30 Years of Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Quick Overview

On the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, methyl isocyanate gas leaking from Union Carbide’s factory in Bhopal claimed more than 5,000 lives. More than half a million people still suffer the side effects of the exposure to the gas; the soil and groundwater have been contaminated and toxicity has crossed over to the second and third generations. This book describes the criminal negligence, incompetent governance and the apathy towards victims that have made Bhopal a continuing disaster. It gives voice to people’s anguish and is also a testimony to the Centre for Science and Environment’s and Down To Earth’s long engagement with Bhopal. This book argues that India cannot afford to let Bhopal fade from public memory and concludes with a blueprint to avoid a similar tragedy.

Editors: Sunita Narain, Chandra Bhushan, Richard Mahapatra, Vibha Varshney, Archana Yadav, Kaushik Das Gupta, Aruna P Sharma
Research and reportage: Kundan Pandey, Amit Khurana, Soma Basu
ISBN: 978-81-86906-78-1
Publication : Centre for Science and Environment
Format: Paper Back
Language: English

Rs 400.00
To buy: http://csestore.cse.org.in/books/environment/bhopal-gas-tragedy.html

Bad blood

1The conversation at a dinner table begins with a couple of menopausal women (united by one acronym: CRIMINE, Committee of Ramallah Independent Menopausal Inner Network Enterprise) talking about sagging buttocks, facelifts, changes in their bodies and trails off to Hamas vs Fatah and the barely existing hope of a free Palestine. Do I still look beautiful? Am I still sexy? Suad Amiry’s Menopausal Palestine bridges insecurities of beautiful women, going through stages of menopause, and once resplendent Palestine scarred by incessant conflicts and tussles and finally election of Hamas into power.

Do I still look beautiful? Am I still sexy? Suad Amiry’s Menopausal Palestine bridges insecurities of beautiful women, going through stages of menopause, and once resplendent Palestine scarred by incessant conflicts and tussles and finally election of Hamas into power.

The book (first English publication launched in Kolkata recently) is not about politics. It is about lives of women most whom had left their homes in the 70’s, at the tender age of 18-19 to join the Palestine Liberal Organisation movement, most of them Palestinian by association, or have one parent who carries the Palestinian bloodline. All, at some point of their lives were inspired to work for the PLO.

Suad Amiry is a refugee, an architect and the founder and director of an NGO, in Ramallah. What made her an author are Hamas, walls between Palestine and Israel and her mother-in-law. “I am a writer by pure accident. In 2003, when the Israelis reoccupied Palestine, my mother-in-law had to stay with us and drove me crazy. For 34 days, I had to deal with the Israeli army in the garden and my mother-in-law inside. I wrote emails to friends describing this insane situation. Little did I know that I would come to publish this as Sharon and My Mother-in-Law. It gives me a new way of talking about Palestine,” says Suad.

2‘Suad’ means happy woman and that is how she deals with difficult situations around her. Be it getting away by behaving stupid at checkpoints or traveling on her dogs’s Jerusalem passport, Suad has done them all. But beneath the frothy humour is years of accumulated anger. “In Palestine you cannot move. Here, in Kolkata you know how much time it will take to reach a particular place. In Palestine, it all depends on the checkpoints we have to cross. It can be anything. It had once taken me 16 hours to cover 25 Kms. The settlement is such that it simply interferes in your life. My mother-in-law deals with the situation by being overly orderly while I stand aside and laugh. To fight the crisis one has to be human first,” she says.

Suad Amiry doesn’t like stereotypes and generalisations. “When I write, I don’t touch the big issues” she underlines. “The occupation is the reality that I don’t want, and, also, I don’t want Palestinians to be heroes, or a symbol of death. In my works I want to show that there is a nation that wants to live simply, to go to the cinema, to walk in the streets. I’d say to the Israeli that I want what they want. No more than that, no less than that. I am not a big feminist but what I believe is that the power of women is in the details of life. To me, the news of a child who can’t reach his school is more important than what Hamas says or does. I try to deal with the details and the texture of life. Texture is very complicated.”

Suad narrates a story in which an Israeli child used to tell her mother that she has nightmares that a man peeks from her window and she fears that he has come to take their piano back. She says that the Isarelis are insecure and what gives Palestine security is culture. Suad, the founder and director, RIWAQ, Centre for Architectural Conservation, says: “Rehabilitating and protecting the cultural heritage in Palestine is very important for us, particularly because of our relations with Israel. Between 1948 and 1951, Israel destroyed 420 villages of what then became Israel. This means that they deleted any trace of the fact that we were ever in Palestine. So, for us, restoring the buildings is an issue of identity and history.”

Suad says that she can never trust an Israeli who is always trying to take away her land. She cannot shrug off the fact that her ancestral home is in Jaffa. “If Israelis want peace, they must apologise for what they did to the Palestinians in 1948. They don’t want to accept what happened because since they are afraid that if they did that there won’t be an Israel. There is a solution — divide the land into two states, Israel and Palestine. But the Israelis want their portion of the land and for us to share our portion with them. Israel is like a spoilt child, it should first learn to behave,” she added.

