Wednesday, December 24, 2008 interview

"Do you think the contribution a lyricist makes often gets overshadowed?
Sadly, yes. We are the backroom boys whose names will not be read out on the FM stations, who will barely get any royalties, Most people don't even know who wrote a certain song because unlike earlier, radio stations don't feel the need to mention their names. Heck -- even most singers often don't know whose song they are singing!

Often lyrics are written to fit tunes, doesn't that kill creativity, inspiration?
It's a challenge, but very satisfying when one pulls it off. But there interesting changes on that front as well, and one sees music directors often asking lyricists to write first, which is then composed later. That is a very encouraging sign.

What kind of trends do you observe, there was a time when Bhojpuri lyrics where catching on.
I think we are often are a bit too quick to try and catch trends. The only trend is that there are at all times some good lyrics and some bad lyrics!

Read the full interview by Chirag Sutar here.

Time magazine on changing Bollywood

"Neelesh Misra, a journalist and lyricist, whose story based on a young, ailing professor who helps his students mend their lives has been bought by a leading production house, says, "Ten years back if you told a producer you had a story starting with a dying professor, they'd show you the door. Now, they are seeking out scriptwriters who'd give them something fresh."
Does this mean the end of Bollywood as we know it? "Hardly," says Misra, "It might be easier to sell an offbeat script today, but you still can't negotiate a [decent] price."

Read Madhur Singh's full story on changes in Bollywood here. It is old but I just received a link from someone, so ...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Mission Kashmir Diary-3

The nomad has bought a mobile phone. He now wants a house.

Fazal Hussain, the Bakarwal tribe elder with the kohl-laced eyes and henna-dyed beard, clutched the handset like a walkie-talkie in front of him as he told his address to a relative coming by to visit.

“Come to a clearing on a hill between Chingus and Rajouri, keep looking to the left from the window,” Hussain said, as he stood at his annual winter address after returning an hour ago from wandering through Kashmir.

But there is no romance left in these endless nomadic journeys anymore. Hussain wants to stop. He wants a home and a normal life. He wants an address that is not a mountain clearing.
“We hate this life. We are tired of being vagabonds. We are living in darkness, we cannot even do signatures,” he said as his grandchildren looked on, sitting on a rock.

“We are so desperate that we settle down and our children go to school. I wish they could study,” Hussain said. “We want the government’s help.”

The Bakarwals are nomads who still live the ancient lifestyle that their ancestors lived for centuries, surviving on and seeking little except what they can carry.

“We have no greed. We get our dinner, and then we know Allah will do something for us in the morning,” he said, women lit fires and stirred salted Kashmiri tea.

In the summers, the Bakarwals support themselves by doing odd jobs at fruit orchards and farm fields in Kashmir. They have their “qasab” (territories), where they can wander, well divided among themselves.

Many Bakarwals have voter ID cards, and are being wooed by politicians ahead of the Jammu and Kashmir state elections.

“It’s election time, so they will come and promise us relief, land, pensions,”’ said Mohammed Shabir, 45, another Bakarwal villager. “For centuries, we have been cheated like this. Nobody did anything for us vagabonds.”

A little Bakarwal girl walked across the highway, all by herself, to pick firewood.

Wading with their huge herds of sheep into big cities, they come down from the pastures in the winters and walk long distances, as far south as the New Delhi suburb of Noida – before returning to Kashmir in the summer.

When insurgency erupted in Kashmir in the nineties, the Bakarwals found themselves under pressure from both militants and the army’s overzealous officers. They stopped going to the forests, where they earlier used to get lucrative produce, and began living by the roads.

Now they have many youth who are dreaming bag, and seeking aspirations.

“I once went to Srinagar. It is big and beautiful. I want to live there,” said Ghulam Qadir, 14.

But from their information-choked, reclusive world, there is still some distance to be travelled.

