Remembering Sanya


When you think of French composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918), his vast oeuvre of music for the piano will inevitably come to mind, and perhaps his reputation as arguably the first ‘Impressionist’ composer (although he himself hated the term).

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But in terms of chamber music, he did gift the bowed stringed instrument family one solitary but exquisite string quartet (1893, opus 10); and towards the end of his life (1915), he began (but didn’t manage to complete) a cycle of six sonatas “for various instruments”.

Debussy was a very sick man in 1915, suffering from bowel cancer. He underwent one of the earliest colostomy operations that year, which gave him only temporary respite, if any.  “There are mornings when the effort of dressing seems like one of the twelve labours of Hercules”, he confessed.

The previous year, he had been encouraged by the music publisher Jacques Durand, to write a set of six sonatas “for various instruments”, in homage to French composers of the 18th century, notably François Couperin and Jean-Philippe Rameau.

The First World War was raging, and patriotic feelings were understandably running high. Debussy even signed the score ‘Claude Debussy – Musicien Français.’

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The plan for the set was as follows: Sonata 1 for cello piano; no. 2 for flute, viola and harp; no. 3 for violin and piano; no. 4 for oboe, horn and harpsichord; no. 5 for trumpet, clarinet, bassoon and piano; and the last sonata for chamber ensemble “combining all the previously used instruments”, “with the gracious assistance of the double bass”.

Sadly, only the first three saw the light of day. The violin sonata in G minor, L. 140 (1916-1917) was to be his final completed composition. Its premiere took place on 5 May 1917, with the violin part played by Gaston Poulet and Debussy himself at the piano in what would be his last public performance.

His letter to a colleague the following month is almost dismissive of his swan song:  “I only wrote this sonata to be rid of the thing, spurred on by my dear publisher….. This sonata will be interesting from a documentary point of view and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.”

Hardly an endorsement, which is perhaps why the sonata hasn’t been part of mainstream violin performance repertoire, although that is beginning to change.

The sonata is in three movements (Allegro vivo; Intermède: Fantasque et léger’ and Finale: Très animé), whose “ultra-traditional sonata form” (as also in the previous two sonatas in the incomplete set) some may find remarkable for a composer like Debussy, particularly after two decades of experimentalism, in which he wrote music that seemed to be floating in free space, and scornful of academic models.

Marianne Wheeldon in her book “Debussy’s Late Style” offers an explanation: the war. “Given the very real destruction taking place across Europe, [Debussy] sought to attach himself to a French musical heritage, as the total demolition of traditions now seemed wholly inappropriate.”

At just about thirteen minutes, the violin sonata is remarkably short, (as is the first sonata in the set for cello and piano, at about eleven minutes), but it encompasses a wide range of moods and emotions.

Several famous violinists, in an article in Strings magazine last year celebrating the centenary of the violin sonata, offered a remarkably diverse set of observations about the work.

French violinist Renaud Capuçon described the sonata as “one of those pieces where you recognize the composer after a few bars. His sense of melody, his sense of harmonies, and his way of being very compact is quite clear.”


“It’s such a wonderful example of French music,” said Anne-Sophie Mutter, who recorded the piece in 1995.

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“It’s so different. The sonata is just an incredible example of sound colors, of delicacy, and subtlety of tonal development. It’s one of the most difficult pieces to play, maybe not technically, in terms of speed and double-stops and jumps and all of that. But for me, it’s really about grasping the intention of the composer. You really need to practice pianissimos. The opening is so dreamy and full of promise. It’s so personal but you need a wonderful touch. Most of us spend a lifetime learning that.”



Canadian violinist James Ehnes felt that “there’s a certain amount of code-cracking that needs to go on with learning the piece and digesting the language. What makes the piece challenging and very interesting are the subtleties in notation.”

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A biting staccato passage may return later marked tenuto, he noted, or a piano phrase will return marked pianissimo. “All of these subtle but important differences require a lot of control. He might be looking for nine different kinds of soft in 12 bars.”

Why am I choosing to write about this particular violin sonata this Sunday? Because I remember hearing Sanya Myla Cotta play it in 2016, if memory serves correctly. And because it will be her month’s mind tomorrow.

Remembering Sanya

Like many of you, I’ve not been able to get her out of my mind from the time we learned of her illness. And in the last few days, I think back increasingly to her performance of this work.

Sanya is remembered, and quite rightly so, for the many virtuosic showpieces she dashed off with such aplomb on our concert stage.

But I think her heart was in weightier, more ‘serious’, intimate, pensive music in the violin repertoire, that is to say, the great violin sonatas. She said as much to me when we talked about the Mozart violin sonatas I had mentioned in an earlier column.

The last paragraph of the Strings magazine article brought a lump to my throat as I read it. Apparently Anne-Sophie Mutter was “especially attuned to the tragic dimension” of the Debussy sonata when she  recorded it in 1995, just a few weeks after her first husband died of cancer.

She said, “When talking about the piece I cannot be objective. It has this end-of-the-day feel. When you combine it with a personal tragedy, it has a very different light.”

And now, for me, for us, this sonata too has a very different light. In my mind, it will be inextricably linked to the memory of Sanya Myla Cotta. For this, and for so much else, Sanya, a big Thank You for the Music.

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 May 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


The Emperor is a Violist!

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I suppose I could call myself an accidental violist, and I am sure this is true for most musicians who play the viola in Goa and the rest of India.

My formal introduction to music learning was at the violin. All my major music achievements have been on this instrument. So why is it that, half a lifetime later, I found myself cradling its larger cousin, the viola, in my hands?

I became aware of the existence of violas and violists in Goa when I began playing in various string ensembles in my teens, and later with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra. But while I was aware of the differences (bigger, heavier instrument, tuned a fifth lower than a violin, read a different clef), somehow my curiosity did not extend to seriously trying out a viola myself, let alone taking it up.

But then in the 1990s I got employed in England, and a whole new world opened up. Orchestra rehearsals were much more intense and prolonged, and this is when I really got interested in the instrument. The choice of works (by Vaughan Williams, William Walton, Antonin Dvořák) also exposed me to the sheer chocolatey rich timbre of the instrument, and the lush writing for it in orchestral and chamber music.

