Sectarian politics affects Indians globally

By Dev Nadkarni

Religion is the currency of politics in India. Without religion and caste no political party can ever grab the attention of the voting public before an impending election. Creating or engineering religious issues out of thin air before an election is an old trick politicians have repeatedly used – but the sad fact is that even after six decades of independence, masses of people are still fall prey to such trickery.

Politicians, their lackeys and individuals who are after cheap publicity think nothing of wading into even a mere whiff of a controversy, making mountains out of molehills simply because of the publicity it generates and their grossly erroneous belief that it polarises people enough to strengthen their support base. Creating an ‘us versus them’ schism is their only stratagem to get the flock together – or so goes their belief.

In two instances last week the Indian government decided to wade into events it would probably not have bothered to even consider had it not been for state elections which are round the corner. Its hasty, poorly though out stands on the controversy generated at the literary festival at Jaipur – where British author of Indian origin Salman Rushdie was to have delivered an address – and TV host Jay Leno’s show in which he made a reference to the Golden Temple have proved once again that Indian politicians have a long way to go in separating real life issues confronting people as against peripheral but emotional ones that they believe deliver votes.

While there was no need whatsoever for the government to wade into these issues in the first place, it did so with gusto simply because there is an election at hand. In the process, it has not only tainted itself but Indians in every part of the globe as being hypersensitive, highly intolerant fundamentalists who have neither the intellectual capacity nor the broad outlook to take a different point of view in their stride.

Its stand on the Rushdie affair has been rightly compared to the authoritarian Chinese government’s style of clamping down on free thought and free speech in that country. Minister Vayalar Ravi’s ill-considered missive to the United States government on the Jay Leno affair got the curt response it so richly deserved. The Indian government has exposed itself as being a mercenary guardian of narrow minded, intolerant religious zealots, which receives its payments in votes. And India prides itself as being the world’s largest democracy.

The Indian ethos is one of the world’s most tolerant. India has been a melting pot of a range of religions, denominations, castes and creeds, which has not just survived but thrived over millennia. It has been the cradle of the eastern world’s four great religions, all of which have always lived in harmony, adopting one another’s practices and mores seamlessly.

But every society has its fringe groups who are big on bluster but essentially small in numbers. But it is common for the typical Indian politician to fall for the bluster, ignoring the silent but eminently sensible majority and jockey themselves to don the mantle of the great saviour of these intolerant, extreme, fringe groups and individuals who thrive on the pyrotechnics that controversies invariably generate.

The vast majority of people are only interested in getting on with their lives. A controversial author speaking at a literary festival or a highly popular television satirist making a passing comment can hardly affect their every day lives. But politicians taking up cudgels on behalf of the intolerant, publicity hungry lunatic fringe is what can severely affect their daily lives in many ways – something that the Indian political class fails to grasp.

By wading into such non-issues and needlessly glorifying them with their involvement merely for achieving their narrow political ends, Indian politicians are doing a disservice to Indians not only in India but all over the world in an increasingly globalised society.
The past week’s events have shown that the Indian politician and the government actually sponsors a narrow, sectarian mindset that is hardly representative of most Indians around the world.

First appeared in Indian Weekender, January 2012

Visiting India’s most Uncommon Man

By Dev Nadkarni

Early this year, the Indian Posts and Telegraphs department honoured a simple, bespectacled, dhoti-clad Indian who has never spoken a single word for more than 60 years. Sporting horn rimmed glasses and with his thinning wisp of hair crowning his balding pate, the man, always wearing a checked coat, has been immortalised on a postage stamp.

The man is one of India’s most well recognised cartoon characters: legendary cartoonist R.K. Laxman’s Common Man. Featured in every single “You Said It” cartoon on the front page of what is today the world’s largest selling English newspaper, The Times of India, Laxman’s Common Man has been a silent spectator to the goings on in the rough and tumble of Indian life since 1951.

The postage stamp is among a string of great national and international honours that have come the way of India’s greatest ever cartoonist. Among the big awards he has received are the nation’s second biggest – the Padma Vibhushan – and the Ramon Magsaysay Prize, often called the Nobel Prize of the east. His ardent fans, of which there are millions, have been expecting India’s top honour, the Bharat Ratna, to come his way for a few years now. But as we have seen, it has eluded him this year as well. Unfortunately for the mindless boffins in Delhi who are in charge of the award, the recipient has to be thoroughly dead before they can be persuaded to confer it, as has been proved repeatedly.

