Tuesday, 21 December 2010

WikiLeaks and the Radia Tapes – My Take

I have mixed feelings about Julian Assange and his leaks. On one hand, it's a David versus Goliath story and one instinctively tends to be sympathetic to the former. However, most of the information leaked by WikiLeaks is of the kind that was already suspected to be true. For example, are there any surprises when a State Department cable posted by WikiLeaks shows that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states distrust Iran so much that they would be happy to see the US attack Iranian nuclear facilities? Didn't we all know that India's desire to have a seat on the Security Council does not have much Western support? What of the report which says that the Fatah movement cooperated with Israel in its fight against Hamas? Did you know that Richard Branson believes that the British education system does not serve budding businessmen and women well?

I did not have a clue about Branson's views on the British education system and the chances are that you didn't either. Equally, the chances are that Branson did not want to air his views in public. However, I doubt if they will do him much damage.

On the other hand WikiLeaks' claim to the effect that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah Movement get along well with Israel will do a lot of damage to President Abbas and the relatively secular Fatah movement. The Fatah movement is now bound to lose a number of Arab supporters who cannot stomach the idea that Palestinians need to have a dialogue with Israel. Hamas will gain as a result of this exposure. Similarly, how does it help the fight against Islamic terrorism to show that airstikes carried out in Yemen against Islamic militants were actually the work of the US rather than Yemen?

Let's face it – there are so many countries in the world where it is not possible to call a spade a spade (especially when the spade happens to be Islamic fundamentalism). Politicians in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and various other countries need to make various untruthful statements in order to strike a balance between getting on with the fight against Islamic fundamentalism and keep their populace quiet. Diplomats are expected to push their national interests by all means available at their disposal and if anything, WikiLeaks seem to show most diplomats doing just that. There have been very few exposures which show laws being broken. Yes, Hilary Clinton did get egg on her face when it was shown that the US tried to spy on the United Nations. However, with the UN headquarters located in New York, I would be amazed if the Americans did not spy on the UN's staff.

In my opinion, Assange is an anarchist, the sort that wants to breakdown our imperfect systems and hypocritical societies without offering a half-decent substitute. If I let my head rule over my heart, I find that I have very little sympathy for him and his actions. I do think that the US and other governments have gone overboard in forcing Amazon, Mastercard etc to not offer WikiLeaks the services they offer to the public at large, but then, what other option did the governments have? As for the rape charges against Assange, you can read the full details here. All I have to say is that if this report is exhaustive and accurate, then there is very little possibility of Assange going to jail. Oh and by the way, Assange is shocked and disgusted that Swedish police files pertaining to the charges against him have been leaked to the Guardian. I mean, how could anyone leak such sensitive information?

The Radia tapes are a totally different ball game. Unlike the WikiLeaks materials which were obtained illegally, the Radia tapes arose from the Income Tax department's phone tapping (all legal and above board) though it is unclear why they have been leaked. The leaks have been selective, and of course, we do not know what has not been leaked. The transcripts of the conversations have shown a very unholy nexus between the fourth estate and our politicians. The corruption exposed has been of a scale hitherto unimagined by most Indians.

I had great respect for men like Vir Sanghvi, though I didn't always agree with him. We all believed that the Tatas never took or gave bribes, didn't we? Well, most of us anyway.

In short, I like the Radia tapes. I am glad they were created by the IT department and may the Good Lord bless the brave soul who leaked them to the media.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Writing a Spy Novel - When the Snow Melts

I have something exciting to announce:

Amaryllis, an imprint of Manjul Publishing, has agreed to publish my novel ‘When the Snow Melts ’.

When the Snow Melts is a spy novel. A thriller. At least, that’s the expectation – that it’ll thrill.

I have always wanted to write a spy novel, though it took me a long time to screw up the courage to even start thinking about writing one. My first novel Hitchhiker was largely based on what I had observed around me and to be honest, did not require much research. It took me a year to write Hitchhiker. When the Snow Melts took me a year as well. However, the research that preceded the writing took me a couple of years. With a spook as its lead protagonist, I had to find out a lot of things before I could even get a fix on the plot. You see, spies are human beings, but they do things very differently, don’t they? As for the organisations which send them out with a licence to kill, they are secretive organisations and do not really like to divulge much information about themselves.

In the next few months, I expect to be working with Amaryllis and its Head of Publishing Sanjana Roy Choudhury in editing my manuscript and getting it ready for publication. For this reason and because I am changing jobs and moving back to India (after over 8 years in the UK), I expect to be able to blog a lot less than I do currently. Please bear with me.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Book Review: A Tika for Jung Bahadur – Selected Short Stories by Jug Suraiya


There’s a world accessible only to a very small number of Indians, a privileged few whose parents have the money, foresight and ambition to send their children to public schools. No, I am not talking of your convent-across-the-road where lower middle-class and middle class children learn to speak in Pidgin English, but of top of the mill public schools that offer an education unchanged since the days of the Raj. This world is brought to us by Jug Suraiya, leading Indian journalist and cartoonist (Dubyaman) whom Khushwant Singh once referred to as India’s Art Buchwald, in the form of his short stories, a compilation of which has been published by the Times Group.

There are twelve stories in all and each of them is either set in a public school or involves characters who behave like products from a public school. The net effect of this atmosphere is to transport the reader to a world located within India, but is not really Indian. For example, one of the stories, The Word, is set in a small unknown Indian town and its main protagonist is a night watchman. There are unusual events taking place in this town and readers are kept in a state of anticipation till the end. However, Suraiya’s manner of narration (The Mayor said, ‘Good Man,’) makes you feel that either the town is located in the West or the story has been narrated by a Westerner.

The best story in the entire collection is undoubtedly the Badger. I remember reading this many, many (ten or even fifteen) years ago and enjoying it as much as I enjoyed re-reading it now. The story of a teacher at a public school in the mountains, the Badger is narrated by a master craftsman who has spent a considerable amount of time in a public school and does not know of a world outside it. There is drama, there is suspense and there is a happy ending which is realistic without succumbing to the pitfalls of melodrama.

A Premature Ghost is a ghost story with a difference, though the crux of the plot is given away on the back cover (they shouldn’t have done that). I’ll leave it to you to read it and find out for yourself.

The lead story, A Tika for Jung Bahadur, is representative of most of the other stories in this collection. It is well-written in a literary style that is flowery and poetic though at times the narration appears to be contrived. However, the ending is rather tame despite the considerable amount of initial suspense. In a few of the stories, the plots creak and don’t hold water. On balance, this collection is a worthwhile read if only for the Badger and the general ‘public school’ atmosphere.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield - A Book Review


Afghanistan is supposed to be the graveyard of foreign armies and empires. The US and other coalition forces are relearning this lesson now. Soldiers from the British Empire, many of whom were recruited from the subcontinent, learnt this over a century ago. However, Alexander the Great’s invasion of the various kingdoms that comprised modern day Afghanistan was an exception to this rule. Despite enormous losses of men, Alexander managed to subdue Afghanistan after a three-year campaign, after which he moved to India. Steven Pressfield, author of the highly acclaimed Gates of Fire, an account of how 300 Spartans held the Persian army at bay for many days, has written an equally exciting account of Alexander’s Afghan campaign. Mind you, this book came out almost four years ago, though I managed to read it very recently.

Narrated by a lowly soldier, a cavalryman named Matthias, The Afghan Campaign starts with Matthias’s enrolment and his departure for the field of war, Matthias’s father has recently died of Sepsis in Afghanistan,whilst serving Alexander. Two of Matthias’s brothers have been with Alexander for many years. And what’s Matthias’s motive for signing up? Glory and wealth. This seems to be the case with most Macedonians and other Greeks.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the author’s abundant use of modern military terminology. Catapults and bolt throwers are described as ‘artillery’ and ‘missile troops’. Alexander’s army has whole divisions of ‘engineers’, whose jobs range from building bridges to undermining forts. Macedonians are referred to as Macks and military ranks in Alexander’s army vary from sergeant to corporal to captain. In between, Pressfield slips in mentions of phalanxes and Xiphos (sword). More often than not, Matthias and his colleagues carry out ‘cordon operations’, using ‘block and search’ tactics.

Here’s a sample of Pressfieldese:

The column marches in four sections. The vanguard breaks the trail. These are army engineers. Their division leads three thousand camels, laden with timber post and beams, cables, ropes, planking and fittings; they will fabricate bridges to span the torrents and gorges in spate. The van drives sheep and oxen as well, not only to drag timbers for the construction, bit to beat down the trail - and to be slaughtered for meat. To protect the fore elements, the engineers have archers, slingers and javelineers, mercenary cavalry of Lydia, Armenia and Media, with hired Afghans of the west, mountain troops who hate the Panjshiri and our own Mack pioneers. The latter are the miscreants of the army, stripped of the privilege of bearing arms and handed axes and mattocks instead. The poor scuffs are clearing tracks through twenty and thirty foot high drifts. Alexander and the elite units come next, the agema of the Companions, the Royal Guardsman, battalions of Perdiccas’s and Creterus’s crack brigades with Agrianian javelineers, Cretan archers and specialised mountain companies, including combat engineers with stone throwers and bolt-hurlers. These divisions will take the foe in strength, here in the Panjshirif if the tribesmen contest our passage, and on the plains of Bactria beyond, when the King overhauls Bessus’s and Spitamenes’ cavalry. Next the central phalanx brigades, including ours, Hephaestion’s and Ptolemy’s and the non-detached battalions of Perdiccas and Craterus; then the heavy sections; then the light brigades of Erigius, Attlus, Gorgias, Meleager, and Polyperchon, along with mercenary and Iranian cavalry. The baggage, such as there is, comes between them and the rearguard, composed of foreign contingents and native light troops. The total is nearly fifty thousand.

I initially found Pressfield’s use of contemporary terminology disconcerting and even upsetting. I felt cheated. However, by the time I was half way through, I had settled in and stopped differentiating between English, Greek and Afghan words.

The Afghan Campaign has plenty of drama. Matthias practises Greek philoxenia (love for stranger) which easily comes into in conflict with Afghan ‘Nangauli’. Nangauli translates into honour, revenge and hospitality. If a woman is in distress and her male relatives are not in a position to help her, but a stranger does, the woman has brought dishonour to her family and should be killed! Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me and I wish I could find out if Pressfield made that one up or if Nangauli was a historical fact. To me, Nangauli appears to be a more extreme version of the Sharia, as practised in certain parts of modern day Afghanistan.