On one of my biannual return visits home, I dropped in at Furtados and bought myself a viola and took it back with me with the intention of learning to play it. But the demands of my medical career, and my violin playing in chamber groups and orchestras taking up the scant free time remaining, ensured that this happened at a plodding pace at best.

On returning to India, I auditioned in 2011 to play violin in an orchestra here. And when conductor Vijay Upadhyaya enquired if I’d be happy to take up the viola as there were no takers for those positions, I leapt at the chance. We had a concert in six weeks, and I knew it would give me the impetus I needed to really learn to read the alto clef and to find my way about the instrument.

Since then, my life has changed. Although I still get asked to play violin on occasion, I get called out much more as a violist when it comes to chamber and orchestral playing. That’s the wonderful thing about being a violist. You’re far more in demand than you would be as a violinist. Violinists are a dime a dozen.

The belief that only those who can’t cut it as violinists take up viola is so unjust. All the good violists in my circle are wonderful violinists as well. In fact, once you take up the viola, the violin seems like a facile instrument, as it suddenly feels so much smaller, and the shifts and stretches seem far easier. The great violin virtuoso Niccolò Paganini knew this well. So did so many other violin pedagogues like Max Rostal and Oscar Shumsky. The great living violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz and Maxim Vengerov play both with consummate ease, and have parallel careers as violists as well.

The viola and violists are the butt of many good-natured jokes (it is sometimes called “the Cinderella of the Orchestra”) on account no doubt of the unwieldiness of the instrument, its deeper tone (taking up the viola is often termed as “crossing over to the Dark Side”),

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the paucity of virtuoso writing for it, and the relatively simpler part writing for it in chamber and orchestral music compared to the violin.

Some of my favourite viola jokes: What’s the difference between a violist and a vacuum cleaner? You have to plug in a vacuum cleaner before it sucks!

What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians? A violist.

What’s the difference between a viola and a coffin? Coffins have dead people on the inside.

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Why don’t violists play hide and seek? Because no-one would look for them.

How do you keep your violin from being stolen? Put it in a viola case.

And there are a few ‘reverse’ viola jokes as well:

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But we are in extremely good company. You’d be surprised to learn how many great composers actually themselves preferred playing viola to violin in ensembles. Let’s start with the ‘big’ ones: Johann Sebastian Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote about his illustrious father: “As the greatest expert and judge of harmony, he liked best to play the viola, with appropriate loudness and softness”.

But there’s also Monteverdi, Johann Stamitz, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Dvořák, Vaughan Williams, Eduardo Lalo, Ottorino Respighi, Paul Hindemith, Darius Milhaud, Benjamin Britten, Frank Bridge, Carl Nielsen, all the way to Miklós Rósza and Kenji Bunch. Hindemith was a very respectable violist in his own right, besides being a composer.

And just in case you needed further proof that the viola reigns supreme among instruments: it has recently come to light that Japan’s newest Emperor Naruhito also plays viola.

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He succeeded to the Chrysanthemum Throne on 1 May 2019 following the abdication of his father, Emperor Akihito, making him Japan’s 126th emperor, according to the traditional order of succession.

He was born into an extremely musical family, with his father a cellist and his mother an extremely accomplished pianist.

He too began his introduction to music through the violin, while studying in Australia. But he decided to switch to viola, because he thought the violin “too much of a leader, too prominent” to suit his musical and personal tastes.

Naruhito once contributed an essay to a concert brochure in which he wrote:  “I’m starting to understand the role of viola, which doesn’t stand out, but (is needed because the) harmony becomes lonesome without it. … It’s a joy to have chosen the viola as a friend through which I could meet people and play music together.”

Toshio Shiraishi, a cellist and longtime friend of Naruhito through music, said in an interview that the Emperor’s choice of instrument, the viola, says a lot about the kind of man he is.

Naruhito is quite right when he refers to the viola’s vital contribution to the harmonic structure of a composition.  In so much ensemble writing in general, the viola, far from being just another ‘layer’ in part-writing, is actually the glue that holds the composition together.

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Try listening to a Mozart string quartet or a Dvořák symphony without the viola line, and it becomes obvious. Dvořák and Vaughan Williams in particular wrote some wonderful orchestral parts for viola, and violists are eternally grateful for this.

And the vantage point in the orchestra is unique. The viola is close to the violins and the cellos, as well as to the woodwind and brass. I’ve learned so much about the genius of the great composers, their brilliant ensemble writing from this plum location.

Japan’s Emperor sends out a powerful message through his viola of not needing to “stand out” or be “prominent” in order to make a vital difference. One couldn’t find a more meaningful contemporary champion of the instrument.

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 May 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

A Spoke in the Wheel

Of all the genres of novel-writing, I have the greatest respect for writers of historical fiction. It is a genre best left untouched before a vast amount of reading and research on the subject and the historical period has been accomplished. In addition, one also has to possess a good imagination to recreate an often-distant past, in some ways very different from ours, but also in terms of the human experience, not that different.

A poorly-researched novel can make the reader cringe, but a well-written one can make even the distant past come to life.

I cannot remember exactly when I became friends with Amita Kanekar; it feels like I’ve known her forever, but it would have to be sometime post-2008, after we relocated back to Goa. But it is fair to say I got to know her really well through her writing. Her columns are always thought-provoking, and challenge me to re-examine our social situation from a perspective I very often had never done before.

Ever since I learnt that Kanekar had written a novel, I’ve been scouring the local bookshops in search of it. It took me quite a while to finally go online and order it.

A Spoke in the Wheel

It was the title of the book, “A Spoke in the Wheel”, and the fact that it centred around the Buddha and his Dhamma (an ancient Pali word with several meanings, from ‘teaching’ to ‘justice’, ‘Truth’, ‘good behaviour’) that intrigued me. I’m aware (although I haven’t read it yet) that Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar had written a treatise called “The Buddha and his Dhamma”.

