Archive for December 2011

The government’s bid to muzzle the Internet has stirred up a storm. But what exactly is it so worried about?


A war has been declared in cyberspace. The weapons of mass destruction are a spate of barbed posts that are being aimed at leaders of the Congress. “Kapil Sibal’s censorship Bill will be called Social Networking Inspection Act (SONIA),” says one post. “Before Independence, it was Queen Victoria who looted our country; now it is Sonia Gandhi,” says another.

For over a week now, posts have gone viral, in more ways than one. The government’s bid to muzzle hate messages on the Internet has unleashed a flood of similar messages.

Early last week, the media reported that Union minister of information technology Kapil Sibal had asked Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft to remove “malicious and defamatory content” against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi.

But the minister now stresses the government doesn’t intend to screen Internet content. “We had a discussion with them (service providers) on how unacceptable matter has been circulating in social forums,” he says.

The government has called for an “open discussion” on the issue on December 15. “We want the social media to put a proper self-regulatory mechanism in place,” Sibal says.

What exactly got the government’s hackles up? Though there are sites that are aimed at religions (Sibal told a channel that he’d been referring to sites that portrayed gods and goddesses in almost pornographic situations), the Congress has its share of detractors on the Internet. And in the line of fire are Prime Minister Singh and Gandhi.

Some of the hate groups against Singh on Facebook are “We Hate Manmohan Singh”, “Dr Manmohan Singh Worst Prime Minister Ever”, “Manmohan Singh is a puppet of Sonia Gandhi”, and “Gandhigiri: Get Well Soon Manmohan Singh ji”. The dozen groups on Yahoo and Facebook against Sonia Gandhi include “We hate Sonia Gandhi”, “I hate Sonia Gandhi”, and “Sonia Gandhi: Go Back”.

Social networking forums such as Orkut, Facebook and Twitter have always been platforms for unfettered speech. A sizeable section of India’s 2.8 crore Facebook users have also voiced their dissent — mild, strong or venomous — on the site.

“Online forums are for all — not just for anti-establishment voices alone. If someone doesn’t like a post or comment, he or she can always post a counter-argument. It is the most viable medium in a democracy,” academic Nivedita Menon says.

The move has triggered a heated debate on the right to dissent, with some arguing that there is a thin line between disagreement and abuse. For instance, many of the comments against Gandhi and Singh on the Internet would be libellous if they appeared in newspapers or television. “Gali gali main shor hain, Sonia Gandhi aur uski party duniya ki sabse badi chor hain (The uproar in every lane is that Gandhi and her party are the biggest thieves in the world),” says one post. “Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi ney India loot li (Singh and Gandhi have looted India),” says another.

Many of the pages have doctored images of the leaders. In one, Gandhi and Singh are portrayed as a bride and groom; in another, Singh is shown hugging Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has a baby in her lap.

That the campaigns have their support is evident by the number of members and the frequency with which the “like” button — underlining appreciation — has been clicked.

Though most of the posts and pages are staunchly against the Congress — the Congress’s official websites were even hacked on Friday — the political affiliations of those behind the campaign are not always clear. Some of the pages have been supported by anti-Congress campaigners such as the group India Against Corruption, which led Anna Hazare’s crusade for the Jan Lokpal Bill. One page names as members Hazare’s lieutenant Manish Sisodia and retired intelligence officer M.K. Dhar. Both Dhar and Sisodia, however, deny they are members of any of the hate groups.

The posts and counter-posts on the “I hate Sonia Gandhi” page on FB — which has 921 members, including the group Akhand Bharat — tell their own story. “It is time for India to elminate (sic) the Indian Gadafi family,” says one irate user. “We hate Sonia Gandhi” has 1,379 likes (“She is a villein [sic] for India,” says one status update), while “Sonia Gandhi: Go Back” has 7,124 members. “Gandhigiri: Get Well Soon Manmohan ji” is liked by 1,216 people.

The Telegraph posted questions to the campaigners, but got no response. Only Akhand Bharat replied to a query with: “There is no hate group for Sonia. It is love for India.”

But the latest whipping boy of the sites is Sibal. Groups campaigning against him include “Kapil Sibal Sucks”, “India Against Kapil Sibal — A voice for freedom of speech”, Kapil Sibal — the Loser”, “I Hate Kapil Sibal”, “Kapil Sibal: Destroyer of India” and “Kapil Sibal is an Idiot”.

Even in the Congress, there are murmurs of dissent on the way the minister handled the issue. “His biggest blunder was that he cited examples of posts and doctored images of Singh and Gandhi,” says a party leader. “This has irked people as they see it as a stifling of public voices and restrictions on political dissent.”

The Congress now is on a damage control mission. “No government can even remotely police the unpoliceable,” says chief spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi. What the government wants, he stresses, is a discussion.

The discussions started in September when Sibal asked representatives of the service providers for an appropriate solution to abusive content in four weeks. Two reminders were sent to them in October but there was no response. Last month, the companies replied, saying they could do nothing because they adhered to US community standards.

What’s clear is that the government has been monitoring such posts for a while. Google, in an October report, says the Indian government wanted 358 items to be removed from January to June, 2011. Out of these, eight pertained to hate speech, 39 related to defamation and 255 were against “government criticism”.

Netizens believe that only self- regulation can work on the Internet — a position Sibal has now adopted.

“The Internet community can do the censorship on its own. Options to report spam or abuse are already available,” says Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society.

Online experts also stress that “offensive” is a subjective term. “What is offensive for one may just be fun for the other,” says Rahul Roushan who runs Faking News, a satirical news website that often takes potshots at politicians. Two of its most popular spoofs were on Gandhi and Singh. One had the headline “Manmohan Singh yet to call back Sonia Gandhi after receiving missed call” and the other said, “Congress authorises Sonia Gandhi to choose new curtains for party office”.

Roushan says he is ready to face legal action if he’s sued. “I respect the law of the land. I also clearly understand that we need to maintain civility and also cannot hurt religious and cultural sentiments,” he says.

Legal experts say there are anyway appropriate laws to deal with online abuse. Cyber lawyer Pavan Duggal points out that a person can be punished for three years if he or
she sends a message “by means of a
computer resource or a communication device, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or
ill will.”

But Sibal holds that the government is not interested in legal wrangles.

“We don’t want to get mired in long legal proceedings. Our intentions are good and we want the problem to be solved at the earliest,” he says.

Abraham points out that Sibal’s diktat is an extension of IT guidelines the government enforced in April. “It requires companies to respond quickly if individuals complain that content is ‘disparaging’ and ‘harassing’. If the complaint is valid, the companies should pull down the offensive information within 36 hours.”

And this usually happens. The Centre for Internet and Society sent notices to intermediaries on seven different occasions, saying it found specific user-generated material offensive. In six of the seven cases, the companies removed the “offensive” material.

The Congress’s reaction, therefore, seems over the top. In any case, the party and its leaders are not the only ones under attack. There are groups such as “Mayawati — not the daughter of Dalit but the daughter of daulat (wealth)”, “L.K. Advani Sucks”, “We Hate Narendra Modi” and “Oust Narendra Modi”.

“Last year, someone mischievously diverted the domain of our website to the Congress site,” says the Bharatiya Janata Party’s IT cell convener, Arvind Gupta. When the cell found that a fake account for party leader Arun Jaitley had been opened on Twitter, it complained to the police’s economic offences wing and also to Twitter.

“We never created a hullabaloo over it,” Gupta says.

The experts fear that with such moves, India is following in the footsteps of closed regimes that have tried to fetter the Internet. “It is silly that the world’s largest democracy
is joining the bandwagon,” says Abraham.

Nihita Biswas is 22, and Charles Sobhraj is 66. But what’s age got to do with love?

Charles crops up in the conversation as soon as we set the ball rolling. Coffee, I ask the mother and daughter, as they settle down in my hotel room in Kathmandu. Mother Shakuntala Thapa says yes, but daughter Nihita Biswas opts for milk. “I don’t drink coffee because I fear it will turn my teeth yellow like Charles’s,” she says. “I have asked him so many times to switch to herbal tea or milk, but he never listens to me,” she says with a smile.

The reference is to 66-year-old Charles Sobhraj. Biswas is his wife — they were married in jail, she says — and Thapa, his lawyer.

At 22, Biswas already sounds like a harried wife, weighed down by a husband who just won’t listen. “I call him stupid,” she says. “He trusts everyone but people have always let him down.”

Many would say it was the other way round — that people trusted Sobhraj, and he let them down. Described as a serial killer, bikini killer and serpent, he has been accused of befriending tourists — and then killing them.

But Biswas is unfazed by this. “He has always been misunderstood. I know that he is innocent. He cannot even kill a chicken, let alone a human being,” she says. “I have every reason to believe him but no reason to believe the others.”

As she reaches out for her glass of milk, she suddenly looks like the young college student that she is — in her spaghetti top and white slacks. Her dark eyes and round face hint at a Bengali connection. And that’s not surprising, for Biswas’s father was from Calcutta.

Thapa met him in Calcutta, and they were married when she was 18. The two studied law in Kathmandu. But their relationship was rocky right from the beginning and finally broke up when their son, Babu, was 25 and Biswas 15. “My husband barely stayed with us and eventually abandoned us,” Thapa says.

Biswas adds, “He has given us nothing except a surname.”

Thapa looks weary — the dark circles under her eyes speak of worry and sleepless nights. “It has been a traumatic experience for us for the past few days,” she says.

Late last month, the Nepalese Supreme Court upheld a verdict issued by the Kathmandu district court sentencing Sobhraj to a 20-year life term for the 1975 murder of US citizen Connie Jo Bronzich in Nepal. Thapa called the judges “corrupt” after the judgment — following which the mother and daughter, charged with contempt of court, had to spend a night in a police lock-up. “That was the most dreadful night ever. We wept all night,” says Thapa.

Life outside the lock-up has not been easy either. “The media alleged and my lawyer colleagues taunted me, saying that I had sold my daughter to Charles. At times, it is torturous, but I gather my strength to fight against all odds,” she says.

The daughter nods. “My mother is a pillar of strength,” Biswas says. The two are always together — Babu is mostly in India — and share a special bond. That’s why, Biswas stresses, she believed she’d stay single.

And then Sobhraj happened.

“I cannot explain my feelings for him in words. I never thought that such a man even existed. He is so unusual,” she says.

Biswas first met Sobhraj on May 5, 2008, in Kathmandu’s central jail. He was looking for an interpreter who knew English and Nepalese, and an acquaintance put her in touch with him. “We shook hands, and he addressed me as ‘Ma’am’. He looked deep into my eyes. I was awed by his aura,” she recalls.

Sobhraj gave her a long list of food that he wanted her to bring for him — chocolates, canned chicken sausages, French breads, guava juice and green vegetables. “The next day, when I met him with all this, he told me that he had not slept the night before thinking of me,” she says shyly.

Three weeks later, Sobhraj proposed to her. It was only then that Biswas informed her mother about their relationship. “When I heard she was dating Charles Sobhraj, I could not believe my ears,” laughs Thapa.

Thapa was eager to meet the man whose exploits she’d followed closely in the media in the 1970s. She met him, saw the “love in his eyes” for her daughter, and was convinced that he was the man for her. Soon, she was his lawyer.

But does she worry about the 44-year gap between the two? “My husband was just two years older and our marriage didn’t work. For a girl, it is always good to be married to someone who is older and more mature,” Thapa reasons.

Biswas has her own take on the subject. “He looks 10 times healthier than I do. And age is not a factor. All that matters is that he is loveable and caring,” she says, carelessly running her fingers through her hair.

I suddenly spot the sparkle on a finger. It’s a gold ring from Sobhraj, she says.

The two, she adds, were married on Dussehra day in 2008. “We had thesindoor ceremony — that is the most pious way of getting married in Nepal,” Biswas says.

Biswas meets Sobhraj almost thrice a week. He spends his time in jail reading books, listening to music — jazz, blues and even ghazals — doing martial arts and playing with his three kittens. “He talks about philosophy, relationships, politics — on everything. He has a great thirst for knowledge,” Biswas says.

Sobhraj, I point out, is believed to be a lady’s man. Doesn’t she fear that he’ll move on? “I don’t compare myself with the other women in his life. They are not in his life anymore because they did not deserve him. I am here because I can keep him happy.”

I am not surprised that Biswas was called a “rebel” by her teachers in Kathmandu’s St Mary’s School where she studied till Class XII. The second-year political science student says that she’ll never regret her decision to be with Sobhraj.

And the future, she holds, is not all that gloomy — despite the Supreme Court ruling. Biswas says a UN body has declared that Sobhraj was not given a fair trial.

He’ll be released one of these days, she holds, and the two will live happily ever after. “We will either live in India or in Paris,” says Biswas.

