Archive for June 2013

India’s braveheart jawans have rescued thousands in the Uttarakhand flash flood disaster. But the exposure to death and destruction often leaves many of them severely traumatised.

Long after the last of the pilgrims has left the ruins of Kedarnath, an image of a soldier will remain etched in the minds of all those who have been watching the horrors of towns swept by ravaging floods. The jawan had an embarrassed half-smile on his face, as an old lady blessed him with her gnarled hands.

When he is back in his post, what is the picture that the soldier will carry with him? The grateful faces of those he rescued from cut-off, hilly lands, or the bodies of people who could not be saved?

For a numbed nation, the pictures of jawans saving thousands of lives — flashed on television and front-paged in the newspapers — are enduring images. Young men in uniform are carrying pilgrims on their shoulders. Some are slithering down from helicopters. Others are distributing food packets and water to thousands of people stranded in Uttarakhand.

“In the line of duty, jawans may appear to be men of steel,” says a senior officer in the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) that has spearheaded the rescue operations along with the Indian Air Force and the Army. “But they have a heart too.”

And often, the trauma haunts them for years.

A 40-year-old soldier of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) was part of a rescue mission when pilgrims to Amarnath were killed or injured in a road accident. He held a flashlight on the bodies of the dead to assist a photographer. And he could not forget the images ever.

After that incident, he started complaining of sleep disorders. He said when he closed his eyes, the images of the dead played on his mind. After a few months, he developed an obstructive compulsive disorder and started thinking that his colleagues were planning to kill him. He always kept a finger on the trigger of his rifle to be ready for an attack.

“It was a risk to put him on duty as we feared he would either harm himself or others. He was later asked to take voluntary retirement,” a senior ITBP official in Delhi says.

Sources in the forces stress that after every relief and rescue operation, soldiers return to their posts or homes with images of death and destruction. They remember children crying in pain, elderly people separated from their families, and the stench of human bodies and animal carcasses.

Quite a few fall into depression. “Often, jawans who participate in such operations suffer from a post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes, it takes at least three to six months for them to recover from the shock,” says a Border Security Force (BSF) official.

He cites the case of a 32-year-old BSF jawan who could not forget the dismembered body parts of his colleagues who died in an avalanche in Kashmir six years ago. After being treated in the BSF’s Gwalior hospital for two months, he was sent on medical leave for another three months.

“Even though he rejoined work, he could not be sent to the border post anymore. He was too vulnerable. He was transferred to one of the base offices and will be there for the rest of his serving tenure,” says the senior medical officer at the BSF Academy in Gwalior.

Like him, many soldiers find it difficult to resume work. “In some cases, the jawan is so traumatised that we are forced to send him for fresh training. We have to keep reminding them that there is no room for emotions in the forces,” says the BSF officer.

Apart from depression and insomnia, common complaints are of breathlessness, restlessness and mood swings. Some lose their exuberance and withdraw into a shell.

“One of our jawans once participated in a rescue operation at a train accident site where he witnessed mutilated bodies. He started worrying about the fate of his own family and became fearful of accidents,” says a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) official. “After the incident, we saw serious behavioural changes in him. From a fearless and courageous boy, he became very docile.”

An independent medical expert stresses that behavioural changes are only to be expected. “Jawans are not supposed to be compassionate — they are taught to treat people as objects. But this mindset works when they are dealing with enemies. When they are not, they can be badly affected,” says Delhi-based psychiatrist Rajat Mitra, who has come across cases of depression among jawans.

Some soldiers also suffer from guilt because of the limitations of a rescue operation. “It is not always possible to save the lives of everyone in an emergency,” says the NDRF officer. “But jawans find it difficult to accept failures as they have high expectations of themselves. This adds to their depression.”

To top it, the entire country expects them to succeed in their rescue missions.

There is a growing feeling that only the disciplined units of soldiers can tackle extreme conditions and save civilians in distress.