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Having read Kanekar’s columns for several years, and been to her public lectures, and from private discussions with her, there were no prizes for guessing that Ambedkarite thought would be a major (but one of many others as well) influence in her decision to write this novel.

In fact, there are two editions of “A Spoke in the Wheel”; the first, published by Harper Collins (2005), is “based mostly on Marxist interpretations of the subcontinent’s history”, as Kanekar herself acknowledges at the end of her book. I read the second, 2015, edition, published by Navayana, which I am told has essentially the same plotline, but Kanekar has made changes “inspired largely by Ambedkarite interpretations and critiques, along with discussions on caste with, among others, S. Anand, Dale Luis Menezes and Jason Keith Fernandes, all part of my own ongoing struggle against the casteism that colours the thinking and practice of every savarna person of South Asian heritage.”

The chapters in the book flit back and forth between two historical periods: the life and time of the Buddha (from his birth at Lumbini in 563 BCE onward); and 313 years later, to 250 BCE in the Ashokan era, a whole decade after the Kalinga War, whose holocaust savagery left such a profound impression upon Emperor Ashoka that he embraced Buddhism soon after.

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But is everything as it first appears? Kanekar uses historical fiction to flesh out both, the Buddha and Ashoka, and present them to the reader as human beings, each of whom is influenced by their milieu and whose thoughts, words and actions leave an impact upon their own time and for posterity.

The book begins with the translation of a Brahmi inscription on the wall of a cave at Ramgarh in the Vindhya hills, apparently dating to not long after Ashoka: “The excellent young man, Devadina…loved Sutanuka, the slave-girl of the god.”

Both Devadina and Sutanuka are characters in the book. Although arguably not ‘central’ to the novel, their love for each other does impel some of the action and motives of the main characters. I mean to talk to Kanekar about this the next time we meet, but I wonder whether the inscription was the nucleus around which the idea for the novel gradually developed.

Perhaps it’s the obstetrician in me, but the very first chapter drew me in, with its description of a postpartum haemorrhage (the Buddha’s mother Maya), and the futile ‘remedies’ prescribed to her in a bid to stanch the flow.

Three centuries later, Upali, “scribe and senior bhikku (monk of the Buddha’s sangha) at the small monastery of Mahismati on the river Narmada”, has been ordered by Emperor Ashoka to write a scholarly account of the Buddha’s life and teachings, based upon various sources, from oral tradition to the suttas (compiled teachings of Dhamma).

I don’t want to spoil it for you from here on, but it’s a fantastic, gripping page-turner wherever you are placed, especially if you have an interest in ancient Indian and Buddhist history, but even if you don’t. Through fiction, Kanekar makes history, philosophy and anthropology, those rarefied subjects usually restricted to academia, extremely accessible to everyone.

One or two reviewers of the book found the shifting timeline from one chapter to the next, back and forth, disorienting, but I must say I didn’t. I’ve come across this device in other novels as well, and it actually unifies the storyline, especially when two parallel but interlinked stories need to be told in the same book.

One has to marvel at Kanekar’s vivid imagery in painting detailed (sometimes too detailed, as it can slow down the narrative flow) word-pictures of the location we are taken to, be it an iron mine, a Pataliputta streetscape, or Ashoka or his minister’s palace, or a monastery.

Being an architectural historian herself, Kanekar leads us by the hand through several details, a notable example being the rock-cut viharas hewn from top towards the base rather than the other way round. “Everything inverted, turned on its head”, Upali thinks to himself when it is explained to him.

And Kanekar has certainly done precisely that to so many notions I might have had about our past, about Ashoka, the Buddha and Buddhism: turned them all upon their collective head.

A reviewer in The Hindu newspaper wrote: “The book draws from Indian history to such good effect that one can’t help wondering if things actually happened this way.”   My thoughts exactly. Kanekar’s vision is a very elegantly convincing interpretation of how an important chapter in our history unfolded, with a lot of ramifications as well as parallels with our present time.

I did feel the glossary could have been even more elaborate, to help the reader along; and perhaps even a sort of chapter-by-chapter dramatis personae, or would it seem too much like spoon-feeding? But there are so many major and minor characters in the storyline that I had to keep flipping back to remind myself who some of them were.

“A Spoke in the Wheel” has been turned into an award-winning Marathi play Avyahat

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by Kaustubh Naik, who together with Kanekar, Dale Luis Menezes, Jason Keith Fernandes and Albertina Almeida form the think-tank Al-Zulaij collective offering “critical perspectives on and from Goa” that have similarly turned several commonly-accepted tropes on their head in the past. “A Spoke in the Wheel” has all the ingredients for a very stimulating and successful film as well.

(An edited version of this article was published on 05 May 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Dear Sanya Myla Cotta

Sanya Cotta

I have been writing this column for close to six years now, but I don’t think my heart has ever been heavier than when I wrote down these lines.

I first heard on the journalist grapevine on 26 February on social media of your illness. Information was very sketchy but over the days to weeks that followed, it became apparent that you were valiantly battling a virulent pneumonia that had already compromised a significant portion of your lung capacity.

Not just your family, but virtually every prayer group that I know of, in Goa and even beyond has stormed heaven ever since the news of your illness broke. The specifics of the illness and treatment came through on social media in fragments, and it was difficult to piece together an accurate composite picture. But speaking to colleagues and experts, it was clear that you were fighting huge odds; which only further justified the recourse to prayer in addition to all the best medical treatment you were receiving.

There will be much said and written about your life history (cut short so cruelly) and your formidable achievements in that short time. But permit me to share my own personal experiences in the time that I knew you.

I knew your father, of course, from our own growing-up years at St. Cecilia Music School and thereafter. But I can’t remember exactly when I met you first. If memory serves correctly, it was at Myra Shroff’s house in Dona Paula sometime after 1995, when she took me on as her pupil. We met as I was leaving and you were coming for a lesson, or vice versa. I still remember lingering on to hear you play William Kroll’s ‘Banjo and Fiddle’ as a little teenager, pigtails whirring madly as you played.