By now, our tea-time meeting has extended to dinner. Biswas bites into a piece of chicken and tells me the secret of the four Cs in her life. “Chocolates, cheese and chicken were the three Cs that ruled my life. Now there is the fourth C — and that’s Charles, of course,” she says, laughing heartily.

The story was published in The Telegraph:

Some of Jharkhand’s up and coming steel and power plants are being built with the help of Chinese engineers. But the expats have an uneasy relationship with the locals and can’t wait to get back to their own country.

It’s a hot and sultry afternoon, with a power cut adding to the heat. Li Rui and Wang Pu have broken for lunch, and are playing a desultory round of weiqi, an ancient Chinese board game. Li, 41, lights a cigarette and looks around his room despairingly. “The temperature is unbearable and so are the living conditions. I would’ve never come to this obscure place. But the company wanted this project, and so I had to come,” he says. The temperature in his hometown in China’s Shandong province is a pleasant 24 degrees in June. “Life is so much easier there,” he says.

But it’s going to be a while before Li goes home. He is the deputy president of the Shandong Province Design Metallurgical Engineering Company Ltd — a Chinese hardware engineering firm which has been helping Calcutta-based Electrosteel Steels Limited (ESL) set up a plant in a village called Siyaljori, 22km from Jharkhand’s Bokaro Steel City. Li has brought in 120 senior engineers and five interpreters, including Wang, to set the ball rolling for the Rs 8,400-crore project.

There are 1,216 Chinese workers in Siyaljori, 30 per cent of them women. These include skilled and semi-skilled workers that the ESL has brought in through two other Chinese consultancy firms — the China First Metallurgical Construction India Private Limited and Ershisanye Construction Group India Private Limited or the 23rd MCC — to help build its steel plant.

A senior ESL official reveals that the project will be executed at half the cost with Chinese machineries and manpower. “To instal the machineries we imported from China, we needed Chinese hardware engineers,” says Rama Shankar Singh, director and plant in-charge. And Chinese help, he explains, is vital. “China produces 700 million tonnes of steel annually as against India’s 60 million tonnes. Chinese experts are employed to complete the project faster.” Siyaljori — a one-horse town, if any — doesn’t look like Chinatown. But for the last three years, Chinese men and women have been living there at a stretch for three to six months. The signs of the inhabitants are only visible inside their rooms, which have been decorated with red Chinese calendars, lanterns, chimes and candles. These are signs that recall home in a country several thousand kilometres away. Life, by all accounts, is tough.

“We start our day at 6am and end it after 12 hours with a three-hour lunch break,” says Xinnian Li, the director of 23rd MCC. “After coming back to the dormitory, there is no recreation. Even the Internet connection is poor.”

UNHAPPY LIVES: Chinese workers at the ESL construction site in Siyaljori. Pictures by Sonia Sarkar

The visitors live in a 40-acre campus, 8km from the plant, in single rooms in a complex that resembles military barracks. The rooms are furnished with a bed, a table, a sofa and a cupboard. Each barrack has a few air-conditioned rooms for the bosses. The three Chinese contingents have their own canteens, and two have Chinese cooks. The evenings, the workers say with the help of interpreters, are mostly dull. Sometimes they play volleyball, and occasionally they watch a Chinese film, clustered around a laptop. Some try to beat their loneliness by listening to Bollywood music.

“Though I don’t understand the language I love the rhythm,” says 28-year old Net (he uses only his first name), the HR manager of 23rd MCC. ESL buses ferry the workers to and from the construction sites. The dormitories are guarded by 36 police personnel round the clock and are under CCTV surveillance. That’s because the Chinese presence has provoked some violence in the area.

Entrepreneurs, though, are not complaining about the foreigners. About half a dozen restaurants offering Chinese food have opened since the ESL project started three years ago. “Our sales go up by 25 per cent on the weekends when they dine in our restaurant,” says Kartick Singh, senior captain of Seventh Heaven at Mahuda, 20km from Siyaljori. The restaurant even organises birthday parties for the visitors with cakes, chocolates and flowers.

Bokaro jewellers are happy with the visitors as well. “The Chinese like and buy silver, especially anklets and bangles,” says Prakash Singh, owner of Jewar India. Music shop Unique Collections is doing brisk business too. “The Chinese have been buying CDs of new Bollywood numbers — such as Sheela ki jawani and Munni badnaam hui — in bulk to take to China,” says owner Ritesh Yadav.

Spending freely isn’t a problem for the Chinese workers, whose salaries here are higher than what they’d get back home. “Our engineer gets a monthly salary of Rs 90,000, which is at least 20 per cent higher than China’s pay scale,” Li reveals, adding that semi-skilled Chinese workers get Rs 50,000 a month, almost double of earnings back home.

Siyaljori isn’t the only place in Jharkhand with Chinese manpower. Giridih- based Atibir Industries Company Limited, which is building a Rs 350-crore steel unit, has employed around 20 Chinese engineers in Mahtodih.

The Abhijeet Group’s Corporate Power Limited has engaged the Shanghai Engineering Power Construction Company for its 1,200-mega watt thermal power plant coming up in Palamau district. “The Chinese are hardworking, disciplined and focused,” emphasises ESL’s Singh. Yet what’s palpable in Siyaljori is the lack of interaction between the locals and the foreigners. Both the communities are wary of each other, and there have been skirmishes. “We have advised the Chinese to have minimum or no interaction with the locals,” says Bokaro collector Amitabh Kaushal. Security at the site was beefed up two years ago after attacks by villagers on the management and on some Chinese staffers. Saket Singh, Bokaro’s superintendent of police, says 22 criminal cases have been filed against the management and 50 against villagers. “To avoid further tension, we want to reduce the interaction between the Chinese and Indians,” he says. A police station has also been set up nearby to ensure peace.

Resentment has been brewing over compensation packages offered by the ESL management for acquiring land, and benefits the Chinese workers get that the locals don’t. The perception that the locals are being denied unskilled jobs has been stoking the fire, but the ESL and Chinese contractors claim that the Chinese workers are “skilled technicians of high quality” and not unskilled. Locals who do have jobs complain of a huge disparity in pay.

A Chinese carpenter is paid a monthly salary of Rs 30,000 whereas an Indian, says an Indian interpreter working there, is paid Rs 2,100 for the same work. “Unlike the Chinese workers, we are not given any uniforms, boots or helmets,” says Sanjay Kumar, a welder. ESL chief Singh, however, says this is not an issue the company can address. “We cannot interfere with the functioning of the Chinese contractors who pay their Chinese workers. Our labourers are paid according to our wage rules.”

Not surprisingly, with the hostile conditions, most Chinese workers want to go back home. “I am just waiting for my visa to expire next month. I will go and never come back. It is not worth coming back here, leaving behind the family,” complains Wang Xing, a carpenter. For the Chinese visitors, it’s been a summer of discontent.


Paris Olympics, 1900. India’s total medal tally: 2

Beijing Olympics, 2008. India’s total medal tally: 3

An additional medal in a span of 108 years is nothing to write home about. But India’s abysmal record in global games — barring the occasional cup in cricket — doesn’t surprise anybody. After all, when you think sports, you think of corrupt officials, crumbling infrastructure, frustrated players — and a host of defeats.

But now, after years of mismanagement and apathy, efforts are being made to boost sports. And some measures are in the offing.

A National Sports Development Bill is expected to come up in Parliament in its next session. If it gets enacted and implemented — there are seemingly as many detractors as there are supporters of it — India’s usual lament at the end of a tournament may turn into a cry of joy.

“This is much needed. Every organisation has to be answerable to achieve goals,” says former hockey captain Pargat Singh. Others are not so sure. “Whatever the sports bodies do should be their business and nobody else’s,” retorts Commonwealth Games (CWG) Federation president Michael Fennell.

What’s clear is that the country’s apex sports body, the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), and 35 national sports federations — for long accused of patronage, coteries and corruption — are in for a shake up.

Among other things, the Bill proposes that:

No president of the IOA or of the federations can serve more than three terms. Other office bearers can stay on for two terms. And no one can continue beyond 70 years of age.

Polling in IOA and federations will take place through secret ballot. The process will be videographed. Twenty-five per cent of all seats in sport bodies should go to prominent sportspersons.

Federations will also have to submit a long-term development plan every four years to the government.

A national sports ombudsman will address issues of sexual harassment and corruption.

Many believe that one reason Indian sports have never taken off is the fact that the federations, established to promote sports such as hockey, athletics, wrestling and football, are mostly headed by politicians and bureaucrats who have little to do with the game but have been sticking to their posts for long years.

The Archery Association of India, for instance, has been headed by V.K. Malhotra of the Bharatiya Janata Party for the past 32 years. Satish K. Sharma of the Congress has been steering the Aero Club for 24 years. CWG secretary Lalit Bhanot held the secretarial post in the Athletics Federation of India for 15 years. Former CWG chairman Suresh Kalmadi has been the IOA president for 17 years (see box).

Limiting their terms, many believe, will cleanse the system. “This is one of the first steps we have taken to do away with corruption in sports bodies,” stresses Union sports minister Ajay Maken, who mooted the bill.

Indeed, it has often been argued that some federation heads feel if they can’t be ousted, they are not accountable to anybody. And that leads to a host of negative factors.

For one, slackness sets in. “And slackness is detrimental to the development of any sport,” warns former badminton champion Prakash Padukone, who thinks even three terms is too long a period for presidents.

Stagnation, adds former billiards champion Michael Ferreira, is another problem. “As one gets entrenched in one position for years, the ‘hardening of the arteries’ syndrome emerges and it becomes increasingly difficult to be nimble,” he says.

Many, on the other hand, think the proposal is undemocratic. “We strongly oppose it. This kind of bill exists nowhere in the world,” says wrestling federation president G.S. Mander, who is serving his fourth term in office.

But the move is not new. National sports guidelines introduced by the Indira Gandhi government in 1975 stated that office bearers would not be allowed to serve more than two consecutive terms. The rules, however, were flouted by federations, while the ministry looked the other way.

In 2010, then sports minister M.S. Gill issued fresh guidelines and set new norms to deal with age fraud, corruption and doping — which are now a part of the bill.

Despite all this, the bill is just one small step forward. Experts point out that unless money is poured into federations and sports — and utilised well — the medal tally in world events is unlikely to change dramatically.

The government believes it is addressing the issue of money as well. The minister points out that federations have to now prepare a four-year development plan, spelling out details of what they are doing for sponsorships, marketing and promotion, along with their plans for coaching, the development of clubs and providing facilities and equipment.

How far that’s going to help bringing in money is anybody’s guess. After all, for a game to flourish, budgets have to spill into crores of rupees. The Indian cricket industry, for instance, clocks an annual turnover of Rs 5,000 crore. That of golf is pegged at some Rs 3,000 crore, according to the Professional Golf Tour of India, an organisation that oversees the sport. But this figure includes golfing real estate development, sponsorships for apparel, equipment and accessories, besides prize money. Yet the prize money offered at golf tournaments in India is still peanuts.

And cricket really took off after private enterprise stepped in with big bucks. The last Indian Premier League round of matches fetched Rs 3,500 crore in sponsorships, advertising and prize money, according to some estimates.

Most sports outfits in India also depend on government funding, which has always been limited. The government’s sports budget dipped from Rs 3,315.67 crore last year (when Delhi hosted the Commonwealth Games) to Rs 1,121 crore this year.

And even this money tends to get lost in transit. Rahul Mehra, who filed a petition in the Delhi High Court in 2009 questioning the long tenures of federation office bearers, stresses that money often doesn’t reach the right quarters. Insiders recount numerous instances of misuse of funds: money allotted for a sport being spent on federation elections; money meant for sports funding lavish parties; sums earmarked for athletes never reaching them and so on.

“When I started my career in 1994, there was no boxing ring in Haryana,” says boxer Akhil Kumar. “We used aluminium pipes to make a temporary ring. We wore jute gloves instead of leather ones. The federation had been given the money to meet our basic needs, but we got nothing.”

Now, federations will have to submit audited financial accounts and will be answerable to Parliament.

But the BJP’s Malhotra believes the ministry is “over-stepping” its limits. “Our accounts are checked by the comptroller and auditor general of India. We are not answerable to the ministry,” he says. “We fund them, so we need to see their accounts,” retorts a senior ministry official.

A body, the government warns, can be derecognised if it fails to comply with the rules. “Upon withdrawal of recognition, the federations will not receive any assistance from the government and will have to forego the right to regulate the sport in India,” says Maken.

Already, the move is being challenged by the sports groups. The IOA posted an online response on its website, saying that sports federations were recognised by the IOC, and such recognition “cannot be subjected to recognition given by the government.”