Pressfields’ description of battle scenes are excellent. There’s one where the Afghan warlord Spitamenes is facing Alexander’s troops across a river. Afghan archers are itching for the fight and they think they have the upper hand. Alexander, the master deceiver, has a few trumps up his sleeve and the result is a rout for the Afghans. After a few pages of masterly narration, Matthias the narrator makes an innocuous statement: “The Afghan does not understand modern artillery” (emphasis supplied) Towards the end of the book, there’s a final battle where Alexander’s troops decimate Spitamenes’s army. Those few pages alone make it worthwhile to read the entire book. I won’t spoil the fun, please do read it for yourself.

What was the secret of Alexander’s (relative) success in Afghanistan? There are two secrets. One, Greek soldiers were brutal, as brutal as the Afghans who thought nothing of flaying captives alive or using equally painful methods to torture and execute men. There were wholesale massacres of villages and communities. Opposition was simply not tolerated. Two, at the end of the book, Alexander marries Roxane, daughter of the Warlord Oxyartes who was one of the various chieftains opposing him. Alexander’s marriage earns him a number of friends and pacifies most of Afghanistan. If you think I am being a spoilsport in disclosing the ending, you are wrong. The Afghan Campaign begins with Alexander’s wedding and the rest of the book is a flashback.

Can the US and the rest of NATO take a leaf from Alexander’s book? I doubt it. These days, western solders can’t be ruthless and cruel. However, Obama can and should emulate Alexander and take Mullah Omar’s daughter as his second wife. May be that will pacify Afghanistan and enable the troops to return home.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Jinnah by Jaswant Singh – A Book Review


I got hold of this book mainly because I hoped it would answer a simple question I’ve had for a long time. Did Jinnah fight for an independent Pakistan because he genuinely believed that Muslims would not be treated fairly in India? That creating Pakistan was the only possible way Muslims’ rights could be protected? Or was it because he was an egoist who could not bear the thought of playing second fiddle to Mahatma Gandhi and his protégée Jawaharlal Nehru and wanted a signal achievement of his own?

Jaswant Singh starts off his tome with great promise. The initial chapters which tell us about Jinnah’s childhood are well-written and very interesting. Jinnah was a Khoja. Khojas are Shia Muslims who owe allegiance to the Aga Khan and whose ancestors were Gujarati Lohanas who converted to Islam. Jinnah’s father Jenabhai lived in Kathiawad till he migrated to Karachi. I find it extremely interesting that of the two main actors in India’s freedom struggle and partition, one was from Kathiawad and the other had his roots in the same principality. Jaswant Singh’s account of Jinnah’s time in London where he trained to be a barrister and his initial struggles to establish a name for himself in the legal profession are inspiring to say the least. As for my question why Jinnah fought to create Pakistan, Jaswant Singh gives us a clue in the initial stages when he says Jinnah was a man of impeccable integrity which was never called into question by anyone.

However, after the first chapter – Jenabhai to Jinnah – the book starts to digress. What was till then a crisply written narrative about Jinnah the human being becomes a history book about India’s independence struggle between1910-1947. The narration moves back and forth in time and there is an great deal of repetition. Not all of the text relates to Jinnah or throws light on him. To be honest, I had bought this book in August 2009 almost immediately after its release, but had abandoned it half-way through. It was only recently that I girded myself and picked it up again. Was my dogged determination worth it? I am not too sure. ‘Jinnah’ continues to be a history compilation for another four hundred odd pages. The entire book, with its appendices and index, runs to 669 pages, of which the bulk of the text is about the freedom movement in general. Granted, it is not possible to understand Jinnah or his motive(s) in fighting for the creation of Pakistan unless it is read in the context of the freedom struggle, the book is almost a blow by blow account of the events leading to independence and one gets the feeling of having missed the tree for the woods.

We are told that in his early days Jinnah was an ardent proponent of Hindu-Muslim unity, one who rejected the demand for separate electorates and who did not take part in the Khilafat movement. Until he joined the Muslim League in 1913, Jinnah was a devout Congressman who swore by its secular credentials. As head of the Muslim League, Jinnah entered into the 1916 Lucknow Pact with Gandhi which helped the Congress and Muslim League present a joint set of demands to the British. Then came the unravelling in 1920. Gandhi launched the Non Cooperation Movement and Jinnah was not a big fan of such an approach which required one to break the law. Anglophile Jinnah was also not as big a fan of going native as Gandhi was. We are also told that during the Second World War the Muslim League under Jinnah cooperated with the British and won a number of concessions whilst the Congress party leadership went to jail en masse. However, Jaswant Singh is still unable to tell us why Jinnah started to take the view that Muslims would be better off in an independent Pakistan. Did he really believe that or did he just want a show of his own? Was it the Jinnah who had opposed Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement (because it would break the law of the land) who later called for a Direct Action Day in August 1946?

I assume that not much information is available on many of the key events in Jinnah’s life. Unlike Gandhi, Jinnah did not write his version of ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’. For example, Jaswant Singh has little to tell us about Jinnah’s estrangement from his second wife ‘Ruttie’ who was a Parsi and the daughter of a personal friend. Jinnah also became estranged from his only child Dina when she got married to Neville Wadia, a Parsi. There is much more information to be gathered from Wikipedia on matters such as these than in Jaswant Singh’s 669-page book! What is even more surprising is that Jaswant Singh is totally silent on the attempt to assassinate Jinnah by an alleged member of the Kashkar movement on 26 July 1943. The Khaksars, I am told by a number of unreliable sources on the internet, fought for the rights of Muslims, wanted independence for British India, but opposed partition! I don’t know any more about the Khaksar movement other than that it was founded by Allama Mashriqi (also known as also known as Inayatullah Khan) who in 1957 was all set to lead 300,000 of his followers into Kashmir to fight for its liberation until the Pakistani government persuaded him not to.

My biggest grumble therefore is that on topics where there is very little information available in the public domain, especially on what motivated secular Jinnah to push for Pakistan, I would have liked Jaswant Singh to express an opinion or a thesis. The final chapter aptly titled ‘In Retrospect’ is all about Jaswant Singh’s views on partition and how it was a horrible mistake and how it could have been avoided. A lot of the blame falls on the Indian National Congress and Nehru. Jaswant Singh does not say that Jinnah is not to blame. What would have been wonderful, but is conspicuous by its absence, is a view on whether Jinnah himself continued to remain proud of his achievement in the short period that he lived after partition. After reaching August 1947, Jaswant Singh takes his readers directly to the day on which Jinnah died!

One of the things I liked a lot about this book is its opinion on Lord Mountbatten. Various writers, especially Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins in Freedom at Midnight, have taken a very benevolent view of Mountbatten and his role in the partition of India. Jaswant Singh (rightly in my view) exposes Mountbatten to be a show man who was thoughtless and incompetent and who hastily rushed through partition which resulted in the deaths of over a million Indians.

Jaswant Singh’s writing is straight forward and to the point. At times, there are literary flourishes, which read rather well. However, because it is so lengthy and because it does not have a specific focus, I doubt if the BJP leadership which expelled Jaswant Singh for this book, actually read it from cover to cover!

When I finished ‘Jinnah’ my most basic question about Jinnah and the partition remained unanswered, For this reason, Jaswant Singh’s treatise reminded of the book I once received as a gift. Titled, ‘All That Men Know About Women,’ it had 200 odd blank pages.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Tariq Aziz’s Only Crime – To Be A Secular Baathist

Tariq Aziz, born Mikhail Yuhanna, has been sentenced to death by an Iraqi court. His only crime – to belong to the Baath Party. I have always thought that the Baath Party is the best thing to have been invented in the Arab political world since election ink – please see my earlier post on the Baath Party.

It’s high time the witch hunt against former Baathists was called off. With a Shia dominated government, this is unlikely to happen. Saddam had many faults, but they did not arise on account of his Baathist ideology. It’s such a pity that the US invasion of Iraq has caused power to shift from the secular Baathists to a Shia dominated government. Parliamentary elections held in March 2010 were inconclusive and Iraq’s Shia parties look set to continue in power, with some help from Iran.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Spike in Coalition Casualties – Obama’s to blame

16 coalition troops died in the last three days in Afghanistan. 2010 has been the deadliest for US and other coalition troops in Afghanistan. So far, 589 have died. Who’s to blame? Barack Obama of course.

In December 2009, Obama announced a surge of 30,000 US troops into Afghanistan, but added that they would start withdrawing in 18 months’ time – by the summer of 2011.

I had at that time blogged about Obama’s declaration, wondering who Obama was trying to please.

It was obvious that Obama would please the Taliban, who now have a clear date until which they have to keep fighting. As long as the people of Afghanistan know that the Taliban will outlive the US presence in Afghanistan, they are unlikely to support coalition initiatives to weaken the Taliban. Karzai will be tempted to talk to the ‘other side’ in the vain hope that the Taliban will spare him after the Americans leave, unlike what they did to Najibullah. And the Taliban will increase the tempo of their attacks, throw in everything they have, because they only need to keep it up for less than a year.

A couple of months ago, General Petraeus insisted that US troops would stay beyond the August 2011 deadline if so needed, that Obama’s deadline was only an “attempt to increase the urgency of the international effort in Afghanistan.”

Petraeus’s colleague Marine Corps Chief General James Conway went to the extent of saying that said the July 2011 deadline could backfire, and that he expected marines to remain in Afghanistan beyond next year.

To quote General James Conway "In some ways, we think right now it is probably giving our enemy sustenance," he said. "In fact we've intercepted communications that say, 'Hey, you know, we only need to hold out for so long.'

It is quite likely that Obama will now take up General Petraeus’s line and say that his deadline was only an attempt to speed up the peacemaking process, that troops would stay beyond the summer of 2011. However, to Afghan ears, it might sound like an admission of defeat.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Talk Your Way To USA – 1986 – Anyone Around?

1986. Air India organised a speech competition for school children in Tamil Nadu. Captioned “Talk Your Way To USA”, competitors were supposed to talk extempore about Travel and Tourism. The winner got a return ticket from Chennai to the US for self, one parent and a teacher. Number two earned a return ticket to the US for self and a teacher. The third prize winner got a return ticket from Chennai to New Delhi for self, one parent and a teacher. There were three consolation prizes after that – return tickets from Chennai to Mumbai for the winner and a teacher. I came fourth and travelled by air - for the first time! The highlight of the final ceremony held on 14 November 1986 (Children’s Day) was the presence of the then Chief Minister MGR who graciously gave five thousand rupees each to all six finalists! Thanks to MGR’s presence, the final prize giving ceremony was shown as a News clipping at various movie theatres in Tamil Nadu. Needless to say, I was a hero at school for the rest of that year.