“I love cricket. My favourite cricketer is Salman Khan,” Qadir said.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Mission Kashmir Diary-2

The 65-year-old doctor did not have a pen. But he carried his own paper -- a blank letterhead with his name and qualifications -- as he stepped out of his clinic to kill himself.

Outside Balwant Khajuria's clinic in Jammu region's border town, a war was being prepared. Hundreds of people crunched together, shouting furious slogans in their clash against the Kashmir region. Their throats were hoarse.

Few had had food. Few cared.

The war has subsided, but the state known for the rebellious Kashmiri face has a new angry young man: Jammu. Decades of perceived discrimination has boiled over, stunning Kashmiris and the rest of India.

"The Kashmiris thought only they could do strikes and throw stones? We have showed them what we can do, and Jammu will never lie low again," said Pradyumna Sharma, a college student who threw stones at police and offered arrest during the violent two-month campaign. "Until there is justice for us, this anger will not stop."

Nine people died in the protests. Curfew lasted two months. Women and children – some as young as year-old – filled jails in protest and streets witnessed bloody battles with the police.

It was the morning of August 14 when Khajuria stepped out of his clinic, when Jammu and Kashmir was in the throes of its most violent civil unrest ever. A squabble over a piece of land on the way to the Amarnath shrine had boiled over into violent street protests by hundreds of thousands of people in the two regions that give the state its name.

Khajuria went and sat in a corner of the crowd, and wrote out a long suicide note. He folded it and kept it in his pocket. Then he walked quietly to the public tap nearby, took out a packet from his other pocket and gulped down some tables of Sulphos, a deadly insecticide.

He melted into the crowd, shouted slogans with them, and, within a few minutes, collapsed. Doctors could not save him – and they did not know it was a suicide until they found the note, asking people to oppose the government and "keep the faith."

On that day, hundreds of kilometres to the north in Kashmir's capital Srinagar, something unimaginable until even a few week ago was happening. Pakistan's flags were being waved by furious protesters, watched silently by security forces keen to avoid clashes.

Still, not enough reason for a 65-year-old silver-haired man to kill himself.

"He was emotional, but we never thought he could take this extreme step," said Vivek Khajuria, 36, the doctor's son. Above him, hung a picture of his late father, wearing a suit and tie.

Some days before his death, he came home furious. He had met some women at Amarnath Yatra soup kitchens who said they had been tortured with cigarette butts and ordered to shout "Pakistan Zindabad" (long live Pakistan) on their way back from the shrine.

"He believed that Hindus and minorities in Kashmir, and they are ignored," said Vivek Khajuria. "The maximum employment opportunities go to Kashmiris."

That anger is sweeping across the Jammu region, centred on jobs, economic opportunities and the alleged financial pampering of Kashmir.

"If you are against India, you are pampered. If you say `India Zindabad', you are taken for granted," said Khajuria.

The town, barely seven kilometres from the international border, has heard that echo before.
Two men died in Hiranagar in 1953 in police firing in the widespread agitation led by Hindu natinalist leader Shyama Prasad Mukherjee against the special permit required to enter the state. Mukherjee defied the ban and entered Jammu and Kashmir. He was put in jail, where he died in intriguing circumstances.
This time round, the rage is set to play out in the elections, and Hindu nationalist groups like the Bharatiya Janata Party are hoping to gain from it.

But at the heart of it, there is a battle for resources, not religion.

The dead doctor's son graduated in then-fancied agriculture from Ghaziabad, the New Delhi suburb, 11 years ago but blames the government and its alleged pampering of Kashmir for not being able to find a job yet.

"I am sure they are giving jobs through the backdoor to Kashmiris," he said nonchalantly, punching his fingers on a calculator.

Mission Kashmir Diary-1

I am an outsider in Kashmir.

