Thursday, May 26, 2005

The "Indian Jane Fonda" with roots in Jaipur

They call her the “Indian Jane Fonda”. But she could as well be named Jain Fonda. Meet Sarina Jain, a fitness instructor with roots in Jaipur, who ensured that Bhangra moved beyond its homeland in rustic Punjab to become the rage amongst fitness freaks in the US. From New York to San Francisco, Masala Bhangra Workout (MBW) has proved to be a hit, earning her a sizeable student size and generous applause from the media there.

But, as she tells Hindustan Times in an e-mail interview, it is not a simple bhangra class but more. “There is a procedure to it. There is a warm up and cool down and then the actual workout – it is not just a dance class where I go and play music and we dance – no. Not like that at all,” she writes. “It is a true cardio workout and you can burn over 500 calories an hour. It is very hard but everyone who does it has a blast,” she adds.

Image from Asian Week

Being in the fitness industry for the past 15 years, the workout comprises bits from step aerobics, weight training and spinning, among others. “I grew up dancing to all kinds of music and bhangra was something that stood out to me,” she writes. Despite being born in Los Angeles (her parents emigrated to the US in the 1970s), Jain insists her Rajasthani connection is “as strong as it can be”. “I am in Jaipur every year to meet my grandparents and cousins,” she adds, recollecting the morning walks with her uncle and her favourite lassiwalla next to her home near Gopalbari.

There are the obvious sceptics but the fad has caught on in the US since it was launched in 2000 and a set of four MBW DVDs, featuring the exercises, can even be bought online at It has even spawned copycats, she claims. Having grown up with Jane Fonda, the celebrity fitness instructor, one of Jain’s dreams was to have her videos too. “Now that I have four of them, I take it as a huge compliment when my students call me the Indian Jane Fonda,” she says.

With a hub in New York, the classes have moved to San Francisco and Jain is now training others to teach for her. Despite the Indian connection, MBW is more popular with the Americans than with the desis. “99 per cent of my students are Americans… there are very few Indians in the class. Indians have the lowest rate in physical activity and one out of 10 doctors (in the US) is an Indian. It is a sad statistic,” she adds.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Rafsanjani's interview with The New York Times

Interview With Iranian Presidential Candidate


TEHRAN, May 23 — Ali Akhbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the former Iranian president and presumed front runner in the June 17 presidential race, was interviewed on Monday by Neil MacFarquhar. Mr. Rafsanjani spoke for an hour in Farsi through an official translator.

Q. Why were so many candidates disqualified in the presidential elections

A. Our election law has flaws. I don’t think over 1,000 people register for president in other countries. Usually a certain number register under pre-determined conditions. The law needs to be reformed.

Q. Some people that we talked to today said it is a mistake to have the Guardian Council screen the candidates because it is an unelected body and the practice makes the process undemocratic. How would you react to that?

A. Every country has a body that determines the conditions. It is true that they are not elected by the people, but six of them need to be approved by members of Parliament, who are representatives of the people. But whatever it is, it is based on our constitution.

Q. A couple of analysts said the government did it to make it easier for you to win. Is that true?

A. The opposite is true! Because all those who want to compete with me have been endorsed.

Q. Throughout your presidency and that of President Khatami there has been a constant tension between the reformists and conservatives. Mr. Khatami was unable to put through many of the reforms in terms of freedom of speech and other civil rights. I know you had similar problems during your administration. What would you do differently to allow those kinds of reforms to move forward?

A. Isn’t there tension in the United States between the two major political parties? No other viable candidate can get anywhere except for the one who is with one of these two parties. The tension between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush was more than the tension in Iran. People of the U.S. have no choice but to choose between one of these two candidates. And, In Britain, which is one of your allies, there is constant tension between the conservatives and the labor party. They drag one another to court. I think it is more decent in Iran than in any other country.

Q. There were a lot of reforms that the previous government tried to put in place but was blocked. What would you do as President to get those enforced?

A. When I was president I was able to put through anything I wanted. I think there are certain things that are doable. I will not give empty promises and will make promises that I can deliver.

Q. What will you do if the judiciary shuts down a newspaper?

A. I will object if it does it illegally. But we will accept the decision if it is legal.

Q. Don’t you think any newspaper that wants to publish should be allowed to?

A. It is like other countries here. Whenever the judiciary does something, there is a countervailing body that can bring balance in the system.

Q. The criticism that I hear both from the inside and outside the country is that Iran has a veneer of democracy but the tools are not there so that everybody can use it. Will there ever be a democracy in Iran where all ideologies are allowed to compete openly?

A. We think it is the opposite and there is only a veneer of democracy in the Untied States and we have a real democracy. Election laws are so complicated in your country that people have no choice but to vote for one of the candidates who are with one of the two parties. The electoral system in U.S. has put the election out of the control of people and independent groups.

Q. People we have talked to say they liked what happened in Iraq. Secular and religious parties were allowed to run. There was a broad spectrum and people had a choice. But they say that they don’t have a choice in Iran.

A. The Sunnis boycotted the elections. What you are saying is not right. If you make a fair comparison between Iran and your country, you see people have a wide choice in Iran. Our members are allowed to vote freely after they go to Parliament. But we see that your representatives have to vote within the decisions of the party. Our MPs make their decisions on their own.