1986 was the first time Air India held this competition. It was repeated a few times after that. The next year, the competition was held in Tamil and I didn’t get past the district level.

I haven’t kept in touch with any of the other finalists or semi-finalists for that matter from 1986. It would be grand if I could. Please email me if you were there.

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Commonwealth Games Mess: Whose Fault Is It?

China could do it. India wanted to do it, but has made a hash of it (so far). Why? Why? Why?

India’s upper classes dreamt of holding an international sports event in a manner that would make India shine brighter and make India an even more attractive investment destination. I doubt if this dream belonged half as much to the lower classes. In any event, no effort was made to sell this dream to India’s lower middle-classes and the poor. It would have been a hard sell anyway. Why bother when all they get out of it is an eviction if they happen to live in a place earmarked for the Games? In a democracy like India, this can be fatal. If India’s poor don’t care about the Commonwealth Games, they won’t care if the organisers mess it up. When its election time again, India’s poor who make up the bulk of India’s voting population, will not punish those in power who failed to deliver. The politicians know this. On the other hand, the politician(s) who made money out of this extravaganza will have the money to splash out on his election campaign. In all probability, such politician(s) will be back in power.

I used to have a great deal of respect for Sheila Dixit, the Chief Minister of Delhi, until recently considered to be one of India’s best Chief Ministers. I had started liking Rahul Gandhi, heir apparent to the leadership of the Congress Party and Prime Minister in-waiting. Rahul had seemingly thrown off his playboy image and appeared to be a serious politician, one who could connect with India’s youth. However, all of this has happened right under Rahul Gandhi’s and Sheila Dixit’s noses. More importantly, everyone knew that the Games’ preparations were behind schedule. In all probability, in the time honoured Indian way, the Big People in Delhi knew that their minions were making money out of the construction work and the preparations. In all probability, they were receiving a cut – how else would they have money for the next elections? If everyone in power in Delhi had taken a cut from the Games’ budget, how could they crack down on the organising committee even after it became apparent that things were not going to plan?

Before I say anything more, let me confess that I do not have a ring-side view of what’s happening in Delhi. I am not even in India and my only sources are newspapers and the television. It’s obvious from the reports I read and see that if the work had been finished a few weeks earlier, before the advance teams landed up in Delhi, the dirt and grime and shit that has been repeatedly shown on TV would have been cleaned up. The only mistake the organisers made was to run behind schedule. There was never a serious attempt to not use child labour or to provide a decent living wage and accommodation to the labourers who did the work. I doubt if the organisers even thought of setting up portable toilets for the workers. Most probably, China didn’t do any of these either, but then they managed to finish the work in time and clean up their act before the international press or the advance teams landed up. China also most probably managed to keep its labourers disciplined enough to not to shit in the loos or spit into the sparkling wash basins they installed. Anyone who broke the rules most probably had a week’s wages docked. India couldn’t/ can’t do all that. It is a democracy.

China’s communist party leadership cares about China’s image in the rest of the world. In India, the only ones who care about India’s image are its upper classes. Even the top politicians don’t care about it beyond a point since getting elected every five years is much more important. If something similar had happened in China, a few heads would have rolled. Literally. In India, the corrupt can’t be punished even if the government wants to punish them since the judicial system is not efficient and has too many loopholes. A few months after the Games are over, India would have moved on. I doubt if even a single politician or bureaucrat will go to jail on account of this fiasco.

There has been a lot of handwringing amongst India’s upper classes as a result of all this negative publicity. India’s nice people want action. They want the necks of those in the organising committee. However, there is no demand that the government should clamp down on child labour throughout India or that all labourers working on construction sites should have portable toilets or that they should all be paid a living wage and not have to live in unhygienic conditions. From the outset, the Games has been an attempt to clean up a very small part of India and show it to the rest of the world. To use an example, it is akin to a rich man with new money inviting the richest and nicest people in town to a party. His poor relations have been roped in to do the cooking and cleaning and washing up. However, they are not a part of the party and are meant to leave before the party starts. The party would still turn out fine if it is properly planned and everything is done in time. However, if the cooking or other preparations aren’t completed in time, the poor relations can’t be hidden in time when the guests arrive. No, the guests will see them cooking and cleaning when they arrive. No, it won’t look very nice and it will sort of spoil the image. And it has in Delhi.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Book Review: A Journey by Tony Blair




The Journey

It was meant to be “The Journey”, but a last minute editorial change made it “A Journey”. We’ll never know the reason why. Most probably, it was a case of eleventh-hour nerves and a desire to avoid the charge of being pompous. A Journey is a political memoir but Blair does dwell on various aspects of his personal life very often, telling us how became reliant on alcohol at one point. However, many chunks from Blair’s personal life are carefully avoided, such as his recent conversion to Catholicism, though towards the end of the book, Blair says that he has always been more interested in religion than in politics.

What Makes A Politician?

Politics is not for the faint hearted. What is it that makes a man or a woman pursue capricious voters (who are usually interested only in their personal welfare) and make a career out of it? A successful politician has to be someone who enjoys being in the limelight, is willing to be subjected to scrutiny and is good at communicating with the public. A good politician is someone who wants to make a difference. Blair is a successful politician and a good one. Blair wants to make a difference. More importantly, Blair, like any other politician wants the entire credit for what he does. Blair takes his journey very seriously. For him, it is The Journey. Blair believes that he is a man of destiny, a man meant to make a difference to millions of people not only in the UK but also in the rest of the world.

The Ends Justify The Means

In his 700-odd page tome, Blair devotes a fair amount of space to explain how the son of a self-made barrister and Tory politician became interested in politics and joined Labour. Blair is not in politics for power alone. Yes, he is interested in power. The detailed descriptions of his tug of war with Gordon Brown make that amply clear (see the last paragraph). But Blair also believes that he is the best man for the job. When Blair indulges in politicking, he is doing it not just for himself, but for the good of everyone – no sarcasm intended here.

Book Layout

Though this book traces Blair’s political life from his childhood till the time he quit as Prime Minister, it is written thematically, rather than chronologically. For example, there are chapters devoted to the Iraq War, Princess Diana and to the intervention in Kosovo. I should confess that my main motive for reading A Journey was to understand Blair’s rationale for the invasion of Saddam’s Iraq.

Iraq War

Blair makes a special mention of the fact that in February 2003, over a million Britons marched in London against the Iraq war. The million-man march is mentioned more than once. Does this faze Blair? No. To quote Blair, “there had never been a larger demonstration, reminding me of my isolation and the responsibility of the decision I was about to take”. Blair takes responsibility for the decision he took. Does he regret his decision? Would he have done differently with the benefit of hindsight? The answer to both questions is a hesitant No. Blair says that his objective in talking about Iraq is not to persuade his readers of the rightness of the cause, but to merely persuade that such a cause can be made out and that his decision may have been right. Blair takes a great deal of pain to delve into Saddam’s human rights record and the fact that Iraq had a programme for production of chemical weapons. True, they did seriously believe that Iraq still had them – why else would Saddam obstruct UN inspections? However, if Saddam had not been removed from power, Blair believes that Iraq would have once again reverted to its old game and recommenced production of weapons of mass destruction. Many Iraqi children died as a result of malnourishment and lack of medicines during the era of UN sanctions. Whose fault was it? Saddam’s of course, for choosing to not buy food and medicines and wanting to show the world that UN Sanctions were causing deaths. I agree with this bit of Blair’s assessment and analysis, but on the whole, Blair leaves so many questions unanswered. Weren’t their other regimes which had a worse human rights record than Saddam’s Iraq? What about North Korea? Iran anyone?

Blair says that so many people told him that the Shia Iranians would never forge an alliance with Sunni groups in the middle-east. But they did, for short-term tactical reasons. In a way, he makes it clear that the USA and UK could have done better with their predictions for the post invasion scenario. They should have expected the long-oppressed Shia majority to reassert itself and possibly align with Iran. They should have expected Iran to intervene in Iraq so as to build a sphere of influence for itself in Iraq. They should have expected the Al Qaeda to enter Iraq.

Towards the end, Blair gives a clue to the main drivers behind the Iraqi invasion. He says, “the region needed a fundamental change. And this change was to be of a different character. In the 1980s we had armed Saddam as we had the mujahideen in Afghanistan, so as to thwart Iran in the one case and the Soviet Union in the other. It was a tactical move, but a strategic mistake, This time we would bring democracy and freedom. We would hand power to the people. We would help them build a better future. We would bring, not a different set of masters, but the chance to be the masters, as our people are of us. And hadn’t we shown that such idealism was indeed achievable? In Afghanistan they were preparing for their first election, and the Taliban at that time was seemingly banished. In my first term we had toppled Milosevic and changed the face of the Balkans. In Sierra Leone, we had saved and then secured democracy after the ravages of the diamond wars. We had the military might of America, not to say that of Britain and others. There was no way that Saddam could resist….”

In other words, Iraq was do-able. The belief in the existence of weapons of mass destruction created the grounds to do it. In any event, Iran or North Korea or Cuba were not do-able.

UK-USA Special Relationship

Blair takes the special relationship with the US for granted. In any event, he does not take up much space in justifying it. Instead, he says that the British like their leaders to stand tall internationally. Do they? I am not too sure. Blair says “Brits would want to know that in Toulouse people would recognise me. Our leaders should stand out, and if not cut a dash, at least make an impact. The problem is, as time has gone on and the world has changed, and Britain’s relative size and weight have shifted, it becomes harder to do so. Not less desirable, just harder.” One is left with no doubt that Blair wanted to stand tall internationally. “Those who thought that our closeness to America was a problem in the rest of the world, could not have been further from the mark. On the contrary, it gave us immediate purchase. There was no greater nonsense that that our alliance with the US lost us standing in the world. The opposite is the case.” Blair cites the example of Harold Wilson who did not support the US on Vietnam and still lost the 1970 general election.

First Names Please

Blair ranks George Bush very high not only in terms of integrity, but also intelligence. Making a convincing case, Blair says only a very intelligent person could have ended up as the President of the United States of America. Blair refers to George Bush as ‘George’ throughout the book. However, Bill Clinton, who Blair is says he was just as close to and who is ‘progressive’ (while George Bush is admittedly ‘conservative’) is referred to as ‘Bill Clinton’ or ‘President Clinton’ throughout, except when Blair talks of the Monica Lewinsky incident and in a very few others instances. I wonder why. Blair screws up his courage and actually refers to Vladimir Putin as 'Vladimir' a few times. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall and listened to a real conversation between Blair and Putin. ‘Vladimir,..’ Blair begins and holds out his hand with a warm and open smile. ‘Anthony…,’ Putin responds and clasps Blair’s hand, and they start talking earnestly. Was it ever like that, I wonder?