But those on the field maintain that these provisions work only when there is talent. A former sports minister stresses that unless India discovers hidden talent at the village level — and then trains them professionally — it will never be able to come up with world-class sportspeople. China, for instance, identifies talent in schools and then provides them with world-class facilities for practice. The erstwhile Soviet Union started zeroing in on children when they were seven. If they showed talent by the time they were 10 or 11, they would be made to join one of 5,000 junior sports schools after regular classes. The most skilled young Russians were enrolled in one of 600 Olympic reserve schools.

“Catch them young should be our theme,” says the former minister. India, he says, should have a “talent identification programme” for determining potential in schools and colleges.

But identifying talent is not the same as nurturing it. Sportswomen often complain about coaches or officials who ask for sexual favours in exchange for sporting opportunities — a grouse that the government is dealing with. The bill states such complaints will be addressed by a national sports ombudsman. “We barely get a chance to communicate with federation bosses and put across our grievances. An ombudsman would certainly help,” says boxer M.C. Mary Kom.

The provision would help resolve issues such as the T.S. Ranjitha case. Last July, the hockey player publicly accused her coach and Olympian Maharaj Kishan Kaushik of sexual harassment. The case is still dragging on.

Despite all the goodies that the government has in its bag, what’s surprising is that it doesn’t take into account the Sports Authority of India (SAI), which looks after infrastructure and organises tournaments.

“Regulating sports federations will not get us anywhere. It should regulate the functioning of SAI,” says former hockey federation president K.P.S. Gill.

In fact, poor or underutilised infrastructure is the bane of sportspeople. Shooter Jaspal Rana points out that expensive sophisticated equipment is lying unused in the Karni Singh Shooting Range for want of bullets. Less than six months after the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the range — with dirty floors and badly maintained stairs — underlines gross negligence.

Maken, however, insists that all will be well soon. Tenders are being floated for the cleanliness of stadiums. “We have also set up a consultative committee to deal with infrastructure,” he says.

Anirudh Burman of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, who has been studying the bill, argues that what federations need are targets — such as the number of medals in a particular event or sport. “In the absence of targets, it is questionable what these sports bodies will finally achieve.”

Maken, however, believes that medals will follow if the reforms are put in place. “Medals are the net result of the process,” he adds.

The countdown has just begun.

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When Delhi decked up for the Commonwealth Games, its sportspersons were practising in makeshift camps.

Sanjana Nayak has a dream. She wants to win a medal at the Commonwealth Games next year. But Nayak can see her hopes ebbing away. With just a year before the Games open in Delhi, the medal-winning gymnast is still looking around for a place to practise.

The Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium (IGI), which has the sole gymnastic training camp run by the country’s apex sports body, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), has been closed for the past two years for renovation leading to next year’s mega event starting on October 3. Players have been asked to practise in a government school in east Delhi but the school lacks even basic equipment such as uneven bars and spring boards. “I want to win at least a silver medal for my country, if not a gold. But now I doubt that it can ever happen,” says Nayak, who won the bronze in the 49th Senior National Gymnastics Championships in January this year.

Nayak is not the only one in despair. Players from different disciplines have been complaining about the lack of basic training set ups in Delhi. All the major stadiums — the Jawaharlal Nehru Sports Complex, Talkatora, Shivaji, Chhatrasal and Major Dhyanchand — have been closed for the past two years for renovation before the Games. Players are practising in makeshift camps.

The government, surprisingly, is not greatly worried about the impact of shut stadiums on the performance of the players. “At present, we are concentrating on the physical infrastructure and nothing else,” asserts Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit. “Since Delhi is the host city, we have to make sure that everything — from the stadium to transport and hospitality — is perfect,” she says, suggesting that players make use of facilities in Delhi suburbs.

The Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) has not set any deadlines for the host country on opening up venues, but for both the Manchester and Melbourne games, hosted in 2002 and 2006 respectively, the playing grounds had been opened a year before the event.

Delhi is nowhere near any of its predecessors when it comes to practice grounds. Take the case of 20-year-old athlete Vipin Kumar, who won silver medals at the Delhi State Athletic Championships in 2007 and 2008. Kumar practises at the Lodhi Gardens in central Delhi every day. The park may be huge, but has no other facilities, such as a proper running track, that athletes need.

“The Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium had two synthetic tracks which are essential for an international event. Since it has been closed for renovation, the only choice athletes are left with is the SAI-owned Central Secretariat grounds in south Delhi,” says Kumar. “Though it has a normal track, the field is full of potholes that can lead to injuries. So I avoid going there,” says Kumar, one of the probable athletes for the Games.

India won the bid for hosting 2010 Games in 2003. Six years later, players feel that little has been done to help or train them. As the Games near, the government seems set on finishing all the pending work. But while it focuses on completing its projects, the players complain that they are being sidelined.

“By 2010, the stadiums will be ready — but not the sportspersons,” says Pramod Kumar, Vipin’s coach and also a gold medalist. “There is no time to groom players to compete at the international level even if the stadiums open anytime soon.”

Kumar’s concern is justified if one goes by India’s performance record in athletics at the Commonwealth Games so far. Milkha Singh is the only Indian to have won a gold medal — way back in 1958. For the forthcoming Games, India is eyeing 141 medals, including 47 golds, in athletics. But old sprinters like Milkha Singh think it’s an “impossible” mission.

“It is heart-rending to see that not a single athlete could win a gold medal in the past 50 years after me. Athletics is an extremely important sport in the Commonwealth Games with the UK, Australia and Africa being the toughest competitors,” he says.

Clearly, the game is only as good as a player’s performance. And, Singh stresses, the interest in the Games and the number of spectators will wane if India doesn’t win a fair number of medals. “Looking at the present state of affairs, I have no hopes.”

Boxing, which is a game where Indians are expected to fare well, doesn’t present a rosy picture either. India, which won five medals including a gold, two silvers and two bronzes in boxing in Melbourne, has been hoping to bag 44 medals in the sport.

“The government has conceived big dreams for us, but the effort they are putting in to make these dreams come true is too small,” says Satinder Kumar, who won a gold at the Junior Asian Championship 2006 and a silver in the International Boxing Tournament in Russia this year. “There is no future for us,” says Satinder, who has been practising in a boxing ring in a government school for the past few days.

Celebrity boxer Vijender Singh, who won silver medals in the Beijing Olympics 2008 and a bronze in Melbourne, says he is shocked to see the “pathetic treatment” being given to sportspersons. “Nothing has changed since the last Games. I didn’t get any facilities then, and our juniors are not getting them either. The Delhi government received around Rs 400 crore from the centre for the preparation of the Games, but where the money has been invested is a big question. Nothing has been done to improve facilities for the players,” he says.

The government, adds award-winning boxer Raj Kumar Sangwan, should have come up with other arrangements for the players before closing down the existing stadiums.

Commonwealth Games Federation chief Michael Fennell agrees. “It is the responsibility of the local sports bodies, especially different federations, and the government of the host country to make adequate alternative arrangements for the home players,” Fennell told The Telegraph from Jamaica before arriving in Delhi for talks with the government. “We encourage the host country to prepare their players in a way that they give their best on their home turf. But we leave it to the host country how to do it.”

Needless to say, the host country has done little so far. A top Indian shooter complains that though Delhi shooters do not have an electronic range to practise on, India hopes to win 120 medals. In Melbourne 2006, Indian shooters won 26 medals — the largest number of medals for the country in the event.

“The Karni Singh Range at Surajkund in Faridabad has the only electronic range available in the national capital region. Now that it’s closed for repairs, shooters have to make do with the shooting range at the Siri Fort Sports Complex, which runs with the aid of a manual pulley,” he says.

But Organising Committee (OC) officials reiterate their promise to open the venues “well in time”.

“It is true that the facilities now available for the players are not of a ‘high’ standard but they are good enough for the players to groom themselves. All Commonwealth venues will be perfectly ready 10 months before the event,” says OC secretary Lalit Bhanot.

The players would find that funny — if they weren’t so busy finding alternative practice grounds.

How Commonwealth Games had threatened to bring life to a near standstill in the capital.

Mani Shankar Aiyar has made quite a few new friends in Delhi. The member of Parliament may well have irked the Congress with his critical comments on the Commonwealth Games but, like him, the Delhi denizen can’t wait for the event to get over. The much touted Games threaten to bring life to a standstill in the city. From office commuter to construction worker, from panhandlers to schoolchildren, people are already reeling under the weight of the Rs 11,494-crore extravaganza. Here are some who are, or will be, affected by the Games, estimated to attract 1,00,000 international visitors and 5,000 sportspeople.


For the average Delhi resident, life’s gone topsy-turvy. Construction on the roads is leading to traffic jams which mean long commuting hours. The city’s popular downtown market spot — Connaught Place — is like a war zone, with deep craters everywhere. Digging across the city — for new roads, flyovers, metro lines and pavements — has led to disconnected phone and Internet lines in many areas. Bus stops have been dismantled and parking areas are being taken over by civic authorities for the Games.

Though chief minister Sheila Dikshit promises that all rubble will be removed, people are more worried about the bigger inconveniences they’ll face during the 12 days of the grand event, beginning on October 3.

Major roads will be blocked to ease the movement of delegates from one venue to the other. Schools have been ordered shut from October 1-17 to ensure no school buses ply on the roads during the Games, disrupting traffic. Some schools cut down on their summer vacation to factor in the October break. “We are also working on Saturdays to make up for the loss,” says Tagore International School principal Madhulika Sen.


Sixteen-year-old Arjun Ahirwal is gulping down his lunch — daal and chawal— in the tiny makeshift brick hut he shares with four others at the Games Village on the banks of the Yamuna. He has been working for five hours, from eight in the morning, and is ravenous. After an hour-long break, he will be back to carrying sand and breaking bricks till 6pm. The unskilled labourer from Jhansi, Madhya Pradesh, gets Rs 130 for eight hours of work — much less than the Rs 203 fixed by the Delhi government.

Since he is not registered with the Delhi Construction Workers Welfare Board (DCWWB) — which is mandatory for construction workers — he cannot fight for his wages, or ask for the health and other benefits he is entitled to. “The contractors deliberately do not register these labourers to deprive them of their benefits,” alleges lawyer Colin Gonsalves, who has been fighting for the workers on behalf of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR) in court.

Responding to a PIL filed by the PUDR, the Delhi High Court in February ordered the state government to register 17,000 labourers. But the Delhi Legal Services Authority, which is monitoring the registration process, says that only about 10 per cent of them have been registered so far.

The chief minister insists that the workers’ problems will be resolved. “The labour commissioner will look into issues such as safety and living conditions, and necessary measures will be taken,” she says to The Telegraph. But she adds that the registration of migrant labourers will take more time.

The sight of children working at the sites is not uncommon either. Chhotu, 14, says he came to Delhi with his uncle from Muzaffarpur in Bihar five months ago. He carries sand and cuts bricks at the Village site. The Games authorities pass the buck when questioned about the violation of labour laws. “It is the job of the employer — realtors Emaar MGF and the Delhi Development Authority — to look into labour issues,” says CWG organising committee secretary general Lalit Bhanot.


School had just begun when it was brought down. “They crushed our classrooms,” says 12-year-old Lakshmi, who saw the bulldozers — put into operation by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) — three years ago. The school, close to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium where many events will be held, has given way to a parking area. Lakshmi’s home, in a nearby slum, has been demolished as well. She now lives in another slum in Jahangirpuri, some 22 kilometres from where she used to reside.

Civil society groups say more than 40,000 families in different slum clusters across the city have been evicted and their homes demolished for new parking lots. And no one has been rehabilitated. “Since these clusters came up after 1997, the families were not covered under the rehabilitation policy of our Slum and Jhuggi Jhopri department,” says MCD spokesperson Deep Mathur, who insists that the total number of affected families is not more than 10,000.

These evictions are illegal, retorts Miloon Kothari, the executive director, Housing and Land Rights Network’s (HLRN), a non governmental organisation. “It’s a violation of UN guidelines on evictions, displacement and rehabilitation,” he says.

Beggars too have been picked up from traffic signals, put into mobile vans and packed off to beggars’ homes run by the Delhi government. According to a HLRN report, more than 50,000 adult beggars and 60,000 child ones would be removed from the streets by September.

But Diskhit says the move is to rehabilitate them. “Child beggars will be put into school and adults will be given an alternative for earning their livelihood.”


The city is being beautified, and street vendors are feeling the heat. Only registered vendors can operate in Delhi, but the problem is that out of an estimated 3.5 lakh street vendors, only 20,000 have been registered so far by the MCD, says Mukut Sharma, programme manager, National Association of Street Vendors. “The remaining vendors have been asked by the cops to wind up their business despite the existing National Policy on Street Vendors and Master Plan 2021 that allow us to flourish,” he says.

