Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Rebel with a cause

Esther Friede in traditional Indian attire at her Ashram in the 80s. 
A trip to the holy city of Haridwar in India is generally considered by many to wash off their sins. Not many however, know that amidst the dusty lanes of this sacred place lies an untold story of unique bravado and selfless devotion. Esther Friede is a Canadian woman, who has devoted nearly fifty years of her life to India;  yet currently she finds herself waging a lonely battle against the ruthless land mafia and conniving politicians who threaten to eat up the Ashram she so lovingly built up with her Guru.

Born to a simple middle class Jewish family Esther’s love for spirituality and the beauty of the country led her to India and devote her love to build up an ashram.  She had no inkling however, that her devotion would be tested decades later as she gets embroiled in murky political affairs to save that very ashram.

Esther left for India from her native home in Toronto in 1965, following in the footsteps of her Guru Swami Devananda, whom she had met at a college lecture. She was immediately taken in to his teachings and philosophy and decided to help him set up an Ashram in India.  “There are certain feelings, interests and attractions that come from deep within. Since I was a child and before I could do anything independently from my parents, I had an attraction to India, Indian things, Indian philosophy, Indian dress, long before it became popular in the west. ” says Esther
Esther with the then Indian PM Mrs. Indira Gandhi

Despite her parent’s vehement protests, she went on to stay in India, and kept coming back and forth.  At that time Esther and her Canadian friend Margaret Annie Sosney helped Swami Devananda and ably assisted him with the setting up of the Ashram.  The 1971 India-Pakistan 17-day war that saw the secession of East Pakistan from Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh was the time that Esther arrived in India for the setting up of the Ashram. The announcement of the beginning of the war came as they were in mid-flight and for a while the Ashram dream did seem difficult but with the help of some willing people including the then Pm. Smt. Indira Gandhi, the Sri Swami Devanandaji Bharat Bhakti Yoga Ashram was formally established in Haridwar in 1972. It is also been a registered society under the Indian Societies Registration Act of 1860 since 1974.

 After years of hardships Esther with her Guru and other willing Canadian members of the society, developed and maintained the ashram, which organized a literacy program for children. The idea of the literacy program was to offer basic literacy and numeracy for a few hours a day for girls who did not attend regular schools. In the literacy program, everything was free. Classes went up to grade 6 standard. The children were given uniforms and provided milk and food. In 1976, Mr. and Mrs. Leishman, the other members of the Canadian society came from Canada to settle at the ashram in India to look after the affairs of the ashram and maintain its literacy program, which they later named Prod Shiksha Kendra.  After 12 long years of service they finally decided to retire and had to look for some other able person to look after the affairs of the Ashram.

In between all this Esther had to take care of her professional life as well.  She went on to complete her university studies later in life, earning her Masters in Psychology while she was working for MNCs in the IT industry .She eventually established herself as a psychotherapist at Multifaith Spiritual and Religious Coordinator in Canada. Though she says, she did lose her interest in India, but it was her love and dedication for her Guru, who passed away in 2000, that made her build the Ashram affectionately. However murkier things were taking place there without her knowledge.

It was because of her frequent travels and non-availability in the ashram that the problem started. A particular manager whom the Ashram had entrusted the managerial duties in the late 80s allegedly used the ashram for his own greed.  As Esther explains,Migrant labourers were given places to set up their tents for fees that were also pocketed. The Ashram rooms were rented to people and the rent collected was not reported. The school suffered due to constant neglect and would have closed doors if it were not for the dedication of the two teachers who were determined to carry it on. The milk from the gaushala( cowshed) of the ashram too was being sold instead of being given to children.”   In 2005, she got an anonymous phone call from India saying if they wanted to save their land, they should come immediately.   “So, when I arrived, I found out that he had been visiting the registry office trying to claim ``squatter`s rights`` of the land, saying he(the manager) was living here and farming the land and it should be his. “ claims Esther.  After some discussions and disagreements with the Ashram members the manager who was allegedly involved in the scheme of things was finally fired from the Ashram.

That however, was only the beginning of the problems.

The manager immediately went into cahoots with the land mafia and the case erupted to dangerous proportions. A supposedly powerful criminal with quite a few criminal records against his name is now posing as the secretary of the society and submitted 35 years of documents in an application to renew the society registration. In his documents, he claims to have account statements and meeting minutes in which all the original members of the society resigned. Hearing of this, last year Esther paid a visit to the office of the Sub-registrar of Societies and presented him with evidence, in person, that these documents were a fraud, stating that she had never resigned.    The claims over the ashram are now dragging in court. The manager along with his partners has recently filed 3 court suits against the Ashram people.