And the teams — drawn from the Indian Armed Forces, Indian Air Force and paramilitary forces such as the ITBP, BSF and CRPF — have demonstrated this in the many rescue operations they have undertaken over the years. Some of the recent operations include missions to save lives during the super cyclone in Odisha in 1999, the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, the Ladakh flash floods in 2010, the Sikkim earthquake in 2011 and flood relief operations in Assam in 2012.

When they return from these missions, curiously, there is not much that the forces can do to help them. The BSF, for example, has just one psychiatrist for its 2.4 lakh personnel; the CRPF has three for over 3 lakh people.

A senior CRPF officer admits that the jawans need more help. “The tendency is to keep their problems under wraps. Officers of higher ranks feel that a jawan should be emotionally equipped to deal with any degree of trauma,” the officer says. “It is the officers who decide whether a jawan needs psychological help. The decision may not always be on time.”

But senior officers do what they can to minimise the trauma. They try to ensure that a jawan is not part of a rescue mission for long. The ITBP is pulling out old teams and replacing them with new ones in the ongoing rescue mission.

“Our boys have been surrounded by bodies for so long. We plan to replace the old teams with fresh ones to ensure they don’t get frustrated,” says ITBP director general Ajay Chadha, who promises psychological help for those who need them.

De-briefing soldiers is one way of helping them de-stress, adds Air Commodore Rajesh Isser, who lost one of his pilots in the current operation when an IAF helicopter crashed near Gaurikund. “During these de-briefing sessions, jawans open up and share their traumatic experiences. It is the best possible way to unwind,” says Isser, who is controlling the operation which involves 45 Air Force helicopters and 300 personnel.

But the biggest healer is the family. “After they come back, it is best to send the jawans home so that they can be with their families,” he says.

Then, of course, there is time — considered the best healer of all. But even time cannot always wipe away memories. And those can stay on forever.

(The Telegraph, June 30,2013)

Ratan Thiyam, one of India’s best known theatre directors, feels the government does little to promote the arts.

Monks in saffron chant mantras in the dark. A beam of light slowly falls on them. The monks move in a circle, and then, from the centre, a very young Ashoka emerges, clad in a dhoti and paying homage to the priests.

The burly man who has taken his seat in the dimly lit empty auditorium is keenly observing the members of the Chorus Repertory Company as they rehearse the opening scene of his play Uttar Priyadarshi at Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre, a theatre in the heart of the city. Minutes later, the actors are queuing up — this time to seek the blessings of the man in their midst, Ratan Thiyam.

The doyen of Indian theatre and the founder of the repertory gives them a quick lesson. “If you don’t have discipline and professionalism, you fail as artistes,” Thiyam says.

He has both — which is possibly why he is one of India’s best known theatre directors today. A playwright, he is also the backbone of the modern Indian theatre. “We had all really worked hard and created an identity for Indian theatre. From a musician to a playwright to an actor — everyone contributed to the movement,” he says, referring to what’s known as the Theatre of Roots, the movement that shaped modern Indian theatre.

Thiyam, who has produced some 60 plays over 35 years, is in Delhi to receive the Sangeet Natak Akademi fellowship for outstanding contribution to theatre. He has been flooded with awards over the years, but feels that the government needs to do more for the arts than just honour artistes.

“Giving away awards and honours is one thing while promoting art is another. In this country, there is no political will to promote art,” Thiyam, 65, says. “In India, many talented actors have no place to go.”

His voice is a deep baritone, and he speaks haltingly in English. He looks tired, and it seems that a part of his mind is on the play that is flowing in front of him. Through the interview, he is interrupted by people — actors and others — who want to have a quick word with him.

There’s much they can learn from him, for Thiyam is not just Manipur’s best known director and a former head of the National School of Drama, he has also seen the best of theatre. In his youth, he came across the works of — and interacted with — directors such as Utpal Dutt, Sambhu Mitra and Ajitesh Bandopadhyay.

“I saw a lot of eagerness, enthusiasm and courage in them to bring a change in Indian theatre. They were the real force behind the movement,” he says adding that Bandopadhyay had often invited him to Calcutta to watch Bengali plays.

