A Rahman hangover


By T S Sudhir

In Hyderabad, it was a case of `ThankGod it is Saturday’ on October 24. That’s because the Shehanshah of Indian film music Allah Rakha Rahman was in town with his `Jai Ho’ concert. The newly inaugurated expressway, the longest in Asia at 11.6 km, just made the journey to GMR Arena, the venue next to Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, that much more fun. And as if in keeping with the location, ARR took off smoothly at 7:14 pm, belting out several of his superhit numbers in Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.

Rahman greeted the Telugu crowd with `Andari ke Namaste’ as he began with `Jaage hai’ and moved quickly to `Khalbali’. And as if to demonstrate that he is not the shy youngster any more, ARR did a Rajinikanth, complete with glares and all, for `Athiradee’ from the Tamil-Telugu superhit `Sivaji’. The 50000 strong crowd had connected.

But Rahman is not one to forget his roots and where he began from. So it was back to the ultimate melody of `Roja’ with Vijay Prakash and Shweta Pandit and `Chandralekha’ from `Thiruda Thiruda’. One sms which flashed on the LED screen acknowledged the work done by the production crew. `The screen behind is awesome, whoever planned it’ it said. It was most true during the `Dilli 6′ number with images of Delhi stylishly enthralling the Hyderabadi crowd.

Given that ARR has been around for close to two decades now, there are now distinctly two sets of following that the maestro enjoys. One, like me, who have followed him since his `Roja’ days and the second, the younger lot of the 21st century, who sway to the beats of a `Pappu can’t dance’ from `Jaane tu ya jaane na’. For instance, when Suzanne sang the `Rangeela re’ number from `Rangeela’, 12-year-old Bhargav who was with me, did not react. But he perked up the moment, she started with her breezy `Aye Bacchu’ number from `Ghajini’.

The high point of the concert was when ARR sat with harmonium, cap on head and lifted the atmosphere to a more spiritual level with his `Khwaja mere Khwaja’ from `Jodhaa Akbar’. It was as if he was praying at the Ameen Peer Dargah in Andhra’s Kadapa district.

There was another Kadapa connection as well with Rahman offering a special tribute to the late chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, with `Naina neer bahaye’. The proceeds of the concert going to the CM’s relief fund for flood victims and the A R Rahman Foundation, made the effort all the more commendable. As another sms from a Gopichand flashed : `A legend from Chennai with musicians from all over the world for a local cause proves the world is a single family.’

And then rapper Blaaze took over to get the crowd into the groove for one of the biggest hits of Rahman’s career. `Can you sing Humma Humma?’ he rapped as he set the ball rolling for Rahman to sing the `Bombay’ number that had enthralled an entire generation in the early nineties.

“It is a shame that I cannot see beyond the first row of people but I love all of you,” said Rahman and a guy behind me shouted, “We love you too”. In response, Rahman jumped into `Jai Ho’ with his entire chorus and the 50000 crowd for company. Everyone sang `Jai Ho’ together, standing, and you could be forgiven if you thought this was India’s national song. Brilliant fireworks lit up the Hyderabad sky and for those ten minutes, I saw no flight taking off or landing at the city airport. When Rahman sings `Jai Ho’, you can do nothing else but sing along and applaud. As another sms flashed on screen : `After a He-man, Spider-man, Bat-man, Super-man, now we have Rah-man’.

The morning after, I woke up with a heavy Rahman hangover. I took out my collection of Rahman numbers and I have many. And started with `Vellai Pookal’ from Mani Rathnam’s `Kannathil Muthamittal’ for which he won the National award in 2003. I have heard it 22 times since Sunday morning.


Red in the face

By T S Sudhir

A month ago, I got a call from a man who identified himself as Pradeep. “Pehchana nahin kya Sir, main Pradeep bol raha hoon,” he insisted with familiarity. I couldn’t place him. Finally he said, “Main Kishenji bol raha hoon,” and I exclaimed, “To aise boliye na.” Post-Lalgarh, Kishenji alias Koteswara Rao was the name, voice and masked face of the Maoist movement.