Q. On social issues, younger people hope the next president will be able to open up the society and make the rules less restrictive. What would you tell to people who say that the veil for women should be voluntary?

A. We have to go back to Western countries again. In France you see that they do not allow women to go to school wearing headscarves. In Turkey, which is your ally again, there is a similar restriction. It seems that you look at freedom through a certain lens.

Q. I am not really sure that Iranian women care what happens in France or Turkey, they care about what happens in Iran.

A. We are Muslims and we enforce the Islamic law which is also in our constitution.

Q. There are some people who hope you will change some of those social laws when you are elected. What do you think of that?

A. I think certain extreme measures should not have taken place. Sometimes extremists go beyond the law. Even Islam says one should not interfere in the private lives of people. Their privacy should remain a private matter. We can follow the guidelines in Islam that encourage creating peace and calm for people.

For example, some want to interfere in the color of women’s clothing or decide what the shape of their dress should be. They do not like to see the mingling of men and women in public places. These are personal tastes of certain segments of society who are more religious than others. For example they do not like to see mixed classes at universities. They have prying eyes and they want to see what goes on in people’s houses. They like to interfere in the private lives of people and break up their parties.

Q. Some people say you will open up the economy and will try to follow some of the changes you did under your previous term. Some others object and say there was a lot of corruption in your government. Do you think you have an image problem?

A. Yes, they make these comments. But the second one is not true. We were very tough and hard on those who committed those kinds of acts. But we will follow a more liberal economic policy. In fact, the leadership (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) endorsed the amendments to Article 44 of the constitution, which will grant freedom in foreign investment. We worked on this issue at the Expediency Council, as his advisory body, and he made the pronouncement. This law will cut the size of the government. The private sector will be allowed to take over many large investments. It will boost the stock market. Scattered capital will be invested in the economy. I believe if you look at from the perspective of an expert, you will see what great developments will take place.

Q. Is it true that the economy breaks down to 40 percent state owned, 45 percent owned by semi-official foundations and 15 percent owned by the private sector? If these numbers are correct, how would you like to see the balance?

A. These figures are not correct. We recently examined this issue at the Council. Some 56 percent is owned by the private sector and 44 percent is controlled by the government and the foundations. Let me give few examples. For instance, our agriculture is completely controlled by the private sector, which is over 20 percent of the economy. Or, housing construction is in the hands of the private sector. Most of the trade, both domestic and with foreign countries, is in the hands of the private sector. We have more than 300 industrial towns and complexes, which are run by the private sector. From now on the share of the government will be reduced. We believe that the 44 percent should decrease dramatically. Only a little will remain in its hands because the private sector has been allowed to take part in all economic sectors.

Q. There were two recent attempts to allow foreign investment in Iran, one was the airport and one was the cell phone company, and both met stiff opposition and the contracts were either reversed or reduced. What would you do about that kind of opposition to foreign investment?

A. There was no legal justification behind the opposition. One faction was against them in Parliament. The cell phone contract was given to the same company. The argument was not against foreign investment. Those who were against the contract did not believe it was right to allow a foreign company run the most important airport in the country.

Q. But doesn’t that make people worried about investing here because they are not sure if there will be opposition?

A. We will do our best to prevent the occurrence of such things. We will enter this arena with better planning and better decisions.

Q. How do you feel about Iran producing nuclear fuel and the suspicions that Iran is developing nuclear weapons?

A. We have the right to do it under regulations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. And they have an obligation to help us. And we will pursue it. The suspicion they say they have can be investigated. They can come and see for themselves and they will find out that there is no room for suspicion. If there is good will, they will soon find out that Iran has no intention but to have peaceful nuclear technology.

Q. Most people I talked to said Iran should get nuclear technology for electricity and weapons were counter to the teachings of the Islamic religion. But one man I spoke with said Iran should have nuclear weapons because you are in a dangerous part of the world. What do you think about that?

A. I don’t believe we should have nuclear weapons because under no circumstances would we ever be prepared to deploy them. You know Americans have had a guilty conscience for generations because their country used nuclear weapons. Islam does not allow us to eliminate masses of innocent people. We believe the world should be purged of nuclear weapons. This is the direction of our efforts.

Q. Some say Iran might not want to have them but wants to get close enough, like Brazil or Japan, so if there was ever threats against you they can use it. What do you think of that?

A. This is part of the suspicion and is an allegation. I say we do not want them at all, and that means we do not want to be close to producing them.

Q. Why is nuclear fuel such an important issue?

A. Nuclear technology is not limited to the fuel cycle. It can have benefits in may fields such as agriculture, industry and many other fields. Generation of electricity and the fuel cycle are just two of them. You know that Mr. Bush recently announced that he intends to build another 100 nuclear power plants. If our population is one-fifth of that of the United States, we must have the right to build 20 nuclear power plants. How come you can have that right and we cannot?

They (the U.S.) will build them and they are not afraid of the opposition because they have no choice. Very soon fossil fuels will run out. Global consumption is high and the world will be faced with an energy crisis. I hope the industry of ether and will take the place of nuclear energy. In that case, there will be no more military concerns.