Then although I left to work in the UK in 1998, for a while I continued to have periodic sessions with Myra on my biannual return trips home. On one of those trips, you were on the cusp of leaving for Germany and as I dropped you home, you shared your excitement about the new phase in your life.

When we relocated back in 2008, the friendship got stronger on your return trips and concerts to Goa. I took up viola (too few were playing it then) and joined your Indo-German music initiative. I cherish the long bus ride to Sanquelim and back for one of those concerts, both of us boxed in by the large double-bass occupying the aisle. I think our conversation on the bus and at the venue was possibly the longest I’ve ever had with you. At that time, and in two interviews I did with you for the local press, your enthusiasm for Goa’s music potential was apparent.

You could be great fun as well. I have such fond memories of all those rehearsals and concerts, and taking the “show on the road” to South Goa, Sanquelim etc. Your laugh and sparkling eyes could have lit up a city. After all these years, on a very downcast Easter Sunday after we heard of your passing (I heard it exactly at the time of Easter Vigil), I revisited an old video of a 2012 interview, and it brought tears to my eyes to hear your voice, watch you smile and listen to you laugh. It’s so hard to believe you’ve left us. Watching the video and reading our past correspondence, it still feels as if you’re just ‘away’ and will be back soon to visit, as you’ve done so often over the years.

I was astonished on looking back on our long email and Facebook threads, to realize how extensively and spanning so many years we had corresponded, about matters musical, in ‘your’ part of the world and ours.  It ranged from arranging a suitable time to listen to and coach some of Child’s Play India Foundation’s more advanced students, to much wider aspects of pedagogy in general and the future of music in Goa.

On one of your return trips we worked on music together. You looked through the pile of music I had brought along with me, and we both settled on two of the Mozart violin sonatas, in G major (no. 18, K. 301/293a) and E minor (no. 21, K. 304). As I go through the score now, so many things we discussed, bar-by-bar, come flooding back.

I played the G major sonata at your house concert later, and you played it as well, at your public concerts thereafter. It will be very difficult for me to listen to or play either of them again without tears welling in my eyes, for the memories they now hold, of you.

Your family has borne your two-month life-and-death battle with exemplary fortitude, immense faith, stoicism and grace. But as I type this in the final hour of Easter Sunday, I must confess that all day today, at the Easter service and thereafter, I have railed at God, asking him: “Why? Why? This girl had so much more to give, so much more to experience in this life, so many more generations of hearts and souls to touch and delight with her music and her enthusiasm for teaching, for Goa. Why couldn’t You leave her with us longer?”

God knows best, they say. But it is tough coming to terms with it. As a parent myself, albeit much later (although I’m just a few years younger than your dad, my son is over two decades younger than you), I cannot begin to fathom what your parents and brother are going through.

You were and are loved by not just your family, but by all of us. We, all of us, lost a much-loved daughter on 20 April 2019. This is why although you may have left us on one level, on another, you’ve not left and will never leave us. Sanya Myla Cotta continues to live in all our hearts. Forever and ever. Amen.

(An edited version of this article was published on 28 April 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)



Sanya Myla Cotta (9 March 1986 – 20 April 2019)


I had done a video interview of Sanya Myla Cotta in 2012, and eventually published its edited transcript for the local press and then forgot about the video.

Am revisiting it now, and it brings tears to my eyes to hear her voice, watch her smile and listen to her laugh. It’s so hard to believe she’s left us. Watching the video and reading our past correspondence, it still feels as if she’s just ‘away’ and will be back soon to visit, as she’s done so often over the years.

But in a more metaphysical sense, she’s not left and will never leave. Sanya is in all our hearts. 

Lessons from Notre-Dame de Paris

In 1831, the great French poet, novelist and dramatist of the Romantic movement Victor Hugo wrote his epic ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’, better known to us by its title in English, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’

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The French title ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ is a double entendre. It refers to the central location of the novel, the eponymous medieval Catholic cathedral (its construction began in 1160) on the Île de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement of Paris; and also to Esmeralda, “our lady of Paris” at the centre of the human drama in the story.

It is worth remembering that Victor Hugo began writing ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ largely to make his readers aware of the value of the Gothic architecture, which was neglected and often destroyed to be replaced by new buildings or defaced by replacement of parts of buildings in a newer style. For example, the medieval stained glass panels of Notre-Dame de Paris had been replaced by white glass to let more light into the church. To elaborate his point, Hugo incorporates large descriptive sections which far exceed the requirements of the story. He is quite scathing in his writing: “And who put the cold, white panes in the place of those windows”; “…who substituted for the ancient Gothic altar, splendidly encumbered with shrines and reliquaries, that heavy marble sarcophagus, with angels’ heads and clouds”.

A few years earlier, Hugo had already published a paper entitled ‘Guerre aux Démolisseurs’ (War to the Demolishers) specifically aimed at saving Paris’ medieval architecture.

Architecture is Hugo’s major concern in the novel, not just as embodied in the cathedral itself, but as representing throughout Paris and the rest of Europe an artistic genre which he felt was about to disappear, especially  with the arrival of the printing press.

‘Ceci tuera cela’ (“This will kill that”), says Claude Frollo, Archdeacon of Notre-Dame as he looks from a printed book to the cathedral building.

The book reference is interesting, because the Notre-Dame was itself considered a ‘liber pauperum’, a “poor people’s book”, covered with sculptures graphically illustrating stories from the Bible for the benefit of the vast majority of the faithful who were illiterate. The most iconic of them all is The Last Judgment in the tympanum over the central portion of the west façade;

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and styrges, gargoyles and chimeras abound, either as ornaments or partly functional (many gargoyles are actually rainspouts).

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The latest tragedy to befall the Great Dame of Paris this Holy Week, on Monday 15 April, however, was something that even Hugo might not have foreseen. It was neither the printed word nor les Démolisseurs (ironically, it could have been accidentally brought on by ongoing restoration work, so the very antithesis of demolition) mais le Feu! Fire in all its horrific, devastating consumption.