I have been travelling there for much of my career as a journalist, I am married into a Kashmiri Pandit family, and some of my closest friends are Kashmiris. I love the voices of Kashmir’s celebrated singers Rashid Hafiz and Kailash Mehra. I have written a few of my popular Bollywood songs with inspiration from the turbulent solitude of Kashmir’s roads. My next book extensively features Kashmir. I can even understand a few sentences in Kashmiri, and after an animated discussion in Kashmiri between friends, I can shock them with one of the few Kashmiri sentences I know: “Mecchu Souri Taraan Phikree (I understood everything).

And yet, I am an outsider in Kashmir.

I am someone who has no idea how Kashmir operates at its various mysterious, intriguing levels. I can never feel the pain that has seeped into the blood of hundreds of thousands of people living surrounded by death for years, for whom the first sight of the morning, when they open their windows looking for the warmth of the cosy sun, is a military bunker with an armed man.

I can never hear the growl of the army or paramilitary man when he brusquely asks me to pull over at a barricade and humiliates me in front of my family; I can never squint at the sight of the harsh torchlight that he flashes in my face in the night, I can never feel his rough hands on my body as he searches me for bombs, I can never hear the hostility in his voice as he lets me go. The militants have given Kashmir immense pain – but the crushing response of the Indian government has made that pain fade in comparison.

And I can never feel the tragedy of being treated like an outsider in my own land.

I am an outsider.

I can never imagine how it looks, watching from inside that barb wire, sand bag-protected bunker with the little light bulb. I can never be that man from a faraway Andhra Pradesh or Tamil Nadu or Jharkhand, wearing a heavy bulletproof vest and holding a machinegun, fighting a war someone else created, and for which he must now give his life. The man watching out for his invisible enemy who comes holding a grenade under the pheran; the lonely, often terrified man who kills not so much to kill the militant or the innocent Kashmiri, but to save his own life in a strange land that was thrust upon him by the same people who thrust military occupation on the picturesque land.

I can never understand the pain of the unknown soldier and the letters he writes home. I am an outsider in Kashmir.

And I can never know what is like to be driven out like an outsider from Kashmir. I can never know what it is like to be a Kashmiri Pandit. The minority whose fault was that they were bright, prosperous, did well in life, and were nationalists at heart. The people who were threatened, killed, hounded and ridiculed and forced to leave their homeland – with their pain never understood by either India or Kashmiris.

I can never feel for their tragedy. I am an outsider.

And perhaps some day I will acquire the brains to understand why the Indian taxpayer’s money – which includes my money – goes into the Black Hole of governance where New Delhi issues blank cheques once in a while to buy peace and loyalty in Kashmir and it vanishes without trace in the rarefied air of the valley.

Perhaps someday I will acquire the brains to understand why Indian taxpayer money is used to pump favours to the same men who abuse India and the idea of India.

I am an outsider in Kashmir.

(This piece first appeared in the Hindustan Times)

Mission Kashmir continued


I am getting back to my blog after several weeks, and I apologise. I am firstly publishing here some of what I wrote, and some pictures I took, on the road trip through Kashmir.


Monday, November 10, 2008

Mission Kashmir

Hi all,
I have vanished from sight -- I am in Jammu and Kashmir on a three week journey across the state aclong with two colleagues, a Kashmiri Muslim and a Kashmiri Pandit.

I shall post my stores and blogs here as well, but you can also read it here on the special website created for the project.

Do write in with your comments.


Monday, November 3, 2008

रेत में सर किए

रेत में सर किए

आज बैठा हूँ मैं

सोचता, मुश्किलें

यूँ ही टल जाएंगी ...

ख्वाब की खोज में

कुछ मिले न मिले

हसरतें कुछ मेरी

तो निकल जाएंगी

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Letter from Anonymous

An anonymous person wrote a scathing comment on my blog about something I wrote recently, and I reproduce it here. I wish he/she had revealed his/her name. Though I will respond to the comments, but I think more than attacking me personally it raises an important question:

Do we, as journalists, make any contribution to the people whose plight we write about? Do we help or touch their lives in any way apart from our soppy stories about them?

