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The brilliant editor who’s now seen as most high-profile sexual predator

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By Kaveree Bamzai

Moral ambiguity. Ideological slipperiness. Political expediency.

Much before he became a byword for sexual harassment, Mobashar Jawed Akbar, once of Telinipara, West Bengal, and now a suave inhabitant of Lutyens’ Delhi, was a master of all three dodgy attributes. In a career dotted with several firsts, he was editor of a fortnightly news magazine at 23, a weekly magazine at 25, launched The Telegraph in 1982 putting Calcutta as it was then on the national journalism map, anchored Doordarshan’s first private news magazine Newsline in 1985, started an ambitious multi-edition newspaper with a series of dubious businessmen who fell from grace before he did, and worked with two prime ministers, Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi, who were as different politically as they are personally. But in a man so conscious of his perceived place in history that he authored his own family saga for posterity, Blood Brothers, he will be remembered for just one thing–being the nation’s most high-profile serial sexual predator.

 

Rightly so, with an unrivalled outpouring of long-withheld rage at his sense of entitlement. In account after searing account in what is being called India’s #MeToo moment, women have talked with extraordinary courage and clarity of being groped and forcibly kissed, being met for interviews clad variously in a bathrobe or in underwear, being encouraged to drink in his presence and being stared at suggestively. He has responded with a singular lack of empathy by accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to destabilise the government, a charge so ridiculous that it has been met with even greater revulsion. On 17 October, 10 days after the first piece by senior journalist Priya Ramani named him, he finally announced he would resign as Minister of State for External Affairs but not before reiterating that he would fight the accusation in court, in his personal capacity, armed with the legal services of an established firm with 97 lawyers on its roster.

For a man so particular about optics, of ensuring the perfect headline for just the right picture, it doesn’t just look bad. It is bad. What makes Akbar the poster boy for toxic masculinity; the epitome of a tone-deaf culture that is stale, male, and fail; the kind of man who can live in the 21st century and not know that no means no; the president of the nudge-nudge, wink-wink old boys’ club of which Tarun Tejpal is an honorary member; and the very embodiment of an aggressive and regressive patriarchy that is enraging women around the world?

In short, just who is MJ Akbar? He’s the son of a jute mill labour contractor who wouldn’t take no for an answer till his son, whom he considered extraordinarily gifted in English, would get admission to Calcutta Boys’ School, the only posh school that had not rejected his efforts outright. He’s the precocious teenager who was “never short of ambition”, writing a stunning account of Mother Teresa’s relief work in Ranchi for Desmond Doig’s Junior Statesman (better known as JS). He’s the English undergraduate student of Presidency College who wasn’t allowed to stay in the hostel because he was a Muslim. He’s the tough talking, hard drinking editor who could make grown men tremble with a few carefully calibrated strikes of his pen. He’s also the author of ten books, among them a well-regarded biography of Jawaharlal Nehru and a popular history of Pakistan.

In his own words in the largely autobiographical 2006 novel, Blood Brothers, he is a “seamless chameleon”. Indeed he was a Bihari in Telinipara and later when he fought his first Lok Sabha election in Kishanganj in 1989, defeating Syed Shahabuddin. He was a Kashmiri from his mother’s side when he went to Lahore. He was a self-styled Bengali bhadralok when he went to work at Ananda Bazaar Patrika. He was a pucca little Englishman eating cucumber sandwiches and devouring Readers’ Digest condensed books with his father’s Sahibs, Simon and Matthew, within the confines of Victoria Jute Mill. And he was a proud secularist, the son of a man who returned from a brief stay in Pakistan after Partition because “there were too many Muslims there”.

English was his passport out of Telinipara and into the world of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed trainees who worked with Khushwant Singh at The Illustrated Weekly of India in 1970 and 1971. As Akbar wrote in an obituary of his mentor in The Times of India in 2014: ”Khushwant Singh believed in the young, and in young journalists, to an extent that would have been remarkable in any age, but was positively insurrectionist in 1970 and 1971. The media hierarchy left those on the first rung of the ladder scratching around for years. Khushwant lifted them to the top with a carefree shrug, but with a very, very careful eye on the copy they submitted. I have no idea what life would have had in store for me if Khushwant, and his wonderful deputy editor Fatma Zakaria, had not offered me the chance that changed my fortunes. But this I do know: what they did was enough to command a lifetime’s gratitude.”

And a series of successes that possibly watered and fed an incipient God complex.