Suad was a member of the Palestinian delegation that held bilateral peace-negotiations in Washington from 1991 to 1993, sponsored by the US government. When asked about the disillusionment, she says: “No, I couldn’t feel disillusioned or betrayed, because I never actually expected much to come out of such negotiations. The United States have always backed Israel’s interests and aims and furthered Israel’s projects. There was no reason to believe that they wanted negotiations with the Palestinians for any other reason than securing the well-being of the colonial power on our backs. Hamas is strangely listed as a terrorist group by US and EU. The day it recognises Israel, it will be off the list.”

After a lot of Bush-bashing, Barack Obama’s name brings a twinkle in Suad’s eyes. She says that Obama brings in a world of change. He is not the ‘white anglo-saxon man’ rulling. Maybe Obama is not capable of doing certain things but he creates an atmosphere in which change can be brought, for example, the Goldstone report. “I believe in Obama, because I think he connected with what I think about identity. We have to realize how the world has changed. What does it mean ‘I am German’ with more than four million Turks? What does it mean ‘I am French’ within a society of more than five million Algerians and Moroccans? For me Obama is President of the new reality. And when he was elected I didn’t care about Palestine. I care more about Iraq or about the meaning of his election for a black person in the U.S.A. So, I am very optimistic for humanity more than for Palestine.”

“Morality is on our side, history is on our side. We are stubborn and love life. People see us as someone who chants ‘we desire death as you desire life’. But that is not true; we prevail because we are resilient. We want to live and so we celebrate life and build institutions. This makes me feel no injustice can go on forever,” say Suad as she sets off on a new journey.

Suad Amiry’s new book, Murad, Murad, is the story of her eighteen-hour journey in 2007 with Murad, an ‘illegal’ Palestinian worker and his friends, as they attempt to cross the ‘border’ into Israel and find work. Murad has worked in Israel since he was thirteen and is utterly determined to continue to work there, despite the enormous odds against him.

A heap of broken images

Soma Basu gets slayed by Shabana Azmi’s views on gender struggle

“So intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand,
So intimate that when you fall asleep it is my eyes that close…”

Imagine what if these lines by Pablo Neruda were not exchanged between lovers but jealous siblings. The shuddersome night would not have seen morning without any of them stripped off their identity.
Broken Images, the psychological thriller written by Girish Karnad and directed by Alyque Padamsee, recreates the encounter between two shadows that try to take over each other’s body. Manjula, the elder sister publish her crippled sister Malini’s book under her own name after the latter’s death. Shabana plays Majula and Malini. Girish Kannad’s intricately-woven narrative is put on stage in flesh and blood as Shabana carries on with the monologue, one of the distinct features of plays written by Kannad.
The play opens many possibilities. Was Malini the victim of Manjula’s spite or was she the one who deliberately defeats her elder sister in what she considered her own territory of  writing novels? Is it that Manjula stole the novel written (in English) by Malini as she was insecure or did Malini want Manjula to steal the manuscript so that she could continue to run away from herself, even after her sister’s death? Perhaps Malini had forgiven Manjula. She named the novel The River Has No Memories. Was Manjula drowning in self-pity?
Shabana Azmi, says, “Till the end of the play one would keep wondering who the victim was and who the oppressor is. The play starts with Manjula who is a very confident woman. She had always written in Hindi and the first book she writes in English becomes a bestseller and somebody wants to make a movie out of it. She acts throughout the play. But when she encounters her image, you see the cracks appearing and she admits to lying.”
During the first hour of the play, one reminiscences Shabana’s roles from the various movies she has acted in ~ the same tempo, the same fervour and the same conflict of emotions that reflect on her face. She, however, lacked the coldness of a calculative woman during the first few minutes of the play. The lights on the stage were horrible but by the time the glitch appeared, the audience was too engrossed to notice anything.
According to Alyque Padamsee, Shabana is the first actress to have done an act in which she plays against herself. Shabana Azmi says, “I do not judge myself by thinking about actresses who had delivered such a performance before.” The play, as it looks, does not deal with a successful woman’s struggle with loneliness nor does it portray her conflict with society about breaking stereotypes. Instead, Girish Kannad’s Odakalu Bimb in Kannada and Bikhre Bimb in Hindi, penned in 2004, explore the dilemma of Indian writers who choose to write in English. “The play underlines how writers in regional languages suffer ~ something that Girish had to deal with,” says Shabana. A dialogue that clears the haze from this hidden stream of thought is: “The president of the Sahitya Academy said that regional writers who write in English do so to earn money. He (the president), of course, spoke in English.”
What made Shabana take up Broken Images after a long leave from theatre? “Raell Padamsee, producer of the play, had seen the play with her father Alyque at Ravindra Natya Mandir three months ago and Girish Kannad had come down with the play as part of the Vinod Doshi festival. She wanted Alyque to direct the play. She wanted me to play the lead. He had directed my mother, Shaukat Kaifi Azmi, 40 years ago in another play and he immediately said yes. I liked the script very much. It’s wonderful doing plays with him,” says Shabana.
Shabana is also in an international production titled Seven. It is a play by a feminist organisation ~ Vital Voices ~ in New York. In the play, seven real-life characters, women leaders from across the world, speak about their struggles. “I will play Inez McCormack who had a Protestant upbringing in Northern Ireland, married a Catholic and became a longtime activist for women’s human rights, labour and social justice. It’s the same part that Meryl Streep played in an earlier production,” she says. She has got five other actors on board, including Urmila Matondkar, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Tanvi Azmi, Jayanti Bhatia and Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal.
Azmi is doing the play for free. “I was approached because of my work in the field of women’s rights. The play is about real women. Every single word we speak in the play are for women whose lives are restricted, threatened and often lost to violence,” she adds. Shabana will also start working for Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children later this year.