The director’s relationship with Bengal is an old one. He was born in West Bengal’s Nabadwip because his Manipuri dancer parents — Thiyam Tarunkumar and Bilashini Devi — used to perform mostly in Bengal. As a child, he used to travel with his parents’ dancing troupe. “I was brought up in costume boxes,” he laughs, stroking his short, white beard.

That was also when he came in touch with the works of Rabindranath Tagore — whose plays he has been directing over the years. Apart from producing Shakudaba Shaknaiba based on Tagore’s Raja, he has translated many of his poems from Bengali into Manipuri. “I have always looked at Tagore as a spiritual guru,” he says.

Thiyam moved from Bengal to Manipur when he was in his teens. He lived with his grandparents in his ancestral house in Imphal’s Uripok and went to the Johnstone High School. By the time he was 14, he said he had starting hating everything about the performing arts, mainly because of all the travelling that his parents had to do. “I swore that I would never become a performing artiste,” he says.

What he wanted to do was paint. At 15, he also enrolled in a school of art in Imphal. Painting, he holds, is still his first love. In his plays such as Andha YugChinglon Mapan Tampak Ama and even in Uttar Priyadarshi, every scene looks like a painting — showcasing a combination of colour, music and movement.

Most of his plays are on epic themes, dealing with mythology while focusing on issues of personal responsibility and issues such as good and evil. “I love to experiment with the different philosophies of life. I am into the continuous process of discovering and re-discovering oneself and the art of theatre.”

That Thiyam’s whole self is devoted to theatre is evident. He deals with every aspect of a play — from writing the script to directing it, to composing music and creating the set designs. Manipur figures prominently in his works — including elements such as Manipuri raas leelathang-ta (Manipuri martial art), pung-cholom (acrobatic dance with drums), nata sankirtana (folk dance form) and wari liba (oral storytelling). “Tradition — with rituals and art — is so rich in the state that it cannot be taken away from theatre,” he says.

Ironically, Thiyam never thought he’d do theatre. He wanted to be a writer and had started penning poems and short stories in his teens. At the age of 17, he even published a compilation of short stories Lonna Haigey Tumimmatao.

Soon he was bringing out the literary journal Lasani and a cultural magazine Reetu. Then one day, when he was in his early 20s, a group of young actors in Imphal asked him to write a play for them.

He adapted and dramatised the Bengali novel Nabab Nandini by Damodar Mukhopadhyay. The director of the play asked for his assistance in direction. He agreed. Then, when one of the lead actors left the play four days before the show, he was coaxed into taking on his role.

“I had no choice but to agree. Surprisingly, everyone appreciated my work,” he recalls.

Gradually, he started acting in Manipuri plays produced by local theatre groups. The growing interest in theatre led him to the National School of Drama (NSD), which he joined in 1971.

“I wanted to brush up my Hindi and Urdu speaking skills, so I joined the acting course,” says Thiyam, who loves reading the works of Hindi poet Udayan Vajpeyi.

At NSD, Thiyam came under the spell of director Ebrahim Alkazi, whom he describes as his mentor. After watching Thiyam’s Chinglon Mapan Tampak Ama (Nine Hills One Valley), Alkazi had said to him: “With this one play, you’ve managed to outdo what I did in my entire life as a theatre artiste.”

But the student gives all the credit to the master. “He always told us that we had to work hard to get what we wanted. I wish I could be somewhere near him,” he says.

Thiyam returned to NSD as its director in 1987. He laments that the institute has failed to emerge as a centre of excellence even 54 years after its establishment.

“NSD has remained the same as it was in the 1970s,” Thiyam rues. “Regional centres of NSD should be opened for spotting talent from various parts of the country and this school should be transformed into a centre for advanced learning where one can do good research in theatre. NSD should produce more professionals,” he says.

It was to give theatre a boost that he set up his repertory company in 1976. But it was not an easy start, especially in the strife-torn Manipur.

“Initially, I couldn’t pay a salary to my actors as there were barely any sponsors in Manipur. All I could manage was a cup of tea for my actors. Later, when we started getting sponsors while performing in several theatre festivals in Delhi, I could pay them a monthly salary of Rs 40,” he recalls.

