Thursday, February 23, 2012


It would be nice to win an award, don’t you think? Which one, you ask? Well, how about that one that they give to all those famous people like return gift s at a party… Ah yes, the Nobel Peace Prize, is it? Lets ask for that one… After all, they gave it to Obama for just saying ‘he could’; they gave it to Arafat for blowing up people with the same casual candor as a kid blowing up bubbles at a fair ground; and then they must have been kissing a donkey when they decided to give it to Henry Kissinger for napalming children in Cambodia-Vietnam, and for being a sore loser and calling Indira Gandhi names that rhyme during the Bangladesh war. So with peace efforts like those to match, how much more might we need to do anyway…

Speaking of doing enough to get a nod from those rather generous souls that make up the Nobel Committee, here’s a notable gent who didn’t quite make the cut… A certain Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Maybe he didn’t do enough or perhaps he did too much. It’s too late now to ponder and perhaps we will never know. But here’s a story of betrayal which, if noticed then, might have made Gandhi’s resume colourful enough to merit consideration for a Nobel nomination.

Before I tell you the story, you must understand that I believe Gandhi was a very good man, and a very capable leader. But he was only human and therefore subject to the same manipulations of fate and man that the rest of us lesser mortals might be vulnerable to…

Agreed, Gandhi wasn’t keen on the partition of India, but at the same time, neither did he adamantly sit on a fast unto death to make his point. As independence loomed, his minders took over and he went from being the man in the picture to being a mute witness to a picture being painted in blood. Did he do enough? Sure, much more than many heroes could ever claim to… Could he have done more? History would have us believe, sure… much, much more.

So what’s my point? My point is a lot of good that Gandhi did is remembered and a bit of good that he didn’t do is also exhumed quite often by party poopers. But somehow this ‘betrayal’, is lost in the mist beyond the border. Last week, while exploring the legend of Kissa Qhwani Bazaar, I found out about his ‘let down’ if not betrayal, that led to the death of an idea, of a legacy, and a friendship. Today there is blood on the hand, and it is the blood of a friend…

In the year 1946, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, leader of the Pakhtuns and talismanic flag-bearer of the non-violent movement in the North-West Frontier Province was an anxious man. The winds that were blowing west from Delhi were bringing bad news. Khan had dedicated his life and urged his hundred thousand plus followers, the Khudai Khidmatgars, to dedicate theirs to the cause of a free, secular and undivided India – a cause pursued through the principles of non-violence and moral courage. But his friends and revered colleagues, Gandhi and members of the Indian National Congress, who had assured him that they were brothers in arms till the bitter end or glory be theirs, had shift ed ideals.

Khan had fought an uphill battle with the beliefs of his Pathan brothers, and convinced them that a non-violent path and the goal of an undivided India was the way of humanity, the way of the faith. Singed by the fires fanned by the Muslim League, there was resentment and distrust brewing amongst predominantly Muslim masses that stretched from the Punjab to the Khyber about having to live as minorities under a predominantly Hindu leadership. The Khan, seen as a symbol peace was also being painted by some in the League as an anti-Muslim vassal of the Congress. The British too indulged in their treacherous trifles and set alight the tinderbox that exploded, culminating in riots and massacres across the Indian union. Though a gentler giant there never was, Khan was assaulted and injured by those who thought him a traitor to the faith. While recuperating in hospital, Khan shuddered at the thought of what might happen if the country did actually get rent in two.

As the heat and dust of 1947 came to pass, Khan realised that the idea of an undivided India was no longer the cherished goal for the Indian National Congress. The once abhorred idea of partition had now become a convenient solution for every dancer at this party.