Q. Do you feel the U.S. and Iran are negotiating indirectly through the talks?

A. Yes, these negotiations took place over the nuclear talks, plus cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Q. Is it pushing forward the day when there will be relations?

A. It is laying the ground for it. The Americans were very happy with the cooperation with Iran over Afghanistan and Iraq, which helped normalize the situation in both places.

Q. How much of a priority is it for you to establish relations with the United States?

A. It is not a priority for us, but the current state is not reasonable either.

Q. So would you like to change it?

A. It cannot be one-sided. Both sides should make an effort. I think because the Americans did wrong to us, they should take the first step.

Q. They think there is a hangover from the hostage crisis. Do you think you will ever get beyond that?

A. Because they do not want to review the era before the hostage crisis. The U.S. supported the Shah during our struggles against him and was not good to us. The U.S. overthrew Mosadegh’s regime (in 1953) and brought the Shah back to power. And it put pressure on the Iranian people for over 20 years. The U.S. officially apologized for it eight years ago.

Yet, after the revolution, thousands of Americans lived here and they all returned safely with all their belongings. Whoever wished to stay, could stay. But the U.S. Embassy soon became a center for the counterrevolutionary forces, which were enemies of the revolution. Plus they insulted the Iranian people by allowing the Shah to enter the U.S. The Iranian people were angry and the students took such an action. If you look at these events, you cannot say it was Iran which took the first step.

Q. Why do you think the two countries are locked on that period?

A. Yes, I believe we must not remain frozen in the past. But the U.S. should show its goodwill because we have seen hostility from the U.S. It has to take certain steps so that the Iranian people would know the U.S. is serious about having relations with Iran. I have said in the past, when I was president, that one good gesture would be for the U.S. to release billions of dollars worth of our assets. They have been there for over 30 years. We deposited $11 billion in an account called foreign military service, from which we purchased goods from the U.S. A small portion of the goods were imported into Iran. The major part of the contracts were canceled and the money was kept there. The U.S. used to get oil from us and deposit the money in this account. It could automatically withdraw from the account as well.

Q. In a congressional hearing last week, Mr. R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, gave a long list of allegations against Iran. What is your reaction to his list?

A. These are a set of allegations the Americans have leveled against us. Our list against the U.S. is longer. When it comes to human rights, the U.S cannot be an advocate of human rights when it has a record of torture in the prisons at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. When it comes to democracy, it cannot advocate democracy because it supports the most dictatorial Arab regimes which have no Parliaments. When it comes to peace, it cannot support it when it waged war against other countries despite the decision of the United Nations. When it comes to fighting against terrorism, it cannot talk about it because it created Al-Qaeda and allowed it to operate in the region. It cannot claim that it fights against terrorism when it supports the Mujaheedeen Al-Khalq, the group which it has listed as a terrorist group. When it comes to the right of people, a country that has made nine million Palestinians homeless cannot advocate the rights of people. It is over 50 years that Palestinians have become hostages to the decisions of Americans. Pay a visit to Palestinian refugee camps and see for yourself. There are five million refugees, who have the worst of life and have lost their belongings to those who have come from Europe and other places to their land. So, if one can level accusations, our list is much longer.

Q. In the Arab world, the governments have good relations with the U.S. but their people do not like America. But Iranian people like the United States even though the government has bad relations with the U.S. How can you explain that?

A. Maybe one reason is the Palestinian issue which the Arab people have a greater sensitivity about and the other one is the situation the U.S. created in Iraq. The reason is because the U.S. supports Arab dictatorial regimes. But in Iran the U.S. has this serious problem with Iranian people as well. Those who express such interests say that the United States is an influential country with large industries, an advanced country with good products and these sorts of things. But there is a larger number opposed because of this hostile attitude of the United States.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri speaks on the forthcoming presidential elections in Iran

Dissident cleric rails against Iran's system
By Paul Holmes and Barry Moody (Reuters)

Iran's Islamic system has been abused to deny the president real power, sapping public interest in next month's election, the country's top dissident cleric says. Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, an architect of the Islamic revolution, told Reuters Iranians would not vote in large numbers on June 17 because real authority lay not with the president but with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

"Some figures have power, while responsibilities have been given to the president," Montazeri, one of the authors of Iran's constitution, said on Thursday at his office in the holy city of Qom, a center of Shi'ite Muslim learning. "That is why young Iranians do not want to cast their votes. That is why I have remained silent about this election," he said, adding that the constitution had been misused by people who wielded Islam "as a tool to put pressure on people."

Opinion polls have predicted a low turnout in the presidential election. Montazeri, a frail but mentally sharp 83-year-old, called the seizure of American hostages at the U.S. embassy in 1979 a mistake and said Tehran should now resume ties with Washington.

Image from Daily Times, Pakistan

He also said the United States had done well to topple Saddam Hussein, but should get out of Iraq for its own good. "Some people criticize America, saying they invaded Iraq in search of an atomic bomb while there was no bomb.

"I say that Saddam himself was more dangerous than 1,000 atomic bombs. It was a great job, but they should let Iraqis enjoy their freedom," Montazeri said. Asked whether Iraq's new Shi'ite-led government could quell a raging insurgency on its own, he said: "The presence of Americans in Iraq causes the insurgency. If they leave, then this thing will be finished."