And while the clients of the vendors — a Rs 3,500-crore industry that sells anything from food to clothes — are equally unhappy to find them gone, Dikshit says the government has other schemes for them. “We plan to appoint them as daily wagers. Some women vendors have already been appointed for the job of carpentry and painting in one of the cultural parks in the city,” she says.

Critics, however, are not convinced. “The Games are nothing but a circus,” says Mani Shankar Aiyar. Architect K.T. Ravindran voices his concern too. “There was enough time for the government to do things more discreetly without causing any inconvenience to anyone,” says Ravindran.


Jantar Mantar, one of the few places in Delhi where democratic protests are legally permitted, has also come under the CWG scanner. Recently, the police and the New Delhi Muncipal Council, which governs the area, dismantled temporary shacks put up by protestors. “We want to show our city clean during the event. Jantar Mantar will be back in action after the Games,” says Dikshit.

There will be a winner in the Games who will tot up the maximum number of gold medals. But Delhi-ites know who the losers are — the citizens themselves.

British singer Amy Winehouse’s recent death in London shows how celebrities often fall victim to the dangerous cocktail of depression and drugs.

A heap of newspapers lay scattered outside her door. Inside, Parveen Babi lay dead. When alarmed neighbours called in the police, she had been dead for three days. Her foot had turned gangrenous because of diabetes. Torn by severe mental ailments, the actress — once worshipped by millions of fans — died all by herself.

That was in 2005. But years before that, it was clear that she was slipping away when the star of blockbusters such as Amar Akbar AnthonyNamak Halal andDeewar called the press to her Pali Hill house and courteously distributed copies of a statement accusing actor Amitabh Bachchan and former US President Bill Clinton of scheming to kill her. The shapely, sleek-haired star had given way to a plump woman with frizzy hair and tiny black protrusions on the edge of her face.

But Babi’s death didn’t really shock the Hindi film industry, which has seen the rise and fatal decline of several artistes. For many in the Hindi film industry, the untimely death of singer Amy Winehouse miles away in England only underscores Bollywood’s own tragic deaths. From actor-director Guru Dutt, who died in his room after a night of drinking, to his wife, the singer Geeta Dutt, who became an alcoholic, to composer R.D. Burman, who died a lonely death as his career plummeted — there are many who have succumbed to the pressures of success and failure.

Today, some industry insiders fear, alcohol has given way to hard drugs. A young actress whose parents are both in the industry has been trying to battle a drug addiction. Another upcoming star was caught buying drugs. Actor Sanjay Dutt, who suffered from serious addiction, is one person who has come out of this, perhaps not unscathed, but alive. For many others, however, death by depression — often aided by substance abuse — has been the only outlet.

“Depression is a deep rooted problem that exists in all strata of society. But the effects of demands on sensitive people in the creative field, because of the expectations that are thrust on them, are more serious, especially if they fail to live up to those expectations,” says director Mahesh Bhatt, who had a relationship with Babi, and made two films on their troubled affair.

Bhatt recalls that Babi came to him one day, shaking with fear, and rambling about a group of men who were after her. “I had never seen her so helpless,” he says. “She went to the US for treatment, but was never the same again. She had recurring bouts, withdrew into a shell and stopped interacting with the outside world.”

But the incident that shook the industry occurred one October morning in 1964, when Guru Dutt was found dead in his room. His friend and scriptwriter Abrar Alvi later recalled in a book that he had been drinking till late into the night. The next morning, when his bedroom door was forced open, they found him dead, with a glass carrying the residues of a pink liquid — dregs of a sleeping pill — next to him.

Guru Dutt and Alvi had often discussed suicide, says journalist Sathya Saran, the author of Ten Years With Guru Dutt  Abrar Alvi’s Journey. They had talked about how sleeping pills could aid death — and the problem of becoming unconscious while swallowing pills without dying. “I had even tried it once, and he had at least twice before,” she quotes Alvi as saying in the book.

“He [Guru Dutt] had worked it out,” said Alvi in the book. “He told me, ‘You must take it like a mother gives medicine to her child… crush the tablets and dissolve them in water.’”

Saran believes Guru Dutt was “depressive” by nature. “At one moment, he was full of life while the other moment he would be depressed without any reason. He attempted suicide a couple of times and that too without any reason. In the last days of his life, he used to drink regularly but never got abusive. He withdrew himself totally. He lost interest in everything,” she says.

But his niece, director Kalpana Lajmi, stresses that while he was a heavy drinker, he was not an alcoholic. “Guru mama was undergoing clinical depression. Every one knows that when you are depressed and consume alcohol and on top of it also take sleeping pills, you will automatically die of a heart attack. My mother tells me that my uncle died in a position that looked like he was calling for help.”

His wife Geeta Dutt, with whom Guru Dutt had a stormy relationship which many attributed to his closeness to the actress Waheeda Rehman, died in 1972 of complications related to excessive drinking.

“Geeta was a gregarious and chirpy woman but when one’s marriage goes wrong, everything else goes wrong,” says Lajmi. “Geeta was grossly misunderstood. She could not fight the demons and started drinking when Guru Dutt was alive and succumbed to alcohol at the age of 42. It was a case of incapability of self-control as far as she was concerned.”

Clearly, the deaths follow no regular patterns. For some, the end comes with depression on their journey downhill after they have touched the peak of their careers. Actress Meena Kumari, who was once the reigning queen of Bollywood, became an alcoholic over the years and died a dismal death.

“One reason people in tinsel town often become targets of depression is that they forget their own self because their life revolves around being somebody else on the screen,” argues Delhi psychiatrist Rajat Mitra. “They often lose their healthy self-esteem since their sense of self-worthiness is based on external factors such as fame and recognition. They feel debilitated when failure comes.”

One victim of failure was musician Rahul Dev Burman. When the music of 20 out of 22 of his films flopped, the talented composer fell into depression, recall Anirudha Bhattacharya and Balaji Vittal, the authors of the 2011 book R.D. Burman: the Man, the Music.

“Burman once told his friends that in the 1970s and early 1980s, his evenings used to start at midnight as he used to be neck deep in work all day long. That was when producers used to line up in front of his house for meetings,” says Bhattacharya. “But from the early 1990s, his evenings started at 6pm as there were barely any visitors.”

Vittal recalls that in 1989, when he underwent open heart surgery in London, there was no one by his side. He died five years later, ironically when his last film — 1942 Love Story — had resurrected him as a music director of immense talent.

In an industry which worships success and kicks at failure, Burman had few friends left when his music stopped working its magic. At a function to release an album by actress Leena Chandavarkar and Amit Kumar, he was despondent when asked if he was planning to attend a mega party being thrown by a top producer-director, for whom he had composed many a hit song. “He has not invited me, though I was his favourite at one time, just because my music is not doing well these days,” he replied. He added that the director had dropped him after signing him up for a film and taken on another composer without even letting him know. “This is the film industry for you,” said Burman.

Sociologist Shiv Viswanathan points out that such depression is to be seen more in the creative industry than elsewhere. “There are more chances of an erratic creative person being pushed into depression because his creation can turn out to be a disaster despite his best efforts of making it a hit,” he says. “Bollywood stars have too many poignant erratic highs and lows in their lives. They have too many expectations which are difficult to meet and that makes things worse for them,” he says.

High expectations, Bhatt suggests, may have been the problem with Raj Kiran, an actor who briefly tasted success before disappearing. Recent reports suggest that he has been living in a mental health institute in the US. “Why Raj got into depression is anybody’s guess. He may have set high expectations for himself which he could not meet or maybe his mental illness was a genetically pre-ordained disorder.”

Actor Rishi Kapoor, who acted with Kiran in the 1980 film Karz, says he had been trying to locate Kiran for long. “He is a living example of how ruthless the film industry can be when you are no longer saleable and are in dire need of work,” stresses Kapoor.

One person who has been there and done that is actor Sanjay Dutt, who overcame drug addiction and returned to cinema with a bang. “I can speak from my own experience that drug addiction can take a toll of your personal as well as professional life. I plead that no one should get into the spree of taking drugs even for a lark,” he says.

But battling drugs, he says, gave him the strength to move on. “I have emerged stronger after that.” He, however, was one of the few who did. The others never lived to tell their tale.

(My colleague Jyothi Venkatest contributed equally –

In India, one married man commits suicide every nine minutes — versus one married woman taking her life almost every 17 minutes — thanks to work pressures, an inability to tackle sorrow and laws that favour women.

The words were ominous. “The growing differences with my wife have become unbearable. It is better to end my life,” Amit Bhaskar told a Mumbai-based suicide help- line, run by non-government organisation Aasra, before he was found dead in his bedroom. A glass with the dregs of sleeping pills was found by his side.

Bhaskar is one of 61,453 married men in India who committed suicide last year. In India, one married man commits suicide every nine minutes, as opposed to one married woman taking her life almost every 17 minutes.

Recent data revealed by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on suicides in 2010 show that almost 76 per cent of the total number of men who committed suicide were married. The number of suicides among married men was almost double that of married women, 31,754 of whom took their lives in 2010.

“Out of 25 calls that we receive a day, at least seven are from distressed husbands, as opposed to three or four from troubled wives,” says Johnson Thomas, director of Aasra. “We come across at least five such cases every month,” adds Dr Jai Ranjan Ram, psychiatrist at Calcutta’s Apollo Gleneagles.

Doctors also testify to the rise in the numbers of husbands committing suicide in recent years. “In a month, we come across about 40 suicide cases, out of which 50 per cent are invariably married men. The number was lower by 10 per cent five years ago,” says the head of psychiatry at Mumbai’s KEM Hospital, Dr Shubhangi Parkar, who’s conducted a joint study on suicides.

Mumbai-based Shekhar Aggarwal, 31, was one such patient whom the counsellors could not save. Aggarwal was in love with an old sweetheart who was forced by her parents to marry another man. Aggarwal got married too, but was not happy. For a couple of weeks he talked about death with his counsellors, who tried to help him battle depression. But nothing helped — and Aggarwal one day hanged himself.

Though the NCRB has not revealed the socio-economic class of the married men, experts point out that the trend is common to all classes. The reasons, however, are different. “For lower middle-class men, addiction to alcohol and debt are the common reasons for suicide. For the middle and upper middle-class, family dispute and loss of money in gambling or horse racing are often the cause,” says a senior official at CID (Crime), Maharashtra, which has the dubious distinction of recording the second highest number of suicides by married men — 8,138 in 2010 — among all states. Andhra Pradesh topped the list with 8,659 cases.

Possibly, economic upheavals in recent years — with job losses in many sectors — have taken their toll on married men, who are still the traditional bread earners. The demands of the fast-paced information technology industry are exacting. With the economic slowdown and job losses, depression has been mounting.

Not surprisingly, most suicides were committed by men who worked in the private sector. Last year in Bangalore, 366 private sector job holders took their lives versus 232 self-employed and 12 public sector employees. Around 210 men working in private companies in Chennai committed suicide as opposed to 99 self-employed ones and five public sector employees.

But clearly there is no one reason why married men take their own lives. The factors differ from case to case, though there are some generalities. In Bangalore, for instance, work pressures often drive men towards suicide, the police say. “Most of these suicides are committed by IT professionals who have a stressful life. There is an imbalance between their personal and work lives, which leads to marital rifts and causes depression,” says Praveen Sood, additional director general (crime records bureau), Bangalore.

Men, according to clinical psychologist Manju Mehta of Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), tend to harm themselves when they are not able to cope with stress. “Even emotionally strong men can harm themselves. This is one of their ways to escape pain and suffering,” she says.

But why do men outnumber women on the suicide front so starkly? Part of it, psychologists say, is because they find it difficult to tackle sorrow and tend to bottle up depression. “Owing to the social stigma attached to weeping, men don’t cry. Expressing sadness, fear, disappointment or regret is seen as being less acceptable for men than women, who share their problems with others,” says Dr Sujatha Sharma, who runs a marital therapy clinic, Parivartan, in Delhi. “This cultural stereotype is very difficult to shake off. Since women are open to approach, suicides can be averted in their case, unlike in the case of men.”

Though married women commit suicide as well, the figures are much lower than that of men. In the past five years, the number of married men taking their lives has gone up by 17 per cent versus 12.6 per cent for married women.

“Men often suffer from a prolonged sense of not belonging, of not being integrated in the family. These feelings give rise to a sense of meaninglessness, apathy, melancholy and depression. Conflict in personal relationships, which is quite common these days, adds to the stress,” explains Mehta.

Counsellors believe that extra-marital relationships also force men into a corner. “Often, cracks in marriages start showing up when either of the spouses has an extra-marital affair. Men suffer more since their coping strategies are weaker than those of women,” adds Mehta.