Ghaffar Khan’s faith had been betrayed. He and his supporters had been left to fend for themselves in a new country carved out of an old dream. The very idea of Pakistan – a nation built on the idea of religious division – was an idea that Khan and his people had been fighting, zealously guarding the ideal of an undivided India. Khan believed, and had surely been led to believe that the Congress, and most all his beloved Bapu, would never let the idea of Partition take root. But when Jinnah cracked the whip, the Congress changed tunes and washed its hands off the idea of a united India and Khan and his supporters were the only ones left holding umbrellas at a rain-dance. “You’ve thrown us to the wolves!”, Khan had said to Gandhi when they last met while the nation was tearing itself into two.

By virtue of opposing the partition on communal lines, Khan and the Khidmatgars had opposed the creation of Pakistan. Thus Pakistan’s founding fathers were deeply suspicious of Khan and his supporters. Ghaffar Khan spent most of the rest of his years in Pakistan’s jails.

But the nadir in this relationship was the Babra Sharif massacre. Reading about this incident reminded me of the Jallianwala bagh massacre. But to think that this barbaric crime committed on an unarmed group was not by an oppressive colonial power but by their own representative government from the very same community reveals the intensity of hate insecurity can breed.

In 1948, the Chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Abdul Qayyum Khan, a former INC member and an ally of the Khidmatgars, following orders from Jinnah, had started a crackdown on the Khidmatgars. The men were stripped and their beards were shaved (a grave and serious insult for a pathan), and yet the Khidmatgars remained non violent.

On 12th August, 1948, the khidmatgars gathered for a peaceful protest march from Charsadda to Babra Sharif. But once the protestors marched to Babra, they were surrounded by armed policemen, armoured cars and even, it is rumoured, tanks. Yet again, these unarmed Khidmatgars were fired upon, relentlessly and ruthlessly until not a single round of ammunition remained.Men, women and children had been riddled with bullets and some say 300, and some say more than 1200, had been massacred that day. Bodies were thrown into rivers and canals and the injured were refused treatment. Hospitals anddoctors were threatened with dire consequences if they offered treatment to injured Khidmatgars. Such was the nature of the devil that had risen in the dark heart of an insecure government that forgotten day in August.

The pall-bearers who carried those Khidmatgars who managed to get a burial were not carrying the mere corpse of a Khidmatgar but the corpse of a dream and a world of possibilities that will now never come to be. The ideals of spiritual non-violence and moral courage have been replaced by gun toting religious bigotry in the region. A land and a people that had once been a fountain of hope and inspiration has now become a cesspool of violence, oppression and despair.

But the dream that Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan saw for ‘his country’ and his people died long before the first bullet was fired at Babra Sharif, when the INC turned away from the Khidmatgars and their shared ideals. That was the unkindest cut of all.

Today, the Khidmatgars, their sacrifices, their heroics, they all lie forgotten… an inconvenient memory for all of us, here and there. And the world’s an unhappier place because of it. So who gets the award for this one…?


Thursday, February 16, 2012


I stumbled across this story quite by accident. Did you know that two of India’s finest actors Shah Rukh Khan and Dilip Kumar, share the record of having the same number of Filmfare Awards in the Best Actor (male) category? Maybe you did, but there’s more in common between the two than what first meets the eye. Both Yusuf Khan, aka Dilip Kumar, and Shahrukh Khan are Pnathans and trace their origins back to the same little market square in Peshawar called Kissa Qhwani Bazaar.

It’s a romantic name – Kissa Qhwani Bazaar-the market of story-tellers, and it gave our films two of its most romantic story-tellers. In the old days, when Kissa Qhwani Bazaar was a part of the Silk Route, this market was indeed an enchanting little town where merchants from all along the length of the Route, and from West and Central Asia, would meet and trade in this bazaar. Bands of soldiers would pass through this town between assignments and spend some of their gold to live a little before they went to court death again. And while businessmen would haggle over deals, over meals and cups of green tea; and soldiers would look for love and laughter, professional story-tellers would liven up the place, entertaining people with their tales of love and valour in the shadow of wars. It is these professional story tellers who gave this Bazaar its inimitable name.