Esther in turn has hired a local lawyer in her defense in civil court.  She also hired a lawyer for the Nainital High Court who has filed a writ petition against the Deputy Registrar, Firms, Societies and Chits of Haridwar, the Registrar of Firms, Societies and Chits, Dehra Dun. She has also lodged FIRs against the members of the land mafia whose names are known and the former manager who she claims passed along all their information to the land mafia for 420, 467, 468, 471, 452, 504, 506 and 341 IPC (Indian Penal Code) in the local Haridwar police station and hired a lawyer to conduct the criminal cases.

“I have ample evidence in pictures, correspondence, financial bank statements, copies of wire transfers of funds, and cancelled cheques. There is no shred of evidence that anything they have presented to the registrar’s office has a basis in reality.”  says Esther confidently.

She has even been receiving regular death threats, but that does not deter her from her cause, i.e. the rightful protection of the Ashram.   Nearing her 70s Esther might be physically weak, but her determination to fight till the end still remains as robust as ever.

So what drives her?  “This is a sacred site for me as it is my guru`s ashram.  It is also where I spent my formative early adulthood with my guru, so I think there is a lot of sentiment. I also don`t like to give up on a dream so there is the feeling of perpetual hope against odds.”   she says a touch emotionally.   She goes on to add in a somewhat determined tone, “I am motivated by the idea of fighting for what is right and exposing corruption.  I would, if it is possible, like to make the land mafia schemes so public that they will back off. I am hoping that they will give up but if they don`t give up voluntarily, they will be forced to back away by other means. I almost feel like what is happening here is a microcosm of what is going on all over India. I don`t understand how India can let this kind of thing run rampant without punishing the people involved in this racket and those who collude with it .”

All this negativity does bring in frustration and at times she does want to quit but what keeps her going as she proclaims is “to stand up against what I consider to be adharma” ..

Friends and family get concerned for her and then like a close friend of hers  says, “ I call her and tell her many a times , you can`t change India – it is what it is – just get out or go take a trip somewhere that you will enjoy – enjoy the good parts of India” . There are others too who warn her of the inherent danger, but Esther would rather die than just give up.

She could have easily packed of her bags and lived a peaceful existence in her own country. But she wasn’t willing to risk the children in the ashram get embroiled in the imbroglio. As she says there is lots to be done still with the development of the ashram and the children who need their services.  She cannot stay away from the place of her guru and the land where she attained all her spirituality.

There is a lot than can be learned from a person like Esther Friede.  A person who has no roots in India, and yet is fighting for her place in a way a mother protects her child. 

Esther’s story can perhaps be best summed in her parting words, What is true and good must be fought for – one can`t expect it to prevail if one is not ready to stand up for it. We don`t lead a spiritual life just to meditate and see the Light within.  We need to uphold the Light for all of society by doing what we are called to do in our own life.” 

(I came into contact with Esther via my journalist friend Sumantra Maitra . You can read his take on the story here.  ) 

(To read my latest interview with Esther, please click here.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Lone crusader- The Dr. Kunal Saha story

Myself with Kunal Saha (left) at the Kolkata Press Club
The dingy room offers a complete contrast to the man sitting in the centre. Clad in a bright orange shirt he wipes his forehead off the sweat, and continues to address the small group of reporters congregated there. Dr. Kunal Saha is very animated as he explains the intricate details of his case to the group in The Press Club of Kolkata. The motive of the press conference was to expose the rampant corruption in the West Bengal Medical Council (WBMC), in relation to the death of Mrs. Anuradha Saha, Saha’s wife, in 1998 due to an alleged medical ‘negligence’. Dr Saha has been fighting the Indian medical and judicial system since the last thirteen years to get justice for his wife. He has virtually been a lone fighter and is continuing his fight against the system relentlessly.

Now Kunal Saha is back in the news as a High Court judgement a few weeks back indicted 17 doctor members of the West Bengal Medical Council for criminal conspiracy and shielding doctors responsible for the death of Anuradha Saha. Furthermore,  last month a case has been filed against a retired High Court Judge where the Supreme Court condemned him for making defamatory statements against Kunal Saha. 

“I am not fighting for myself. It’s for Anu(Anuradha) and as well as many others like her,” says the gritty man with a simple smile, making one realize that no matter what adversities one might face, we should never give up hope.

The beginning and the love story

Born in Halisahar (a city in the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal), in 1958, to a large family, Dr Kunal Saha graduated from NRS Medical College, Kolkata in 1985 and then went on to America for his further studies. He did his PhD from the University of Texas, is now an MD and specializes in HIV/AIDS research.