Hilary Clinton

There are very few references to Hilary Clinton, too few I thought, though Hilary assumed office more than a year after Blair resigned as Prime Minister. Blair mentions Hilary’s visit to the UK as the US representative at the time of Princess Diana’s death. And then Blair tells us how Hilary stood by Bill Clinton when the Monica Lewinsky incident broke. Does Blair think Bill and Hilary remain married for political convenience? Do read this book to find out.

Barack Obama

Obama too does not occupy much space in Blair’s journey. Yes, Blair admires Obama’s communication skills and election campaign, but does he ideologically agree with this fellow progressive? For example, Blair praises Obama’s Cairo speech. “The speech was carefully calibrated. The hand of friendship would be offered, even to Syria and Iran. It was in part an apology, and taken as such. The implicit message was: We have been disrespectful and arrogant; we will now be, if not humble, deeply respectful. But join us, if you will.” “The trouble is: respectful of what, exactly? Respectful of the religion of Islam, President Obama would say, and that is obviously right; but that should not mean respectful of much of the underlying narrative, which many within Islam articulate in its politics today.” Mind you, on this issue, I am more with Blair than with Obama as I have explained in one of my earlier posts.

Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy (sometimes Nicolas Sarkozy, sometimes just Nicolas and sometimes just Sarkozy) on the other hand is spoken of with warm admiration. “He was fascinating company – engaging, energetic and with that captivating French bravado around women, life and laughter that I loved. I liked too the fact that he was a ‘my way or no way’ person. He had the spirit certainly to demand change, and to get it or go. And I was very sure that was the only way to get the necessary reforms fast. But, as ever, it is one thing to propose in theory; another to execute in practice. In that first flush of limitless possibility which characterises the new incumbent, I saw something of my own feeling ten years before. ‘It will get tougher,’ I warned him.

China and…. India

India finds a few mentions, usually in the same breath as China – “possibly we have not yet internalised the true significance of China’s rise (or indeed that of India)”; ”…and will not India and China, each with three times as many citizens as the whole of the EU put together, once their economies have developed sufficiently, as they will do, reconfigure entirely the geopolitics of the world and in our lifetime?

Israel and Palestine

With regard to Israel and Palestine, Blair says he understands the Palestinian position and finds Israel unreasonable in some respects, but on the whole, he feels that the Palestinians and their supporters are not trying hard enough to find a solution. I fully agree with Blair. During the Israel/Lebanon war of 2006, Blair refused to condemn Israel, though Israel’s actions caused a lot more damage to the Lebanese than Israel suffered on account of Hezbollah’s rockets. “Hezbollah were and are an urban guerrilla movement. They target civilians deliberately. Their weapons are poorer, so they kill relatively few. They assume the posture of the plucky underdogs. Israel is a government with a well-armed and well-trained army and air force. They do not target civilians. But their only weapon, in a civilian setting, where the guerrilla movement is located, is deterrence. Therefore, they use their force to try to deter further attacks. Inevitably, large numbers of civilians are killed. They quickly assume the mantle of oppressors.” I fully agree with Blair’s position and his analysis. I had taken a similar view with respect to Israel’s invasion and bombing of the Gaza strip in 2009.

Pakistan and Kashmir

Kashmir is mentioned a few times in the same breath as other hotspots such as Sri Lanka and Kosovo. Blair tells us of a conversation with Musharraf regarding the linkage between Pakistani nationalism and Islam (General Zia’s doing) which is rather interesting. “The connection between the two, Musharraf explained, had furthered radicalism in the country, heightened the issue of Kashmir and made reconciliation with India harder. ‘Surely’, I said, ‘economic development is the key challenge for Pakistan.’ Of course,’ he said, ‘but the reality is today Pakistani politics is about nuclear weapons and Kashmir.’ What can we do to help?’ I asked, expecting an answer to do with aid or India. ‘Do Palestine,’ he immediately shot back. ‘That would help.”

Gordon Brown

The tussle with Gordon Brown is dealt with at length, the initial friendship, the tussle to be leader of the Labour party as it came close to power in the mid-nineties, the unspoken promise to step down after two terms (was it ever made?), the friendship (almost like a married couple), the quarrels, Brown’s attempt to bully Blair into stepping down….. let me not say anymore. Blair writes very well, in limpid and functional prose which is a pleasure to read. Do read about Blair’s Journey and find out for yourself.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

A Mosque Near Ground Zero?

I know, it’s not a mosque – it’s an Islamic Cultural Centre, named the Cordoba House with a interfaith spiritual center, a monument to those who died on 9/11 and… a Muslim prayer area. Most importantly, it won’t be on top of Ground Zero. Rather, it will be two blocks away on top of what used to be a Burlington coat factory. A majority of Americans oppose the idea and I agree with them. Here’s why: America is the land of freedom, where one can practice the religion of one’s choice and say what one feels. Nevertheless, building a mosque (Islamic cultural centre if you insist) right next to the World Trade Centre site is in bad taste. If I were to draw a parallel, it would be akin to building a grand centre for German culture right next to Auschwitz. There is nothing wrong with German culture or its promotion, but a centre for Germanic culture right next to Auschwitz will rankle. Just as it is not right for Pastor Terry Jones to burn the Quran, though he has the legal right to do so in the US, it is not right for US Muslims to want to build a mosque (Islamic cultural centre if you will) so close to Ground Zero.

A mosque two blocks away from Ground Zero is very insensitive and it rankles.

Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Book Review: Insomnia by Aamer Hussein


I recently happened to read Aamer Hussein’s Insomnia, a collection of seven fine short stories, which came into print in 2007. I had heard of and read Hussein before since he reviews books for the Independent, but hadn’t read any of his books till now.

The best thing about the stories in Insomnia is that they are so beautifully and delicately crafted, without a single wasted word. Hussein comes across more as a calligrapher than just a writer. The first story, ‘Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda’ gives a foretaste of what’s to come. Each ‘postcard’ is a snippet of life as a Pakistani man visits Sanlucar with a special friend. ‘Do you still feel Pakistani?’ the narrator is asked. ‘I do, when I feel anything at all.’ A little later when Muslims’ loyalty to their adopted countries is questioned, the narrator says, ‘I guess I am a Muslim in Europe too. And foreign wherever I go.’

I finished ‘Nine Postcards from Sanlucar de Barrameda’ in no time and moved on to other stories. However, I was forced to return and read it again because the fleeting images created were still floating around in my mind and I had to confirm if they were real.

The Crane Girl has a number of foreign teenagers, children of expats, playing teen games in the posh West-end in London. It took a bit of time for me to realise that Hussein has set this story in the 1970s. Murad is the protagonist and he strikes up a friendship with Tsuru, a Japanese girl of fragile and unusual beauty with ivory skin. But Tsuru soon goes away and Murad misses her so much that missing Tsuru becomes a habit and Murad stops noticing how much he still did miss her. When Tsuru is away, Murad and Shiego become friends. Shiego is a bit older than Murad and he has a lot more money, which he splashes on Murad. It becomes a bit too obvious for the reader to find out what the girlish Shiego has in mind, but then Tsuru returns unexpectedly. The ending is not conclusive, but this is a great story and I’ll leave it to you to read and find out for yourself.

Hussein seems to have special admiration for authors who write only in Urdu and who fight the ‘system’. Does this arise out of any guilt which Hussein feels in being a Pakistani writer based in London, when there is so much action taking place back home and so many battles being fought on a daily basis? Armaan in Hibiscus Days is one of those writers whose writings (in Urdu) can cause workers to riot on the streets. But Armaan also has a drinking problem and beats his wife Aliza before they break up. Armaan may be a brutal man, but Hussein handles him very gently. Rafi Durrani and Saadia from The Angelic Disposition appear to be much more saintly. They are also very different from Armaan. Rafi Durrani likes to read Wodehouse and ends up flying for the Royal Airforce in the Second World War. Saadia finds reading in English to a be a chore, even if it is book gifted by Rafi.

I liked The Angelic Disposition best, mainly because of the way Saadia maintains a close friendship with Rafi Durrani, whom she has met just seven or nine times. The friendship is nurtured through correspondence and both parties remain loyal to their spouses. Saadia didn’t marry her husband for love, he is much older than her and theirs seems to be a platonic relationship, though Saadia does conceive once. The story starts from pre-partition times to the late seventies and Hussein keeps one guessing till the end.

Murad from The Crane Girl fame makes two more appearances, in The Book of Maryam and Insomnia. The Book of Maryam is short and sweet and has poetess Tahira, chaperoned by Murad make a cameo appearance in London. There are vague references to a dictator, but one is left guessing as to the period when this story is set. In Insomnia, which has lent its name to this collection, Murad has a special friendship with Sri Kunti, a poetess from Java. Though there is a lot of similarity with Tsuru and The Crane Girl, Sri Kunti and Insomnia are none the less very different in that, the teenage angst which characterises The Crane Girl isn’t there.

The Lark, set in the years during which the Second World War raged, tells the simple tale of a young man going home after a long absence. He likes those he will leave behind, and he will miss them greatly, just as they will miss him. Nevertheless, he is happy to be going home. As usually, this slip of a story leaves behind many flavours for the reader to swirl around and enjoy.

After Insomnia, Hussein has published a novella ‘Another Gulmohar Tree’

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Short Story: The Man Who Went Home Early

Prem almost blew his chances within a few seconds of being seated. I ought to have foreseen it and forewarned him, but I hadn’t. With the benefit of hindsight, it turned out to be a good thing. I had hardly asked Prem, ‘what would you like to drink?’ when he opened his big mouth and asked Ricky, ‘do you have any kids? I’ve got two.’

‘Prem, what would you like to drink?’ I quickly repeated, fully conscious of Ricky’s irritated eyebrow that had risen a notch even as he nursed a glass of good scotch whiskey.

‘The thing about having children is that you want to go home as early as possible, and sober. When I was a bachelor, I would have grabbed this offer and asked for a double peg. But now, I am gonna settle for a fresh lime soda sweet.’

‘A fresh lime soda sweet,’ I told a passing waiter and quickly turned around to see if Prem had done any further damage. He had. He had taken out his wallet and pulled out a picture of his wife and children.

‘No, I don’t have any children,’ Ricky said, without even bothering to take a real look at the picture. Prem wasn’t hurt, instead he continued to hold out the open wallet until Ricky peered at the wife and two snotty children and said, ‘very nice.’ The satisfied family man put his wallet away with a flourish and told Ricky, ‘I’ve heard so much about you.’