Girish Karnad’s Broken Images is directed by Alyque Padamsee. Event coordinated by Weavers Studio Centre for the Arts.

It’s yesterday once more…

KOLKATA, 8 JAN: The busy city’s frustration melted away today as old beauties, competing for The Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally 2012, flitted across the streets warming hearts of innumerable people on the chilly rain-soaked Sunday morning putting a sudden stop to bickering in public vehicles, gifting spark to eyes laden with sleep or worry and crinkling faces only to smile.
A traffic guard with a smile on his face is as rare to come across, as it is to find people who miss buses or autos to take a break, watch cars of the bygone era and smile as they used to as children looking at their toy car in their hands. But, the classic and vintage cars out on a stroll today, bought back the golden days.
The Chief of the Eastern Army Command Lt-General Vikram Singh flagged off the fleet of over 160 cars who took the route from the Eastern Command Sports Stadium after his wife, Mrs Bubbles Singh, inaugurated the rally. The cars sped out of the stadium after the grand parade and the wiggle-woggle test.
Babughat today wore a strange fabric of colours with the Kingly cars and its passengers dressed mostly as feudal lords or sporting the retro look of the 70s driving past the motley of saffron-clad pilgrims congregated for the Ganga Sagar Mela. Not only the commuters but also several traffic guards wielded cameras to capture the magnificent machines on their reels (or chips in the time of digital revolution). The cars sped through the near desolate CR Avenue from Raj Bhavan with pedestrians waving at the drivers and cheering them.
The 1960 Messerschmitt proved to be real head-turner with a man in a pan shop near Calcutta Medical College and Hospital exclaiming: “Is it a car or a bike?” People standing inside buses were never so impatient for the window seat as they were today with a series of glamourous cars passing by. People who came to their balconies just after waking up rubbed their eyes twice to confirm they had not time-travelled as the oldies of the last century drove down the road.
If there were a quote of the day, it would have been what a 70-year-old Bengali market-goer asked Havaldar LM Sahoo, driving the Eastern Command Head Quarter’s 1940 Austin 125A, near Manicktala Main Road. The elderly man with a packet full of fish in his hands peeked into the car that had stopped for a while at the signal and then asked: “Achha, eitar start bondo hoye gaile ki handle mere shuru korte hoye? (If its engine stops, do you have to rotate crank in front of the car to start it again?)”

While the rally had been smooth, barring the initial hiccups due to rains, almost five cars encountered problems of sorts on their way. 1929 Austin Seven (Tourer) of Mr NC Agarwalla had stopped thrice. Mr Pramod Kumar Mittal’s 1912 Standard Coventry had to come to a halt near Panchannagram on EM Bypass amidst the mob of admirers who touched the car as if they were touching a relic from the past. One of them pointing at the brass doorknobs asked: “Is this real or painted?” Near the Salt Lake Stadium crossing, a gamchha and gutka seller, who was selling the items to a taxi driver and turned in a hurry to find a “strange” car, got the shock of his life and pulled back his hands with the pouch he was going to offer to the passengers of an Austin Seven. He ran to the footpath to look an eyeful at the vehicle bursting into laughter. Picnickers to Nooner Bheri ran out to see so many old cars, which a man explained to his nine-year-old as “Ingrej der gari (cars of the Englishmen)”, driving down the Bypass. A man at the Gariahat crossing said: “the rally was supposed to be on 26 January why has it been advanced?” His friend corrected him and said: “Today is a festival of cars.”
Some rallyists stopped on their way to cool their engine, take a break or meet friends while the winners completed the journey with such a speed that they even overtook modern day Ambassadors. Though there were also some cars, which could not even gain on a cycle rickshaw. The chief judge, Mr MJ Pook, declared the names of the winners. The Statesman Trophy (Vintage) and The Statesman Trophy (Classic) was won by Mr Sanjay Ghosh’s 1932 Ford V8 Delux Pheaton and 1947 Chevrolet Fleet Master. Mr Ravindra Kumar, editor and managing director of The Statesman, thanked everybody for making the rally a success despite the rain. The Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally would be held in New Delhi on 12 February.