It was in 1985, that he met Anuradha, that too by sheer co-incidence, and then their story unfolded almost like a Bollywood love story. Saha, after having missed a train to Delhi, had to board another train where he met Anuradha. That meeting led to a brief courtship that blossomed into a marriage in 1987. The next backdrop of what looked like a perfect boy-meets-girl story shifted to the US as the couple moved there to complete their medical education while chasing the great ‘American Dream’. Things went perfectly well for a decade as Anuradha went on to become a child psychiatrist while Kunal kept growing in his medical career before finally getting his fellowship from Ohio in 1998. It was at this time that the couple decided to start the new phase in their life by planning a family. Packing off their stuff to Columbus they decided to visit India once; Anuradha once wanted to visit her mother to take her blessings, before starting off the new phase.

Everything seemed perfect, for the fairy-tale story.

But Saha had no inkling on what was coming and how his life was about to change forever in the next few days.

The tragedy and the fight

It was during their short visit to Kolkata that Anuradha developed a simple skin rash from an allergic reaction to a drug. For treatment she consulted Dr. Sukumar Mukherjee, who was quite well known as one of the best doctors in the city. Dr. Mukherjee advised a drug called ‘Depomedrol’ , in a manner which was truly baffling.  'Depomedrol' is a long standing drug normally used for extreme cases of asthma or arthritis, and  given at a maximum dose of 40-120 mg at 1-2 weeks interval. However, Anuradha was given that about 15 times it's normal usage. 

Her condition worsened alarmingly since then and she was eventually shifted to Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai. A few day later, she breathed her last.

Saha with his wife Anuradha  in happier times 
I am a doctor myself, when I was told about this I was in a daze standing outside the hospital room. I knew she was dead, but refused to believe it. When I entered the room, I saw the monitor was blank, but, maybe I was hallucinating, as I saw her sitting there and talking to me..Just telling me, that don’t give up Kunal...Don’t you ever give up...”, says Saha a little emotionally. He was distraught after the incident.  All their plans and dreams shattered in a matter of days.

It would have been normal to go into a shell, and move on to his normal life. But Kunal Saha didn't and decided to fight it out; to take on the doctors who were responsible for his wife’s death.

However, that wasn’t to be easy. Saha soon realized that there is a whole nexus that is being maintained. The fact that he filed a criminal case against Dr. Sukumar Mukherjee and two other accused Doctors (Dr. Baidyanath Halder and Abani Roychodhury), would amount to nothing. As Saha says, the High Court rejected his appeal and the doctors roamed free continuing with their jobs normally. “I could see the jigsaw unfolding before my eyes and I understood that the doctors were being backed by the West Bengal Medical Council (WBMC) who in turn were supported by the Medical Council of India (MCI). It was obvious that there was a whole network at place here, and even if one of the biggies went down the whole system would be affected, more names would spill out; thus the backing and brushing up of things under the carpet," he says.  Clearly Saha now had to fight the entire medical system in the country. However Saha was not to give up so easily.

On 30th December 2001 he went on to form People for Better Treatment (PBT), in Kolkata; an organization whose main aim is to eradicate medical negligence and promote corruption-free healthcare in India. This is what gave Dr. Saha’s fight the impetus he was so desperately seeking.  Under the PBT’s wings, with efficient people under him, Dr. Saha restarted his fight against the doctors and refiled his case in the apex court.  Thus commenced a long ranging fight, and in a historic judgment on 7th August 2009 the Supreme Court  found four doctors and Advanced Medicare Research Institute(AMRI) guilty on accounts of negligence in medical treatment which eventually led to Anuradha Saha’s death.

It was a significant step in Saha’s fight. However, strangely enough, the medical practicing right of the doctors was not snatched and neither were they jailed or sentenced.  This soured Saha's small success somewhat. As he dug deeper, more names kept tumbling out and the fight continues to date.

The cause, the solution and the hope

“I am part of the problem too. I was selfish. Until it happened to me it didn’t bother me," says the man with grim honesty.  But nevertheless he feels that more than the solidarity shown to him by some of the doctors, he would rather prefer them to give them their support in person, as it would make his case look much stronger. But no one wants to take the risk.  So how do we change all this? What can be the solution?

The main problem, says Dr. Saha, is the whole administration which needs an overhaul and more importantly the mentality of the doctors and the entire medical system.

Says Kolkata based physician D.P. Mullick, “Dr. Saha is not just fighting for his wife, this is a fight for every citizen who does not want to have a similar fate. It is the responsibility of the medical authorities and the state to take care of the patients. Unfortunately in today’s age that does not happen. Hopefully Saha’s fight would change that and make our medical system more accountable.”

Being an American citizen as well, Dr. Saha understands the basic difference between the two systems. “In America there is accountability, and humanity when treating their patients,” informs Saha. Furthermore he says that before the medical system the Indian judiciary too needs reformation to support the people in getting justice done effectively.

However he is getting some support from different quarters as senior Kolkata lawyer Mr. Alok Mitra says, “Dr .Kunal Saha’s case is a good case.I believe under the circumstances and considering the facts of the situation, we can expect some positive outcome of the judgment."