“I said Pradeep because that was my alias when I used to call you some years back. See, you don’t remember,” he chuckled. Amidst the pleasantries, he quipped how he had lost his grasp over Telugu because of staying away from Andhra. After he had finished discussing what he had called me for, I asked, “When will you get in touch with me next?”

Kishenji’s reply stumped me. “Just sms me on this number, whenever you want to.”

I was recounting this conversation to Maoist sympathiser and ideologue Varavara Rao the other day, expressing my surprise at how times had changed. During the 90s and even the early part of this decade, Maoists would work through an elaborate network of faceless couriers and cryptic phone calls made mostly in the dead of the night, always overcautious to ensure they left no trail. Extra care was taken when journalists like me were taken inside the forest for a tete-a-tete with the Maoist leadership, with vehicles changed several times during the journey.

“Koteswara Rao is tech-savvy,” said Varavara Rao. “But then the movement has lost several of its top leaders because of this kind of over-confidence and at times, recklessness.”

Varavara Rao is right. The way the movement was virtually decimated in Andhra Pradesh post-2005, is a case in point. To engage in peace talks with the newly-elected Y S Rajasekhara Reddy government in 2004 wasn’t a mistake. The Maoists had good reasons to do that. But to think they had brought the government on to its knees, was. The red carpet welcome YSR laid out for them was an intoxicating high, it almost lulled the Reds into thinking they had bearded the tiger from Kadapa in his own den.

What followed was massive collection of funds and recruitment of cadre, almost recklessly. The Maoists were in a hurry to rebuild their cadres, demonstrate that atleast in numbers, they were a force to reckon with. The then police chief Swaranjit Sen later claimed they had exploited this opportunity to send coverts and informers into the Maoist fold. And that they also managed to put a face in police records to many Maoist names who had hitherto been underground.

When the talks broke down and the Maoists upped the offensive, drawing comfort in numbers, the police was prepared to take them on. It didn’t draw its strength only from the official ban that was reimposed in August 2005. The Maoist cadre who surrendered in 2006, 2007 and 2008 were mainly the new recruits, who clearly did not have the stomach or the ability to fight it out. The Maoists’ hasty recruitment policy had boomeranged as word spread that the movement was floundering badly.

Hit badly, the Maoists admitted the anti-naxal commando force, the Greyhounds was a “superior force” that had successfully “exploited the military weaknesses of the CPI (Maoist)”.

But the Greyhounds were not the only X-factor. There was the government’s surrender policy. A carrot and stick approach. Over a period of time, the Maoists had distanced themselves from the people, thanks to their own follies. Many splinter groups had sprung up. Extortions and reckless violence by both so-called naxals and pseudonaxals eroded goodwill and sympathy.

Srinivas Reddy, journalist and a long-time Maoist movement watcher gives credit to the government’s LPG policy. “LPG, that is liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, had created wealth in the villages and small towns.” So Maoist shrieks against American imperialism found little support among the masses.

What delivered the knockout punch was the `Go for the top’ policy that paid rich dividends as top leader after leader was eliminated in encounters by the state police force. Nothing came of the questions raised by sympathisers and human rights groups. For a group that had sent an impressive delegation to Hyderabad for the peace talks, suddenly there was a leadership crisis.

“They were killed also because of their own mistakes,” says Varavara Rao. “Many of them did not follow instructions given by the party on their movements.”

One of the them being Patel Sudhakar Reddy, who was killed this May. I met Patel Sudhakar in May 2001 deep inside the Nallamalla forest, when I had gone to interview Ramakrishna, the top boss of the then People’s War in Andhra Pradesh. Patel was smart and suave and had an easy comfort with gadgets. Accompanying him was a young software engineer, wielding a laptop and for most part of the 36 hours that I spent in the naxal camp, I saw the two constantly feeding data into the laptop and engrossed in discussions.