Today, Kissa Qhwani Bazaar, I gather, looks much like the rest of the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan where men in long flowing beards in pakuls and salwar-kameez walk the streets, Kalashnikovs by their side and distrust in their eyes. But I could be wrong of course, because the legacy of Kissa Qhwani bazaar is intertwined with the most courageous act of pacifism in the history of man. The red dust that lines the streets that lead to this market square is an ever present reminder of the day when proud Pathan blood flooded these streets and anointed this square with the mark of nearly a thousand martyrs – nameless numbers today, and yet as brave as the bravest of them all.

This is the tragic story of their greatest glory. The story begins with the arrest of Khan Abdul Ghaff ar Khan, the tall soldier of peace and pacifism on April 23rd,1930. Ghaff ar Khan, a Pashtun (Pathan) leader whose spiritual integrity and commitment to non-violence and the cause of Undivided India’s independence had won him the devotion of thousands of his countrymen, especially Pathans, had started a social reform movement with his band of 100,000 followers, a non-violent army called the Khudai Khidmatgars (servants of God).

That fateful day, Khan Abdul Ghaff ar Khan had urged his followers to stage non-violent protests across Peshawar in support of Mahatma Gandhi’s salt march. After a public meeting where Ghaff ar Khan urged the people of the frontier to rise, strongly but peacefully, against the British occupation, he, along with some of his senior leaders, was arrested and imprisoned. His supporters rallied for his release, staging peaceful protests across the North-West Frontier. A large contingent of Khudai Khidmatgars gathered at Kissa Qhwani Bazaar and staged a peaceful demonstration, protesting against the arrests and the unfair laws enacted by the British. Unnerved (Ghaff ar Khan believed that the British respected the war-like Pathans in martial combat but a peaceful Pathan intimidated them far more), the British administrators ordered the army to march into the bazaar and scatter the crowd. Armoured cars and soldiers with guns surrounded the market square. The Khidmatgars chanted slogans in support of their leaders and protested against the unfair British laws. The crowd remained undaunted and kept chanting, non-violently. The British officers, perhaps unnerved by the sight of more than a thousand Pathans, armed with unyielding spiritual courage even when staring into the barrels of British rifles, gave the orders to shoot. A hail of bullets ripped through the crowd, felling the front line. Even as those in front fell, those behind them came forward to take their place, baring their chests, welcoming the bullets with a prayer on their lips and the dream of an independent dignified and undivided India in their hearts. Wave upon wave of men crashed into an unrelenting wall of bullets. The square resounded with the hellish crescendo of screams and slogans and gun shots. While the soldiers reloaded, the Khidmatgars off ered to take their dead and injured leave if the troops also left the Bazaar. The troops refused to leave, so the Khidmatgars stayed on. The troops were ordered to fire again at the unarmed crowd. Royal Garhwal Rifles, the most celebrated British Indian regiment, and the most decorated for their valiant exploits during World War I refused to fire at the unarmed protestors. It was the first time that a regiment of the British Indian Army had refused to obey orders. At the time they were removed from the scene and replace by another contingent but this defiance sent shock waves through the British administration and the tremors must have shaken the very roots of Imperial Britain. And this act of defiance was triggered by the uncommon valour of the Khidmatgars.

This carnage continued for six hours, from 11am to 5pm. The unrelenting British guns had met their match. Bullets failed to weaken their resolve. The Khidmatgars remained peaceful all through this blood bath. And even though they didn’t raise a hand, they had the courage to come forward to pick up their wounded brothers and greet their death till a volley of bullets struck them down.

Kissa Qhwani Bazaar finally had a story of its own. Some say 400, some say a thousand, died that day. It was a massacre that rivaled Jallianwala Bagh in scale, and yet more than a massacre, it was a battle between two ideologies. The Khidgamatgars lost mere lives that day, but the Brits lost far more, their strength and their honour.