Montazeri was hailed as "the fruit of my life" by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual father of the 1979 Islamic revolution, who designated him as his successor. He fell from grace in 1988 after criticising Iran's rulers and was kept under house arrest in Qom from 1998 until 2003.

Montazeri helped develop the political system in Iran, which is based on a theory called the "rule of the jurisprudent" that says clerics should directly supervise political life. He said the constitution he helped to write had not only been misused but also was flawed -- a mistake he put down to inexperience.

He said it should be changed to give the president control over state matters, including the military, the police and official media. "There is a contradiction in our constitution. It gives a lot of responsibilities to the president without giving him enough authority," Montazeri said.

"Responsibility and authority should come together. You cannot give responsibility to someone (the president) without giving him authority." He said Iran's Supreme Leader should limit his role to religious matters and to ensuring that laws conformed to Islam.


Montazeri said he had an important message for the United States -- that it had lost popularity in the Middle East by seeking to impose democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. "You cannot impose democracy on Islamic countries. You should help people to develop their country and decide their own fate," he said.

Montazeri was among leaders who endorsed the 444-day occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, when radical Islamic students held 52 hostages. The event led Washington to break diplomatic ties, which Montazeri said should now be restored. "What Americans are doing in the region is against their own interests. One of the mistakes was occupying Iraq. One of our mistakes was occupying the American embassy," he said.

"Our Prophet says all human beings make mistakes but the wise learn from their mistakes."

(Additional reporting by Paul Hughes and Parisa Hafezi)

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Soon you can key in your URLs in Indian languages

The Indian identity on the Internet is set to become more pronounced. After opening the .in domain name to the public, which proved to be a hit, India is quietly working on enabling Indians to key in URLs in Indian languages. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) in New Delhi is working on this project in coordination with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit body that ensures every address is unique and that all users of the Internet can find all valid addresses.

ICANN comprises a body called the Internationalised Domain Names Committee that deals exclusively with localising URLs, something that has already been done in certain countries like Japan and South Korea. Even Tamils in Singapore have worked on it. A senior official with the MCIT, who did not wish to be named, declined to set a deadline for the project. “You cannot have a time frame for something like this but we are working on it and it shall be a very big achievement ,” he said.

The reason for this is the complex nature and massive scale of the work involved. With English, the permutations are restricted to 38 characters (including the alphabets from A to Z, the numbers from 0 to 9, the hyphen and the underscore). “But with the Devnagri, Dravidian, Bengali and Gurumukhi scripts you have thousands of combinations,” he added. The project involves 18 Indian languages and the localisation work only involves the prefix to the domain name in the URL.

Besides there are issues such as Intellectual Property Rights involved, like when two identities chose the same word in different scripts as their website addresses. Then there is the threat of cyber crime involved. “The moment you put this facility out there will be bad guys ready to misuse it. So, we will have to look at issues such as prevention of phishing and farming acts,” he said.

Rekha Govil, the Dean of Apaji Institute at Banasthali Vidyapith that works on localising IT, said this move was part of a broader initiative that would “enable a large percentage of Indians who do not speak or write English feel at home on the Internet”. “With a local language interface and an address book, the person is not really bothered about what the address is in English,” she said.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Filming life beyond terror

“Even Iran makes films! I did not know that.” Many persons, when first introduced to Iranian cinema, react that way. Who would think of films, and great ones at that, from one of the three coordinates of the “Axis of Evil” – most commonly associated with suppression of women, Islamic fundamentalism and conservatism and, more recently, the alleged capability to produce nuclear weapons?

Thankfully, Iranian films have been fighting against all that. Despite restrictions, and arguably because of them, Iranian cinema has found certain distinct qualities and has grown to become the toast of virtually all major international film festivals, including those in India. Like post-war Italian cinema known for its neo-realism, the new wave of Iranian cinema has become a powerful style statement in world cinema.

(A scene from Taste Of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami)

The films, including those screened at Beyond Chadors And Terror (the recent festival of Iranian films organised by Jawahar Kala Kendra and Iranian Film Club), are not larger than life. They are about life. That is what has been and is defining about Iranian films – their stark simplicity and fascination for realism. At times so harshly intimate and real that the plot feels as if it could be your story. It is as if you have been on the screen and that the film remains etched on your mind after the credits have rolled by, like recurring lines from a memorable poem.

Even Satyajit Ray vouched for greater realism in Indian cinema. “The raw material of cinema is life itself. It is incredible that a country which has inspired so much painting and music and poetry should fail to move the film maker. He only has to keep his eyes open, and his ears. Let him do so,” wrote Ray in 1948 in his essay What Is Wrong With Indian Films. “What the Indian cinema needs today is not more gloss, but more imagination, more integrity, and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium,” he added. Unfortunately, over half a century later, his words still ring true for much of India’s filmdom.

What’s so filmi you could ask about a brother and his sister managing their lives with one pair of shoes and looking for the one that’s lost (Children Of Heaven by Majid Majidi)? Or for that matter, something as dark as a man in search for a person who could aid him commit suicide (Taste Of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami)? A lot, we realised. The divide between commercial and art cinema is artificial. It is the divide between good and bad cinema that is real.