I’ve had the good fortune to know Laxman closely for many years – first, because my father was a long time columnist and writer with the Times of India and second because he had a home in the same street that I lived in the city of Pune. For many years, he would spend weekends away from the bustle of Mumbai, where he lived and worked, and dash of to the more salubrious climes and relaxed pace of Pune – which is where we would meet for a long walk followed by a round of Scotch nearly every weekend.

Visiting Laxman during my visit to Pune last month was different. The maestro, now 90, has been ailing for several years and lives permanently in Pune. A severe stroke about a year ago has left him without speech – like the Common Man, his uncommon creator is now silent. I spent a couple of hours with him and his genial wife Kamala and he conversed with me scribbling words on a notepad. His wit is still razor sharp and he is quite cogent and lucid but for his ability to speak.

When he turned 90 last year, the Laxmans’ elegant Pune home played host to a legion of his well wishers and fans beginning from the President of India, Pratibha Patil, to chief ministers, political heavyweights – almost all of whom he had taken potshots at on the front page of the Times of India – industrialists, academics down to the common man in the street.

A few years ago, Symbiosis, one of India’s most forward looking tertiary educational institutions erected a ten-foot statue of the Common Man on its premises in Pune, which is today quite a tourist attraction for visitors to the city. The new postage stamp will now take the visage of the famously silent Common Man on to countless letters, postcards and envelopes around India, bringing a smile on the faces of millions of recipients – and fans of the master cartoonist.

Mario Miranda – a personal reminiscence

By Dev Nadkarni

Mario Miranda never really liked to talk about himself or his work. But once during an assignment, when I pressed him on how he went about his meticulously detailed illustrations, he told me in his usual shy manner that he began at one corner of the blank sheet and put his scratchy ink pen nib down only when he had fully filled up the whole sheet.

The maestro put his nib down one final time yesterday, having finished with the extraordinary canvas of his life. And what an incredibly rich and unforgettable picture he has drawn for all of us in his seven decade long career. His drawings, with their filigree-like detail, are an endless source of joy: you find something new in every illustration no matter how many times you’ve seen it before. That indeed was his genius.

I knew Mario as a fan, friend, colleague and client – as fan for a lifetime, the rest for more than two decades. My first ever introduction to Goa was through one of his illustrated books, “Goa With Love – by Mario”, a copy of which we still have in our collection nearly half a century later.

“Goa With Love” is Mario’s finest tribute to his most beloved Goa – it is completely illustrated, no copy except for an odd caption or two. It captures every aspect of Goa – the scenery, the people, the social mores, the cultural diversity, the oddly spelt Hindu names in Portuguese-influenced English, everything except perhaps the smell of feni.

I have lost count of how many times I must have pored over that book throughout my life. I remember spending hours on each page when I was a child growing up in Panaji – which back then was Panjim. I can still find things to laugh about in the drawings.

I first shook hands with Mario when I was perhaps all of five in my father’s office in Panaji’s iconic Secretariat Building – my father, Mohan Nadkarni, was the newly formed union territory’s first information officer and was in charge of publicity, publications and PR. “This uncle here drew Goa With Love – his name is Mario,” I remember my father saying. I was excited because I had shaken hands with the man whose book I was so very fond of.

In later years I often ran into him in the Times of India building in Mumbai on my errands delivering my father’s music reviews and columns to the newsroom on the third floor (no emails and faxes then). I’d reintroduced myself as his fan from Goa and chatted on some occasions about some of his illustrations from “Goa With Love” and his other work, which appeared regularly in the Khushwant Singh-edited Illustrated Weekly and the Evening News of India.

Our next significant encounter was at my first real job – as an assistant editor of the popular children’s fortnightly Tinkle at the India Book House. He was illustrating a children’s book, which my colleague Nira Benegal (noted film director Shyam Benegal’s wife) was editing. We settled down for a long chat and at the end of it, he handed two rather tired looking diaries to Nira.

I noticed Nira put away the diaries carefully in her bottom drawer. After a few days, knowing my respect for Mario and his work and my own ambitions to launch my cartoon strip, she let me have a peek at those diaries. I was amazed as I leafed through them.

They were diaries from Mario’s childhood. Most of us who kept diaries did so in long hand. Mario simply drew. On one of the pages the only words were something like: “walking back from the market I saw” and there was this amazingly stylised picture of a cow. He must have been 10 or 11 when he drew it – perhaps even younger.

