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Founder: Vishwa Nath (1917-2002)
Editor-in-Chief, Publisher & Printer: Paresh Nath
MARCH 2017
cover story / business
Making Money
Promise and peril in the Indian bitcoin economy
aria thaker
In the wake of demonetisation, several signs pointed to
unaccounted-for old cash being traded in for bitcoin, a
pioneering digital currency. But any such malfeasance
represents only a small part of the Indian bitcoin economy—a
realm that is untested, and so ripe with promise, but also
unregulated, and so open to abuse. As numerous bitcoin-related
scams threaten to malign the currency, India must ask how it
might stem its abuse without stifling legitimate growth in the
bitcoin economy and the promising technology behind it.
18 State of Play
The BJP faces its next big electoral challenge,
in Gujarat, later this year
anosh malekar
22 An Awkward Silence
Massive layoffs at newspapers expose professional
conditions that undermine the public sphere
hartosh singh bal
24 A Violent End
The collapse of a murder trial weakens
the fight against Hindu fundamentalism
leena gita reghunath
28 Off-Screen Actors
52 Losing the Plot
A cult filmmaker’s Indian misadventure
Hindutva’s growing hold over
Indian popular culture
poorna swami
kamayani sharma
MARCH 2017
the lede
8 Fine-Tuned
India’s exclusive circles of
competitive whistling
abhay regi
photo essay / economy
64 Common Thread
10 Struggling North
Nepal’s changing road to China
Tracing the journey of cotton
from the farm to the store
ross adkin
jošt franko
14 The Young and the Restless
A presidential scandal ignites discontent
among South Korea’s students
steven borowiec
78 Ocean Crossings
South Asian diasporic fiction from
beyond the West
namrata poddar
84 “This Simple and
Terrible Thing”
the bookshelf
editor’s pick
How Kedarnath Singh, Vinod Kumar Shukla
and Mangalesh Dabral defy established
movements in Hindi poetry
mantra mukim
NOTE TO READERS: 5)&i410/403&%'&"563&w 0/ 1"(&4 *4 1"*% "%7&35*4*/( $0/5&/5
32 Aria Thaker is the copy editor at The Caravan.
52 Poorna Swami is a writer and dancer, and the India editor-at-large at Asymptote.
64 Jošt Franko is a documentary photographer based in Slovenia.
Meta Krese is a journalist and photographer based in Slovenia.
78 Namrata Poddar’s fiction, non-fiction, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming
in Jaggery, the Missing Slate, Literary Orphans, Sociopoética, Necessary Fiction, the Feminist
Wire, The Margins, Transition, Literary Hub, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Los Angeles Review
of Books, and elsewhere. She currently serves on the faculty at UCLA.
84 Mantra Mukim is a research student at the department of English, Delhi University.
Design: FN
Abhay Regi is an intern at The Caravan.
Ross Adkin is a freelance writer based in Delhi.
Steven Borowiec is a journalist based in Seoul.
Anosh Malekar is an award-winning journalist based in Pune, who prefers travelling in rural
India and writing about people living on the margins of society.
22 Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan.
24 Leena Gita Reghunath is a former editorial manager at The Caravan. Before this job, she had
a brief stint as a public prosecutor and civil lawyer, and freelanced for the city editions of The
Hindu and the New Indian Express.
28 Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer based in Delhi. She writes on contemporary art
for Artforum, ART India and TAKE On Art.
Vineet Gill’s ‘The Writer of Modern Life,’ published last month, mistakenly described correspondence between
the critic Dineshchandra Sen and the historian EJ Thompson as correspondence between Sen and the historian
EP Thompson.
Neha Dixit’s ‘The Mission,’ published in February 2017, mistakenly stated that Mulayam Singh Yadav was the
chief minister of Uttar Pradesh during the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The chief minister at the time was
Kalyan Singh.
The Caravan regrets the errors.
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indranil mukherjee / afp / getty images
India’s exclusive circles of
competitive whistling / Music
/ abhay regi
above: Local
outfits of the
Indian Whistlers’
Association hold
meetings in which
members practise
whistling various
types of music, from
semi-classical pieces
to popular songs
from films.
As a child, Kartik Kullar was always drawn to whistling. “When he was young, he used to watch me
whistle, and wouldn’t let me go until I taught him
how to do it too,” his mother, Seema Kullar, told
me. Kartik picked up the skill so well that he won a
school talent competition by whistling the patriotic
song “Saare jahaan se achchha.” That victory, he told
me, even prompted his school to exempt him from a
strict ban on whistling in its corridors.
In January, I met Kartik and Seema in their flat
in north Delhi. Seema told me that in 2010, when
Kartik was 11 years old, she saw a newspaper advertisement about the Indian Whistlers’ Association. She contacted the IWA, and soon afterwards,
took Kartik to an audition with the organisation’s
Delhi cell. The audition took place in a dusty room
in west Delhi, in front of eight old men. Kartik
impressed them, and by the end of the day had
become the IWA’s youngest member. “They were
very impressed because I was able to whistle both
blowing out and in,” he remembered. “Jagat sir
especially congratulated me.”
Jagat Tarkas is a giant in India’s world of competitive whistling. In the early 2000s, a group of
Pune-based friends in their late teens and early
twenties—led by Rigveda Deshpandey, then a
19-year-old sound engineer—started a small club
to practise whistling. They got more ambitious in
2004, when Tarkas, then a 57-year-old owner of
a modest sports-equipment business in Chennai,
contacted them and encouraged them to found an
official club: the IWA.
The IWA, which Deshpandey has headed since
it started, quickly expanded into a national enter-
the lede
The IWA, which once had a membership of around
300 people, now has only 50. “I’m scared our passion
for whistling won’t pass on to the next generation.”
Tarkas said.
prise, with chapters in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Pune, Delhi and Ahmedabad.
Local outfits began to hold regular
meetings, in which hundreds of members trained to perform a repertoire
that ranged from semi-classical pieces
to hit songs from Hindi, Tamil and
Telugu films. Its members have made a
name for Indian whistling by winning
prizes in international competitions.
However, many of the IWA’s most devoted members fear that, absent an increase in interest among younger performers, the organisation—and with it,
Indian whistling—risks fading away.
The members of the IWA’s Delhi cell,
Kartik told me, were mostly old and
middle-aged professionals—doctors,
bankers and small-time businessmen,
who made time on weekends to whistle.
“There were some of us who put our
entire heart into it,” Kartik said, describing one man from the Chandigarh
area “who would travel for more than
four hours every Sunday for a one-hour
meeting, and then travel back for four
hours.” The Delhi cell met each week
in a hall in a business school in Patparganj, where one of the members was
a faculty member. There, they would
whistle songs with backing from a karaoke machine.
Sharanya Ramachandran, a Chennaibased PhD student, told me that trying
out for the IWA is a rigorous, competitive process. First, a whistler must be
nominated to audition. Once nominated, applicants must send a two-minute
clip of them whistling a song, which is
then reviewed by leaders in the organisation. If they clear this stage, they
perform live at an IWA meeting, and,
if the members determine them skilled
enough, they are admitted. After that,
they begin a one-month training period, at the end of which they are sorted
into two categories: “aspiring” whistlers, for the less skilled, and “inspiring” whistlers, for the more skilled.
Competitions are a major part of the
IWA’s activities. Kartik showed me a
collection of trophies that he had won,
including a plastic figurine of Mother
India, draped in a green sari and holding the national flag. He had won
that prize at a 2011 contest, he said,
in which whistlers from all over the
country competed in a ramshackle hall
in a Chennai suburb.
Last July, the country’s whistling
community had one of its proudest moments; many Indian whistlers—including seven from the IWA and four from
Whistling World, another organisation—travelled to the World Whistlers
Convention in Kawasaki, Japan. Three
Indians won awards there: Tarkas in
the contest for senior citizens; Nikhil
Rane in the “Hikifuki” category, in
which one must accompany one’s
whistling by playing an instrument;
and Shweta Suresh in two categories—
including one for which she whistled
while dancing Bharatanatyam.
The Chennai cell of the IWA used to
hold monthly events, often with a particular theme. For example, all members might have to perform songs written by a particular composer, or whose
lyrics related to the moon. The elders
present at the meeting would then tell
performers how they could improve—
for example, if they might modulate
dynamics more skillfully. “Whistling is
not something that can be taught, only
fine-tuned,” Tarkas told me.
Large crowds often attended these
events. “Hundreds of people would
come, not knowing what to expect,”
MR Subramaniam, who was one of
the senior-most members of the Chennai cell, told me, beaming with pride.
“By the end of the evening, they would
leave knowing whistling is an art like
any other instrument.”
The events could also, however, be
fodder for controversy and competition
within the group. “You realise that in
a two-hour programme you can only
squeeze in about 20 songs, and so everyone can’t perform,” Tarkas explained.
Because of such incidents, he said, “I
MARCH 2017
was not happy with the way they were
doing things in the association.”
Tarkas eventually parted ways with
the IWA. In 2015, he and Subramaniam started the breakaway Whistling
World, which, Tarkas said, sought to
be even more exclusive than the IWA,
accepting only very skilled performers.
Still, he assured me, “There is no bad
blood between the two associations,
just a competitive rivalry.”
In recent years, both the IWA and
Whistling World have faced attrition.
Kartik left the IWA in 2012, when he
entered tenth standard and had to focus on school. Soon after, the Delhi cell
of the IWA stopped meeting. The Delhi
members “still keep messaging each
other,” Kartik told me. “But there is no
place to practise, and all of them are
very busy now.”
To most of the senior whistlers whom
I interviewed, it was clear that the heyday of whistling in India had passed. At
its height, Tarkas said, the IWA boasted
a membership of around 300 people.
Now it has about 50 members. “I’m
scared our passion for whistling won’t
pass on to the next generation,” he said.
The burden of proving them wrong
lies heavy on the shoulders of young
whistlers such as Shweta Suresh and
Kartik—but, fortunately, they seem to
be rising to the occasion. After Suresh
won her award in Kawasaki, she was
asked to whistle in several hit songs in
the Tamil film industry. Kartik, who is
currently studying commerce at Delhi
University, whistles in a band alongside
four of his friends: a guitarist, a keyboard-player, a beatboxer and a singer.
But not all has been harmonious for
Kartik. Though he applied to for a spot
at Delhi University under its quota for
students practising music as an extracurricular activity, he was brushed
aside by the professors judging the
auditions. “This is not singing, this is
not an art,” he said they told him. “I
felt sorry, and came back very disappointed.” s
the lede
Struggling North
Nepal’s changing road to China
/ Business
/ ross adkin
Jaya Ram was getting restless. For
three days, his truck had been idling
outside the customs office in Timure,
a village in northern Nepal’s Rasuwa
district. He had recently taken out a
loan to purchase the vehicle, and had
made only two of the 60 monthly payments, each of $600, that he owed his
bank. The next instalment was due in
two weeks, and to pay it, he needed
the money he would make trucking his
cargo to Kathmandu—almost 1 lakh
Nepalese rupees, or around $930. To
maximise profits, Jaya Ram had even
avoided paying a transport union the
5,000-rupee fee that most drivers like
him submit as a type of insurance each
trip. “If you have an accident and you
lose the truck, they’ll provide half of
the costs to pay for it,” he explained.
“But that’s my son’s school boarding
expenses for a few weeks.”
Jaya Ram, at 34 years old, is one of
hundreds of truckers from Rasuwa
who regularly make a two-hour,
forty-kilometre trip across Nepal’s
northern border to the Chinese town
of Kerung. There, they collect goods,
mainly manufactured products such
as flip flops, electronics and garments,
and then transport them back to Nepal,
sometimes trucking them more than
120 additional kilometres south to
Kathmandu. When I met Jaya Ram in
September, a landslide had blocked the
road these drivers take: a perilous path
hugging the Bhote Koshi river, which
originates in Tibet. As a result, Jaya
Ram, like many others, was unable to
transport his cargo to Nepal’s capital.
At least 250 trucks were waiting to
make the journey either to Kerung or
Kathmandu, stretching in a line out of
the Timure customs yard and back up
the road.
The Rasuwa route through the
Himalayas, though it has existed for
centuries, has recently taken on a new
importance. Another border crossing,
Tatopani–Khasa, which lies around 80
kilometres east of the Rasuwa one, in
an adjacent district, had for decades
been the busiest trade link between
Nepal and China. After two massive
earthquakes shook Nepal in the spring
of 2015, however, that road has been
closed. Since then—in a change that
some regard as shrewd manoeuvring by
the Chinese—the majority of the crossborder traffic has shifted to Rasuwa.
Rasuwa locals can receive a year-long
permit to cross the border and work
in Kerung simply by proving that they
were born in the district. No other
place in Nepal receives this preferential
treatment from China, and, as a result,
many people from Rasuwa are buying
trucks or hiring themselves out as drivers to transport goods across the border. Others seeking to benefit from the
increased traffic are setting up hotels
or restaurants along the road.
I met Jaya Ram because he was
sitting near me in one such establish-
ment: Saili Didi’s Tea Shop, in Timure.
Inside, men sat around plastic tables
and a tarpaulin covered the dirt floor.
For the proprietor, Saili Ale, a quiet
woman in her forties, the landslideinduced delay was good for business.
Ale had moved up from Kalikasthan,
a town three hours away in Rasuwa,
to work in Timure in early 2015. After
serving a morning meal of rice, lentils
and chicken, she handed around a copy
book for customers to write what they
had eaten next to their names. She told
me there was no chance of her wanting to return home for the cold winter
months. “Trade is good. Now, especially,” she said, grinning.
Jaya Ram, who is built like a heavyweight boxer, also grew up near
Kalikasthan. He joined the Nepal Army
after school, then worked as a security
guard in Iraq, where he learnt to drive,
from 2005 through 2010. Later, he
worked at a Burger King in Saudi Arabia—“where I got fat,” he said. He then
returned to Nepal and was a trekking
guide until the earthquakes. Last July,
he bought a truck and began transporting goods from Kerung. When I first
spoke to him, he had already made the
Kerung–Kathmandu trip four times.
For Jaya Ram, as for many in Rasuwa, the bulk of his profits go towards
rebuilding his family’s home, which
was gravely damaged by the earthquakes. He was reluctant to go into
too much detail about the road’s many
hazards—rock falls, washouts and
engine failure, among others. “It was
dangerous there, now it can be dangerous here as well,” he said dryly, when I
asked him to compare the perils of his
new job to those of working in Iraq.
Many hope that fostering trade
between Kerung and Rasuwa will help
lessen Nepal’s economic dependence
on India. The catastrophic implications
of this dependence were made clear in
2015, when, after Nepal’s new constitution sparked unrest in its southern
plains, India, alongside aggrieved
Nepali political groups, imposed a
five-month blockade on the countries’
shared border. Midway through the
blockade, the Chinese government
donated about 100 tankers of fuel to
Nepal, which arrived via the Kerung–
Rasuwa crossing. This marked the first
time in its modern history that the
Nepali government received fuel from
a supplier other than the Indian Oil
Corporation. Last summer, a fibre-optic
connection between Nepal and China
was also installed along the route.
On a walk along the road, I saw that
the line “Down with Indian interference”—at the time of the blockade
a popular slogan in protests across
Nepal—had been spray-painted on a
bridge. But genuinely weaning the
struggling north · the lede
For Jaya Ram, as for
many in Rasuwa, the bulk
of his profits go towards
rebuilding his home, which
was gravely damaged by the
ross adkin
Trucks wait in the Timure customs yard, preparing to leave for or arriving from Kerung.
country off Indian imports, of course,
will prove difficult. Most of the trucks
I saw along that road, including Ram’s,
were Indian-made.
At his office in Kathmandu in December, Lok Raj Baral, an academic
and former ambassador to India, told
me he thought the Rasuwa route, in its
current state, “would not lessen Nepal’s
dependence on India too much.” Of
course, he said, “India cannot say
openly that it opposes Nepal deepening trading relationships with China.
But this is international politics. What
India really thinks will still matter in
The official explanation given by
China’s authorities for the closure of
Tatopani–Khasa is that the crossing
is still not safe following the earthquakes—but this seems strange, given
the much-lauded abilities of Chinese
engineers. In fact, the closing may have
less to do with earthquake damage and
more to do with the fact that the road
was notorious for smuggling. Officials
from the Tibetan government in exile
confirmed to me that it was traditionally the most popular route by which
Tibetans escaped to Nepal. In light of
this, it is possible that China simply
used the pretence of earthquake damage as justification to close a leaky
border. The terrain between Timure
and Kerung, meanwhile, is much more
exposed and sparsely populated—making it harder to cross undetected.
At a hotel in Syapru Besi, a town located forty minutes’ drive from Timure,
I met Nyima Tamang, a Rasuwa local in
his thirties, who was looking to strike
gold on the road to Kerung. He laughed
when I asked how businessmen based
in Tatopani feel about being shut out by
the new route. “They’re already rich,
anyway. It’s our turn to get some of the
money now,” he said. Tamang, like Jaya
Ram, had been abroad—he worked,
without official documentation, for 12
years at a laundromat in South Korea.
In early 2016, he used all his savings to
make the down payment on a truck.
But he had no plans to drive to
Kerung himself. Instead, he said he
would pay a local trucker 15,000 rupees
to make the journey from Timure to
Kerung and back. Then, he would
employ a driver from Nuwakot, another
district, to make the journey from
Timure to Kathmandu. For this stage—
which is much longer, and with a road
just as shoddy—the driver receives a
much lower rate of 5,000 rupees, on
top of a 10,000-rupee monthly salary.
Unsurprisingly, many drivers from Rasuwa are uninterested in trucking down
to Kathmandu, when shorter trips into
China prove so much more lucrative.
For those who are not Rasuwa locals,
Jaya Ram conceded, such disparities
are unfair. “But what else are you going
to do? Go to India, where the money is
even worse and you get cheated all the
The day after I met Jaya Ram, an
army squad arrived at Timure to begin
blasting the road clear. While the
soldiers laid dynamite charges amidst
house-sized boulders, he took me further down the road to show me one of
the local sights: four goats living on the
far shore of the Bhote Koshi river. Seventeen months earlier, they had been
trapped by rockfall from landslides
after the earthquake, and they were
still living, alone and undisturbed, in
a small patch of land on the riverbank.
“Like us,” said Jaya Ram, gesturing
back up the road towards a crowd of
truckers gathered to watch the dynamite show. “Open prison.” s
the lede
The Young and the Restless
A presidential scandal ignites discontent among
South Korea’s students / Politics
As a 22-year-old university student in
her fourth year of a nutrition course,
Kim Sung-eun had never been much
interested in politics. But recently, with
a political crisis convulsing her country, she was compelled to take to the
streets. “Of course I read the news, and
I see that our country has issues with
corruption,” she said. “But this time, I
saw someone in my own age group benefitting, just because she is from a rich
From October through December
last year, Kim was among the hundreds
of thousands of South Koreans who
participated in a protest movement that
culminated in the achievement of its
primary goal: the ousting of the country’s president, Park Geun-hye.
Park faces allegations that she
conspired with her confidante Choi
Soon-sil to pressure corporations to
donate billions of South Korean won to
foundations that the latter controlled.
On 9 December, the country’s legislature voted 234 to 56 in favour of Park’s
impeachment. Despite the vote, Park
is still technically president, though
she has been suspended from any role
in governance. The motion for Park’s
impeachment must be approved by the
Constitutional Court, which is in the
midst of hearings.
In South Korea, collusion among
the upper ranks of government and
business is common. But there was
one aspect of this case that caught
the attention of Kim and many other
young people: allegations of corruption
in the intensely competitive world of
education—chiefly that Park used her
connections to get Choi’s daughter,
Chung Yoo-ra, admission to Seoul’s
prestigious Ewha Womans University.
This part of the scandal brought to the
surface a festering debate about how
opportunities are meted out in South
Korea, specifically about how the
wealthy and well-connected protect
jung yeon-je / afp / getty images
/ steven borowiec
In South Korea’s largest social movement in decades, thousands have taken to the streets to
demand the impeachment of President Geun-hye, who faces charges of corruption.
their own privilege and, in doing so,
hold others back.
In November 2016, the ministry of
education released the findings of an
audit, which posited that Chung’s admission to Ewha Womans University
violated the school’s standards, that she
was admitted ahead of two students
with stronger grades, and that she received credit for her first year of study
despite attending none of her classes.
Another investigation by the ministry showed that while in high school,
Chung rarely attended her classes but
passed all of them and was never punished. After news broke about Chung’s
unfair admission, the president of Ewha
resigned and the ministry cancelled her
high school graduation.
Starting from early elementary
school, most young South Koreans
spend long hours preparing for the
national university-entrance exam at
tuition academies, hoping to earn a spot
at a top school such as Ewha. In contrast, Chung, a competitive equestrian
who has competed for South Korea’s
national team, spent much of her school
years learning horseback riding in
Germany. Chung is currently in a detention centre in Denmark, where she
was arrested for overstaying a visa, and
faces extradition to South Korea to face
questioning over the scandal. Danish
police told Reuters that she claimed to
have been doing equestrian work in the
The popular dislike of Chung spiked
in November, when a newspaper unearthed a Facebook post she put up in
2014 in unapologetic defence of her
privilege. “Money is a kind of ability,”
she wrote, in coarse Korean. “If you’re
poor, it’s your parents’ fault.”
Throughout the scandal, young
people, online and at massive public
protests, have complained that the
incessant social pressure to study is a
ruse that props up an unfair system.
Kim told me that she and her peers had
begun to question what parents and
teachers tell them most often: that hard
the young and the restless · the lede
The popular dislike of Chung Yoo-ra, President Park
Geun-hye’s daughter, spiked when a newspaper unearthed
a Facebook post she put up in 2014 in unapologetic defence
of her privilege. “Money is a kind of ability,” she wrote, in
coarse Korean. “If you’re poor, it’s your parents’ fault.”
work is the way to upward mobility,
and the principle of fair reward for effort undergirds South Korean society.
“We are always told to study hard if
we want to be successful, but here was
a case of someone who did not bother
to study but got huge riches and privileges,” Kim told me when I met her in a
coffee shop near the campus of Seoul’s
Sookmyung Women’s University, which
she attends.
Since January 2016, Kim has been
the president of the student council
at Sookmyung. Before the scandal,
she said, the student council had been
mostly apolitical. Instead of activism, she said it focussed mostly on
projects to improve student life, such
as providing food during exams, and
coordinating peer-counseling services
to help people cope with stress. But as
the news of Chung’s role in the scandal
trickled out, Kim was inundated with
calls and text messages from classmates saying that Sookmyung had to
take a stand against growing injustice
in South Korean society. In response,
Kim and her council colleagues organised a contingent of students from the
university to walk about an hour north
every Saturday to downtown Seoul,
where they would march alongside
thousands of others, calling on Park to
resign, and for a thorough investigation
into her ties with Choi. Sookmyung was
also one of several universities whose
students held a boycott of classes on
25 November to protest. The council
helped coordinate the boycott, even
meeting with professors to inform
them that many students would not attend class on the day.
“Korean youth have opened their
eyes to the problems of corruption,
social injustice and inequality,” Shin
Kwang-yeong, a professor of sociology
at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, told
me over the phone. “Korean students
believe that not everyone has a fair
opportunity, and family background
decides career success, instead of one’s
Kim told me that the political scandal
changed her life. She had been living
with her parents until October, when
her long hours at the student council office drove her to rent a shared
room near campus with a few of her
colleagues. Kim came to our evening
interview clad in a black parka bearing the Sookmyung Student Council’s
logo, and as she sipped rooibos tea she
intermittently took phone calls from
classmates asking her about the council’s next moves.
Though Kim said she plans to remain
informed and active as a citizen after
she graduates from university this summer, she was not yet sure what kind of
career path she would embark on. She
and other graduates will be entering
one of the least promising job markets
in recent South Korean history. Government data puts youth unemployment at 8.2 percent—the highest since
2003, and much higher than the overall
national unemployment rate of 3.4 percent.
In South Korea, starting one’s career
and getting married are seen as essential steps toward adulthood. Many
students fear getting stuck in a kind of
extended adolescence—that if they are
unable to find a decent job, they will
end up stuck living with their parents.
At one rally in November, students
carried placards that implored South
Korea’s leaders to “Allow us a clear path
to start our lives”—an allusion to a wish
for more government efforts towards
job creation.
“Students are still going to study
hard,” said Kim Ye-hyun, a 24-year-old
who finished university last summer,
and is now applying to graduate programmes in journalism in the United
States, in addition to participating
in some of the protests. “Though the
system is not totally fair, studying and
getting into a good university is still a
way to avoid the worst-case scenario.
No one wants to get stuck in a really
bad job.”
The demonstrations that Kim and her
classmates joined will go down as part
of the biggest social movement in South
Korea since 1987, when the country was
gripped by large, often violent, protests
against the military regime of President
Chun Doo-hwan.
On the unseasonably warm afternoon of 9 December, crowds thick
with students, farmers and trade
unionists gathered in front of the
National Assembly, inside which the
legislature was voting on whether to
impeach Park. Karaoke music blared
from loudspeakers, and dozens of
farmers picnicked in the middle of
the road. Cho Sung-bin, a 16-year-old
high-school student, stood chanting
with other students in favour of the
impeachment. “I am worried about my
future and worried about what kind
of career prospects I will have,” Cho
told me.
After the impeachment was announced over loudspeakers just after 4
pm, Cho and his classmates cried out
in joy, jumping and embracing. The
fervour passed after a few minutes, and
I asked Cho what he and his fellows
would do to celebrate further. They
would all be heading home soon, he
said. They had homework to do. s
State of Play
The BJP faces its next big electoral challenge, in
Gujarat, later this year / Politics
/ anosh malekar
On 7 February 2017, the chief minister
of Gujarat, Vijay Rupani, flagged off the
Adivasi Vikas Gaurav Yatra—a political march promising development and
promoting Adivasi pride—from the
village and pilgrimage site of Unai, in
the southern district of Tapi. At the
function, the party’s state unit president Jitu Vaghani declared that the
yatra was intended to “win hearts and
not votes.” But with Gujarat assembly
elections scheduled for later this year,
there was little doubt that the BJP was
making a concerted play for the Adivasi
Adivasis comprise more than 14 percent of the state’s population, and are
decisive voters in the 27 assembly constituencies in eastern Gujarat. Since the
late 1990s, Hindutva groups, particularly the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, have
made systematic efforts to woo them,
and have thus ensured that the region
has largely been a BJP bastion.
Over 12 days, the yatra covered 50
talukas in the 15 districts of the Adivasi
belt. The BJP’s leaders and cadres
visited Adivasis in their homes, and
shared meals with them. One of the
party’s strategies was to apprise the
community of the benefits of a rule
under the Panchayats (Extension to
Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. The rule,
whose implementation Rupani had
cleared, granted them rights over
minor forest produce and minerals as a
source of income, and stood to benefit
people across 4,503 gram sabhas.
The great challenge before the
party, however, lies beyond the Adivasi
belt, in the hills and plains of north
Gujarat and the vast Saurashtra and
Kutch peninsulas, where it must win
over Patels, Dalits and members of the
other backward classes, or OBCs. The
economically and politically influential
Patels, or Patidars, from north Gujarat
and Saurashtra have been up in arms
against the government, demanding
educational and job quotas. Dalits,
meanwhile, have mobilised in reaction
to a July 2016 incident in the city of
Una, where gau rakshaks, or cow-protection vigilantes, flogged four Dalits
for skinning a dead cow. These two
agitations have also given impetus to
a third group of protestors, the OBCs,
who fear that the Patels’ demand for
reservations could eat into existing
“Given the political
uncertainties, the tribal belt
is one core area the BJP
cannot afford to lose. The
party has consistently won
around 20 of the 27 seats
here since 1995.”
quotas for themselves. “Given the
political uncertainties, the tribal belt is
one core area the BJP cannot afford to
lose,” a senior leader of the BJP state
unit told me. “The party has consistently won around 20 of the 27 seats
here since 1995.”
Yamal Vyas, a senior BJP leader, was
confident about the party’s prospects
when I spoke to him in February. “If
elections were to be held immediately
after the announcement of results in
the five states where assembly polls
are underway, we are confident we will
win a comfortable majority in Gujarat,”
he said. But Achyut Yagnik, an author
and commentator on Gujarat, contested
Vyas’s forecast, saying that the BJP
would, at best, emerge as the singlelargest party in the state.
Among the things that Rupani has to
grapple with are struggles within the
party. These have increased manifold
since Narendra Modi—along with his
lieutenant Amit Shah, now the BJP
president—ascended to the national
stage. Modi passed Gujarat’s chief ministerial baton on to Anandiben Patel,
who resigned in August last year.
