The Lanka Guardian, still as good as ever. But why have they gone and put a new masthead on it? I still like the font on ´Guardian´, which speaks for the sober and consistent questioning that the paper has done over the two decades of its existence. But what of ´Lanka´? Looks, to me, like blocks of cheddar cheese gnawed through by Lankan rodents. So, Asiaweek has gone ahead and done the exercise for the rest of us, judged the Best Cities in Asia, choosing 40 “most-livable” places. South Asia does not make the top ten, but ranked 14th is Islamabad, city of 350,000 with no nightlife and a strait-laced bureaucratic-diplomatic elite. Next you have Bangalore at 19th, although its quality of life is dipping by the hour. Then comes Kathmandu, ranked 23rd, which is hard to believe, especially during the monsoon months of garbage pileup and winters of temperature inversion. Bombay, Colombo and Dhaka are all ranked 26th, Delhi and Karachi 29th, and Chittagong 31st. All I can say is, those Asiaweek pollsters must know what they are doing, but something does not sound right when dull and dreary desert that is Islamabad is the best in South Asia and the cultural haven of Calcutta does not make the grade.
In these columns the last time around, I had referred to Hinduism Today, a journal brought out from an ashram in Hawaii. The 29 November issue of Frontline paints a very unflattering picture of the magazine´s publisher, a 69-year-old US-born convert to Hinduism named Sivaya Subramuniya-swami. The article, written by the Madras-based magazine´s editor N. Ram, is about how the swamy, head of the Saiva Siddhanta Church, much given to spouting “New Age Hindu mumbo jumbo”, conspired to acquire a treasure trove of M.K.Gandhi´s personal papers and have them illegally auctioned in London. The profit was to have gone to building a massive temple, built completely of white granite, in Hawaii.
The Far Eastern Economic Review, too, has gone for a drastic revamp of its cover, although thankfully the insides do not depart too much from the earlier format. Call me a status-quoist, a pushover for tradition, but I do not like this new cover either. The message I read in it is the editors deciding to join the Americanesque (low, of sacrificing depth lor more user friendliness. And whoever gave them the idea that people say “Review” when they mean F-E-E-R? There was always the thrill in these fast-paced times of forcing people at the newsstand to ask for title in lull, or to say, “1 read it in the Far Eastern Economic Review.”. In fact, it was a real mark of success that the feer was never reduced to a one-word cypher, but now the editors themselves have fallen for it. They want to go to the mass, so why am I complaining?
In 1994, journalist/environmentalist Anil Agarwal was stricken with cancer which quickly hit his eyes and nervous system.
Most had given up hope that this dynamic activist would be around for long, but Mr Agarwal is very much here, and tells his story in the 30 November issue of Down to Earth, the fortnightly which he edits. The cover article is titled “My Story Today, Your Story Tomorrow” and it is the narration of how Mr Agarwal faced the prospect of “blindness, neurological disorders and death”. It takes the reader through his submission to strong doses of medication, a year of “blissful remission” in 1995, the return of the cancer cells, and a bone marrow transplant in mid-1996 which sees Mr Agarwal, hopefully, “rid of the disease”. The larger story is of how Mr Agarwal´s cancer, like most others, is deeply rooted in the environmental degradation and toxic contamination of the Indian landscape. “The elite of our nation have failed to internalise the ecological principle that every poison we put into the environment comes right back to us in our air, water and food.” A good article written, obviously, with feeling.
The editor of Himal South Asia has passed on to me the following letter from the All Nepal Journalist Association (Central Office), which I reproduce without prejudice nor comment. “Dear Sir: I, President of the Nepal Journalist Association, request you to kindly provide me a copy of the Himal, South Asia, on a complimentary basis.” It is signed by the President Hari Gopal Pradhan, and the address says in parentheses, “Nepal—Everest Country.” I´ll say.