Some of his best Manipuri productions include ChakravyuhaLengshonnei (an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Antigone) and Ritusamharam (based on Kalidasa’s work). Over the years, a great many awards have been bestowed on him, including the Indo-Greek Friendship Award in 1984, Edinburgh’s Fringe Firsts Award in 1987 and the John D. Rockefeller award in 2008. His productions have travelled to many countries such as the US, Thailand, the former Soviet Union, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

A visiting faculty member at New York’s Fordham University, Thiyam has always been vocal on social and political issues. It was to register his protest against the government’s extension of a ceasefire with the militant NSCN (IM) group that he returned the Padma Shri in 2001.

“It was a small protest to bring to the notice of the government that what is happening in the state is absolutely wrong,” he says.

But why has Manipur’s Irom Sharmila — on a hunger strike for over 12 years in protest against an armed forces act in place in Manipur — not figured in his works or protests?

“Irom Sharmila is always there on my mind,” he promptly replies. “But there has to be a strong script, too, for a good play on her.”

Thiyam is married to Damayanti Devi, a former lead actress in his company. He has three children — son Thawai is a co-ordinator in his repertory company, Menaka is a filmmaker in Manipur and Manasi is married and lives in Bangalore. When he is not working on a play, he tries to spend time with his grandson and granddaughter.

He listens to music — from Manipuri rock to bhajans — but plans to go back to his first love. “I want to paint all over again,” Thiyam says. But then, the stage has always been his canvas.

(Published in The Telegraph, June 23, 2013)

In the run-up to the Assembly elections in Manipur, the state’s rock bands have been telling people to vote for better governance through their music. (Telegraph, January 29, 2012)
Vote band: A Phoenix performance;

The crowd roars as Alvina Gonson’s strong voice washes across the stage. The lead vocalist of the rock band White Fire taps her high-heeled boots and belts out the song I am afraid of time. It could have been any old rock show in music-loving Manipur. Instead, the performance was at a gathering organised by the newly formed Naga People’s Front (NPF) in Noney in Tamenglong district. And the band was exhorting the crowd to vote against corruption.

About 50km from Noney, the mood is equally rebellious in a studio in Wangkhei in east Imphal. The sounds of the guitar and the drum meld with the voice of vocalist Tolen Thoidingjam. Thoidingjam’s band, The 3 Strings, is on a mission too. “The meaning of democracy has changed, from for the people to kill the people. Wake up everyone, ignite the power of your souls. It’s time for the battle,” he sings.

Indeed, it’s the time for a battle. And musicians are leading the fight as Manipur’s rock bands take to the streets for a better government. For weeks before yesterday’s Assembly election, the bands urged the youth through their songs to vote carefully.

“We have been mere spectators in the polling process. But if we don’t speak up now, we can’t do it ever,” says Raj Kumar Ritan, the 23-year-old guitarist of The 3 Strings.

Alvina Gonson

Music has always been the lifeline of the young in Manipur. But the tenor of the bands — angered by issues such as insurgency and economic blockades — has changed. With more than six lakh unemployed youth in the state, resentment against politicians is rife. Not surprisingly, the youth are turning their music into a weapon.

It all started two months ago when a group of young Manipuris organised a rock concert with the elections in mind. Titled Vote For Change, it featured five rock bands — Phoenix, Brothers, The Wishess, The Dirty Strikes and Fringes. The bands together decided that they’d try and make a difference in the 2012 election.

“The message was simple and clear — let’s not vote for the corrupt and the incompetent,” says Roshan Samom of the event management group Spotless Event, which organised the show in west Imphal. The bands stress that they are not asking for votes for any political party in particular — only urging voters to keep out the corrupt. But there is resentment against the Congress which held power for two terms.

The songs of the bands reflect their concerns. “As I grew, I saw the tear, it hurt me more than I could bear. Now, is the time, no more fright, let’s rise and fight,” The Wishess sing in Evolution. Phoenix, which split in 1995 and has now made a comeback, asks the questions “Can there be a real man? Can anyone bring a new change?” in a song called Stop The Killing.