Kunal Saha thus still harbours hope that things will change eventually, and he along with PBT will try and make this country clean of similar cases like his.

The Fight continues…

Cases like Dr. Saha's are extremely rare; someone who has fought for 13 years relentlessly, and intends to do so till his last breath.  Staying in America, doing his research in HIV/AIDS, coming here regularly for his case, and managing the affairs of PBT too must be taxing, mentally and physically, but Saha finds his motivation; his love for his wife.  “For me Anuradha can never be dead. I have a big house there in America, and she stays with me.  Our meeting was a pre-scripted story; it was destiny. As if someone wanted me to do this. If I win this case it would perhaps set an example for others to be careful about. I hope I can just make this country a better place, so that children won’t have to die unnecessarily due to some ignorant people. Anuradha always wanted that,"says Saha .

While we wait for the Supreme Court Judgment and hope that it goes in the right direction, one thing is for certain, that Kunal Saha will not give up.  He is already turned into an inspirational figure for many suffering from fate similar to his.

Dr. Saha can be described both as the man who fought the system and the husband who loves his wife and is trying to bring her justice. One can learn from people like him, that no matter what we should never give up hope.  No matter what we should  keep fighting; until the very end. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Arrival of a ‘true’ Star

After coming into journalism I have been writing vigorously on varied topics for the last two and half years. This blog of mine too has been changing its colours (and I don't mean the layout) since the time I wrote the first post. I generally wrote on topics which interested and intrigued me. However, it’s been quite surprising that I haven’t written anything related to cinema, given how closely and ardently I follow it. (Thanks primarily to a certain best friend of mine, who ensures that I watch almost every film roll that hits the projectors in a cinema hall). Today, however I decided to jot down my thoughts after going through an exhilarating experience in the theatres and watching a true star stamping his place in Indian cinema with a stunning performance which leaves you asking for more. Ranbir Kapoor has arrived people, and is here to stay… Big time…!!

Now, I have been a self – confessed Hrithik Roshan fan for about a decade and have found no one from the new batch of actors even remotely close to him in all these years.  But Ranbir Kapoor has changed all that.  When he made his screen debut with Sanjay Lila Bhansali’s dud ‘Saanwariya’, I wasn't mildly interested in him and just considered him another ‘star kid’ reaping in the benefits of his royal acting lineage. I also gave ‘Bachna Ae Haseeno’ a miss, though I heard mild reports of the ‘arrival of a star’, but chose to ignore them.  However, Ranbir caught my attention with his endearing performance as a young and confused guy in the 2009 film ‘Wake up Sid’  trying to sort things out in his life. He played it convincingly and I doubt anyone else could have played it better. With ‘Rocket Singh’ later that year I was certain Ranbir had the makings of a true star. It was a performance worth applauding, as he played the character of a simple Sikh guy who is honest yet determined very effectively and honestly. He followed it up with an outstandingly mature portrayal of a secluded yet silent man in 'Rajneeti' next year.  But with ‘Rockstar’ Ranbir now has taken a giant leap towards that line that makes you a respected and noted actor, in a league of his own and convinced me that here is a star that with time would keep rising and develop into a well-groomed star.

His scintillating performance as the rustic Haryaanvi Janaardhan, trying to make a name for himself as a musician and wooing the exceptionally pretty college hottie is riveting fun, while contrastingly his broken and angst-ridden Rockstar avatar of Jordan is so believable that you actually start caring for him, wanting his bleeding heart to get the healing touch.  The moment the first reels signal his arrival, you get a feeling that something special is about to arrive.. Every act of his;  be it the way he struts onto the stage to deliver his performance, or the way he holds his guitar, the way he lets out his frustration of the pain he feels in love into his songs or the way he gets irritated frequently with the media and the police is simply superb.  Infact, for the first time I felt that a Rahman song was made famous simply because of the way the actor performed in it. True Rockstar stuff..!! How I wish, the director had given better thought to his disjointed script , which leaves you confused, irritated and frustrated by the time the end reels roll in. It’s a shame for Ranbir, as a better script would have helped his character evolve even better, but here it mostly leaves you confused of his behaviour.  It is mainly courtesy Ranbir’s award- worthy performance that the film leaves a mark in your mind; else it’s a disappointing fare of what could have been brilliant cinema.

However, after this I am sure all claims of Ranbir’s star quality would be put to rest. He is undoubtedly, here to stay for a long time. I haven’t found anyone after Hrithik showing such versatility in his film’s selection, emoting so confidently and having a star presence that he certainly does have. There have been many after Hrithik, who were briefly claimed to be the ‘next big thing’. Vivek Oberoi is a prime example, and so is Shahid Kapoor (although he is a very good actor but I don’t see him being a huge crowd –puller in the coming days, a trait that Ranbir exudes), they have had their brief periods of fame, but haven’t managed to sustain it.  Imran Khan, was briefly considered as Ranbir’s competitor (frankly, I don’t see him lasting for long as he has his limitations in acting but then that is completely my  personal opinion) , but RK has now surged ahead.