Ricky lost his irritated look. Not everyone has heard of Ricky, not unless you are in the business of building very tall housing complexes or are looking to buy a flat from a builder.

‘You are looking to buy a flat?’ Ricky asked Prem politely. No one would mistake Prem for a prosperous builder, especially when he wore one of his well-worn leather strap sandals.

‘No Sir, I have my own flat. And ……..and my own business. I supply bathroom fittings to builders like you.’ At that Ricky resumed his irritated look. I could imagine what Ricky’s thoughts at that moment would be. The bastard has engineered this meeting, he would be thinking. It wasn’t really far from the truth. I had indeed told Prem that I would be meeting Ricky for one of our monthly powwows, where we exchanged information and Ricky bought me drinks and tried to persuade me to write good things about himself and his building company. Drop by at around seven-thirty, I had told Prem, whom I knew practically from my kindergarten days.

The waiter brought Prem’s lime soda. Prem stirred it carefully and said, ‘I should have asked for sugar and salt. Do you like that combination?’ he asked Ricky.

‘Yes, I do,’ Ricky admitted without losing his irritated look. I didn’t really care. Journalists can’t afford to care. We are in the business of collecting information and selling them or bartering them for something useful. One can’t afford to worry too much about such matters in my line of business, though my sale to Prem was unlikely to pay any professional dividends.

‘I supply bathroom fittings to builders like you,’ Prem repeated. When you have some time, I would like to tell you about my business. I can provide you with ..’

‘I’m sure you realise that I have very good suppliers who supply fittings and other interior stuff on a scale you couldn’t even imagine. And at very good prices too.’ There was a finality about the way Ricky spoke. ‘Another drink for you?’ he asked me.

‘Sure, why not?’ I too had a family like Prem, but that never made me say No to a drink. Especially when it was expensive Scotch whiskey.

Prem looked ill at ease. What was bothering him? I wondered. Had he, despite his broken down, minuscule antennae, sensed that Ricky was not well disposed towards him? I was wrong. Prem got up and said, ‘excuse me. I need to use the washroom.’

Ricky looked through him and so I gave Prem a nod at which Prem put down his half-empty glass and trotted off to the loo.

‘Interesting chap!’ Ricky said. ‘I wonder if he comes here often.’

‘No, he doesn’t.’ Prem obviously didn’t fit in. Almost everyone around us in that South Bombay bar had an air of prosperity which I hoped I exuded as well, but Prem definitely didn’t. ‘If I hadn’t asked him to come here today evening, he wouldn’t have. We have dinner together once every month or so. We usually go to Baghdadi or Bade Mian and have a bite, chat about old times and push off home.’

‘Ha! Ha! I thought Prem was rushing home to his family when he decided to drop in here and accidentally ran into us.’ Ricky laughed.

‘Actually, Prem doesn’t have a wife or kids for that matter.’ My voice was deadpan.

‘What do you mean? What about that picture in his wallet? Is he some kind of pervert to carry around a picture like that and talk like… you know what I mean.’

‘That picture is genuine alright. And Prem did have a family. Past tense, but its all over.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Prem’s wife left him. Ran off with an office colleague. Took the kiddies with her as well.’

‘In that case, why does that idiot carry that picture with him? And why did he have to tell me about it? For chrissakes, I didn’t even ask for that information!’

‘He is too embarrassed by what happened. Rather than wait for anyone to ask him if he has a family, he jumps the gun and tells all those lies.

‘Hmm! That’s quite something.’ Ricky was quite taken up by Prem’s tale. I could see the beginnings of a small sympathy wave.

‘I guess you are the only person he has talked about his real situation? You guys being friends from kindergarten and all that!’

‘Actually, he didn’t tell me either. After his wife left him, he avoided everyone, including me. Prem’s elder brother got in touch with me and asked to help Prem. Till then, we used to meet on and off, but never regularly. But after that, I have been meeting him every month. It took him a while to admit even to me what had happened.’

Ricky pursed his lips, but was silent.

‘He does have that business he told you about. And as you would have guessed, I did ask him to come here at seven thirty so that you could meet him. His business doesn’t do very well and it will be a big thing for him if you could give him a small order.’

‘Did you ask him to…’

‘Did I ask him to show you those pictures and talk about his wife? No….’ I laughed. In fact, if Prem were to ever find out that I told you his real story, he is likely to punch me. You can see the sort of guy he is. Too much pride and honour and too little business acumen.’

We didn’t get to say much more because we saw Prem slowly make his way back to us through the crowded bar room.’

Prem sat down and took a big gulp from his glass. His shoulders were bunched together and he made no further effort to converse with Ricky.

‘I ought to be leaving soon,’ Ricky told us. ‘We ought to do this again,’ he told me, pointedly excluding Prem from his invitation. Prem didn’t seem to care. He didn’t even make eye contact with Ricky. As he was leaving Ricky said, ‘Prem, why don’t you note down my number and give me a call tomorrow? Prem looked astounded, but quickly gathered his wits about his and took out his mobile phone to record Ricky’s number.

‘Shall I give you a missed call?’

‘Why not?’

Ricky had a bemused expression on his face as he switched off his phone and walked out.

A minute after Ricky left, Prem said, ‘shall we leave? It’ll take me an hour to get home from here.’

‘Let’s go and have dinner at Baghdadi for old times sake,’ I said.

‘I can’t. I need to get home.’

‘Listen, your family won’t be destroyed if you are late one evening.’

We ordered kubboos and chicken tandoori at Baghdadi, which was just around the corner.

‘Do you think he’ll place an order with me?’ Prem asked.

‘You never know. I hope he does. Call him tomorrow. You’ve got nothing to lose.’

‘A single order from Apian Builders can turn my fortunes around. I want to send Ritika to one of these international schools. May be Ecole Mondial. They are so very expensive.’ Prem had a faraway pensive look on his face.

‘Things will work out Prem. Just hope for the best. And by the way, when you call Ricky, don’t …’ I was going to say, don’t go on and on about your family and children, but I stopped myself. What was the harm if Prem tried to tell Ricky that he wanted to send Ritika to Ecole Mondial or that his second child Vedant could read, though he was barely three? In fact, it would prop up the fiction I had created around Prem. The chances of Ricky actually running into Prem’s family were very remote. Of course, there was the possibility that Ricky would find out that I had fibbed, but hopefully Prem would have delivered on a couple of orders by then.

I am a journalist and I don’t really care about matters like this. If I hadn’t been on my third whiskey, I might not have even made up that story. Even if Ricky found out the truth and cut me off all together, I wouldn’t give two hoots about it. I would find some other ‘source’ among the various builders in Mumbai and cultivate him. Get him to buy me drinks. However as Prem wolfed down the last morsels of his kubboos and chicken tandoori and said, ‘I better get home soon. Vedant won’t sleep till he sees me,’ I said a silent prayer so that my inebriated gamble would pay off.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Does this picture justify US occupation of Afghanistan?



Time has this cover picture of a pretty Afghan girl with her nose missing. Sliced off by her husband after he chopped off her ears. If Aisha didn’t have such pretty hair, one could see that her ears are missing as well. Aisha’s husband’s actions were sanctioned by a Taliban judge, for Aisha had committed a heinous crime – she had run away from her abusive in-laws. Human rights activists constantly say that events like this one justify the US occupation of Afghanistan. In my opinion, they don’t. For one, Aisha suffered thus a year ago, when the US was occupying Afghanistan. In other words, US presence in Afghanistan did not make a whit of difference to Aisha. Things are unlikely to change even if the US stays on for another 30 years.

Things would have been different in Afghanistan if the US hadn’t supported the Mujahiddin when the Soviets occupied Afghanistan. The Soviets were no different from modern day Americans. They too wanted to impose their (commie) values on Afghanistan and they would have succeeded if the Americans hadn’t decided that an Islamic Afghanistan was better than a communist one. Even after the Soviets left, if only the Americans had allowed Najibullah’s regime survive, matters would have been different. May be Aisha might not have suffered thus. Here is a very good Huffington Post article on this point.

As Ben Hur’s childhood friend Messala said, to fight an idea, you need another idea. The Soviets had communism in addition to their weapons, as they fought in Afghanistan. Soviet style communism had so many flaws, but do the Americans have anything half as good?

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Is the US likely to bomb Iran?

Time has an interesting article on how war drums are beating louder and louder for an attack on Iran. And this Washington Post article by neo-con Charles Krauthammer is a sample of the support building up for such an attack. With the war in Afghanistan going very badly (the July death toll being the worst ever for the US) and the one in Iraq still a long way from being declared a victory, it might seem ludicrous to consider opening a third front by bombing Iran. However, it is very likely that within a year from now, the US will bomb Iran using its overwhelmingly superior air force and even more likely that that the US will get away with it, provided it does not get sucked into a war on land. Here are the reasons why this should be so.

1. Iran is a pariah in the middle-east. It is not an Arab nation and more importantly, it is predominantly Shi’ite. None of the important Arab states support Iran. The only country in the middle-east which has good relations with Iran is Syria. However, Syria is a very funny kettle of fish and its support for Iran will make little or no difference if the US starts to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. I call Syria a funny kettle of fish because it is ruled by the Syrian Baath Party which is controlled by the Shi-ite Alawite faction. During the Iran –Iraq war in the 1980s, Syria supported Iran though Iraq was also ruled by the Baath party at that time. The main reason for the Iran-Syria friendship is their common support for the Hezbollah. However, Syria has a Sunni majority and Muslim Brotherhood continues to have a very strong base in Syria. It goes without saying that even though the Syrian government officially supports Iran, many Syrians, especially the Sunis don’t.

2. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Sunni monarchies in the region actively hate and fear Iran. Iran is not only Shia, but is also democratic, the only real democracy in that region other than Lebanon. For these regimes, a nuclear Iran is an even greater threat though Iran claims to develop the Bomb to strengthen the entire Islamic world.

3. Israel is petrified of a nuclear Iran and is very likely to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities if the US doesn’t. If Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, it will ignite a storm of protest throughout the middle-east. Even though the ruling houses of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and other Arab states (with the exception of Syria) may privately support the Israeli attack, public fury on Arab Street will know no bounds. US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq will be under increased pressure. It will be far better for the US to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites than to wait till Israel does it. The alternative, to clamp down on Israel altogether and prevent it from bombing Iran, is beyond the US’s imagination and ability.

4. Obama’s administration is losing popularity by the day. Israel still enjoys overwhelming support from the American public and a successful bombing campaign against Israel’s arch foe Iran is a sure-fire way of going up the popularity charts.