“Being the senior-most rock artistes in the state, we think we have the responsibility to raise awareness among voters through our songs,” says Phoenix lead vocalist Laishram Sando, 54.

The lyrics strike a chord with the young who’ve undergone similar experiences. When Sonamani Rajkumar, lyricist and vocalist of the group Cleave, was frisked by security forces on his way back home from a rehearsal three months ago, he wrote the songThe Night of the Damn. The words, he says, reflect the “distorted freedom” of Manipur.

“It was frustrating to be challenged in my own land. Music is the only way I could have expressed it,” says Rajkumar. “It’s the only medium we have for venting our anger and resentment,” adds Abow Rajkumar, Cleave’s keyboard player. “Otherwise, we would have taken up the gun,” he says, as he reads a text message about a bomb blast in Imphal.

The names of the bands too reflect their angst. “We want to strike back against atrocities through our songs. So we call ourselves Dirty Strikes,” says bandman Kennedy Heigrujam. The name Fringes articulates a paradox. “Living on the periphery of the Indian Union is a different experience and it has its own social and cultural implications,” says vocalist Haraba Ningthoukhongjam.

The musicians are often found playing at Shallow River, a jamming studio in the heart of Imphal. Another popular spot is Bedrock, a studio in Wangkhei. “This is where we put our stories of pain and distress in rhythm and beat,” says Thounaojam Bishikanta Singh, vocalist of The Wishess. “We let our guitars gently weep,” adds Ningthoukhongjam.

But rock bands in Manipur were not always known to be anti-establishment. They emerged in the 1960s, bolstered by the music of Christian missionaries. But though rock music was hugely popular in the 1980s, many groups disbanded over the years. After a long gap, bands are back with a big bang in Manipur.

“The reason is that they write their own compositions. Also, these days songs don’t just revolve around love and romance but talk about the people of the state,” says R.K. James, an event manager who organises rock concerts across the state.

Perceptions about rock bands have also changed, adds Momocha Laishram, former drummer of Cannibals. “Earlier, rock bands were considered to be a bunch of flamboyant drug addicts. But now, people are ready to listen to rock music and the message behind them.”

And the messages, clearly, are hitting home. For example, Lie Instead, Mr Ruler by The Dirty Strikes revolves around false promises made by politicians. It’s your choice by the band IIIrd Chapter warns against freebies that politicians offer before a poll.

Vote buying figures in the song Democrazy of the band Eastern Dark, which sings in English and Manipuri. “3 pegs of liquor, 1kg of pork, a plate of rice, then slapping your face, with a 500 bucks bill, they flatly bought you, and you still expect democracy to flourish,” it sings in Manipuri.

Social analysts believe the bands’ political voice is a healthy trend. “Change means movement but they should stick to the agenda even after the polls,” says S. Mangi Singh, professor, department of political science, Manipur University.

Politicians too are keenly eyeing the trend, for 28 per cent of the 17,41,581 voters across the state are in the 18-29 age group. The bands’ efforts have already pushed the young to the polling booth. “I always thought voting was a waste of time but these songs have motivated me to vote,” says a 23-year-old student, Bijenti Mutum.

Taken aback by the music bands campaign, political parties have been promising to deliver. “We have given 40,000 jobs to the youth since 2005. We will not disappoint the youth if we get back to power,” says Nongthombam Biren Singh, who is contesting from Heingang Assembly constituency in west Imphal on a Congress ticket.

But the youth of Manipur have heard many such promises. And this time, if the promises are not met, they are going to sing some more.

The twinkle in her soft brown eyes – which cameramen for long years have lovingly focused on – is gone. Her smile is there, though, and seeks to hide the trouble that’s beset her.

These seven days have been hard on actress Zarina Wahab. She has been juggling between the courts and locations. Dressed in a white salwar kameez, she has been shooting in Goregaon’s Film City when we meet in between shots. And though she looks elegant, she also looks bone tired.