Soma Basu

Dr Austin and his babies

KOLKATA, 7 JAN: Some say that, with aging parts and rising maintenance costs, maintaining a vintage car is like domesticating a white elephant. But there are a few who have taken on the challenge and have been successfully juggling both car upkeep and their professions.
A number of people who have made their marks in their profession go home to a piece of history and find joy and solace in it. They say this passion helps them overcome the rush and exhaustion of the workplace.
Dr Debashis Bhose, a successful gynaecologist, owns two “Baby Austins”: a 1933 tourer and a 1937 sedan. Every day after work, his aides Benaras and Anaras help him maintain the car.
Dr Bhose is not among those who have forsaken everything for the love of their cars and gotten into restoration full-time. Instead, he has resisted taking the plunge and caressed his desire by buying the model his mother used to talk about the most.
“My mother used to tell me about Baby Austins when I was small,” Dr Bhose said. “The way she used to talk about them made me want one. I managed to buy a Baby Austin during my graduation years. And since I have an idea about machines, it has not been very difficult for me.” If you give the car some time every day, it will not fail you, he adds.
The car has now become his identity ~ so much so, that he is often called Dr Austin at a charity hospital he drives his Austin to once a month. “To restore a car definitely costs a lot of money. But once it’s ready, all it needs is some amount of time every day,” said Mr Bhose, adding that Austins were meant for the middle-class. “I believe old things last longer,” he said.
And still there are some who have given into the temptation. Mr Prithvi Tagore, a working professional, started a workshop eight months ago. He says he inherited a passion for vintage and classic cars from his father. With four cars lined up in his workshop, he will be participating in The Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally on Sunday with Mr Adhir Kohli’s 1949 Citroen.

Soma Basu

Car that snubs Ford models even today

KOLKATA, 6 JAN: In the beginning of the last century a zamindar from Bengal who wanted a car travelled all the way to the USA from Midnapore to meet Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, only to snub the models offered to him.
Ishwar Chandra Chowdhury needed the car to travel from his Molighati Estate in West Midnapore to Midnapore Town. The journey was earlier made on a horse carriage. His quest ended in Stettin, a Polish town in Germany, where he ordered a custom-made car for himself at Stoewer, the company that used to make sewing machines, cycles and road rollers among other products.
Strange it may seem, but a one-of-a-kind pre-war era car built in Poland’s Stettin, before it was ravaged in the World War II bombings, fathomed the dusty roads of West Midnapore in 1913 for a zamindar, served four generations of his family and will now prove its mettle at The Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally, 2011.
The car was made, specially, for the roads of the village, fitted with the engine of a heavy-duty vehicle. Two German engineers accompanied the car, which landed at the Kolkata Port and was transported to Midnapore.
In 1948, the tyres of the car gave away and so, they were replaced with that of a Ford T Model. Barring a couple of years when the car was grounded and restored again in 1999, the car never failed the family and has been winning prizes at the rally.
Along with the Stoewer 1913, Mr Pratap Chowdhury, grandson of Ishwar Chandra Chowdhury, will be fielding six other cars at rallies.
You may see 100 Rolls-Royces but hardy one Auburn, said Mr Partha Sadan Bose, the proud owner of the 1926 model that he procured from Sovabazar Rajbari in exchange for a bowl full of rabri. The previous owner of the car was Kumar Sudhindra Krishna Deb, grandson of Raja Sir Narendra Krishna Deb Bhadur of Sobha Bazar Rajbari. The car was in a poor condition. Even the tyres had corroded.
“When I offered to buy the car, Kumar Sudhindra Krishna Deb said that in Sovabazar Raj Bari we do not sell anything. But I had to take the car. The deal was finally made and I got my Auburn in exchange for a bowl of rabri,” said Mr Partha Sadhan Bose.
A Masserchmitt 1960 was bought by Mr RC Agarwal in 2006 from a friend in Delhi. Messerchmitt, a German company, was famous for its World War II fighter aircraft. But soon, production of aircrafts was banned. So the company diverted its production to an aerodynamic three-wheeler car model called Bubble car. The classic and vintage cars, each like a page from a history book, will not only adorn the Eastern Command Sports Stadium on 8 January but aslo rally to relive the old days.

Soma Basu

Lord Mountbatten’s Rolls-Royce to roll on…

KOLKATA, 5 JAN: Believe it or not, the last Viceroy of India Lord Mountbatten’s Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith would glide down the city streets once again after six decades during The Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally on 8 January.
The seven-seater limousine was bought for the Viceroy of India on 9 July 1947 from Allied Motors Limited for £407. After Lord Mountbatten left the country, the car changed hands and was lying in a garage, grounded for 20 years, when the Mumbai-based owner, Mr Hemant Kumar Ruia, spotted it. The car was purchased and sent to the restorer, Mr Sanjay Ghosh, on 10 August 2011. In a span of just a few months, Mr Ghosh put the pieces of the scrap together that had come to him more like a jigsaw puzzle and, barring the last-minute touch-ups, it is now ready to compete at the The Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally this Sunday.
“The car has the special Viceroy’s light on the centre of the roof along with the flagstaff for the Viceroy’s flag. My client is trying to replicate the flag so that the car could participate in the rally in its full glory,” said Mr Ghosh. Mr Ghosh, who gets a large number of cars to the rally every year, had started his workshop with just a few thousands of rupees but today his workshop greets a visitor with a fleet of magnificent cars, each a piece of history.
Mr Hemant Kumar Ruia traced the history of the Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith and it was confirmed that the car indeed belonged to the Viceroy. They have been successful in getting a heritage registration for the car.