Because of restrictions in the Islamic Republic and their glorious literary heritage, among other reasons, Iranian filmmakers have become masters at using allegories and symbolism. Like Two Women by Tahmineh Milani where one of the ladies is subjected to severe inequities by her husband. Not one scene shows her being physically abused (had the film done that, it would never have been released). Yet the effect is more lasting and haunting than beating, as the woman gradually begins to lose her sense of identity.

Then there is The Circle by Jafar Panahi that attempts to capture the restrictive circle in which women have to live in Iran. All through the film there is a recurring circular motif, like a roundabout and its circular sign, people walking in circles or climbing circular staircases. Even Taste Of Cherry, given the main character’s obsession of being buried honourably if he commits suicide, has a deliberate attempt at amplifying the soil’s sound, whether it is under the tyres of a Land Rover or when it falls to the earth from a bulldozer.

The festival also rekindled, even if minutely, the links between India and Iran – our shared linguistic heritage being just one of them. Whenever the audience would catch a familiar word in Farsi (all the films were screened in that language with English subtitles), there would be murmurs around the theatre repeating the words. Words like zindagi, tanhayee, khodkhushi and much more. But it also worked the other way around as the audience discovered Iran not just as a land of women strutting in the all-enveloping black cloak or as a land of people spewing profanities at the Great Satan (read the US).

Over the years, cinema has convincingly emerged as one of the best ambassadors for Iran, dismantling the image perpetuated by media reports. "Cinema is a mirror reflecting reality, a picture showing truth, a letter posted to other nations," Mohsen Makhmalbaf, another noted Iranian filmmaker, told The Hindu recently. He is expected to be in Rajasthan soon to shoot Colder Than Fire, his next film that follows an Iranian man and woman travelling through India, “discovering its soulscape rather than the landscape”.

One of my reports for Hindustan Times

Monday, May 09, 2005

Iran has the highest rate of nose surgeries!

Vanity and boredom fuel Iran's nose job boom

Robert Tait in Tehran
Saturday May 7, 2005
The Guardian

The surgical plaster encasing Goli Abadi's nose was the only blemish on a face of otherwise radiant beauty. One of a growing number of Iranians to fall prey to the national trend for cosmetic surgery, the 21-year-old unemployed dental hygienist had a prosaic, if suspiciously defensive, explanation.

"I had a broken nose when I was a child at kindergarten," Ms Abadi said. "I was hit on the face by a swing and it left a small hump in my nose. Otherwise, I would never have had this operation."

The only flaw in Ms Abadi's tale was its familiarity. Another young woman, Laila, 23, her face bruised and eyes bloodshot from a similar nose operation, recounted an almost identical childhood story. "After my accident I had problems breathing," she said. "I couldn't sleep lying on my front and always had to lie on my back."

The parallel explanations represent a curious twist in one of modern Iran's most visible social trends. The streets of Tehran abound with young people - mostly, but not exclusively, women - with their noses in plaster from the effects of surgery.

The phenomenon reflects a competitive urge among fashion-conscious Iranians to put their cosmetic handiwork on display. According to doctors, some even wear nose plasters as a status symbol without actually having had the operation.

But that openness is not matched by frankness about the motivations for surgery. "They all come with the excuse that they have had an accident, that they have breathing problems, that they have a deviation inside," said one Tehran specialist.

Whatever her own reasons, Ms Abadi waxed effusive on those of her cohorts. "I call it a virus," she said. "Nearly all of my friends have had nose operations. It's just competition among the girls to look more beautiful. I think it's very stupid. It also helps people to pass the time."

The Islamic republic has the highest rate of nose surgery in the world, although precise figures are hard to establish. In recent years other forms of cosmetic enhancement, including chin operations, finger nail implants, embedding fake diamonds in the gums and tattooed eyebrows, have also become popular, but the nose job remains the most in-demand.

Iranians refer to the perfectly formed button nose it is meant to achieve as the "one million toman (£590) nose". In fact, the going rate ranges from much less than that to about £2,600.

One prominent Tehran plastic surgeon says his patients include the daughters of senior Islamic clerics.

Its use in the Islamic republic was officially sanctioned by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's late leader and father of the Islamic revolution. He gave the go-ahead after being consulted by a religious figure whose daughter was due to be operated on by Iran's leading plastic surgeon, Mohammed Abidipour.

Surgeons say European and US companies are exploiting the trend by courting Iran in their drive to sell the equipment, usually secondhand, needed to carry out such operations.

Many explanations have been offered for the popularity of nose surgery, principally the requirement of Iran's Islamic dress code that women keep their hair and bodies covered, placing emphasis on the face.

Doctors also say young people have too much time on their hands because of a lack of social activities under the restrictive regime. At the same time, they aspire to the glamorous looks of Hollywood stars such as Jennifer Lopez, Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, who are widely seen on satellite television despite it being officially banned in Iran.

Farzin Sarkarat, a jaw and facial surgeon practising in central Tehran, says he receives five or six patients each week, whom he described as "good looking", demanding surgery. "Most of them I reject," he said.