The picture was greatly detailed. There were the blades of grass, the pebbles, the vegetable vendor, other trappings of the marketplace, a carrera (those small rickety buses – now extinct – with about eight seats that packed in 24 people), the fisherwoman, everything on that A8 sized diary page. It left me dumbfounded. Nira let me borrow the diaries for the weekend and boy, what a weekend that was.

The Benegals and Mirandas were close friends. Shyam’s Trikaal – based on Goa’s liberation – was shot for the most part in Mario’s splendid colonial Loutolim residence, which is where he breathed his last.

Mario’s recognition as an illustrator par excellence grew and he was invited for assignments and exhibitions across the globe. The world’s major cities invited him to draw their monuments and main squares. The volume of his published work grew and he was soon awarded both the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan, besides many other awards.

Then Karnataka chief minister Devraj Urs commissioned Dom Moraes and Mario to do a book on the state – and that’s another book in our collection signed by both Dom and Mario.

By 1987, I had a couple of weekly cartoon strips going. One appeared in the Sunday edition of the Indian Express and the other in the Sunday editions of the Economic Times between 1984 and 1990. The latter, called Doldrumms Ltd, based around office and business situations, was definitely inspired by Mario’s Miss Nimbupani and her cartoon colleagues.

In the middle of that year Mario and I were part of a delegation of Indian cartoonists who visited Europe as part of the Festival of India. Our works were exhibited for a week in Sierre in Switzerland. It was there that despite our great differences in age and stature, he took me on as a friend.

During those long wine filled nights, I got to see his melancholic side, which I had not seen before. On one such evening, I remember, as we were sitting on the deserted platform of the Sierre railway station after a couple of bottles of fine French Beaujolais, he told me the real reason why he left the Times of India – but not before extracting a promise that I’ll keep it only to myself.

Weeks later we reconnected in downtown London and spent a busy morning drinking some more – this time beer. Celebrated modern dancer Astad Deboo joined us for a while.

As editor of a publication for India’s first major amusement park Esselworld, I had the pleasure of commissioning some work from Mario. But what I’ll remember most is a one of a kind interview I did with him: we did a four-page cartoon strip interview. He drew the replies to my questions – how cool is that. He later told me how much he had enjoyed doing that.

Though I visited his home in Colaba, Mumbai, several times, I never really got to know his wife Habiba or his sons. At one time, I remember he had pet turtles clambering up and down the living room. Mario’s close friend and one of India’s finest humorists, Busybee (Behram Contractor), modeled two of the characters of his “Round and About” column – Darryl and Derrick, the two sons of the fabulously rich ‘my friend who lives on the 21st floor’ – on Mario’s two boys.

There will not be another cartoonist, illustrator or human being like Mario de Brito Miranda. His celebrity came in spite of his self-effacing and humble personality. He will be greatly missed by millions of his fans.

One of the final pages of “Goa With Love” has an illustration of a Goan funeral. As well as a few weeping relatives around an elderly man’s bier there is also a lot of beer and feni flowing around. The young people are eyeing one another through their tears. There is one young lady by the man’s feet, a tear flying away from her thick eyelashes, as her gaze meets a young man’s standing by the head of the departed gent. Her expression is an inexplicable mix of grief and expectation – there is a definite air of getting on with life once the grieving is over.

That’s perhaps the best way to lay the great soul to rest – celebrate his life more than grieve his passing.

RIP Mario Miranda.


First appeared in Indian Weekender, January 2012

2012: what does it portend?

By Dev Nadkarni

Most people around the world would be happy to see the back of 2011 and look forward to the January of 2012 being a harbinger of better times, despite the widespread trepidation of grim forebodings wrought by some interpretations of the Mayan calendar.

What a year 2011 has been. Disasters of all kind – whether natural or financial – have befallen the peoples of so many nations around the world. A series of hugely destructive earthquakes, massive flooding, tsunamis and dozens of tornados brought many parts of the world to the brink.

This string of natural disasters and altered weather patterns set the backdrop for climate change negotiations in Durban last month – but the world by and large decided to postpone the possibility of working toward any definite solution, avoiding confrontation.