A BJP politician who served on her
cabinet, told me that Patel’s exit was
planned by Shah, her political rival,
who wanted to gain greater control
over the state. To get Modi’s approval,
the politician said, Shah told him,
“Saheb, jeetvani guarantee hu apu chu.
Badhu ekvaar mara par chodi do” (Just
leave it to me, I guarantee a win in the
election). But even after her ouster,
Patel continued to exert considerable
influence over the party’s affairs in
Vyas and Yagnik were in agreement
that the Congress, the main opposition
party in the state, is a divided house. It
is led by Bharatsinh Solanki, a minister
in the last national government and the
son of the former chief minister Madhavsinh Solanki. “Bharat lacks his father’s charisma and political acumen,”
Yagnik said. “Besides, the Congress is
not well prepared for elections. It has
structural weaknesses and is riven with
sam panthaky / afp / getty images
factionalism.” Bharatsinh, a top state leader of the
Congress told me, is only a titular head, and his
authority as state chief is regularly undermined by
his predecessors Arjun Modhwadia and Siddharth
Patel, the party spokesperson Shaktisinh Gohil,
and the leader of opposition in the state assembly,
Shankersinh Vaghela.
Despite its organisational weaknesses, the
Congress was galvanised by the news that several
local BJP leaders were among ten people arrested
on 7 February in a gang-rape case in Naliya taluka
of Kutch. The men, among them the convenor of
the BJP’s OBC cell, Shantilal Solanki, are alleged
to have repeatedly raped a woman from Mumbai
who had returned to her native village in August
2015. They are also alleged to have filmed their
acts and blackmailed her by threatening to circulate the clips. “The Naliya case is the last thing
we wanted,” a senior BJP leader in Ahmedabad
told me. “This would not have happened if Modi
had been around. With his no-nonsense approach, he always kept the party rank and file on
a tight leash.” The Congress launched aggressive
protests in reaction to the BJP leaders’ alleged
crimes, including one protest outside the house of
Modi’s mother.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s state unit also attacked
the BJP over the arrests. On top of that, the party
has made a strong pitch for the support of the
Patel community. In October, Arvind Kejriwal, the
AAP leader and Delhi chief minister, addressed a
public gathering in the Patel-dominated village of
Piludra, in north Gujarat. “I salute your courage. I
came to know that the Patidar agitation originated
from this village,” Kejriwal said. “Now, I request you to start another movement to clean the
politics of Gujarat from this village. We all have
to come together to fight against corruption and
clean Gujarat’s politics.”
Patels comprised just over 12 percent of the
state’s population according to the 1931 census—
the last year for which official numbers are available. Over the last three decades, their allegiance
has swung between the Congress and the BJP.
MARCH 2017
above: The
Patels, or Patidars,
once dominated
Gujarat politics.
The community
found its position
weakened in the
1980s, after the
Congress stitched
together the KHAM,
(Kshatriya Harijan
Adivasi Muslim)
alliance to win
state of play · perspectives
Patels dominated Gujarat’s politics
since Independence, but were dislodged
from their position at the centre of
power beginning in 1980. That year, the
Congress, under Madhavsinh Solanki,
adopted the KHAM formula—uniting Kshatriyas, Harijans, Adivasis and
Muslims—and ended the upper-castes’
monopoly on power with sweeping victories in both assembly and Lok Sabha
elections. Yagnik recalled that, at this
time, for the first time in history, Gujarat did not have a single Patel minister
of cabinet rank.
The dominant castes, including
Brahmins, Vaniyas and Patels, reacted
sharply, and the Sangh Parivar, from
which the BJP emerged, joined forces
with them in the 1980s. But Yagnik
pointed out that that though “the
Patidars have been the backbone of the
BJP since 1985,” their support for the
party had begun to wane even before
their 2015 agitation. “The Gujarat
development model of Narendra Modi
supported big industries, but failed to
meet the aspirations of an agrarian
community like the Patidars,” he said.
“With small and medium industries”—a
sector dominated by Patels—“facing a
downturn, youth finding it difficult to
get admissions to professional courses
or being denied government jobs, Patidars feel deprived and angry.”
The Congress has benefitted from
this disenchantment. In civic-body
elections in December 2015, the BJP
performed significantly worse than in
it had in previous years, especially in
rural areas. Just a year and a half after
the BJP won every Lok Sabha seat from
Gujarat in the 2014 general election, the
Congress won 24 district panchayats
to the BJP’s six. The BJP managed to
retain power over six municipal corporations, but even in the elections for
those, its victory margins came down
The BJP has yet to pull its organisation together after that setback. In
August 2016, Vaghani, a 46-year-old
Leuva Patel from Bhavnagar, in Saurasthra, was appointed the party’s state
president, taking over from Rupani.
The post of Rupani’s deputy chief
minister went to Nitin Patel, a Kadva
Patel from north Gujarat. The party felt
these appointments would assuage the
two prominent sub-castes of Patidars,
which together account for around 40
of the BJP’s 121 current representatives
in the Gujarat legislative assembly. But
since Vaghani’s appointment to head
the state unit, no more office bearers
have been named, leaving much of the
organisation directionless.
The political direction of the Patidar
community is likely to be heavily influenced by Hardik Patel, the 23-year-old
who spearheaded the 2015 agitation.
Patel was arrested in 2015 and charged
with sedition, before being exiled from
the state for six months in July 2016.
In January, he returned with a singlepoint agenda: to remove the BJP from
power. Patel himself is too young to
contest elections, but observers are
watching to see which party he might
align with.
“The Gujarat development
model of Narendra Modi
supported big industries,
but failed to meet the
aspirations of an agrarian
community like the
His visit to Mumbai on 7 February
2017 caused a minor stir after the Shiv
Sena’s Uddhav Thackeray declared him
the party’s face in Gujarat. But within
three days, Patel denied the news,
telling the media in Ahmedabad that
he had visited Thackeray “to respect
the invitation I was extended. I am too
young to contest elections and my only
aim is to get the benefit of reservation
for my community.”
The BJP has other young challengers to worry about too. Even as the
party’s yatra traversed the Adivasi belt,
Jignesh Mevani, a 35-year lawyer and
activist from Ahmedabad, announced a
campaign to expose the ruling government’s failure to provide land to Adivasis under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Mevani rose to prominence in the wake
of the Una incident by bringing together several Dalit and non-Dalit organisations. For the new campaign, Mevani’s
Dalit-rights organisation, the Rashtriya
Dalit Adhikar Manch, forged ties with
the Adivasi Kisan Sangharsh Morcha,
an Adivasi land-rights organisation in
south Gujarat. Mevani has also formed
links with Hardik Patel’s movement,
to the consternation of some Dalit and
Adivasi activists who believe that Patel
demands for reservations could hurt
the reservations they currently enjoy
The BJP and Congress are also
keenly watching the OBC leader Alpesh
Thakor, of the Gujarat Kshatriya-Thakor Sena. The organisation, which was
formed five years ago and has 650,000
members, held a massive convention
against alcoholism at Ahmedabad in
January 2016. There, Thakor declared
that the OBC and Kshatriya communities would decide who became the
state’s next chief minister. Thakor, who
is opposed to the Patidars’ demand for
quota, has also founded the OSS (OBC,
ST, SC) Ekta Manch, aiming to appeal
to a larger spectrum of communities
including Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
Thakor denies allegiance to any
party, but he has political ambitions
and the right connections. The January 2016 convention featured video
messages from Anandiben Patel, then
still the chief minister, and Solanki,
both expressing support for his antialcoholism initiative. Thakor’s father,
Khodaji, is the current head of the
Congress’s Ahmedabad district unit,
but was earlier with the BJP. Thakor
“could go either way,” the former AAP
leader and political observer Sukhdev
Patel said. “He has ties with both the
A top BJP leader recounted that
Thakor earlier headed the Shakti Dal,
a cadre of volunteers launched by
the Congress’s Shankersinh Vaghela
in 2003 to counter the efforts of the
Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu
Parishad, both parts of the Sangh
Parivar. It was disbanded within
months because the Congress felt that
such an outfit went against the party’s
culture, and could develop into a force
personally loyal to Vaghela. But, the
BJP leader added, the bond between
Alpesh and Vaghela remains strong. “If
Shankersinh Vaghela is its CM candidate, Alpesh could throw his weight
with Congress,” the leader said. s
An Awkward Silence
Massive layoffs at newspapers expose professional
conditions that undermine the public sphere / Media
The historian Mukul Kesavan’s column
in The Telegraph on 12 February was
titled “A Delicate Balance: The state
of the fourth estate.” In it, Kesavan
begins by saying that “Midway through
Narendra Modi’s term in office … [a]s
someone who writes opinion pieces, I
can report that the papers I write for
haven’t suddenly begun to censor me.
No edit desk has returned a copy with
sentences underlined in red because
it has felt uneasy with the political
implications of something I had written.” Then, he moves on to less rosy
thoughts: “the intimidation of reporters and correspondents is more commonplace and easier to cite,” and “the
NDA government and the prime minister and the BJP’s online army exert
real and concerted pressure on liberal
journalists.” Kesavan observes at one
point, rightly, that it is “increasingly
the case that journalists who don’t
enjoy the institutional shelter that big
newspapers supply, are constrained
and unfree.”
Less than a fortnight earlier, the ABP
Group, which owns The Telegraph and
the Bengali-language Anandabazar
Patrika, notified hundreds of staff at
its papers that they were being laid off.
This was preceded by a similar exercise
at the Hindustan Times a month earlier,
with four editions and three bureaus
being shut down. Kesavan, in over
1,200 words of writing, does not find
space for the slightest mention of any of
this. If The Telegraph’s edit desk did not
encourage such wilful and convenient
blindness, Kesavan must have taken the
initiative himself.
On the face of it, the downsizing has
all been voluntary—no journalist has
been sacked, each affected individual
has accepted a severance package and
decided to move on. In reality, however,
people have only tried to make the best
of a bad bargain. No editorial logic has
been advanced for the layoffs, and both
tsering topgyal / ap photo
/ hartosh singh bal
Jawaharlal Nehru University shows how shielding professionals from punishment for their
political views fosters the kind of principled dissent essential to a democracy.
media houses have presented them as
necessary for reducing costs.
The ABP Group and HT Media have
acted in precisely the fashion that
precludes journalists from following
the best principles of their profession
and expressing the truth as they see
it. India’s reporters and editors work
under the constant threat of unjustified termination, which can leave them
jobless with little to no notice, and as
little as three months’ worth of salary
in hand. This reduces journalists from
individual and conscientious observers
to ciphers of their companies’ managements, left to largely do as they are
told—or, very often, as they understand
they are expected to.
Most Indian newspapers are owned
by big business houses with interests
in sectors other than just the media.
In the country’s semi-liberalised
economy, the government can choose
to inflict enormous damage on such
organisations—say, by denying them
permissions for new projects. So media
owners, through carefully appointed
managers and editors, impose on
their publications a political outlook
acceptable to the ruling dispensation.
Effectively, the fact that journalists do
not have protection against arbitrary
layoffs allows the government immense
power over what gets printed. The
few media organisations in India that
critically examine the government do
so not because their journalists feel unconditionally secure in the exercise of
their duties, but because their owners
are so far willing to allow it. If a media
organisation’s owners have a change of
heart, its journalists can no longer express themselves freely. In this balance
of power, what journalists consider
important is not considered important
by the majority of news organisations.
That almost nothing has been written
in most major newspapers about the
recent layoffs even when every journalist recognises their larger implications
is proof of this.
On paper, the law guards against such
a state of relations. Under the Working Journalists Act, enacted in 1955,
journalists cannot be laid off without
notice, and employers, even in cases
of retrenchment due to downsizing,
must specify their rationale for such
The fact that journalists do not have protection against
arbitrary layoffs allows the government immense power
over what gets printed.
action to the journalists concerned or
to the government. In practice, since
the 1990s, media organisations have
tried to get around the act by hiring
journalists on three-year hire-and-fire
contracts, rather than as permanent
employees. The act, anticipating this
possibility, specifies that such contracts
can only improve upon the safeguards
guaranteed under it, and cannot supplant them. But with an overwhelmed
judicial system delaying attempts at
legal recourse, most journalists have
shied away from challenging the illegal
contracts that tie them to their employers. (Disclosure: I am currently challenging, through the law, my dismissal
from Open Media, where I was earlier
employed on a short-term contract.)
The failure to openly connect the
situation of the media to these structural problems reduces much of the
discourse on journalistic independence
to cliche. For instance, Kesavan, in his
column, writes that “it’s hard to explain
the absence of concerted reportage
on the Vyapam scandal for a year and
more,” and that “the lack of sustained
investigative reporting on the scandal
is genuinely worrying.” He might have
noted that the Hindustan Times shut
down its edition in Bhopal, curtailing
its coverage of Madhya Pradesh, the
epicentre of what, as he points out,
“must be one of the most sinister scams
in republican history.”
The sorts of compromises that result
from the current state of affairs are not
particular to the media. When it comes
to academia, too, private institutions
stifle independent expression by their
employees. In a recent example, Ashoka
University, a new institution just outside
Delhi that boasts of its liberal credentials, took pains to distance itself from a
petition on Kashmir signed by some students, alumni and staff. The document
condemned the violence perpetrated
by security forces in Kashmir during
the unrest last year, and called for a
plebiscite on Kashmir’s political status.
Three of the four members of staff that
signed it have since left the university.
They included Rajendran Narayanan, an
assistant professor of mathematics, who,
after his resignation, wrote in a letter to
the university’s students,
the Governing Body (GB) had proposed to dismiss me for two reasons—(a) for my involvement with
a (now disbanded) worker welfare
committee that was being constituted for the welfare of every citizen
of the university, and (b) for signing
a petition on Kashmir that was later
misrepresented by some sections of
the media. I was quite astonished
that these could be grounds for
dismissal because I had not violated
any university policy with respect to
these matters.
Ever since the fracas over the petition, the university’s faculty members have rarely ventured to express
political views in public. That tendency
is also all too noticeable among the
faculties of the few private universities
of repute that have opened recently in
the country.
The contrast between these institutions and Jawaharlal Nehru University is stark. Despite a vicious slander
campaign against the university by
Hindutva groups, with backing from
the ruling dispensation, JNU’s faculty
members have continued to speak out.
The difference between them and their
fellows at Ashoka is not down to the
mettle of the individuals hired by either
university, but to the different structural conditions they work under. Far from
the hire-and-fire norm in most private
institutions, JNU, as a public university, has rules for the appointment,
promotion and dismissal of faculty
members that shield them from punitive action over their political views.
Had Narayanan been employed at JNU,
the situation he faced would have been
very different.
MARCH 2017
If, as is the desire of the current
government, every journalist is to
endorse all government initiatives and
every academic is to toe the government line on all developments, then
we might as well do away with the
public sphere. Dissent, debate and the
considered airing of differences are
what allow for a functional democracy
and a vibrant intellectual life, and they
all rely on an independent media and
an academy built upon free enquiry. Yet
we have largely abandoned attempts
to nurture either of these. Journalism
and academia are public goods, and
cannot be sustained simply through the
operation of private capital. Both fields
are devalued without the exercise of
independent thought, and so both need
protections beyond what we consider
sufficient in other realms.
These protections have to come in
the form of professional regulations,
which must then be firmly enforced.
As the private sector moves to take a
leading role in academia, as it has in
the media, we must understand that
these regulations will not come into
existence without legal stipulations—
and ones that private organisations
are not allowed to evade, as they have
those of the Working Journalists Act.
Since a free media and academy are
an annoyance for any ruling establishment, it is clear that protections will
not be legislated overnight, or even
over several years, but we must start
appreciating the great need for them.
It is not enough to be relieved by the
fact that “no edit desk has returned
a copy with sentences underlined in
red because it has felt uneasy with the
political implications of something I
had written.” If Mukul Kesavan can
write whatever he chooses to, it is only
because the government has not felt
the need to stop him from doing so. We
need to ensure that no edit desk will
ever even think of marking any copy
in red simply because of its political
implications. s
A Violent End
The collapse of a murder trial weakens
the fight against Hindu fundamentalism / Crime
/ leena gita reghunath
On 29 December 2007, Sunil Joshi,
a one-time member of the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh, was shot and
killed near his home in the district of
Dewas, in Madhya Pradesh. Nearly a
decade later, in February 2017, eight
people who were charged with his killing were acquitted of the crime. Joshi’s
murder, it appeared, was destined to
remain unsolved.
The significance of the acquittals
extended far beyond the case of Joshi’s
killing. One of the theories that investigating agencies proposed for the
murder was that it was linked to Joshi’s
involvement in some of the most heinous acts of mass murder in India’s history: the Malegaon blasts of 2006, and
the Samjhauta Express blast, the Ajmer
Sharif blast and the Mecca Masjid blast
of 2007, which, in all, killed 111 people.
One of Joshi’s alleged co-conspirators
in these attacks, a Hindutva activist named Pragya Singh Thakur, was
among those accused, and then acquitted, of his murder. If Joshi’s killing
erased key information about the blasts,
the failure of the murder investigation
further weakens the possibility that
the larger network of conspiracies will
be uncovered, and their perpetrators
Among the early theories that investigating agencies explored in the blast
cases was that they had been planned
by Pakistani conspirators or members
of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India. But according to Vikash
Narain Rai, a police officer who headed
the special investigation team of the
Haryana police that was assigned to the
Samjhauta case, an unexploded suitcase
from the train led his team to a shop in
Indore, whose staff revealed that it had
been bought by Hindu, and not Muslim,
men. Pursuing the lead further, Rai
said, they came upon the name of Joshi,
who headed a group of three people
that had planned the bombing. “But by
the time we started looking into this
aspect,” Rai told the news website The
Wire in June 2016, “this guy was murdered.” Joshi thus became a shadow
of a shadow: a suspect who had been
eliminated before investigators could
find him.
The names of the alleged Hindu conspirators only emerged into the public
domain in 2008, when the Maharashtra
anti-terrorism squad, or ATS, headed
by Hemant Karkare, which was investigating a 2008 blast in Malegaon, traced
a motorcycle recovered from the site to
Thakur. Apart from Joshi and Thakur,
the investigations also pointed to the
involvement of another Hindutva activist, Swami Aseemanand, as well as an
army officer named Shrikant Purohit.
Joshi, who at one point held the
post of RSS’s zila pracharak of Madhya Pradesh’s Mhow cantonment, had
gained a sinister reputation after he
was linked to the 2003 murder of the
Congress leader Pyar Singh Ninama
and his son Dinesh. The police had
since declared him absconding. This
unseemly history, according to a 2010
report on the website Rediff, only increased his popularity, as “Joshi began
to operate quite openly, mobilising
support” for his violent activities. An
unnamed Bajrang Dal activist in Mhow
told Rediff, “Joshiji was someone who
would say one death from our side
should be avenged with five from the
other side.”
Though several reports suggested
that the RSS distanced itself from him
for his growing aggression, Deepak
Joshi, a BJP MLA from Dewas, told
Rediff that he had met Sunil Joshi at an
event even while police asserted that
he was in hiding. Further, according to
several news reports, the diary that was
recovered from Joshi’s dead body listed
the phone numbers of several RSS functionaries, including the senior leader
Indresh Kumar and the spokesperson
Ram Madhav—the former as an “emergency number.” (The charge sheet,
however, mentions only the names of
Aseemanand and other accomplices as
appearing in the diary.)
According to the Samjhauta and other charge sheets, which knit together
multiple confessions and witness statements, Joshi procured arms, explosives
and SIM cards, and organised meetings
to plan the attacks. The Samjhauta
charge sheet states that he said of the
Samjhauta Express, which links India
and Pakistan, “Ek taraf woh ham par
ek ke baad ek atanki hamla karte ja rahe
hain or hum unse samjhauta karne ke
liye train chala rahein hain” (On one
end they are carrying out one terrorist
attack after another on us, and we are
running a train to compromise with
them). On the question of financing the
attacks, the charge sheet states that he
told Aseemanand not to worry as “paise
dene wale aur bhi log hain” (there are
others who can help with the money).
When I interviewed Aseemanand in
2013 in prison in Ambala, Haryana,
over the course of reporting a profile
of him, he told me of Joshi’s role in the
conspiracies, “Main wahi hain” (He is
the main person).
Aseemanand said that Joshi was a
central member of their group of rabid
Hindutva activists, keen to violently
retaliate against what they saw as
the threat posed to India by Muslims.
“The biggest issue is Muslims,” he said.
“With Christians, we can always stand
together and threaten them. To deal
with Muslims, we must start preparing right now. They are multiplying
fast. If they become a majority, we
will be in really bad shape.” He added:
“Pragya, Sunil and other people from
Indore would often come to discuss
ways to curb this with me.” This account matched the findings of multiple
agencies, whose charge sheets stated
that Thakur attended many of the important meetings with Joshi to plan the
Aseemanand spoke enthusiastically
to me of their plans to target Muslims.
“We should avenge the attacks on the temples. You
all can do it. So then they started doing it. And my
ashram became the centre for this.” He also said of
Thakur and Joshi, “It felt good to see them work
together.” When I asked him about the nature of
their relationship he said, “Koi koi bolte thhe unke
baare mein, par maine nahi dekha” (Some people
spoke about them, but I didn’t see anything).
After three years of investigation, in December
2010, the Madhya Pradesh police made its first arrest in Joshi’s murder case: a man named Harshad
Solanki. Two months later, they filed a charge
sheet naming four more people, including Thakur,
who was already under judicial custody in connection with the 2008 Malegaon blasts. Around
six months after this, the National Investigation
Agency, or NIA, which handles “terrorism” cases,
took over the investigation on the grounds that it
was linked to the Samjhauta blast.
The NIA investigated the murder and named
as Joshi’s murderers Rajendar Chaudhary and
Lokesh Sharma—close associates of his, and coconspirators who were under judicial custody
for the Samjhauta and other blast cases. Sharma
helped the NIA seize the two guns used to shoot
Joshi; the weapons’ use in the killing was confirmed by forensic tests. When the NIA reinvestigated the claims in the MP police’s charge sheet,
earlier witnesses claimed they had been forced to
make statements, and retracted them.
The link to Samjhauta, however, found no mention in the NIA’s account of the crime. According
MARCH 2017
above: Local
residents and
police officers clear
debris from the
2008 Malegaon
blast site. The
investigation into
the blast uncovered
a network of Hindu
Sunil Joshi among
them, who allegedly
planned several
a violent end · perspectives
to the NIA’s charge sheet, Sharma and Chaudhary
conspired in and executed Joshi’s murder, with
Thakur’s knowledge and blessings, because of his
“licentious advances made towards Pragya.” The
charge sheet sheds no light on why Joshi’s associates felt that murder was the only way to resolve
the issue of his advances. With the agency rejecting the idea of a link between the blast cases and
Joshi’s murder, the trial, which had been shifted in
November 2011 to a special NIA court in Bhopal,
was shifted back to a magistrate court in Dewas in
September 2014.
There, the NIA’s investigation withered under
judicial scrutiny. On 1 February 2017, the magistrate declared that the “evidence is insufficient”
and that the charges “cannot be proved without
reasonable doubt against the accused.” The judgment mentions that “it is evident that the two
organisations, the MP police and the NIA, did not
conduct the investigations with the required seriousness due to reasons not known to this court”
and that the “conflicting evidence provided by the
two government organisations instead has the effect of placing doubt on the case presented by the
Aseemanand said that Sunil Joshi was a central
member of their group of rabid Hindutva activists,
keen to use violence to retaliate against what they
saw as the threat posed to India by Muslims.
prosecution and is inadequate to prove the guilt
of the accused.” It added: “In light of this there is
serious doubt in the mind of the court on the story
of this investigation.”
As the murder case fizzled out, the blast cases,
too, have collapsed or stalled. The NIA, which
enjoys a reputation as an elite agency, took over
the cases, only to let the investigations and trials flounder—even more so after the National
Democratic Alliance government came to power
at the centre. In the NIA court at Panchkula,
Haryana, key witnesses in the Samjhauta case
turned hostile. The trials in the Ajmer and Mecca
Masjid cases, too, have seen witnesses turning
hostile, as well as inexorable delays. In the 2008
Malegaon blast case, the NIA has recommended
dropping charges against Thakur and five others,
claiming to lack sufficient evidence to prosecute
them—even though Thakur’s motorcycle was the
key clue that led to the ATS uncovering the entire
conspiracy. Ominously, in June 2015, the special
public prosecutor in the case, Rohini Salian, revealed that the NIA had asked her to “go soft on
the accused.” (In the 2006 Malegaon case, the
only one where agencies—specifically the ATS
and CBI—attempted to follow through with their
theory of Muslim conspirators, nine Muslim men
were discharged by a sessions court in 2016.)
The fate of the bail pleas in the Bombay High
Court of Thakur and Purohit (both accused in
the 2008 Malegaon blast case) is also indicative
of how agencies appear to have lost control of the
investigations. These proceedings have run into
farcical problems with regard to taped evidence
that was once part of the investigative materials.
On 3 November 2008, the ATS, which claimed that
it had tapped Thakur’s phone for three months,
produced transcripts from those conversations
before a Nashik court. In one exchange, Thakur
asked another suspect, Ramchandra Kalsangra,
“Meri gaadi se blast kiya to itne kam log kaise mare?
Gaadi bheed mein kyun nahi lagayi?” (If my vehicle
was used for the blast, how come so few people
died? Why didn’t you park it in a crowd)? To this,
Kalsangra replied, “Bheed mein khadi karne nahi
diya” (They didn’t let me park it in the crowd).
But, according to several news reports, this potentially damning material could not be accessed
by the Bombay High Court, which asked the trial
court to share the audio and video recordings of
conversations or meetings, describing them as
“crucial evidence” against the accused. The court
found that one compact disc submitted to it was
cracked and that 11 tapes of material were not relevant to the case. According to reports, the ATS
told the court that it did not “remember” which
tapes it had submitted before the trial court, while
the additional solicitor general Anil Singh, appearing for the NIA, denied having key transcripts or
videos of meetings.
Despite what these gaffes suggest, the investigations were not botched from the very start. A close
reading of the various case materials makes clear
that CBI and ATS officers had performed their
duties commendably in the initial days of the investigations. Aseemanand himself told me that the
CBI officers who arrested him were intelligent and
knew everything about the plot even before they
interrogated him. “The CBI knew how to behave
with me, what to get out of me,” he said. “They had
proper information about us.”
But in the intervening years, this strong early
work has largely been undone by several agencies,
including the NIA. Ahmed Khan, a legal advisor
for the agency, told me in 2012 that he had recommended that the agency combine all the blasts
involving the same group of suspects into a single
case and trial—but that it never did this. As a
result, piles of evidence and information are scattered across courts, being examined by different
judges in multiple long-drawn procedures. The
disintegration of Joshi’s murder trial and the blast
conspiracy trials suggests a singular lack of will in
serving justice in these vital cases. s
Off-Screen Actors
Hindutva’s growing hold over
Indian popular culture / Film
/ kamayani sharma
On the morning of 27 January, while
the filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali
was shooting for his upcoming period
drama Padmavati at the Jaigarh Fort in
Jaipur, members of Shri Rajput Karni
Sena—a caste organisation of Rajputs—
barged into the fort. The horde ran
amok, some smashing expensive film
equipment, others breaking anything
within reach and yet others forming a ruthless, agitated scrum around
Bhansali. Footage shows them grabbing him by his hair and slapping him
around, as the rest of the gang continued to vandalise the set.
Though the entire episode was caught
on camera, and was repeatedly played
across television news channels, not a
single miscreant was arrested in the
aftermath. In fact, there was no condemnation from the Bharatiya Janata
Party-ruled governments in the state
of Rajasthan and at the centre. Instead,
union minister Giriraj Singh showed
support for the Karni Sena’s cited reason
for the attack—the claim that the Hindu
princess Padmavati’s story was being
distorted. In parliament, a BJP MP from
Rajasthan, CP Joshi, demanded legal action against the filmmakers. Prominent
Hindutva groups such as the Bajrang
Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad also
threatened to block the film’s release.
The grouse that the facts of Padmavati’s story have been distorted is ridiculous, since the story itself is fictional.
The tale originates from an Awadhilanguage poem, Padmavat, composed
over 200 years after the reign of the
fourteenth-century ruler Alauddin Khilji—who, according to the poem, heard
about the beauty of the Rajput princess
and attacked the kingdom of Chittor
to obtain her. The legend goes that the
virtuous Hindu wife committed jauhar—immolated herself—because she
did not want to be violated by the invading Muslim man. However, there is
absolutely no evidence that Padmavati
even existed. The agenda of Karni Sena,
though, is not to undertake a reasoned
examination of the past in good faith,
but to promote a vision of that past
which aligns with their political agenda. The BJP’s own Hindutva origins
explain its support for such attacks on
artistic and civil liberties.