Soma Basu

Women drivers to rock the city

KOLKATA, 4 JAN: A famous quote goes like this: “Nothing confuses a man more than a woman driver who does everything right.”
Men who would chuckle secretly reading this should give it another thought, or better, come to The Statesman Vintage and Classic Car Rally, 2012 where women would not only manoeuvre the hard gears but also take the gangster coupes and others for a drive through pot-holed crooked city streets braving catcalls.
“Manoeuvring the clutch and gears in the old cars is not an easy task. They are hard and it needs strength to use them. It is easier to drive modern cars as their clutch and gears are light and it doesn’t take much effort to use them,” explains Mrs Dipali Poddar who would drive the 1946 Rover in the rally that would start from Eastern Command Sports Stadium on 8 January. Mrs Poddar has bagged several prizes in international car rallies. She, along with her navigator, Mrs Shikha Saha, won the first prize at the Bhutan Rally in 2010. Several women may find rotating the steering of vintage cars for the sharp turns difficult, she added.
However, she loves the attention she receives on the road. “The expression on peoples’ faces is just amazing. At times, small children ask us to give them a lift in the car. There are people who say, ‘oi dekho meye chalachhe (see, a woman is driving)’ but it gives me a sense of freedom,” she added. This year, Mrs Poddar would be participating as all-women’s team covering three generations!
But not everybody has pleasant experiences. Ms Sucheta Dey, who would be driving 1939 Morris on the rally day, says there are certain areas where driving in open cars becomes very risky. “Especially, the No. 4 bridge near Park Circus is a place we are scared to drive in open cars. People get so excited during the rally that they come forward, block our way clicking pictures and they even want to touch us,” she said, adding since they participate in the rally in costumes, there have been instances when people pulled their hair or ran away with their hats. “I can’t believe people in a place like Kolkata still comment on women driving cars. A proper security arrangement is a must in such places,” she added.
Mrs Chandra Bose, who would drive a 1930 Rolls Royce this year, said since she has been driving all sorts of cars since her teen, she hardly has to face any difficulties during the rally manoeuvring the vehicles. “Only that I have to get into the car from the other side as the hand gear is situated beside the door on the right. It is difficult to get in wearing a saree but the joy of participating in the rally with my three grandchildren is incomparable,” she said.
Her daughter, Mrs Sreerupa Sarkar, would also be participating in the rally with her 1931 Buick. Old cars used to have very little space between the steering and the seat. “I can manage getting into it but I wonder how a person endowed with a big belly would manage getting into the car,” said Mrs Bose. From 11 p.m. to 12 a.m., when the traffic is minimum, Mrs Bose has been on the road, test driving the cars and getting them ready to compete in the rally.
“Except the taxi drivers on city roads, everybody, especially the minibus drivers, cooperate. At times young men have a tendency to overtake our old cars during the rally. It becomes difficult when people stand in the way of the car to click pictures. The brakes of these cars are such that if I pull the brake, the car would come to a halt after covering another meter. Even police personnel do not understand this problem,” she added.

Soma Basu

Oceans apart

The Lascar Memorial was erected by shipping and mercantile companies at the southern end of the Maidan, within 100 yards of Prinsep Ghat, to the memory of the 896 Lascars of undivided Bengal and Assam who lost their lives during World War I.

Ninety-one years down the line, James Keir is doing for children in Kalimpong what his father did in Kolkata to preserve the memory of Bengali Lascars killed during World War I. SOMA BASU reports

