to allow your 'Justice for Jessica' campaign to get converted into a witchhunt where reporters suppress evidence or distort facts, then there's a problem. Otherwise, I don't see it as a major issue.

It is often argued that with the advent of internet and blogs, the print media will become extinct. a) Do you agree? and b) What is your opinion about the web journalism market in India.

I think the print media in India still has a long way to go before it plateaus. Growth in print will continue as long as literacy and levels of education keep increasing in our society. Also, as long as the ordinary citizen lacks access to computers and the internet, for the next 20 or 30 years we will see an increase in print circulation. Even after internet density in India catches up with other countries, newspapers will play a major role. That's because, although internet allows people to access information from all over the world, it lacks credibility as there is no editor. And, in a modern world where people don't have much time, the reader is expected to sift the good from the bad. So, the benefit of a newspaper or a magazine is that it goes through an editorial mill. That benefit of a newspaper will always remain. Nowadays, every newspaper has a web edition and you will find that The Hindu's website will always remain popular than a blog that you and I may start simply because it reflects the editorial control which you respect. Beyond 20-30 years how things evolve I don't know but I don't see a major shift in terms of importance of print media. 

On a different note, media reports suggest that President Obama may appoint Bill Clinton as a special envoy for Kashmir. Do you think this is a good step or should the issue be resolved between India and Pakistan.

Firstly, I don't think Obama will be so foolish to appoint an envoy for Kashmir as the Indian government will never accept such an envoy. Appointing such an envoy when a principal party to the dispute does not want it, will destroy the goodwill which has been built up between India and the United States over the last 10 years. Secondly, prior to the last year, year-and-a-half of terrorist attacks, fact is that India and Pakistan have made considerable progress in the peace process and they've done so within a bilateral framework. Either this framework has run its course or no more confidence building measures are possible and, if that's the case, then there would be a case for outside mediation. But I don't think the bilateral process has run its course. I think the fact that Pakistani territory is used to stage terrorist attacks is an obstacle for normalisation of relations and I think it is incumbent on the Government of Pakistan to act against the perpetrators of these attacks, not just for the benefit of India-Pakistan relations but also for ensuring Pakistan's own stability. These groups (perpetrators), no matter what their origin, have ended up staging violence within Pakistan itself. So if the US, as it says, wants a better Pakistan, then it should be firm with Pakistan to to act against these groups. Hence, there is a role which the US can play and that's where it should focus, rather than trying to get India and Pakistan to start talking when the atmosphere is so sullied due to Pakistan's refusal to act against terror groups. 

So how do you think the US can put pressure on Pakistan and how long will it take for this India-Pakistan stalemate to end?

It is an uphill battle as India has little leverage over Pakistan. War is not an option. Cutting off diplomatic and people-to-people ties is not an option. Cutting off cultural exchange is not an option. These are decisions India can take but it won't help in achieving the ultimate goal i.e. to end terrorism once and for all. So India needs to lean on countries like America to apply requisite pressure on Islamabad and that's the direction in which Indian diplomacy has been going in the last six to eight weeks. And that will continue because, by itself, India has limited options and after initial rhetoric, things have improved as Pakistan says it has appointed a high-level investigative team to look into the information India has given it. It is possible that Pakistan may take some action. India needs to give it space for the process to work rather than issuing rhetorical statements. I think it is important to tone down the rhetoric and not make accusations through the media everyday. And this is true for both, India and Pakistan

Finally, Barack Obama is now in office with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. How do you see US foreign policy shaping up over the four years?

Unfortunately, I don't see a major shift in America's foreign policy because Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, are people who stand for continuity in foreign policy. Now, Obama has spoken a lot about a dialogue with Iran and a more consensual approach but in his inaugural speech he kept talking about America's leadership role. The world is a bit sick and tired of America being the world's leader and the debate is not whether you lead us in a unilateral or multilateral way but the fact that the world doesn't want your leadership. It wants to you realise that there a lot of unsolved issues and conflicts should be resolved using democratic means. Such as respecting the Palestinians' right to self-determination rather than supporting Israel all the time. These are the kind of tough decisions America needs to take but I don't see any sign of that happening under Obama. When he was President-elect and Israel was unleashing the most brutal kind of violence on the people of Gaza, I don't remember a single statement he made condemning this. Israel committed terrible war crimes against Palestinians, but Obama remained silent. I think that's not a good sign from the Obama administration in bringing any fundamental change in foreign policy.

Litfest Summary

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I returned last night after a hectic but enjoyable trip to the Jaipur Literature Festival. Hats off to William Dalrymple, Sanjoy Roy, Namita Gokhale and their young team for organising such a huge event. As Jabberwock wrote on his blog, given the size of the event, a lot could have gone wrong but to the organisers' credit, everything went of without a hitch.