Over the past three decades, the
political ascent of the BJP, and thus
Hindutva, has been coupled with the
Hindu right’s insidious exploitation
of popular culture to create a base for
their ideology. While there has been
an increase in content that aligns with
Hindu nationalism, the influence of
reactionary rabble-rousers within the
A spate of explicitly Hindu
television serials hit the
screen in the run-up to
the 2014 elections and
have dominated airwaves
thereafter in a period of
hostility against minorities
and intolerance for fairmindedness about a shared
Sangh Parivar and fringe groups has
risen simultaneously. A number of
films, particularly historical dramas
featuring inter-religious romances,
such as Jodhaa Akbar, Bajirao Mastani
and Veer, have had their releases stalled
by right-wing groups that often trash
cinemas screening them. At the same
time, Hindutva’s political control of the
state machinery has bolstered its attempts to gain ideological control over
films and television, turning the media
into a cultural battleground.
The late 1980s saw a significant
moment in the relationship between
Hindutva and popular media when
television serials such as Ramayan and
Mahabharat were broadcast immediately after the Babri Masjid was opened
to Hindu worship. These mythological narratives from a pre-Islamic past
helped consolidate a particular kind of
Hindu identity in an atmosphere of communal tension. Both these shows circulated highly charged religious imagery
that the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement
appropriated to argue for bringing back
a vision of a Hindu utopia, or Ram rajya.
According to the media scholar Arvind
Rajagopal, nuclear weapons were now
comparable to the various astras from
these epics. During the campaign to take
back the land where the mosque stood,
Rajagopal writes, karsevaks, or volunteers, dressed like Ram and Lakshman
from Ramayan. Furthermore, the television show took some liberties with the
source material that Hindu nationalist
groups never objected to: in one scene,
Ram worships a clump of earth while reciting a prayer dedicated to his janmabhoomi, or homeland. One can’t overlook
the impact of these mythological serials
on the public psyche in that decade.
Between the early 1990s and the
early 2000s, according to the film
historian Nandana Bose, right-wing
fundamentalism grew alongside unconstitutional censorship practices. Bose
argues that through the decade, due
to pressure from right-wing groups,
as well as the BJP’s film cell, the state
became increasingly involved in monitoring content of films and television.
Initially, the Central Board of Film
Certification, or CBFC, issued diktats
against violence and “vulgar” portrayals of sex deemed un-Indian by saffron
groups. Later, it illegally ceded control
to politicians and policemen—this was
most apparent in the case of Bombay
(1995), produced in the aftermath of
communal riots triggered by the Babri
Masjid demolition. Bombay was perhaps the first film since Independence
to show Hindu-Muslim romance, and
attracted controversy for several other
reasons. The CBFC, instead of working
as an autonomous institution, consulted
the home ministry, the Mumbai Crime
anil kumar shakya / pacific press / lightrocket / getty images
Branch and the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray,
who was widely held responsible for engineering
the riots. The right-wing groups were allowed to
set the terms for the film’s release.
The trend of policing cinema became disturbingly overt and dangerous during the Atal Bihari
Vajpayee-led National Demcratic Alliance government between 1998 and 2002, during which
the activity of these forces became more regular.
Among the highest profile examples, Fire (1996)
was banned before release during the BJP years,
while Water (2005) was not allowed to be made in
India, and was finally shot in Sri Lanka. In both
these cases, the issue at stake was the depiction of
Hindu culture, and the CBFC colluded with the
centre to permit fundamentalists to determine
what gets made and shown in India. During the
ongoing second innings of the BJP at the centre,
illiberal attitudes towards the arts receive silent
support from the ruling party, and one can only
assume, since it does not condemn these attacks,
so do the repeated instances of mob censorship.
State-sanctioned hooliganism seems to be gradually replacing the work of the official film certification body to deliberate on the content of films.
I spoke to the film scholar Ira Bhaskar, one of the
former members of the CBFC committee who resigned in 2015 citing government interference in
the board’s decisions. Bhaskar sees a strong link
between violent censorship demands and majoriMARCH 2017
above: The Ram
imagery from the
television shows
Ramayan and
Mahabharat, which
aired in the late
off-screen actors · perspectives
tarian politics. “Historical films like Padmavati
provoke controversy because they counter certain
political agendas,” she told me. “For organisations
like the Karni Sena and the RSS, there is an extreme and aggressive sense of India as belonging
to the Hindus and the presence of Muslims in the
country is seen as illegitimate. Any text that suggests otherwise becomes unacceptable.”
It is no surprise, then, that films and television have become increasingly saffronised. A
spate of explicitly Hindu television serials hit the
screen in the run-up to the 2014 elections and
have dominated airwaves thereafter in a period
of hostility against minorities and intolerance for
fair-mindedness about a shared past. Apart from
mythological shows such as the wildly popular
Devon ke Dev… Mahadev (2011), a revival of Mahabharat (2013) and Suryaputra Karn (2016), there
are serials glorifying ancient heroes pitted against
evil Europeans—Chandragupta Maurya (2011) and
Chakravartin Ashok Samrat (2015)—and those eulogising the triumphs of worthy Hindu rulers over
Muslim invaders and tyrants: Veer Shivaji (2011),
Bharat ka Veer Putra—Maharana Pratap (2013)
Though the Karni Sena complains of its community
being misrepresented, its real problem seems to
be a kind of sexual paranoia, underlying several
similar protests.
and Dharti Ka Veer Yodha Prithviraj Chauhan
(2009). All of these shows, based on hagiographic
accounts long proven to be full of inaccuracies or
propagandistic oral narratives, valorise an image
of Hindu machismo, whether divine or mortal,
as the antidote to ambitious foreign conquerors
keen to occupy a Hindu motherland. In a recent
episode of the show Chandra Nandini (2016), Porus
anachronistically echoes the sentiment of many
rabid nationalists who emerged during the year by
adopting “Bharat mata ki jai” as his war cry.
Though the Karni Sena complains of its community being misrepresented, its real problem seems
to be a kind of sexual paranoia, underlying several
similar protests. Among the litany of historical serials, the only one to have attracted any controversy
was Zee TV’s Jodha Akbar (2013), with the Karni
Sena once again leading protests against the show
for presenting an erroneous version of history, protesting against producer Ekta Kapoor at the Jaipur
Literature Festival in 2014, and wrecking the Zee
Media office in Jaipur. Earlier, in 2008, they had
objected to Ashutosh Gowarikar’s film of the same
name, and had it banned in Rajasthan. In 2010, they
trashed Jaipur multiplexes screening the Salman
Khan vehicle Veer (2010). In the same year, the Shiv
Sena clamoured for a ban on Shah Rukh Khan’s My
Name is Khan (2010). Bajrang Dal activists created
ruckuses in Ahmedabad theatres during the release
of the Aamir Khan-starrer PK (2015), overwhelmed
by the hurt they felt upon seeing Hindu deities
mocked. In Pune, shows of Bhansali’s last film Bajirao Mastani (2015) were cancelled after BJP workers marched for their impugned Maratha honour.
Though other films have also come under fire for
reasons that broadly remain in the realm of showing Hinduism in a bad light, it is difficult not to see a
common thread specific to these recent cases—they
all feature inter-religious romances.
With the shrill rhetoric of love jihad renting the
air, the Sangh’s fixation with fixing historical representations rivals Khilji’s storied obsession with
Padmavati. In its demands of “accurate” portrayal
of history, its agenda to purge inter-faith couples
from our screens is clear. Since the nineteenth
century, the nation has been rendered in the form
of a gendered figure—Bharat Mata, a chaste, visibly Hindu woman whose honour her sons must
protect. In cinema, this image is incarnated as the
Hindu female character who becomes the signifier
of the nation and all its values, endowed with notions of morality and righteousness.
The parallel between the body of the nation and
that of the good Hindu heroine is entrenched in
the imagination of the religious nationalist. The
Partition drama Pinjar (2005), for example, is only
acceptable because it shows the Hindu female
protagonist, now converted and tainted, returning
to her Muslim husband in Pakistan, there being
no place for her in Hindustan. In Mission Kashmir
(2000), the Hindu wife dies in a bomb blast meant
for her Muslim husband, almost as punishment
for having married him. Scholars have pointed
out how even in a film like Jodhaa Akbar, which
appears to promote harmony, it is the taming and
“Hinduisation” of the menacing Muslim man with
the love of the “indigenous” Rajput woman that
brings about peace and order in the Mughal realm.
Nowhere is the threat to the Hindu woman
and, by extension, Bharat Mata, more pronounced
than in the story of Padmavati. In her book on the
legend, Ramya Sreenivasan follows the trail of
the medieval myth and tracks its evolution over
a period of about 500 years. One of the points she
makes is how Padmavat allowed the Rajputs to
self-fashion a caste identity, against the backdrop
of nationalist struggles and decline of an Islamicate world. With such investment in the plot, the
lore has achieved the status of historical fact.
But another way to read the jauhar of Padmavati
would be to grasp how harsh the age must have
been to women. Today, the insistence on a singular
reading of Padmavati is a symptom of a disturbingly misogynistic identitarian pride. s
sandhya visvanathan
Making Money
Promise and peril in the Indian bitcoin economy
sohail merchant’s phone kept him awake through
the night of 8 November. That evening, at 8 pm,
Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked the
country by declaring that, from midnight, all R500
and R1,000 notes would no longer be legal tender.
Modi presented this as a way to flush out “black
money”—untaxed wealth, part of which is held as
unaccounted-for cash. Demonetised notes could
either be deposited in bank accounts, exposing
their owners to official scrutiny, or left, Modi said,
to become “worthless pieces of paper.” Some with
stockpiled cash rushed to purchase goods with it,
or convert it into other stores of value, while they
still could. Jewellers and retailers of luxury goods
reported a spike in business that night, and many
stayed open late.
The first call came soon after Modi’s announcement. By morning, Merchant had received over
150 of them. They kept coming in the weeks
afterwards, too, from all over India. “Everybody
was talking in crores,” he said. “‘I want to convert
25 crores, I have 30 crores,’ like that. All in cash.”
When he said he was in Mumbai and only handled
cash transactions in person, many callers responded, “We are ready to come there.”
What Merchant had to sell was not gold, or foreign currency, or any tangible thing. He trades bitcoin: a cryptocurrency, generated and exchanged
entirely over the internet, invented in 2009 by
an unidentified person or group of people under
the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who termed it
“a peer-to-peer electronic cash system.” Bitcoin
pioneered the use of the blockchain, a distributed
database that acts as a public ledger. The blockchain relies on cryptography—hence the “crypto”
in cryptocurrency—allowing users to operate with
a high degree of privacy, and often anonymity. The
entire history of bitcoin transactions is recorded
and transmitted to each node in a vast worldwide
network of computers. New transactions are approved only after being verified against this record,
and all versions of the record are continually
updated and synced, meaning it cannot be retroactively altered. Bitcoin is free of any centralised
control; its validity, unlike that of traditional fiat
currencies such as the rupee or the dollar, does not
MARCH 2017
making money · reportage
dramatically, with local prices in many
instances rising to the equivalent of
$1,000 and above—often around 30
percent higher than the global rate.
Merchant does business via Localbitcoins, an international platform for
independent traders—a sort of eBay
for bitcoin. He told me he accepted demonetised currency for about a week
on the condition that clients provide
him with official identification—he did
not say how much he ended up taking—
but then stopped. He explained that,
given the risk that large bank deposits
coindance, a platform that aggregates
public data on bitcoin, showed that Localbitcoins saw R1.1 crore exchanged for
bitcoin in India in the week beginning
on 12 November, and R1.6 crore in the
week after that. In the week beginning on 26 November, Localbitcoins
saw exchanges worth R2.8 crore—more
trade by far, when measured by rupee
value, than the site had ever recorded
in a single week before.
It is likely that Indian traders on
Localbitcoins did even more business
over these weeks than the CoinDance
numbers reflect. The site allows for
payments by bank card, by electronic
transfer, or in cash, and transactions
are only registered if a buyer or seller
voluntarily initiates a trade using the
Localbitcoins system. It is easy to
circumvent Localbitcoins, and the
of old cash would attract attention,
“even I’ll have to show my source of
funds.” Still, he said, for weeks the volume of inquiries remained higher than
he could handle.
Over the phone in early December,
Merchant told me he was now receiving only four or five calls a day about
converting old cash into bitcoin. But,
he said, he was now answering lots of
calls from people saying, “I have 100
bitcoins, or 200 bitcoins. I want to sell
them all.” He explained that these
callers had bought bitcoin at the time
of demonetisation, and “now want to
sell it and get the new cash.” Merchant
said he had not been able to satisfy
these callers because regulations for
managing the post-demonetisation
cash crunch meant that he could not
withdraw enough cash fast enough
from the banks.
commission it charges, by dealing with
customers directly. The profiles of most
of the Indian traders I saw on Localbitcoins listed phone numbers alongside
instructions to “call or WhatsApp”
before initiating a trade online.
Besides Merchant, I spoke with
four other India-based Localbitcoins
traders. All but one of them reported
a sharp uptick in business after 8 November. The profiles of all those I spoke
to said they were open to in-person
cash trades, though only Merchant and
one other trader admitted to having
accepted any amount of demonetised
notes. Among the three traders who
denied doing so, two specifically stated
on their profiles that they were accepting old currency.
In mid December, the channel India
Today broadcast a sting on several
“bitcoin brokers” whom its reporters
Bitcoin’s most definitive feature is its novelty—
by most accounts, it is groundbreaking, and will
have far-reaching effects on our economic and
technological future.
depend on a single authority, such as a
central bank, vouching for it. This independence is one of the cryptocurrency’s
draws, particularly for those who distrust banks and governments—a sizeable contingent especially at the time
of bitcoin’s creation, in the aftermath of
the 2008 global financial crisis.
Early on, a single bitcoin was worth a
fraction of a US penny. But in 2011 the
currency achieved parity with the dollar, and in November 2013 the price of
a single bitcoin rose to around $1,200—
the highest it has been to date. Bitcoin
had seen massive fluctuations in value
along the way, and soon the price
crashed again. Since then, however, the
price has generally trended upwards,
and at the time of Modi’s demonetisation announcement its global price was
hovering around $700.
There are three ways people can
obtain bitcoins. First, they can earn
them through “mining”: the work of
processing bitcoin transactions—by
verifying them against the record and
then updating the blockchain—which
is rewarded with new, automatically
generated, bitcoins. As the system
is designed, mining is the only way
to bring new bitcoins into existence.
Second, they can receive them as
payment for goods or services sold.
Third, they can buy them, handing fiat
currency over to exchanges that offer
bitcoins in return. India has very little
mining capacity, very few sellers or
service providers accepting payment
in bitcoins, and restrictions on the
cross-border flow of fiat currencies
that make it difficult for Indians to buy
bitcoins from foreign exchanges. As
a result, the supply of bitcoins in the
local market is limited, making Indian
bitcoin prices consistently higher than
global ones.
On 7 November, the Indian price
of bitcoin stood at around R51,500—
roughly $775, or about 10 percent higher than the global price. In the weeks
after demonetisation, that gap widened
making money · reportage
approached posing as customers looking to buy
bitcoins using invalid cash. In one scene, shot with
a hidden camera, a broker promises to convert R50
lakh’s worth of demonetised notes into bitcoin and
then back into rupees, using an exchange called
Zebpay and charging a 20-percent premium on the
exchange’s rate.
Sandeep Goenka, a co-founder and senior executive of Zebpay, posted a video response to the
India Today sting, saying it had left the company
“highly disturbed.” He explained that Zebpay only
conducted transactions through banking channels, and not in cash. “We also want to tell all our
users especially that we will cooperate with any
government agency to ensure that our users follow all the laws of the country,” he said. “It would
be foolish for any of our users to use our services
outside the legal system.”
Besides Zebpay, India has three other large and
reputed bitcoin exchanges—Unocoin, BTCxIndia
and Coinsecure. These others, alongside Zebpay,
also received unwelcome attention after demonetisation. On 10 November, the business newspaper Mint reported that these exchanges were
receiving “frantic calls” from people looking to
trade in old cash. Goenka told the paper, “I’ve had
to put most of my operations guys in fielding calls
and telling callers that this would not be possible.”
Sathvik Vishwanath, the CEO of Unocoin, was
quoted as saying, “We did get one or two such calls
before, but today”—on 9 November—“it was a lot
I spoke to executives at each of the four exchanges in December. They all repeated similar
stories, of rebuffing inquiries about cash trades
over the previous month. None of the four companies works with cash, and all hew to strict “knowyour-customer” processes. Vishwanath explained
how his company requires customers to submit
identification and financial documents, and ties a
verified phone number to each customer account.
“We also make sure all transactions are occurring from a customer’s bank account to our bank
account,” he said.
Unfortunately, as the surge in trades on Localbitcoins in November and my interviews with
traders on the site suggested, such scrupulous
behaviour does not exist across all of the Indian
bitcoin economy. I, like many in India, became
curious about the workings of this economy in
the wake of demonetisation. But as I interviewed
bitcoin entrepreneurs and enthusiasts, and
looked into companies dealing in the cryptocurrency, I realised that whatever demonetisationrelated malfeasance likely occurred in the
bitcoin world represented only a small part of a
much larger realm. This realm’s most definitive
feature is its novelty—bitcoin, by most accounts,
is groundbreaking, and will have far-reaching
effects on our economic and technological future.
But with that novelty come questions of how the
cryptocurrency can and should be used. India,
like the rest of the world, has only just begun
asking these questions, let alone answering them.
This makes the bitcoin economy a brave new
financial frontier—untested, and so ripe with
promise, but also unregulated, and so open to
MARCH 2017
opposite page:
The profiles of most
Indian traders on
Localbitcoins listed
instructions to
“call or WhatsApp”
before initiating a
trade online. Some
traders’ profiles also
specifically stated
they were willing to
accept demonetised
below: In the
weeks after
demonetisation, the
gap between Indian
and global prices
for bitcoin widened
dramatically, with
local prices often
around 30 percent
higher than the
global rate.
making money · reportage
Gupta told me that scammers “are essentially
looking for buzzwords, anything that is popular
within society. Catch onto the buzzword, the
scheme remains the same.”
this market, but I heard some educated
guesses. When I first spoke to Goenka,
in mid December, he told me that the
country’s total of bitcoin users stood
at 200,000—and that “if you would
have asked me about two months back
I would have said about a lakh.” An
executive from one exchange, who
spoke off the record, offered a “very
broad estimate” that there are between
400,000 and 500,000 bitcoins in the
Indian market—which, taking the
higher number and as of early February, would value this market at R3,450
crore at Indian prices, and almost $500
million at global ones. This makes India
a backwater in the global bitcoin economy, where the total number of bitcoins
in existence is currently around 16 million. Numerous entrepreneurs told me
that the regulatory uncertainty around
cryptocurrencies in the country is
hurting the chances of this changing, as
investors are put off by apprehension.
That uncertainty is not all that
scrupulous bitcoin entrepreneurs have
to worry about. The same lawlessness
holding them back acts as an invitation
into the bitcoin world for a sizeable
number of those looking to make an
underhanded profit. Bitcoin’s accounting is entirely transparent in that every
transaction is recorded and publicly
traceable in the blockchain, but there
are plenty of ways that bitcoin users
can avoid exposing their real-world
personas in their online transactions.
This means the cryptocurrency has
been used for illegal activity—for
instance, in online black markets such
as the now-defunct Silk Road—and has
spent much of its short existence under
paul ratje / the washington post / getty images
The bitcoin exchanges following
know-your-customer rules are not
required to do so. India has no specific
regulations on how bitcoin, or other
cryptocurrencies, may be used. The
Reserve Bank of India has commented
on cryptocurrencies numerous times,
but the most it has done is urge caution
in their use. In one circular, issued in
November 2013, it warned “the users,
holders and traders of Virtual currencies (VCs), including Bitcoins, about
the potential financial, operational,
legal, customer protection and security related risks that they are exposing themselves to.” The other hazards
listed in the document included hacking, dramatic losses due to speculation,
and financial disputes that could not be
mediated by any third-party authority.
As things stand, scrupulous bitcoin
entrepreneurs are left to find ad hoc
ways to fit their businesses within
existing financial laws, and to guess at
and fret over what regulations might
in future be applied to the fledgling
Indian bitcoin market. There are no
hard numbers available on the size of
making money · reportage
left: China offers
bitcoin miners
several advantages,
including areas
with both cheap
electricity and cool
climates naturally
conducive to
computing. The
majority of today’s
mining occurs in
paul ratje / the washington post / getty images
opposite page:
Mining involves
difficult and
computation on
sets of data known
as blocks, and
new bitcoins are
awarded to the first
node on the mining
network to “solve”
each block.
a cloud of public suspicion. In India, too, there is a
danger that bitcoin will be maligned in the public
mind, and here the danger stems both from its potential use in illegal commerce, and in its exploitation by scammers.
In India, as across the world, most bitcoin is
held as a form of speculative investment. Much of
the cryptocurrency’s value owes to belief in its future as a popular medium of exchange, but for now
only a fraction of it is used for legitimate retail—
even though a rising number of firms, including
giants such as Microsoft, have started accepting
it. The promise of rich returns combines with a
general ignorance about the workings of cryptocurrencies and finance to attract plenty of greedy
and gullible users—in other words, easy prey. Such
investors exist online as much as offline, and the
schemes that cheat them of their cryptocurrency
are often similar to those that might dupe them of
more traditional assets. Vishal Gupta, a prominent
bitcoin entrepreneur, told me that scammers “are
essentially looking for buzzwords, anything that is
popular within society. Catch onto the buzzword,
the scheme remains the same.” Bitcoin is not the
cause of these scams, he said. “Bitcoin, essentially,
is the victim.”
on 4 january, Goenka hosted a live video chat for
Zebpay customers, later uploaded to Facebook.
He began with a glowing update about recent
growth—Zebpay’s user base had just crossed
350,000, with 50,000 new clients arriving in the
previous month alone. A few minutes in, Goenka’s
tone went from bullish to cautionary. “We are
aware that there are one or two alleged bitcoin
mining schemes, which are extremely popular
in India,” he said. “It has come to our notice that
these mining schemes assure a fixed return in
bitcoins, and some of them have promised returns
as high as 10 percent of your bitcoin investment a
Goenka did not mince words. “We are sure
that these are scams,” he said. “Please be careful,
please stay away, and do not invest your bitcoins in
them. Please also be absolutely clear that Zebpay is not associated with any such schemes. In
the situation that these schemes disappear with
your investments, we are not liable to return your
bitcoins back.”
This was not the first time Zebpay had issued
such warnings. In March 2016, a brief post on the
company’s blog urged clients to “use your discretion before investing” in mining schemes. In June,
a post on its Facebook page, accompanied by a
graphic that read “SCAM ALERT,” warned users
of “bitcoin ponzi schemes” that are “rampant on
the Internet,” including in India. In mid December, the customer-support section of the Zebpay
website was updated with a similar message. This
update named 14 specific companies that clients
were told to approach with extreme caution. One
of these was Gainbitcoin.
on the evening of 3 December, I arrived at a
one-room office for Gainbitcoin marketers in west
MARCH 2017
making money · reportage
Delhi’s Janakpuri area, for an event
titled “Introduction to Bitcoins” that I
had seen advertised online. Diwali banners still hung from the office’s brightwhite walls. I was met by a woman who
silently ushered me to the cubicle of
Kshitij Mehrotra, the only other person
in the room. I realised that no one but
me had shown up for the event.
Mehrotra and I sat down at a plastic
table. Lanky and fresh-faced, he told
me that he worked as a software
engineer before he started “doing this
bitcoin job” full-time. He lamented
that he had only learnt about bitcoin in
2015. Had he known earlier, he said, “I
would have been mining bitcoins on my
He explained that Gainbitcoin is a
“cloud-mining” company: it pools individual investments, in bitcoins, to pay
for mining on specialised hardware,
and rewards investors with a share
of the new bitcoins generated. Mining involves difficult and probabilistic
computation on sets of data known as
blocks, and new bitcoins are awarded
to the first node on the mining network
to “solve” each block. This creates
intense competition, since more powerful and better customised machines
are more likely to succeed. In bitcoin’s
early days, when the competition was
relatively weak, mining was feasible on
a personal computer. Today, it requires
ASIC miners, specialised machines that
are expensive to buy and maintain, and
use large amounts of electricity. Most
of these are manufactured in China,
giving miners there a financial advantage over competitors in other countries who have to pay import duties for
their hardware. China also has many
areas with cheap electricity—including near hydroelectric dams built at
high altitudes, with cool, dry climates
that minimise the air-conditioning
expenses otherwise associated with
high-performance computing. Unsurprisingly, the majority of today’s bitcoin
mining occurs in China.
Mehrotra told me that Gainbitcoin’s
founder—an entrepreneur named Amit
Bhardwaj, who “has been associated
with bitcoin from 2011”—fully appreciated these realities. Bhardwaj, he said,
initially coordinated cloud mining
for a “closed community” of friends
and family, running imported mining
equipment in India. In 2013, Mehrotra continued, he “started placing the
servers in China,” and in early 2015,
he opened the project up to all comers,
creating Gainbitcoin.
“It is a good venture,” Mehrotra said,
“making a common person also able to
mine bitcoin.” That mining, he continued, yields handsome rewards: Gainbitcoin’s investors are promised returns
of 10 percent per month on their initial
investments, which are locked in on
18-month contracts. Investors also receive hefty referral bonuses—5 percent
of the investment from any new clients
they bring in, plus smaller parts of the
money put in by anyone recruited by
their recruits.
Mehrotra said that, a few months
earlier, Bhardwaj had launched a new
initiative called GBMiners: a mining
bitcoin marketer. Khurana, a middleaged former wristwatch salesman, had
learnt of bitcoin just that September.
Convinced of bitcoin’s ingenuity, he
took all the money he had invested in
the stock market—about 20 percent of
his personal wealth, he said—and used
it to buy bitcoin. He then invested much
of this with Gainbitcoin. Khurana told
me he is a loyal Zebpay user, but he
seemed to have not seen, or at least not
understood, the exchange’s repeated
warnings about investing in mining
schemes. “Zebpay always says that we
don’t know any mining schemes or any
mining company,” he said.
Mehrotra, I learnt, was also an
investor in the cloud-mining scheme.
Both men said they, like all Gainbitcoin
marketers, receive no salary from the
company, and work purely for the referral bonuses. Like Khurana, Mehrotra
pool, which allows owners of mining
hardware to combine their efforts so
as to be more competitive, and split the
rewards in proportion to the resources
each was contributing. According to
Mehrotra, GBMiners accounted for
more than 5 percent of the global “hash
rate”—the computing power of the entire mining network—and Gainbitcoin
was “using the GBMiners pool to mine
We had just reached the topic of
demonetisation when we were joined
by Hemant Khurana, another Gain-
seemed naively uncritical in his view
of Gainbitcoin. He was initially wary
of the company, he said, “because previously there have been a lot of scams”
where companies “have not been mining bitcoins and they were just claiming
that they are mining bitcoins. … If you
talk about any company that gives out
good returns, what people do is they
blindly trust.”
I asked Mehrotra and Khurana if
they had seen a spike in interest in bitcoin after demonetisation. “Definitely,”
Khurana said. “Because people who
making money · reportage
have big money, black money especially—”
Mehrotra cut him off, nudging him
under the table. “See, I’ll tell you, no,”
he said. “People have realised that the
money they were trusting with the
banks, or with the cash … they have understood that it is just a piece of paper.”
This loss of faith in government-issued
money, he said, led many to bitcoin as
an alternative.
I asked if they had fielded any queries
about converting black money into
bitcoin. “We get calls, but we at Gainbitcoin don’t deal with the money part,”
Khurana said. “We say, you buy your
bitcoins from anywhere: from Sudan,
from Somalia, from America, or—”
Mehrotra cut him off again. “Nahin,
we got lots of calls, we got lots of calls
regarding this conversion of black
money, and we were like, no, once the
PM has told you the 500- and 1000-rupee note is no longer legal tender, we
are not providing you with the bitcoins.
So, if you are interested in mining,
we can guide you how to get bitcoins.
There are lots of registered exchanges:
Zebpay is there, Coinsecure is there.”
Gainbitcoin has no know-your-customer protocols, Mehrotra said, but “that is
under process.”
Gainbitcoin did seem to have seen
increased investment after demonetisation. Mehrotra showed me a bar
graph of the company’s monthly sales,
available on Gainbitcoin’s portal for
its registered clients. (I later created
a Gainbitcoin account for myself, but
never gave any money to the company.)