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I’ve visited Paris only twice, the first time in 1996 during a twelve-hour stopover between flights, where I hastily took in as many of the famous landmarks as I possibly could. The second was much more relaxed, during a long glorious sunny weekend that included 14 July, the Day of the Bastille. I remember spending most of my birthday at the Notre-Dame cathedral, lingering after morning mass to take in an afternoon recital featuring its famous pipe-organ, originally built in 1403, but replaced and modified several times over the centuries to its present-day avatar, with 115 stops (156 ranks) on five manuals and pedal, and more than 8,000 pipes.

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It is not just a musical, but an architectural and mechanical marvel. The whole building (and the listener in it) becomes part of the instrument when it is played. It is an unforgettable experience. When news of the fire broke, there were understandable concerns regarding the fate not only of the building itself, but also all the priceless art treasures within, and this included its magnificent organ. Thankfully, the latest update is that it was not consumed by the fire, although it is too early to comment whether the water used to extinguish the fire, and the ash and debris have affected the instrument.

It is really quite tragic and ironic, that a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, survived the worst ravages of the French Revolution and the turbulent years after it, and two World Wars, should be brought low in our time by an out-of-control fire. The investigation into its cause will be thorough and lengthy, but it should give pause to guardians and stakeholders invested in the protection of other precious buildings and monuments around the world, especially those with a preponderance of wood and similar flammable material.

And fire safety should be a consideration for all of us in our homes. If you will forgive the awful pun, this has come to light in our vaddó in just the last few months, with two separate fires in two adjacent restaurants barely a few weeks apart.

Fire guts Panaji’s oldest bar; no injuries

And less than a decade ago, in 2013, another devastating fire burnt an old building in our own block, just two houses down from us, to cinders.

Some months ago, it was reassuring to watch a fire safety drill taking place in the Inox courtyard one early morning for all its employees, before the box-office opened for business. One hopes that other corporate and commercial enterprises also have fire safety measures and drills in place. But what of private homes? And of heritage buildings, churches, chapels, temples, mosques?

Antiquated buildings with stairwells and poor ventilation can actually be fire traps, inducing the spread rather than containment of a blaze. It is well worth re-examining how fire-prepared wherever we are, in our homes, schools, workplaces, places of worship and elsewhere.

The timing of the Notre-Dame fire during Holy Week was commented upon by several sections of the media, including the Catholic press. An article written literally hours after the outbreak titled “Commentary: Holy Week and the Notre Dame fire” on the Catholic News Agency website by M. Jean Duchesne asks “Why did God allow this?” and attempts to answer his own question in the concluding paragraph:  What is decisive is the knowledge that Jesus Christ the Groom will never abandon his bride the Church – which does not mean that her faithfulness will never be tested… What ultimately matters is not the signifier (the cathedral), but the signified (God’s glory) which remains forever fertile and will forever inspire those who long for it.”

Perhaps ‘L’Ange de la Résurrection’ (The Angel of the Resurrection) atop the roof of the cathedral is a now unwitting embodying metaphor of our firm belief that Our Lady of Paris will rise again.

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Something to think about, and hope for, this Easter Sunday. Happy Easter, everyone!

(An edited version of this article was published on 21 April 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


Unforgettable: Nat King Cole (1919-1965)

All you people “of a certain age” reading this (by which I mean everyone older than myself, of course!) will have at least one Nat King Cole favourite that you can hum to, or even know the lyrics to, or perhaps it’s “your song.”


I have more than a few, from “Unforgettable”, to “Mona Lisa”, “A Blossom Fell”, “Ramblin’ Rose”, “Stardust”, and who could not love “Those Lazy, Hazy Crazy Days of Summer?” Perfectly sums up our barmy political climate in our own scorching summer.

In an age where the US and indeed the rest of the world was teeming with staggering vocal talent that quite rightly are legends today, the distinctive gravelly yet silky-smooth timbre of his voice stands out among that formidable lot. I’m sure that if you hear him on the radio, you’ll recognize him at once, while you might have a job distinguishing many of his contemporaries from one another.

But beneath the devil-may-care jauntiness of so many of his songs (“Get Out and Get Under The Moon” comes to mind)

he concealed a ton of racist abuse he suffered in the Jim Crow era, and the alienation he felt from the black community who felt betrayed that he was not more outspoken and active in the civil rights movement.

It was his birth centenary last month, 17 March. Nathaniel Adams Cole was born in the deep South, in Montgomery, Alabama. He had three brothers, one older (Eddie) and two younger (Ike and Freddie), all of whom also pursued careers in music; and a half-sister, Joyce. His mother was a church organist, which explained the immersion of the whole family in music. He learnt to play the instrument from her, with his first “public performance” of a novelty song at the age of four, and formal keyboard lessons at age twelve.

Having grown up in Alabama, the Cole family would have certainly experienced racism, perhaps regarded so commonplace that much of it isn’t even documented. But even the little that is known reveals how traumatic it must have been.

Nat King Cole was already a celebrity when he and his family purchased a house in the upmarket, all-white Hancock Park neighbourhood of Los Angeles. But they were the first black people to move into Hancock Park, which was considered unacceptable by his neighbours.

The harassment began with the Hancock Park Property Owners Association going to court in a bid to prevent the Coles from buying the house. Members of the association told Cole they did not want any “undesirables” moving into the neighborhood. Cole responded, “Neither do I. And if I see anybody undesirable coming in here, I’ll be the first to complain.”

His wife Maria Cole recalled the unpleasant episode in one of her last interviews before she died in 2012: “They really just didn’t want any ‘undesirable’ people in there. I don’t know how they had the guts to say it.”

Apparently, the property-owners association did have “legal” grounds: a covenant for the property reveals that the home was for whites only and not for “any person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race”. The only exception for “persons not of the Caucasian race” was if they were there in “the capacity of servants”.  Very fortunately for the Coles, a timely US Supreme Court ruling that same year banned racially restrictive property covenants.

When moving the courts led nowhere, the association tried unsuccessfully to buy back the house from Cole.

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The harassment then began in earnest, with his dog being poisoned, and the Ku Klux Klan, alive and kicking in 1950s Los Angeles, placed a burning cross on his front lawn, and burned the N-word into the grass.