Ranbir, I feel would not make that mistake, as he looks to have a matured head on his shoulders. I never like comparisons between actors of different generations. I would hence not waste time in claiming him to be dethroning some other great actor. I believe that the Indian film industry is large enough to make space for all kinds of ‘stars’ to prevail and maintain their longevity if they have it in them. There is no need to make any unnecessary bad blood between the reigning stars and the upcoming ones. It is time I think to welcome him with open arms and hope that he survives to lift our cinema to giant heights. After all it’s his ‘Haq’ to stay here now. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Mother

(Found this one accidentally. Had written this about six years back for a 'Short story' competition. Remember typing this out sitting in a cyber cafe. Certainly not my best work, but worth sharing.)

The afternoon rays of the sun filtered through the trees towards the three tiger cubs flirting around with themselves in the dirt and enjoying the balmy sunlight on their furry little backs. A few feet away, resting calmly and watching her cubs lovingly, was their mother, Sita.  The queen of her territory in this tiger reserve of Ranthambhore, Sita, a 14-year-old tigress with a large and gleamingly beautifully striped body, had given birth to this litter six weeks back. The cubs were now old enough to eat raw meat instead of their daily dosage of mother’s milk.

Sita had killed a wild boar four days back but it didn’t satiate the whole family's hunger for long. Hunting was a very difficult business in the summer months in Ranthambhore; what with the scorching Rajasthan heat and intense humidity, she would tire easily after running just a few miles.

Now she desperately needed to hunt as she had three more mouths to feed other than hers. So she waited for darkness to descend, which would allow her to hunt with much more precision.

As the light dimmed, Sita rose from her place and with great care took each of her cubs in her jaws and placed them in a small crevice besides the bushes. This was a good place to hide her cubs from predators. She looked at them sternly as if signaling them to stay put before she returns.

With a final curt glance at her cubs, she made a dash towards the swamp ahead...


It was a little past midnight now and the moon shone brightly over the damp grass of the forest floor. The jungle lay eerily still, except for the sound of her heavy paws thumping on the soft grass. Sita was dragging her kill, a large male stag, towards her shelter. She was extremely pleased with herself and relieved that she could now feed her young; as this large stag would easily last for days.

But as she closed in, her body froze. There, just a few feet ahead of her, stood a large fully grown adult male tiger looking not at her but at the bushes ahead of him; where quivering in fear were the three tiger cubs. Sita dropped the kill quietly and was totally alert now. This male was probably from the nearby territory, and male tigers are known to kill smaller cubs to wipe out all competition. The male, whose muscular body glistened in the moon light, was probably twice her size, and was slowly approaching the cubs. Sita knew she had no chance against him but had to act instantly as the tiger was about to make his move any second now. Arching her body up, she lunged straight ahead and pounced on his back. The male, who hadn’t noticed Sita yet, was taken completely aback and fell to the ground. Taking advantage of her position Sita began clawing at his face savagely. The male, with the brute strength he possessed, managed to push her back and was seething with rage; his nostrils flaring in anger. He issued a blood-curdling roar and leapt up fiercely, but Sita was ready. 

The brutal clash that ensued shook the entire jungle. Everything in the vicinity; even the trees and the bushes seemed to be quivering with fear. The two tore away viciously; biting and gnawing at each other's bodies; their snarling and roaring creating a deafening racket. Finally, after about half an hour of ruthless battle, the male bowed out; failing to withstand the power of a mother hell-bent on protecting her young. She would have rather died rather than let her cubs be killed. The male, heavily injured and defeated, strolled away slowly; his head hanging in shame.

Sita finally fell to the ground; panting heavily. Gruesome battle marks were strewn across her body. There was a sudden gust of wind and the leaves of the trees swayed, almost as if applauding the gladiator beneath them. The cubs, who had come out of their hiding space, were now licking their mother's wounds, trying to revive her. Sita forced her head up with all the effort she could muster, and looked at her cubs. All healthy and safe. Satisfied, she rested her head back on the ground. Her eyes fluttered and then closed.

The mother had done her job...

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The 'Wright' of our Wild- An interview with leading Wildlife conservationist Belinda Wright

“If only animals could vote”, laments Belinda Wright as she ponders over the failing standards of the Indian wildlife. Known as India’s leading wildlife conservationists, Wright has been known for her charismatic personality and how, despite being of British origin, she has considered India as her home and refused to go back to her original roots.