It showed around 25,000 bitcoins
of new investment in November,
compared to 15,000 each in the two
months prior.
Before leaving, I asked Mehrotra
about a large drawing I noticed taped
to a wall. It was a triangular diagram
that showed nodes branching down,
layer by layer, from a single point at the
top. Many of the nodes and branches
had numbers and letters scribbled
beside them. I would not understand
it, Mehrotra said, unless I had studied
“multi-level marketing.” He explained
that the diagram mapped out a series
of bonuses disseminated after someone
had invested 1,000 bitcoins—a sum
worth some R6 crore on the Indian mar-
I asked Mehrotra about a large drawing I noticed
taped to a wall. It was a triangular diagram
that showed nodes branching down, layer by
layer, from a single point at the top. I would not
understand it, he said, unless I had studied “multilevel marketing.”
ket at that time. The investment came
in before demonetisation, not after, he
noted with a grin.
Three days after my visit, Mehrotra
messaged me on WhatsApp to say he
had discussed our interview with some
colleagues, who suggested that I not
identify any people or places associated with Gainbitcoin in my writing,
or describe the diagram on the wall.
“As a journalist be truthful,” he wrote,
“but with a responsibility.” I responded
that he could not retract anything that
he had not specified was off the record
at the time of the interview, and he replied that there was “nothing to retract
from.” He also sent me links to Amit
Bhardwaj’s personal website, Twitter page and LinkedIn profile, saying,
“please find more information on the
owner of and GBMiners pool.”
to many with experience in the bitcoin
world, companies that make promises
such as the ones Gainbitcoin does are
quickly recognisable as fraudulent. I
met Stuart Trusty, an American bitcoin
miner and an expert in high-performance computing, at a conference on
blockchain technology in Delhi in December. After I explained that Gainbitcoin was promising 10-percent monthly
returns, he told me that it “would have
to be a Ponzi.” Such returns, he said,
were “mathematically impossible”
when it came to mining, especially
given the network’s rapidly growing
difficulty levels.
Gainbitcoin, as Mehrotra pointed out,
is structured as a multi-level marketing scheme. Such schemes—also called
“pyramid” schemes—encourage existing participants to recruit new ones
by offering them a cut of the revenue
from anyone they bring in. Multilevel marketing schemes are generally
predatory, and lead the vast majority of
MARCH 2017
their customers-turned-sellers—who
typically have to pay a hefty membership fee or make a substantial “investment” to join—to lose money.
A January 2015 note from the
Reserve Bank of India warned that
pyramid schemes are illegal in India,
stating that “acceptance of money
under Money-Circulation/Multi-level
Marketing/Pyramid structures is a
cognizable offence under the Prize Chit
and Money Circulation (Banning) Act
1978.” These schemes, the document
noted, “promise easy or quick money
upon enrolment of members,” but “any
break in the chain leads to the collapse
of the pyramid, and the members lower
down in the pyramid are the ones that
are affected the most.”
Multi-level marketing strategies
are often combined with another kind
of financial fraud: the Ponzi scheme.
With these, scammers who conduct no
economic activity yielding actual profit
promise tempting returns to investors,
then pay out those returns using money
put in by new recruits. Here again, the
scheme depends on ever more money
coming in from ever more investors,
and collapses once that stops. In India,
multi-level marketing strategies have
been defining features of notorious
chit-fund scams such as those run by
the Saradha Group and the Sahara
Schemes such as Gainbitcoin have
been analysed and criticised plenty of
times online. Many cryptocurrencyfocussed websites offer guides to
spotting scams, and a perennial point
of advice is to avoid any schemes with
multi-level marketing structures, or
that promise unrealistically high, fixed
rates of return. Since early 2016, there
have been various threads about Gainbitcoin on the forum A
user under the name “tmfp” has posted
particularly comprehensive takedowns
making money · reportage
opposite page:
Amit Bhardwaj’s
online profiles
make no mention
of his connection
to Gainbitcoin.
This was a “good
PR strategy,” he
said, “because the
moment you put it,
there are so many
people who just
want to criticise you
for nothing.”
of the company, picking away at its website and
promised returns.
This January, the bitcoin-focussed news site
CoinJournal published an article titled “The
Founder of India-based Bitcoin Mining Pool
GBMiners is Running a Ponzi Scheme.” In it, the
journalist Kyle Torpey argued that Gainbitcoin’s
10-percent rate of monthly return “has no basis in
reality.” Gainbitcoin contracts tell investors that
each bitcoin they put in buys a particular amount
of computing power. Torpey, using a reputed
online calculator for predicting mining returns,
found that the computing power Gainbitcoin
promises on a one-bitcoin contract yielded only
0.04 bitcoins of return per month—far from the
0.1 bitcoins necessary to generate valid 10-percent
monthly returns.
Torpey’s article was later updated with responses from Bhardwaj. To a question about the
returns calculated for computing power promised
in Gainbitcoin contracts, Bhardwaj said, “bitcoin
mining calculators are good for people who want
to run their own mining setup, and I assure you
not good for cloud mining chaps.” When asked
why Gainbitcoin’s contract prices had not changed
despite the price of bitcoin doubling in 2016, he replied, “because the internal base price for Gainbitcoin is in BTC”—bitcoins. “Purchase and produce
both are in BTC. So actual change in BTC price
economics doesn’t impact the overall business.”
An editor’s note was appended to the piece following the update: “From CoinJournal’s perspective, saying things like the price of bitcoin does not
impact a bitcoin mining business only confirms
the fraudulent nature of the business.”
Unfortunately, many of Gainbitcoin’s clients will
likely never see tmfp’s posts or Torpey’s article.
Mohit Kalra, the CEO of Coinsecure, told me he
had received many complaints from customers
who had invested in Gainbitcoin but not received
the promised returns. But, he said, schemes such
as Gainbitcoin typically target “people who don’t
know bitcoin—who are not internet-friendly, who
are never online on forums.” Even when these
people get conned, he said, “they have no place to
go online and show people they got scammed.”
Torpey echoed this in a public video chat
discussing his article, which was uploaded to
YouTube. “I think this article probably won’t
even do much good,” he said. “To everyone in the
bitcoin community, it is obvious that this is a Ponzi
scheme. But they’re not targeting the bitcoin community, they’re targeting the normal, everyday
guy in India, who doesn’t know any better.”
Gainbitcoin and its marketers seem to be trying
to head all suspicions off at the pass. When I met
Mehrotra, he told me about his Youtube channel,
Bitcoin Kshitij. On it is a series of eight video tesTHE CARAVAN
timonials, with a thumbnail for each one reading
“Gainbitcoin: Legit? Or Scam?”
Kalra told me that Bhardwaj has been frozen
out by much of the Indian bitcoin community. “We
have a small group on WhatsApp for all the bitcoin
guys and companies and owners,” he said. “We had
Amit Bhardwaj over there initially, but when we
all figured out that he has been scamming a lot of
people, we had to remove him.” Kalra also shared
a screenshot of a public notice, published as a classified in the Delhi edition of the Hindustan Times
on 21 June 2016. In it, an entity calling itself the
Asia Investors Economic Prevention Anti Money
Laundering Activity, claiming an address in Hong
Kong, warns the Indian public that it has “black
listed and launched a joint operation” against a list
of MLM companies which were collecting investments in cash “without having a permission from
SEBI”—the Securities and Exchange Board of India. These companies, the notice continued, “have
a money laundering business with a promise of giving huge and unwanted and illegal returns.” The
notice lists Bhardwaj and Gainbitcoin, and another
eight entities. However, I did not find any online
references to the Asia Investors Economic Prevention Anti Money Laundering Activity, and did not
see it listed at the Hong Kong address included in
the notice. The notice also included a URL, www., but it is not active.
One Indian entrepreneur with a years-old bitcoin-based business, who asked not to be named,
told me that Bhardwaj had earlier put the idea of
starting Gainbitcoin before other bitcoin enthusiasts and businesspeople, who generally thought
starting a mining company “was a great thing.”
But, he said, “we were not very keen on starting it
on a multi-level marketing platform.” Eventually,
those invested in bitcoin’s future in India “wanted
to disassociate with Amit, because we were very
apprehensive of his ways of working.”
bhardwaj works mostly out of Dubai. I spoke
to him twice, over the internet, before visiting
the Janakpuri office—first in late November, and
again in early December. Both times, he started
his story in 2013, when he founded HighKart—
a retail site only accepting bitcoin as payment.
“What we realised is people were using bitcoin as
an investment tool,” he said, so using it just as a
medium of exchange was “not a scalable model in
India.” Bhardwaj told me he had been mining bitcoin in some capacity, so in 2014, after HighKart
proved unsuccessful, he made mining his primary
venture. He said he started mining mostly for corporate clients, many of them international—none
of whom he would name. In August 2016, the story
continued, he started GBMiners.
making money · reportage
In the video, Bhardwaj says Gainbitcoin has
investments totalling 125,000 bitcoins—worth
K862 crore at the rates on Indian exchanges, and
$123 million at the global exchange rate.
Some of the details Bhardwaj gave
me did not square with what I went on
to hear from Mehrotra and numerous
other Gainbitcoin investors. I was to
discover that much of what I heard from
Bhardwaj contradicted even things that
he told me himself.
During neither of the first two interviews did Bhardwaj mention having any
role in Gainbitcoin. Bhardwaj’s LinkedIn page and his personal website are
devoid of any mention of the cloud-min-
perception” that is “very negative,” so
“we have to be cautious about what we
are saying and what we don’t say.”
I asked Bhardwaj for proof that his
investors were receiving timely returns. “I can show you 100,000 proofs
of that,” he said. “I have a customer
strength of 100,000 people across the
globe.” When I asked him about the
total investment in Gainbitcoin, he
said the “amount of bitcoins invested is
10,000 bitcoins only.” By these num-
ing company. The Gainbitcoin website
makes no mention of Bhardwaj either.
In our second conversation, when I
asked whether he knew of Gainbitcoin,
he told me only that it was a cloudmining company. I asked whether he
knew if the company was based in India.
“Gainbitcoin is based in Singapore, I
believe,” he said.
In mid December, I spoke to Bhardwaj for a third time. I asked him directly
why his online profiles lacked any reference to Gainbitcoin. This was a “good
PR strategy,” he said, “because the
moment you put it, there are so many
people who just want to criticise you for
nothing.” Both cloud mining and multilevel marketing suffer from a “general
bers, every Gainbitcoin investor has
only put in 0.1 bitcoin—the minimum
possible investment in the scheme.
Bhardwaj’s figure for total investment contradicted the graph Mehrotra pointed me to on Gainbitcoin’s
portal for investors, which showed
over 50,000 bitcoins coming in from
September through November alone.
When asked about this, Bhardwaj said,
“That is an inflated graph, don’t worry.”
I asked why the company showed
misrepresentative figures to his investors. Bhardwaj replied, “They feel good,
right? When they get high information.”
In late January, 45 minutes of shaky
video appeared on YouTube, showing
MARCH 2017
a meeting between Bhardwaj and what
appears to be a group of Gainbitcoin
investors. (I tried to trace the user
who uploaded the video, to ask about
his relationship with Gainbitcoin, but
could not.) In it, Bhardwaj says that
the company has investments totalling
125,000 bitcoins—worth R862 crore at
the rates on Indian exchanges, and $123
million at the global exchange rate, as
of the start of February.
In the third interview, I pushed
Bhardwaj on the question of what
mining pool, or pools, Gainbitcoin was
using to benefit its users. “We are using
many pools,” he said. “It is not only GBMiners. GBMiners is one part of it, but
we use F2Pool, we use BW, we use AntPool”—three well-known mining pools.
But soon afterwards, when I asked
him to elaborate on the relationship
between GBMiners and Gainbitcoin, he
said that there was “no relationship”
between them, and that absolutely none
of the output from GBMiners was going
to Gainbitcoin users.
Every Gainbitcoin user I spoke to
said GBMiners is the mining pool being
used by the cloud-mining company. I
told Bhardwaj this, and he responded,
“No, no, they told you that GBMiners
is also belong to Amit Bhardwaj”— not
that it was related to Gainbitcoin.
The website aggregates data from bitcoin’s public ledger.
In mid December, it showed that GBMiners’s share of the global hash rate
was 3 percent, and not 5 percent as was
widely reported when the pool started,
in August 2016. (Some fluctuation in
a pool’s hash rate is to be expected,
because the probabilistic nature of
mining means it depends on luck as
well as computing power. A sustained
decline in hash rate, however, indicates
that a pool is becoming less and less
competitive.) When I pointed this out
to Bhardwaj, he claimed that he still
controlled 5 percent of the hash rate—3
percent via GBMiners, and the remaining 2 percent via other sources, which
he did not name, whose mining output
went to Gainbitcoin.
Going by Bhardwaj’s assertion to me
that GBMiners contributed nothing
to the cloud-mining scheme, I asked if
2 percent of the global hash rate was
enough to pay the promised returns
making money · reportage
to all of Gainbitcoin’s investors. “Let’s
say there are 100,000 people who are
investing 0.1 bitcoin in total,” he said,
sticking to the figures he had given me
earlier. “So how many total bitcoins
are invested in Gainbitcoin? 10,000
bitcoins. What is the 10-percent return
for that? 1,000 bitcoins.” Roughly averaging that monthly return out over a
month, he said, “I need to only generate
30 bitcoins every day.”
Even taking these figures for
granted, Bhardwaj’s accounting seems
suspect. A total monthly return of
1,000 bitcoins averaged out over a full
year, to account for months of varying
length, actually works out to a necessary yield of 32.9 bitcoins per day. The
way that bitcoin functions, the total rewards doled out for mining are fixed—
currently at 1,800 bitcoins per day. The
returns from a pool with 2 percent of
the hash rate should average out to 36
bitcoins per day. If about 33 bitcoins
a day go towards paying Gainbitcoin
investors their promised 10-percent
monthly returns, the remainder seems
impossibly low to account for any of
Gainbitcoin’s presumable operational
costs—most importantly, fees for running mining hardware—not to mention
the 5-percent referral bonuses.
In the YouTube video of his meeting
with investors, Bhardwaj contradicts
the claim that GBMiners does not
contribute to Gainbitcoin. He claims
that his share of the global hash rate
is 8 percent. When someone points
out that that GBMiners’s hash rate on was, at that moment,
5.5 percent, and had recently dropped
to as low as 3.5 percent, Bhardwaj tells
him that, in addition to GBMiners,
there is another pool feeding Gainbitcoin’s payouts. When asked to name it,
Bhardwaj responds, “Pata lag jayega,
market mein aane doh” (You will find
out, let it come into the market). So far,
there have been no reports about any
other mining pool working for Gainbitcoin’s benefit.
In the video, Bhardwaj claims that
his average daily mining output is
between 200 and 220 bitcoins. This
does not square with his claim in the
meeting of controlling 8 percent of the
hash rate—which would translate to an
average daily yield of 144 bitcoins.
A graph displayed on Gainbitcoin’s user portal contradicted Bhardwaj’s numbers on
investment in the scheme. “That is an inflated graph, don’t worry,” he told me.
Bhardwaj’s claims in our third
interview got less and less believable.
He claimed that he calls all his investors “to Dubai on weekly basis. And
then we sit together, then we have a
cup of coffee, tea, have a session. And
then they go back.” I asked whether he
meant all 100,000 investors each week.
He said yes. “On the phone?” I asked.
“Not on the phone—I call them to my
office in Dubai,” he said. “They travel
to Dubai. … And they will tell you that I
answer their WhatsApp any time they
No Gainbitcoin investor I spoke to
mentioned visiting Bhardwaj in Dubai.
In the YouTube video, some of those in
the meeting seem frustrated by Bhardwaj’s, and Gainbitcoin’s, evasiveness.
“Sir, you sit in Dubai,” one participant
tells Bhardwaj. “So communicating
with you is a bit difficult.” Others seem
frustrated by Bhardwaj’s lack of clarity on his operations. “If we want to
give proper information to those who
we want to join, we have to explain
things to them,” one man says. “I will
gain confidence when I understand
that whole system. And for that I need
In our third interview, Bhardwaj
became uncomfortable with my questioning. “If you are media, present us
rightly, we will give you numbers also,”
he said. “We will wait for a couple of
articles. If the articles are good, we will
give you more information.” He also
asked me, with exasperation, if I was
a police officer. “Tum bata dogi ki tum
police se ho. … You are so deliberately
and so effort-wisely drilling down, like I
am a criminal or something.”
even people working directly with or
under Bhardwaj seem not to know the
details of his businesses, or at least not
to agree with him on the details of their
Darwin Labs, a start-up firm based
in Gurugram, presented itself on its
website until February as a “technology
partner” for GBMiners. In early December, at the Darwin Labs office, I spoke to
Nikunj Jain and Ayush Varshney, who
are executives of Darwin Labs and lead
day-to-day operations for GBMiners.
When I asked them about Gainbitcoin,
Jain said, “We think Amit runs it. We
don’t know, honestly.” I asked whether
they knew if GBMiners was affiliated
with Gainbitcoin. “Not to our knowledge,” Jain said. He said Bhardwaj
meets them once every month or two,
but had never mentioned Gainbitcoin.
Bhardwaj, in our first interview, told
me GBMiners had about 30 clients.
In the third interview, he told me the
company had 17 or 18 of them. Varshney and Jain told me in the Darwin
Labs office that GBMiners had 300
clients—a number they repeated to me
twice. On an earlier phone call, Jain
had told me that this number was “in
the double digits.”
making money · reportage
They denied that the office was linked to
Gainbitcoin. I pointed to decals that read
“Gainbitcoin” stuck to numerous surfaces.
Bhardwaj told me that many GBMiners clients were corporations. Jain said
all of them were “essentially individuals, largely HNIs”—high-net-worth
individuals. Bhardwaj told me the company’s approach to attracting clients
is “totally word-of-mouth,” and that
employees for recruiting clients were
“not required.” Varshney and Jain told
me GBMiners has two staffers specifically for recruiting clients.
A week later, I headed to Ansal Bhawan, a boxy office building near Connaught Place, in central Delhi. Earlier, I
had seen a YouTube video, uploaded in
September, in which three foreign men
appear in a hallway of the building. One
of them tells the camera, “We are visiting today the Gainbitcoin office, or the
Bitex office. … The CEO is also here.”
They head into a wood-panelled suite
with several people at work inside, and
enter a small office where Bhardwaj sits
at a large desk—the same office where
the YouTube video of Bhardwaj’s apparent meeting with Gainbitcoin investors was filmed. The men ask him to say
a few words to “the European people,”
and Bhardwaj says, “See, Europe is the
best part to take bitcoin up, because it
is the most forward-looking financial
domain right now. And I wish all the
best to all of you guys.” With a little
research, I tracked the office down.
The insignia outside the office only
identified it as the premises of The
Bitex. Some ten people were milling
about inside. Several of them told me
The Bitex was a bitcoin exchange, and
that the office belonged only to this
enterprise. They denied that the office
was linked to Gainbitcoin. I pointed to
decals that read “Gainbitcoin” stuck to
numerous surfaces around the office,
and was told these were only for decoration. (Later, I asked several Indian
bitcoin insiders, including executives
from two exchanges, whether they had
heard of The Bitex. None of them had.)
A man named Himanshu Singh,
who said he oversaw accounting for
The Bitex, took me into the room
where Bhardwaj had appeared in the
video. Singh told me the room was not
reserved for any particular individual,
and was used by “the team.” I asked
him who had founded The Bitex, and
he replied, “See, it is a confidential
thing.” I asked whether Bhardwaj was
linked to The Bitex, and Singh shifted
with discomfort. “See, there are some
certain things which I don’t know if
I have to share or not,” he said. “So I
don’t want to answer.”
Singh claimed not to know of the
YouTube video with Bhardwaj sitting in the office. When I showed it to
him on my phone, he said, “This is the
office, I cannot deny it.” Past that, he
refused to elaborate.
In my third conversation with Bhardwaj, I asked whether the Ansal Bhawan
office had ever housed Gainbitcoin
operations. “There was never a Gainbitcoin office in India,” he said. I also
asked him about The Bitex, and why so
few people seemed to know of it. “It is
a simple exchange, similar to Zebpay,”
Bhardwaj said. “But we are not marketing it very much.” Nevertheless, he
claimed, “You take all the exchanges
together in India, add up their daily
turnaround, and we alone do that. The
major problem is we do it internally, we
do not do for external customers.”
Singh told me that The Bitex’s volume of trades was displayed openly on
its website. I checked the site numerous
times between December and February, and it generally showed a daily
turnover of some 20 or 30 bitcoins. On
31 January, the site showed 5.8 bitcoins
bought, and 25.5 bitcoins sold, for a
total trade volume of 31.3 bitcoins. Zebpay’s trade volume for that same day,
reported on the website exchangewar.
info, which collates data from multiple
exchanges, was 1,278.9 bitcoins. The
Bitex is not listed among the exchanges
on the site.
Bhardwaj called me a couple of days
after I visited the Ansal Bhawan office,
after finding out that I had been corresponding with Himanshu Singh about
MARCH 2017
Gainbitcoin and its marketers seem to
be trying to defuse suspicions. Kshitij
Mehrotra’s YouTube channel hosts a series
of testimonials, each with a thumbnail
reading “Gainbitcoin: Legit? or Scam?”
a follow-up interview. He demanded to
know why I did not ask for his permission to visit the office, or to contact his
employees. “They are not comfortable
speaking with you,” he said. “Don’t be
a sensational reporter. You are just a
Gainbitcoin might not be based
in India, but Bhardwaj does have
six India-based corporate holdings,
making money · reportage
none of which burnish his credibility.
Public documents from the ministry
of corporate affairs show that he has
been declared a defaulter in connection
with Hans Clouding IT, in which he
is a designated partner and which has
never filed mandatory annual returns
with the ministry since it was incorporated in 2014. Three other companies
that list Bhardwaj as a director, founded
between 2009 and 2015, have also never
filed their returns. This includes Radox
Infotech, which Himanshu Singh, at the
Ansal Bhawan office, told me is the parent company of The Bitex. Bhardwaj’s
two other India-based companies have
failed to file balance sheets for at least
the last year. The punishments for these
offences, specified in the Companies
Act, 2013, include hefty fines and possible imprisonment.
The documents show that all of
Bhardwaj’s companies have very small
amounts of paid-up capital—the money
a company has on hand to conduct its
business. Going by the latest filings for
each of the companies, two of them
have paid-up capital of R5 lakh—the
highest sum shown for any of the companies—and three of them have paid-up
capital of R1 lakh—until 2015, the minimum required to register a company.
A chartered accountant who looked
the filings over said even R5 lakh is far
from the kind of money necessary to
run most businesses. He also said that
posting very small amounts of paid-up
capital would typically raise suspicions
over a company’s operations.
Over Skype last month, I questioned
Bhardwaj about his companies’ public
filings. Their paid-up capital was low,
he said, because most of his business is
done outside of India. I asked why even
Radox Infotech, which Bhardwaj told
me owns The Bitex, has paid-up capital
of only R1 lakh—less than $1,500. “We
don’t need more than that,” he said, and
claimed that almost all the employees
I had seen at the Ansal Bhawan office
were actually employed by another of
his companies, Nexgen. I pointed out
that Nexgen also showed paid-up capital of just R1 lakh. “Nexgen paid-up capital has been updated long back,” he said.
“You have not seen the right document.”
In a follow-up exchange of texts,
Bhardwaj insisted that the documents
from the ministry of corporate affairs
were incorrect. “Please recheck the
data,” he wrote, “all bal sheets r already
filed.” He denied that he had ever been
declared a defaulter.
it is nearly impossible to keep up with
all the questionable cryptocurrencybased schemes operating in India and
around the world.
For instance, Power Hashing, a
company with many of the same characteristics as Gainbitcoin, and that has
also marketed cloud-mining contracts
to Indians, is not on the Zebpay list.
When I spoke to one of the company’s
founders, Abhishek Bhandari, in mid
January, he described it to me as “a
cryptocurrency consultant firm” with
an office in Delhi. He said Power Hashing initially set up mining machines in
Dehradun, but rising competition on
the bitcoin network meant the operation started losing money. Bhandari
said the company was no longer mining
for profit, but still kept a small fraction
of its machines running for display purposes, and “if anyone wants to see it,
we just take them and show them how
mining works.”
Later, scrolling through Power
Hashing’s Facebook page, I saw that
as recently as in July the company was
promising investors returns as exorbitant as Gainbitcoin’s. One post from
that month offers several 25-month
contracts, ranging in value from the
“Alpha”—with an investment of $100,
yielding a fixed 8-percent monthly
return—to the “Sigma”—worth $10,000,
yielding an 11-percent monthly return.
By September, Power Hashing stopped
posting on Facebook about contract
options. However, there was no post on
the Facebook page alerting investors to
any cessation of mining operations.
When I visited the Power Hashing
website in January, it contained no
mention of mining. By mid February,
however, the site had been redesigned,
and, in the “About Us” section, said,
“You purchase mining contract with
us that is used to mine Bitcoin and we
pay you daily profits on your share of all
Bitcoin being mined. When you spread
the word and help educating others and
they get on board and help in increasing the hashing rate, your earn profits
through that as well.”
I sent multiple messages to Bhandari
in mid February, asking about the new
contract offer and requesting a followup interview, but he did not respond.
Not all suspicious cryptocurrencybased schemes are built on claims of
cloud mining. Some simply promise to
double investments in a matter of days
without an explanation as to how, others operate using worthless “money,”
and some are almost transparently
Ponzi scams.
The long-time bitcoin entrepreneur
told me to watch out for Onecoin,
which, he claimed, in terms of its reach
in India, is “ten times bigger” than
Gainbitcoin. “You live in Delhi, right?”
he said. “That is why you are hearing
making money · reportage
The long-time bitcoin
entrepreneur told me Onecoin,
in terms of its reach in India,
is “ten times bigger” than
more Gainbitcoin, Gainbitcoin, Gainbitcoin—because Amit is based out of Delhi and his primary
market and everything is around Delhi.” Elsewhere in the country, he told me, Onecoin is more
Onecoin markets what it claims is a digital
cryptocurrency with a private, instead of a public,
blockchain. The idea of a cryptocurrency managed
by a central company is self-defeating, since it can
draw on neither the backing of a government nor
the verifiability of an unalterable public record for
legitimacy. Onecoin also operates on a multi-level
marketing structure, and offers handsome referral
benefits. Authorities in Bulgaria—where the head
of Onecoin, Ruja Ignatova, is from—as well as
Finland, Sweden and Norway, have issued warnings against it. In April last year, several Onecoin
marketers in China were arrested. In December,
Italian authorities issued an injunction against
Onecoin, describing it as “an illegal pyramid sales
I spoke over the phone to three Onecoin investors: a businessman named Kishor Nirhali and a
former real-estate broker named Javed Mansoor
Shaikh, and the man who had introduced them to
the scheme, Umesh Panchal, who earlier worked
in sales for various telecommunication firms.
Nirhali said he had joined Onecoin four months
earlier, and had already done R2 crore’s worth
of trade selling onecoin, making a profit of R60
lakh. Shaikh said he started marketing onecoins
in December, initially “expecting that I will do it
part-time,” but after he “saw the flow of income”
he decided to take up the work full-time. He
told me Onecoin had 65,000 investors in India.
Panchal learnt of Onecoin in July, and said he had
since opened accounts for 80 to 85 people, reaping
10-percent bonuses on the investment from each.
Shaikh told me that onecoins, unlike bitcoins,
could be used almost anywhere, with a special
debit card from Mastercard. After we spoke, he
sent me an image of what looked like one of these
cards, with a Onecoin logo on it. I found various
online reports stating that Mastercard denied having anything to do with Onecoin. I sent enquiries
to Mastercard myself, and heard back from the
company’s South Asia office: “Despite what some
websites may allege, there is no Onecoin program/
product with Mastercard.”
On a conference call with Shaikh and Panchal,
the topic of the debit card came up again. When I
told them about reports dismissing the existence
of it, Shaikh said, “This is new to us.” Panchal
responded aggressively. “I changed my life in five
months, and Onecoin is very important for me,”
he said. “I am living in the India, but the Indian
government is not creating any situation like the
Onecoin.” Over the last five months, he said, he
had pocketed over R1 crore. “Main poore desh bhi
chhod dunga, agar usko galat bola to. Main China
jaake rahunga” (I will leave the country if it is
declared wrong. I will go live in China).
I wrote to the official email address on the
Onecoin website asking for an interview with a
representative, but only received an automated
response that pointed me to the company’s socialmedia pages.
Perhaps the most egregious online scam in India
today is MMM. It was started in the early 1990s in
Russia, by three people whose last names all start
with the letter M, promising exorbitant returns to
its investors. Taking advantage of a hyperinflation
crisis that left Russians scrambling to protect their
savings, MMM attracted a huge investor base.