"It's a psychological problem. I generally refer them to the psychiatrist. Often he finds a mental problem and advises me not to operate."

Of even greater concern are the rising instances of facial disfigurement resulting from operations carried out by unqualified surgeons. There are just 115 licensed plastic surgeons in Iran, but rising demand has led at least 10 times that number from other disciplines, such as ear, nose and throat, to enter the field.

"Some terrible things are happening," said Dr Abidipour, who is the retired head of plastic surgery at Tehran University's medical faculty.

"I had a patient sent to me for corrective surgery who had undergone a nose operation 20 times, at a cost of US$120 [£63] a time. The operations had been carried out by the same doctor. Her nose was in a horrible state."

As a result, Iran's justice ministry has set up a special office for medical malpractice cases. Between 2001 and 2004, it dealt with 2,715 cases arising from cosmetic surgery, leading to 459 doctors receiving various forms of written rebuke and 21 being suspended for up to four years.

To some, that is little consolation. Sina Maadelat, 25, a Tehran taxi driver, has just paid £168 for his third nose operation, having been dissatisfied with his first two.

"The first time there was a lot of bleeding ... I couldn't breathe for two weeks," he said.

"Then the doctor had problems removing the plastercast and the stitching. The tip [of my nose] fell down again. I don't think there was ever any problem with my nose. It was better before the operations."

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Retracing ancient friends: India, Iran and West Asia

By yours truly

Most Indians look bewildered when told the Middle East is not the Middle East for us but actually West Asia. Some may go on and insist that the two are different geographical entities and, given a chance, they would probably even point them out on a world map. Few evince any interest in the difference that, even though being fine, has an important story to tell.

Hair-splitting and senseless, do you think? Certainly not. This is perhaps the best example to show how India’s perception of West Asia, a region that has had independent and deep ties with us since antiquity, has always been shaped by that of Europe and, now gradually, the United States. To the point that most Indians, even leading dailies and scholars here, refer to it as Middle East. This despite the fact that West Asia has always been diametrically opposite to India’s east. Our ‘Middle East’, if at all, could be somewhere in China’s southeast!

It defies reason how we have come to accept an Euro-centric term as the norm in the Indian context and evokes a sense of pity how this attitude may have harmed and distanced the two regions. So, why carry on viewing West Asia, an immensely important region, through an inherited and an outsider’s perspective? Can’t we enhance an independent understanding based on our ancient ties? How do we tap our mutual potential and break the mould we seem to have set into? And could we offer the rest of the world a fresh perspective on the region? Questions that have to be answered as India seeks a greater role internationally, including a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

But alas, even today the region’s coverage in most Indian journals is largely restricted to wire service reports, such as Reuters and AFP, which are essentially crafted for a global (read western) audience. Even comments and editorials are reprinted, word for word, from leading newspapers in the west such as The New York Times and The Guardian. So, for example, we have Thomas Friedman’s columns on West Asia that are replete with references to George Bush’s national energy policies and the lack of credible opposition from the Democrats.

Not that I intend to debase his writing, which would undoubtedly rank as one of the most incisive in present day journalism, but do Indians really have to sift through the trends in US politics to understand West Asia? In other words, why should our understanding of the region be shaped by or routed through those in the west? Surely, Indians would have a different take on the region, including the west’s obsession for the veil as a symbol of oppression. There are notable exceptions in India like Saeed Naqvi, a veteran journalist who has covered the region, and Chinmaya Gharekhan, who has been appointed as India’s Special Envoy for West Asia. Naqvi has even called for the creation of an “Indian BBC or CNN”. We need more Naqvis to change things the way they are now.

Recently, we have been assailed with news coverage, again mostly from western news agencies, about how Iran, one of the three coordinates of the “axis of evil”, allegedly poses a nuclear threat to the US and the rest of the world. Does that hold good also for India? What could be India’s interest in Iran at this critical juncture and can we play a role to defuse the emerging conflict? There has been so little discussion on that in the Indian media.

(But, to be fair, I must mention that Iran has of late generated interest in the Indian media because of a proposed gas pipeline from there to India that would pass through Pakistan. But then it is just the pipeline. And when has oil been out of the media radar’s attention range?)

Coming back to my point, even today there are few scholars and journalists who cover and write habitually on the region. For that matter, I struggle to recall when was the last time I read an authoritative piece on India vis-à-vis the Israel-Palestine conflict – one that has defined global politics for over half a century. And isn’t it cruel when you hear from Indians who fail to distinguish between Iranians and Arabs? It is like hearing from an Iranian that all Indians are “Hindis”!

But it is not just current political issues that lack coverage. Even human interest stories, which have a far greater strength to move people, have rarely appeared in the media. Isn’t there a need to focus on people that bind India with that region, like the Indian Jews in Israel or the Zoroastrians in Iran? And these are the obvious subjects. For example, very few media reports were carried on the recent decision by Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Jews, Shlomo Amar, that 6,000 members of the Bnei Menashe community in India’s northeast are “descendants of ancient Israelites”. There is so much more we have in common and that deserves to be written about but unfortunately all of it is being shelved in an increasing world of uni-polarised information.