For K. Srinivas, a 40-year-old IT professional from Chennai, it was his wife’s infidelity that prompted him to take his life. He was married for 10 years, and when he suspected that his wife had a lover he confronted her. But when her affair continued, the father of two daughters took an overdose of sleeping pills. “He felt helpless and debilitated,” says a counsellor.

Male suicide is often called “egoistic” suicide by experts. “On many occasions, men contemplating suicide have confessed that their ego doesn’t let them compromise and take the first step needed to fix a problem in a relationship. In such a situation, they also feel a strong sense of failure,” says Dr Parkar.

For most Indians, the family is a pivotal force of strength and support. But when things go wrong, it may also be their greatest torment, the experts point out. Failure to meet the high expectations of their partners often goads men into taking extreme steps. “Men become very sensitive about relationships and they feel ashamed of not meeting their partner’s expectations, resulting in a lowering of self-esteem,” says Dr M. Gowri Devi of the Niloufer Hospital in Hyderabad.

The changing man-woman equation has also made a dent on the male ego. Andhra Pradesh is a case in point. “With 33 per cent reservation for girls in all colleges, including professional courses, there are more educated women than men in the state. Education is empowering women more and making them independent and perhaps less adjusting. Dissatisfied and frustrated with family life, men see suicide as an option to get over their emotional loss,” says Dr Devi.

Associations that espouse the cause of husbands blame pro-women laws for the trend. “For example, there is misuse of section 498A of the Indian Penal Code, under which an uninvestigated complaint by a wife against her husband and his family can land him and the family in jail. Or take the Domestic Violence Act, under which a husband can lose his hard-earned property thanks to a simple complaint of domestic violence, even without a fair trial,” says Niladri Das of male rights group Save Family Foundation.

“We want the government to set up a men’s welfare ministry and also a commission for men to look after such cases. It is unfortunate that the pain and suffering of married men are never taken into account when the government designs its welfare policies,” he says.

Delhi-based lawyer Meenakshi Lekhi also believes the law can be unfair to men. “In the urban scenario, women can be equally abusive and cruel as men. One cannot ignore the fact that offensive wives often push their husbands into such a corner that they are forced to end their lives,” feels Lekhi.

Doctors say that suicides can be avoided if the warning signals are read at an appropriate time. “Nobody commits suicide at the very thought of it. There is a gradual escalation of the feeling that death is a better option. It is for friends and close group associates to keep a tab on the mood swings of the person and also help him vent his frustration and anxiety,”says Dr Ram.

Activists have also started awareness campaigns that could help men seek assistance rather than suffer in silence. “Men should speak out,” says Das.

(Some names have been changed to protect their identities)

A growing number of teenagers are experimenting with same sex relationships.  An effort to explore sexual revolution in India’s schools

Sharmila cannot ever forget that night. Six months ago, the 15-year-old Delhi student stayed back at her friend Gayatri’s house after a late party with classmates. They were in bed, chatting with each other, when Gayatri suddenly started caressing her. That was just the beginning.

Since then, every other week they are at each other’s house, spending intimate nights together. “I felt odd to begin with. But after a few minutes, I started enjoying the caresses. It is good to connect sexually to a person I am emotionally connected with,” says Sharmila, a Class IX student of a reputed co-educational school. “Gayatri had never attracted me sexually before that first night. But now she does.”

Same sex relationships in schools have so far mostly been a boarding school phenomenon, especially in all- boy schools. But increasingly, counsellors have been noting a rise in gay relationships in schools among both boys and girls, some of them as young as 12.

“A sexual revolution is happening in urban India,” says Gaurai Uddanwadikar, head of Counseling India, a psychotherapy clinic in Bangalore. “There is more openness and less inhibition about sex in general. So homosexual relationships are also becoming more common.”

For many youngsters, though, an alternative sexual orientation is still a matter of shame. Just before his school finals, Lucknow boy Paresh Aggarwal had gone into a shell. He would lock himself up in his room for hours, painting his nails. He stopped studying and talking to his parents, who initially thought he was reeling under the stress of examinations. But when they met Delhi counsellor Geetanjali Kumar, Paresh gradually opened up.

“A lot of our sittings were spent in silence. I started talking about his interest in nail paint, his favourite colours and his relationship with his friends. After a couple of sessions, he gathered the strength to tell his mother that he was sexually attracted to boys,” says Kumar.

But experts stress that many students have been indulging in same sex relationships purely on an experimental basis. “The pre-teen is an age when children want to experiment with everything they have heard and read about. Since they are increasingly hearing about homosexuality in the public space, there is increasing experimentation as well,” says Uddanwadikar.

Indeed, for young students today, gay is no longer a dirty word. Developments in the last few years have brought gay activities out of the closet. The law has sought to decriminalise homosexuality; men and women flaunt their sexuality in colourful gay parades and several films have focused on gay themes in the recent past. “Society has started accepting gays,” says gay rights activist Gautam Bhan.

Delhi-based counsellor Etishree Bhati, who is attached to a reputed south Delhi school, points out that though there are ample opportunities for students to indulge in heterosexual relationships in her co-ed school, many have been showing sexual interest in students of the same gender.

“If three years ago two children came forward to discuss their same sex relationships, now there are at least five new cases every year,” she says. Delhi counsellor Bhavna Barni adds that she has seen a 20 per cent increase in the number of cases of school students exploring gay relationships in the last five years.

The trend is not limited to Delhi. “We are seeing this in an increasing number of children studying in Mumbai’s posh schools and belonging to affluent families,” says Dr Kersi Chavda, consultant psychiatrist at Mumbai’s PD Hinduja National Hospital and Medical Research Centre.

Calcutta isn’t very different either. “These days, teenagers are courageous enough to openly speak about ‘not so conventional’ relationships,” stresses Calcutta-based educationist Malini Bhagat.

The difference between the situation today and five years ago isn’t just the rising numbers, but the attitude of the teens as well. “Children don’t see a same sex relationship as an anomaly. It comes up in their regular conversation and they don’t see it as a big deal,” says Calcutta’s child and adolescent psychiatrist Gargi Bandopadhyay.

Not all parents see the development in the same light. Last year, the parents of a 12-year-girl, Neha, took her to Dr Barni, a senior child and clinical psychologist at the Escorts Fortis Hospital in Delhi, for counselling. Neha, who studies in a public school in Delhi, told Barni that she had got physical with her girlfriends.

“She said she felt comfortable with them and physical intimacy had been a natural outcome of this comfort factor,” recalls Barni. Neha also felt alienated from the boys in her class who teased her about her weight.

Barni believes there is an increasing trend towards homosexuality among students of Class V and VI. With the growing incidence of rape and abuse — and media focus on such incidents — young children are perceiving relationships with the opposite sex as threatening. Bangalore psychologist Sulata Shenoy adds that parents are so afraid of children having opposite sex relationships that they often encourage same sex friendships hoping that it would postpone opposite sex relationships.

“In the pre-teen age group, most children feel most comfortable with peers of the same sex. And since sexual exploration is starting at an early age today, they tend to involve partners of the same sex,” explains Barni.

But not everybody believes there is cause for concern. “Human sexuality goes through peaks and troughs during the course of development at the age of 10 to 17 years,” says Shenoy, a child psychologist at Turning Point Centre for Guidance, Bangalore. “Also, both male and female hormones surge and decrease at different growth points — all this causing sufficient confusion to the child about his or her sexuality and sexual orientation. Hence, there is curiosity to explore and tendency to experiment.”

With youngsters becoming aware of their body, there is always a desire to experiment, the experts point out. “At this age, they are trying to figure out how their body reacts and the pleasures it can give. It is but natural that they will try it out with friends they can trust,” explains Magdalene Jeyarathnam, director of Chennai’s East West counselling centre that offers same sex counselling and conducts group therapy for the lesbian gay bisexual transgender community.

This is when adolescents are unclear about their own sexuality. “For some, these feelings and thoughts can be intense and even confusing. They often tend to ask themselves ‘what does this mean?’ or ‘am I gay?’ It is this quest to seek answers to questions within themselves that they experiment with people of the same sex,” says Bhati.

To help youngsters resolve the questions in their mind, sex education in schools needs to be strengthened and children have to be sensitised about how to handle such relationships, feels Bhagat. “Some orientation is needed for school children to create an environment conducive for gays and lesbians in educational institutions. We often do it by showing films based on the issue in our film clubs,” she says.

Sunil Gupta, gay rights activist and photographer, thinks that while teenagers should be made aware of the fact that such relationships exist, they should experiment within limits. “They should be able to make an informed choice when they become adults. But at this age, they should be cautious about experimenting,” he says.

Being too young to understand the intricacies of relationships, abuse is quite common among gay partners at this age, experts warn. “Infidelity is common in such relationships and therefore there is abuse too. At least 10 per cent of same sex relationships that I come across in my school involve abuse to a certain extent,” says Bhati.

Experts say parents have to extend a helping hand to their children as they grapple with such issues. According to Calcutta psychiatrist Rima Mukherjee, parents often ask her to “cure” their child of the “disease” of homosexuality. “In a recent case, electric shocks were given to a boy to help him regain ‘normality’,” she says.

Sulata Shenoy urges parents to accept that any child can have sexual feelings which are natural in the course of growing up into adulthood. “It is best not to panic or overreact, but be calm, and at the same time tell children about sexuality and sexual practices so that they don’t grow up with a sense of guilt or anxiety,” she says. “As a society, too, the time has come for us to face these issues and not to brush them under the carpet of ignorance.”

The Telegraph conducts a snap survey of parents in Calcutta and Delhi, and finds that most believe being gay in school is just a phase

(Names of students have been changed to protect their identities)

(I thank my colleagues – Varuna Verma, Kavitha Shanmugam and Moumita Chakrabarti for providing me inputs for the story)

HIV positive couples cannot formally adopt children but many seem to have got around the problem. The children are bringing joy to their lives.

Tekchand and Shruti Mule smile with quiet pride when they see their 10-month-old baby crawl. Little Akanksha pulls them towards her and makes for the garden. The Mules dutifully follow her baby steps.

“She has showered us with happiness. Life could not have been better than this,” say Tekchand Mule.

Three years ago, the Mules wanted to kill themselves. When they discovered that they were HIV positive, the Mules — residents of Mauda, 35 kilometres from Nagpur — thought death was better than the stigma that people attached to the virus. “Suicide seemed to be the only option,” says Shruti.

Then one day Akanksha, then barely a month old, entered their lives. Her biological mother wanted to abandon the child because the family was too poor to feed another mouth. “Akanksha needed a home and we wanted a child,” says Tekchand. “Now we are complete — like any other family,” he says.

The Mules are among 7,000 HIV positive couples in Maharashtra. Their tales are like those that HIV positive people across the country relate — of misery, stigma and discrimination. But there is a difference. The presence of a child has given a new meaning to their lives.

Formal adoption is not an option for them, for Supreme Court guidelines make it mandatory for adoptive parents to be “physically and mentally fit”. So couples with HIV/AIDS are bringing up relatives’ and others’ children who need a home. The Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act, 1956, does not derecognise such an arrangement, say lawyers.

Ranjeet and Usha Patil have such an understanding with Rani’s biological mother. “She was a single woman who wanted to abort when she became pregnant. We wanted a child. So we approached her and persuaded her to have her baby, who has been living with us since she was two days old,” says Usha, as she cuddles Rani, now 4.

Some of the adopted children are HIV positive. When Dheeraj and Prajakta Nimbhorkar, an HIV positive couple from Wardha, added little Ritesh to their family, they knew he had the virus, like his late biological parents. But the Nimbhorkars, who have a 12-year old daughter, were keen to give Ritesh a home. “He was being neglected by his uncles. He had no food, clothing or medicines. It was terrible to see him in such pain,” says Dheeraj.

But though the young ones have brought joy to their lives, many complain that stigma continues to stalk HIV positive people — and their children. The Patils have kept their HIV status under wraps because they fear Rani will be discriminated against once it becomes public. “We don’t want our child to suffer. So we haven’t even informed Rani’s school about our illness,” says Usha.

Some, like Ashok and Shubhangi Dhale of Akola, have decided to fight discrimination. When they got to know that the neighbourhood children were not playing with their five-year-old adopted son Shiv because the Dhales were HIV positive, Ashok had a meeting with the neighbours to explain that HIV/AIDS was not contagious. “Since then, their approach towards my child has changed,” says Ashok, who is associated with a non governmental organisation, Network of People Living with HIV.

But it’s not just people at large who are insensitive. The government, many maintain, does little to help them live normally. Nitin Jevdekar of Loni, who has adopted two HIV positive children, says the two need to pay frequent visits to government hospitals in Pune for their antiretroviral therapy (ART) medicines. “The hospitals do not have pediatricians in the ART centre for children,” he says. “There are no separate arrangements for children, and it is torturous for them to stand in long queues and wait for their turn.”