Belinda Wright 
Speaking from her Delhi based office, the Director of Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI), Wright has been working relentlessly for the last three and a half decades for the Indian wildlife An NGO which doesn’t exactly carry the tag of international ones the WPSI‘s commitment is primarily to the tigers, their habitat, and the Indian people. Going about her work without bothering about any media glare Belinda is currently extremely occupied with her constant conservation efforts as she prepares for a wildlife enforcement meeting which concluded in China earlier last month.  Just weeks before that she was tied up with a working group for the Planning Commission of India to ideate plans on saving the current Indian wildlife scenario.

Born and brought up in Kolkata (India), her love for wildlife, as she mentions is in her DNA as both her parents were animal lovers.  It was this love for wildlife that inspired her to launch the WPSI.  

Through this organization, she has also tried to reach and help various local communities from remote villages.

In the Sundarbans, over 180,000 mangrove saplings have been planted in and around the Bali Island by the local communities, with the help of Wright and her organization. The locals have also formed a voluntary Tiger Rescue Team which reacts swiftly to any reports of tigers entering nearby villages.

Wright has been a wildlife photographer and filmmaker for the National Geographic Channel and has also won two Emmy Awards and 14 other major international awards for her National Geographic film 'Land of the Tiger' . She has also been conferred with the Carl Zeiss Wildlife Conservation Award 2005. 

It is these kinds of efforts that make Belinda Wright a unique figure in her own right. In an exclusive interview with yours truly she sheds more light on her life, serious issues concerning wildlife and her efforts to save it.

Q.Your views on the current wildlife scenario in India. Do you honestly feel that the Indian Tiger can yet be saved?

Tigers are not a difficult species to save. They breed well and require undisturbed space (particularly to avoid conflict in human habitation), protection, food, and water. Tragically, it seems that we are not able to provide them even these basic survival requirements. What tigers give us in return is unimaginable. Their very presence is the reason for protecting forests that are the source of about 300 rivers. Tigers stop the exploitation and devastation of these forests that are vital for the environmental security and wellbeing of the nation. The tiger is also a keystone species that plays a critical role in keeping the ecosystem that it lives in healthy.

The tiger is an iconic species the world over and the national animal of six nations, including India. If we cannot save a species of this magnitude, how will we be able to save other species, and indeed our precious planet?

Q. How and when did the idea of Wildlife Protection Society of India come up? Tell us about the achievements and breakthroughs that WPSI has managed to make over the years.
Wright at the Dec 2007 seizure in Allahabad 

I founded the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) to try and bring new energy to the wildlife conservation movement in the 1990s and to fill what I saw was a critical gap, the lack of wildlife enforcement. One of WPSI’s primary aims is to provide support and information to the authorities to combat poaching and the illegal wildlife trade, particularly in wild tigers.

Probably our single biggest achievement is that we have helped ensure that people actually now know how and why tigers and other species valued in the wildlife trade, are brutally killed and traded. We have exposed the facts, and the killings are no longer the guarded secrets of wildlife criminals.

Q. Over the years you have constantly tried to bring the core issues concerning Indian wildlife to the forefront. But somehow they haven’t exactly yielded the results that they should have.  Does frustration creep in after a while?

Fortunately, I have always been a fairly optimistic person, and despite the incredible odds, some positive things do happen. For example, there is a lot more awareness of the problems and needs of wildlife conservation than there was in the past, particularly in civil society and the judiciary. Greed and corruption play a negative role in practically every issue, and wildlife too suffers from this. Political support is also lacking – if only animals could vote!

Q. What exactly do you think is wrong with the Indian system that it is failing to save the falling standards of the Indian wild ?

As I said earlier, the failure is mostly to do with greed and corruption – in the political system, in the forest service, and all the people who put pressure on them to bend the rules. The government has invested huge sums of money for wildlife conservation, but while the one hand provides, the other destroys. Forests are seen as easy pickings for mines, highways, dams, nuclear power stations – just about anything. Another huge problem is our burgeoning human population, which puts pressure on all lands and wild places and results in the growing problem of human-animal conflict.

Q. How and when did your interest in wildlife start?     

Wright with a tiger cub in Patna, 1974
My parents were both animal lovers and we shared our large home in Kolkata with dogs and horses and many orphaned wild animals. My interest and passion was always wildlife, and I have never thought of working on any other subject.

Q. Tell us a bit about your childhood,  your background and your wildlife experiences of your younger days.

My family is of British origin with a long association, going back many generations, with the Indian Subcontinent. My mother was the daughter of an ICS officer and my father was the son of an IPS officer – he was born in Kolkata, and so was I. My brother and I had a wonderful childhood in Kolkata and Bihar (we spent practically all our holidays in what is now Palamau Tiger Reserve) in the 1950s and 1960s before we were sent off to school in England. I hated being away from India, but it didn’t take long before I was back again.

Q.Who are your role models in wildlife conservation and why?