Two years later, Patel’s name was mentioned as one of the conspirators in the failed assassination attempt on then chief minister Chandrababu Naidu in Tirupati. Was I witness to the plot being hatched, I don’t know. But today when I see an intellectual like Kobad Gandy behind bars, I always remember that young man and wonder what would have motivated him to be in Nallamalla instead of a Noida or a New Jersey.

In a few days, the Centre will mount a major offensive against the Maoists in the jungles of Chattisgarh. And my hunch is it is going to be a very bloody war where the blood will be spilled not just in Chattisgarh but also in other areas of influence like Jharkhand, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Orissa. Sources in the Intelligence anticipate that the Maoist cadre will “indulge in violence in newer areas to divert the attention of the enemy.”

The preparation is already on. Police officers posted on the Andhra-Chattisgarh border tell me there is heightened movement of the Maoists, particularly in the Manthani belt of Karimnagar and Eturanagaram forest area of Warangal. “They are moving into villages, discussing their problems, warning informers. They are all armed. And if they are ever faced with a problem, a large number of Maoists will cross the Godavari from Chattisgarh.”

Varavara Rao says a serious attempt is now being made to reclaim lost ground in north Telangana region. “Unlike other areas like Nallamalla, the leadership was not lost in this region. The entire leadership is there, guiding from outside and geographical advantage is that it is bordering Chattisgarh and Maharashtra where the conditions are favourable to them all the time.”

Which explains the five murders and one bank robbery in the last two months in Andhra Pradesh, a state that has seen virtually no Maoist violence in the last two years. Yes, the police force has fortified its borders with Chattisgarh, apprehending incursions from that side. But strikes in areas where it is least expected, would only engage the police force all over Andhra Pradesh, lowering its vigil to an extent on the Khammam, Karimnagar and Warangal borders. There are strikes feared in the other three southern states as well.

The Maoists will be desperate to show they are not easy meat. And will do all it takes to test the government’s resolve. It will be as much a war of nerves as of firepower and the government needs to be prepared for hostage situations. It has already been tested severely in West Bengal. For the CPI (Maoist), “temporary setbacks” are part of a “protracted people’s war”. They believe the setback in Andhra is only a retreat while being on the offensive in other states.

The State would do well to remember that victory over the Reds is not going to be possible by bloodshed alone. The political leadership has to consciously ensure that all its eggs are not in the police basket. The battle is not simply to reclaim territory in Gadchiroli and Dantewada. It is a war to win over people, so that they feel like winners, not losers, in the final reckoning.

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Inside Pakistan

By Uma Sudhir 

As I write this, Lahore is under attack. I was there till just two days ago as part of the Indian delegation to the first regional conference of South Asian Women in Media. The first day we were there, a suicide bomber killed 49 people in Peshawar. The next day, the army headquarters in Rawalpindi was under attack. Yet another day, another suicide bomber in Shangla blasted to death 41 people.

Wherever we went in Lahore, it was only with armed police escort. A group of foreigners, from India, including three mediapersons from Jammu and Kashmir, Afghanistan and other countries, could obviously be at a huge security risk. But having gun-toting men trailing us everywhere we went, even sitting all through the night outside our hotel room, was a constant reminder that the shadow of terror was everywhere.

If we thought, India in recent times had got all too used to terror, seeing it happening almost face-to-face every successive day took it to an altogether different level. Almost as though they preferred to blank out that terror was inside the doorstep, our Pakistani hosts carried on with the itinerary of formal dinners and even an evening of music and dance. I can’t say if it was unnerving, agonising or traumatising that a country and people that were virtually under the siege of terror had to go on as though nothing was really wrong. As though the truth and reality of terror does not exist as long as you don’t acknowledge its presence. Some cynical voices in the Indian media said the country is getting a taste of its own medicine. But somehow when you see real people like you and me caught helplessly in the whirlpool of terror, I am unable to reconcile myself to a cynical view.

Just yesterday, Rahul Gandhi said, “We are giving too much importance to Pakistan. It is just a small piece of land. Pakistan’s internal issues do affect us, but we are giving too much time and importance to Pakistan in our minds. In my opinion, it deserves not half the importance we are giving it.”