“It was not an easy time for him or his family,” said Cole’s friend Harry Belafonte with much understatement, in an interview. “Nobody wanted him.”

Cole faced discrimination elsewhere too. In 1956, on a gig in Havana he was prevented from staying at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba on account of its “colour bar.” The same hotel had also turned away boxing champion Joe Louis and singer Marian Anderson among many others. Today, the hotel pays tribute to Nat King Cole with a bust of him and a jukebox in its foyer.

Also in 1956, Cole was the victim of a racially-motivated attack while performing at a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, suffering an injury to his back. He stoically tried to downplay the incident. The assault mystified him, as he had until then kept out of the civil rights movement, and had continued to play for segregated audiences, arguing that one “couldn’t change the situation in a day.” Indeed, he was criticized by the black community for not being outspoken.

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After the Birmingham attack, Cole received a telegram from the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People):  “You have not been a crusader or engaged in an effort to change the customs or laws of the South. That responsibility, newspapers quote you as saying, you leave to the other guys. That attack upon you clearly indicates that organized bigotry makes no distinction between those who do not actively challenge racial discrimination and those who do. This is a fight which none of us can escape. We invite you to join us in a crusade against racism.” He was similarly castigated by others

But Cole had challenged racism, although not as openly. He donated money to the Montgomery Bus Boycott (a political and social protest campaign against the policy of racial segregation on the public transit system of Montgomery, Alabama); and he sued hotels that hired him but refused to serve him.

However, Cole was chastened by the criticism in the black press, and emphasizing his opposition to racial segregation “in any form”, he agreed to join other entertainers in boycotting segregated venues. He became a lifetime member of the NAACP. Until his death in 1965, Cole was an active and visible participant in the civil rights movement, playing an important role in planning the March on Washington (made famous by Martin Luther King Jr with his “I Have A Dream” speech) in 1963.

A documentary on Cole’s harassment by Hancock Park was released in 2014. His daughter Natalie Cole found it hard to watch.  In an interview to the Independent, she stated “For us, it was very emotional.”

She added that the racism had not disappeared. “It is still there, it’s very quiet, it’s very subtle and it’s in so many different fields…. We have a way to go.”

There are strong parallels between the story of Cole and the way Dalits, minorities, tribals and Adivasis have been, and continue to be discriminated against in our country. We too have a long way to go.

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 April 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Remembering Graham Stuart Staines (1941 – 23 January 1999)

“Only two things in life are certain. Death, and Taxes.” This is a commonly used idiom, but I only first heard in my England years. I heard it in a Sunday sermon, and as part of my General Practice Vocational Training. In both cases, it was used when the topic of death came up , and the inevitability of our mortality, and how we cope with it, as Christians, or as care-givers of patients.

Who coined the phrase? Benjamin Franklin famously used it in a letter in 1789: “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

But Daniel Defoe mentions “death and taxes” in ‘The Political History of the Devil’ (1726); and in 1716, Christopher Bullock writes in ‘The Cobbler of Preston’: “Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes”.

The phrase “Death and Taxes” stands out in the film “The Least of These”, billed as “the Graham Staines story.”

Stephen Baldwin, Sharman Joshi, and Shari Rigby in The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story (2019)

In the film, the phrase is the last thing Staines says to journalist Manav Banerjee, before he drives off in his station wagon.

For the benefit of those who may not know: Graham Stuart Staines was an Australian missionary who, along with his two sons Philip (aged 10) and Timothy (aged 6), was burnt to death by a gang of Bajrang Dal fundamentalists while sleeping in his station wagon at Manoharpur village in Kendujhar district in Odisha, India on 23 January 1999.

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In 2003, a Bajrang Dal activist, Dara Singh, was convicted of leading the gang that murdered Graham Staines and his sons, and was sentenced to life in prison.

When I learnt through a WhatsApp message of the screening of “The Least of These”, I was intrigued. A film “based on true events that shocked the nation”, and being released in an election year, and just a week before an obsequious biopic on Narendra Modi seemed quite extraordinary. Although it was showing for a very short time, I made the time to go and see it.

The Graham Staines story truly shocked not just the nation, but the whole world, for its heinous, pre-meditated, remorseless, sadistic, savage cruelty. I was working in England at the time. The shocking news grabbed the attention of the world media, newspapers, radio, television, and was the subject of discussion at the workplace for a long time.

The US-based Human Rights Watch accused the then Indian Government of failing to prevent violence against Christians, and of exploiting sectarian tensions for political ends. Then-Prime Minister of India, Atal Behari Vajpayee, condemned the “ghastly attack” and called for swift action to catch the killers.

In her affidavit before the Commission on the death of her husband and two sons, Gladys Staines stated: “The Lord God is always with me to guide me and help me to try to accomplish the work of Graham, but I sometimes wonder why Graham was killed and also what made his assassins behave in such a brutal manner on the night of 22nd/23rd January 1999. It is far from my mind to punish the persons who were responsible for the death of my husband Graham and my two children. But it is my desire and hope that they would repent and would be reformed.”

In later interviews she repeatedly confirmed that she and her daughter had forgiven the murderers.

This year 2019 marks the twentieth anniversary of that sordid, gruesome incident, and it is fitting that it be commemorated by a film.

But “The Least of These”, for all its good intentions, disappoints a little, by playing a tad too safe. Perhaps this was necessary to appease the Censor Board? Or to avoid controversy? I’m not sure. Its billboard announces that the film is about “the Graham Staines story”.

And so it is, but only up to a point. It depicts all the victims by name: Graham, Philip and Timothy Staines, as also Graham’s wife Gladys and daughter Esther. It correctly identifies Manoharpur, where the killings took place, and other locations as well. But it then stops short of mentioning the main accused, one Dara Singh, or naming the Bajrang Dal, even though both facts are a matter of public record, and identified as such several times in the Supreme Court of India’s proceedings of the investigation and judgment that followed.

Instead, we are given a “composite” character, identified simply as Mahendra. One of the accused killers was indeed of that name.