“I have to play the role of a woman who is just walking out of a mental asylum. I have to look depressed for the role. But the irony is that I don’t have to put on an act,” Wahab, 53, says.

Her son — 21-year-old Suraj Pancholi – was arrested by the Mumbai police on Monday on charges of abetting Bollywood actor Jiah Khan’s suicide on June 5.  His bail plea will be heard on June 21. Since he has been arrested, Wahab has met him only once. “It was the day he was produced in court. He waved out to me,” she says. Her daughter Sana, she adds, has been visiting him.

Khan’s tragic suicide has triggered a war of words. Her mother Rabiya Khan has alleged that Suraj, who is said to have been in a relationship with Jiah, abused her and pushed her to take her life. Rabiya has alleged that Suraj used to get drunk and beat Jiah and had also tried to rape her. The police have claimed that Suraj has confessed to beating her once in Goa eight months ago, following which Khan had tried to slit her wrists.

Wahab will have none of this. “My son is the most well mannered child. I have never seen him abusing anyone,” says Wahab who stresses that her son is a teetotaler.  “Suraj loved her at one point of time. Why would he rape her?”

A doting mother, she stresses that her son is calm and shy. He starts his day at seven, goes to the gym and then to his dancing classes. He had been gearing up for his debut role in a Bollywood film – he was to have been launched with Suniel Shetty’s daughter Aathiya in a remake of Subhash Ghai’s 1983 blockbuster Hero.

“Even before he could start his career, they made a villain out of him. But I know he will emerge a hero,” she says.

Wahab adds that she had not met Jiah Khan, but got to know about their relationship from reports in the media last year. “They met on Facebook. When I asked him about her, he said she was a nice girl, but never talked about her. His focus was on preparing himself as an actor,” she says.

But that came to a sudden halt last week when Rabiya made public a five-page letter allegedly written by Jiah. The letter referred to her traumatic relationship with Suraj. The police are believed to have recovered five love letters from Suraj’s house. According to Wahab, Jiah had no complaints about Suraj in any of those letters.

“I am confident that my son has done nothing that would have provoked Jiah to commit suicide. All I know is that they loved each other a lot at one point of time. But then affairs do go wrong. Haven’t we all gone through phases in our life when we have realised that we were dating the wrong person,” she asks.

Wahab knows about tumultuous relationships. Her own relationship was once the delight of tabloids. Like Jiah, who was older than Suraj — Wahab was 27 and actor Aditya Pancholi 23 when they met on the sets of a video film Kalank Ka Tika. They have been married for 27 years, and Pancholi, who now runs a restaurant, Cafe Lambretta in Goa,  has often been in the news – and mostly for the wrong reasons. He has also been linked with Bollywood actresses.

“I never questioned Nirmal  (Pancholi’s actual name) about his affairs. In fact, he often asked me: why don’t you even spy on me,” Wahab laughs. “I don’t care what he does outside the home. For me, what matters is how he behaves with me at home. And I know my husband cares for me.”

What about the physical abuse that the media whispered about?

“Has anyone seen him beat me,” she asks, her soft nasal voice going a notch higher.

“I earn enough to look after myself. If Nirmal was abusive to me, I would have left him long back. But  yes, Nirmal loses his temper very easily. He shouts for five minutes and then he apologises.”

Aware of his temper — Pancholi got into a fight with members of the media on the day of Jiah’s funeral — she has requested him to stay out of Suraj’s case for the time being.  “I asked him not to be around Suraj now as his aggressive image would do more damage to the case,” says Wahab, who is fondly called “Z” by her friends.

Suraj, who is now in judicial custody, will be home soon, she believes. She doesn’t want to speculate on the case anymore – and is ready to put an end to the interview. But when I mention her days in Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, she smiles.

Her father, she says, was a deputy superintendent in the central excise department, and her mother was a homemaker. Wahab went to the Schade Girls High School – and always dreamt of becoming an actress.

“I used to put a lot of powder on my face and stand in front of the mirror for hours. I wanted to act since my childhood,” she says.