Sadly, neither India nor Pakistan cares to remember the Khidmatgars. But the story of these pariahs of history will forever be told and retold in a market of story-tellers called Kissa Qhwani Bazaar. May the memory of their sacrifice live long and inspire…


Thursday, February 9, 2012


Right now, while you are reading these words, Yuvraj Singh would be sitting in bed with a copy of Lance Armstrong’s It’s Not About The Bike, reading through his favourite passages, trying to prepare himself for the arduous months ahead. Indeed, Armstrong’s account of his battle with testicular cancer, a condition so severe that doctors gave him less than 40% chance of survival, and subsequent Tour de France triumph is one of the most inspiring stories in the history of man.

But there’s a story that should matter even more to Yuvraj Singh while he charts his long and lonely route back to international cricket after he’s been treated for cancer. This story begins with a yellow seat that sat far away from him while he took guard at the Melbourne Cricket Ground during that Australian summer of 2007-08. As the bowler walked back to his mark, Yuvraj must have squinted at the sun and then looked straight ahead at the long on boundary, then at the sight screen and then at the spectators on the first and second tiers of the stadium. There were spectators and supporters, cheering and jeering, but Yuvraj’s gaze must surely have traveled further up to the top tier where amongst the row of blue seats sat the proud little yellow seat.

It seemed to be a million metres away from the square. That seat is a taunt that teases every batsman who walks out to bat at the MCG. And Yuvraj Singh must not have been any different. There’s a small plaque near the seat that mentions the fact that this seat was once struck by the biggest six to have ever been hit by a batsman at that ground. That yellow seat amidst a row of blues is a challenge for every batsman to try and match or surpass that feat but none have succeeded so far. Yuvraj himself has smashed a few colossal maximums and he must have fancied his chances.

But that yellow seat really is a long long way off on this massive ground. He must have wondered what kind of a man could muscle a ball that far into the stands, and the answer is a man who had cancer.

Simon Patrick O’Donnell was on top of the world. The year was 1987 and the then un-fancied Aussies, under Allan Border’s stewardship, had just won the cricket World Cup in India. Simon O’Donnell was a young all-rounder with the team and had done his bit for the cause. His champagne soaked clothes were yet to dry when Simon got the news after a routine check that he had been diagnosed with a form of cancer, not very different from the kind that Yuvraj is fighting. Shock and dismay hade to make way for courage and faith.

Like in Yuvraj’s case today, selectors and fans alike hoped and prayed for Simon’s return to good health but in the same breath wondered if he would ever regain his strength and stamina as well as his repertoire of skills to make it back to the national team, if and when he did survive the cancer. A little more than a year went by. Simon had beaten the cancer and was back in the domestic circuit. The Australian team was returning to India for the six-nation Nehru Cup and Simon was back in the team.

Skeptics wondered if Simon had really merited selection or had he been a sentimental pick. It didn’t take long for Simon to scatter the naysayers with his heavy hitting. In 1990, the O’Donnell bat, a meaty willow mace, smashed the Sri Lankans all over that park in the desert in Sharjah for what was then the quickest half-century in ODIs. His 18 ball 50 was a record that stood for another six years. He went on to become one of Australia’s most valuable one day cricketers. And then on that fateful day at the MCG, in the year 1993, during a Sheffield Sheild match, as Greg Mathews skipped up to the wicket tobowl, O’Donnell readied himself for the delivery and then smashed it out of the park. The ball whistled and soared and then crashed into that seat high up on the stands, which was then painted yellow to immortalize that monstrous hit.

Cancer couldn’t kill O’Donnell. It only made himstronger. Today he is about fifty and a very popular television commentator. And if O’Donnell can, is there any reason why Yuvraj Singh can’t? The people of India owe Yuvraj Singh all the prayers he needs to get through this rather difficult time.

To hope, wish and believe that the man who has the fortitude to hit Stuart Broad for six sixes in an over and win us the World Cup will surely find the courage and the conviction he needs to keep his chin up through the debilitating chemotherapy and those fits of self-doubt, is perhaps all we can do. Cancer is a nemesis we understand better today.