Responses welcome.

Here is the comment:

"Watching all this horrible and disturbing scene on your blog and the poetic description of tragedy of Madhepura is too heart breaking to bear.I ask you that why all this is being made the blog item? did you dare to wet your feet into the flood water of kosi? how many victims have so far been paid plenty monitory assistance by you? in the blog photo you look to be belonging to a prosporous family. If all this is just a report of a correspondance, then it is nothing more than the commercial use of the national calamity. For the sake of pity people please stop all this tear dropping and if possible take some real steps for their rehabilitation."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

दो बेवकूफ औरतें

मेरे दोस्त कहते हैं मैं अक्सर महिलाओं के ख्याल में रहता हूँ. सच कहते हैं.

देखो ना -- हफ्तों बीत गए. जाने कब फूटा था अहमदाबाद में बम. जाने कब आयी थी बिहार में बाढ़. फिर भी दो औरतों को अपने साथ लिए घूम रहा हूँ. पीछा ही नहीं छोड़तीं कमबख्त.

एक तो मर भी चुकी है.

फल के ठेले के पास खड़ी थी, पीली साड़ी पहन कर. अमरुद ले रही थी. दाहिने हाथ में प्लास्टिक की थैली थी. बाएँ हाथ में कुछ छोटे नोट दबाये थी. ठेले पर सेब भी थे, अनार भी. लेकिन अमरुद सस्ता होता है न.

अमरुद लिया नहीं, कि बम फट गया. धडाम से गिर पड़ी मुई, पीठ के बल, उसी अहमदाबाद के बाज़ार में. आतंकवादी ने किसी छोटे से कमरे में बैठ के जो बनाया था, उस बम से निकले पतले पतले लोहे के टुकड़े उसके बदन को चीर गए.

फल वाला भी मर गया. बेकार में रुपैय्या रुपैय्या भाव ताव करता था, अब पता चला ना, आटे दाल का भाव.

और वो पीली साड़ी वाली औरत ... कौन जाने उसके मुंह से कुछ निकला होगा कि नहीं. "आssssssssss" बोली होगी क्या? सर जब ज़मीन से लड़ा तो धमक लगी होगी क्या या तब तक मर गयी होगी?

थैली से अमरुद बिखर गए, फैल गए दूर तक.

अक्सर सोचता हूँ उसके बारे में.

कौन पीछे उसकी राह देखता होगा उस शाम? किस गाँव की कितनी घोर गरीबी छोड़ कर उसका परिवार शहर आया होगा, ताकि क़र्ज़ से फांसी न लगानी पड़े ...

किस से कह कर आयी होगी "बस अभी आयी बेटा, अमरुद लाने जा रही हूँ"? कौन नाराज़ होता होगा, "इत्ती देर हो गयी, अमरुद लाने में इत्ती देर लगती है क्या?"

सच बात है. अमरुद लाने में इत्ती देर कहाँ लगती है. हाँ, मरने में थोड़ा वक्त ज़रूर लग जाता है. धीमी धीमी मौत मरते हैं ना इस मुल्क के करोड़ों लोग.

अहमदाबाद के उस बाज़ार से सैकडों मील दूर, बिहार के मधेपुरा जिले के लखीपुरा गाँव में रहती है दूसरी औरत.

मरी नहीं है अभी. हाँ मरने चली थी उस रोज़.

गाँव आयी रक्षा नाव वापस जाने को थी, खाना बाँट कर. नैशनल डिसास्टर रेस्पोंस फोर्स के कमांडेंट डैनियल अधिकारी के पास खाने का आख़री थैला बचा था, और सारा गाँव भूखा था. जैसे ही थैला हवा मैं उछला, वो पागल औरत पानी में कूद गयी. पेट जो भरना था परिवार का.

मर सकती थी. लेकिन भूख से मरने से तो ज़्यादा इज्ज़तदार होती ये मौत.