My first wildlife guru was Dr. Salim Ali, who I was fortunate to know well. Billy Arjan Singh and Fateh Singh Rathore also became close friends. But ultimately I think my role model is Dr. George Schaller. He is a rare combination – a renowned scientist and an unshakable conservationist, someone with determination, knowledge, and soul.

Q.  Give us your view on what should be the way forward for our administration and other concerned people to improve the wildlife scenario. If you were to make a short list of points to be undertaken to save our wildlife (especially the tiger), what would those be? 

So many excellent recommendations have been made over the years and ignored. The creation of a sub-cadre for wildlife could probably bring about the single biggest positive change so that managers and field staff are properly trained and dedicated to wildlife issues. The Prime Minister even agreed to this proposal, but it never happened. We desperately need better leadership and management of our protected areas, especially to motivate the demoralized field staff. Field staff vacancies need to be filled and training and infrastructure improved. And we desperately need intelligence-led, professional enforcement.

A solution to much of these problems can also be found with the support and collaboration of local communities. I know such support is possible, but it will not happen under the present system.

Q.  Do you think the Indian middle class is too far away from issues concerning wildlife? Nobody seems to care about it. Don't you think that the media has a bigger role to play to aware the average Indian on critical wildlife issues? 

The media is playing a critical role in spreading knowledge and information on wildlife and environmental issues. Thanks to their efforts, the average Indian is much more aware of the issues, then it was say ten years ago. But the knowledge gap is still wide. People still do not understand what is actually needed - the solutions to the problems - even though these are well documented.

 Q.What's WPSI's current motive given the present day wildlife situation in India? What would your future objectives be? 

Curbing wildlife crime will always be our focus, but the human-animal conflict is increasingly 
becoming a widespread problem and a challenge for contemporary wildlife conservation efforts. This is an issue that must be handled swiftly and professionally, with government and non-government organizations working closely together. Every district with forestland should be equipped, trained and prepared for conflict situations.

Q. How long do you intend to continue on this endeavor to save the Indian wildlife? How would you like to be remembered as? 

I will continue to fight for India’s wildlife for as long as I breathe. Despite all the failures, I would like to think that I do make a positive difference, and I don’t care if
I am remembered or not. That is not the reason why I do what I do. I am driven by a lifelong passion that I am sure will never be extinguished.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

From a Director's Mind – An Exception To The Rule

Sumanta behind the camera for a recent ad-shoot he directed
Indrani Halder smilingly gives the ‘Best Director for Drama’ trophy to him in the photo frame adorning the wall.  As Sumanta Chanda looks at his picture with pride he realizes it’s been five hours now, and yet he can’t think of the next twist in the story he is currently writing the script for.  He tears the page down and smiles to himself; it’s not the first time this has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last time either. A  25 year old Mass Comm. graduate , and a short film-maker, Sumanta intends and desires to enter the world of cinema one day, hoping it would give him the chance he so desperately seeks to explore. But the dream that he nurtures isn’t quite new. There are lakhs like and around him.What is so special about him then one might ask?

Film-making of a different kind

Firstly, the unique thing about the films Sumanta makes are that they are made on zero- budgets and shot on normal digital and handy-cams that he manages to borrow from friends. Added to this is the fact that he has no formal education in film-making ; he has created a new dimension in this field all by himself. Hence teaching us all that no matter what hurdles you might have to face, if you truly love something deeply, you will always find a way.  Sumanta has already made a name for himself as ‘Mr. Director’ in his social circles. The story-line covered in each of the films he has made up until now, is different from one another; from horror, to thriller, to sentimental and to one based on religious sentiments, he has covered nearly all genres.  He writes, directs and acts in his films and with genuine help from a couple of friends of his, has managed to break the rule that cinema people generally tend to believe; i.e. to make films you have to be a pass out of a good film school, you have to have the backing of a good production house and you have to have good sources and contacts to survive in the industry. Sumanta did not have any of these. Says Mrs. Aishwarya Chaterjee , his HOD from his college days, “ Sumanta always had a spark, and an acting bug which I could sense in his initial days in college, and now when I see his films it makes me immensely proud that I taught him once.. I am sure he will go far. He has what you can call a director’s mind.”

Sumanta on his part is quite submissive to these praises and just wants excel in the thing he loves the most.  “I have never read any good cinema books, neither have I seen any Satyajit Ray films or any breakthrough international films. I want to create my own style. I don’t know whether or not I will succeed, but at least I will try.” It is this unique line of thought he carries that makes Sumanta different from today’s young generation of directors who are generally following the same procedure to get into this line.