It came from a firm belief in his own self-worth, which was burnished by his days at Sunday and The Telegraph when he was part of a new kind of typewriter guerrilla who dragged journalism kicking and screaming out of its staid confines. SNM Abdi, who was 20 when he was hired by Akbar as a sub-editor-cum-reporter in Sunday, wrote this in Outlook in 2015: ”I’m yet to see another editor work as hard. He came to office even on Sundays. But he didn’t have much faith in subbing (sub-editing); he rewrote stories from top to bottom. Sometimes he rewrote half a dozen 1,000-1,500 word magazine stories in a single day, pounding away at his Olivetti typewriter in those pre-computer days. Like income tax, Akbar was a great leveller; he rewrote everyone’s copy—from assistant editors’ to mine—in his inimitable style. In the bargain, some of us managed to learn the craft of writing—a professional skill I have used for over three decades to earn a decent living.”

It is something Tavleen Singh, who has written quite contemptuously of his tendency to court the powerful, endorses. As she wrote in an email response to me: ”Akbar is no friend of mine. But, I believe it is wrong not to remember that Akbar was the first editor in India to allow women to report on everything from coups, wars, elections to politics and government. I spoke up for him because when as a single mother I returned to journalism after an absence of two years he gave me a job instantly. The entire Delhi bureau of The Telegraph was made up of women. When I asked him why this was he said he hired on merit.” She also makes the point in her book, Durbar that he could be difficult to work with: often playing favourites, burying scoops inside if they didn’t belong to him and ignoring political realities even if they were staring everyone in the face.

Yet that was also perhaps when Akbar was at the peak of his professional prowess. His decision to switch to politics in 1989, after being so censorious of it, was the point where even his greatest loyalists started to see him for what he was becoming: an opportunist who would go on to compare Modi to Hitler in 2002 in Asian Age (“In Hitler’s case, the enemy was the Jew; in Modi’s case the enemy is the Muslim”) only to write in March 2014 in The Economic Times that for India, “there is only one way forward. … You know his name as well as I do.” In a letter dated October 29, 1989, typically handwritten on lined paper, addressed to The Telegraph team, explaining his decision to quit to fight elections in Kishanganj, he dresses it up well: “There comes a moment in life when we have to stand up and face evil directly, irrespective of the consequences. It is going to be very difficult. I have no illusions about that. Bihar is aflame and there are no assurances left. But I could not have run away from this fire. The flames have in a sense been becoming me, and I must do what little I can to help bring some sanity back to our nation. Look at the faces of children and you will see why I feel so driven.”

He did win Kishanganj but Rajiv Gandhi lost, and eventually two years later was assassinated. When Akbar fought the next elections in 1991, he lost, and soon quit the party. Rasheed Kidwai who worked with him in Asian Age between 1993 and 1996 says Akbar always felt he was better than most politicians, more erudite and better read, but also with a lower tolerance for the nonsense that politics begets. And unlike other journalists who had dabbled in politics, from Kuldip Nayar to Khushwant Singh, he could never recover his journalistic stature. The franchisee model of Asian Age saw him join hands with a string of tainted or debt-ridden associates, under trial politician Suresh Kalmadi, financier Ketan Somaia, willful defaulter Vijay Mallya and Deccan Chronicle‘s T Venkattram Reddy, which he believes only added to his disillusionment.

Sacked from Asian Age in 2008, he continued as a journalist, starting and shutting down a news magazine, Covert; a Sunday newspaper The Sunday Guardian with old friend Ram Jethmalani; and becoming editorial director of India Today. But his heart was clearly elsewhere and no one was surprised to see him quickly switch his loyalties from LK Advani–who made him a member of his informal Pandara Park club–to Modi, just in time to see him become prime minister in 2014. The man who urged an entire generation of men and women to thumb its nose at hidebound institutions had become the worst kind of establishmentarian himself, craving to be an insider, no matter how high the cost of re-entry.

At 67, Akbar is grandfather to three children, and has what seems to be a wonderful relationship with his wife of 43 years, whom he met as a trainee at The Illustrated Weekly of India. As he faces his accusers, he will have ample time to contemplate the words of his favourite song, his caller tune for the longest time, from Hum Dono, starring his iconic movie hero, Dev Anand: Main zindagi ka saath nibhata chala gaya/har fikar ko dhuan main udata chala gaya/barbadiyon ka shok manana fizool tha/barbadiyon ka jashan manata chala gaya.

When and if the serious charges of mental and physical abuse against him are proven, he will not be the only person celebrating his barbadi (ruin).