थैली उसके हाथ में आयी क्या, एक और आदमी कूद गया पानी में. लड़ते रहे वो कितनी देर तक.

मुझे इस कहानी का अंत नहीं मालूम है. पता नहीं उस पागल औरत के घर उस दिन रोटी बनी या नहीं. क्या पता अब तक जिंदा भी है या मर गयी अगली नाव की राह देखते देखते.

पर अक्सर दिल्ली में लाल बत्ती हो जाती है, तो गाड़ी में बैठा बैठा भीख मांगने वाले बच्चों को देख कर सोचता हूँ -- अगर उन दो औरतों के बच्चे कभी भटकते हुए आमने सामने मिल गए तो पता है क्या बोलेंगे एक दूसरे से?

"माँ तो कभी घर से मत निकलने देना ..."

(चित्र: इन्टरनेट/कमांडेंट डैनियल अधिकारी, एन डी आर ऍफ़ )

Monday, October 13, 2008

Let this picture do the talking

The rescuer had one last food packet in his hands, and the entire village was hungry.

As Commandant Daniel Adhikari watched, a desperate woman leaped into the waters to grab it.

But another man jumped in as well, the two fighting over the bag as rescuers watched helplessly in Lakhipur village in Bihar’s Madhepura district.

“It was heartrending. There has been so much suffering. We tried to do all we could,” said Adhikari.

Take a look at her again. Closely.

(Picture: Daniel Adhikari)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Picture Postcards


I take so many pictures and I realised I don't share them here enough. Part of the reason was that I have been agonising over the logistics -- will people like them? Will they think they are trash? And they don't, will my intellectual property be protected?
You know what, I don't care.
I am publishing these pictures, taken on my Nikon D-80, and I plan to share more over the next few weeks. I also intend to do a coffee table book early next year on my travels and the faces I meet. Please write in to say if these are any good, and if they aren't, I shall stop dreaming about that glossy.
Be honest, but not too brutal.

PS: The top two pictures below, in which I figure along with my colleagues B. Vijay Murty (left) and Rahul Pandita, were taken by my colleague Manoj Patil, Chief Photographer of the Hindustan Times in Mumbai. The rest, ahem, are mine.

Travels through Naxal country-5

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Travels through Naxal country-4

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Travels through Naxal country-3

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Travels through Naxal country-2

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Travels in Naxal country, Jharkhand

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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Life & death: A flood story

The youngest member of the relief camp is two days old. She has no name.

Her grandparents-to-be had cried desperately as the water swept them away last week in Kolaipatti village and hundreds fled. Her mother, nine months pregnant, had begun a long walk that would decide the fate of both mother and daughter.

For Nazrun Khatun, 35, it was a battle to save her life — as well as that of her baby, ready to be born any minute. “The water was rising so fast.. I was losing my mind,” said Khatun, holding her baby in her lap as other homeless villagers looked on, smiling at the baby and trying to play with her. The baby half-smiled; then changed her mind and began to frown.

The family’s dramatic tale began on the morning of August 21. The Kosi was in fury. In Khatun’s home in Madhepura district, people screamed and ran from their homes. Many carried children, and cattle, on their shoulders. Khatun and her husband Mohammed Abbas, 35, decided to flee as well.
Before they knew, they were up to their chests in floodwaters. The family considered its options: waiting it out to see whether the river would rise further, or flee and leave their two buffalos and two bulls behind.

“I had to choose. It was tough but I had to leave behind the cattle,” said Abbad, wearing an undershirt and red-checked scarf hung loosely over his shoulder.

As Khatun groaned in pain and walked, her husband held her hand and walked ahead of his father Ahmed Ali and mother Jebun Khatun, who were supposed to follow. “They got left behind. They ran here and there. Then they disappeared and died,” said Abbas, a farmer who has lost all he had.