In 1994, the scheme collapsed, investors lost an
estimated $100 million, and Russian authorities
declared MMM illegal.
Despite this, Sergei Mavrodi, one of MMM’s
founders and the public face of the organisation,
was soon elected to the Duma, Russia’s main legislative body. He evaded punishment for years by
arguing that the Russian government, not MMM,
was responsible for the company’s collapse. He
was finally arrested in 2003, and went on to serve
four years in prison.
Mavrodi re-started the scheme in 2011, brazenly retaining its earlier name and logo, and began
to target developing countries, especially ones
in Africa and Asia. In its revamped form, MMM
generally promises 30-percent monthly returns,
with promotional offers often promising even
more. It does not claim to be investing in anything at all. The home page of the MMM Global
website reads, “YES, IT IS POSSIBLE TO EARN
A HYIP”—a high-yield investment programme.
Instead, the site says, “This is a community of ordinary people, selflessly helping each other, a kind
of the Global Fund of mutual aid. This is the first
sprout of something new in the modern soulless
and ruthless world of greed and hard cash. The
goal here is not the money. The goal is to destroy
the world’s unjust financial system. Financial
Apocalypse!” MMM participants are asked to
“provide help” to their fellows—that is, transfer
money into their MMM accounts. Later, MMM
promises, they will be able to “receive help” totalMARCH 2017
opposite page:
MMM participants
are asked to
“provide help” to
their fellows—that
is, transfer money
into others’ MMM
accounts. Later,
MMM promises,
they will be able
to “receive help”
worth more than
what they sent out.
making money · reportage
ling more than what they sent out to
others in the scheme.
Over email and online chat, I corresponded with Sumit Singh Bhadoria,
a 32-year-old Delhi-based doctor who
said he has lost money to MMM. He
first put money into the scheme in
October 2015, sinking in just R1,000
“to check if this system works.” He got
the promised returns, and so he put in
more, this time sending out R10,000
of “help.” But, Bhadoria wrote, MMM
soon froze all accounts “saying the system has restarted and now I could not
withdraw any money which I invested.”
Bhadoria told me this kind of thing
is common. “What these MMM guys
do is they restart the system every few
months,” he wrote. “So the money is
gone. Only those people (managers)
who do not invest their own money and
add people to this system and make
them invest benefit from this system.”
On 16 September 2016, a post on the
MMM India Facebook page announced
that the scheme would restart again in
a few days, and that accounts would be
unfrozen after their holders underwent
a confirmation process. “Dear participants! Everything is beginning, virtually, from scratch now,” it read. “We
took into account all our past mistakes
and changed the rules a little. -” The
changes enumerated in the post included a reduction in the rate of return, to
30 percent from an earlier 50 percent.
The post also said, “A 3% bonus for
providing help (via Bank) in rupees is
abolished, instead, a 3% bonus for proving help in Bitcoins is introduced.”
The MMM India Facebook page
shows numerous screenshots of “payment confirmations” from the MMM
India website. In recent months, the
mode of payment indicated in most of
these has been bitcoin. One MMM participant, Shashikant Patil, who claimed
to have signed up over 1,000 recruits
since 2012, told me that this trend
started “because of demonetisation,”
after which “people have started to use
bitcoin, and stopped using INR”—Indian rupees.
MMM’s history of freezing accounts
goes back many years. On the MMM
India website, I found a letter dated 23
November 2013, by one Satish Hate,
calling for MMM participants to rally
Trusty said that if people are not realistic about
how bitcoin can allow for “a high degree of
opaqueness, you are not going to have a really
realistic picture of the whole scope of the thing.”
following another freeze and reset of
the scheme. Hate identifies himself as a
“Mavrodian”—the term MMM enthusiasts use for themselves. He writes:
This is humble request to you all
Indian Mavrodians to gear up and
see that MMM India is back to its
feet again. Its our DUTY to help our
fellow Mavrodians who had done
provide help in the month of December 2012, to March 2013 and also
after the 1st restart in May 2013. … Its
now a year they are still hoping to get
their money which lies as DEBT in
their respective Virtual Accounts. …
There is no other system in the world
which is as clear as MMM India.
Only we have spoiled with our own
thoughts. But now we have realized
our mistakes and now we pledge
to make MMM India strong and
healthy. We all must provide HELP
again so that they system starts rolling again and all the mavrodians get
their money. Please remember there
should be NO GREED FACTOR in
MMM India.
When I emailed Hate, he told me
he was no longer working with MMM
India. “Poor management and people
not following rules,” he said, had led “to
crash and restart of the system number
of times,” and now “the faith in the system is no more.” Instead, Hate said, in
November last year he began working
for MMM FSTP, a “similar platform of
helping” that follows “the same ideology of the founder of MMM”— Mavrodi.
Hate was careful to add that Mavrodi
“is not the founder” of MMM FSTP,
and said that nobody knows who is. All
he could tell me was that the organisation was “running from UK Glasgow.”
Hate said MMM FSTP has several
features that make it more secure than
MMM—one of which, he explained, is
that the new scheme only allows its users to transact in bitcoin.
Mavrodi himself, as far as I could
tell, does not have any social-media
accounts or publicly available contact
information. I emailed an interview
request to Alexei Muratov, who is
listed as the scheme’s regional leader
on the MMM India website, but got no
response. In May 2013, Muratov, along
with five others affiliated with MMM,
was arrested in Assam on charges of
fraud, though he was later released.
Also around this time, a Goa-based couple that managed publicity and online
operations for MMM was arrested.
That July, the Economic Offences Wing
registered an FIR against 17 people involved in MMM (no developments have
been reported in the case since).
The “Contact us” feature on the
MMM FSTP website was not working
when I tried to use it in February. I sent
queries to the Facebook page listed on
the company’s website, but received no
If the precedents in India are not
enough, MMM and MMM FSTP users should draw caution from recent
failures of MMM schemes elsewhere in
the world. In September, MMM froze
the accounts of all of its 66,000 users in
Zimbabwe. These were soon activated
again, but users who tried to withdraw their money suffered losses of 80
percent. In December, MMM froze all
of its 2.4 million accounts in Nigeria. In
both countries, authorities had warned
citizens against investing money in the
prateek bagaria is an attorney with
Nishith Desai Associates, a law firm
that has published widely cited papers
on the legal questions surrounding
cryptocurrency in India. He told me
that for victims of bitcoin-based pyramid schemes or Ponzi scams, there are
already “sufficient safeguards under
the criminal regulation … where you
can institute proceedings.” But, he said,
making money · reportage
India needs to create “regulation and law to come
on cryptocurrencies, on how the various intermediators in the market should work, what is allowed
and what is not allowed.” Cryptocurrencies raise
novel problems, and “it is better to address specific
issues in a regulation than for lawyers to get creative and hunt down old laws” to protect victims of
cryptocurrency-based financial fraud.
But the debate continues over what any regulation should look like if it is to rein in scams and
possible tax evasion without stifling the legitimate growth of the crytocurrency economy, or
of promising new applications of blockchain
technology. There are also questions as to whether
it is prudent to already start regulating cryptocurrency at this early stage of its development, and
even whether something such as bitcoin should be
treated as a currency at all.
Among the Indian bitcoin entrepreneurs and
enthusiasts I spoke to, some insisted that bitcoin’s
very nature made it impervious to abuse. For
instance, Kamesh Mupparaju, the founder of the
exchange BTCxIndia, told me, “Frankly speaking,
the bitcoin does not have any privacy. Now they
have the tools to find out where you are receiving
the bitcoins.” Others disagreed. Sandeep Goenka,
of Zebpay, told me that there is a “grey market”
with off-the-books trading of cash for bitcoin,
although “it is impossible to find out” how large it
might be. Mohit Kalra, of Coinsecure, said that in
all markets in India, “whether you take real estate,
you take gold,” half of all investment comes from
“black” sources and the other half from “white”
ones. “I think with bitcoin itself, it is a 50-50-percent market,” he said.
At the conference on blockchain technology that
I attended in Delhi in December, Stuart Trusty,
the miner and computing expert, spoke in part
about the different ways available for hiding one’s
transactions in cryptocurrencies. Demonetisation
was a big topic on the minds of the conference
participants, and, Trusty said, there was some
talk about what it would take to have a complete
know-your-customer process, “so that some of
these black-money channels are not there.” He
listed some of the technologies available to people
seeking near-absolute privacy, including anonymous cryptocurrencies that can be converted to
and from bitcoin, and Tor software, which enables
anonymous browsing of the internet. Trusty said
that if people are not realistic about how bitcoin
can allow for “a high degree of opaqueness,” they
“are not going to have a really realistic picture of
the whole scope of the thing.”
Sunil Aggarwal, a researcher who has taught
on cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology
at the National Academy of Legal Studies and Research in Hyderabad, told me that Indian crypto-
currency users looking to hide their identities can
do so even without precautions of the kind Trusty
described. “See, you do not need Tor for that,” he
said. “Bitcoin network is itself pseudonymous, and
this pseudonymous category is nearly anonymous—because no investigative agency in India
has the capability of tracking transactions.”
This October, the Economic Times reported
that unspecified intelligence agencies had issued
a warning about the potential dangers of “virtual
currencies such as Bitcoin” being used for illegal
activity, including hawala transactions. One unnamed official told the paper, “At present we have
no mechanism to deal with such mediums.” (Queries to numerous government bodies—the RBI, the
Economic Offences Wing, the Narcotics Control
Bureau and the Central Bureau of Investigation—
went unanswered.)
Governments that have regulated cyptocurrency to any degree so far have taken widely varied
approaches. Canada subjects users of cryptocurrencies to the same anti-money-laundering
standards as users of fiat currency. China permits
individuals to hold and trade bitcoin, but prohibits banks from doing so. In the United States,
authorities have specified that income generated
in bitcoin is subject to tax. A few countries have
taken more draconian approaches. One of them is
Bangladesh, which announced, in 2014, that anyone using virtual currency would be jailed under
anti-money-laundering laws.
India’s approach for now, going by signals
from the RBI, seems to be to watch and wait. In a
television interview in December 2014, the RBI’s
governor at the time, Raghuram Rajan, told the
audience, “I think we are still watching the evolution of these kinds of currencies.” The institution
continues, however, to warn both the government
and individual users of the pitfalls of cryptocurrency as it is currently used. In a 2015 report, it
said that virtual currencies’ “anonymous nature
that goes against global money laundering rules
rendered their very existence questionable.” In a
statement put out last month, it warned all those
wishing to invest in virtual currencies that they
“will be doing so at their own risk,” and stated that
it “has not given any licence / authorisation to any
entity / company to operate such schemes or deal
with Bitcoin or any virtual currency.”
Many, including the RBI, are already looking
beyond bitcoin, seeing great promise in novel
applications of the technology that underpins
the cryptocurrency: the blockchain. The kind of
public and unalterable ledger that keeps a complete record of bitcoin transactions could, among
much else, also be used to maintain transparent
government records, or improve the functioning
of fiat-currency-based financial systems. The RBI
MARCH 2017
shahid tantray
making money · reportage
above: Bhardwaj
was scheduled
to speak at a
conference in
March alongside
PP Chaudhary, a
minister of state for
law and justice, as
well as electronics
and information
report from 2015 spoke of how, “With its potential
to fight counterfeiting, the ‘blockchain’ is likely to
bring about a major transformation in the functioning of financial markets, collateral identification (land records for instance) and payments
system.” A December 2016 blog post on Huffington
Post India, written by a blockchain entrepreneur,
proposed creating blockchains for voting data, for
the finances of all government offices, and for the
accounts of “the major sources of black money—
liquor houses, toll-tax, property registrations,
medicines and drugs, city corporations, etc.”
How far all these proposals can go remains to
be seen, but there are already serious experiments
underway. This January, the research arm of the
RBI completed a test of the use of blockchain technology, in a project that involved regulators, banks
and other financial institutions. In October, ICICI
Bank announced that it had completed a blockchain-based money transfer to a major bank in
west Asia. Such transfers, if they become standard,
could bypass the cumbersome bureaucracies that
now control international remittances, allowing,
for instance, migrant workers to send money home
faster and at much less expense. The National
Stock Exchange is presently working to integrate
blockchain technology into its systems.
Raunaq Vaisoha, who leads that effort at the
NSE, told me, “In my opinion, bitcoin is very much
the fragile component of the whole ecosystem.”
He said the potential for tax evasion and other
illegal activity with cryptocurrencies was huge,
but that if the government were to regulate cryptocurrency it would “spend way too much money
to figure out if people are obeying the law or not,”
and even then identifying wrongdoers would be
very difficult, if not impossible.
Vitalik Buterin, a noted cryptocurrency pioneer
and a co-founder of Bitcoin Magazine, whom I
interviewed at the Delhi conference in December, also expressed scepticism about regulation,
but for different reasons. “One of the problems is
that if you regulate too early, before you understand what you are regulating, then you just end
up with a law where you are not even sure if it
has any benefit,” he said. “The first stage should
always be understanding what people are doing
with blockchains, and also, of course, understanding what the problems are, and making sure
that any regulation you are going to make does
not accidentally interfere with India’s regular
people, who are trying to make some microfinance business.”
Any question of regulating bitcoin ultimately
comes back to its definition—is it an asset, a currency, a commodity, something else? Kalra, like
many others I asked, said that bitcoin should be
treated as an asset. All that Indian bitcoin users
making money · reportage
The executives I spoke to from the four big Indian
exchanges said they would welcome regulation.
Mupparaju told me that clear government policy
would ensure “that we can go in an aggressive way,
and do business very fast.”
want to do, he said, “is buy bitcoins for
cheap, as soon as the price goes up, sell,
and if they think the price is dropping
again, buy again and sell.” If the government were to declare bitcoin a currency, “it becomes a much bigger game
for the regulators, and the government
itself, to take care of.”
However bitcoin might be understood, Bagaria said, it is most important
that the government take a clear stance
on its definition. “Otherwise you will
have situations where various consumers and various users are using this
in their books in different ways,” he
warned. “And then you will have, eventually, the tax authority waking up and
saying this is not this, this is that, then
the foreign-exchange authority taking a
different position.”
The executives I spoke to from the
four big Indian exchanges said they
would welcome regulation. Mupparaju
told me that clear government policy
would ensure “that we can go in an
aggressive way, and do business very
fast.” He compared the status of bitcoin
service providers to that of e-commerce
businesses until about a year ago,
when the government announced clear
regulations for the online market in fiat
According to Sohail Merchant, the
Localbitcoins trader, “the whole community is waiting for RBI to regulate,”
or to simply declare “what will be the
framework of this thing?” Merchant
told me he was planning to open a bitcoin exchange of his own, but said that
a lot of people looking to found bitcoinrelated businesses right now were nervous that, if or when the government
steps in, “the industry might go down if
the regulations are too harsh.”
at the end of my third interview with
Amit Bhardwaj, in mid December, he
sent me a link to the website of a new
venture of his—Satoshi Studios, which
describes itself as “Southeast Asia’s first
blockchain incubator.” Bhardwaj drew
my attention to the fact that Roger Ver,
a prominent investor in bitcoin startups, was listed on the site as one of the
venture’s partners. “I am funding and
Roger is funding,” he said. “This itself
is news.”
I emailed Ver to ask about his role
in Satoshi Studios. He responded that
he had not invested in it, but that he
might in the future. He wrote that he
had exchanged a few emails with Sahil
Baghla—an associate of Nikunj Jain
and Ayush Varshney, the two Darwin
Labs partners I met in Gurugram. But
“a search for Bhardwaj shows zero
results in my email inbox,” he continued. “I don’t think I’ve ever had any
interaction with him.” Ver said he was
not familiar with Gainbitcoin, and that,
while he was not certain whether it
was a legitimate cloud-mining business,
“10% per month profit for cloud mining
sounds unlikely.”
In February, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of
India announced that it was holding
a national conference on bitcoin and
blockchain technology in early March.
GBMiners had pledged sponsorship
of R5 lakh. Bhardwaj, Baghla and Jain
were all scheduled to speak, alongside
government officials such as a deputy
governor of the RBI, and PP Chaudhary, a union minister of state for law
and justice, as well as electronics and
information technology.
Last year, in October, the ministry of
consumer affairs issued a set of guidelines for direct-selling entities—companies whose customers are also their
salespeople. Bhardwaj, in our interview
in mid December, told me that Gainbitcoin had recently become “one of the
very few companies who got the acceptance of the application” under those
guidelines, and that with “clearance
from the government of India we don’t
MARCH 2017
really need to be behind the curtain so
much now.”
Dharmesh Makwana, a director at
the department of the ministry that
put out those guidelines, told me last
month that the department had asked
all direct-selling companies to submit
applications for clearance. The application window closed in late January,
and the applications were yet to be
reviewed. “Nobody can claim that they
have been accepted,” he said, only that
“they have submitted a document and
have received an acknowledgement of
submission of document.”
When I followed up with Bhardwaj
about this, he went back on his earlier
claim. “No, no, we have submitted the
application,” he said. “Nobody has gotten the approval yet.” He also claimed
that Gainbitcoin was preparing a knowyour-customer process that it would
impose on all its investors as soon as it
received approval under the ministry’s
I asked Makwana whether a company that rewards its direct sellers
for signing up other direct sellers—as
Gainbitcoin, Onecoin and MMM all
do—could be approved under the
guidelines. Such practices, he said, are
“absolutely not allowed.” Makwana
emphasised that the guidelines, in
themselves, do not have the force of
law—they simply clarify restrictions
imposed by the Prize Chits and Money
Circulation Schemes (Banning) Act,
from 1978, which is administered by
the ministry of finance. If his department became aware of any companies
violating the restrictions, he said, it
would not hesitate to report them to the
necessary authorities.
Just a rejection of Gainbitcoin’s application might not be enough to stop
Bhardwaj. When I spoke to him about
Gainbitcoin last month, he told me, “We
are working out of Singapore, so we are
not forced by any rules in India.” In a
YouTube video uploaded in late December, Bhardwaj says that while Gainbitcoin’s application is being processed,
even its rejection would not mean the
company is illegal. If Gainbitcoin does
not receive approval, he says, “We are
just not going to form a base in India,
that is all. We will not have an office in
India.” s
on a crisp morning sometime in late
February, 1978, an elephant waited
patiently outside Mysore’s Hotel Metropole to meet with a foreign visitor. Alejandro Jodorowsky, a Chilean-French
filmmaker with a cult international
following, had requested the meeting. Earlier that decade, Jodorowsky
had shot to fame with the off-kilter hit
El Topo (1970), which had caught the
attention of many in the alternative
arts fraternity, including John Lennon.
Lennon even helped fund Jodorowsky’s
next film, The Holy Mountain, which
released in 1973 to widespread acclaim.
Five years later, Jodorowsky arrived in
Mysore to start work on his next film,
Tusk, which was to be based in India.
But Jodorowsky had no idea where
exactly he would shoot the film. He only
knew he needed a landscape teem-
ing with elephants, for, according to
the screenplay, a good-hearted rogue
elephant was to be the protagonist.
Unsure of where to find elephants in
India, let alone how to make them act,
the film’s French producer enlisted the
help of a seasoned local, the filmmaker
MS Sathyu (best-known for his Partition classic, Garm Hava, which released
in 1974).
Sathyu had been born and raised in
Mysore, in elephant country. As the
production consultant, it was his job to
help Jodorowsky find the ideal characters and locations for his grand Indian
elephant saga. Sathyu recounted to
me years later that he didn’t know he
was meeting Jodorowsky, or even who
Jodorowsky was. “I hadn’t seen his
movies. I thought he was just a foreigner
who wanted to make a film in India.”
Sathyu and Jodorowsky met in the
lobby of Hotel Metropole. Jodorowsky
sat in morose, all-black attire, a stark
vision against the lobby’s pristine white
columns. He wasted no time with
introductions and small talk. “I want
to understand the elephant,” he said to
Sathyu. “Where can I get one?”
Sathyu was amused. “Everywhere,”
he said. “You’re in Mysore.”
Jodorowsky was not convinced. “I
want to understand the elephant,” he
insisted. He didn’t want to simply touch
the elephant, or ride it, but somehow
understand it.
“Shall I bring you one tomorrow?”
Sathyu asked, assuring Jodorowsky that
elephants were commonplace in Mysore.
Jodorowsky couldn’t wait. The next
morning, an elephant arrived for him at
the hotel’s gate.
A cult filmmaker’s Indian misadventure
courtesy poorna swami
sathyu is my grandfather. He is also a
meticulous hoarder of ephemera. That
is why, when pottering around our
garage in Bengaluru, I discovered Tusk,
Jodorowsky’s Indian film, in a small
envelope of negatives—location shots
of men and elephants against untamed
south Indian foliage. I had heard about
the film in passing recollections from
Sathyu, but it was only after watching Jodorowsky’s Dune, Frank Pavich’s
documentary on Jodorowsky’s most
famous unmade film, that I fully
comprehended Jodorowsky’s status
in cinema history. The documentary
follows the making—or rather, the
unmaking—of Dune, Jodorowsky’s
unrealised film adaptation of Frank
Herbert’s science-fiction novel of the
same name. Jodorowsky had proposed
a star-studded cast with the likes of the
surrealist painter Salvador Dali and
the lead singer of The Rolling Stones,
Mick Jagger. But following a long
series of mishaps, bad decisions and a
lack of funds, Jodorowsky never made
Dune. The rights lapsed and the film
was eventually made by David Lynch
in 1984. Still, Jodorowsky’s early work
on the project influenced the sciencefiction film genre, with his assembled
design, screenplay and special-effects
team of Dan O’Bannon, Chris Foss
and HR Giger—who went on to work
together on Alien (1986).
Seeing Jodorowsky’s influence on
mainstream Hollywood, I became immensely intrigued by the prospect of
unearthing his “lost” Indian film. Tusk
was indeed lost for more than three
decades, until some enterprising soul
put up a barely decipherable copy on
MARCH 2017
YouTube. Before that, the only way to
see the film was through the handful
of VHS copies scattered across libraries and private collections in France.
Soon after its premiere in 1980, in Paris,
and a brief run in the festival circuits of
France and Los Angeles, it became clear
that Tusk was not to be a Jodorowsky
classic. Variety described the film as a
“two-ton turkey … grandiose, pretentiously simple, tonally inconsistent,”
while the French newspaper Le Monde
dismissed the film as an “exotic tale” of
“gags ... and some sumptuous images.”
The film was so badly received that it
never saw its planned US release and
Jodorowsky washed his hands of it. In a
1996 interview with FAD magazine, he
said, “Don’t see Tusk. I bury that film.”
Despite being of questionable artistic
merit—arguably even Jodorowsky’s
losing the plot · reportage
below and
opposite page:
Before he came to
India to work on
Tusk, the filmmaker
Jodorowsky had
shot to fame in the
1970s with off-kilter
hits such as El
Topo and The Holy
previous page: Jean
Jacques Fourgeaud,
an executive
producer for Tusk,
Jodorowsky during
location scouting
for Tusk in Coorg.
worst—Tusk offers a fascinatingly distorted, yet
reverent, representation of India. Made at the
peak of foreign cinematic interest in India, Tusk
is telling of a larger trend of a fictionalised India
playing on movie screens overseas. Beginning in
the 1960s, the country became a topic of interest in
Western popular culture. India was suddenly the
desired location for many film productions, all of
which exoticised it unabashedly. The production
house Merchant Ivory sold an India that was equal
parts romantic and enlightened, through films
such as The Guru (1969) and Bombay Talkie (1970).
The Shashi Kapoor-starrer Siddhartha (1972), shot
near Rishikesh, had promised spiritual salvation
to American audiences, while leaving the Indian
censor board scandalised with Simi Garewal’s
famed nude scene. And even Alfred Hitchcock, almost two decades earlier in 1955, had come scouting to what he described in a press conference in
Bombay as his “dreamland.”
Rather than use India just as a backdrop,
Jodorowsky wanted to make a film about the
country’s culture. But in making India his muse,
he succumbed to ideas of Indian culture that were
romanticised and also misconceived. The story
of Tusk’s making—which I put together over the
last few months through interviews with many
members of the film’s crew—traces Jodorowsky’s
strangely desperate struggle to hold on to those
ideas, in the face of India’s incongruent, chaotic
outside the hotel metropole gate, Jodorowsky
surveyed the elephant, which stood beside its
mahout, gauging the Parisian’s next move. Jodorowsky maintained his distance. He walked back
and forth along semicircular arcs, a safe 20 feet
away from the big pachyderm. He did not dare
go closer for another two days. On the third day,
he abandoned his arc-like path and slowly moved
“I want to understand the
elephant,” Jodorowsky said to
Sathyu. “Where can I get one?”
Sathyu was amused.
“Everywhere,” he said. “You’re
in Mysore.”
towards the elephant. The mahout nodded encouragingly. Jodorowsky gingerly extended his arm,
placed his palm on the elephant’s front leg, and
stroked its rough, wrinkly skin.
It was the first time Jodorowsky had been so
close to an elephant. He had seen them before—his
father had worked in a circus and he, too, had
started his theatrical career as a clown. But this
proximity was a revelation. Jodorowsky would
later say in a 1980 interview with Third Rail, “it
was a huge experience ... to go into the elephant.”
Once comfortable in its presence, Jodorowsky
met the elephant every day, walking the streets of
Mysore with it. And because he wanted to truly
understand the creature, he asked to eat what the
elephant ate. “I ate only elephant food for four
months,” Jodorowsky boasted in the interview
with Third Rail, though Sathyu was dismissive—
“It wasn’t so extreme, it was only breakfast.”
As the rest of the crew ate their bread and eggs,
Jodorowsky began his day with a gruel of horse
gram and rice, a concoction similar to what was
fed to Mysore’s tamed elephants. About 15 days
into his elephant education, Jodorowsky finally
mustered up the courage to climb the elephant’s
back and go on his first elephant ride.
“I had elements of the elephant from the very
first moment in order to go and understand the
elephant,” Jodorowsky, who declined to be inter-
losing the plot · reportage
viewed for this piece, told Third Rail.
“This was what I wanted in that picture
... because riding for kilometers and
kilometers on the neck of an enormous
elephant changes your consciousness in
some way.”
Jodorowsky’s immersive interest in
the elephant is telling of a misplaced
and misconstrued relationship with all
things Indian. In interviews, he narrates his experience with the Indian
elephant as a fantastical happening,
making no mention of his initial fear
of the animal or giving a more realistic
depiction of Indians who live and work
with elephants. He goes so far as to say,
“I drank milk of elephant. It’s incredible!” But most Indians who have any
knowledge of elephants will call that
out as a fat lie. Elephant’s milk is not
harvested for human consumption and
contains high levels of capric acid, a
saturated fatty acid. Amir Pasha, the
production’s van driver and transport
liaison said, incredulous, “No such
thing happened. How could he have
drunk elephant milk!”
Most of Jodorowsky’s interviews
about the film are full of exaggerated
storytelling, and sometimes plain
misinformation, about meeting the elephant. “Ganesh is the elephant-god in
India who represents sexual spirituality ... the sexual power,” he told Third
Rail. “I put the sacred syllable Om on
the elephant’s forehead to show that it
was an elephant, but also a divinity...
a spiritual power.” Never mind that
Ganesh’s most common association is
with knowledge rather than sexuality.
In his memoir The Spiritual Journey
of Alejandro Jodorowsky published in
2008, Jodorowsky wrote in pornographic detail of a sexual encounter
with one Reyna D’Assia, who claims to
be the daughter of the famous Armenian mystic George Gurdjieff. Jodorowsky meets Reyna after a screening
of El Topo and the two go back to her
hotel room together. During their rapid
fornication, D’Assia tells him about the
Indian elephant god named Ganesh,
whose true master is the mouse that
accompanies him. She goes on to tell
Jodorowsky of Gurdjieff’s visit to
Bangalore, where he observed mahouts
commanding their elephants with
two words, ara and mot—“stop” and
“move”—which became an important
foundation for Gurdjieff’s teachings.
These words appear frequently in
Tusk, and the overall sexual charge of
this elephant-related memory echoes
also in how Jodorowsky speaks of
Tusk and its subject matter. Describing
to FAD the way elephants are painted
on in India, he said, “You see you’ve
an elephant between the legs, and
scrotum, and your balls ... I wanted to
be sitting on the neck of an elephant,
in order to know why they were painting it.” Tusk’s often needlessly long
sequences of stampeding elephants are
a recurring example of Jodorowsky’s
tendency to depict an India of his
imagination—they manifest his desire
to revel in the unbridled sexual power
he attributes to Ganesh and his fellow
heel to use as plantation labour, the
film’s bumbling baddies, drunken traders named Shakley and Greyson, repeatedly try to steal the mighty, untamable
Tusk, presumably for his ivory, though
the reasons remain generally unclear.