(The writer is a senior journalist who worked with MJ Akbar at India Today. Courtesy: theprint.in)


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Opinion

INDESCRIBABLE JOHN ELI

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By Shabbir Aariz

This indeed is proverbially a herculean task to describe or define John Elia in any particular frame. Whosoever while mentioning him, is either trapped in contradictions of one’s own opinion or is able to confine to a few verses of John Elia to judge him. But the more one tries to understand John, the more confused one is and I believe that you need another John Elia to explain him. He is a phenomenon, a thing like a live fish to hold in your hand or an elephant amongst blinds to be described. Wusatullah Khan, a noted broadcaster, holds that knowing John is as good as dating with a liberated lady. And it is quite obvious that a man who in him is a philosopher, a scholar, a biographer, a linguist with command over Urdu, Arabic, English, Persian, Sanskrit and Hebrew and needless to say that the Ismaili sect of the subcontinent could not find anyone other than John to translate Ismaili treatises from Hebrew, it becomes a tedious affair to be conclusive about John. Common perception though with an element of truth is that John is a progressive Marxist, an unconventional poet and always in denial of everything including himself while himself saying in three line verse,

“KISKO FUSAT K MUJSAY BAHAS KARAY…..

 

OOR SABIT KARAY K MERA WAJOOD….

ZINDZGI K LIYAY ZARORI HAY

(Anyone prepared to argue and prove that my existence is imperative for life). His poetry is admittedly very close to life and his verses in the words of a legendry poet, Majrooh Sultanpuri, are like a dialogue which no other poet has the distinction to be capable of. John has an extra-ordinary craft of connecting with his audience that has created an unprecedented fan following which no other contemporary poet can claim to have. So magical is his poetry and its rendition that it has created a cult of his admirers with such an obsession and longing for the life of melancholy lead by John Elia himself. It is no secret that he was never a happy man with defiance and protest against everything and anything around. Loudly a nonconformist when he says
“unjaman main mayri khamooshi…..

burdabari nahin hay wehshat hay”.

His style made him famous and popular. He appears to be disgusted even with creation when he says … “HASILE KUN HAY YEH JAHANE KHARAAB….

YAHI MUMKIN THA AYSI UJLAT MAIN”.

His admirers strangely wish to pass through the same pain and despair that is hallmark of John’s poetry besides satire and the disdain for the system which contributed to his sadness in life. He has so glorified and romanticized the pain and sadness that it leaves his audience in frenzied ecstasy.

John Elia was born in the year 1931 and died in 2002. He originally belonged to Amroha in the state of Uttar Pradesh, younger brother of Rayees Amrohi, a known journalist and writer. John migrated to Pakistan in the year 1957 and settled in Karachi where he is buried now. But Amroha never left his heart and mind. He never felt comfortable after leaving Amroha partly because his stay in Karachi brought him in conflict with the system too. Many other things have also contributed to his sadness in life. He was married to a well-known writer of Pakistan, Zahida Hina but in mid-80’s , the relation between the two became bumpy and ended up in divorce which left John devastated and for ten long years thereafter went in depression without writing a word.

As is true about many in the history of literature, John earned his name and fame more after his death than in his life time while he was not received well and felt a strange type of suffocation when he says,

“AAP APNAY SAY HUMSUKHAN REHNA…..

HUMNISHEEN SAANS PHOOL JATI HAY”.

Thanks to the electronic boom and You Tube that brought him to the lime light and enabled audience to reach him and his works. As if this was not enough that his first poetic collection only came to be published when he reached the age of 60. It is worthwhile mention that he has as many as seven poetic collections to his credit namely SHAYAD, YANI, LEKIN, GUMAAN, GOYA, FARMOD and RAMOOZ. Except one, all other are published posthumously. This is besides his scholarly works in prose which may require greater insight to go into.

John all his life remained honest, direct and straightforward in expressing his views on matters of public interest. He also never demonstrated any pretentions or reservations while expressing the truth of his personal life. He never made any secret of his fantasies, love affairs or drinking habits. Yet he was never at peace either with the times or with himself. John Elia, in my humble opinion lived ahead of times and even the desire of dying young without being bed ridden was not granted to him except that he strangely enough wanted to die of tuberculosis and which he did.

(The author, a senior lawyers, is a well known poet and writer. Feedback at: [email protected])

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Manto: Why I wanted to read a ‘lewd’ writer

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By Naveed Hussain

I first read Saadat Hasan Manto as a teenager and the spirit of what I’m writing now was etched on my memory in those years.