5. Russia and Iran are no longer friends. There was a time when they were, but now Russia has realised that it is more profitable to be chummy with Saudi Arabia and Israel and it supports UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme. BBC has an interesting article on this change. If the US were to bomb Iran, Russia may remain silent.

6. No one really has a clue as to what Iran’s real intentions are. Western intelligence agencies which failed to provide accurate intelligence in the case of Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction, have even less resources on the ground in Iran. It is possible that Iran is only sabre rattling and does not want to develop nuclear weapons. However, no one really knows. If Iran is in serious pursuit of a nuclear capability and if its nuclear facilities are not destroyed soon, it is only a matter of time before it actually succeeds in developing the weapons. This might be a matter of months or years or even a decade. However Iran will get there if it wants to. Iran has a proven track record of helping not only Shia militant groups such as the Hezbollah, but even Sunni militant groups like the Hamas and of late, even the Taliban who profess to hate the heretical Shia. If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it is very likely to brandish them, if not actually use them.

7. Even if Iran’s nuclear facilities are bombed, Iran is likely to persist in its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Therefore, the earlier Iranian nuclear facilities are bombed, the greater the delay caused to the Iranian nuclear weapons programme, if there is one.

What will happen if the US air force were to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities?

Arab Street will erupt in fury, but with less than one-tenth of the force if Israeli jets were to do the job. Pedestrians in Riyadh, Muscat and Cairo will protest, animosity towards the heretic Shia temporarily forgotten, but how long will the anger last? Will it be sufficient to result in a mass movement that could overthrow their monarchs or dictators and install democracies? I doubt it. Saudi Arabia and other monarchies in the Gulf keep their nationals in reasonable comfort and bombing of Shia Iran’s nuclear facilities is unlikely to trigger a mass uprising. Of course, if there is a long term downturn in the price of oil and the Gulf monarchs are forced to curtail subsidies and other perks in a big way, something nasty might brew.

How would the Iranians react to such bombing? Ahmadinejad’s regime would utilise the attack to clamp down on the opposition and increase its control over the nation. Democratically elected Ahmadinejad would gain even more legitimacy. In retaliation for the bombing, support for the Hezbollah would be ramped up. However, the Iranians are already supporting the Hezbollah in a major way and there is not much more they can do, keeping in mind the logistical difficulties involved in and barriers to say, sending across a truckful of missiles. Support for the Sunni Taliban and Hamas might also increase, but then, there will be elements among the Sunni fundamentalists who would rejoice at Iran’s pain there is always a limit to the extent the Taliban and Hamas would seek and accept Iranian help.

The biggest impact of such US bombing of Iran would be in Iraq. That’s right. In case you have forgotten, Iraq has a Shia majority and in the recent Iraqi election, incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition of Shia parties came second with two seats less than the Iraqiya coalition, which though secular, is largely supported by Sunnis. The State of Law coalition of Shia parties has been trying for some time to form a coalition government in alliance with the Iraqi National Alliance which includes radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr and they have Iran's backing. How would Iraqi Shia’s react to an attack on Iran by the US? On the whole, Iraqi Shias were happy that Saddam was overthrown, though they don’t particularly like the USA. After a great deal of bloodletting between Shia militias such as those led by Moqtada Sadr and Sunnis who worked with the Al Qaeda, Iraq is experiencing relative calm. Awakening Councils formed of ex-Baathists and other Sunnis have driven the Al Qaeda away from Iraq. However, these Awakening Councils are not too happy with Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s government. Iraqi Sunnis know that after the American exit, they will have to march to the majority Shia tune and they are already uneasy about it. Will the Shia dominated Iraqi government retain the Awakening Councils as a militia distinct from the Iraqi army? Al-Maliki has already indicated that he does not like that idea. Integration of the Awakening Councils into the Shia dominated Iraqi army is not an easy task. For this reason, a weakened Iran will make Iraqi Sunnis happy and the Shias unhappy. Is there likely to be a spurt in attacks on coalition forces in Iraq if the US were to bomb Iran? So far, most of the attacks on coalition forces came from the Al Qaeda and Sunni/ex-Baathist fighters. It is very unlikely that Shia militias will start attacking coalition forces now that a deadline for their withdrawal has been fixed. Such attacks may cause the coalition forces to lean in favour of the Awakening Councils and Iraqi Shias are smart enough to avoid doing anything that would result in such a bias when they are on the cusp of having control over Iraq.

For these reasons, I think that the US will get away with it if it were to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Personally I would support such an attack. It is fashionable in certain liberal quarters to argue that if the USA, China, Russia, UK and France are entitled to have nuclear weapons, Iran is also so entitled. So far, the only country to have used nuclear weapons is the United States, right? Yes, but this argument ignores the fact that Iran is likely to, given its track record in such matters, provide material for a dirty bomb to an organisation such as the Hezbollah. I am not for a moment saying that the Hezbollah or even the Iranian regime is totally evil. No, they are not. However, Iran and the Hezbollah do consider Israel to be unworthy of existence and it will not be beyond them to do the inconceivable. I would rather the US bombs Iranian nuclear facilities than carry on in the hope that Iran has no nuclear ambition or even if it does, it will not transfer nuclear technology to the Hezbollah or a like-organisation.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Impressions from Russia

Initial Paperwork

At first glance, the requirements to obtain a Russian visa looked very onerous. After doing serious research, my initial fears were confirmed. I had to fill out a lengthy on-line form, which asked me questions ranging from the countries I had visited in the last 10 years to contact details of two previous employers to details of educational institutions I had attended after high school. I also had to provide a zillion documents, ranging from a letter from my employer to payslips to bank statements to insurance documents. To top it all, I had to provide something called a tourist voucher from a tourist agency or hotel authorised by the Russian government which costs 40 Euros per head. Even my 3 year old daughter needed one. I still haven’t figured out what purpose the tourist voucher served, though I paid 120 Euros to get three of them from one of the hotels I had booked into.

The Russian embassy in London has outsourced its visa processing function to VFS. The staffers at VFS’s office are Russians. The very friendly girl to whom I submitted my application took one look at the Permanent UK Residency stamp on my Indian passport and did not bother with any of the documents I had painstakingly gathered, except for the tourist vouchers. ‘Come back in two days’ she told me. I had been told to expect a delay of at least five working days. ‘I will be travelling. I will come back in a week,’ I said. I went back after seven days, rushing out of office at four thirty and hoping to get to VFS’s office before five. The Tube let me down and I did not get to VFS’s office till ten past five. As I walked the last 100 metres, I expected to see a ‘closed’ sign at the gates. However, the door yielded to my push and I went inside to see another friendly face at the counter. ‘I came to collect my visa. I am sorry I’m late,’ I gasped. ‘Not a problem,’ came the non-committal reply, which reminded me of India. Two minutes later, I left the building, having collected three passports with Russian visas stamped on them.

Moscow – First impressions

At first glance, Moscow is very impressive. The roads are wide and the buildings are grand. I am not too sure how comfortable they are to live in, but they are mighty impressive. My hotel in Moscow was located just off the Tverskaya, the most prominent road since Czarist times that runs through the heart of Moscow. And what a road! Eight lanes going each way with numerous subways under it for people to cross over! Known as Gorky Street during the communist era, the Tverskaya has the most fashionable shops, hotels, restaurants, dress-boutiques and malls in Moscow. The men look rich and the women are dazzling, not only in terms of looks, but also in the way they dress (conservatively) and carry themselves.

Russians, especially Muscovites, gave me the impression of working hard at having fun and looking relaxed. We saw so many “24 Чaca” (24 Hours) signs, more in Moscow than in St. Petersburg, signalling that the shop or mall was open 24 hours a day.

We saw lots of statues of Lenin and even of Karl Marx, but none of Stalin.

Hot, hot, hot

Since it was July, it was very hot in both Moscow and St. Petersburg which were both experiencing heat waves. It was close to 35 degrees centigrade in Moscow and around 32 degrees in St. Petersburg. We were told that St. Petersburg has never experienced so many warm days, being so close to Finland as it is. The buildings are all built to trap and retain heat and we were constantly sweating. Public buildings such as airports and Metro stations don’t have air conditioning or even fans and it is common to see people carrying hand fans with which they fan themselves vigorously. Thankfully both the hotels we stayed in had air conditioning. Plus, it didn’t rain at all during our six days there, though rain is very common in the Russian summer.


Not posh enough to enter?

We had been warned that one needs to dress up to be allowed into high-end restaurants and bars. However, it didn’t make sense to wear anything other than tee-shirts and jeans when wandering around a very warm Moscow or St. Petersburg. On our first night in Moscow, we went to a restaurant that must have been one of the more posh ones and were told that it was full, though it was obvious that my sweaty, dishevelled appeared was more likely to be the reason for the lack of space for us. For the rest of our stay, we stuck with middle-class restaurants and did not suffer any further torment.

Bollywood music

The evening we landed in Moscow, we went for a walk along the Tverskaya. A street urchin (of Central Asian origin) was playing a mournful tune on a mouth organ, a small bowl in front of him. We recognised the tune, which had been lifted from a Bollywood song. Soon we were poorer by five roubles.

Taxi drivers

Just as I had expected innumerable delays in getting my Russian visa, I also anticipated being ripped off by taxi drivers. My first brush with a taxi driver did nothing to lessen my fears. We had taken a train, the Aeroexpress, from Domodedovo Airport to Paveletsky train station in the heart of Moscow. The family ticket (for two adults and a child) cost me 600 roubles (around £15). At Paveletsky, I found an honest looking man at the platform with a tag around his neck saying ‘Taxi’. I gave him the name of my hotel and said ‘skol’ka sminya’ which, according to the Russian phrasebook I had wrestled with for two months previously, was the way to ask a taxi driver the fare beforehand. The reply came in fast and furious Russian. This was something I would experience throughout my visit. Having mugged up thirty odd Russian sentences, I had thought that I would be able to ask for directions and make my way around. I wasn’t wrong, but speaking broken sentences in Russian is one thing. Understanding replies made to my questions was something else. I was forced to say ‘Nye panimayu’ (I don’t understand). ‘Ya nimnoga gavaryu paruski’ (I speak a little Russian). The taxi driver was obviously used to stupid tourists like me. He cleverly took out 150 roubles from his pocket and showed it to me. 150 roubles was less than 4 pounds. I cheerfully nodded assent and followed him. Once outside the station, the driver accosted another man and had a brief chat with him. My heart sank. Within seconds, the original taxi driver had gone back inside the station and I had a new taxi driver who led us to the most beat-up car in the whole of Moscow. We got in without a word, after stashing our luggage in the cramped boot.