My experiences in Pakistan seemed to suggest our neighbouring country is as much if not much, much more obsessed with India. Almost as though its identity and thought process to a large extent is defined by being India’s neighbour. Every Pakistani speaker at the conference, whether it was the country’s information minister, the former information minister Sherry Rahman or the SAFMA president Imtiaz Ali, everyone’s focus was on the Indo-Pak equation. Every other country and the primary issue of women in media, for which presumably we had gathered in Lahore, was almost a sidelight. Inevitable one could say given the context of the present situation and after all that’s what almost always happens when the two nations, seemingly obsessed with each other, are face-to-face. But this was glaring.

It was almost as though it was not a 8-nation meet of media women from SAARC countries, but an Indo-Pak meet. Every speaker made a detailed reference to the Mumbai terror attack and about the fallout of the investigation process. So much so that it provoked a young woman delegate from Afghanistan to claim the microphone and make a statement that if Pakistan was even half as concerned about terror in Afghanistan as it was about the Mumbai attack, they would have to name the attacks Kabul 1, Kabul 2, Kabul 3 and the count would simply go on.

The news television cameras that came in sought out only Indian delegates to the exclusion of delegates from every other countries. And all they wanted you to talk about was of course Indo-Pak relations.

Even at the musical evening treat arranged for us at Pearl Continental, the anchor of the show was chatting with a few of us Indian delegates and inquired if we could follow chaste Urdu, the language in which he compered so beautifully and also the language of the compositions that Iqbal Bano had poured her soul into. We said, yes, possibly many of us would be able to enjoy it but the delegates from the countries may not be able to. To which he said, “all this is meant for you”.

As we interacted with our hosts, at least four people asked me in separate, private conversations what the “aam Indian people” think of people in Pakistan. I was touched that they seemed so deeply concerned when they asked, “Do they think we are all terrorists?”

I was unfortunately unable to say an emphatic, unequivocal ‘No’. I had to say, unfortunately, the perception is not very positive.

Everywhere I went, on the street, in the dhabas, people would ask me “Aap India se aaye hain? Hamein India aur Indians bahut achche lagthe hain. (Have you come from India? We like India and Indians very much).” There was a warmth as people said it and somehow it seemed to come from the heart. There was an undeniable connect. After all, the young boy selling readymade salwars who offered me an additonal discount, another shopkeeper who immediately ordered tea for us, one of the policemen standing guard outside my hotel room, all of them had no reason to be uttering similar sentiments.

I asked my friend Farah Usman what made people say that. Do they perceive India as ‘overbearing’ I asked. Not more than the Americans, she joked. But she explained that many people have relatives living across the border, there are roots on the other side, the language and cultural context is mostly so well understood and then there is an undeniably strong cultural identification that comes from watching Bollywood films and having singers and performers who people in both sides of the border have accepted as their own. The most popular songs people from both sides could happily sing together, joined also by our friends from Bangladesh and even Afghanistan. We did that on several bus rides and then there were no borders.

Driver Wali Shah and a policeman who acted as guides and escorts when I and my three friends from Jammu & Kashmir went on a sight-seeing tour around Lahore had clearcut views on who was to blame. “Politicians and politics have embittered relations. Jab logon mein, apas mein aana-jaana rahega, utna-baitna rahega, tab sab dooriyan, nazdeekiyan ho jayengi.”

Wali Shah very sincerely appealed to me that I must go back and tell people that people across the border want to be friends, that they are good people and they would love to visit India and would welcome people from India as their own.

As we were returning on foot, crossing the Wagah Border, from Pakistan into India, we were on No Man’s Land when one of us asked one of the coolies, “Yeh kiskee zameen hain, Pakistan ki yah India ki?” He replied in a flash. “Yeh Punjab ki zameen hai”.


Kurnool, zero

By T S Sudhir

The milestone indicator on the road where I was standing said `Kurnool O (zero)’. Even that was sprayed with slushy mud that had since dried up. To me it seemed to symbolically suggest what Kurnool had been reduced to in the worst floods ever here. A zero.

