Category Archives: India 2010-11

Bollywood and politics – in one word…

The huge advert in Kolkata’s South City Mall screamed its message across the marbled forecourt. “At our school your child could become the next Bill Gates, the next David Beckham, the next Katrina!”

Katrina? For a nanosecond I wondered why anyone would want their child to become a natural disaster. But then I remembered the Indian tendency to reduce those they love to a one-word moniker. “Katrina” is the stunning Katrina Kaif, the 26-year-old rising star of Indian pop culture. Half Kashmiri, half English, born in Hong Kong, raised in Hawaii – Katrina has all the globish credentials of a 21st century superstar with hit films and songs under her belt. Continue reading


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Prices, palaces and politics

An encounter with a member of the Delhi parliament the other day produced a stunning prediction. Growth in India, he believed, would be significantly quicker than even the remarkable predictions made at the start of the year. 12-14% was his hunch, based on discussions with economic advisors in the capital. There were so many tiny variables, he said; if India can get on the right side of these, supersonic growth is, he asserted, a racing certainty.

But even an economic dunce like me can see that controlling inflation in a fast growth economy is a significant hurdle. And right now, India is in danger of falling on the wrong side of the fence. Continue reading

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Guilty pleasures in the backstreets of Calcutta

“Way to Sonagachhi?” I asked tentatively, catching the eye of a helpful looking Calcuttan on a street corner. He gave me a wary sideways look.

“You want prostitutes and thing?”

“No, no,” I responded hurriedly. “It’s research… honestly…”

The man looked unconvinced. He waved his hand vaguely down the street. “Go straight a few minutes. Then left.” As I slunk away down the maze of lanes I reflected that the directions were about as useful as a single rupee in a brothel. Which somehow seemed appropriate.

Exploring Calcutta properly on foot takes time – and patience. I scratched below the surface on my visit here last year, but this time my footsteps have a more purposeful edge. As guides I am carrying a map and a guidebook from the pre-war period, both donated to the cause by a friend in Scotland, along with a wonderful walking guide written by the Bengali journalist Soumitra Das. And of course the perennial Lonely Planet.

Using four sources has its benefits and its drawbacks. The main benefit: an ability to drill deep into a neighbourhood, get thoroughly confused and lost, and emerge much the wiser. The drawback: trying to juggle four books on a busy Calcutta street while dodging human, canine and motorised traffic not to mention assorted bodies performing their morning ablutions. Not a task for the faint-hearted.

Underneath the main streets, the Calcutta metro forms a concealed spine running south to north and is a lifeline. It’s hard not to breathe a sigh of relief as you head down below, escaping the constant pressures of this overcrowded city. (The 2001 census recorded a figure of 13 million for the “urban agglomeration” which feels woefully low. It will be updated this year.)

Once on the expansive platform the lengthy underground trains act like great subterranean lungs, inhaling hundreds of passengers at each station until full to bursting and holding their breath through long tunnels before forcefully exhaling a mass of humans with great relief on the next platform.

Emerging above ground again I found myself at the bottom of two-mile long Chitpur Road. I took a tram to the top in preparation or my day’s exploration. (A word of caution to the unitiated – as suspension on the trams remains at bone-shaking levels, taking a seat is ill-advised and runs the risk of early onset of osteoporosis.)

Once at the end of the road I alighted and meandered slowly back down this wonderful spur that contains more life than many can take in a single day.  In the lanes that snake between the main thoroughfares the jumbled architecture frequently gives way to ornate carvings on buildings or intricate metalwork. In some instances it is maintained to a remarkable standard; in others the decay is well past repair. Some of the houses of the Hindu bhadralok class led to this area quite appropriately being termed the City of Palaces. They happily coexisted side by side with dwellings of those at the other end of the social scale.

The fabled Sonagachhi is still home to ladies of the night, most of them today of Nepali origin. I quickly found myself lost in the back alleys, declining as politely as I could the preferred method of invitation – a gentle nod of the head towards the upper rooms of decrepit buildings. Like any big “urban agglomeration”, prostitution, drugs and gambling are available in this city without much delving under the surface.

There is much to be discovered here – it is a city that can only really be understood by extensive legwork. For three hours yesterday I benefitted from a sprightly 81-year-old man who adopted me for the afternoon dragging me along highways and byways at a pace far beyond that which I prefer, frequently halting the traffic with a bold step in to the road and a waft of his walking stick.

An extraordinary city with an extraordinary past that the residents appear to have neither the will nor the inclination to shake free from.

As for the shadow the past casts on the city’s future, that’s for another day.

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Buddhists, the brain and neuroscience

I recently attended a 4-day conference on “Science, Spirituality and Education” in Gangtok, Sikkim. The Dalai Lama opened the conference, and I wrote the article below about his fascinating dialogue with members of the neuroscience community. It was published today in The Times.

Buddhists, the brain and neuroscience

Photo: Anupam Nath

Andrew Duff
December 23 2010 12:25PM

At a conference in Sikkim the Dalai Lama and neuroscientists are exploring the impact of neuroscience on the brain

An American once tried to tell the Dalai Lama that science is the killer of religion. The Dalai Lama’s response was straightforward. “The Buddha,” he explained “said do not accept things out of faith and devotion. Rather investigation and experimentation. I realized that whether science is killer of religion or not, I have to investigate!” Continue reading

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Buddhists, Ibiza, earthquakes and Einstein

It was a scene of near perfection. As I sat on a stunning Himalayan hilltop, I watched a small group of Buddhist monks quietly eating a midday meal in a perfect circle, their maroon and saffron robes offsetting the crisp snow-capped peak of Kanchendzonga against a winter-blue sky.

But in India it’s best to expect the unexpected. Suddenly the strains of “We’re going to Ibiza”, the annoyingly catchy number one hit for the Vengaboys in 1999, were booming out from a stereo beside one of the monks.

Such incongruities are normal fare here – plenty of other half-familiar tunes emerge from tinny mobile phones hidden under monks’ robes below which peek the latest Nike trainers. Buddhism is nothing if not rooted in the everyday.

Did the earth move for you?

I’m currently in Sikkim. It used to be an independent Buddhist kingdom, but is now an Indian state nestled in the Himalayas between Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. (Good series of maps here). Continue reading

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Obituary: P Lal

I met the Indian publisher Professor Puroshottama Lal in his home in 2009 and wrote about it at the time. He died on November 5 2010. An obituary that I wrote (below) was published by The Times on 16 December. It is also available for subscribers to The Times website here.

Professor P Lal

Indian poet and publisher who believed passionately that his country’s writers should embrace English

Photo: Rosalind Solomon


Purushottoma Lal was a teacher, poet, translator and publisher. From his home in Calcutta, he championed Indian writing in English with his publishing house, Writers Workshop, for more than 50 years. He was the first publisher of, among others, Vikram Seth. Continue reading

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Who wants to be a TEN-millionaire?

It’s been 18 months since I was last in India, but my taxi was barely out of Calcutta airport before the familiar began to re-emerge.

As the horn crescendo rose with the early morning traffic, I noticed a huge billboard looming over the dusty circular road from where the Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan smiled serenely down on the passing traffic. Continue reading

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