I tried to make some conversation in Russian. ‘Eta krasivih gorat’, I said. This is a beautiful city, one of the first Russian sentences I had memorised from my Russian phrasebook. The driver wasn’t impressed, though he seemed to understand what I was saying. He shrugged his shoulders and asked me something I didn’t catch at first. Then I understood what he was saying. ‘Musulmanin?’ Where we Muslims? I knew that some Russians were racist and didn’t like Central Asians living there. I don’t look Central Asian, but I didn’t want to be mistaken for a Muslim either. ‘Nyet Musulmanin’ I said with unnecessary haste. ‘Ya iz Indii, no zhivu v Anglii.’ I am an Indian, but live in England.

‘Azerbaijan,’ the driver said, pointing to himself. Ah! The driver was Azeri which meant he was a Muslim. That was why he wanted to know if we were Muslims! I looked at the driver again. I thought that he looked more Russian than anything else. Maybe he was of mixed parentage. Maybe some Azeris look Russian. ‘Baku?’ I asked, showing off, my knowledge of world geography. The driver indicated something with his fingers to show that he came from a place not very far away. In less than ten minutes we were at out hotel despite occasional heavy traffic. I took out 150 roubles from my wallet. The driver shook his head in disbelief. He then took out 700 roubles (around £17) from his wallet and waved it at me. I was shocked and my Russian totally deserted me. We were outside the hotel, but there was no one else around. The driver looked menacing and we were tired after the journey. I quickly parted with 700 roubles and we went inside.

For the rest of our stay in Moscow, we did not hire a taxi, except once when we got the hotel to arrange one to take us to the Red Square from our hotel. We had a nice posh car and a smart driver who spoke decent English and charged us the agreed rate of 500 roubles for the five minute drive. When it was time to go to the airport for our flight to St. Petersburg, we booked a taxi through the hotel rather than travel via Paveletsky station in the rush hour morning traffic. 1,200 roubles (£29), the hotel’s booklet told me. I mentally steeled myself to pay a lot more than that. If it had cost me 500 roubles to travel to the Red Square, a journey of less than two kilometres, twenty odd kilometres to the airport was likely to be more than 1,200 roubles, I thought. This time I was determined to do some bargaining before I paid up. After we were dropped off in front of the terminal building at Domodedovo, I got out of the taxi and took out two 1,000 rouble notes and gave them to the driver, who shook his head.

‘Skol’ka stoit?’ I asked. How much is it? The reply was unintelligible. The driver showed me one finger and then two. My blood boiled. I was prepared to pay up to 5,000 roubles, but 12,000 roubles was out of the question. I shook my head angrily and prepared to take out another 1,000 rouble note from my wallet. The driver gave another sigh and turned away to dip into the taxi. In front of my disbelieving eyes, he gave me a 500 rouble note and started to fumble for more change. I suddenly realised that I was only being charged 1,200 roubles, but the driver didn’t have much change. Giddy with relief, I waved my hand at the driver, in effect giving him a 300 rouble tip. The man looked shocked. We hurried into the airport.

Even in St. Petersburg, my experiences with cabbies continued to be very good. The stern looking driver who took us to the hotel from the airport did not ask for a single kopeck more than the 700 roubles (£17) agreed at the taxi hire desk. Further, I realised that the driver was actually one-eyed and in reality a very humble looking man. The return trip to the airport booked through the hotel cost me only the pre-agreed amount of 800 (£20) roubles. Each time I happily gave a 100 rouble tip.

Russian airports

I was told that Domodedovo airport is the best (or rather most hassle-free) airport in Moscow and for that reason, I avoided the Sheremetyevo which has a bad reputation. Domodedovo airport turned out to be no different from other international airports. Clearing immigration was very easy and the queue was a lot shorter than at the JFK where I had been a week earlier on work. I guess that is more because there are a lot more visitors to the USA than because Domodedovo is overstaffed with immigration officers. When flying to St. Petersburg from Domodedovo, as part of the security check, I was asked to stand in a particular spot and raise my hands, as if in abject surrender. That morning I was still smiling after my anti-climatic experience with the taxi driver and I raised my hands as instructed. Two glass semicircles snapped shut around me. As they opened and let me out, I realised that I had been subjected to a body scan! The middle-aged lady officer who sat nearby looking intently at her computer screen did not look at me or show any emotion on her face as I walked away.

We were subjected to full body scans at both Moscow and St. Petersburg. No one seemed to be offended and I too wasn’t. If it makes flying safer, then, I didn’t care, though I do wish I had received some sort of warning beforehand.

At Domodedovo airport and later at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, I made acquaintance with scores of airlines I hadn’t heard of till then. The most popular ones seemed to be S7 and Transaero, but airlines such as Daghestan Airlines and Ural Airlines also had a presence. We flew on Rossiya to St. Petersburg and back. The service was decent, or rather, much better than what one receives on the so-called cheap airlines such as Easyjet or Ryan Air. It is also possible to take an overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg (and save one night in a hotel), though we didn’t do so.

Making friends

On our way back to Moscow from St. Petersburg, we saw a number of school girls, one of whom had a head-scarf on. A lady teacher was in charge. Must be a school trip from Central Asia, I though, though two of the school children were African looking. ‘Can’t be Central Asian, may be Brazilian?’ I told my wife. Later it turned out that they were from Egypt and were in St. Petersburg to attend a camp for synchronised swimming. My wife and I got talking to the lady in charge on the bus that took us to the aeroplane. Russia was the best place in the world to train for synchronised swimming. Oh! Were we Indian? They loved India. Indian movies in particular. They used the song track from Slumdog Millionaire for their swim-dance routines. Jai Ho was mentioned as was another song. We parted in Moscow, the best of friends.

Food

Russian food is so very different from European food. The Moscow hotel we stayed in served a sumptuous breakfast buffet that included Kasha, a buckwheat porridge that is a staple breakfast item all over Russia. A richer and slightly sweeter version of oats, I really liked it. Unfortunately our hotel in St. Petersburg didn’t have Kasha in its buffet spread. Borscht, beetroot soup with sour cream, bits of beef or eggs floating it in, was another Russian dish that I liked. I had it both hot and cold and I am not sure which version I liked better. I guess if it was winter, I would have preferred the steaming one. Kvass is a drink made out of fermented rye bread and is mildly alcoholic. I found it being served everywhere at all times of the day. We had it many times. Okroshka is a soup with a Kvass base which I tried once, but didn’t like all that much. Pelmeni turned out to be a large dumpling with rice, beef and vegetables stuffed inside. A bit bland, but still very tasty. I had fish a couple of times during my trip. Russians seem to like their fish rare – not deep fried. Normally I wouldn’t like fish unless it is cooked very well, but the fish I ate was so well marinated in a way it brought out so many subtle flavours and was very tasty. I don’t think a vegetarian will find life easy in Russia, but all the restaurants we went to had at least one vegetarian option.

Restaurants and bottled water

Eating out is expensive in Russia, as are hotel rooms. Though we never ate at an expensive restaurant, the average cost of lunch or dinner was around 2,500 roubles (£60) for the three of us. There were a couple of meals that crossed 3,500 roubles (£83). One reason for this is that bottled water is very expensive when purchased in restaurants. Unlike in Western Europe where potable water is available on tap, one is forced to buy bottles of water all the time in Russia. Restaurants as a rule only sold very small 150 ml bottles of water at around 250 roubles a bottle. We were forced to buy three or four such bottles for each meal. When purchased at a kiosk, a large 5 litre bottle of still water costs less than 40 roubles!

We didn’t see any Indian restaurants in Moscow or St. Petersburg, though I am told that there are a few. The only Indian meal we had in Russia was at Domodedovo Airport (on our way back to London) which has a restaurant that serves mainly India food. A light meal of two plates of rice, one naan, one chicken rogan josh, one tarka dal and two bottles of water (each one litre) cost approximately 1600 roubles (£38), which I guess is very decent by Moscow standards. I think this was the only restaurant where we managed to buy one litre water bottles at the table.

Please do smoke

We almost never saw any no-smoking signs, except inside the Rossiya flights between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Restaurants did not have no-smoking areas and even while having buffet breakfast at our Moscow hotel, cigarette smoke would gently waft over to us.

St. Petersburg - a European city

Unlike Moscow, St. Petersburg has the feel of a European city and is called the Venice of the North since it is crisscrossed with rivers and countless canals and waterways. It is not as beautiful as Venice itself, but could be a city anywhere in continental (western) Europe. Of course it is much more populous and bigger than most European cities. Even our hotel was more (continental) European than the one we had stayed in Moscow. The buffet spread for breakfast was not as sumptuous (no Kasha), but was more functional and it reminded me of a hotel I had stayed in Venice. The people are a lot more relaxed than in Moscow and there seems to be less money floating around. I got talking to the Sommelier at one of the restaurants we ate at. A lady, not more than thirty years old, self educated and bolstered by a few brief trips to Spain, Italy and France, she not only spoke very good English (she told me that she has never been to the UK, USA or any other English speaking country) but also gave me a crash course on Spanish wines. Very European she was.

Russian TV

I watched snatches of Russian TV while in our hotels rooms and in restaurants while having a meal. What constantly amazed me was the sheer quality of the programmes that I saw, though I didn’t understand much. There were comedies that were as funny as a Chaplin movie, action movies which could give any Clint Eastwood reel a run for its money.

The Metro

I should confess that during our entire six days in Russia, we did not venture beyond the nicest parts of Moscow and St. Petersburg. I was especially impressed by the Metro in Moscow which seemed to be of uniform depth everywhere and very well maintained. More importantly, it was cheap and each ride, irrespective of the distance cost only 26 roubles (60 pence). I had been warned that the Moscow Metro could be very crowded and we tried to avoid it during peak hours. However, we did end up travelling on it once during peak time and did not find it any more crowded that the London Tube. In any event, it is much cleaner than the Tube, and much, much cleaner than the NY Metro. The Moscow Metro appeared to be run in a labour intensive manner, with a lot more attendants than one sees elsewhere in the developed world. The Metro in St. Petersburg is much smaller, but not much different from the Moscow Metro. The rides are cheaper, at 22 roubles per ride. Unlike the Moscow Metro which uses smart cards, one buys zhetons (tokens) in St. Petersburg, which look very similar to 2 rouble coins. The only flip side to the Metros in both cities was that they did not have air conditioning.