I was too young to understand the intricacies of his stories but I enjoyed what I read and craved for more. Back then, Manto wasn’t available in the small town of Haripur where I lived. A friend introduced me to a schoolteacher, a bibliophile who had a modest collection of Manto in his personal library.

 

“Why do you want to read Manto, he’s a ribald, lewd writer,” he quipped. “This is exactly why I want to read him,” I replied, almost impulsively. He smiled and agreed to lend me Manto’s books. Thus began my journey to explore Manto. The more I read, the deeper my love for him became.

Manto was a nonconformist, an unorthodox and ruthlessly bold writer. He didn’t believe in the so-called literary norms of ‘decency’ and ‘civility’ set by didactic writers of his time. For him, truth is truth. No matter how bitter and despicable the reality, Manto never dilutes the truth. Like a muckraker, he pokes his nose into the muck, rakes it, and then holds it up to the reader – in all its profound ugliness and twisted beauty. “If you don’t know your society, read my stories. If you find a defect, it’s the defect of your society, not my stories,” he says.

Manto wrote on socially taboo topics like sex, incest and prostitution, which earned him the wrath of contemporary traditionalists, conservatives and even progressives. For some of his ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’ stories he had to face lawsuits – among them were great stories such as Thanda Gosht, Bu, Khol Do, Dhuan and Kali Shalwar.

But it is to miss the point to simply say that Manto wrote about sex. He wrote about the sexual debauchery of men and the sexual exploitation of women; about our patriarchal society where women are often treated as a ‘sex toy’, not a human being. Unlike many, I don’t compare Manto with DH Lawrence, because Manto is not lustful, even though he explicitly writes about the female anatomy. He’s more like Guy de Maupassant, who sees the throbbing heart, not the sensuous body, of the prostitute.

Manto blames the ‘diseased mind’ for reading ‘ribaldry’ into his stories. If a sex maniac derives morbid gratification from Venus De Milo, should we blame Alexandros of Antioch for chiselling such a ‘graphic’ sculpture? No, certainly not.

For contemporary literary pundits, Manto was also unacceptable because he wrote ‘indecent’ language. “They [the critics] criticise me when my characters verbally abuse one another – but why don’t they criticise their society instead where hundreds of thousands of profanities are hurled on the streets, every day,” he wonders.

I also love Manto because he was honest. He was an unflinchingly true writer who believed in calling a spade a spade. Sketch-writing was introduced as a genre in Urdu literature much earlier, but Manto created his own peculiar tell-all style. He didn’t write only the good qualities of his characters. “In my bathroom, everyone is naked. I don’t clothe them because it’s the tailor’s job,” he writes.

Manto’s sketches, which he initially wrote for the Lahore-based Daily Afaq newspaper, were later collected and published as Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wasn’t a hypocrite. He minced no words while writing about his dead friends. “I curse a thousand times a so-called civilised society where a man’s character is cleansed of all its ills and tagged as ‘May-God-Bless Him’,” Manto wrote in Ganjay Farishtay. Manto wrote sketches of filmstars Ashok Kumar, Shyam, Noor Jahan, literary figures such as Meera Ji, Agha Hashar and Ismat Chughtai and some politicians. “I have no camera that could have washed smallpox marks off the face of Agha Hashar or change obscenities uttered by him in his flowery style.”

Before embarking on his literary career, Manto had read Russian, French and English masters like Chekhov, Gorky, Victor Hugo, de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde and translated some of their works into Urdu. Surprisingly enough, despite his love for revolutionaries, Manto was not a Marxist ideologue. He was a humanist who was pained to see social injustices, economic disparities and exploitation of the underprivileged. He hated the obscurantist clergy and parasitic elites alike.

Although Manto had migrated to Pakistan after 1947, he couldn’t understand the rationale of partitioning a land along religious lines. His stories of bloodshed and cross-border migration, such as Teetwaal Ka Kutta and Toba Tek Singh, made him unpopular with ‘patriotic’ Pakistanis. To this day he remains a shadowy figure on the official literary lists of Pakistan: our school curricula, our national awards, our drawing room conversations.

Manto was acknowledged as a creative genius even by his detractors. And he knew this, which is perhaps why he wanted these words to mark his grave: “Here lies Saadat Hasan Manto and with him lie all the secrets and mysteries of the art of short story writing. Under tons of earth he lies, still wondering who among the two is the greater short story writer: he or God.”

