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Elderly left on their own during Covid-19

The pandemic has been particularly brutal to the 703 million 65 plus population around the world who have suffered large-scale casualties.

Amita Singh



Covid-19 has once again brought back, without solutions, the inconclusive debate on elderly care around the globe. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 95% of Covid-19 deaths across the developed world belonged to elderly population languishing in nursing homes. The US government statistics reveal that one-third of all deaths due to Covid-19 have been amongst the 65 plus elderly population in 26 states. In fact, the spectre of nursing home deaths during the pandemic was so hideous that New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal ordered an investigation into it.

This phenomenal number of elderly deaths changes many pre-existing policy concerns — from destitution, domestic violence, crime and abandonment to their morbidity and immunity. In the process, it has also surfaced a viciously covert discriminatory medical ethics being practised in some hospitals unheard of ever in earlier times, which is about “those with more productive years to live should be treated first”. Interestingly, this debate on making age a “valid criterion” to provide medical treatment during the pandemic was triggered by Prof Arthur Kaplan, ethics advisor to the US government. His comment, published in a British medical journal, said that “age can justifiably be used to ration care if maximisation of lives saved is the overarching goal” during the pandemic. This idea was condemned by all medical practitioners and ethics scholars around the Western world since it was discriminatory and failed the test of Equality Law in medical care. However, it was reported from many hospitals in the US and the UK that they increasingly adopted this new legitimised discriminatory medical ethics of “do not resuscitate”, “do not treat” and “do not convey to hospital” by denying medical care to the elderly during the pandemic’s scarce resource availability.

One need not be so surprised at the current denial of respect to seniors simply on grounds that they were not contributing to the public exchequer. Utilitarian Bacchic gold rush of the current generation glued to their laptops have buried noble human sentiments which John Milton had so exquisitely expressed in “They also serve who stand and wait”, the last line of his Sonnet 19 – “When I consider how my light is spent”. These elderly have been the nation builders, habitat designers and institution creators across the globe and specifically in America they have contributed as baby boomers of the 1950s and 1960s, the generation that modernised the country and gave language to its technology which rules the world today. The seeds of this Darwinian pedagogy start sprouting surreptitiously once the competition for “life as a commodity” becomes tougher and more intense during scarcities.

This argument of Dr Kaplan is no different from those anthropogenic brawls of Utility Vs Value. This has coloured the vision and built a false logic around those gripped in greed while debating man versus environment, forests versus livelihood, agraria versus industria. All megalithic state bulldozers which flatten fragile ecosystems of life in forests, rivers and mountains use this argument: “What do you need more? Livelihood or environment?” For those documenting history and are able to look at the totality of life could see elderly sages even in trees, rivers and mountains declaring them sacred not to be axed, dammed or blasted. John Muir gave his life trying to protect the Hetch Hetchy Valley from being dammed at the Yoshemite National Park as Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of US Forest Service, pushed the argument of human welfare. Indian history is replete with debates between value versus utility and in the last few years declaring monkeys and jungle cows (Neelgai) as vermin to be killed rather than be worshipped uses the gross argument of sustaining them was more expensive. The primordial right to exist is beyond the conceitful eyes of cost calculators.

Coronavirus has been particularly brutal to the 703 million 65 plus population around the world who suffered large-scale casualties. Even a mere fear of virus pathogenesis kept them locked inside their homes and in complete insulation from their natural social environment. Add to this, the immense discomfort of those elderly who were then sharing full-day with their sons, daughters and grandchildren working from home during the pandemic. With a fragile old person lying down the whole day while the frustrated young struggled to hold on to their job, uncertainties became a ground for elderly abuse and violence. Even for the wealthy old rich the situation was miserable as home caregivers stopped coming and their unashamed humiliation, abuse and mental agony at the hands of their children made death more welcoming than life.