IN 1920, William Ingram Keir laid the foundations of historical monuments in Kolkata. Ninety-one years down the line his son, James Keir, is laying the foundations of a better future for thousands of children in villages in Kalimpong. On a recent visit to the city, he brought copies of a series of photographs and articles published in The Statesman in 1920s that he’d unearthed from the attic of his house in Hong Kong.
His father was none other than the one who designed the Lascar War Memorial, Khidderpore Bridge, the buildings of the Bengal Engineering and Science University (erstwhile Bengal Engineering College) in Shibpur, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, and Islamia College. He’d also replaced the spire of St Paul’s Cathedral — damaged in an earthquake in 1934 — with a tower and designed a number of mosques, temples and gurdwaras in the city and the state.
His own house — a bungalow named Omagh — and orchard in Kalimpong was taken over by the government and then burnt down by Gokhaland agitators a couple of years after he’d left the country. His name is not seen on any of the buildings since, in those times, buildings would have engravings of the contractor and not the designer. However, WI Keir features in newspaper reports and a book called The Cathedral Spire.
James Keir, a 75-year-old philanthropic, has been associated with the Glenn Family Foundation, founded by Owen G Glenn, and he remembers the place in Kalimpong where he’d been brought up and laments the loss of green. He is running plantation drives among the villagers there. For the past eight years, the GFF has been supporting a model village programme in the Kalimpong.
James Keir said his father would never talk much about his life but he would always say, “I am a foreigner in India but a stranger everywhere else.” The father died three months after he left the country in 1967. “The 1934 earthquake had taken him to Darjeeling where he met my mother, who was a Nepali. He later designed the Dhir Dham Temple in Darjeeling that was inaugurated by the then Commanding General, Sir Shumshere Jung Bahadur Rana of Nepal,” the son said. The Lascar War Memorial earned WI Keir an award of Rs 500 for its design in an international contest in 1920 and “remained of special value to him”.
Apart from this memorial, Kolkata has two others — the Cenotaph and the Bengali War Memorial, erected in the memory of Bengali martyrs of the Great War in 1914-1918. This memorial was erected by shipping and mercantile companies at the southern end of the Maidan, within 100 yards of Prinsep Ghat, to the memory of the 896 Lascars of undivided Bengal and Assam who lost their lives during World War I. It was unveiled in 1924 by Lord Lytton, then Governor of Bengal. The memorial, a four-sided column of Oriental architecture, appropriately designed with the prow of an ancient galley projecting from each of its sides, was capped by four small minarets and a large gilt dome. The undulating lines beneath symbolise waves, with chhajjas and trellises to give it a distinctly Indian look.

Hooghly in 1920s.

On an earlier visit to the city, James Keir recalled how struck he was by the neglect of this monument but in a span of a few years the Navy had refurbished the memorial and restored its glory, he said. “However, the golden dome whose glitter used to attract the attention of seamen and remind them of the martyrs, has now been painted pink!”
The Cenotaph, at the northern end of the Maidan to the west of Ochterlony Monument, was erected by public subscription, and its inscription reads, “The Glorious Dead”. It is almost a replica of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, and it was unveiled in 1921 by the Prince of Wales who later became Edward VIII. Two bronze soldiers stand guard at its approach. In the days of the Raj there would be an elaborate ceremony at the Cenotaph.
On Armistice Day each year, its base would be covered with flowers and the Governor and his entourage, the Military, the Navy and a large gathering of people of all communities would stand in reverential silence for two minutes. The Bengali War Memorial at College Square is hardly visible, covered as it is today with political posters and banners.
Whether William Keir was involved in the design of the Cenotaph and the Bengali War Memorial is not known, but there is no denying how these have been reduced to victims of neglect. While the martyrs were being honoured in India, those Lascars who survived the war were being subjected to racial hostility in Britain.
India sent more than 1,300,000 soldiers to fight in Europe during World War I.. Many Bengalis worked on merchant ships, often in the engine rooms, under appalling conditions and for very low pay. In 1914, Indian deckhands earned between Rs 16-22 a month and firemen (who worked with the engines) Rs 20. Their British counterparts would get triple the amount. Nearly 3,500 Indian seamen were killed during that war and another 1,200 were taken prisoner. By 1919, Indian seamen made up 20 per cent of Britain’s sea-going labour force.
A compilation of stories of migration under a three-year project of the London School of Economics and the University of Cambridge gives insight into what Bengali Lascars and their families had to face when the war ended. A number of Indian soldiers and sailors settled in Britain but, soon enough, race riots broke out in 1919 in the port cities of London, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff, where small coloured communities were attacked by Britons angry about competition for jobs and over fears of racial mixing between “coloured” men and white women.
In Cardiff, unarmed Black and Asian settlers were fired on by local mobs led by colonial troops from South Africa and Australia, and three men were killed. There were failed attempts to send back Black settlers in 1919 and 1921. In 1925, Lascars were targeted by the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order, which said that all “coloured” seamen had to register with the police, even though many of them were British subjects.
A letter in the British Library dated 7 September 1925, from the wife of a Peshawar-born Indian domiciled in Britain and working as a seafarer, describes the treatment of some Asians (who were British subjects) under the Home Office Coloured Aliens Seamen’s Order, 1925, “My husband landed at Cardiff, after a voyage to sea on the SS Derville, as a fireman and produced his Mercantile Marine Book, RS 2 No. 436431, which bears his ‘Certificate of Nationality’, declaring him to be British and is signed by a Mercantile Marine Superintendent, dated 18 August 1919. This book and its certificate were ignored, and my husband was registered as an Alien. Would you kindly inform me if it is correct that the Mercantile Marine Book should have been ignored as documentary proof? I have been married to him seven years, and we have three children, therefore the knowledge that my husband is not a recognised British subject causes me much consternation, as should anything happen to him in a foreign port his rights as a Britisher would be jeopardised and consequently my own and our children’s.”
Despite this, the small communities of Bengali settlers in the 1920s and 1930s were very important in providing support and shelter to new arrivals. Individuals such as Ayub Ali and Shah Abdul Majid Qureshi, who set up the Indian Seamen’s Welfare League in Aldgate in 1943, were early community contacts, and helped new arrivals find work, either back on the ships or in the local clothing and hotel businesses. They also ran Bengali “coffee shops” — an early form of the Bengali restaurant trade.