Khatun walked 15 kilometres, then took a train, then walked to a relief camp three days ago. She began experiencing labour pains soon after she joined the camp — a large school of two dozen classrooms where more than 2,600 people live now in a helpless, hostel-like existence.

Two days ago, she was ready. “There was no doctor, so two of my friends from the village helped me,” said Khatun, her face weary and sunburnt.

Khatun’s Hindu friend, who helped deliver the baby, takes her into her arms now, swaying her amid laughter from the crowd.

“What’s the name,” someone in the crowd asks.

“We don’t know yet,” says Abbas. “Who has had the time?”

India's Shame

The prime minister reacted to the crisis on August 28, ten crucial days after the flooding began. Too few military rescuers have been sent by New Delhi, and too late.

State police are missing from rescue and relief sites. There is a complete collapse of support from local government and panchayat officials.

Relief distribution is so unplanned and tardy that the able-bodied get relief again and again, and the weak watch helplessly.

The cataclysmic flooding in Bihar, the worst in India’s modern history, isn’t the national calamity. It is what is unfolding now.

Eighteen days after India’s most notorious and unpredictable Kosi River suddenly breached an embankment and changed its course uprooting millions of people, thousands remain trapped in homes, crushed in poorly resourced relief camps or just sleeping hungry on the road. It is a stunning indictment on how India’s central government, the Bihar administration, and local and international NGOs reacted to the tragedy that has touched the lives of at least 25 million people.

Across the misery-seeped expanse, there are no facilities set up to help trace missing people. No trauma care facilities. There are no international NGOs, who have in the past complained that India did not give them access in such situations.

“The prime minister came here and called it a national tragedy. If this is how our nation reacts to this tragedy, this is just a cruel joke on us, isn’t it?” said Giraj Rishi Yadav, as he sat in a relief camp after walking the whole morning in waist-deep water.

A jeep appeared with food packets from a local donor. Hundreds mobbed it. Hands lunged inside. Men and women screamed and fought over plastic bags.

An old skinny woman with white matted hair got crushed near the bonnet. Another woman had her blouse ripped as the mob pushed her.

An old man wept, desperate he couldn’t fight his young competitors. “First we lost our lives. Now we are losing our dignity,” said Mohammed Saleem, 47, of Chandpur-Bhangha village.
In the chaos, seven-year-old Salauddin tugged at this reporter’s denim jeans. “Can I please get food? I haven’t eaten,” he said, matter-of-fact. Two reporters from HT and NDTV lunged into the crowd to get him a packet.

An hour later, breaking the deathly silence of the submerged Sukhasan village, a mobile phone ring echoed on a rooftop. Sarita Kumari, 21, took the call from an Hindustan Times reporter.
Behind her, the conversations of about 100 people could be heard, trapped on the roof for ten days now. “We are trapped here, Sir… What shall I say about myself? We are all sitting here for ten days now. Not a single boat has come here to evacuate people or with relief,” she said, the phone line faltering.

It began raining.

“We sleep here. We eat here. We sing prayers. When it rains, we go down and stand in the water. Then we come up again. We eat sattu (powdered fried gram) to survive,” she said, her voice choking. “We told the headman, at least give aid to the Dalits and the poorest, if not us – he said ‘what can I do’?”

If the day brings out the worst face of the governments, the night brings out the worst in the humans. Robbers are roaming the submerged villages in the night, robbing homes of whatever jewellery, grains and possessions they can loot.

“Locals are telling us, there are a lot of robberies in the night. We have been trying to check the local boats,” said Lt. Commander Geo Matthews of the Indian Navy. Behind him, a woman walked in her bridal dress, a bright red and yellow sari with brocade. “That’s all I had left,” said Ranjana Devi.

Back at Chandpur-Bhanga, seven-year-old Salauddin was quietly walking away, his eyes lowered. He had a large packet of rice in his skinny hands.
(All photos by the author, except when credit mentioned otherwise)