The Maharashtra State AIDS Control Society (Mahasacs), however, promises to help families that have to travel several miles to reach a centre which provides them with second line ART treatment, a more sophisticated round of medicines for those for whom the first round has not been effective. “We are planning to train counsellors at ART centres in Nagpur to administer the second line treatment soon,” says Dr Ramesh Deokar, project director, Mahasacs.

People with HIV say that society continues to treat them harshly 25 years after the first HIV positive case was detected in India. That is one reason people seek to adopt children who, they point out, are often their only source of hope. “I want my child to be a lawyer when he grows up so that he can fight for the rights of all HIV positive people,” says Kamayani Shirke, who has been raising a HIV positive boy for the past eight years. Chanchal, 12, is also keen to fulfil his mother’s dreams. “I want to grow up fast. I wish I can take all the pain away from my mother’s life,” says the Class VII student.

The couples, clearly, have pinned their hopes on their children. But a few harbour some misgivings as well. The Mules often wonder how Akanksha will react when she gets to know about their HIV status. “I hope she isn’t ashamed of us and doesn’t consider herself unfortunate,” says Shruti.

The Patils, on the other hand, want to ensure that Rani doesn’t commit the same mistakes that they did. Ranjit, who caught the virus through unsafe sex, says he wants to educate Rani about the dangers of unprotected sex. “We will let her know how unsafe sex can lead to such a deadly infection. We will not conceal any facts about the disease from her. She should learn from our mistakes,” he says.

But these are problems that the couples are happy to resolve. Everything is secondary now that they have their child, they stress.

Lalit and Sanjana Bhonsle are not so fortunate. Despite trying their best, the HIV positive Bhonsles are still childless. “We are yet to come across anyone who would willingly give away their child to us,” says Lalit. He laments that he cannot officially adopt a child either.

Lawyers too argue that the government should make an exception for couples that may be HIV positive but lead healthy lives. “There should be a provision for medical assessment to ensure that the adoption pleas of HIV positive couples not on ART can be considered,” says Delhi-based senior advocate Jagdeep Kishore.

And while that may take a while, medical experts say that a HIV positive woman’s child doesn’t necessarily have to carry the virus. “If a HIV positive mother is given a single dose of Nevirapine within 72 hours after the baby is delivered and she doesn’t breast feed, the chances of mother-to-child transmission are reduced to nil. All government hospitals should be able to administer this medicine,” says Dr Anita Basavraj, associate professor, Sassoons Hospital.

This is good news for people like the Bhonsles. A child, after all, will bring to their lives what has been denied to them all these years — a bit of love and hope.

(Some names have been changed on request. Photographs were published after taking due permission from each of them)

What do those who have reached the pinnacles of success — in terms of money, job satisfaction and domestic bliss — do? Many are afraid of what lies ahead and leave their jobs and homes to find happiness elsewhere. Some, sadly, embrace death, as a couple in Goa recently did. Gradually, I discovered the phrase – ontological anxiety — a state of mind which leaves people confused about the meaning of life…

For many, life begins at 40. For 42-year old Delhi-based media professional Mrinal Mitra, the age beckons death. He’s been there, and done that — and now believes all that he has to do is “kiss” death. He has even chosen what he believes is the right time for taking his life. Immediately after his first book goes into print, he’ll deal with it.

On the face of it, Mitra (name changed) has everything going for him. A well-paying job. A happy marriage. A robust 12-year-old son. But Mitra feels that looking at all that he achieved — he has even won two coveted international awards for his short films — there is nothing left to aspire for anymore. Death, he often tells his anxious friends, is better than living a dull life.

Mitra’s thoughts are still in the realm of the mind. But earlier in October, a couple went beyond that and took the extreme step of committing suicide. Having “achieved everything and with nothing more to achieve”, as they said in their suicide note, they hanged themselves at their residence in Merces, just outside Panaji in Goa. In the note, Anand, 39, and Deepa Ranthidevan, 36, mentioned they had “lived a very eventful and happy life together”.

The police say the couple had recently purchased their house after staying at a five-star hotel for two months. The investigations revealed that they led a “good” life with no dearth of money. “They had prepared a will which said the flat would go to Deepa’s mother and there was a cheque written in her favour too. They even left Rs 10,000 for their cremation,” says the public relations officer of the Goa police, John Aguiar.

The Ranthidevans and Mitra do not indicate a trend. But they mirror the growing group of people who have reached the pinnacles of success — in terms of money, job satisfaction and domestic bliss — and are afraid of what lies ahead. Many leave their jobs and homes to find happiness elsewhere. Some, sadly, embrace death.

Experts refer to it as anomic suicide — self death because of alienation and the purposelessness experienced by a person. “This can happen when everything in life is achieved and there is nothing left to be pursued. Such people think that only death can bring them the ultimate happiness,” says Vijay Nagaswami, a Chennai-based marital therapist and author.

Depression, adds Delhi-based psychiatrist Rajat Mitra, comes with success. “With each success, there is a feeling of loss — loss of time and loss of value-based relationships. This is when guilt pangs work and people get depressed despite their achievements,” says the director of the Swanchetan Society for Mental Health.

Achievers can also suffer from what experts call ontological anxiety — a state of mind which leaves them confused about the meaning of life. Dr Manju Mehta, professor, department of psychiatry, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, fears that Mitra could be a victim of this.

When successful young people chart out their lives — and meet triumphs all the way — they can be tempted to feel that not just their lives, but death too is in their hands. “We believe in the philosophy that our life belongs to us and only us, and we have the right to choose to die as much as we have the right to live,” said the Ranthidevans’ suicide note.

Dr Mehta reads in it a tendency to want to rule both life and death. “Some successful people are apprehensive about the future. Since they have remained unbeaten in their life, they want to dictate in death as well.”

Ali Khwaja, head of Banjara Academy, a Bangalore-based counselling centre, says he gets cases — on and off — of people who want to commit suicide because they feel they’ve achieved what they wanted to and seek to go happily. These people, he says, are generally above 60 and have no family responsibilities.

Three years ago, a highly decorated army officer in his late 60s consulted him. He had lost his wife and his daughter was settled abroad. “With age, he was losing his strength. He loved riding his motorbike and going on long walks, but felt that he was unable to do so as he got older,” remembers Khwaja.

The army officer often said he wanted to die with his boots on. “He maintained that he did not find the world a bad place to live in. He just wanted to choose when to die,” says Khwaja.

After a year, the officer suddenly stopped visiting the counsellor. Khwaja saw his obituary in the newspapers a few weeks later.

Clearly, there are different ways of coping with success. Some ride on it, some take it in their stride, and some flounder under it. For those who can’t cope with success, the way out takes different routes. There are numerous cases of people leaving high posts and salaries for social work, donating all their money to charity, joining an ashram or simply chilling in Goa.

In the West, the incidence of disillusionment is higher. Charity is a safety valve, while thousands of Westerners flock to countries like India seeking spiritual solace. In India too people have started opting out of a so-called happy life.

“Recently, a well-known information technology (IT) expert from Calcutta gave up his job and moved to Kalimpong to build a school,” says Calcutta-based psychiatrist Jai Ranjan Ram. “Another young music producer has been in the Himalayas for the last two months, reviewing the goals in his life.”

The problem is with those who can’t find a way out. A great many factors add to their sense of despair. The fact that most young couples live in nuclear families means there are no safety nets in the form of older relatives. Sociologist Radhika Chopra stresses that the structure of societal set-up is fast changing, leading to complications. “Previously, there were mothers to manage the personal front. But nuclear families have forced working couples to manage both work and family alone. It is an ‘either this or that’ option. And work gets priority for obvious materialistic reasons,” she explains.

In the olden days, when families lived in the same house in the same city for generations, neighbours were as good as family. In today’s peripatetic world, the experts stress, people change jobs as often as their cities, and have little interaction with neighbours. The Ranthidevans, for instance, kept to themselves, and few in the locality knew anything about them. The police later found that Anand used to teach IT in a Goa institute.

“Workaholics often tend to ignore their emotional needs. But when the rat race is over, they want to fall back on a stable family, and find that they don’t have that buffer,” says Nagaswami.

Dr Mehta points out that strained personal relationships are common among achievers. “In the past, we have seen successful men neglecting their families. Now the level of stress is high as both the partners work.”

A successful career often also means high work pressure, and thus little time for sex or other tension-releasing activities. “Often, working couples feel distanced from each other. One of the reasons for this is their poor sex drive because of stressful work life,” points out Dr Ram, who says that in a month, he counsels at least five such IT couples.

But psychiatrists also warn that what seems like happiness isn’t always that. “Going by the suicide note, everything seemed to be perfect in the Ranthidevans’ life. But the cops should do a psychological autopsy in which a death is investigated by reconstructing what the person thought, felt and did before death, based on information gathered from personal documents, medical and coroner’s records and interaction with families. The real reason may be hidden,” says Prabhat Sitholey, professor of psychiatry, Chhatrapati Sahu Ji Maharaj Medical University, Mumbai.

The way out of such ambition-driven depression is not an easy one. Lata Jacob, clinical manager of the Bangalore-based Medico Pastoral Association, a centre for mental health problems, stresses that achievers should aim at striking a balance between work and personal life. “When one shares success, one feels grounded. Similarly, it is important for people to share their depression. Once it is shared, the problem is halved,” says Jacob.

For the Ranthidevans, perhaps, there was no one to share their happiness and sorrow with. Three weeks after their death, nobody has come to collect the bodies.

I thank my colleagues – Varuna Verma in Bangalore and Smitha Verma in New Delhi to provide me some inputs  for the story)
Do gay men make better husbands? Some heterosexual women think so. I found that straight women, wary of adulterous partners, are willingly marrying homosexual men

For Anuradha Basu, marriage was never an option. The Calcutta-based advertising professional found men difficult to get along with — till she met Sanjay. They both liked theatre and music, and got along like a house on fire. Three years ago, Basu proposed marriage to Sanjay. He hesitated, but eventually said yes. They tied the knot — and have been living happily ever since.

It’s not the usual boy-meet-girl story, for the groom is homosexual. Basu, 34, always knew that but still thought he’d make the perfect partner for her. She wanted someone who was understanding and sensitive — and Sanjay was all that. His sexual orientation did not trouble Basu.

“Sanjay is my best friend first, and then my husband. It doesn’t matter if he is gay,” she says.

Tisha Rana of Mumbai can understand Basu’s sentiments. Her husband Kaushik, too, is gay. She met him after she had broken up with her boyfriend of five years. “The warmth that I found in my relationship with Kaushik was missing in my last relationship,” says the call centre executive. Rana and Kaushik have been married for two years.

It’s not quite a trend yet, but many women like Rana and Basu are venturing into an area that few have stepped into even. They are willingly opting for gay men as marriage partners. Most women who earlier married gay men were in the dark about their husbands’ sexual preferences. Now some are zeroing in on homosexual men for a spate of reasons.

“It is said that a gay man has the soul of both a man and a woman. They understand the feelings of a woman in a better way than a straight man does and marriage is all about mutual understanding,” reasons Shashi Bhushan, programme co-ordinator of Naz Foundation, an organisation that promotes positive sexual health and fights for gay rights.

Clearly, the step is taken by women who don’t look at sex as an intrinsic part of marriage. A union between a heterosexual woman and homosexual man is often without sex. “Two people can live happily together if they have emotional compatibility; sexual needs take a backseat then,” says Basu.

Gay men are often stereotyped as sensitive and caring. And while there may well be insensitive gay males, the women who have opted for gay partners have been struck by their compassion. “Straight men can be domineering,” says Rana. “But Kaushik always respects my freedom.”

Indeed, it is the open nature of these marriages that suits both partners. The husbands opt for such a union because it has social sanction; the women find that their partners don’t hem them in. “I always wanted space in a relationship,” says Basu. “I get that from Sanjay.”

A straight marriage in modern times — with men and women as equal partners — can often be fractious. Marriage counsellors stress that changing gender equations can cause a clash of egos, which is often the cause of broken marriages. But when a straight woman marries a gay man, says Mumbai Montessori teacher Prerna Joshi, egos don’t come in the way. “I don’t think gay men have the male ego,” says Joshi, who married her gay friend Atul because he gave her the respect and warmth that she wanted.

Another factor that prompts women to marry gay men is that they face no threat from other women. Adultery breaks marriages, and women who opt for gay men say that they are secure in their marriages because their husbands are not likely to leave them for another woman. Curiously, the fact that their gay husbands will or may have relationships with other men doesn’t worry the women. “I can accept my husband having sex with men but it would have been difficult for me if he’d sought out other women,” Basu says.

