On Gauri Lankesh, From Chidanand Rajghatta’s Illiberal India
In his book Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason Chidanand Rajghatta says, “She had a volatile temper in her youth that I often defused with jokes.” An Excerpt:
Sometime in 1993, either burnt out or disenchanted with her job in Sunday magazine, Gauri took a sabbatical to go to Paris under a journalists’ exchange programme. She was at this time upset by my decision to go ahead with another relationship. Later, she told me she had exploded in anger, throwing a bottle of Chanel No. 5 that I had gifted her into a winter bonfire, where it blew up dangerously, shooting out glass fragments. She had a volatile temper in her youth that I often defused with jokes.
‘That’s the wrong way to Chanel your anger, old thing,’ I said years later when we discussed the episode, using the Wodehousian expression we often resorted to. She laughed, responding that she would have preferred Poison.
We had been out of touch for several months and she did not tell me she had applied for the Paris programme or been selected. Some months after she had settled down there, she sent me a solitary postcard, which is when I knew of it. She loved the city and the opportunity it provided for looking at India from a distance. The postcard got me into trouble with my then spouse. Gauri had signed off with ‘love’—and I had not bothered or been politic enough to hide the letter, because it was just a platonic, affectionate expression. We loved each other but were not in love with each other.
In the summer of 1993, I had moved from Delhi to Mumbai, finding the capital more insufferable than I thought it would be. Its extreme summer heat and pollution was unbearable, and the politics only slightly less so. Not that Mumbai was a better city (more humid, as dirty). But I had joined The Indian Express as its resident editor with the agreement that I would suffer no more than a ten-minute commute between home and work every day. Traffic and commute was bad in Bombay even twenty-five years ago. The fine people at Express were true to their word. They gave me a company apartment in Cuffe Parade, in a building curiously called Quest End. After I moved in, I found it was the same apartment where Jayaprakash Narayan lived after Emergency ended and the Janata Party came to power.
They gave me a company apartment in Cuffe Parade, in a building curiously called Quest End. After I moved in, I found it was the same apartment where Jayaprakash Narayan lived after Emergency ended and the Janata Party came to power.
As it turned out, my quest for personal happiness did not end here at all. My second shot at marital stability was not working out well, as Gauri had forewarned. My second spouse gave me a quick heave-ho. Gauri still had proprietorial feelings about my love-life—although I resented this and kept her out of it—and that only aggravated the situation.
My spouse at that time had once been her friend, and would be again; put it down to the convivial, and sometime incestuous nature of relationships in the media world. Much later, after all our pathology was spent, Gauri and I would joke that ‘nothing succeeds like ex-es’.
By the time she returned from Paris, my life in Mumbai had been upturned. Gauri flew home via Mumbai and we met briefly during her transit; she looked like a shipwreck from too much partying, and I felt like a cake left out in the rain, thanks to the marital discord. Although we had remained friends, there was no earthly chance we’d get together; she had other interests, and her advice to me was short and to the point: you chose this path, you suffer its consequences. I did.
Gauri flew home via Mumbai and we met briefly during her transit; she looked like a shipwreck from too much partying, and I felt like a cake left out in the rain, thanks to the marital discord.
Meanwhile, in the city and on the streets, there were political storms brewing after the Babri Masjid demolition and the riots that followed. Ties between communities all across India were getting frayed and it seemed no one was immune, not even the genial Parsis of whom it is famously said that when they first came to India, they presented themselves as sugar in milk: they would sweeten the country without increasing its volume.
Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey had been published to much acclaim shortly before the riots. There were derogatory passages in the book alluding to Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray, enraging his fanboys. The book would eventually be banned by Bombay University in 2010 under pressure from the Shiv Sena.
But the Ayodhya fracas signalled an even greater chasm between two of India’s biggest communities and religions. The riots of 1992 that followed the Babri Masjid demolition killed nearly 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. It was followed by retaliatory serial bomb blasts across Bombay in 1993, purportedly masterminded by the smuggler-terrorist Dawood Ibraham with Pakistani backing, that killed 258 people. I was actually in a television studio in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when news of the blasts broke and the first bloody footage of the carnage came in, and I was astonished at how little it mattered to the local news channel there. It barely merited a couple of lines. The blasts occurred just two weeks after the first attack on the World Trade Center on 26 February 1993, the same day I had landed in the United States. No one saw a connection, much less expect that within a decade, the scourge of terrorism, much of it originating in neighbouring Pakistan, would bring India and the US together.
The blasts occurred just two weeks after the first attack on the World Trade Center on 26 February 1993, the same day I had landed in the United States. No one saw a connection, much less expect that within a decade, the scourge of terrorism, much of it originating in neighbouring Pakistan, would bring India and the US together.
The far-right regional party Shiv Sena had always been powerful in Bombay, but the communal cleave in the early 1990s would catapult it to power just a few weeks after I left for Washington DC on a posting towards the end of 1994. My 1992 visit had ended up serving as a recce. Giving up resident editorship in Bombay, I went to Washington DC as the paper’s US correspondent, partly to clear my head and put distance between pain and professional progress. I had no opportunity to say goodbye to Gauri.
By the time I’d visit India eighteen months later, in 1996, probably my longest stay away from India, Bombay would have become Mumbai, and India would have begun to take on a distinctly saffron hue.
(Excerpted with permission from Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason by Chidanand Rajghatta, published by Westland, June 2018)
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