Evening entertainment

While in Moscow, we managed to watch a ballet one evening and a circus on another. The tickets were expensive, especially because like India, Russia follows a system of charging foreigners more. The ballet tickets (not the Bolshoi, but at a theatre right next to the Bolshoi) came to around 550 roubles (£13) per adult. These were the cheapest seats available. For the circus, we got the best seats and paid almost 2,000 roubles (£47) per adult. I believe the locals pay around one fifth of what we paid. We really enjoyed the ballet and the circus. What struck me about these performances was that the audience was almost entirely Russian. The ballet’s audience especially was full of middle-class looking Russians who seemed to be used to watching the ballet routinely. They sat there quietly, many of them old and frail, fanning themselves with paper fans since it was oppressively hot inside the theatre without any air conditioning and watched the performance with an occasional chuckle and a burst of clapping after each scene. The circus was great fun except towards the end when a tiger tamer showed his skill in controlling six large tigers, probably Siberian Amurs, with his whip. The sight of six majestic animals trembling at the cruel whip made me angry. Till this incident, I had never understood Maneka Gandhi’s crusade to ban the use of animals in circuses, but after seeing those tigers behaving like puppies, I became a convert, at least in the case of tigers.

Not too touristy

Except for a few places like the Kremlin or Red Square in Moscow or the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, we never saw many tourists or even a serious attempt to lure tourists to Russia. Even at places like the Kremlin, at least half the tourists seemed to be from various parts of Russia or ex-Soviet Republics like Kazakhstan. There was one Kazakh lady I spoke with outside the Hermitage in St. Petersburg who started to compliment me on my Russian till she realised that I could not go beyond four sentences.

No one cheated us

At St. Petersburg, we used the bus as much as the Metro. All buses had conductors and each ride cost only 19 roubles till we got into a bus which didn’t have a conductor. The driver, a rough looking Central Asian chappie, pointed to a board which said 27 roubles. After I paid sixty roubles for two tickets, I got my change back, but didn’t get any tickets. What was more, no one else was being given a ticket. What a con, I thought, till I realised that I was on a private bus. Many cleaners in restaurants and other public places were Central Asians. Yet I never saw a Central Asian working for the Metro or as a bus driver. Frankly, I don’t think those people have a great time in those Russian cities.

In St. Petersburg, we took a boat ride on the Neva. At the ticket counter, I handed over a 1000 rouble note and said ‘dva billet’. A paper stuck above the counter indicated that each adult ticket cost 350 roubles. The lady at the till told me something in Russian which I didn’t understand. ‘Nye panimayu. Ya nimnoga gavaryu paruski’ (I don’t understand. I speak only a little Russian) I unleashed my standard dialogue meant for such situations. As I started to ask if she spoke any English, she said ‘2,000 roubles’ in English. I was shocked. ‘2,000 roubles for a ticket?’ I stuttered. Was it because I was a foreigner that I was being asked to pay so much? I wanted to walk away, but I had already paid 1,000 roubles. Can I have my money back? I wanted to say, but she looked really angry, as if I had wasted her time. Then she said ‘No, no, 200 roubles’. I then realised that she wanted me to give her 200 roubles since she didn’t have the right change. I gave the desired 200 roubles and got 500 roubles back. I could well understand the mix-up between 200 and 2000. Having memorised the Russian numerals, I was also getting my numbers mixed up. In particular, I had trouble with Pidisyat (50) and Pitsot (500) and more often than not, had to fish out my Russian phrase book from my pocket for a quick reference.

Let me say this, I was never cheated by anyone in Russia, except maybe the Azeri taxi driver who took us to our Moscow hotel. However, when at our St. Petersburg hotel, we saw a sign at the reception which said something like this. ‘Taxi Drivers in St. Petersburg almost never use their meters. Make sure you negotiate the fare before entering the taxi. Usually, a ride within the city will cost around 500 roubles. Maybe even the Azeri driver who charged us 700 roubles hadn’t cheated us? In any event, I never got to tell a taxi driver ‘fklyuchitye shotchik pazhalusta’ (please put the meter on) because we always negotiated a rate beforehand. It had taken me a whole day to memorise this sentence which I thought was going to be very useful.

The closest we came to being cheated was on the boat over the Neva River. The boat had just a few passengers, most of whom sat on the upper deck. We three sat below on the lower deck where loud music was playing. A woman in her fifties with a prominent silver tooth seemed to be in charge. She came over and spoke to us in very basic English and later danced a jig with our three year old. We ordered a cheese sandwich and an apple juice for our daughter. After some time, we joined the other passengers on the upper deck. The waiter, a pasty faced young lad brought us the bill. 200 roubles. I left 220 roubles in the green docket and the boy took it away. Soon he was back, waving the docket at us. Inside was the bill, but no money. Forgot money? He asked us in halting English. My wife and I were both sure that we had put the money in. People were staring at us, the only brown faces in the vicinity. I was all set to agree that we had made a mistake and my hand reached for my wallet, but the righteous anger on my wife’s face made me stop myself. No, I put the money in it. I told him firmly. Two minutes later, the woman in charge was back. Did you put the money inside? She asked us. Yes, we both said. Nothing more was said. As we walked out, I asked her, ‘is it alright?’ ‘Yes, alright,’ she told us with a smile, her silver tooth as prominent as ever.

Not so pretty

Bad dental care was a key feature of Soviet times. We saw lots of people with gold or iron teeth, almost all of them middle-aged or old. I guess the Soviet State had decided that decent dental care, especially orthodontic treatment, was too bourgeois and not for its proletariat. There were a few youngsters who had lousy teeth or iron filings, but these were very rare.

The unimaginable wealth of the Czars

The Hermitage in St. Petersburg was Catherine the Great’s winter palace and it houses much of the art treasure acquired by the Czars. There is nothing really Russian about the art since they are all entirely the work of Italian or French or other European artists or sculptors. However, the Hermitage is the best example of the immense wealth the Czars possessed. There are scores upon scores of rooms of paintings and sculptures, each of them deserving hours of admiring gaze. It is very easy to see how such enormous wealth in the hands of a select few could have made it easy for Lenin & Co. to stir up the proletariat and take over power.

Child friendly

I had heard that Russians like children, but hadn’t really believed it. But it is true. Our daughter got so many gifts from total strangers so many times. We would be having a meal at a restaurant and someone sitting near us would pay, get up, walk over to us, give our daughter a toffee or chocolate and walk away. No one ever looked offended when she bawled or created a nuisance, as she often did. Only once, at the Dostoyevsky museum in St. Petersburg, did a caretaker ask me politely to hold my ‘ribyonak’ in my arms rather than let her run around and cause mayhem amongst so many antiques.

More paperwork

When we cleared immigration at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow, we had to fill in a migration card which had two parts, the second part a duplicate of the first. The authorities retained one part and gave us the other with a seal and signature on it. We were asked to keep the other part for the duration of our stay and submit it card to the immigration authorities at the time of departure. When we checked into our hotel in Moscow, the reception asked us, ‘shall I register your daughter as well?’ I was instantly suspicious. ‘Is there a registration fee?’ I asked. ‘No, of course not.’ ‘Well, then what is the matter?’ ‘Would you like us to register your daughter?’ Sure, why not?’ I said after some hesitation. As I filled up three long visitor registration forms with details such as our home address and date of birth, I realised that these forms would be sent to the authorities by the hotel that very day.

Police harassment

I had also heard that the police, especially in St. Petersburg, much like their counterparts in India, routinely haul up foreigners, especially dark-skinned ones, and fleece them. Everyone is required to carry ID on their persons. As advised by Lonely Planet, in both Moscow and St. Petersburg, we carried with us photocopies of our passports and visas, which we planned to produce if asked. But we were never stopped, though I did see a man, probably an American judging by his dark blue passport, being stopped and questioned at a Metro stop in St. Petersburg. Walking along Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, I did see cops drive past with an I-am-the-Lord-of-all-I-survey look which I have never seen in Western Europe, but have seen many, many times in India.

Registrations - We didn’t get it wrong

The hotel in St. Petersburg went a little beyond what our Moscow hotel did. After registering all three of us, we were given registrations receipts (something we did not get in Moscow) and told that we would need them to clear immigration on our way out. ‘Do I need it only for my last place of stay? I asked, as a knot tightened in my stomach. ‘No, you need it for all the places you stayed in Russia,’ I was told. ‘But I didn’t get it from my hotel in Moscow,’ I protested, only to be faced with a shrug. I debated whether I ought to contact the Moscow hotel and ask them to fax me a receipt. Then after much deliberation with my wife, we decided not to bother. There was no mention of the registration receipt in the Lonely Planet Guide for Russia, which was our Bible for those six days. We only had to retain the second part of the migration card according to our Lonely Planet Guide. Finally the Lonely Planet Guide turned out to be right. In any event, we were not asked for registration receipts at Domodedovo airport. Was the St. Petersburg hotel wrong or were the immigration authorities at Domodedovo airport lax? I don’t know.

Final impression

On the whole we had a good time in Russia and we were sorry when our six days came to an end. Russia is big, Russia is beautiful and Russians are really warm-hearted and generous, once they open up, general dour expressions notwithstanding. One general impression I carried back with me is that in one particular respect Russia is very much like the USA and very unlike the UK or the rest of Western Europe. It is so big and self-sufficient with so much of Russia still very much unexplored and relatively underdeveloped that Russians can afford to ignore the global markets and the rest of the world. Finally, I should say that most of my fears and prejudices about Russia turned about to be baseless.

Advice

If there is one bit of advice I have for future visitors to Russia, it is to acquire a Russian phrase book and learn a couple of dozen sentences by heart. ’Ya nye gavaryu paruski. Vih gavaritye paangliski?’ (I don’t speak Russian. Do you speak English?) was very useful, may be the most useful pair of Russian sentences I learnt. They always resulted in a sympathetic smile and an attempt to be of help, even if the helper could not speak much English. ‘Nye panimayu’ (I don’t understand) was just as useful. Another useful sentence was ‘Izvinitye pazhalusta’ (excuse me please). ‘Skazhihtye pazhalsta kagda mih padyedim …….’ (Please tell me when we get to ….) is useful when you are on a crowded bus and not sure when you ought to get off. ‘Zapishihtye pazhalusta tsenu’ (Can you write down the price?) is useful when asking for the price or charge has elicited a response in fluent and indecipherable Russian. Very often sellers, even ticket sellers, would display the price on a calculator.

In addition, do mug up the Cyrillic alphabet. If you had one of those standard Indian schoolings where one mugs up vast quantities of unnecessary and pointless information, then it won’t take you more than a few days to do so. Very few signs are in English and being able to read the Cyrillic script, albeit slowly, is of immense use.

More advice

My final advice is, go visit Russia, before the tourist mobs discover it.

If you would like to know

Please email me if you would like to know the names of hotels we stayed in or the restaurants we ate at.