Add to that India’s large untapped soft-power in the region that many western scholars are now writing about and think might prove crucial to break the nuclear impasse with Iran, among other current crises in that region. “India has strong untapped soft-power in the world stemming from its democratic government, support for human rights, independent judiciary, and political stability. And Delhi has the bomb and international legitimacy while Tehran has neither. Of any country, India would be an ideal negotiator between the Western countries and Iran,” wrote Ryan Floyd, a member of the Yale Grand Strategies Program, in The Indian Express on December 7, 2004, in reference to the ongoing nuclear crisis.

And do I need to say anything about Bollywood – India’s popular Hindi film industry that has always had an appeal across the region? One of India’s first exports to Afghanistan, after the fall of the Taliban, included copies of Indian films. It is also worth mentioning here that Dokhtar-e Lor, Iran’s first “talkie”, was shot and produced in Mumbai (Bombay). Ferdowsi, Shirin and Farhad, including other famous films, were also made in India.

Like Iran, nations there we must remember have had deep-rooted links with India. So much so that, a lot of their heritage goes unnoticed in our daily life. Like words borrowed from Persian in Bengali and Hindi. Or stories that have been passed down to us from our ancestors. Or the fact that there was more Persian literature being produced in India at one point of time that in Persia itself. These links need to be rediscovered to foster understanding, something the world can never have enough of in times that we live in today. It is a pity that they rust today, instead of serving as the reenergizing factor in our ties. It is time we moved on from the conventional “news spots” and the routine “news stories”.

West Asia continues to be one of the most misunderstood regions in the world, which is evident from mostly ignorant and arrogant comments like 'with us or with them'. However, just a gentle breeze and a scratch would reveal a different outlook. The region is a dynamic and vibrant land like any other, subject to the same global forces that are sweeping across India. And like our country, West Asia is also demographically youthful, offering us tremendous scope to bring the youth together on issues that concern the two region.

Why do we only gaze together at the west when we could also gaze at and learn from each other?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Her pen works when the world retires

A day with Krishna Sobti

By Debarshi Dasgupta

We will have to make a cardinal exception for Krishna Sobti. This column has to be renamed “A Night In My Life” for that is the only way to get to know the person behind the numerous novels and stories penned by one of Hindi’s most prolific and reinvigorating writers. “During the day,” she says, “I am not at my best.” It is in the dark and in silence that she blooms and that her pen flows. “There is a kind of exclusive quietness in the night that you can almost hear yourself,” Sobti adds, dressed in her trademark kaftan that is turquoise this time.

But that does not mean she is a recluse. A writer, according to her, cannot afford to be one. “It does not work that I am me and that others are others. I am also a part of me and also others,” Sobti says. “It is not just the skills that make a writer, you know, she has to mingle,” she adds, speaking in English that the writer describes as “babu-like”. No hitches because her Hindi would be too Shakespearean for a common man!

As she speaks, seated at the University of Rajasthan guest house, her hands gesticulate agitatedly. And often, they gently move to her head as she gathers her hair under her dupatta. Despite this “conservative” gesture, the writer has been and is an antithesis of convention – whether it is in her writing or daily living.

(Image from the Library of Congress)

She has trekked across the Kumaon Hills on foot at the age of 60 and went drinking with naval officers while on a trip to Port Blair. And while the world around her sleeps, Sobti begins work on her table at home in New Delhi by 10 pm, creating “a common passage between we, me and they”. “Subjects like love, death, sex are all intense moments of human life and they need intrinsic imagination, not something superficial. And if I am disorganised on paper, I leave it,” she says. “Thank god, that has not happened till now,” she adds.

For someone who believes that a writer only exists if he or she is read, Sobti says she has tremendous responsibility on her shoulders. “I have a highly discriminating readership so I take care that whatever I write, I write not flippantly or non-seriously,” she adds. And she writes as an “individual” – not as a woman or a man, not as a feminist or a chauvinist. “I believe I am as good a writer as a man. Why not? I am even yet to write a bad book,” she jokes.

Writing, the writer maintains, is a “bisexual” act. Few know that Sobti has also written under a masculine pseudonym, Hashmat, that was born in her study on an evening after a party when she felt the presence of “another person, another pen”. “Not that I was confused but I was tense. I started writing the account of that evening and it was not similar to what I did earlier,” she recounts.

Accompanying her on her nightly sojourn is her “small” peg of alcohol. Not a big one and not a second one, she clarifies. “I have to be in control. Also because I am a proletariat, I drink what is available,” she says. This process goes on till about 4 am in the morning, with breaks for tea and coffee, and ends with a “sumptuous breakfast” that is as frugal as toast or biscuits. And as the world around her begins to wake, Sobti goes to bed.

Interestingly, this nocturnal nature has not been a late acquisition but a childhood habit that she picked up when her parents would share bedtime stories with her. “In those days there was no noise in the household, not even the radio, and that helped me pick up the density of the language,” she says.

There is another childhood lesson she has remained faithful to. “My father, whenever we would go to doctor, would ask me not to exaggerate. He would say, if you mislead the doctor, he would give you the wrong medicines,” Sobti recollects. “That did me some good and I see it in my own text,” she adds. Her short novel Eh, Larki!, featuring a dialogue between a mother on the deathbed and her daughter, is known for its linguistic economy.