According to the World Population Ageing 2019, more than 15% of the 60 plus population suffer from a mental disorder and an increased age-related vulnerability to neurological disorders. The old age nursing homes of Western countries which have given the elderly freedom from domestic abuse have now become a model to be followed across the world. It has also led to the dumping of elderly parents in old age nursing homes to escape responsibility of care. Why did these nursing homes become top killers during the pandemic? In most places the news revealed that the fear of microbe transmission made the caretakers flee, leaving old people behind without toilet assistance, medicines and in many nursing homes even without food. In New Jersey, 17 dead bodies of elderly were recovered from a nursing home.

The Covid-19 mortality rate is directly proportional to the number of elderly in any country. Since their number in Europe and North America is as high as 29% or more than 200 million as per the United Nations› World Population Prospects 2019, the elderly constituted most of the Covidrelated deaths. Countries with younger populations such as South and West Asia are also countries with parental home care culture and the deaths among the elderly were relatively much lower. Most of the elderly paid huge amounts to nursing homes for their maintenance, but that could still not buy loyalty and commitment during a crisis.

This utilitarian debate would ever come down to our society’s elderly, the repositories of enormous wealth of wisdom and experience, is unthinkable. It’s high time to revisit medical ethics and parental care in every country as the elderly population is projected to double to 22% by 2050. Despite its challenges, the South Asian mainstream culture of parental care as a responsibility of children is further strengthened by laws such as the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. However, this law should be immediately amended to add a section on mandatory crisis care by children for their parents. Pandemics like Covid-19 could be a transitional itch for the elderly if they were kept home by their children and not left to languish in nursing homes.

The writer is Professor of Administrative Reforms & Emergency Governance, Member Secretary, Institutional Ethics Review Board, JNU.

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Savio Rodrigues



In a democracy, it is not incumbent on citizens to find favour or merit in its elected representatives. They have the right to disagree, dislike or even have disdain against their political leaders for legitimate or frivolous reasons.

So, if for some reason — political, social, or for a plain dumb notion of herd mentality — you dislike the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, that is your freedom to exercise. But your dislike or stronger feelings of hate for Modi or the BJP-led government in a global health crisis impacting our nation is misplaced.

The Covid-19 pandemic is not a “Modi” health crisis – it is an India health crisis. Modi is the Prime Minister of India today, he may or may not be the Prime Minister of India tomorrow, but if we fail to act as one nation today, we might not have a nation at all tomorrow.

The Covid-19 pandemic is a serious health crisis. We need to work collectively as one nation and one people to tide over these hard times our country is experiencing. Lives are being lost every day.

This is not about Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi or Arvind Kejriwal or Uddhav Thackeray or Mamata Banerjee or MK Stalin or Yogi Adityanath. This is about thousands of Indians suffering due to the pandemic. This about thousands of lives being lost daily. This is about a damning and dangerous virus we know so little about and its changing mutation making the prevalent health crisis more severe by the day.

This is not about whether the Centre is acting more responsibly than the state governments, or one state government has managed to deal with the health crisis promisingly and is beating the curve. This is about citizens who are gasping for breath, wanting to live, and hoping that the Centre or State has done its job in ensuring that we have the requisite health infrastructure to deal with the pandemic.

This not about Uddhav Thackeray or Arvind Kejriwal saving Maharashtra or Delhi better than Narendra Modi, nor is it about Goa’s Health Minister Vishwajit Rane playing out a subtle media exercise to show he is more competent than the Goa Chief Minister Dr Pramod Sawant. This is also not about Chief Ministers or Health Ministers walking in hospitals followed by their media entourage clicking pictures for their media or social media campaigns. Most importantly, this crisis is not about which social media IT cell got which hashtag to trend more than the other IT cell. This is about life. The life of our people.

People want to live. The pain and trauma are heart-wrenching and disturbing. I do not think a political leader with an ounce of humanity will ever resort to playing dirty politics over the lives of our people but unfortunately, our nation manages to produce such rectums that think only about the political opportunities at hand and not about the welfare of the people or the nation.