Wahab joined the Film and Television Institute of India after school and was signed up by actor-director-producer Dev Anand for his film Ishq Ishq Ishq. “I went to Dev Saab with my photographs but he refused to see them. He said that he’d seen me in person, and was confident that I would be photogenic. I really didn’t have to struggle at all to make inroads into Bollywood.”

While she was shooting for Ishq Ishq Ishq in 1976, she was offered the role of a village girl opposite Amol Palekar in Rajshri Productions’ Chitchor. A year later, she was in Gulzar’s Gharonda, playing the role of a woman who marries an old man for his wealth so that she can live happily with her penniless lover after his death. Wahab, who was the star of the alternative but mainstream cinema, also went on to act in a great many out-and-out commercial films – including Sawan Ko Aane Do, Ek Aur Ek Gyarah, Chor Police and Dahleez.  She acted in over 50 Hindi films and 22 Malyalam films.

Wahab had a girl next door image. Her dusky complexion and long shiny hair made her look different from the other heroines of her times. Wahab looks much fairer now and she does not like it anymore. “When I was young, I was to bleach my skin every 15 days so that I become fair. Now that I am fair, I think my original complexion was much better,” she laughs.

She also acted in Malyalam films. “I did that to earn quick money, They never shoot for more than 15-20 days, so the producers clear their bills after the shoot is over, unlike Mumbai where bills remain pending for years till the movie is released,” she says. Her first Malyalam film was Madanoslavam with Kamal Haasan in 1978. She’s still involved in Malyalam cinema. A recent film — Adaminte Makan Abu — won four national awards and was India’s official entry to the best foreign language film category in the 2011 Oscar awards.

Wahab continued with her career till 1995, when she took time off to raise her children. She donned the greasepaint again in 2000 with the television series Agni. She has acted in quite a few films in recent times – inlcuding My Name is Khan, Vishwaroopam, Agneepath and Himmatwala. She has just finished shooting for I, Me Aur Main, where she plays John Abraham’s mother. Right now, she is busy shooting for the television series Madhubala, Ek Ishq, Ek Junoon.

“I love acting, so I am happy that I am still getting roles,” she says. Is she being forced to act because she has to run the house?  “I act because that’s the only thing I can do. I enjoy every bit of it,” she replies.”

Apart from acting, she loves Telugu films – especially the funny ones. “Every month, I go to Hyderabad to relax and watch these mindless comedies. That’s the best way to unwind,” she smiles, and then adds, “We will visit Hyderabad once Suraj is out.”

She hopes to entertain her son in style. A good cook, she plans to cook some Hyderabadi biryani for him. “Every time I cook it, I have to try hard to convince him that I have gone easy on the ghee. He is extremely health conscious.”

She will feed Suraj, and hope that the death of a troubled girl in Mumbai will soon be behind them. Wahab says she tried to meet Jiah’s mother last week to console her but Rabiya walked out of the room. Two mothers, with two different stories – but clearly both are hurting.

(A version of the story has been published in The Telegraph on June 16, 2013)

With the Amarnath Yatra starting later this month, the issue of the protection and maintenance of the 500-odd Hindu temples and shrines in Jammu and Kashmir is back in the spotlight. Most of these religious places have been lying derelict after the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus from the state began in 1989. In April this year, the long pending J&K Hindu Shrines and Religious Places (Management and Regulation) Bill went to the select committee of the state Assembly. But with its various stakeholders still bitterly divided over it, any chance of a swift passage for the bill continues to look remote.

“There have been conflicting views on the bill; so it was sent to the select committee. Now committee members will discuss amongst themselves and see what amendments can be made to the bill,” says Sheikh Mustafa Kamal, a MLA from the ruling National Conference party.

The bill lays down that an institutional mechanism will be set up to protect and preserve all Kashmiri Hindu shrines, temples, ashrams, mutts, endowments, springs and hillocks, religious places and shrine properties, both movable and immovable.

But Kashmiri Hindus allege that there is no record or inventory of these religious properties. They also allege that government agencies have seized large parts of the areas belonging to many of these temples and shrines.