Matters complicate when the local maharaja’s wife—a husky-voiced American
from Las Vegas, who brought with her to
India a candy-floss machine—demands
Tusk for herself. Unable to refuse the
maharaja, Morrison relents and organises a khedda—an operation used to
trap elephants—to finally capture Tusk.
Helping Morrison execute the khedda is
a handsome American hunter, Richard
Cairns. While planning for the capture
of Elise’s beloved elephant, he also
captures her heart. Elise is now torn
between protecting Tusk and giving in
to her feelings for Cairns.
based on a french children’s novel, Poo
Lorn of the Elephants (1930), by Reginald
Campbell, Tusk is set in British India
“somewhere between 1911 and 1941,” and
follows the interconnected lives of Tusk,
an elephant, and Elise Morrison, an
English girl. Born around the same time,
in the same place, Tusk and Elise share
a magical connection: each can read
the other’s mind. Over the years, Elise’s
father, John Morrison, tries to tame her
beloved pet to work his plantation, but
she always manages a well-timed tantrum, ensuring Tusk’s freedom. Tusk,
too, has Elise’s back. When she is chased
by a wild, “bad” elephant, he comes to
her rescue and kills the other elephant.
But Tusk’s freedom is contentious.
While Morrison wants to make Tusk
In the meanwhile, baddies Shakley
and Greyson, having been ridiculed by
the Morrison family, decide to steal
Tusk for themselves. They bribe Ram
Baba, one of Morrison’s servants, to
spy on Morrison and Cairns’s route for
the khedda. But Shakley and Greyson fail to trap Tusk, despite trying
multiple times. Their real opportunity
arises when, during the khedda, Morrison has a change of heart and lets
Tusk escape the entrapment. Shakley
and Greyson manage to catch Tusk
during this escape but only briefly. Samadhi, Tusk’s mahout and Elise’s dear
friend, arrives to free Tusk. A fight
ensues between the men and Shakley
kills Samadhi—and then Ram Baba,
just for fun.
MARCH 2017
losing the plot · reportage
Rather than use India just as a backdrop, Jodorowsky
wanted to make a film about the country’s culture.
But in making India his muse, he succumbed to ideas
of Indian culture that were romanticised and also
ters, and too many celebratory processions thrown in at periodic intervals.
But more interestingly, each of these
digressions seems to be a depiction of
something “Indian,” be it the singing,
spell-casting sadhus, Elise sneaking out
in a boat at night to meditate in a halfsubmerged temple, or the publicly antiIndian Lord Spencer, who is secretly
having an affair with his Indian maid.
Although an awkward francophone
fetishisation of India, Tusk bears some
markings of a trademark Jodorowsky
film. Fantasy, mysticism and anticolonial protest were familiar territory
for Jodorowsky, but Tusk, from its very
conception, was destined to fail. While
on the one hand Tusk was marketed as
a children’s film, it was also labelled in
its opening credits as “a panic fable,”
a reference to the Panic movement,
of which Jodorowsky was a founding
The Panic movement of the early
1960s was propelled by a French
collective—led by Fernando Arrabal,
Roland Topor and Jodorowsky—that
espoused sensorially aggressive, sexually transgressive and visually chaotic
courtesy poorna swami
Sovereign once again, Tusk now
plays Robin Hood along his rampage,
setting free a van of political prisoners,
upturning a train of Christian missionaries, and attacking the symbol of
Christian invasion, the reverend. But all
has not ended well. Before he dies, Ram
Baba manages to tell Cairns the identity
of his murderers. Shakley and Greyson,
afraid of being arrested if Cairns goes
to the authorities, decide they must kill
Cairns. They kidnap Elise and place
her atop a giant temple pillar so that, of
course, the handsome Cairns will have
to come save her. As the baddies try to
kill Cairns and stop Elise from fleeing,
the mighty Tusk arrives, killing the
baddies and uniting the lovers. With
peace restored, Morrison finally grants
Tusk his freedom. Elise is overcome
with joy. The village takes out a large
procession venerating Ganesh, ushering
Tusk towards a happier life in the wild.
Elise and Cairns ride away on a horse to
their own happily-ever-after.
John Morrison, having lost his
daughter and his elephant, is promised
by his Indian butler, “Don’t be sad, you
can have everything back.” Two sadhus
teleport Morrison to an isolated temple
where a group of sadhus are chanting
“Om namah Shivaya.” The sadhus take
off Morrison’s shirt, put his colonial
garments into the yagna fire, and paint
white Shiva tripundras on his body. He
joins the sadhus in a chorus in praise
of the Bhakti poet Basavanna as the
credits roll in.
If a plot summary of Tusk suggests
an ungainly arrangement of events,
then the film, in its entirety, is twice as
convoluted. Much of the film is long—
though impressively shot—sequences
of charging elephants, and groups
of people shouting incoherently to
either catch an elephant, celebrate an
elephant or fight with each other about
elephants. There are several minor
storylines, half-uttered comic charac-
art. The aesthetic violence of Panic
artworks would not be considered
child-friendly by most standards. Although Tusk bears no sexually explicit
content or gory violence, it is an adult
film with belligerent elephant chases,
multiple violent deaths and overt political allegory.
By calling Tusk a “panic fable,”
perhaps Jodorowsky imagined he was
transforming a—rather boring—children’s novel into a film continuation of
his more engaging and sophisticated
Fábulas Pánicas, or Panic Fables, a
weekly comic strip he wrote and illustrated between 1967 and 1968 for
the Mexican newspaper El Heraldo
de México. These comics are surreal,
blatantly political and, most interestingly, spiritual. Long-haired sadhus
and tantric symbols appear in various
strips, though the text ascribes the
images no specific culture or religion.
Jodorowsky’s use of Hindu imagery in
Fábulas Pánicas—albeit without explicitly mentioning India or Hinduism—reveals his interest in India, as early as a
decade before Tusk was shot. His first
features, too, underscore a desire to
work with Indian content. El Topo is
the quest for enlightenment through
Eastern philosophies, while The Holy
Mountain is laden with Oms, Tibetan
chanting, and harmonium-and-tabla
background scores. Tracing the unidentified mystical motifs through Fábulas
Pánicas, The Holy Mountain and El Topo
suggests that Jodorowsky was person-
ally invested, if not in India specifically, then in an
amorphous, transcendental, spiritually superior
Jodorowsky’s inspiration for Tusk makes his
Indian obsession even more obvious. Poo Lorn of
the Elephants, the novel Tusk is based on, is not set
in India but in Northern Siam. Reginald Campbell
seems purposeful about this setting—he includes a
map of the territories where the story takes place
and the river Mae Lang (a distortion of the “Mae
Klong”) almost seems to thread the plot together
In transplanting the story to southern India,
Jodorowsky changes not only the landscape of
the story, but also its cultural implications. While
Campbell’s tale offers no spiritual or cultural commentary, Tusk, in its migration to India, introduces a slew of Indian motifs, the most obvious being
the sadhus and the religious processions, which
have no real counterparts in the original book.
The film’s screenplay, written by Jeffrey O’Kelly,
an Irish writer, drives home that Tusk is a film
about India. Photographs of Indian temples and
wilderness run through the 258-page-long document, with the landscape described in variants of
“tropical Southern Indian.”
The “splendour” of the maharaja’s palace and
attire is elucidated carefully, as is the long hold on
the sadhu counting his prayer beads. Most prominently, Elise is scripted as a cultural amalgam, an
English child gone native, as it were. In a scene
where five-year-old Elise wanders the local market with her ayah, the screenplay states, “LITTLE
ELISE is familiar with most of the INDIANS they
pass by.” In the same scene, a betel leaf vendor
says to young Elise, “How is Indian .. Little Lady
today?”; the accent required of the vendor is even
notated: “Ow ees Eende en .. Leetel Laay day too
diy.” And when Elise grows up, she causes a furore
in a party thrown in her honour, when she shows
up in a sari rather than a gown.
When asked why Tusk was shot in India when
Campbell’s story is set in Siam (a perfectly suitable
location), Sathyu shrugged, as if stating the obvious. “They wanted to make a film here,” he said.
Although it is hard to be certain who exactly—
the producer or Jodorowsky—chose to relocate the
story to India, that relocation offered Jodorowsky
an opportunity to delve head-first into his Indian
fascination that had, until that point, appeared in
preceding works merely as allusion or fragment.
But this seemingly arbitrary, perhaps even wanderlusting, change of location was just the first of
Tusk’s many blunders.
“he made it up as he went along,” Sathyu said
of Jodorowsky’s style of directing, and Pasha
agreed, “We didn’t know what was supposed to
courtesy poorna swami
losing the plot · reportage
happen.” Compare the screenplay with the film
and it quickly becomes apparent how far the final
product strayed from its plan. In the screenplay,
John Morrison’s wife does not die in childbirth
but is a prominent character for the first part of
the film. By the end, Elise and Cairns marry and
have a daughter (whom they also name Elise). And
throughout, there is only one sadhu, who appears
in just a handful of scenes. Of course, modifying
a script on location is not unusual for any film
production. But the extent to which Tusk drifts
from what was envisioned of it testifies to how
thoroughly unprepared Jodorowsky was to make a
film in India.
Seemingly enchanted by the people he met and
the places he saw, Jodorowsky made Tusk a collage of his Indian explorations, with little regard
for what the film was about. In the final edit, it is
apparent that logical sequences have been spliced,
leaving many subplots more image than narrative
stuff. Why little Elise antagonises Shakley and
Greyson is never made clear, and Lord Spencer’s
MARCH 2017
above: The film
director MS Sathyu
was hired as
the production
consultant for Tusk.
opposite page:
was so bent on
elephants that he
claimed he ate only
elephant food for
losing the plot · reportage
affair is thrown in right at the end.
Bijon Dasgupta, Tusk’s artistic director, confirmed that Jodorowsky was
weighed down by fairytale visions
of India—“he loved elephants … he
was obsessed … he was fascinated by
temples, sadhus, the indian colours.”
Jodorowsky cast two sadhus as recurring jokers, who also serve as moral
compasses, because he happened to
meet them in Coorg. He included a
camel in the film just because a migrant
from Rajasthan had happened to bring
one down with him. When the crew
told him there weren’t any camels in
southern India, he simply said, “There’s
a camel.”
Like with his strange notions about
the symbolism of elephants, Jodorowsky held on to several preconceptions about India even as he encountered India more tangibly—Tusk, as a
result, was left rather directionless.
Throughout the filming process, whenever something struck Jodorowsky’s
fancy, he shot it, whether the screenplay asked for it or not. And when he
didn’t find something he had decided
must appear in his rendition of India,
he threw it in anyway. The unscripted
(and purposeless) Holi scene stands
out in a film that is supposed to be set
in southern India, where Holi is rarely
In a sense, Jodorowsky reveres
India—or his version of it—deeply. The
two sadhus best reflect this. On the
one hand, they are the wise men who
protect Elise and Tusk, turn baddies into roosters, and offer ancient
wisdom to morally blind colonisers.
But on the other hand, the sadhus are
also the comic relief—one appears
and disappears unexpectedly and the
other is always singing, refusing to
budge even when he is in someone’s
way. Jodorowsky endows the sadhus
with entertainment value, while also
portraying them as figures of spiritual
attainment. He said in the Third Rail
interview, “It was a conspiracy of the
sadhus all through the picture, from
the very beginning, to surround that
man”—Morrison—“in order to absorb
But there’s reason to be suspicious
of the fondness Jodorowsky claims he
had for the sadhus. Oriole Henry, who
Tusk remains a disjointed pastiche of Indian iconography, and a shoddy piece of filmmaking.
played the young Elise, questioned how
Jodorowsky dealt with the sadhus, and
Indians generally, behind the scenes.
Recounting her late mother’s recollections, she spoke of Jodorowsky as
hostile, short tempered and ignorant
of Indian customs, particularly when it
came to the sadhus.
A blonde child who spoke both
English and Tamil (although Tusk is a
French film set in Kannada-speaking
territory), seven-year-old Oriole was
considered ideal for the part. She
remembered the shoot with a mixture
of fondness and bewilderment—swimTHE CARAVAN
ming with Jodorowsky in the river,
running around in the dirt, and playing
with the sadhus. “The sadhus were my
friends,” Oriole recalled; they gave her
lotuses and read her Mr. Men picture
book. Years later, when she was 16 years
old, she even went back to Coorg to
meet one of them.
As she viewed snippets of Tusk on
YouTube, Oriole remembered the sadhus did not dress in real life as they appear in the film. They usually wrapped
themselves in layers of fabric but Jodorowsky insisted one of them pare down
his garb to bare chest and a langot, as if
losing the plot · reportage
to make the sadhu look like one of those
from the Fábulas Pánicas comic strips.
In the Third Rail interview, Jodorowsky even appropriated for himself
the supposedly superhuman traits he
saw in the sadhus. During the shoot,
Oriole’s mother, Margaret Henry (who
accompanied her on set), kept a diary,
which Oriole showed me in her home
in Bengaluru. Margaret wrote of one of
the sadhus in an entry from that time—
“a very respected holy man who meditated occasionally put black evil smelling ointment on people’s wounds and
it worked.” Oriole, too, remembered
the sadhu using a “tar-like” paste to
cure a persistent wart on her foot. But
to Third Rail Jodorowsky said, “I took
care of a mahout who was sick using my
essential oils. He was ill with gangrene
or something like that. I saved his
leg.” Neither Oriole nor Sathyu could
remember Jodorowsky healing anyone
from any ailment.
This attachment to a colourful, often
fabricated version, of India, coupled
with Jodorowsky’s haphazard method
of directing and a perpetually delayed
shoot, was disastrous for the entire
production. Jodorowsky’s temper did
little to alleviate the situation. Oriole’s
mother, Margaret, wondered if they
would even see a finished product. She
wrote in her diary:
Various things have gone wrong.
A whole ten days’ telexes to Paris
never got through. The STARS have
arrived a whole week before it was
necessary…Everyone is cross...The
arrangements are ghastly and everyone blames everyone else. Shoutings
continue…[GG (the cinematographer)] has worked all over the world
and says this is the worst organised
film he has ever been on.
Margaret also wrote of Jodorowsky’s
fickle temperament. Recounting one of
Jodorowsky’s many absurd, last-minute
demands, she said, “Jod’s demanding a
month old white baby. Everyone’s going
mad. He says he can’t shoot the scene
without one. Sathyu says they can easily intercut with one from Paris but NO
NO NO.” On other days, the problems
were different but equally ridiculous,
like when Jodorowsky refused to shoot
Fábulas Pánicas, or Panic Fables, a weekly
comic strip Jodorowsky wrote and illustrated
between 1967 and 1968 for the Mexican
newspaper El Heraldo de México, reveals his
interest in India.
with a brown hen, demanding a white
cock instead.
By the end of the shoot, Margaret
became very upset with Jodorowsky.
He had been finicky and increasingly
insensitive to the fact that Oriole was
a child and would not always behave
during a shoot that dragged on for days
in the sweltering heat. Margaret wrote
that when she confronted Jodorowsky,
he became “extremely rude, stuck out
his tongue and went on and on,” to
which Margaret replied “Jem’Emmerde
sur votre filme” (I shit on your film). But
Margaret wasn’t the only one distressed by how Tusk’s shoot unfolded.
Pasha, too, confirmed Margaret’s claim
that Jodorowsky was ill-mannered
with the Indian technicians. “He was
horrible to the Indians. He hurled
abuses at them and they refused to
work. The shooting stopped. Sathyu
had to beg them to return.”
But Bijon Dasgupta holds a slightly
different view. Although he remembers
Jodorowsky’s incessant shouting, he
also remembers chatting with Jodorowsky over a drink each evening. “I
was very fond of him,” Dasgupta said.
“He gave me his viewfinder before he
left.” When asked whether Jodorowsky
treated Indians on set unfairly, Dasgupta was quick to clarify that it was
the French crew, not Jodorowsky, who
MARCH 2017
belittled their Indian colleagues. “Jodorowsky marvelled on the Indians. He
hated the French people … but he would
lose his cool at any given opportunity.”
Jamie Zerfas (then Jamie Kerfey), the
17-year-old interpreter for the foreign
crew of Tusk, agreed with Dasgupta.
“There was an underlying tension between the foreign technicians and the
Indian technicians,” he said, remembering warm conversations between
him and Jodorowsky.
Raised by his Australian mother in
Srirangapatna, Zerfas described his
younger self as “a Mowgli” who was
“bright eyed and left leaning.” Initially
a go-between for Kannada and English
speakers, Zerfas soon became a production assistant on his first film project.
“Jodorowsky and I hit it off,” Zerfas
said. Each night they would sit together
and strategise for the next day’s shoot.
“He said, ‘You translate what I see in
my vision and make sure it happens.’”
But Zerfas also spoke of Jodorowsky’s insensitivity to Indian customs. For a scene where an Indian
woman was to breastfeed a baby, Jodorowsky insisted that the woman (played
by a local Coorgi villager) expose her
breast. When the woman broke down
in tears upon Jodorowsky’s insistence,
Zerfas had to explain to an aghast
Jodorowsky that it was too much to ask
a woman from the village (and not a
professional actor) to show her naked
breast to a group of strangers with
By Dasgupta’s account, Jodorowsky
was just an ill-tempered man whose
temper was sometimes directed at Indians. By Margaret and Pasha’s accounts,
Jodorowsky was frustrated with his
Indian crew’s inexperience with the
workings of a European film set. Dasgupta, too, said, “we are used to jugaad,
so there were two different styles of
filmmaking on set.” By Zerfas’s account, Jodorowsky was kind to Indians,
though he couldn’t always understand
their ways.
A feeling of being torn between
adulation and disgust for a culture
Jodorowsky once idolised colours the
tacky, final product of Tusk. While he
began with the intention to create a
fantasy for children, he got distracted
trying to live in one. As Zerfas said, “I
losing the plot · reportage
A feeling of being torn between adulation and insult
for a culture Jodorowsky once idolised colours the
tacky, final product of Tusk.
don’t think he was making a children’s
film. There was a little bit of confusion there.” Tusk remains a disjointed
pastiche of Indian iconography, and a
shoddy piece of filmmaking. According to Zerfas, Jodorowsky couldn’t
get past cliches of India because “he
only scratched the skin … he didn’t
have experience looking under the
skin here.” All of Jodorowsky’s Indian
women wear colour-coordinated saris.
Performances of Kamsale, a folk art
from Karnataka, erupt with any excuse
or none at all. The common people of
India either jubilantly sing and dance in
big parades, or run across the countryside screaming incomprehensible
sounds. This is the India Jodorowsky
sells, the India that he seems to have
tried hard to create in the country he
encountered. Sathyu was sympathetic
to Jodorowsky’s plight. “He couldn’t
accept India easily. He was a stranger
to the whole thing.”
when jodorowsky came to India to
make Tusk, he was not prepared for the
“degeneration” he would find here. In
his book Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy,
he lamented, “I saw a parade of sadhus
... protesting because the price of marijuana had risen: they were all drugged.
The women sold their saris of silk and
bought ones of nylon.”
Jodorowsky’s impulse to stereotype,
though, is curious. He was not unfamiliar with colonised cultures, either
in his film or in his own life. Born to
Lithuanian-Ukrainian Jewish emigres
in Chile, he grew up knowing what it
is like to be “othered.” In The Spiritual
Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky, he
described himself as the “offspring of
persecuted Jewish emigrants,” before
going on to talk about the “monster
that had been implanted in our souls
through centuries of persecution and
His homeland, too, was marred
by oppression. Although independent from the Spanish by the early60
nineteenth century, Chile was plagued
by a tragic economic aftermath and
despotic self-governance. Jodorowsky
wrote of Chile in his fictionalised autobiography Where the Bird Sings Best—
“Chile is not Europe ... A few people
live in paradise, and all the rest live
in the greatest misery.” And of the US
intervention of the twentieth century,
he told Third Rail, “The Americans
in Chile during the 1930’s were like
the English in India.” It’s strange that
despite recognising so intimately the
complex histories of colonised communities, Jodorowsky did not approach
Tusk with a less orientalising gaze.
Before moving to France permanently, Jodorowsky spent a significant portion of his adult life in Mexico, which is
also the location of films that precede
and follow Tusk. “For me, to make a
picture in India,” Jodorowsky said to
Third Rail, “was like making a picture
in Mexico. Almost the same climate,
almost the same food.” Unlike his
India, though, Jodorowsky’s Mexico is
filled with surrealist possibility, where
natives appear as monks, gunfighters,
murderers, magicians, clowns, mystics,
seductresses and dwarfs. But India is
painted with a falsified sense of ethnography, relegated to being a mystical
culture that at once needs to be saved
from tyranny and be accorded deep
respect. To Third Rail, Jodorowsky
described India as an enlightened land
that has “the elephant” in its “third
We are occidental. We don’t experience the elephant. We experience the
Cadillac ... we experience the Ford.
We are sitting in a Ford which is not
in the world. It is out of the world.
It is running. But at that time they
experienced the elephant. And this is
important for me ... in a selfish way.
Although he believed his film is
sensitive to Indian culture (his Indians
are not savages), he unwittingly made
a caricature of it. As he hammered on
with anti-colonial comment, he lapsed
into cliches to make his point. The
Indian butler bemoans, “none of us are
free here,” while the sadhus must make
the white man one of them to prove
their superiority.
In his enthusiasm for anti-colonial
commentary, Jodorowsky drenched
the evil white people in bad slapstick
comedy—the maharaja’s American
wife tortures the elephant and drinks
its blood, and Shakley and Greyson
smoke camel fur, eat monkey shit,
and have one too many embarrassing
altercations with the infinitely superior
sadhus. As he tears at an alcoholic,
conversion-espousing reverend—along
with the rest of the film’s bad white
men—Tusk emerges as somewhat of an
aimless revolutionary. Still, Jodorowsky, adamant to praise his muse,
was convinced this elephant mimicked
“the spirit of India.”
after three months of filming, the
Europeans left Mysore. Oriole, because
of her insistent mother, was one of
the few in the India unit who actually
got paid. Pasha said, “they did some
ghichpich with the money and ran
away.” Dasgupta clarified, “None of us
got paid,” and Zerfas said locals who
had participated in the making of Tusk
asked him about their payments for
many years after the shoot ended.
Back in France, Jodorowsky himself
never received his full payment, as the
producer filed for bankruptcy. Tusk
failed miserably and Jodorowsky disowned it. It would be almost a decade
before he made his next feature, Santa
Sangre, in 1989. In the meanwhile,
Tusk fell away into the mouldy depths
of some archives.
An impoverished Jodorowsky moved
to a small house outside Paris, and
began reading tarot cards for a living.
During this time, he began developing
what would become his well-known
performative healing practice—Psychomagic. As Jodorowsky defined it
in his book, Psychomagic is a “purely
spiritual approach,” where the therapist prescribes the patient an act to
alleviate her suffering of some personal
This healing practice, created in the
dark period following Jodorowsky’s
departure from India, rings with Indian lessons. He spoke of Psychomagic
as a product of him quelling his own
ego, an idea he says is “the core in the
Hindu doctrine.” In Psychomagic, he
even went back to Tusk and described
the experience of riding an elephant, of
realising the power of the Muladhara
chakra (located near the genitals) by
feeling the “monumental strength of
the earth between your legs.”
In his other books, be it The Spiritual
Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky or
Metagenealogy: Self-Discovery through
Psychomagic and the Family Tree, he
referred freely to India, elephants and
stories of Hindu gods—Ganesh most of
all. Jodorowsky’s films, too, occasionally nodded to Tusk. Santa Sangre’s
most noted scene is an elephant’s
funeral at which a raving mob devours
the elephant. It would seem Tusk
stayed with Jodorowsky for many
years after he deemed it dead.
Most recently, in The Dance of Reality (2013), the first in a five-part series
of autobiographically inspired films,
a young Jodorowsky learns the Heart
Sutra from Theosophist—a tattooed,
langot-and-beads-wearing holy man,
whose forehead is adorned with a pair
of elephant ears flanking an Om.
The Dance of Reality, so unlike Tusk,
is a marvellous film. The late film critic
Roger Ebert called it a work of “wild
imagination,” filled with “awesome
things.” The second part in the series,
Endless Poetry (2016), which is slated
for a general release this year, has been
hailed by Variety (who panned Tusk
many moons ago) as possibly Jodorowsky’s best.
As he recounts his life through an
accomplished constellation of films, I
wonder whether Jodorowsky will revisit the escapades of his buried Indian
catastrophe; and I wonder if he will
retell those episodes, this time, with
better cinematic flair. Jodorowsky did
say in a 2014 interview with IndieWire,
“With ‘Tusk’ I am searching for the
negatives ... I want to redo the color
raphael gaillarde / gamma-rapho / getty images
losing the plot · reportage
Much of Jodorowsky’s work, including films and books, since Tusk has freely referred to India,
elephants and stories of Hindu gods—Ganesh most of all.
and it could be a fantastic tale for children. It’s beautiful. We are searching,
because the producer died and we are
wondering where the negative is.”
Here, in India, no one in the unit saw
Tusk, though they all wondered for
decades what became of their work.
And no one heard from Jodorowsky
either—they only heard stories through
intercontinental grapevines and nonexistent newspapers. Nitin Sethi, one
MARCH 2017
of the members of the film’s crew, said
he ran into Jodorowsky some years
later on the metro in Paris. He reported
that Jodorowsky looked bedraggled
and impoverished. But the story that
lasted among those who had tried to
track both Tusk and its director’s fate
was a different one—when Jodorowsky
returned to Paris, he rode to the film’s
premiere, past the Eiffel Tower, on the
back of a circus elephant. s
Tracing the journey of cotton
from the farm to the store
previous spread: Local farmers at a
collection centre for cotton, in a village near
the town of Dano, Burkina Faso. Just before
the market day, farmers help each other
press the cotton into hard mass, so that they
can weigh their harvest.
below: Workers vacuum cotton from
containers at a factory of the Société
Burkinabè des Fibres Textiles, or Sofitex—the
largest cotton company in Burkina Faso—in
the city of Houndé.
opposite page: In a warehouse next to their
home, members of a family in the town
of Boromo, Burkina Faso, walk on a pile of
cotton to compress it.
few commodities in the world
today reveal as much about the
spread of global capitalism as cotton. It connects growers, workers,
traders, factory owners, and consumers in a supply-and-distribution network that stretches across
the world.
A few centuries ago, cotton was
barely known in Europe. When
cloth from the East reached the
continent in the seventeenth
century, it began to gain popularity even as threatened European
textile producers sought to resist
the competition with the help of
politicians and the church. In a
Cambridge University Press blog
post, Giorgio Riello, an academic
and the author of Cotton: The Fabric That Made the Modern World,
wrote, “in the late seventeenth
century a series of legal acts came
first to limit and then to ban the
trade and consumption of Indian
cotton cloth in an attempt to
protect the interest of European
woollen, linen and silk manufacturers. Cottons were prohibited
first in France (1686), in England
(part prohibited in 1702 and totally in 1721), and later elsewhere
in the Continent.”
Such restrictions disappeared
over the next two centuries as European businessmen took control
over the manufacturing of cotton.
As the historian Sven Beckert
explained in his book Empire of
Cotton, during this period, “enterprising entrepreneurs and powerful statesmen in Europe recast the
world’s most significant manufacturing industry by combining
imperial expansion and slave
labor with new machines and
wage workers.” Cotton became
a springboard for the industrial
Today, large corporations
source their textiles from the
cheapest factories possible.
Factories in turn buy the cheapest cotton they can find. States
compete with one another to attract
corporations. “As a result,” Beckert
wrote, “the protections that strong
nation-states offered, to at least some
of their workers, for at least part of
the twentieth century, have been
gradually eroded.”
Most countries that rely on cotton
and garment export commodities exhibit low indicators of socioeconomic
development. West Africa’s Burkina
Faso, a major exporter of cotton, for
example, ranks as number 183 out of
188 countries on the United Nations’
Human Development Index, which
measures average life expectancy,
education and income. The country is Africa’s biggest grower and
exporter of raw cotton, and the state
supports the industry with loans,
technical assistance and seasonal
price guarantees for cotton growers. Two hundred thousand farms,
mostly small ones with fewer than
12 acres of land, produce between
400,000 to 700,000 tons of cotton
each year. Directly or indirectly, 3
million people in Burkina Faso depend on cotton—nearly a fifth of the
country’s population.