There are ceres and promised that hold out both hope and healing. Perhaps familiarity has even bred a bit of contempt, but the disease still remains an apparently indiscriminate killer. It is inevitable that there would come a time when most cancers would be treatable diseases and nothing like the specters of doom that they are today. But until such a time as that, we will need to keep looking at a Simon O’Donnell, a Lance Armstrong or perhaps soon enough, a Yuvraj Singh, to remind ourselves, that though we be weak of flesh and bone, with courage, the spirit can soar above sickness and disease, healing every pock that mars our own…So get well soon, Yuvraj, for somewhere out there, sits a yellow seat you need to smash...


Thursday, February 2, 2012


I was too young to remember how old I might have been, but remember that I was in love. Those deep round melancholy eyes, her soft chestnut tresses and the gentle touch of her fingers as I held her hand in mine will stay with me forever. As we gazed into each other’s eyes, I realised that we were about the same height, though she must have been a fair bit older, at least in her mid-teens. Her other hand brushed my hair away from my eyes and traced the bridge of my nose, and then slowly, caressed my cheeks and then she looked into my eyes, and then with a naughty gleam, touched my lips with her fingers. The fingers ran the length of my mouth and then stopped at the corner where the upper lip turned into the lower lip and stopped. I stood there transfixed.

A strange unfamiliar thrill raced up and down my spine while my heart was beating like a tribal drum at a drunken feast. Pinky, as cool as the cucumber she must have had for lunch (I could tell… we were that close), shuffled closer on her dainty feet and then tried scrape the corner of my mouth with her finger. I remembered that I had just polished off two sticks of candy floss and a sugary wisp or two had been clinging to my mouth. Pinky scraped them off, with her index finger, very carefully, and in a manner not unbecoming of the adult film stars of the day, popped that finger in her mouth and rolled her tongue around it. She seemed pleased and I felt accepted, like I had made an inadvertent offering to a deity and she had conferred an intimate blessing. At that point, Pinky’s chaperone, a thin little man in his 40s seemed a little confused about where this might lead and screamed out at her to behave herself. Pinky’s face was inches away from my own and she pouted and moved in closer… I instinctively edged towards her, and was millimeters away from my first real kiss with an unrelated female when my father’s hand on my shoulder restrained my forward drive while the Pinky’s minder rebuked her and pulled her away by the arm.

I was heartbroken, and as she was being dragged away, she threw one last look my way and those sad eyes told me that I wasn’t alone in my despair. I pressed my face against the bars that separated us and my hands gripped them tight as I watched her walk away from me, hand in hand with that heartless man, into the gloom. Half way down the dark corridor, she stopped and I wondered if she would pull free and run back to me like I had seen them do in the movies… but no, it was something on the ground that had caught her eye. She bent down and picked it up from the ground and stared at it for a brief while. She took it to her lips and seemed to nibble at it for a while. Then she turned one last time and threw it towards me with as much gentle grace as she could muster and the object, as if in slow motion, carved a gentle arc through the air and skidded to a stop, just inches from my feet. It was a half eaten cucumber…

It was almost evening, closing time at the zoo, and even though I was a little sad to have had to let go, there was this exhilaration that I found difficult to contain. I had never been this close to an Orangutan before and I was pretty sure none of my friends had either. I couldn’t wait to tell them about Pinky’s sad eyes and her surprisingly gentle touch. And I had to come back again, to see Pinky… and to see the others. I loved the zoo. It was my favourite haunt…

My father is a hobby artist and he has spent many happy hours sketching animals in the Delhi Zoo ever since he moved to this city, and he was good friends with a zoo vet and many of the keepers. By the time I came along, he was a bit of a privileged guest at the zoo and we had access to many of the ‘off limits to public’ zones of the park. I loved the zoo from the moment I first set foot in it. The water birds, the deer and the antelope, the giraffes and the gaur, the big cats, the apes and the elephants.. I loved watching them all and the wide open spaces and the happy energy of the visitors had infected me with an enduring love for the place.