Oolobaria Lascar Crew.

James Keir said his father was not interested in bigger projects later in his career. Instead, it was the variety of work and the research that appealed to him. To build a mosque or a temple needed an intricate understanding of culture and religion. “My father would sit for hours studying the architectural styles of various religious places. Learning about various cultures gave him immense pleasure,” he said.
St Paul’s Cathedral was designed by Major (later General) William Nairn Forbes (1796-1855) of the Bengal Engineers, who was also responsible for the Bengal Mint. The spire was damaged during the earthquake in 1934 and was replaced by a tower designed by William Kier after the Bell Harry Tower in Canterbury.
The pleasure of meeting and talking to the son of the man who designed the Lascar Memorial was embellished by reading about this community in Amitava Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Who knows, the next time you visit Britain you could come across a Bengali restaurant whose owner could just possibly be the descendant of a Bengali Lascar and/or a martyr of World War I. The world is a small place, indeed.

Old Calcutta
SIR, ~ Soma Basu’s “Oceans apart” (8th Day, 20 November) was an interesting read. William Ingram Keir was consulting architect to the Government of Bengal. The Lascar War Memorial and other monuments in Calcutta were designed by him as part of his duty. The credit for designing the Lascar and other memorials in Calcutta has already been acknowledged by Allister Macmillan (Sea Ports of India and Ceylon, London: Collingbridge, 1928, p 34) and other chroniclers on Calcutta. This memorial was built by Mackintosh Burn Ltd. John Barry (Calcutta Illustrated 1941/1953) and others have already given detailed descriptions of Lascar and other memorials. WI Keir is not a forgotten name in Calcutta, but his contributions are not spectacular.
Yours, etc., PT Nair, Kolkata, 20 November.

Eye of the tiger

The late Fateh Singh Rathore never supported fancy ‘save the tiger’ campaigns or outdated government policies. Soma Basu was one of the last to interview the ‘Tiger Man’ before he passed away on 1 March

FATEH Singh Rathore’s visit to Kolkata in August 2010 caused quite a flutter among journalists dealing with environment and wildlife issues. He was the topic of discussion for even those scribes who sauntered around in the leaky corridors of the municipal corporation and the labyrinth of Writers’ Buildings. He was in the city to attend a programme organised by WWF-India. I knew about the programme but not the man, so I made all sorts of excuses for not attending because I though it would be just another programme where people would talk of tiger conservation for 20 minutes and then head for the cocktail party. Half an hour after the show started, I got a call from a journalist friend.
“Where are you? Fateh Singh Rathore is here.”
“Who is he?”
“He’s the tiger man of India.”
Nandan was full. I saw my friend squatting on the floor with several others. I trampled several feet to get to where I could see who this man was. A frail figure with alert eyes, it was difficult to tell whether it was a smile or a scorn on his lips. Uniform-clad, weather-beaten body and amused at whatever was happening around him. Finally, he rose to speak. And in five minutes he slammed meetings, conferences, forest departments, government policies and fashionable tiger campaigns. It was then I decided to interview him. Even though I did not know the man.
Only two managed an appointment. One was my friend who impressed him (read amused him) by saying that he was in love with tigers since he was three years old as, on his third birthday, he’d cut a cake that was tiger-shaped. I did not have a story to tell so without taking his permission I informed him I would be interviewing him the next day at Tollygunge Club, were he was putting up. One of the organisers had told me he would be leaving the city at 9 am. He smiled and gave me his mobile number.
I spent the night reading about him and his life in articles available on the Internet till early in the morning. By 6.50 am, standing just near his room, I called him. Dressed in a crisp uniform, a silk scarf around his neck, he welcomed me in. And the interview began.

How did you become a tiger conservator?
Nobody is born with an ambition or passion. When I finished my graduation, I got a job in a private reserve of the Maharana of Udaipur ~ Haridas Ji Ki Magri ~ and worked there for six months. KC Singh, the old hunter working for the Maharana, took me as his assistant. He taught me how to prepare bait. He taught me how to think like a tiger.
In January 1961, I had to organise a tiger shoot for Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. I saw a tiger for the first time when the Duke shot it down. I had no special attachment to tigers at that time… celebrations took place when we managed to get tigers for dukes and queens.
I got a chance to apply for a job in the forest department. I worked in Sariska and Ranthambhore. I was later transferred to Mount Abu. It was part of my job in forest service to ensure that foreign VIPs bagged their tigers. The government used to issue hunting permits till 1969. Indira Gandhi and Kailash Sankhala, the erstwhile director of Delhi Zoo, thought tigers needed protection and the practice was stopped.
I was lucky to be part of the first group to train at the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun in 1969. Saroj Raj Choudhury, director of the course and my guru, trained me for nine months. I was doing some job when he told me about Project Tiger which was launched in Ranthambhore in 1972. During this time the director, NC Khullar, gave me a free hand.