Bangladesh, one of the world’s top
garment exporters, ranks one hundred and forty-second on the Human
Development Index. The country’s
garment industry made international
news in 2013 after more than 1,000
people were killed in the collapse
of the Rana Plaza, a building that
housed several clothing factories.
The incident brought textile workers’ rights into sharp focus and led
to international calls for boycotts
of clothes made in Bangladesh. But,
as one leader of a small, clandestine
union of textile workers pointed out,
many in Bangladesh are wary of such
boycotts since there are few other
jobs for workers.
Some more developed countries,
such as Romania, also compete in
the cotton market. Clean Clothes
Campaign, an international alliance
of trade unions and NGOs, calls Romania “Europe’s cheap sweatshop.”
Their research shows that many
garment workers in Romania cannot
earn the minimum wage without
working overtime. In 2011, the country abolished collective bargaining at
the national level, weakening unions’
ability to negotiate for fair pay and
working conditions.
At the other end of the spectrum
are the large-scale farms of the
United States, which are supported
by generous government subsidies.
In past decades, many of these farms
were cultivated by seasonal workers from neighbouring Mexico.
Nowadays, much of this work has
been taken over by large, expensive
machines, some of which can in 15
minutes cultivate an area equivalent
to the average cotton farm in Burkina
This project was produced with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis
opposite page: Cotton farmers load cotton into a Sofitex container
near Boro village in Burkina Faso. Sofitex is one of three companies
in the country that buys cotton from farmers and provides loans to
above: A farmer in Boromo, Burkina Faso, extracts the seed out of the
cotton crop.
below: A loose bale of cotton outside a Sofitex factory in the town
Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.
right: Workers on a farm owned by the Button
family, in Sacaton, Arizona, USA.
below: The Button family employs heavy
machinery on its farm.
opposite page: A worker drives a cotton-picking
machine on the Button family farm.
right: A worker in a cotton-spinning
mill in Narsingdi district, Bangladesh.
The spinning mill is a part of Momin
Textile Mills, a company that owns
18 factories in Narsingdi.
above: A young garment worker carries jeans to a storage room near a factory
in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The country’s small, informal factories mostly work
for local production, but take sub-contracted work for larger factories. Many
workers cannot afford to rent houses, and sleep in the factories.
below: A worker in a textile dyeing and printing factory in Narsingdi works on
cloth after it is dyed.
opposite page: Garment workers eat supper after work
in their home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The room is home to
seven people, most of whom work in the garment industry.
above left: Garment workers leave a factory in Dhaka after
their shift.
above right: Garment workers in a spinning mill near the
city of Sibiu, Romania.
above: Shipping containers containing goods,
including clothes, in the city of Koper, Slovenia.
opposite page: A retail store in London, in the
United Kingdom.
courtesy mahatma gandhi indian immigration archives
Ocean Crossings
South Asian diasporic fiction from beyond the West
i remember meeting my Gujarati-American
spouse’s siblings for the first time, a few years
ago, at a restaurant called Surati Farsan in the
“Little India” neighbourhood of Cerritos, a city
in greater Los Angeles. I was then teaching
literature from the Indian Ocean region at the
University of California, in Los Angeles, and as
soon as I read Surati’s hybrid desi menu, which
was peppered with Gujarati-inflected English, I
was at home. Over African chevdo, chocolate dosa,
bhaji quesadilla, ragda petish, bataka vada, mango
lassi and masala chaash, my spouse, his siblings
and I swapped stories about India. They had been
brought up by parents who migrated from rural
Gujarat in the 1970s to work in California’s motel
industry, and had extended family in different
parts of the world, including Canada, England,
Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, Trinidad and
Panama. Yet they were amazed when I recited
my Indian Ocean island tales to them, especially
stories about an active Gujarati presence in the
Indian Ocean’s trade routes and on the African
islands, centuries before the British colonised the
Indian subcontinent.
My relatives’ reaction at Surati wasn’t very different from that of my desi friend, who heard my
island tales raptly when I met her in Mumbai, following a pre-doctoral research trip to Mauritius.
My friend’s image of Indian Ocean islands such as
Mauritius, the Maldives and the Seychelles was
derived mostly from romantic Bollywood songs,
tourism brochures and celebrity honeymoons.
When I told her about the people I’d met on my
trip, including multilingual Mauritians of rural
Bihari descent, she chuckled and said, “Seriously?
Bhaiyas speaking Bhojpuri and French?”
I was peeved—as if Mumbaikars alone had a monopoly over multilingualism. Clearly, I had forgotten how dumbfounded I was when, as a graduate
student in Philadelphia, I stumbled upon a novel
whose characters included francophone Asians,
and whose French was infused with Hindi, Bhojpuri and Chinese words. This was the Mauritian
writer Marie-Thérèse Humbert’s A l’autre bout
de moi—a 1979 novel that led to my discovery of a
rich body of francophone writing rarely studied
in Western classrooms, and my research commitment to the Indian Ocean.
More recently, when I transitioned from teaching francophone desi diasporic fiction to teaching
anglophone immigrant literature from across the
globe, I realised it is not just my desi or desi-American loved ones who perceived South Asian migration through a restricted anglophone lens. More
cosmopolitan literati often seem equally guilty.
Critics writing on immigrant fiction, especially
in the West, often read about the desi diaspora in
stories of South Asian migration to an anglophone
West, from the mid-twentieth century onward, by
writers such as Salman Rushdie, Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Amitav Ghosh
and Jhumpa Lahiri. Occasionally, when conversations turn to desi migration from or to islands (beyond the imperial island of England), anglophone
writings such as of VS Naipaul on Trinidad or Michael Ondaatje on Sri Lanka tend to lead the list.
Either way, what passes for South Asian diasporic
fiction is a body of writing where middle-class
MARCH 2017
opposite page:
Most popular
accounts of South
Asian diaspora
literature overlook
writing on migrants
to non-anglophone
lands such as
Mauritius, which
is home to a large
community of
the descendents
of indentured
labourers from the
emigrants fly into an Anglo-American
West without a serious threat to their
material survival. While the emotional
cost of geographical crossing—alienation, acculturation, assimilation,
hybridisation or resistance—often takes
centre stage in anglophone desi-immigrant fiction, these journeys are never
as hazardous as those making repeated
headlines in global news these days—
the ones undertaken by refugees and
undocumented migrants stranded in
rickety boats or drowning in the ocean
as they try to reach North American or
European shores alive.
Yet, not so long ago, South Asians
were also risking it all as they crossed
the Indian Ocean in search of richer
futures. For instance, if you were to
visit the bay of Trou Fanfaron in the
Mauritian capital of Port Louis, you
would find the remains of an immigration depot called Aapravasi Ghat—formerly known as “coolie ghat”—that
was declared a World Heritage Site by
the United Nations agency UNESCO in
2006. According to UNESCO, it was in
Port Louis that
the modern indentured labour diaspora began. In 1834, the British Government selected the island of Mauritius to be the first site for what it
called “the great experiment” in the
use of “free” labour to replace slaves.
Between 1834 and 1920, almost half a
million indentured labourers arrived
from India at Aapravasi Ghat to work
in the sugar plantations of Mauritius,
or to be transferred to Reunion Island, Australia, southern and eastern
Africa or the Caribbean.
However, these indentured labourers—whose experience recalls the situation of contemporary refugees or boatpeople—were far from the first in the
desi diaspora to cross the Indian Ocean.
Gujarati traders have had a presence in
the Indian Ocean region that predates
European colonial history by centuries. The literature from Indian Ocean
islands bears witness to these older
histories of South Asian migration, in
addition to more recent ones. These
stories are just as rich and worthy of
remembering as those of desis in the
English-speaking West today. By taking
culture club / getty images
ocean crossings · books
Centred on the Indian Ocean and rooted in historical research, Amitav Ghosh’s best-selling
Ibis trilogy gave many a taste of the oceanic tales and migrations they had been missing.
ocean crossings into account, we can
expand our grand narrative of South
Asian migration beyond those posited
by anglophone critics who continue
to talk of “newer” immigrant stories
through a limited Western focus.
consider for instance, the critic Parul
Sehgal’s essay ‘New Ways of Being’
published in the New York Times Book
Review last year, which talks about
different narratives of South Asian migration. Here, she notes of earlier desi
migrant fiction à la Rushdie and Lahiri:
“The immigrant novel has tended to
be optimistic by nature—stories of
upward mobility tinged with nostalgia
for the motherland and animated by the
character’s struggle to balance individual desires and the demands of the
family or community.” In response, she
reviews two novels that were “part of
a wave of recent books that cast a more
critical eye on migration than usual”—
Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart, from
2010, and Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of
the Runaways, from 2015, both of which
were shortlisted for the Man Booker
prize. Both books, she writes, “recount the stories of Indians making a
miserable transition to life in England,”
who, once they “run out of money and
overstay their visas” are “forced into
the twilight life of sex work and hard
labor.” Yet even this newer immigrant
fiction has protagonists who migrate
into the anglophone West by air—and
Mukherjee’s protagonist initially wins
a scholarship to Oxford, recalling the
earlier wave of writing Sehgal points
to, especially Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories,
which teem with characters educated
in elite schools.
In another essay, ‘The New Wave: On
the State of Indian Fiction in America,’
published by the online literary magazine The Millions in 2012, the critic
Keith Meatto defines the “new wave” of
the title as inaugurated by desi-British
and desi-American writers such as Hari
Kunzru, Rajesh Parameswaran and
Tania James. Meatto acknowledges
their debt to Lahiri, “who rocked the
American lit establishment—and book
clubs nationwide—with Interpreter of
Maladies, an understated, pitch-perfect
short story collection that captured
the domestic dramas and existential
malaise of upper class Indian Americans, mostly in bourgeois Boston.” Like
Lahiri, Kunzru, Parameswaran and
James’s “new” writings “address issues
ocean crossings · books
of Indian identity” too. Yet, departing
from Lahiri’s recurrent emphasis on
a Bengali-American identity, and “As
if to distance themselves from ethnicity and nationality, all three authors
experiment with non-human characters,” Meatto writes. Be that as it may,
Meatto—like Sehgal—locates the “new
wave” of desi migrant fiction only in
England and the United States. When it
comes to Indian immigrant fiction and
its reception in the West, the sun is far
from setting on the English empire.
The writer Anu Kumar’s essay ‘Indian writing from Africa: the diasporic
literature you didn’t know about,’
which appeared last year in the online
publication Scroll, fares much better
at dethroning the anglophone West in
the imagination of South Asian migration. Here, she reviews contemporary
Indo-African writers from Mauritius,
Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania,
many of whom have now made a home
in the West—MG Vassanji, Abraham
Verghese, Peter Nazareth, Yasmin
Ladha and Jameela Siddiqi. Fiction by
these writers highlights the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial presence
of South Asians in Africa as traders,
indentured labourers, railway workers
and bureaucrats. The writers expose
the fissures in Indo-African relations,
particularly in the late twentieth
century, and tell “stories of hostilities
within one’s community, of yearnings
and contradictions imposed by multiple
identities within a single self.”
While Kumar focusses on IndoAfrican fiction in English, she acknowledges that the desi diaspora in Africa
is multilingual—that its writers also
produce work in French or Hindi, and
are published beyond just the West,
including in India. For instance, the
Mauritian writer Deepchand Beeharry’s 1976 novel in English That Others
Might Live and his compatriot Abhimanyu Unnuth’s 1982 work of poetry in
Hindi, Kaiktus ke Daant—“The Teeth
of the Cactus”—both of which recount
stories of Indian indentured labourers
on sugar plantations on the island, were
published in India.
Kumar does not mention that Unnuth
also published a Hindi novel in India—
Lal Pasina, or “Red Sweat”—which was
later translated into French by Kessen
The literature from Indian Ocean islands bears
witness to older histories of South Asian migration,
in addition to more recent ones. These stories are just
as rich and just as worthy of remembering as those of
desis in the English-speaking West today.
Budhoo and Isabelle Jarry as Sueur de
Sang and prefaced by the Nobel winner
and French-Mauritian writer JMG
Le Clézio. Like Unnuth’s poetry and
Beeharry’s novel, Lal Pasina depicts
histories of desi sea-crossings on the
kala pani—the “dark waters” of the
ocean—and a gritty aftermath on sugar
the south asian american writer
who has contributed most to enlarging
anglophone readers’ perception of desi
migration into non-Western and oceanic space is Amitav Ghosh. His Indian
Ocean epic, the Ibis trilogy, published
between 2008 and 2015, recounts the
adventures of a motley cast of characters aboard the ship Ibis, including a
biracial American sailor, a dishonored
Bengali raja, a half-Parsi and half-Chinese convict, a widowed north-Indian
opium farmer, a daughter of a French
botanist from Calcutta, several lascars,
and so on. The ship sails past India,
Mauritius and China in the nineteenth
century, against the backdrop of the
Opium Wars, which were fought
between China and Western colonial
The trilogy’s first novel, Sea of
Poppies, unveils a dark relationship
between British colonial expansion in
the name of “free trade,” the working
of opium factories in India, and the
hiring and the emigration of South
Asian girmityas as plantation labour to
Mauritius. River of Smoke, the second
book, complements its telling of the
journey of the Ibis with the stories of
two other ships—the Anahita, an opium
carrier owned by a Parsi entrepreneur
from Bombay, and the Redruth, a nursery ship of horticulturists who aspire
to collect China’s greatest botanical
secrets. The three ships converge in
Canton’s Fanqui-town, or “foreign enclave,” but soon thereafter, the emperor
of China decides to close Chinese ports
MARCH 2017
to the opium trade. Flood of Fire continues the standoff between East and West
developed in the two prequels and ends
with China’s surrender to European
imperial ambitions and “free trade.”
The Ibis trilogy is not the first time
Ghosh has delved into non-European
diasporic networks in the Indian
Ocean. His 1992 book In an Antique
Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s
Tale is an innovative blend of travelogue, fiction and cultural criticism, and
may be read as a precursor to the Ibis
trilogy. The book dexterously weaves
two main narratives: one recounts
Ghosh’s research trip to contemporary
Egypt as an anthropology student; the
other traces the journey of an Indian
slave, Bomma, and his master, Ben
Yiju, a Tunisian Jewish merchant from
Cairo, as they travel between India and
north Africa in the twelfth century.
This medieval narrative further unravels a rich cultural commentary on
Afro-Asian maritime trade routes and
precolonial cultural contact between
the two continents.
Both In an Antique Land and the Ibis
trilogy tell different stories of the desi
diaspora than those the twenty-first
century anglophone reader is generally accustomed to. The Ibis trilogy is
also particularly innovative because of
Ghosh’s relentless play with the English
language. In it, he deploys a vocabulary
that borrows not only from Indian languages—Hindi, Bengali, Bhojpuri—but
also from French, Creole, kitchen-Hindustani and Lascari, a motley shipboard language. Ghosh masterfully and
simultaneously stretches the historic,
geographic and linguistic borders of
Anglo-Indian immigrant fiction, while
revealing how much was at stake for
non-English speaking, rural migrants
who are not flying into the West for
white-collar or ivy-league gigs.
Anu Kumar, in the Scroll piece mentioned above, sees Deepchand Beehar81
steven l raymer / national geographic / getty images
ocean crossings · books
above: The entire
population of Diego
people of Indian,
Malay and African
forcibly removed
to make way for
an enormous US
military base.
opposite page:
When seen thorugh
the eyes of its
residents, Port
Louis, the capital of
Mauritius, belies the
stereotypical image
of the island as a
tropical paradise.
ry’s novel That Others Might Live as a precursor
to Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, since both recount desi
migration across the kala pani and its aftermath.
There is, in fact, a much broader, multilingual
literary lineage to Ghosh’s Indian Ocean epic.
His stories of maritime migration need to be seen
against a rich body of contemporary francophone
South Asian diasporic literature, which Kumar’s
essay makes only a passing reference to.
The African island of Mauritius has a long
history of French and British colonial presence,
which led to the arrival of slaves, indentured
labourers and traders from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and China. While most islanders share
Mauritian Creole as their main spoken language,
French remains their dominant language of literary expression. Moreover, as two-thirds of the
islanders share a South Asian origin, Mauritius
has become one of the richest hubs of francophone
South Asian diasporic fiction today. Its writers
regularly win prestigious literary awards in the
greater French-speaking world.
Following on from Beeharry, Unnuth and
Ghosh’s stories of sea-crossing, ships and ports,
contemporary novels by francophone Indo-Mauritians expand further the historic and geographic
borders of South Asian immigrant fiction.
Nathacha Appanah’s 2003 novel Les Rochers de
Poudre d’Or—“The Rocks of Gold Dust”—chronicles the ship Atlas’s journey across the kala pani,
carrying rural Indians hired to work on French
sugar plantations in British colonial Mauritius.
Her 2007 novel, Le Dernier Frère, translated in
2011 as The Last Brother, layers on top of this history of Indian indentureship that of the Jews who
came to the island on the ship Atlantic, fleeing
Nazi persecution during the Second World War.
Shenaz Patel’s 2005 Le Silence des Chagos, or
“The Silence of Chagos,” tells of the forced displacement of people—mostly of Indian, Malay and
African descent—from the Chagossian island of
Diego Garcia, and their life as refugees in Mauritian ghettos. During the negotiation for Mauritian
independence in the 1960s, the United Kingdom
split the Chagos archipelago, including Diego
Garcia, from Mauritian territory in order to create British Indian Ocean territories and lease out
Diego Garcia to the United States. Today, Diego
Garcia is one of the biggest US military bases and
plays a key role in exercising control over west
Le Silence des Chagos is filled with poignant descriptions of the harshness of refugee life. In one
harrowing scene, one of the protagonists, Désiré,
who is born during the crossing to Mauritius, is
forced to take up employment on a fishing boat
in Port Louis. He hopes to succeed effortlessly
on the first day of his job; after all, he was born
on a ship. Instead, over nine pages, we are shown
Désiré’s maritime impotence as he succumbs to
claustrophobia, panic, seasickness and vomiting.
He stands in stark contrast to the American and
British sailors whom he overhears in the port as
they brag about island hopping.
Patel’s Port Louis is a far cry from the cosmopolitan cities—Mumbai, London, New York, San Francisco and so on—that dominate in anglophone desi
fiction. The glamour of the coastal city vanishes
when it is viewed through the eyes of an economically disadvantaged fisherman-refugee. Patel’s
depiction of Mauritius is equally far removed
from the stereotypical image, rife in Hollywood
and Bollywood films, of postcard-perfect tropical islands, with hospitable natural surroundings,
crystal-clear waters and virginal beaches.
The focus on proletarian migrants is a distinguishing feature in much of South Asian
francophone fiction from the Indian Ocean. One
exception is Amal Sewtohul’s 2012 novel, Made
in Mauritius, which won the prestigious Prix des
cinq continents de la Francophonie—the
francophone prize of the five continents. The novel is a political satire
that recounts the journey of its SinoMauritian hero, Laval, who was raised
in a cargo container imported from
Hong Kong in Port Louis’s Chinatown.
After growing up, Laval migrates
to Australia to study art, hiding his
Muslim-Mauritian friend, Feisal, in
the cargo container within the ship he
travels on. Laval’s sea-travel is comfortable here, relative to that experienced by blue-collar migrant workers,
and is closer to the circumstances
in which middle-class characters
travel, often by air, in anglophone desiimmigrant fiction. Sewtohul’s story
further expands Indian Ocean fiction’s
diasporic imagination too, as the novel
depicts not only Mauritian migrant
communities—Indians, Muslims,
Chinese, Creoles—but also other ethnic communities on the bigger island
Laval moves to, including indigenous
Australians and European opal-mining
workers in the outback.
The diasporic imagination in Mauritian novels also reveals how many
islanders see the place they now call
home. The characters in Ananda Devi’s
2006 novel, Ève de ses décombres, translated in 2016 as Eve Out of Her Ruins,
and a winner of the Prix des cinq continents too, come from a range of socioeconomically marginalised communities—factory workers, unemployed or
juvenile delinquents, cyclone refugees,
sex workers—and live in Troumaron, a
ghetto neighborhood at the margins of
Port Louis. They experience the port
city as a closed, static island within the
island, which allows them little escape
beyond occasional flights of imagination. The theme of spatial and economic
immobility is a staple here, as in much
of Devi’s fiction.
In some of her other work—the 2007
novel Indian Tango, translated under
the same title in 2011, and her 2015
story collection L’ambassadeur triste,
whose title story ‘The Sad Ambassador’ I have translated into English
online—Devi places her characters in
contemporary India, thus offering a
fresh perspective on the “motherland”
through the eyes of her francophone
diaspora. Similarly, Barlen Pyamootoo’s
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ocean crossings · books
1999 novel Bénarès, published in English with the same title in 2004, which
won the Prix du roman francophone—
the prize of the French novel—recounts
the experiences of two friends who
pick up prostitutes in Port Louis and
swap stories as they head back to their
Mauritian village Bénarès, commenting
often on an imagined, “original” city of
Benares in India.
Anglo-American desi-diasporic fiction often borrows from a subcontinental legacy of stories—including epics,
local folklore and Bollywood—as well
as a realist Euro-American and Russian
literary tradition, drawing influence
from writers such as Anton Chekhov,
Nikolai Gogol, William Shakespeare,
Joseph Conrad, Ernest Hemingway, John Updike, John Cheever
and Raymond Carver, among others.
In comparison, francophone South
Asian diasporic fiction draws from a
more motley aesthetic legacy—Hindu
mythology, the French romanticist
Jacques-Henri Bernadin de SaintPierre’s Indian Ocean classic Paul et
Virginie, Baudelaire’s modernist poems,
Yiddish and Bhojpuri folksongs, island
MARCH 2017
folklore, French Caribbean writers
including Aimé Césaire, Patrick Chamoiseau and Édouard Glissant on hybrid
island cultures. This is not to claim
that francophone immigrant fiction is
stylistically richer than its anglophone
counterpart. However, given the way
the Indian Ocean connects continents,
and the layered migratory history that
it has engendered over time, its diasporic imagination does show a more
transnational, multi-ethnic aesthetic
influence that reaches beyond Eurasia
and America to include Africa, Australia and the Caribbean.
According to the International Migration Report 2015, published by the
United Nations, the Indian diaspora is
the largest diaspora in the world—with
16 million members. This figure would
increase greatly if we were to count
the diaspora from other South Asian
countries, including smaller islands. A
deeper global interest in stories from
non-anglophone, non-Western and noncontinental spaces can truly enlarge
our understanding of the South Asian
diaspora—one that is as heterogeneous
as the people of the subcontinent. s
“This Simple and
Terrible Thing”
How Kedarnath Singh, Vinod Kumar Shukla and Mangalesh
Dabral defy established movements in Hindi poetry
how does poetry engage with the world without referring overtly to something larger than
the poem itself, such as an allegory of the nation
or the hope of a coming insurrection? The work
of three contemporary Hindi poets—Kedarnath
Singh, Vinod Kumar Shukla and Mangalesh Dabral—offers a possible answer to that question. The
concerns of their poetry might seem limited, yet
these poets have, through their intense engagement with language, shown how poetry’s formal
and stylistic concerns can renew one’s connection
with the world. The microscopic focus of their
poems does not sunder the ties between the poem
and the world but forges it in rather new and original ways.
Singh, Shukla and Dabral all started writing
around the 1960s, when the Pragativaad, or progressive movement, which emphasised the social
content of poetry, had already given way to Nayi
Kavita, or New Poetry, which sought to pay attention to the poetic form. Pragativaad and Nayi Kavita represented two strains of thought about how
poetry ought to be written, and they influenced
the poetic choices that all succeeding Hindi poets
have made since.
Kedarnath Singh, published in the last of the
three pioneering anthologies of Nayi Kavita edited
by Agyeya, a pre-eminent Hindi poet and novelist
of the time, was, unlike Vinod Kumar Shukla and
Mangalesh Dabral, involved with the movement
formally before he parted ways with it.
All three poets, nevertheless, have had to recognise the divergence between progressive writing
and new aesthetics in their work, and yet, their
poetry steers clear of any assimilation by either
of the movements. This resistance to stable forms
and identities gave their poems an indefinable
quality of “newness,” compared to the work of
those who had preceded them. I would like to ask,
through a close reading of a few of Shukla, Dabral
and Singh’s poems, how this newness has entered
their poetry, and how it has altered the relation
between language and world.
All three poets have been recently translated
afresh into English, which makes this an apt time
to consider their work. Singh’s recent collection
Banaras and Other Poems, published by the Sahitya Akademi—which also awarded him the Sahitya Akademi prize in 1989 for his collection Akal
Mein Saras (Cranes in Drought)—contains work by
a range of translators, such as the prolific poet Vinay Dharwadker, the American academic Christi
Merill, and the book’s editor, the Malayalam poet
K Satchidanandan. The book also includes a long,
probing introduction by the literary scholar Harish Trivedi, along with essays by Satchidanandan
and Dharwadker. The Collected Poems of Arvind
Krishna Mehrotra, published by Penguin in 2014
and hailed as a major literary event in Indian
English poetry, carries some of his translations of
the Hindi poet and novelist Vinod Kumar Shukla.
Shukla, who received the Sahitya Akademi prize
for his novel Deewar Mein Ek Khidki
Rehti Thi (A Window Lived in the Wall)
in 1999, is a difficult poet to translate
and write about, and Mehrotra is the
only one who has successfully attempted to do both. Translations of
Mangalesh Dabral’s poetry appeared in
a 2014 collection from the publisher Poetrywala titled This Number Does Not
Exist. The beautifully designed volume
represents Dabral’s diverse idioms well
in translations by figures such as Asad
Zaidi, Rupert Snell, Girdhar Rathi and
Daniel Weissbort, among seven others.
Each translator’s choices of poems and
diction reveal a bit about his or her affinity for different aspects of Dabral.
In extending the parameters of both
progressive and experimental writing,
these three poets seem to be together
upholding a space for the literary,
which, although open to socio-political
and historical discourses, isn’t a conduit for them. Translation, as a literary
exercise, brings home the question that
these poets have in their sometimes
playful, sometimes grave, austereness
raised in their poetry: what is literature?
in a 1993 interview to EV Ramakrishnan, published in the Sahitya Akademi’s bimonthly journal, Indian Literature, Kedarnath Singh said: “In all my
writing there is resistance towards ideological bias. The stress is not on locale,
but on the way one apprehends reality.
Seeing is being, as Tomlinson would
say.” Singh associates the ideological
bias in poetry with a portrayal of the
world that is oblivious to the way that
reality is directly apprehended through
the human senses. Poetry with a clear
political aim, in his view, is more attentive to the details of reality in order
to pass a judgment upon them, rather
than notice how a person “apprehends”
or individually approaches that real-
courtesy rajkamal prakashan
Kedarnath Singh, who was briefly involved in the Nayi Kavita movement, won the Sahitya
Akademi prize in 1989 for his collection Akal Mein Saras.
ity. This bias was precisely what occasioned Nayi Kavita, which marked a
departure not from progressive politics
per se but from the Pragativaad poets’
sidelining of the poetic process for
more straightforward ideological content. Singh’s first collection Abhi, Bilkul
Abhi, from 1960, is a testament to how
his work is caught in the moment of
discerning reality rather than producing a simple and imitative relation to
reality, political or otherwise.
Although the Nayi Kavita movement
consisted of a diverse bunch of poets,
often with irreconcilable political positions, their ambitions with regards to
literature were similar: to use language
with an intimacy that resulted in an
acute awareness of the poetic process
and craft. However, in Singh’s interview, he says that poetry is a “communication-oriented consciousness. This
aspect of poetry was neglected by TaarMARCH 2017
Saptak poets”—like Agyeya or Raghuvir
Sahay who were indifferent to their
readers within the poem—“and Nayi
Kavita movement.” Singh is talking
about a kind of poetry that, even in its
close transaction with language, does
not result in formal solipsism—a style
he identified with his predecessors.
Instead, it addresses the reader directly
and incorporates the process of reading
within writing. His poem ‘Blank Page,’
translated in the volume by Dharwadker, shows us how this effect might be
On a blank page
There’s no dawn no dusk
There’s a midnight sun
shining down on it
from beyond the hemisphere
Look closely
you can see a pair of pale eyes
“this simple and terrible thing” · books
glittering there
the fire of a tiger’s lovely coat
is leaping and spreading on your desk
Reach out and run your fingers
through this violent fur
there’s nothing to fear
a blank page
is soft and gentle like your skin
ancient like your love
free like your hatred
civilized like your fingernails
and salty like your blood
Touch it
it feels like the pulse
in your neck
This is what poetry does
This simple and terrible thing –
after all our words
it always leaves us
with a blank page
Singh’s entire poem plays on the
blankness of a blank page, which in
its myriad forms seems to become an
analogy for everything, from the “tiger’s lovely coat” to the “pulse” in the
reader’s own neck. Because one cannot
read a blank page, the reader absorbs
it immediately without attaching to it
any significance. Singh, in talking about
that empty space, creates an intermediary between the language of poetry,
which is immersed in meaning-making,
and the empty space that lacks it. One
of the limitations of Nayi Kavita that
Singh had wanted to dodge, as he stated
in the interview, was precisely this:
that its poems seemed to engage with
language without seeming aware of
the place of language in literature. By
attending to the page and its economy,
the poem seems to reinforce its status
as literature. Instead of giving in to an
exclusive formalism, Singh’s poem both
immerses itself in language and marks
its borders by highlighting the blank
page of any reading practice.