The one that caused the most widespread concern on a global scale were the earthquake and tsunami that conspired to create a nuclear disaster in Japan, sending shock waves across the world. For New Zealand, the early part of last year was eminently forgettable. The Pike River disaster and the Christchurch earthquakes are the worst this country has seen in its history.

As if natural disasters were not enough, the worst of the global financial crisis, unfolding slowly and menacingly since 2008, came to a head last year, with countries virtually going bankrupt. What the natural disasters did to life, limb and property, the financial disasters did to people’s wealth and that of entire nations.

The situation has gotten so dire that what was one of the world’s wealthiest regions until a couple of years ago – the Eurozone – is on the brink of collapse. Fifty years in the making, the Eurozone was hailed as a great example of cooperation that was achieved among countries that were at the throats of one another fighting wars not much more than a couple of generations ago. But it has taken just a couple of years of financial crises for it to face the threat of unravelling.

A weak Eurozone could have serious implications for the Pacific Islands region this year and the next several, because many of its development programmes are tied to European aid. In times like this, overseas aid would be far lower down leaders’ priorities as they grapple to save their countries from worsening financial climes and manage tense political situations. So far there has been no official announcements about cuts to aid programmes but that cannot be ruled out given the circumstances.

At one time in the early stages of the global financial crisis, as the contagion consumed Wall Street after the Lehman Brothers implosion followed by that of several others that plunged the US dollar, the euro threatened to dislodge the greenback from its nearly five decade long reign as the currency of choice. What a sudden and precipitous fall the past year has been for what once was such a strong and desirable currency. The crisis has shown how fickle and illusory so-called financial success based on unmanageably large debt can be – as for individuals, so for nations.

The US is continuing to head for the worst of times economically. This year, its cities have seen the mushrooming of tent cities on the outskirts of many of its big cities – populated with increasing numbers of people who have been forced out of jobs and their homes into poverty. The country’s policy making machinery seems to be in a state of paralysis as the nation inches toward what undoubtedly promises to be an acrimoniously fought election.

Things haven’t been bad at all in Oceania as they are in the some countries of the developed world, particularly in the United States and the Eurozone. The banking systems in the whole of the region have generally held up well against the global crisis. New Zealand’s saga of the string of finance company disasters is a different story though. But the government has moved swiftly to put in place measures to prevent the repeat of such grief for mum and dad investors who have collectively lost hundreds of millions of dollars to the unbridled greed of dodgy finance company promoters.

Strong fundamentals of the Australian banks have fended off any possibility of a crisis in Australia or the rest of the region including the Pacific Islands, where Australian banks dominate the scene.

Is there another way to run the world?

Meanwhile, the world’s ordinary folk have grown sick and tired of what they see as a culture of unmitigated greed, fiscal irresponsibility, and unjustifiably high rewards among the powers that be – whether they are politicians, businesspeople or finance professionals. The “occupy” movements around the world have been spontaneous and have driven home a strong point – but have been no match for the entrenched vested interests they have been up against.

Chances are they will remain exactly that – just token protests, even though a magazine no less than the profile of Time has made ‘the protestor’ the person of the year, which is an interesting commentary on a phenomenon that has fired the imagination of young people around the world. But existing power structures and their vested interests are too deeply entrenched and have been so for far too long to be dislodged by mere financial crisis or a bunch of youngsters holding court in public places, no matter for how long and no matter in how many important city centres around the world.

The solutions, therefore, will have to come from well within the structures that exist within the world’s political and financial power systems. There are more flashes of realisation in the public discourse today than ever before that there may be other far more inclusive ways of running the world and sharing its wealth and resources more equitably across its 7 billion denizens. It’s unbelievable but true that some big, rich businesspeople themselves – especially in the United States – are making a case for more equitable tax structures that would make the rich like them pay more.

On the flip side of the coin, company shareholders around the world are demanding sensible salary caps on high-flying executives, while some countries are legislating to introduce caps on salaries and bonuses. These may seem small, even insignificant changes but they have the power to influence a change in the way the world has been used to look at creating wealth in these past decades where unbridled ‘greed is good’ type capitalism has held sway.

As the financial world continues to be preoccupied in sorting itself out of the super high mountain of tangled debt it has created for itself over all these years, problems of the real world – environment, food and water security – are more than likely to be sidelined this year.

But a New Year always brings new hope. There is widespread belief in the prognosis that 2012 will be a watershed year. I would like to believe that this will be so in a positive way.

Happy New Year.

First appeared in Islands Business January 2012