How difficult was the relocation of villages in Ranthambhore?
To stop grazing was a Herculean task there. It took me one and a half years to show people, who were to be uprooted from their ancestral homes so that an area could be created for tigers which would remain inviolate from human disturbance, their future. Thirteen villages from inside the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve had to be relocated to a new village called Kailashpuri outside (named after Kailash Sankhala, the first director of Project Tiger). The people were compensated with land and money and given facilities such as health care and education, which they had never enjoyed up until then. By 1976, we had moved all the villages out and tigers began to move in.

When did you get the first indication of the tiger count rising?
I began to see pugmarks on morning drives. Then, slowly, I began to see tigers roaming in front of me even during the day. I never expected that since I’d heard tigers were nocturnal and elusive. On 7 June 1976, I saw the tigress I had named Padmini, after my daughter, with four cubs. I followed this family day and night. The tigress eventually started trusting me and seemed to treat me as a friend.

You were once attacked?
In August 1981, a group of disgruntled men from Uliyana village attacked me and left me to die with multiple fractures and a head injury. The villagers were angry as they could not take their cattle for grazing or cut firewood from the protected area of the forest.

How easy was it to replicate this in Sariska?
In 1987, I was transferred as Field Director to Sariska at the request of Rajiv Gandhi, who wanted me to replicate his success story in Ranthambhore. Just two years later, the collector all of a sudden allowed villagers to take their cattle into the park for grazing. More than 20,000 cattle entered the park, threatening the wild animals there. I resigned my job as a mark of protest. Soon I came to know that 16 tigers were missing. I became an eyesore for the forest department. I could understand their follies. I spoke the truth and was quite outspoken. They had every reason to hate me.

(We were interrupted by the state director of WWF-India, Saswati Sen, who told me to wrap up in the next two minutes since I had not taken her permission before doing the the interview. I told her that Rathore permitted me to come. She was furious and told me that she was the one who needed to be asked, not Rathore. And that the newspapers she had promised time with Fateh Singh were waiting. I lost my cool and offered to leave. The tiger man told me to sit and continued as though nothing had happened. Ignored, Sen left.)

The tigers were poached?
There is a high possibility that they were poached. And it was my fault that the tigers had become so trusting that they did not fear humans any more. I once got a poacher arrested who confessed to killing eight tigers. Later the man was released. He was found poaching again. Nomadic hunter tribes like the Moghiyas used to poach animals but they were merely used by dealers in big cities. They needed to be rehabilitated by teaching them new skills that could enable them to earn a livelihood.

What do you think about the number of tigers in the Sunderbans?
The 250 number could not be true. It’s an eyewash. The Sunderbans is terrain where counting the number of tigers is extremely difficult. One cannot count tigers by just following pugmarks. It’s a very unreliable way. Also, one must be transparent about the numbers. Every forest officer should acknowledge the problems so that they can be helped. Then there are squabbles about whether a tiger, always moving from one place to another, in the Sunderbans belongs to India or Bangladesh. How would an animal know of political boundaries?

What about radio collars?
It depends on the kind of radio collars we use. Our radio collars are technologically poor. Tigers try to detach them all the time. It is also unhealthy for them. During mating, a tiger would catch the tigress by her neck. Now if there a radio collar it would either tear off or there would be no mating. Both the results are undesired.

West Bengal’s chief conservator of forests has been trying to create a prey base in the Sunderbans by sending deer, which multiply fast, from other parks to the mangrove forest.
I have not heard of this ever. Even if this is done, one needs to ensure the deer can adapt to the terrain otherwise they would die even before being hunted by the tigers. The animals also need to be tested for disease.

Recently, a tigress strayed into the forest department guesthouse in the Sunderbans. She was followed by three tigers. Forest officials said that this indicated that the ecology was perfectly normal and the mating process among tigers was such that several males would chase a female and she would chose a mate.
(Laughs out loud.) That’s a joke. Unlike tigresses, tigers can never stay together in an area. They always have fights over their area. The actual process is just the opposite.

It was 8.15 am. The car waited to take him to the airport. I thanked him and he gave me a knowing and generous smile. I left Tollygunge Club. I told my friends about the man I’d just interviewed. I waited to write a nice article and the day never came. I arranged notebooks in my cupboard. I found the book where I’d scribbled what Fateh Singh Rathore told me during the interview. I made up my mind to write the article the next day. I went to bed. The next morning’s newspapers informed me that Fateh Singh Rathore had breathed his last at his residence on the outskirts of Ranthambhore National Park on 1 March. I finally wrote about the brief exchange with the man, about whom I never did get to learn enough.