Another crucial departure that Singh
makes in the poem is that instead of
defining poetry for what it is, he dwells
on what “poetry does.” And what poetry essentially does, in Singh’s opinion,
is not refer to anything tangible or evident but inhabit the blankness—which
is, intriguingly, both “simple” and
“terrible.” It is probably this peculiar
combination that makes Singh turn to
not just any language but that of literature, specifically poetry, which, even
in its simplicity or apparent lucidity,
occasions something terrible that escapes meaning. This is one of the ways
literary language contributes to and
challenges the world of stable meanings
around it.
The line “This is what poetry does” is
representative of a strain in Singh’s poetry that is markedly effusive about its
place in language as literature. Instead
of describing the blank page as merely
an object of reality, the poem anchors
to it a larger claim about poetry. This is
a gesture that is evident in quite a few
of Singh’s poems, which, while referring to quotidian reality, also make
clear the literary investment in this
reality. Ashok Vajpeyi, a poet and critic
of Singh’s generation, in his 1966 essay ‘Hindi: Problem of Adequacy and
Relevance,’ published in Indian Literature provides a rather straightforward
context for this peculiarity. Without
naming them, Vajpeyi describes some
of Singh’s contemporaries as anti-poets
and writes:
The language which at one time had
grown into a sensitive instrument of
creatively exploring complex emotions, human situations and relationships, repeating the perennial paradox, has become a pitiless convention
of words, generalized, composite
and incapable of enacting compulsions of individual experience. The
younger poets have faced this growing inadequacy of language and in
their struggle to give adequacy and
relevance to it have resorted to the
idiom of violence and absurdity.
While these anti-poets, who found
both Pragativaad and Nayi Kavita
insufficient for their ambitions, lost
interest in poetic language altogether,
Vajpeyi writes that poets such as Kedarnath Singh, Kamleshwar and Shrikant Verma broke “the tyranny of the
private … to write about the world in
a dramatic and individual way.” This
break from the private does not, like
Pragativaad, lie in turning poetry towards the goal of mass mobilisations or
organised collectives, but in restoring
a connection with language. Singh’s
‘Winter Days,’ also translated by Dharwadker, provides another example of
his belief in language.
I’d stepped out
for a walk
in the bitter cold
when I came across
small brown-and-white
turtle eggs
lying in the sand
The place
was completely deserted
nothing and no one there
except for the eggs
and the moist
which had placed them
in its lap
to warm them
as if they were
its own eggs
I stood and gazed
at the sight
I’d gone out empty
to walk along the sands
when I returned
there was a fullness inside me
Singh has often been read for his
peculiar use of images, which are
frequently indirect and long-drawn.
This poem, however, does not deliver
an array of images but uses one image,
“small brown-and-white/ turtle eggs/
lying in the sand” as a whetting stone
for a range of feelings, such as “fullness” and being “wonderstruck.” Singh
uses temporal signposts—such as the
season, and the movement of walking—
only to contrast them with a still, poetic image that congeals time. This tension between movement and stillness
is set forth in the line “I came across,”
which leads one to expect something
momentous to follow an everyday walk
in the cold. Instead, what we get is the
quiet image of the eggs that the poem
builds upon in the second stanza.
Singh, in the interview with Ramakrishnan quoted above, spoke of how,
“in using image, language both gains
“this simple and terrible thing” · books
Instead of defining poetry for what it is, Singh dwells on what “poetry does.”
What it does, in his opinion, is not refer to anything tangible or evident but
inhabit the blankness—which is, intriguingly, both “simple” and “terrible.”
and loses something. Its simplicity and basic structures are
broken to give way to images. The peculiar struggle between
language and image has to be kept in mind. Language is
primary, image is held in language. If, in the interest of language, one has to sacrifice image, one must be prepared to do
it. Addiction to imagistic language (‘bimb moh’ in Hindi) is
harmful.” In ‘Winter Days,’ the very precise image of the eggs
seems to be calling attention to itself. The brilliance of the
poem, however, is in how it manages to rescue itself from being overtaken by this dominant image, by introducing a completely figurative idea towards the end, expressed in the line
“there was a fullness inside me.” Unlike the precise imagery
of the rest of the poem, the phrase thrives on ambiguity.
This particularity of literature, which allows it to express
a vagueness of emotions and experiences, is even more markedly expressed in ‘Hindi,’ Singh’s poem on his mother tongue,
translated by Harish Trivedi.
The people of my language
are the people of my streets.
It doesn’t say a thing
but my tongue knows anyhow
that it bears scars on its back
of forgotten injuries
that many of its verbs can’t sleep all night
its adjectives hurt.
to escalate the internal linguistic conflicts—between speech
and silence, memory and forgetting, and history and personal
experience. The narrator begins by confessing to a knowledge which is implicitly part of his language, because the
“tongue knows,” but which goes unarticulated. He goes on to
commit to poetic language this implicit knowledge.
Singh’s poem alternates between lines that appear to be
offering a factual immediacy—“Not official language”—and
those that deal with his personal experience of language—
“let my language be language.” The former evoke the violent
“language wars” in India, which were fought against the
constitutional provision of using Hindi as an official language. This historical context explains Singh’s intentions in
using words such as “assaults” and “scars” while describing
the experiences of Hindi. The very next line, though, moves
away from history to the perplexing syntax of poetry: “let
my language be language, just language.” What exactly is
“just language,” and how is it different from a state language? These are the two questions that Singh doesn’t answer, but they seem to be the driving force behind much of
the poem. The last stanza, again historicising Hindi in how
it assimilates the tatsam words, taken directly from Sanskrit, with tadbhav words, changed for local use, locates the
poetic persona within language, in the operations of Hindi
grammar. In dissolving the subject of the poem in language,
thinking of the speaking voice as a “restless proposition,”
the poem resounds with the linguistic experience that literature offers.
when asked about his affiliation to the Progressive Writers’ Association, Vinod Kumar Shukla, in a phone conversation with the critic Nand Kishore Naval, is reported to have
said, “I did join, but no one accepted me as a progressive
poet.” Shukla, a poet based in the central Indian town of
Raipur, has been widely acclaimed for his poetry and prose
alike. His poems are hard to reconcile not only with agendadriven progressive poetry but also with the rigorously experimental verse of someone such as Agyeya, whose poetry
was diligently concerned with the life of the mind. Shukla’s
style has hardly any parallel in Hindi poetry, and most readers of his work have accepted this fact. If Singh creates his
effects through almost a familial use of language, in Shukla’s
case we find pleasurable fantasy and playfulness. His poems
often alert us to how language can be chimerical. Translated
by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, ‘That man put on a new woolen
coat and went away like a thought’—the title poem of Shukla’s
second poetry collection, published in 1981—confirms his singular voice:
Not official language –
but let my language be language, just language.
So full is it of its neighbourhood and surroundings
and of essence distilled drop by drop
of many sounds from near and far
that when I speak it
there lies in its depths
Arabic-Turkish Bangla Telugu
and even the stirring of a little leaf.
I speak them all a little bit
when I speak Hindi
And whenever I speak it
I feel I am
in the position in its grammar
of a restless proposition,
with the disaffectation
of a tadbhav living
next door to a tatsam.
Although Singh starts the poem on a cordial note, identifying the speakers of his language as his neighbours, he goes on
That man put on a new woolen coat and went away like a
In rubber flip-flops I struggled behind.
MARCH 2017
courtesy shashwat gopal
“this simple and terrible thing” · books
The time was six in the morning, the time of hand-me-downs,
and it was freezing cold.
Six in the morning was like six in the morning.
There was a man standing under a tree.
In the mist it looked like he was standing inside his own
blurred shape.
The blurred tree looked exactly like a tree.
To its right was a blurred horse of inferior stock.
Looking like a horse of inferior stock.
The horse was hungry, the mist like a grassy field to him.
There were other houses, trees, roads, but no other horse.
There was only one horse. I wasn’t that horse,
But my breath when I panted was indistinguishable from the
If the man standing at that one spot under the tree was the
Then to him I was a horse at a gallop, horseshoes nailed to my
boot soles.
The very first line, which is also the title, consists of a deliberately prolonged, somewhat amusing metaphor. It is an
unusual beginning for a poem whose theme is human labour
and its similarity to animal labour—but only if one reduces
the poem to its theme. The circuitous first line is actually
above: “I did join, but no one accepted me as a progressive poet,”
Shukla reportedly said about his affiliation with the Progressive
Writers’ Association.
consistent with the riddling lines that follow; they go beyond
the thematic or social concerns of the poem, not by undermining them but by recasting them through the various
stratagems that language has to offer.
One such stratagem that Shukla uses in his poetry is repetition, and Mehrotra’s translations render these repetitions
marvelously in English. Repetition allows him to not only
create a sense of frolic in his poems, but also to economise
on the number of words used. The scholar Jeri Johnson, in a
very perceptive comment on James Joyce’s Ulysses, talks of
the writer’s economy in his use of puns, and of how he often
uses the multiple meanings and registers that one word can
offer. Shukla seems to be doing something similar here when
he writes: “In the mist it looked like he was standing inside
his own blurred shape./ The blurred tree looked exactly like
a tree.” Slight modulations on the same words allow the poem
to combine its playfulness with a striking frugality of words
and sounds.
Another strategy that gives the poem a calming clarity
despite its traumatic theme is Shukla’s use of the narrative
“this simple and terrible thing” · books
If Singh creates his effects through almost a familial use of language, in Shukla’s
case we find pleasurable fantasy and playfulness. His poems often alert us to how
language can be chimerical.
idiom in lines such as: “There was only one horse. I wasn’t
that horse,/ But my breath when I panted was indistinguishable from the mist.” Muktibodh, one of Shukla’s poetic mentors, who is often considered to be amongst the most significant voices of post-Independence Hindi poetry, in his essay
‘Madhya Pradesh ki Kahan Shaili,’ written in the early 1950s
about the poetry of Madhya Pradesh, had called attention
to kahan shaili, or the idiom of reporting, which he thought
was specific to the region’s poetry. It is through this narrative or reportorial thrust, present in both Muktibodh and
Shukla’s poetry, that the social themes they are addressing
are expressed. Despite the oblique language and the figurative resemblance between the working-class man in “rubber
flip-flops,” and the horse that is whipped and controlled like a
slave, the social hierarchy is conveyed powerfully in Shukla’s
poem through its narration. However, Shukla’s poem ‘The
way the sun was going down,’ which was also translated by
Mehrotra and published in Collected Poems, turns this narrative clarity on its head:
The way the sun was going down
Where it was going down
In the sea, the west was
Going down with it, leaving
No west for tomorrow’s sun
To go down in.
May be tomorrow it’ll set in some other direction.
In that case, let it.
Where it rises in the sea
The sun is like a sea bird
Trying to rise,
But with the oil on the surface
Sticking to its feathers,
It cannot.
To watch the sunrise that is not a sunrise
There are no tourists
Or tourist souls.
After a whole day of this sunrise
That is not a sunrise,
The sun unable to rise sets.
Unlike Kedarnath Singh’s poetry, Shukla’s seems free of
the freight of obvious meaning. It wears its topsy-turvy,
fantastical language on its sleeve. Lines in the poem such as:
“Going down with it, leaving/ No west for tomorrow’s sun/
To go down in” appear as nonchalant as any of the other
more straightforward lines. It is as if the poem can say the
most astonishing things about sunsets with a straight face.
The poem is actually set up as a mock-logical exercise, where
the common sense governing everyday reality is taken away,
but only partially. Shukla’s language renders this reality
absurd yet almost believable. The fantasy of the west going
down with the sun and leaving no west for another day, although rationally naive, can be a legitimate fear, and Shukla’s
poetry seizes on this naivety.
Another of Shukla’s poems plays on the central tension of
communication. The poem, ‘It’s by going you’ll meet those
others,’ is fiercely communicative. The poem underscores
the fact that, when going out of one’s way to meet “those others,” one often leaves something behind in the process. Yet, it
nudges its reader to go ahead and meet them. These “others”
here stand in for the world in Shukla’s poetry—a world which
is never a fixed socio-historical reality but a vague external
It’s by going you’ll meet those others
It’s by going you’ll go to the other shore
Only by going will you be able to reach there
And make the long shot sure
It’s by going you’ll leave behind what’s behind you
It’s by going that what lies ahead will remain
It’s by going that when there’s nothing remaining
Everything you’ve left behind will remain
And in that remaining nothing
Everything will remain to be done.
Mehrotra’s brilliance as a translator comes through in
that one line: “And make the long shot sure.” The Hindi
original, “jo bahut door sambhav hai,” is not very difficult to
translate literally, but to carry across its partly jestful tone
is a challenge that applies to almost the entirety of Shukla’s
poetry. This tone finds a keen and dexterous translator in
Mehrotra. Consider the translation of the last lines where
kuch in the Hindi original “Aur kuch bhi nahi mein/ Sab
kuch hona bacha rahega,” is repeated to create a rhythmic
tautology. The tautology, characteristic of Shukla’s poetry,
is spotlit in Mehrotra’s version with the words “remaining”
and “thing” being repeated with minute variations of tense
and meaning.
Shrikant Verma, Shukla’s fellow writer from Chhattisgarh,
in his brief essay, published in 1968, titled ‘Hindi: Return of
Poetry,’ talks of Vinod Kumar Shukla’s poetry as creating “a
horror world” with “the help of irony and fantasy.” He also
goes on to defend Shukla and his own work against the likes
of the novelist Kamleshwar, who, in a series of articles published in the weekly Dharmayug, condemned “the writing
of post-sixty generation as ‘obscene’ and ‘anti-social.’” This
charge still hangs over many of the poems discussed above.
In reading them closely, one does not rid them of it, but, as
stated in Shukla’s poem, one modestly, if also ironically, is
able to say: “Everything will remain to be done.”
MARCH 2017
courtesy sanjay borade
“this simple and terrible thing” · books
mangalesh dabral writes of epic silences. His poems hint at
events great and tragic, from floods to mass exodus, but they
always inhabit the afterlife of these events, their posthumous
silence. Dabral’s engagement with language is marked by a minimalism and sombreness that make his poetry less playful or selfreflexive than some of the poems by Shukla or Singh. His language, at least in some of the poems quoted below, seems always
aware of the silence that surrounds and threatens language. He
works with the paradoxes of language and its limitations, and
tries to find some felicity in those very paradoxes. His poem ‘The
Way Home,’ translated in This Number Does Not Exist by Vishnu
Khare and Christi Merrill, is one such poem of silence:
I tried several times
to raise my hand above this flood
Several times I had hopes
At times I saw this was the end
I’d only wanted to say
one or two ordinary words
that could be depended on
for the time being...
I did not want to apologise
for my despair
I did not want my simple desires
to show on my face
I did not ever want to forget
the way back home.
above: Mangalesh Dabral’s poetry seems always aware of the silence
that surrounds and threatens language.
Recovering from a flood, or towards the end of one, the
poetic persona here can trust only a few words to convey his
vision of his drowning homeland. However, those “one or two
ordinary words” describing the traumatic event might be the
very ones missing from Dabral’s poem. The absence of those
words, and of the flood—which is never directly described—
rings throughout the poem.
This is where Dabral’s poetry becomes most fascinating:
the poem talks of the silence that was imposed on it by the
event, alongside the silence it imposes on itself because of
its distance from home, the traumatic memory attached to it
and the limitations of representation in the face of the event.
One knows from Manohar Shetty’s afterword to the book
that “home” here is Dabral’s ancestral village in Tehri town,
Uttarakhand, which was washed out in the construction of
Tehri Dam in the mid 2000s. Its loss resounds in another
poem, ‘Song of the Dislocated,’ translated by Asad Zaidi, an
acclaimed Hindi poet in his own right:
With a heavy heart we left
tore away from the ancestral home
mud slips behind us now
stones fall in a hail
“this simple and terrible thing” · books
Recovering from a flood, or towards the end of one, the poetic persona in Dabral’s
poem ‘The Way Home’ can trust only a few words to convey his vision of his
drowning homeland.
look back a bit brother
how the doors shut themselves
behind each one of them
a room utterly forlorn
The poem employs very specific
verbs of movement—“we left,” “tore
away” and “slips behind”—to evoke
the geographical displacement of
migration and its pathos. Framed as
a song, the poem hints at a collective
enunciation or experience, unlike the
previous poem, which relies largely
on the individual experience of the
poetic voice. Like Singh, Dabral relies
on images and chisels them with care,
though he seldom gives as much attention as Singh does to the interplay
of language and image. In Singh’s
account, a poetic image always challenges the figurative and emotive
language of poetry, which depends
more on fluidity of meaning rather
than the exactitude of images. Dabral,
however, employs precise images in
the poem without sacrificing any emotive or personal quality of language.
He achieves this by tying the objective
sensory experience of the world to
intense personal histories.
Instead of asking them to sing
along, or recording their emotional
response to the tragedy, the song asks
the dislocated to “look back a bit” and
highlights the silence of their condition. The only physical response possible seems to be looking back at those
“utterly forlorn” rooms. Dabral shies
away from establishing any emotional
or geographical particularities, not
because he wants to arrive at a universal image—one of the many aims of
modernism—or speak in a plain, accessible language, as many have misread
him to be doing, but because he wants
in some ways to get closer to the experience of silence in poetry. Zaidi, to his
credit, renders the images in English
with perfect immediacy and acuity.
The only poem in the anthology translated by Dabral himself, ‘Outside,’ is
quite aptly self-reflexive:
I closed the door
and sat down to write a poem
outside a breeze was blowing
there was a little light
a bicycle stood in the rain
a child was coming home
I wrote a poem
which had no breeze no light
no bicycle no child
no door.
There is no better way to perform
silence than to lay down everything
that you do not want said. The poem
gives no hints about what the poem
being written contains, instead filtering it through the same images used to
describe the setting in the first half. A
symbolic reading of the poem would
consider the absence of breeze, light,
child and door to mean that the poem
being written is without hope of renewal, but that would also abruptly
shrink the openness which the poem
has affected through its series of negations. This openness is very much what
defines Dabral’s poetry, or rather the
moment he represents in Hindi poetry,
when poets no longer feel the need to
fall back on larger concepts or identities
or even constant reference to language
Girdhar Rathi, who has also translated Dabral’s poetry in the volume, in
an essay titled ‘Poetry in the North,’
published in Indian Literature in 1993,
catalogues some of the things that Dabral, and other poets of his generation,
do not do.
As one reads it today, one finds the
contemporary Hindi poetry in a reflexive and reflective mood. Past the
nationalistic passions of late 19th and
early 20th centuries epitomized by
Bharatendu and Maithilisharan Gupta; past the ambivalences of colonial
confrontations, religious identities,
delvings into the glorious past and
miserable present; past the Romantic
overtones of a special Indian kind in
MARCH 2017
Nirala, Pant and Prasad; past the ecstasies and agonies of personal lives
vividly articulated in Harivansh Rai
Bachchan, Balkrishna Sharma Navin,
and others: past the fiery rhetoric
(now all in shambles) of the Marxist
variants in the Progressive, janavadi
and Navjanavadi movements, represented by Sheel, Kedarnath Agarwal,
Nagarjun and at times even Shamsher Bahadur Singh and Trilochan,
down to Alok Dhanva, Rajesh Joshi,
Rituraj and many others.
In this brief history of don’ts, Rathi
traces the entire history of Hindi poetry to specify Dabral’s position. So
another way to read the bicycle, child
and breeze of the above poem is to see
them as the history of Hindi poetry, to
which the poem being written bears no
The common thread that Rathi
uses in his essay to bring together
the three poets discussed here is that
they “have stretched the language to
the utmost, in order to draw the best
it can offer; most of them have shown
the discipline and rigour required of
poets producing enchanting poetry;
they have all in various degrees interacted with trends, tendencies, moods
and currents of the times.” Although
Rathi’s reading is too capacious to say
anything specifically about the poetry
of Singh, Dabral or Shukla, it prompts
one to start reading their poems with
a close attention to language and its
layered relationship with the poem
and the world. This relationship is as
much inherited from a long history of
Hindi poetry as it is a defiance of it.
Their poetry can shape this relationship because they understand well the
distinctions between word and world,
between material and language, and
between language and poetry. The
kind of reflexivity, pleasure and silence
that we encounter in their verse are
but echoes of these relations, which
only reiterate the perennial question:
what is literature? s
Muhammad Khalid
Translated from Urdu
by Bilal Tanweer
This novel, first published in Urdu in 1964, describes the
life of a small Karachi neighbourhood, whose daily drama is
chronicled by Iqbal Hussain Changezi, a bakery owner and a
collector of writers and geniuses. He has his eye on an out-ofwork comedian, Chakori. Meanwhile, the town’s mostly unsuccessful healer of physical and spiritual maladies prepares
to unleash his top-secret invention: the love meter.
Part of everyday life, yet rich in symbolic meaning, the sun
and the moon are represented in nearly all the folk and Adivasi art traditions of India, and are central elements in many
stories and myths told among indigenous communities. This
handmade book compiles unusual stories and striking art by
Indian artists from diverse backgrounds, on this most universal of themes.
pan macmillan india, 320 pages, S499
tara books, 28 pages, S1,300
Teesta Setalvad
Harsh Mander
The writer and activist Teesta Setalvad describes her early
career as a journalist; her coming to political maturity during the violence in Mumbai after the demolition of the Babri
Masjid in the winter of 1992; and her attempts during and
after the Godhra riots in Gujarat to secure justice for the
victims. This memoir documents her determination, courage
and unshakeable commitment to constitutional principles.
leftword books, 221 pages, S295
Harsh Mander, a writer
and researcher, presents 17
stories of people who have
suffered and overcome
discrimination. For instance,
after Lachmi Kaur lost
almost all the men of her family in the anti-Sikh pogroms
of 1984, she singlehandedly raised her children and grandchildren. Krishan Gopal decided to build his own shrine to
Hanuman after being barred from the village temple by his
dominant-caste neighbours. Dhanam, after defying her family and undergoing a sex-change operation, now lives with a
large community of eunuchs in a Chennai shanty.
speaking tiger, 216 pages, S499
Kavita Panjabi
Christian Lee Novetzke
In 1946, landless peasants
in Bengal rose up in protest
against feudal landlords
and launched a movement
to retain two-thirds—tebhaga—of the grain they harvested.
More than 50,000 women participated in the Tebhaga movement. Using critical insights garnered from oral history and
memory studies, the feminist scholar Kavita Panjabi tells the
story of their struggle.
In thirteenth-century western India, entrepreneurial
religious figures challenged
the linguistic and cultural
hegemony of Sanskrit. They did this by formulating new texts
and social orders oriented around the use of regional languages. In doing so, these spiritualists created an early form
of the public sphere, in which the ethics of social issues such
as caste and gender were debated. Christian Lee Novetzke, a
scholar of religious studies, examines this pivotal moment in
Indian history.
zubaan, 380 pages, S995
permanent black, 428 pages, S895
Vera Hildebrand
Lawrence Liang, Monica
James, Danish Sheikh,
Amy Trautwein and
In July 1943, Subhas Chandra Bose, fighting British
rule in India with the aid
of the Japanese, created
what was perhaps the first
fighting female infantry unit in military history: the Rani of
Jhansi Regiment. The young civilian volunteers of the regiment were from Indian diaspora families in places such as
Singapore, Malaya and Burma. Through archival research
and interviews with surviving “Ranis,” the historian Vera
Hildebrand has uncovered new evidence that separates the
myth of Bose and these warrior women from historical fact.
In France, a memorial
library can be found encased
in a series of catacombs. In
a different library, the living
have themselves become an oral record of literature. Another
library mandates fidelity to a book till its completion, while
yet another houses books in a state of half-eaten incompleteness. Taking a cue from Italo Calvino’s famous novel Invisible
Cities, this book captures the enigmatic world of books and
harpercollins, 332 pages, S499
yoda press, 102 pages, S395
MARCH 2017
Visual Art
Studio Photography
for the 22nd Century
images courtesy sakshi gallery and the artist
In his exhibition, the artist
Nandan Ghiya uses acrylic
paint on found photographs
to show the transition “from
the vintage to new age, from
the physical to digital.” The
pieces explore both positive
and negative sides of technological modernity.
For more information, write
images vinay kumar
18, 19 AND 22 MARCH
Ganapati is a theatrical performance conducted by Adishkati Arts—a
performing-arts company based on the outskirts of Auroville, in Tamil
Nadu. The programme interprets the mythical stories around the birth
of the elephant-god Ganapati.
For more information, write to
Triennale 2017
courtesy kathmandu triennale
Hosted by the Siddhartha Arts
Foundation, the Kathmandu Triennale is an expansive arts festival
held across the cities of Kathmandu
and Patan, in Nepal. The event will
be curated by Philippe Van Cauteren
on the theme of “the city,” and will
include new and existing works
by over 50 artists from Nepal and
For more information, write to
A Panorama
of Latin
10 TO 14 MARCH
Conducted by Richard Peña, a professor of film studies at Columbia
University, “A Panorama of Latin
American Cinema” is a special fiveday lecture and film series on cinematic movements in Latin America
since the 1950s.
For more information, write to
MARCH 2017
courtesy iawrt india
images © waswo x. waswo courtesy tasveer
Waswo X. Waswo:
Asian Women’s
Film Festival
TARQ and Tasveer Arts will together
host Photowallah, an exhibition of
Waswo X Waswo’s signature studio
portraits, hand colored by the artist
Rajesh Soni. Held as part of the FOCUS
Photography Festival, the event will
display Waswo’s unique brand of contemporary photography, which mixes
homage and critique.
For more information, write to
For more information, write to
The thirteenth edition of the Asian Women’s Film
Festival boasts over 50 works from artists in 17
different countries, and will include a curated
section on animated films from across the globe,
as well as seminars on feminist narratives in Asian
& Dislocations:
India’s Place
in Global
Book History
“Connections & Dislocations” is a public lecture hosted by the University of
Chicago Center in Delhi as part of its
internal workshop on South Asian book
history, one of the most vibrant areas
of inquiry within the academic field
of South Asian studies. At the event,
Graham Shaw, the former head of Asia,
Pacific and Africa Collections at the
British Library, London, will speak
about India’s own position in global
book history.
For more information, write to
© maganbhai patel (masterji) courtesy focus photography festival, 2017
Mahindra Excellence
in Theatre Awards
The twelfth Mahindra
Excellence in Theatre
Awards will be held
in Delhi to celebrate
excellence in plays
conceived and performed in India. Ten plays, featuring scripts in many Indian
languages, will be staged for the jury and theatre enthusiasts,
and will be followed by an awards ceremony.
© sooni taraporevala courtesy focus photography festival, 2017
For more information, write to
Photography Festival
images courtesy teamwork arts
The third FOCUS Photography Festival will centre around
the theme of memory, and will explore how photographers
have used, and continue to use, photography as a means of
shaping history. The festival will be held outside regular gallery spaces—in the shops, restaurants and streets of Mumbai.
For more information, write to
MARCH 2017
photofusion / uig / getty images
Editor’s Pick
eileen lake is congratulated by the bishop of willesden on the steps
of St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 17 April 1994, shortly after being
ordained—conferred with religious authority—as a priest. Lake was part
of the first wave of women to become priests of the Church of England,
beginning with a group of 32 ordained on 12 March 1994.
In the Church of England, positions of religious leadership have historically been restricted to men. In recent decades, however, there have
been some changes on this front. In 1985, the church allowed women to
be ordained as deacons—religious leaders ranked below priests. The institution ordained its first women priests nine years after that, though it
was not until 2015 that it ordained the first woman bishop.
Authorities of other Christian denominations, including the Roman
Catholic Church, have also been examining their stances towards female religious leadership. Last August, the current head of the Catholic
Church, Pope Francis, created a commission to study the possible effects of allowing women to serve as deacons.
But, at least in the near future, the Catholic Church seems unlikely to
ordain any female priests. In 2013, soon after Pope Francis took up his
post, a journalist asked him whether women might one day be able to
join the priesthood. “The Church has spoken and says ‘no,’” he replied.
“That is closed, that door.”
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The Caravan, journal
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