Although the event was quite a success, a few issues perturbed me. Firstly, given the scale of the festival, one the level of interaction with authors was either limited or, in some cases, never happened. For instance, I wanted to talk to Basharat Peer, about his book Curfewed Night, but he was constantly hounded by journos or school children seeking autographs, so the meeting never happened. Mohammed Hanif was very busy signing copies of his book A Case Of Exploding Mangoes and giving interviews to journos but I still managed to pin him down for a short interview (which I will put up soon). Secondly, since I was a participant I had to shell out Rs. 450 to eat lunch and dinner at the festival venue. I don't mind spending that much provided the spread is worth it. But, for simple Indian food, I think it was a bit too much. Lastly, I felt that audience questions after the book reading should've been given more time. For instance, after Shashi Tharoor's session with Shoma Chaudhary, only 15 mins were left for a Q&A session, during which Shoma used her prerogative as moderator to ask another question. I thought that was a bit unfair considering that it was a full house waiting to quiz the iconic author. Neverthless, I think it was an extremely enjoyable festival with authors as different as Thomas Keneally, Tash Aw, Daniyal Muenuddin, Vikas Swarup, Nandan Nilekani and Vikram Seth all at one venue. In fact, Vikas Swarup's session with William Dalrymple on Day 1 was thoroughly enjoyable. At one point William wondered aloud about who was running the foreign ministry considering so many of them were writing books. The Q&A after Hanif's session was also very quick-witted. While asking a question, an audience member mentioned Pervez Musharraf's autobiography to which Hanif's deadpan reply was "Wasn't it a good work of fiction?".  Vikram Seth quipped that it was unfair for his mother, Leila Seth, to displace him from the bestseller list with her very first book, On Balance. Complimenting these witty sessions were profound discussions and debates on diaspora, poetry, sanskrit, and Kashmir. As I was busy interviewing people, I couldn't them but from what I hear, they were well attended.

As promised, I have interviewed quite a few people I met at the festival. I'm yet to undertake the herculean task of transcribing the conversations but I'll give you a sneak peek. Siddharth Vardarajan of The Hindu spoke about the role of media, young people becoming political commentators and Obama's foreign policy among other things. Sam Miller, author of Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity spoke about his experiences in Delhi while Sanjoy Roy gives an insight into how the litfest came into existence. The heads of Penguin Books India and HarperCollins Publishers India talk about publishing in times of recession. There are a few more interviews which I can't recall right now (festival hangover, I guess).

There's much more to the festival than the above details. Shall write a proper and crisper post later in the week, after I am through with transcribing and posting interviews. For now, I must go and catch up on some much needed sleep and home cooked food.

(P.S. This is an on-the-spur-of-the-moment post, devoid of any editing. Was feeling terribly guilty about not blogging for quite some time now, hence decided to scribble something)

The dichotomy of being Sanjay Dutt

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If there is one word to describe the life and times of Sanjay Dutt, it is dichotomy. His debut movie, Rocky, hit screens within a few days of his mother's death. I remember watching an interview of his where Dutt told father Sunil that he didn't know whether to be happy or sad about the occasion. Indeed, it must've been a tumultous period for the young man whose mother was adamant on attending the movie premiere. But, the will of God deemed otherwise. 

A few months later, Sanjay's tryst with drug abuse was disclosed and Sunil Dutt checked him into a rehab clinic in America. This time, it was the public which was baffled about how to react: should it dismiss the young man's misdeeds as workings of an immature mind and disturbed mind? Or should it react angrily about how the son of a well-respected politician and movie star be indulging in such illegal activities? 

Cut to 1993. As Bombay burned in the winter of the January riots that year, it was found that Sanjay possessed dangerous weapons such as AK-53 rifles and grenades. Even more shocking was the revelation that these weapons had been given to him by Abu Salem, the notorious underworld don. Sanjay was arrested under TADA and the Arms Act. In his defence, the actor, now a star in his own right and a mature 34 years old, pleaded that he had received death threats and hence bought the weapons. Again, the dichotomy was visible: shouldn't a man-in this case, a son of a politician and a public figure in his own right-have acted with maturity and responsibility? Or was the threat to his half-Hindu half-Muslim lineage so grave that he had no option but to take such an extreme step? Add Khalnayak (and later Vaastav) to his kitty and his errant son-turned-notorious gangster image reached its pinnacle. 

It is Circa 2005 and father Sunil Dutt passes away, leaving behind a political legacy which would create yet another dichotomy for Sanjay. Is he the right person to continue the legacy?Logically speaking, yes, as he is the most visible face of the family now. But, given his troubled past, will he be able to uphold his father's name or will he tarnish his image of an honest politician? Well, it hasn't been proved that he's a criminal and there are many politicians who've had worse track records than Sanjay's. But, is he mature enough to tackle the rough and tumble of public life? At 45, of course he is. Eventually, it was sister Priya who was chosen to continue her father's work and it seemed Sanjay could breathe in peace. But only for a while.