Delhi-based photographer Naina Singh seconds that. “These days, one of the major reasons for divorce is extra-marital affairs,” says Singh, who saw the suffering of a few of her friends who had been two-timed by their husbands. “I find it easier to accept my husband’s affairs with other men than being cheated in a marriage,” says Singh, whose husband, Jitesh, is gay.

Because the marriages are untraditional, in many cases the women are free to look for sexual partners outside the marriage, just like their husbands. “If I can have multiple relationships with other men, why can’t my wife find sexual pleasure elsewhere,” asks Jitesh.

Some sociologists believe that the growing violence in marriages has instilled fear among women. “Domestic violence is a reason women remain single,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. “When women are forced to marry to keep their parents and society happy, they find gay men a better choice as they are liberal. Also, these men are more relaxed, easy and compassionate,” he analyses.

Gender rights activist Anish Ray Chaudhuri agrees. “Women feel safe with gay men. Also gay men are gender sensitive, so it is an equal relationship unlike in many straight marriages where the men are mostly in charge,” says the Calcutta-based activist.

Experts warn of generalisations — after all, not all gay men are sensitive, and not all heterosexual males domineering. But the women in these relationships stress that with their gay husbands they have an equal status in their relationship.

Not being bound by gender-specific roles, for instance, means gay men don’t look at household chores as a woman’s work. “Cleaning the house or cooking food is not an issue with them. They are great partners in household activities and understand the pain of working women who manage both work and home,” says Lisa Nagpal, a non-resident Indian who married Vijay, a gender activist, in February.

Nagpal and Vijay were good friends for seven years before they decided to wed. “Gay men make good friends of women. And a good friend will always become a good husband,” Nagpal says.

Likewise, Singh and Jitesh are old pals. “What I liked in him was his sense of loyalty to friendship. Also, he was with me when my parents died a couple of years ago. I knew that he was gay but still couldn’t think of anyone else when I decided to get married,” says Singh.

Jitesh, however, was initially not sure how the marriage would work. So he visited a counsellor with Singh. “The counsellor told us that if we both shared a comfort zone in our companionship, there was no harm in getting married,” he recalls.

Jhumpa Bhattacharya of Calcutta, who fell in love with her gay husband Niladri four years ago, stresses that their “emotional equation” is central to their relationship. All else, including sex, takes a backseat. When her parents put pressure on Bhattacharya, a public relations officer in a pharmaceutical company, to marry, she turned to Niladri.

For Niladri, it was a marriage of convenience. “Though my parents knew about my sexuality, they still wanted me to get married to a woman. I should confess that things have become easier for me after my marriage. At least, now my parents don’t bombard me with uncomfortable questions,” he says.

Bhushan of Naz Foundation points out that for most gay men, a marriage like this is a “win-win” situation. “In India, a homosexual marriage is not legal. Marrying a woman makes a gay man look ‘normal’ in society. Plus, he is not sexually committed to his wife,” he says.

Problems, however, may arise when the couples want to have children. But clearly the partners in these marriages have given the question considerable thought. “If I want a child, I can always adopt,” says Joshi.

Some women activists, however, believe that this is an experimental trend in marriage which may get complex. “Marriage is not just about companionship but also procreation and social responsibility. Both the partners should be prepared to see the social implications of such marriages,” says Malashri Lal, former director of Delhi University’s women’s studies and development centre.

But Tejal Shah, a visual artist and queer activist, stresses that if two adults are making an informed choice, there is nothing wrong in it. “If women gain some independence for themselves in such an arrangement and the gay partner is also happy in it, society should not have a problem,” she says.

For most Indians, of course, the trend is not just new, but difficult to grasp. Actor Mugdha Godse, who played the role of a straight model called Janet who married her gay best friend Rahul, played by Samir Soni, in Madhur Bhandarkar’s 2008 film Fashion, says she will find it difficult to relate to the character of Janet in real life. “I am not sure if this relationship can last for long,” she feels.

Samir Soni isn’t so sure either. “There may be a time when the gay guy would want to move on with another gay person, or the woman may like to spend the rest of her life with a straight person as she may want children. The concept looks very progressive in a film but real life is a different ball game,” he says.

But Basu argues that no marriage is perfect. “So why not take a chance,” she asks. Like any marriage, if it works out, it will be blissful. If it doesn’t, there are ways out.

(The names of some people have been changed to protect their identities.)

Gopinath Munde, the BJP deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, created a stir when he threatened to quit the party recently. I found that though he has got over his sulking, he continued to be unhappy with the party’s state leadership.

opinath Pandurang Munde is the king of his realm. In Delhi recently, he sat like a quiet schoolboy next to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sushma Swaraj. In Mumbai, he is a different man — forthcoming when he wants to be, and carefully watching his words when he needs to.

“The crisis is over and I am relieved,” says the BJP deputy leader in the Lok Sabha, as he sits on the green velvet sofa in his living room on the 11th floor of Purna Apartments in south Mumbai.

The last few days had been exceptionally busy for Munde, who created a stir when he threatened to quit his party. There were whispers about his joining the Congress. Then, at a press conference addressed by Swaraj in end June, he declared all was well, and that he had no intentions of leaving the BJP. “I am here to stay,” says Munde, 61. “I have made a major contribution to my party in pulling up its performance graph. I have devoted my entire life to the BJP,” he says.

The reason for his sudden sulks, Maharashtra watchers say, was the appointment of corporator Vikas Mathkari as the president of the party’s Pune unit. Mathkari is viewed as a man supported by BJP national president Nitin Gadkari’s camp; the Munde faction, on the other hand, had backed former Pune general secretary Yogesh Gogawale for the post.

But Munde now brushes all this aside. “I never stated that I was unhappy with the appointment of anyone. Also, I never had any problems with Gadkari. He is an efficient colleague. We worked together when he was the public works department minister and I was deputy chief minister in Maharashtra in 1995. I have other concerns,” he says.

What kind of concerns? “Our workers at the grassroots level have been sidelined by those who are ruling the party now at the state level. I don’t want to name anyone, but the workers feel suffocated and can’t work in an environment like this. No army can fight if it’s confused,” says a forthright Munde, who has been associated with his party for 35 years.

What about rumours that he was eyeing the post of the leader of the Opposition in the state legislative Assembly and wanted to be Maharashtra state in-charge at the Centre (a job which is now held by M. Venkaiah Naidu)? “These are all stories that are floated by groups with vested interests. I never made any such demand,” he says with a smile. “I am well placed in the party. There has been no threat to my position but I raised my voice for the workers,” says the member of Parliament (MP) from Beed in Maharashtra.

Yet Munde — dressed in a starched white kurta and pyjama — admits that his concerns have not always been addressed on time. “Even this time, it was addressed very late,” he says. “It took 25 days for the leaders to take up my grievances.”

In the last weeks of June, he had two meetings with senior party leaders L.K. Advani, Venkaiah Naidu, general secretary Ananth Kumar and with Gadkari. But Munde was asked not to speak to the media till he met Swaraj. “Around 90 per cent of the problem was solved in my meetings with Advaniji and the others. The remaining issues were addressed during my meeting with Sushmaji,” he says.

But what about the rumour that he had met Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and Congress leader Ahmed Patel in a bid to join the Congress? “I never met them,” replies Munde.

Yet it was an open secret that Munde was unhappy with his party leaders. He skipped a joint BJP-Shiv Sena rally with their new partner, the Athawale faction of the Republican Party of India (RPI), on May 28. He also didn’t attend a joint rally organised by the Shiv Sena-BJP with the RPI on June 9.

Munde admits that there are problems that the BJP and Shiv Sena need to sort out. “Both the Shiv Sena and the BJP have a bigger struggle in the days ahead. The parties should instil confidence in the minds of the grassroots workers and assure them that they are important. Plus, both the parties should transfer their votes to each other for a fruitful alliance.”

This is not the first time that Munde’s bitterness with the party has become public. In 2008, he had resigned from all key posts over the appointment of MLA Madhu Chavan as the head of the party’s Mumbai unit. Later, Chavan was removed from the post. His detractors in the party have often — in private — called for Munde’s removal, arguing that it would bring his “pressure tactics” to an end.

Munde smiles at this. “If this was what the party wanted, I would accept its decision.”

There’s no denying that the anti-Munde camp has been effectively seeking to sideline the MP, who was not invited to a meeting of state BJP legislators and parliamentarians in Mumbai on June 21. “I was shocked that after spending 35 years in the party, I wasn’t even invited to the meeting,” he says.

The problem with the state leaders, he further elucidates, is their “poor” communication. “Plus, they don’t have any confidence in each other. They need to be united in thought and action,” he says.

Munde admits that there are “divisions” in the party. “Owing to this, the number of MLAs came down to 46 in 2009 from 55 in 2004. Every political party should work in a system and that system is missing in the state unit of the BJP,” he says.

But, despite the internal hiccups, the BJP national general secretary has no regrets about his role in the party. The son of a Vanjari OBC farmer of Nathra village in Beed, Munde never thought that he would grow to such heights. “My mother feels happy that I have become successful in life,” he says.

Now, as he sits in his living room — with two sets of sofas, one brown and the other sea green, matching the curtains in the room — Munde recalls the journey from the village. Behind him, two large glass windows look out onto the Bandra-Worli sea link.

Munde was the third child among five siblings in his family. He was educated in a government school in the village. “We were taught under a tree,” he recalls.

Later he moved to the tehsil town of Parali for his secondary education in a zilla parishad school. “It was a tough life of battles against poverty in the perennially drought-stricken Beed district. This was the time when I made up my mind to do some thing for the people,” he says.

And he did work for his people — especially the Vanjari community. He brought grassroots workers from his community into the Jan Sangh, the BJP’s predecessor, and then to the BJP, expanding the party’s then restricted social base. “The BJP’s main support base in the state consists of the OBCs. And my popularity among the OBCs has helped the party strengthen its base,” he says.

But what about charges against Gadkari that OBCs were being sidelined in the party? “The non-Brahmins in the party feel they are being ignored,” he admits.

Munde was once an immensely powerful figure in Maharashtra, his position strengthened by the clout his brother-in-law, the late Pramod Mahajan, enjoyed. He had met Mahajan when he was studying commerce in a college in Ambejogai and hoping to join student politics. Mahajan was his “best friend” and Munde later married his sister. “It was Pramod who introduced me to student politics and later to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh,” he says. “He was a great cricketer and also a good debater.”

He recalls that rainy July night, when he and Mahajan went on a motorcycle from Parbhani district to Ambejogai to see Mahajan’s newly-born son, Rahul. “It was just before the Emergency period. So we had to be back that very night after seeing him. It was quite thrilling,” he says.

Munde’s voice falters when he recalls another fateful day — the morning of April 22, 2006, when Mahajan was shot by his brother Pravin, and succumbed to injuries later in hospital. The Mahajans lived in the same multi-storeyed building. He recalls how his wife Rekha came running to Munde for help and how he rushed him to a hospital.

“Pramod had asked me just one question: what wrong did he do to Pravin that he tried to kill him.” Munde’s eyes are moist now. “I suffered a personal loss but his death created a political vacuum in the party,” he says.

Munde, however, is not very keen to talk about Mahajan’s children — wannabe politician Poonam and reality show star Rahul. The father of three daughters — Pankaja, Pritam and Yashashri — talks even less about his own children. “My eldest daughter Pankaja, who is an MLA, is doing very well in politics. Pritam is a doctor and Yashashri is studying law. I am proud of all three,” he says, cutting me short. He gets up abruptly and looks at his silver-and-gold plated watch. It’s time for him to leave — he has an important meeting. And that too with Gadkari. After all, Munde has always stressed that his motto is Party before Self.

Union home secretary G.K. Pillai is optimistic about tackling insurgency in the Northeast and the Maoist problem in six states. The man who’s been in the eye of a storm told me in an interview, early this year,  that Lalgarh would never have happened if good governance had been in place.


he opening words are terse. “You have exactly 30 minutes,” says Gopal Krishna Pillai. The Union home secretary, clearly, believes in straight talk. So I do my bit too, getting immediately to the point. Did he derail last year’s India-Pakistan talks, as a section of Pakistanis claimed?

“I do not think my comments affected the talks. They (Pakistan) just needed an excuse for a disagreement,” he says promptly.

And what about the controversy he triggered when he talked about the involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence agency — Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — in the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai?

“I would like to put the record straight. There is no harm calling a spade a spade,” he says.

I can believe that. Just days before foreign minister S.M. Krishna left for Pakistan for a round of talks in July, Pillai called the press for a briefing on 26/11 prime accused David Headley and his alleged links with the ISI, based on information gathered by US and Indian interrogators.