The Beginning

 He has been making short films for two years now, and has decided to make it into his profession. While others around him went on to get lucrative jobs, Sumanta stayed put on his decision. Family members raised eyebrows initially when he declared to drop out from B. Com Hons. and get into Mass. Comm., from School of Management,media and Technical Research  (Smmtr) Ballugunge, Kolkata , as that he believed was the only way he could have a chance of getting into the film world . Even then he wasn’t sure of which way to go, he just wanted a chance to try out some talents he has, i.e. mimicry and acting. He however, had no inkling on what course life was making for him.
Sumanta receiving the award from actress Indrani Haldar 

Direction happened to him by chance, as while acting and mimicking on a few stage shows in college he caught the eyes of his seniors who then wanted him to direct a few plays. That is how the direction bug first caught him.  He went on to direct a number of successful plays and some of those went on to bag the first prize in college fests. Incidentally there was a time when Sumanta had worked as a junior artiste in the 2004 Hindi film ‘Yuva’ . It was his love for just being part of a Hindi Film crew that drew him there.
Born and brought up in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, Sumanta’s father Salil Chanda, a government official, soon came back to his roots in Kolkata with his family. Sumanta then 14, was awestruck by the mega city and found it quite hard to cope initially.  At the age of 17, the year of his class 10 board exams, tragedy struck his life, when he lost his father due to a sudden bout of heart attack. With the head of the family gone, it was extremely difficult for him to cope with the situations thereon what with the responsibility of the mother and his sister on him.

Sumanta however got things slowly back on track with the help of his sister and mother.   He even passed out class 10 and 12 with flying clours, and in the process became the head of the family managing the whole day to day affairs of the household efficiently.

The Film Bug

All this while the cinema bug still kept growing inside him and slowly he decided to give his long cherished dream of acting a chance, and as he laughingly says, “Since no one was willing to give me a chance I casted myself in my own films, living my acting and directing dream in the process.”

In a still from his recent film 'Mehnaaz aur 1947'
Film-making though is a tough and pain-staking job says Sumanta, especially scripting them, as he had to write all his stories keeping the budget in mind. There were many things he wanted to show, many beautiful scenes that he wanted to depict but those required budget, which he didn’t have. He has to constantly work under restrictions, which sometimes makes him frustrated for nights at large.  But that made his determination even more robust. Friends though are really impressed by his work as his Bhutanese friend Pema Seldon says, “He is a very talented actor, something which I instantly realized in his college plays and now as a film director he is even more impressive and has touched new heights... Even while I stay here in Bhutan, I wait anxiously for all his new projects, and my family and friends out here are already becoming his fans..."

All he wanted was to explore. His last film Mehnaaz aur 1947 deals with religious battles and love at the time of war.  “I could have easily based the story in the 1992 riots, but I chose a bygone era as I wanted to test myself, to see how I could create those days without any budget at hand.” He had to spend many a sleepless nights to sketch out the characters, hunt for locations and pen the script. It took all of his energy and devotion to make this 30 minute film.

The struggle

Praises however, do not feed the belly. For the entire name he has earned, he still has to run his family, which he manages by getting a nominal amount now by renting two small flats he has.  That’s his problem with Indian cinema, there’s no platform as such to showcase your talent and be in the eyes of the bigwigs of the industry. He has taken his films to various Bengali producers and directors. One Bengali producer, who doesn’t wish to be quoted, says that talents like Sumanta should be immediately sent to Bollywood to better hone his skills and for better opportunities. But that’s that, nothing further, no one wants to take in any fresher or unknown face. “I don’t mind struggling and slogging it out. But where do I start. Everyone wants to have film- school pass outs or others having impressive contacts.  I don’t even mind working for free. Take me as an assistant; just let me learn this craft.”  That is the problem today, as every profession has sort of an entrance exam or other means of entry of sorts, but as Sumanta says he has created his own entrance exams by making these films and just wants people to see his work. “If you think I am useless throw me out, no issues. But at least see my work. Give me a chance. “

The hope...

Frustration brings in negativity, as nothing moves and time just passes by, but somehow he manages to direct his negativity and converts it into positive energy by making films and writing scripts for new ones, as he is currently doing.  His love for films is what keeps him going and not for a minute does he intend to give up.  Coming this far and earning so much accolades has determined him that there’s no looking back.  He will keep fighting until he gets the chance he wants. 

Relatives who had earlier raised eyebrows on him now look at him with new found respect.. Things have turned around for Sumanta Chanda in ways he had never imagined. Now all he has left are his passion for his films and friends who keep him motivated through their relentless support.  And now, he has tasted success, howsoever small it might be, after getting the chance to direct a couple of local Ad-Films. That might very well be the stepping stone to enter the big league he so desperately desires to enter.

Mr. Salil Chanda would be a proud man today, boasting in heavens about his only son, whom he used to chide for his studies, for watching films and for nearly everything.  If only he could come and see how things have changed. Clearly the last has not been heard of the very talented Sumanta Chanda. The final shot is yet to be taken. Perhaps this is like they say, just the beginning...  And Bollywood waits.