Manto’s family feared his self-written epitaph would attract the unwanted attention of the ignorantly religious, so on his grave one finds a Ghalib couplet. He faced censorship all his life and even now has chunks of his stories taken out by the authorities. But as we mark his centenary year, I can say this with the instant certainty I felt as a young man in Haripur: the words and stories of Saadat Hasan Manto will outlive us all.

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Gauhar Raza: Giving Poetry the Power to Protest

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By Asheesh Mamgain

If things were different his poems would have been different, or maybe he would not have been a poet at all. But things are what they are. And that is why Gauhar Raza, the poet is writing, and it is why he writes his poetry of protest.

“Maybe I would have written about love, the beauty of nature and science. But as things stand my poetry is predominantly about resistance and protest,” said Raza, who is faithful to the tradition of resistance poetry to the extent that he has throttled, without much difficulty, the romantic and the scientist in him. “The need to write poetry always arose when something happened around me which affected me, to the core. I have never written and will never write poetry just for the sake of it.”

 

“The murder of Safdar Hashmi, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the killing of an activist in Afghanistan, the death of Rohith Vemula are some of those things,” he said.

Raza’s second published collection of ghazals and nazms (71 in all) came out in November 2017 and is titled Khamoshi, or Silence.

Is there a lot of anger in his poems? Yes, there is definitely a lot of anger. But then there is also hope. That is where Raza becomes special.

“For me, a poem that merely complains or rants about the injustice, violence and persecution happening all around is not enough. A poet has to go beyond this; he has to give a vision. The vision of an alternative world, of a better world. Only then will his poetry be successful and meaningful. A poet has to show the consciousness he wants to bring into society.”

So how does he define good poetry? “Well, a good poem should be able to raise the level of the reader at least one notch higher, and also give him a fresh perspective about the aspect being dealt in the poem. Something new to dwell upon,” said Raza.

The influences that shaped his poetic thought came pretty early, at home and at the Aligarh Muslim University where he studied. Raza’s father, Wizarat Hussain, worked in the education department there and was a second-generation Leftist.

“The question about the existence of God came up very early in my life and soon I became an atheist for life,” said Raza. Literature was read with passion at home and by the time he was 15 he had read all the Urdu literature available at the AMU library as well as a solid portion of Russian literature.

“During my growing years, Leftist thought had a major presence in the university. On the other hand, the fundamental forces were also steadily getting stronger. I was smitten by the leftist idea. I was part of a literary study circle, we served tea at the secret meetings of leftist groups and listened to discussions at home between my father and other intellectuals such as Irfan Habib and Iqtidar Alam Khan.”

There was a lot of churning in his mind and soon he started pouring the remnants of all that into his poems. When it comes to poetry some of Raza’s major influences have been Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi. He is often seen reciting their work at length during his various lectures, with Sahir Ludhianvi’s long poem ‘Parchhaiyan’ or Shadows one of his favourites.

“Writing the kind of poetry I do is not easy. Each time a write a poem I must relive all the pain and emotion I went through when the particular incident happened that forced me to write. All those disturbing images come rushing back to me. It is a difficult thing to undergo.”

Nor is poetry Raza’s only means of reaching the people. He recently retired as chief scientist from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. He is also into documentary filmmaking, his documentaries on Bhagat Singh and the 2002 Gujarat genocide being very well known.

Where does poetry stand today, as a means of communication with the reader? According to Raza, “for one, social media has helped. It has helped poets reach a wider audience. Also, the tradition of musharias and kavi sammelans (poetry meets) is still very strong in India. So even if a poet is competing with the multimedia world, it is easy to reach one’s audience with one’s poetry, provided you have something pertinent to say.”

More broadly speaking, however, “I have to say that things have progressed in a disturbing direction. A poem I wrote 20 years ago, I could rededicate it to Rohith Vemula and then to Gauri Lankesh. This disturbing trend is seen all over the world. I believe that the fall of the USSR has been a major turning point in the way our World has evolved.”

A few lines from one of his poems brings out his concern and struggle.

Mein phool khilata hoon jab bhi,
Woh baad e khizan le aate hain,
Mein geet sunata hoon jab bhi,
Yeh aag se ji bahlate hain.

Whenever I make a flower blossom
They bring the autumn wind
Whenever I sing a song
They give the soul succour with flame.

But Raza is still hopeful. “There has been a resurgence of resistance poetry in Urdu in the recent past. The trend of religious poetry in Urdu has also reduced in recent times. The youth today has become more involved in this attempt to bring a positive change. I have seen young people reading protest poetry and reacting to it. Once again universities have become a place of resistance and struggle for change.”

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