In an interview with the Hindustan Times, one of the accused killers, Mahendra Hembram, stated that the killers “were provoked by the ‘corruption of tribal culture’ by the missionaries, who they claimed fed villagers beef and gave women brassieres and sanitary towels.”

In the film, it is never made clear who is pulling Mahendra’s strings. The journalist Manav Banerjee (played by Sharman Joshi, who almost single-handedly carries the whole film) is depicted as a pawn in the hands of the editor of a local newspaper, but apart from dark hints at the editor’s political leanings we learn nothing more.

In the film, as in real life, much is made of the issue of “conversion”, with chapter and verse of the law on the subject being quoted verbatim more than once in “The Least of These.” But the film redeems itself at the end by stating: Yes, Graham Staines did convert: lepers into human beings, the ostracized into the loved, suffering into dignity, etc.

To that end, the film does the valuable work of reminding us, and never letting us forget, especially in an election year, what the horrendous outcome of hatred, of fanaticism, of fundamentalism can be. That the burning alive of three human beings can be “rationalized” in any way is a deeply worrying downslide into insanity, inhumanity and anarchy.

Leading editors, media groups and civil society members from across the country signed a statement taking strong exception to the Supreme Court’s observation that the killing of Graham Staines and his two minor children was intended to teach the Australian missionary a lesson for preaching and practising conversion.

It is this trend of wanting to “teach a lesson” to anyone, that is extremely disturbing. The self-appointed “teachers” can do this with impunity, with no fear of the supposed long arm of the law, and the perceived “crime” could be just about anything, including giving sanitary towels to women, going by the statement of killer Mahendra Hembram. The killers were apparently hailed by some section of society, locally and nationally, as “heroes”. Brutes, thugs, bullies and cowards celebrated as heroes! It is this downward descent into lawlessness, inhumanity and lack of compassion in our society that is so scary. If this is the “new India” that is being hyped so much lately, I want no part of it.

(An edited version of this article was published on 7 April 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The One Person who Believes in You

I’ve often been teased a little for my love of classical music, with the insinuation that I might not be that “with it” as everyone else when it comes to popular music. To some extent, that is true.

For instance, I really didn’t know very much about Lady Gaga or her music until I saw ‘A Star is Born’, the 2018 American musical romantic drama about hard-drinking musician Jackson “Jack” Maine (played by Bradley Cooper, who also makes his directorial debut in the film) who falls in love with struggling singer Ally (Lady Gaga), and the twist in the tale when her career skyrockets while his old demons continue to plague him.

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I missed it when it came to our big screen, After reading so many rave reviews, all the awards and nominations,  and getting so many recommendations to see it from friends, I finally watched it recently on DVD to see what the fuss was all about.  And my verdict? The “fuss” is well-deserved.

For someone who openly confesses that she “sucked at auditions” (she studied method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute for ten years), Lady Gaga delivers an incredibly powerful performance, bringing an honest, raw vulnerability to her character.


I am always intrigued by the entry-point of successful musicians to music. Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, born to Roman Catholic, Italian parents) began piano lessons in New York City at the age of four, at the instance of her mother, who felt it would facilitate her growth into “a cultured, young woman.” From all accounts, she was a diligent piano student through her childhood, and both parents supported her love, interest and pursuit of music.

Apparently, Lady Gaga’s real-life story couldn’t be more different than her character Ally in the film. By her late teens, Gaga knew what she wanted; she had acting aspirations, but when several auditions didn’t go her way, she plunged wholeheartedly into music. She had something to say through her music and songwriting, and worked tirelessly towards quite literally making herself heard.

In contrast, Ally in the film is in her mid-thirties, jaded and disillusioned by rejection and being told that despite her musical ability, she doesn’t have the looks to go further as a singer.

Much is also made of the fact that Lady Gaga wears no make-up or hair colour in the film, and that this is her ‘natural look’; I know “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”, but to my eyes, she’s far more bewitchingly beautiful without the war paint, and I think this is true for women in general.


How the idea for the film evolved is an interesting story in itself. Gaga has an impressive track record in philanthropy and activism, supporting causes ranging from natural disaster victims, the environment, human rights, LGBT rights, to medical research.

Bradley Cooper heard her sing ‘La Vie en Rose’ at a cancer research fundraiser, and approached her with the idea for the film. She agreed, not out of any conscious career decision to get into acting, but she was moved by the script and its portrayal of addiction and depression. And the fact that Cooper believed in her ability to do justice to the role, in this, his directorial debut film.

In fact, she got panned by a few, when in promotional events for the film, she kept repeating,   “There can be a hundred people in the room, and 99 don’t believe in you, but one does”, referring to the support she got from Cooper, “and it can change your whole life.”

Someone made a 90-second video montage stringing together all the times she said it, with Cooper looking on as if he’s hearing it anew each time. The video went viral, becoming a meme unto itself.

But if you watch it yourself, you’ll sense the honesty with which she says it each time. Does the message lose its meaning due to repetition? I think not; on the contrary, it shows it is a slogan she believes in very much.

Gaga’s pop-star rival Madonna shared on Instagram an old video clip of herself saying something similar, yet with the opposite conclusion (“There’s a hundred people in the room, and 99 people say they liked it—I only remember the one person who didn’t”). Whether this was meant to hint that Gaga had tweaked Madonna’s quote is open to speculation. But Gaga clarified that her own line was inspired by something her own vocal coach Don Lawrence (whom Gaga very colourfully described as the “aortic valve” to her career) used to say.

“I was taking meetings with entertainment attorneys and knocking on people’s doors, trying to get them to listen to demos that I made on a four-track Tascam cassette player, and he [Lawrence] said to me, ‘There can be a hundred people in the room, and 99 of them won’t believe in you, but all you need is one.’

That sentence would certainly have resonated deeply also with Lady Gaga the activist and philanthropist. If you espouse a cause, whatever it may be, and you literally or figuratively “knock on people’s doors”, you’ll know what a difference that one person out of a hundred, or a thousand or more, who believes in you, makes.