Grassroots Options is a new magazine put out by some young journalists of the Indian Northeast, meant in the words of the editor Sanat K. Chakraborty of Shillong, “to redefine the major concerns and issues that affect the 35 million people” who live in the region. Says Mr Chakraborty, “We hope to tackle issues which go much deeper than insurgency and drug addiction, which is all that the home and overseas media seem to be interested in.” The journal´s December issue carries articles on communal identity, a major concern in the Northeast. Writers discuss the “proliferation of tribal identities” and the resulting challenge of “political accommodation”, and “the rise of the lesser known tribes”. Among other write-ups, an economist says Northeast leaders lack lobbying skills, another which asks why Mizos are not entrepreneurial, and there is a report on how Bangladeshi businessmen are eyeing the Northeastern market. All in all, a journal that helps study the wrinkles of the Northeast, which vanish in the long view from Delhi or Calcutta.
A faxed press release of the World Elephant Polo Association, which announced the results of the World Elephant Polo Championships held in the Chitwan jungle in early December (with the Nepal National Parks team making a clean sweep against assorted others like the Tiger Tops Tuskers, International Mercenaries, Screwy Tuskers, and Loon´s Cavalry), also provided wepa Committee lineup. The President of the India Chapter is apparently His Highness Bhawani Singh, Maharaj of Jaipur. His pedigree certainly allows the gentleman to play polo, but this little bird keeps telling me insistently that the Indian government banned titles of erstwhile princelings, way back then. Or does that stricture only apply to Indian territory? The field on which the WEPA championships was held is, after all, in Nepal.
Give credit, therefore, to Asiaweek´s editors for having carried a lengthy “Inside Story” on the Lhotshampa refugee situation by their Kathmandu-based contributor Thomas Laird. Give thanks, also, to the media-phobic Thimphu rulers for having let Mr Laird visit Bhutan, for this is a privilege they extend only to journalists with well-trumpted sympathies for the Drukpa establishment. Mr Laird´s presentation is low on polemics. He presents the information and lets the reader decide whether it is the Bhutanese rulers who are at fault in ridding their country of a seventh of its population or whether their action was meant to forestall a Lhotshampa takeover of Druk Yul.
The Lhotshampa refugees out of Bhutan have always been told by well-meaning do-gooders that they do something to raise their profile. Well, they have, and a hell of a lot of good it is doing them! For most of 1996, there has been high drama on the Duars, as refugee peace-marchers try to enter Bhutan. They are accosted by Bhutanese police at the border, manhandled by Indian security forces, jailed, pushed back into Nepal, and so on. Now that they are making some waves, are they getting any coverage? No, sir. Forget the Delhi media, even the Calcutta papers are silent. There is definitely an international media conspiracy of silence on the Lhotshampa refugees and not one major South Asia newspaper/ magazine editor need feel guilt-free on this matter.
Still on the Lhotshampa, rarely does the voice from the Lhotshampa refugee camps penetrate the protective media cover that Thimphu receives. I would therefore like to reproduce part of an email epistle sent around on Christmas Eve by a Jesuit educator who is finishing his tenure in the camps.
…Very many thanks for your involvement with the 91,000 Bhutanese refugees in the seven camps in east Nepal, especially for the 33,500 students who started 1996 in the camp schools, and the c. 900 staff (incl. c. 750 teachers) almost all of them refugees themselves, and very few of them trained teachers. I hope you will keep your interest in these ´unknown´ refugees who never hit the newspaper headlines and for whom justice remains elusive, the interests of the ´powers that be´ being elsewhere. The government of Bhutan says that there is no room for these people in their inn (country of Bhutan). The government of Nepal has given them temporary (now six years!) lodging.
The carcass of a downed Pakistani fighter jet was trotted out in New Delhi on the occasion of Vijay Divas, and the photogenic display got wide coverage in India. I wonder what impact this particular image would carry across the Wagah border at a time when warmongering should be passe. The Asian Age´s coverage was especially interesting. On one side was the picture of the Pakistani Sabre. On the flipside of the same picture was one in which Foreign Minister Inder Kumar Gujral was enjoying an interlude with Pakistani college girls.
Haven´t had access to the Pakistani media this month, but as far as the rest of South Asia is concerned, Pakistani Nobel Laureate and physicist Abdus Salam passed away almost without a trace.