July 2007. The TADA court finds Sanjay guilty under the Arms Act and for illegal possession of weapons. What follows is another dichotomous reaction from the public. Has the judge been fair on Dutt by sentencing him for five years? Of course he has. In fact, its a good example as all public figures will now think twice before messing around with the law. But he's Munnabhai and he was naive when he committed the crime! His movie career cannot be the reason for pardon and at 34 he was naive. You must be joking! (Mahesh Bhatt did agree with the last argument in a piece he did for Tehelka)

Cut to January 2009. Amar Singh, the Samajwadi Party's general secretary announces that Sanjay Dutt will be the party's candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from Lucknow. Dichotomy time again. He's convicted by a TADA court and is out on bail. So are many other MP's and MLA's? What's the big deal? His maturity and responsibility levels have been under constant scrutiny and he reportedly doesn't get along with sister Priya-the torchbearer of his father's legacy. Well, he's 47 now, married again and is willing to serve the people. What more proof does one want of his responsibility and maturity? And family feuds are common in Indian politics. Nothing new.

So will this latest episode reduce, if not end, the dichotomy in Sanjay Dutt's life? Or will he be questioned, debated about, analysed and post-mortemed by the public and the media about each of his decisions? 

Only time will tell.


Book Review: Descent Into Chaos

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(A short and tweaked book review of Ahmed Rashid's brilliant book which first appeared in What's Hot, the Times of India's friday tabloid.)


After Taliban, veteran journalist Ahmed Rashid writes a comprehensive tome on the war on terror and its impact on South and Central Asian countries.  Descent into Chaos analyses every aspect of the war in totality; the circumstances, the individuals involved, the impact it would have and most importantly, its failure to curb Islamic extremism. To say that the book is an eye-opener is a mere understatement. Rashid provides a blow-by-blow account of how America used the war to buy and bully its way into Afghanistan. Central Asian countries were granted billions of dollars in aid in exchange for their air bases. Pakistan was threatened with international isolation. NATO, the United Nations and the European Union were completely sidelined. And the 'neocons' and CIA sidelined their own State Department to dictate foreign policy. The message was clear; America was going it alone. So obsessed were Bush and his men about the war, that they weren't even interested in restoring democracy in the country (Apparently, nation building was not on Defense Secy. Rumsfeld's "agenda"). And when they realised that bin Laden was out of their reach, they looked towards Iraq. Ultimately, it was a lost cause and the only people who benefitted were the original targets; the Taliban and bin Laden. Overall, Descent into Chaos is a rivetting tome, which questions the need for such a war and provides an in-indepth perspective on the 'black hole' of the world: Afghanistan

Jaipur Jamboree '09

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At last, I have finalised my travel plans for the Jaipur Literature Festival. Not only is this an exciting event to look forward to, it also gives me a much needed break from New Delhi. I can't wait to witness some fine conversations and meet such top class authors as Mohammed Haneef, Hari Kunzru, Patrick French, Vikas Swarup, William Dalrymple and Chetan Bhagat among others. Highlights of the festival include a performance by internationally acclaimed DJ Cheb I Sabbah and the Intelligence Square Debate which will be telecasted on the BBC. 


The concept of the festival is unique and, most importantly, inclusive. There are no charges to hear book discussions or performances (though one needsto shell out quite a lot of money to become a delegate in order to eat lunch and dinner at the festival venue). All one needs to do is book a cheap hotel (and there are loads of them in Jaipur) hop on a bus or simply drive down to Jaipur.  However, I'm a tad disappointed as Ahmed Rashid, noted Pakistani journalist and author of Descent into Chaos will be absent. His session on fundamentalism and his participation at the Intelligence Squared debate was something I was looking forward to. Perhaps another time...The following are the sessions where I will be present.

The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism
Basharat Peer
Malise Ruthven
Siddharth Varadarajan in conversation with William Dalrymple


In Conversation
Vikram Seth with Sonia Faleiro

Readings
Imraan Coovadia
Vikas Swarup

Moonlight’s Children
Daniyal Mueenuddin
M.A.Farooqui
Nadeem Aslam 
introduction by Alice Albinia

In Concert
Cheb i Sabba (Algeria) accompanied by Nathoo Lal Solanki & Chugee Khan and featuring dancers Queen Harish & Colleena

Imagining India
Nandan Nilekani with Patrick French

The Story of my Assassins
Tarun Tejpal in conversation with Marc Parent
introduction by Rana Dasgupta

In Conversation
Chetan Bhagat with Namita Gokhale & Jai Arjun Singh

A Case of Expolding Mangoes
Mohammed Hanif introduced by Basharat Peer

I will try to interview a few of these eminent people and some others for this blog. In addition, you may also find some pictures and videos from the festival (if technology permits) and my own notes about the event. Keep watching this space!