This has certainly been our experience in our decade since the inception of Child’s Play. Rather than focusing on the “ninety-nine people in the room” whose support we haven’t (yet) got, we are heartened by the “one person” or persons who’ve supported us from far and wide.

I’m thinking of a choir in faraway Germany who heard by word-of-mouth of our work, and spontaneously did a benefit concert there for us. And two choirs from Sweden (the most recent one, Vocal Colors, is still going viral online with their a cappella take on ‘Tambde Rosa’) who’ve come all the way here to do benefit concerts for us. And the slapstick-funny Wind-Up Penguin Theatre company, who keep returning every year to support us. And a musician couple (Riccardi and Bager, violin and flute) who visited us, did a concert for us, and were so touched by our children and our work that when they tied the knot back home, they asked guests, in lieu of wedding gifts, to make a donation to Child’s Play, and will perform with us later this year. And an unexpected but much-needed shot in the arm we received when someone wrote an op-ed in the local press recently appreciating our work, after having attended one of our concerts.  I’m thinking of so many of you “one persons”, too many to mention (and many of you wish to remain anonymous anyway), who’ve signed up for our “Adopt-a-Musician” scheme, and support us in so many ways, financially, or by volunteering, or spreading awareness about us, or just words of encouragement.

With the support of the “ninety-nine people in the room” we could achieve even more, but we are heartened by the “one person” embodied by all of you, who believes in us.

(An edited version of this article was published on 31 March 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Certificate, please!

My ten-year old is obsessed with Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip by American cartoonist Bill Watterson. He reads and re-reads them, chuckling quietly (or not so quietly) to himself, and finds it so funny that he reads it aloud to anyone within earshot, taking on the roles of Calvin, Hobbes, Calvin’s long-suffering parents and anyone else in the frame of the day.

Watterson’s unique sense of humour has a timeless appeal that transcends all ages, covering broad issues ranging from environmentalism, public education, profound philosophical quandaries, and existentialism apart from the many nitty-gritty aspects of just being a child in a largely adult world.

In one of the scenarios my son read out to me, Calvin cynically remarks “”I take it there’s no qualifying exam to be a dad”, after his father is unable to answer seemingly elementary but actually quite complex questions about nature: (What are clouds made of? How do they float? Why are they white while the rest of the sky is blue?)


It reminded me of something that was said to me ages ago, long before I myself became a parent: that there is no job in the world more important than the ‘job’ of being a parent, yet it is also the only ‘job’ that requires no prior training, internship or qualification. Everyone sort of drifts into it and ‘learns on the job’, as it were. Some do a splendid job, others struggle, but I like to think that almost everyone does their best, and with the best of intentions.

Is there such a thing as an ‘ideal’ or ‘model’ parent? It means so many different things to so many. Parents of more than child will tell you how their approach varied from one child to the next, not only in terms of birth order or gender, but also each child’s temperament and personality. It also varies from geographic location and cultural background. An Indian parent might have a different set of rules to one from say, China or Europe.

Thoughts about parenting have evolved over generations; attitudes towards corporal punishment (remember “Spare the rod and spoil the child”?) and children’s rights have improved a lot, in just a generation. Despite this, an estimate in 2014 by Human Rights Watch reported that “Ninety percent of the world’s children live in countries where corporal punishment and other physical violence against children is still legal”.

Have you been in that uncomfortable situation where a stranger, or even someone you know smacks their child in your presence, and you’re left wondering what to do? Apart from telling that person that they really shouldn’t, what else can you do? Is it “none of your business” if it is someone else’s child? “You look after yours, I’ll look after mine.” Is it really as simple as that? If there is any truth in the adage “It takes a village to raise a child”, then aren’t we all part of that village?

But however well-intentioned, it also raises the uncomfortable spectre of vigilantism, and the implication that some of us have better ‘certificates’ of parenthood than others.

The other virtual ‘certificate’ that is being demanded more and more often, by more and self-appointed people, be they politicians, or television anchors, or even a random person on the street or any public place such as in the cinema, or even in cyberspace, is the yardstick of just how ‘Indian’ or ‘desh-premi’ you are. The implication is that if you fall short (and often they’ve made up their minds even before they make it their business to ask you) in their opinion, you could somehow be a threat to national security, and/or need to be shamed, ostracized, or punished. The punishment could be a severe tongue-lashing, or worse, much worse.

It was already absurd even before the Pulwama incident, but only went even further downhill after that. The ‘spot-checking’ of just how ‘Indian you are can range from a language test (as trespassers on our own family property once had the temerity to put us to: “Rashtriya bhasha mein baat karo!”; their ability to speak Hindi trumped our ownership rights in their opinion), to how energetically one stands on hearing the beginning of the national anthem, to being able to know all the lyrics of a controversial patriotic song (never mind that the interrogator may himself not know them!) to practically any random idea that pops into their little minds.

Matters came to a head earlier this month when Union Minister Piyush Goyal got his hackles raised by questions from India Today television anchor Rahul Kanwal regarding the retaliatory air strike in Balakot Pakistan following Pulwama. After several barbs from Goyal, Kanwal hit back:  “Neither me, nor anyone sitting here needs any lesson in nationalism or patriotism from you or anyone else,” drawing a spontaneous burst of applause from the audience.

Kanwal got much praise for maintaining his composure while handling the situation. But equally many, even from his own journalist fraternity, felt the chickens had come home to roost. Had the media been quicker to call out, and more vigorously, the ever-growing and ever-bolder self-appointed vigilante ‘anti-national’ police, from within their own ranks, or politicians, right-wing outfits and lynch mobs, this epidemic could have been nipped in the bud.

But Kanwal did have a point. None of us needs a certificate on how ‘national’ (if that could be seen as the antonym of ‘anti-national’, that much-used term) we are. The qualities we should all have, as citizens or parents are essentially the same: honesty, integrity, love, kindness, compassion, empathy, a community spirit, a willingness to listen, and an absence of rancour, prejudice or hatred towards any community or group.

And this is the perverse irony of it all: the ‘anti-national’ vigilante brigade, in having a pathological deficiency in these qualities, are the most ‘anti-national’ of all.

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 March 2019 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)