Even her mother, with her steely resolve, has inspired Sobti. While in the ICU some years ago, shortly before she died, her mother told her repeatedly that “chiraag jalta rahega”. “Even in that condition, she avoided referring to deepak (the lamp) for its signifies death in the Hindu tradition. She had that kind of willpower,” the writer says.

Sobti, who wakes up at around 10:30 am, is a devoted reader of newspapers and reads “all the headlines and editorials” in as many as five dailies in addition to other journals. “I start my day very slowly. Half the day is gone as if I am taking an off,” she says. Then it is time for lunch and a little rest before she gets on with her remaining reading and socialising. “I am a very sociable person,” the writer adds, taking time to go out and meeting people in the evenings and attending programmes of the Sahitya Akademi, of which she is a fellow.

But that has been restricted now as three of her books, including Shabdon Ke Alok Mein, are ready to go to the press. “There are more books in the making but I am aware - not that I am cautious of my growing years – that as a senior citizen, I am racing against time,” she says. Born in 1925 in Gujarat (in present day Pakistan), she still stands up promptly to show what kind of dresses she would wear earlier. “I wore everything, from ghararas to stretch pants,” she says, walking as if she were on ramp with her arms moving up and down like a king’s. Now she wears kaftans that she designs.

But is she worried about the inevitable? “If anytime this (the thought of death) flashes in my mind, I dismiss it for it is not my headache. It is going to be someone’s else’s headache,” Sobti replies. “I am a tough one by nature,” she assures.

Talk about toughness, she homes in on her principal point of concern, one that she is particularly tough about. It is the threat to a “citizen’s culture” in India. “Instead of creating that, politicians are telling you that you are a Bihari, that you are a Tamil, that your are a Rajasthani. Look, we are all citizen’s of a democratic country and the Constitution binds us together,” Sobti says. “As a writer, I will never let my freedom be threatened. A dissenting note is the key note of a democracy,” she adds. While a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS) in Shimla in 1999, she successfully opposed a move to invite Murli Manohar Joshi for a lecture. “Till then only scholars came and lectured. Not politicians. You do not play with institutions like IIAS,” she says sternly.

Incidents like the riots in Gujarat and allowing Narendra Modi to continue as the Chief Minister after that, according to her, would have long-term repercussions on the nation. “You are going to see the country like this,” she says forcefully, making a slicing gesture with her hands. “We want to see the country as one democracy because of what we have been through, the Partition that was purely political and not religious or cultural,” she adds, also passionate about cricket and angry about Sourav Ganguly’s suspension.

A good story, she says, is also like a cricket match – full of uncertainty and excitement. “I do not interfere with my characters, each of my books has a different texture. And if I know the story ahead, I will not write because the excitement is over,” Sobti adds. She has been living with Shiv Nath, a noted Dogri writer, for the last 10 years. Ask her if she is married, she replies, “Well, you can say yes and no.” “I guess we are at that age where we have stayed for so long that we are good enough to be called anything. I am happy because I have lived life on my condition, not those of anybody else. I am happy because I have seen the history of this country,” adds the legend.

Monday, May 02, 2005

An Iranian film festival in Jaipur!


An Iranian film festival in Jaipur

As a rare treat for this city’s cinephiles, the Jawahar Kala Kendra (JKK) in association with the Iranian Film Club (IFC) in New Delhi is bringing to Jaipur a five-day film festival of Iranian films - known worldwide for their microscopic plots, dubious endings, stark simplicity and fascination for realism. Beginning on May 3, one film will be screened on each day of the festival at JKK and shall feature some of the most lauded films to have come out of Iran in recent times. Many of these films have won coveted awards at respected film festivals across the world such as those at Cannes, Montreal and Venice.

The opening film of the festival will be Majid Majidi’s heart-warming Children of Heaven that was selected as one of the entries in the Best Foreign Language Film category in the 2000 edition of the Academy Awards (Oscars). Besides other awards, it won the prize for the best picture at the Montreal Film Festival in 1997.

At the centre of this film’s story is Ali who loses her sister’s only pair of sneakers that she uses to go to school. What follows next is a lyrical and moving tale of these two as they try and keep the mishap away from their parents and manage their lives with the brother’s only pair of sneakers. The film ends with the brother’s attempt at a race where the third prize, not the first, is a pair of sneakers. So, does he make it? Find out in this film that will surely uplift you.

Other films include Two Women by Tahmineh Milani, The Circle by Jafar Panahi, Blackboards by Samira Makhmalbaf and Taste of Cherry by Abbas Kiarostami (in order of screening at the festival).

Of these, Taste of Cherry won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. The Circle, on the other hand, won the Jury Prize in 2001 at Cannes and the Golden Lion at Venice in 2000. Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards was also bestowed with the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000 and the Grand Jury Prize of the American Film Institute in the same year. Two Women, after battling the censors for months, was released in 1999 and won the award for the best screenplay for Milani at Iran’s Fajr Film Festival in 2000.

The films will be screened at 7 pm on each evening and the average length of these films is about 100 minutes. All the films are in Persian and have been subtitled in English. Entry is free at the screenings. If you have been waiting for an alternative to Bollywood and Hollywood, this is your chance.