The street leads into Main Bazaar Road, that has been one of the busiest commercial areas in this town. After the waters from the Tungabhadra and the Handri rivers inundated all the shops here on 2nd October, the market is today an NPA, a non-performing asset.

Virtually everyone I meet wants to invite us home. Not in the mood of happy celebration at the arrival of a guest but to show their Paradise Lost and share their story with the world.

“Please come to Ward 33, there is still water there. No one has cleared the garbage,” says one. “Nahi ji, you just have to come to the next street, you would not be able to even stand there for two minutes. And we are expected to live there,” beseeches an elderly lady.

“Didn’t the CM pass through your area this morning?” I ask. “No, no, no, no …” a chorus so loud, but still not loud enough to reach the ears of the powerful in Hyderabad. Chief minister K Rosaiah had that morning toured some parts of Kurnool town but even to an outsider to the town like me, it was obvious it had been a case of `Driving Mr Rosaiah’. The CM was shown what others in the administration decided he should be shown. Streets that had been hurriedly cleaned up the night before by municipal workers brought in from Hyderabad and Rajahmundry. Bleaching powder had been sprinkled liberally that morning. Enough for the veteran Congressman to pat himself and his colleagues on the back.

Habasha says he borrowed three lakh rupees to buy a variety of bangles ahead of Diwali. Today the bangles in his shop are covered with slush. In disgust, in pain, in grief, he throws the bangles out of the shop. “The CM went by this route in the morning at 7 when the shop’s shutters were down,” he shrieks. “How would he know anything when the shops are closed? He needs to see them open to know an entire world has been ruined inside.”

“I do jewellery repair, Sir,” a soft-spoken man whispers to me. His tone mellow, perhaps embarrassed to share his problem with a stranger. “All my jewellery powder got washed away, worth thousands of rupees.” I just look at him, put my hand on his shoulder, not knowing what to say.

A couple of shops away, two wholesale garment stores are taking out heaps of cloth material and world-famous Gadwal silk sarees, all wet and muddy. “These are the two advance cheques of 20000 rupees each that I had received,” says proprietor Vithal Rao. The cheques are so wet that they will tear if I even touch them and the sarees, even after a dryclean, will have to be given away for free.

On the street, a family of three is huddled together, eating biryani given by a relief truck. I notice three steps away lies a dead cat in a puddle of water. But when the pangs of hunger are so loud, you choose to be blind. Just like the government is blind to the reality of a town of two and a half lakh people, living life in the most unhygenic conditions imaginable.

What hits you the most in present-day Kurnool is the garbage. Heaps and heaps and heaps of them in every street. Outside every home. Household items that have had to be thrown away as garbage, thanks to the sticky deposit of black loamy soil from the Tungabhadra river, that has become Kurnool’s curse. Tractors carry them and dump them on the outskirts of the town on one side of the Hyderabad-Bangalore National highway. The sight of mountains of Kurnool’s garbage is what greets you as enter Kurnool now.

How long will it take for Kurnool to look like the Kurnool of old? The local MLA says 15 days, an official says 45 days, locals say two months. “Never,” says Mahadev Rao, who has lived in Kurnool for the last 40 years. “The attitude of the administration has broken Kurnool’s spirit.”

“We are tired of asking everyone for help,” says Sankaramma. “Apni bhi koi izzat hai na (We also have some respect, don’t we?). She says the routine attitude of the administration, treating it just as “another day, another flood, another relief camp” has hurt the sense of dignity of the people here.

As we leave Kurnool, crossing the Tungabhadra and the toll gate, we find heaps and heaps of clothes on either side of the highway. These are clothes sent from different cities, collected by political parties, NGOs and so-called philanthropists, who have garnered or should I say, cornered, a good deal of publicity before TV cameras and shutterugs, before they despatch the relief material to Kurnool. The trucks arrive here and just dump, yes, simply dump the clothes on the roadside. Because there are few takers for these second-hand, sometimes torn clothes. I am told they burnt them in Alampur in Mahbubnagar district in protest.