“We gave them enough evidence that suggested that 26/11 was a carefully planned joint ISI-LeT operation. Headley had identified the voices of Pakistani ‘handlers’ who directed the terrorists where to attack and what to do with the hostages. He even gave out the names of other ISI operatives who worked behind the scenes. We gave Pakistan the transcripts given to us by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. What more evidence do they need?”

But after 26/11, he adds, Pakistan has “learnt a lesson”. And India too is preparing itself so that it can counter any such attack in the future. “Still, we need to be more professional.”

He recounts the events in a mock drill where security officers had been told to move from one point to another in a vehicle. The cops rushed into the vehicle as planned — only to find that the driver was missing. It was later discovered that he had gone out for a cup of tea. “We have to ensure that this is not repeated because every second counts,” he says grimly.

Pillai’s concerns do not start or end with terrorist attacks. The issue of the growing Maoist threat in six states — West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh — may be giving sleepless nights to the government, but it’s on its toes, he believes.

He draws his chair close to his computer monitor and opens a series of files with graphic illustrations on how the security forces have been overpowering the Maoists.

Running his fingers over the red and green curves on the computer screen, he reels out figures. “In 2009, 624 security forces were killed. Last year, the number came down to 304. The number of Maoists killed in 2010 went up to 274 from 194 in 2009. We will be able to knock off the Maoists in seven to 10 years.” Unfortunately, he adds, more than 72 per cent of the casualties are police informers killed by the armed guerillas.

The states have “neglected” the police, he rues, and adds that it is time they got their act together. “More than three lakh sanctioned posts are lying vacant in these six states and should be filled at the earliest.”

West Bengal is one of the states that has the home secretary worried. He accuses the Left Front of “poor” governance. “Lalgarh would have never happened if good governance was in place,” he says, referring to the Maoist hotbed in West Bengal.

The state is certainly a cause of concern for Pillai’s ministry — not only because of the growing influence of Maoists but also because of the impending assembly elections, which, many fear, may trigger acts of violence. “We will need extra security because it will be one of the hottest contested elections. We would want the people of Bengal to stay as calm as possible,” Pillai stresses.

The bureaucrat knows his business, for this is not the first time that he has been with the ministry. Though the 1972-batch Kerala cadre IAS officer spent five years as an additional secretary and then secretary in the ministry of commerce, he was a joint secretary in the home ministry between 1996 and 2001. BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani — whom he describes as a “good minister” — was in charge of home through most of his tenure.

“Advani was quite active in the peace talks with The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muivah) and Bodo militants in Assam,” Pillai, who was then looking after the troubled northeast, adds.

I ask him what he thinks of the northeastern people’s demand for repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a law that gives sweeping powers to the army, including the right to shoot on suspicion.

“It has been relaxed from seven assembly segments of the Imphal municipal area as they are not considered to be ‘disturbed’ any more,” he says. “If the state governments assure us that there is complete peace in the region, we can relax the law. But the state governments have to pull up their socks,” he says.

Recently, a government-appointed committee suggested changes to the law which were referred to the home ministry. Among them was the abolishment of clause 4 of the act that empowers the armed forces to open fire, causing death. “We want to remove the clause. Plus, we have suggested setting up grievance committees jointly with local administrations to address the complaints of civilians concerning the act.”

In the Kashmir Valley, too, the State is stepping back, bit by bit. The government recently announced a 25 per cent reduction in troops deployed in the troubled northern state. “We have already taken away 10 battalions from Kashmir. In 2010, we removed 16 bunkers and 2,000 cops have been shifted out of Srinagar,” he says.

Pillai knows well how an effective bureaucrat can bring about change. As the son of an IAS officer, he would have seen, albeit from a distance, the way the official machinery works.

Pillai grew up in Bangalore, studying at Bishop Cottons Boys School and then at St Joseph’s College. A keen athlete, he, however, seldom took a champion’s trophy home. “I always stood third in all sports events,” he says wryly.

Being passionate about science, Pillai, who once even contested student union elections in college, chose to study chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras. “But I loved art and theatre. I directed and choreographed a play at the IIT annual cultural festival once,” he recalls.

The room we are sitting in — in New Delhi’s North Block — reflects his taste in art. Abstract paintings hang on the cream walls of the room, while elegant cream curtains complement the walls.

Unlike the offices of sarkari babus, where files tend to pile up in a disorderly manner, his room is tidy, with official papers all neatly arranged on one side of his work table. The desk also holds a couple of photographs of his three-month-old grandson, Madhav. “I love to spend time with him,” he says.

His wife Sudha — member secretary, Planning Commission — was his contemporary in the IAS. She stood second in the entrance examination, and he was fourth. Two years ago, both were contenders for the post of the cabinet secretary, but neither got the job.

“She is a much better officer than I,” he says. “It was the government’s loss not to appoint her as cabinet secretary,” he says, adding that she is good at multi-tasking — at home and in office.

Despite their busy schedules, the two manage to spend time together. “Before coming to office today,” he says with a smile, “we went to watch Dhobi Ghat.”

He is happily sharing his views on the new Aamir Khan starrer when the phone rings. It brings to my mind the controversial tapes of telephone conversations between corporate lobbyist Niira Radia and leading businessmen, politicians and journalists.

“I gave the authorisation for tapping conversations concerning tax evasion andhawala but the ones that were leaked (to the press) have nothing to do with us. Though these tapes were good for gossip, ethically the leak was wrong,” Pillai says.

“Ideally, when phones are tapped, transcripts must be kept in sealed custody. And they are supposed to get destroyed in six months,” he says. The income tax officials, which had the tapes, should “have simply destroyed” them, he adds.

The phone rings again. I look at the clock and find that he has talked for an extra 20 minutes. The bureaucrat has slipped — but I am not complaining.

A light chat with Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit!

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that politicians come late for meetings. I am there well in advance, of course, for my appointment with the chief minister of Delhi. And then Sheila Dikshit springs a surprise on me by appearing 20 minutes before the scheduled time. But then, the lady — like that old ad for a ketchup brand — has always been different.

We are sitting in her living room in her official residence in central Delhi on a Sunday morning. “So tell me, what would you like to know,” she asks as she settles down on a cushy sofa.

A lot of things, actually. For one, the criticism that her government has been facing for its tardy work on the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Or why Manu Sharma, convicted of killing Jessica Lal, was out on parole. Or, indeed, how she ducks all the knives that are chucked at her by her own party men.

But all that will come later. To begin with, I ask her how she looks back at her three-term tenure that started in 1998. “Thrilling, exciting and challenging,” she replies succinctly. Not one loose word there. No wonder she’s called a smart politician.

But she wasn’t born with a ballot paper in her mouth in Punjab’s Kapurthala seven decades ago. Her family was apolitical — but she was drawn into politics after she married a bureaucrat called Vinod Dikshit. His father, Uma Shankar Dikshit, was a home minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Widowed young, Sheila Dikshit started helping her father-in-law in administrative jobs. She also worked as secretary of the New Delhi-based Garment Exporters Association. But it was when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister and launched a search for people he could identify with that she fought her first election.

She stood and won from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh in 1984, and was appointed Parliamentary affairs minister in 1986. She was later made a minister of state in Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Minister’s Office — a portfolio created for the first time.

“It was a huge learning experience working with Rajivji. He was extremely progressive and farsighted. Our thought process matched,” Dikshit recalls.

Is it the same working with Sonia Gandhi? “I share a very close, personal and political relationship with her,” says Dikshit. “She is an iconic figure for me,” she adds, looking at an artistic photo frame, kept on the table in front of her, which holds an old photograph featuring the smiling faces of the two.

Dikshit, however, had a falling out with the Gandhis after she lost the 1989 election from Kannauj. The political grapevine has it that the distancing happened because of Uma Shankar Dikshit’s demand that she be made the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. She was denied a ticket by Gandhi in the 1991 election but was finally rehabilitated by Sonia, who saw her as an ally in her fight against P.V. Narasimha Rao.

But her proximity to 10 Janpath has never stopped her detractors — and there are quite a few in her party — from attacking her. Among her top critics are party leaders Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler. Her opponents have often described her as an “outsider”.

“I never felt intimidated by such comments. One can call anyone an outsider but it is the people who elect you and decide your fate,” says the suave, English-speaking politician, an alumna of Delhi’s Convent of Jesus and Mary and Miranda House.

Sometimes, though, Dikshit is accused of making political gaffes. After Delhi journalist Soumya Vishwanathan was killed while driving home from work late at night, the chief minister’s reported remark “One should not be adventurous” drew flak from many. She came under attack recently for Manu Sharma’s parole, the request for which had been passed by the Delhi government. It was claimed that Sharma needed parole because his mother was unwell. But the “ailing” mother was seen at a media briefing in Chandigarh, and the son was found partying in Samrat Hotel’s nightclub Lap in Delhi.

Diskhit does not believe the Sharma incident embarrassed her in any way. “Why should it be embarrassing for me? I did nothing that was not to be done legally. I have been framed for being a political figure,” she replies. “But what Manu Sharma did was wrong. He shouldn’t have left Chandigarh,” Dikshit adds.

She speaks in her characteristic voice — soft and well modulated — but it carries conviction. In fact, her persona oozes confidence. The image of the chief minister in her trademark tussar block printed saris, worn in winter, or thin-bordered cotton print saris in the summer, is that of a favourite aunt — who may trip up now and then but is both pleasant and efficient.

We move on to the topic of saris. Dikshit is known to frequent handloommelas in the capital in search of good saris. She’s also picked up cotton saris from her earlier visits to Calcutta. “I used to frequent Calcutta when my father-in-law was the Governor of West Bengal in 1976-77. I have always been fascinated by Bengal’s art and culture but sadly the flavour has got lost in the past two decades,” says Dikshit, taking a quick potshot at the Left Front government in Bengal, while not naming it.

But despite her party’s differences with the Left, she says she has high regard for her Bengal counterpart — chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “I find him very accommodating and understanding. He has modern and progressive thinking,” says Dikshit, who worked with Bhattacharjee in the Central Advisory Board of Education during Arjun Singh’s tenure as the human resources development minister. Even as she talks about her “rapport” with the Left leader, she strives to point out that her appreciation for his rival Mamata Banerjee’s “hard work” is no less.

“I am thankful to her that she has upgraded a couple of stations in Delhi that needed urgent renovation. Things have moved pretty fast after she took over as railway minister,” feels Dikshit.

Not only that, Banerjee has also agreed to meet the Indian Olympic Association’s demand for a special train to popularise the Commonwealth Games of 2010, an event surrounding which Dikshit’s government has been roundly lammed for not completing the scheduled work — stadia, roads, hotels and so on — within the stipulated time. “I am nervously excited about the event,” she confesses. But “the stage will be set for action on time”.

And once the mega event gets over, she plans to go on a long vacation. As she talks about her travel plans, Dikshit suddenly recalls one of her “adventure trips” in Europe with her husband way back in the late 1960s.

“It was winter, freezing cold, and we were driving from Italy through the Alps to Britain. Neither of us realised that there was a car heater, which had to be turned on. A friend later told us how we could have avoided the bone-chilling cold in Switzerland. But by then, we had already driven for more than 12 days without the car heater. Whenever my husband and I recalled the incident, we had a good laugh at our foolishness,” she says and laughs again.

But it was not easy for this daughter of Sikh and Hindu Punjabi parents to marry a Hindu Brahmin. When her husband, a graduate of St Stephen’s College in Delhi, first told her that his parents would not accept her because she was from a different caste, her reaction was — “Oh my God! Is caste so important?”

But eventually the caste difference was overshadowed by love, and in 1961, a year after Dikshit got inducted into the IAS, she tied the knot with him at the age of 23.

“Though I am not a religious person I did perform a couple of pujas to keep my mother-in-law happy,” recalls Dikshit who, in her early days in marriage, had to cover her head with the traditional ghoonghat in front of her in laws.

Now, at 71, Dikshit is a bit of a loner. She stays alone in her sprawling government bungalow in Lutyens’s Delhi. After a long day at the secretariat, she likes to bury herself in a book. And her favourite book, till date, is Alice in Wonderland.

She likes doing up her house — and the drawing room is tastefully adorned with mirrors, vases, picture frames and pots, all placed in strategic corners. “If I were not a politician, I would have been an interior designer,” she says.

A movie buff, she also drops by at the nearest theatre for late-night shows. Her all-time favourite is Yash Chopra’s romantic flick Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) — a film that she has watched 15 times.

But it is not Shah Rukh Khan of DDLJ who has caught her fancy. “My latest crush is Shahid Kapoor,” she says skittishly.

You can’t accuse her of not moving with the times. We did say she was different!

(Published in January 2010)

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