As Vinod Pandit, chairman of the All Parties Migrant Co-ordination Committee (APMCC), points out, “Government agencies in the Kashmir Valley are forcibly taking over land belonging to Hindu religious places. The big temples are managed by the Dharmarth Trust of MP Karan Singh, but no one maintains the others.”

Kashmiri Pandit activists also point to the issue of land grabbing by the state. Roots in Kashmir, a Delhi-based organisation run by Kashmiri Pandits, alleges that the cremation ground of Sagam in Anantnag district has been taken over by the government to construct a forest check post and a primary health centre. It claims moreover that the state irrigation department has encroached on Baba Dharam Dass temple land in Srinagar. Naranag temple in Kangan, Srinagar, is another Hindu shrine that has been encroached on by locals and the state’s public works department, claims Rashneek Kher, founder-member of Roots in Kashmir.

Activists argue that temples and shrines are among the worst victims of the exile of the Hindu community as they lost their trustees, caretakers, patrons and devotees. They also point out that owing to a lack of upkeep, many of them are in a sad state of disrepair.

“Some of the shrines are historically very important, but little or no effort has been made to preserve them,” says Khera. “The Amarnath shrine is protected by the Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) but there is no mechanism to protect the other temples. For example, in March this year, a fire destroyed a portion of the famous Chakreshwar temple complex on Hari Parbat in Srinagar, but nothing was done to restore it.”

In fact, Raman Bhalla, state minister for revenue, relief and rehabilitation, admitted in a written reply in the Assembly recently that at least 170 temples had been damaged during the two decades of militancy in the Valley.

The bill, which has been hanging fire in the Assembly since 2009, could have gone a long way in repairing and maintaining these temples, say its supporters.

The main feature of the bill is that it proposes to set up a Kashmiri Hindu Shrine Board to look after these structures. It also lays down that the members of the Board should be Kashmiri Hindus. Predictably, this clause has become a serious bone of contention. The ruling National Conference wants Kashmiri Muslims to be part of the Board too.

As Kamal argues, “There are hardly any Kashmiri Pandits in Kashmir any more. Also, it’s the Kashmiri Muslims who have been protecting the Hindu religious places in the Valley for the last 20 years. So their involvement would help in the better management and protection of these places, especially in the absence of Kashmiri Hindus from the Valley.”

However, Kashmiri Pandits counter this by pointing out that the Waqf Board, which looks after the properties of Muslims, do not have any Hindu members. “So why should the proposed shrine Board have any non-Kashmiri Hindu member in it,” asks Amit Raina of Roots in Kashmir.

The other issue that the bill proposes to address is the illegal sale of Hindu shrines and temples that has allegedly become rampant in the Valley. Last year, lands belonging to the Vaital Bhairav temple at Motiyar Rainawari in Srinagar were allegedly leased out on a false power of attorney. “Pieces of land were transferred to the names of some people by the revenue authorities,” claims Pandit of APMCC. “We demanded a thorough probe but it was not considered by the government,” he adds.

Naturally, the state government dismisses these allegations. “Our government has been maintaining the temples, shrines and properties of Kashmiri Hindus very well. We have not allowed any encroachments or illegal sale to take place,” insists Kamal.

The source of funding for the maintenance of these religious places is another matter of debate. According to the bill, the Board or the management committee would be free to receive any donation or grant or offerings against proper receipts and this would be deposited in an endowment fund. It may also borrow money or raise loans from banks or financial institutions.

But some legislators argue that the temples may not be in a position to generate the funds needed for their upkeep. “We want the government to provide financial assistance for the protection of Hindu religious places in the Valley. There should be clarity on this before the bill is passed,” says Harsh Dev Singh, an MLA from the National Panther’s Party, which has often spoken for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits in the Valley.

With so many contentious issues yet to be resolved, the fate of the J&K Hindu Shrines and Religious Places (Management and Regulation) Bill is likely to remain uncertain. And with it, the fate of the temples and shrines of this picturesque Valley.