“We are flood victims, not beggars,” a man told me, even while searching for a red shirt that would fit him. “Why only red,” I asked, half-amused.

Kyunki khoon khaulta hai Sir”. (Because my blood boils)

Krishna’s fury

By T S Sudhir

Atheists of the world, here is conclusive proof that God exists. Last month, elaborate prayers were conducted in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh to pray to the Rain God. The towns in the district were facing an acute drinking water shortage and the people were very desperate.

Their prayers were answered on Gandhi Jayanti day. It poured and poured and POURED in capital letters, ironically in the most violent way imaginable. Non-stop. Not just in Kurnool but also in neighouring districts in north Karnataka. All the waters flowed down in the Krishna and Tungabhadra, virtually drowning Kurnool, Nandyal, Mantralayam and various towns and villages.

Either God was in a very benevolent mood or he did not like the rather persistent manner of invoking him to open the floodgates. Whatever be the case, God’s act resulted in over 260 people dying in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Assuming God is somewhere up in the clouds, he needs to look down. And Google earth style, zoom in to Puloor village by the banks of the River Tungabhadra in Mahbubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh. But he would not find LIC agent Neelappa there. For Neelappa has spent the last four days in a rice godown near Alampur, with 2500 other flood victims and 500 cows and buffaloes and innumerable rodents for company.

“I haven’t slept a wink,” he says. Neelappa cannot charge his cellphone because Alampur is Andhra Pradesh’s Andhera Pradesh. With no power supply and his home washed away, he has moved into a relative’s home in Gadwal town, 30 km away. “But how long can I stay at someone’s home like an unwelcome visitor,” he says.

For years, Neelappa has made a living persuading people in and around his village to take a life insurance policy. Today he is melancholic and philosphical about the inevitable. Someone he sold a policy to three months back has gone missing, he says. “Life has no insurance. I never imagined the Tungabhadra would Tsunami-like take over everything we had,” he rues.

If poor districts like Mahbubnagar and Kurnool are a picture of acute misery, then the coastal districts of Krishna and Guntur are comparatively better off. Even in the quality of the relief camps and the way they are managed, Mahbubnagar and Krishna are as different as chalk and cheese. In the many relief camps I visited in towns like Jaggayapet and Vijayawada in Krishna district, atleast flood victims did not have to keep awake in the night, warding off rats and snakes doing a Tom and Jerry.

But there are snakes and worms in Vijayawada as well. Some of them have made their way into the home of Sudha Rani, a housewife. Her rented home in Bhoopesh Gupta Nagar was flooded by `Krishnamma’ as they call the river in these parts. The family of four spent two days and three nights under the full moon on the main road because moving to a relief camp would mean not being able to keep an eye on their belongings back home.

They need not have feared because as the waters receded, all that was left behind were children Kalyani and Sairam’s wet books, wet rice that Sudha cannot cook, unusable table fans. Even the photo album with pictures of Sudha’s childhood were part of history.

Neither Neelappa nor Sudha blame God. “In fact, I am grateful, we did not get killed in the floods,” says Sudha. All they ask for is help to rebuild their lives. Not charity. Not standing in a queue to get relief material from a politician, who is more keen on posing for photographs, so that he can milk it for electoral dividends in 2014.

“Please help us rebuild our lives while keeping our dignity intact,” says Sudha. As she said this, I thought anyone could have been in Sudha Rani’s place. You, me, anyone.

11-year-old Kalyani tells me there is no money to buy new books. Her brother, Sairam, a year older, is half happy the quarterly exams have been postponed. But he also knows he will need to rewrite a lot of science and maths portions. His Biology books got saved because they were kept on top of an almirah. He shows me the diagram he had made of the working of the heart. He now needs people’s hearts to beat for flood victims like him.

Officials say statistically, such floods occur only once in ten thousand years. That’s a relief. But to be on the safer side, it is better not to pray too hard.