As I grew into my teens, I became obsessed with sports and spent all my weekends playing cricket for whichever club would have me. I missed the zoo but lure of the game, like that of a new lover, was all consuming. The years rolled by, and I hung up my bowler’s boots, and then came a Sunday when I didn’t have a game to go to. So I picked up my camera and went to the zoo instead. It had been a while but all the old memories came rushing back as soon as I walked through the gates and entered.

I hurried past the water-birds, and the white tiger enclosure and then past the basking hippos. I had to meet Pinky. It had been a decade or more since I had last seen her but orangutans live for half a century in the wild and even longer in captivity. There was every reason for me to believe that I would be looking into those limpid pools of mischief soon. It felt a bit like I was going to meet a childhood sweetheart from school long aft er we’d both grown up to be mature adults.

Mar gayi sahab! Bahut time hua… pata nahin kya kha liya tha!” I had not ruled out this possibility and yet these words hit me harder than I had expected them to. I trudged away without looking at the exhibit that had replaced Pinky in her enclosure. And like a scene from a Christopher Nolan film, the happy zoo changed in front of my eyes into a grim and depressing freak show. It’s not that I was depressed about Pinky. Well, maybe that too, but more than that it was as if I had stumbled and dropped my glasses and suddenly could see this once upon a time wonderland for what it truly is – a prison for unhappy beasts that have been reduced to pathetic caricatures of their wild selves.

I took my camera and went from enclosure to enclosure, looking for the old happy winds that had carried and coloured my childhood but all I could see everywhere were neurotic unhappy animals eking out unhappy unhealthy and unnatural lives, shortened by disease and boredom and stress and neglect. The small cramped cages, which I had found rather convenient as a kid because of intimate access, I now realised were thoughtlessly cruel living conditions. The sloth bear enclosure was surrounded by visitors pelting stones and empty mineral water bottles at the animals. The enclosure was strewn with litter that had been thrown by visitors trying to tease a reaction out of these bored beasts. One of the bears was chewing on a plastic container. It was surely a matter of time before one of the bears swallowed something dangerous and then died. All they would have said is ‘…pata nahin kya kha liya tha’. There were no keepers in sight I could run to and inform about the plastic bottles. There was no one there to tell the crowd about the animal, or to stop them or at least tell them that their actions could end up killing the bears.

Callously, perhaps even unwittingly, these visitors went from enclosure to enclosure, teasing and tormenting the animals.

In their gloomy little coops, the macaws, brilliantly coloured and exceptionally intelligent birds, were pining away. Their boredom had made them neurotic and some of them had plucked most of their own feathers out. But the saddest soul in the zoo would have to be the big male Asiatic elephant. He must have been a magnificent tusker but in all my trips to the zoo, I never once saw him roam free in his enclosure. His keepers were afraid of him and kept him chained in his stable. A magnificent animal whose spirit was designed to wander is doomed to a dreadful prison sentence at the end of a short chain.

I used to love the zoo as a child but now I wondered if inflicting so much pain and suffering on these mute beasts for our own selfish ends was worth the effort? Animal rights groups have been screaming themselves hoarse about the need to close down all zoos and focus energies on conservation efforts in the wild instead. On the other hand zoos, no matter how terribly shabby they might be, helped me fall in love with the natural world, and its a love that still endures.

So are all zoos hell holes in disguise, which have spread nothing but misery and disease? Or are they essential partners in educating both children and adults about those we share this planet with? Is it possible to rehabilitate zoo bred or zoo-raised animals back into the wild? If not, then why do we need to bother with zoos at all?

Pertinent questions all, and I’m going to spend the week to come searching for answers in the offices of the Central Zoo Authority, in the placards and slogans of animal rights activists, in eyes that peer at us from behind bars that hold the innocent, and in the corridors of my own heart. And whatever the answers may be, once I find them, I will come running to you, so that together we can change the world… one more time!