Every Indian we save from the virus is one less potential carrier of the virus across a community, state, or our entire nation. We are a nation of travellers and our people travel around the country, therefore, this cannot be about saving your own state, this should be about saving our country. But we must while keeping a focus on the macro strategies in dealing with this crisis as a nation, we must ensure that we manage this health crisis at a micro level, at an individual level, and family level too.

While the nation is rife with stories of people rising to the occasion to fight this pandemic for other people, there some stories that have exposed the complete inhumanity that also exists. Making a profit over the desperation of people in a health crisis is pathetic and downright diabolic. But people resort to it, not thinking for a moment that people with immense wealth also cannot escape the wrath of the coronavirus if it decides to ensure that life is sucked out of you. Today you are profiting on someone’s misery, tomorrow someone will profit from your misery.

This is the time for the people of India to rise up against an enemy that we do not fully understand, therefore it is important for us to stick together because we know each other and we can trust each other. Every Indian in this war against the coronavirus is a soldier and as a soldier, we must fight this pandemic.

This pandemic was unleashed around to world to cripple our socio-economic existence by hitting us and other countries at the root of our strength — our people. The greatest wealth of any nation is its citizens and their health. If there are no people, there will be no citizens. This is not the time for blame-game but the time to play the game of defeating the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some nations want us to fail. Some nations want us to continue to remain like a third-world nation. Most importantly, some nations want our people to suffer so that they can gain from a change of political regime. As Indians, we must not let the lives of our people become pawns in the hands of political opportunists waiting for Prime Minister Modi to fail or for other Chief Ministers to fail so that India fails. If the state fails, the Centre fails. If the Centre fails, India fails. And we cannot let India fail.

I believe we can beat this virus and win this war against Covid-19 but we have to do it as one India. Therefore, it is my appeal to political leaders, their IT cells, their spokespersons, and their supporters, there is a time to play politics. However, this is not that time. This is the time to look at this crisis as an India health crisis and not the Modi health crisis.

Remember there is no balm to calm the heart of a person that has lost a loved one unexpectedly.

The author is founder & editor-in-chief at GoaChronicle.com.

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Pankaj Vohra



Cine superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s declaration that he donated Rs 12 crore towards Covid-related projects initiated in two prominent gurdwaras of the capital has snowballed into a major controversy that could have wide-ranging ramifications for Punjab in general, and Sikh politics in Delhi in particular.

Two prominent leaders, both former presidents of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, Paramjit Singh Sarna and Manjit Singh G.K. have urged the Akal Takht to take strict action against the current chief, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, for “accepting blood money” from an actor who was extremely close to Rajiv Gandhi when the Sikh genocide took place in 1984 and is perceived to be the part of the “khoon ka badla khoon” gang.

Sirsa had apparently accepted money from the cine star for a project in the Gurdwara Bangla Sahab last year and for a new Covid facility at Gurdwara Rakabganj this year. The supreme irony is that the outgoing chief had himself in 2017 demanded that Amitabh should clear his name for his alleged involvement in the anti-Sikh riots after he had been named by some of the victims.

Senior Akali leader and former Lok Sabha MP Simranjit Singh Mann has also demanded strict action against Sirsa and others, who are close to the Badals, for concealing facts from his executive and trying to cover up the matter. The revelation of money being donated came from the actor himself, who stated on a social platform how he had contributed to the noble cause. The matter has become a major point of discussion in the ongoing gurdwara politics and could impact the final outcome.

Manjit Singh G.K. said that a complaint against Amitabh’s involvement was filed before the Akal Takht by Jagdish Kaur and others who were responsible in sending former Congress MP Sajjan Kumar to jail. Paramjit Singh Sarna demanded that Akat Takht Jathedar Giani Harpreet Singh should order the immediate expulsion of Sirsa for desecrating gurdwara properties with blood money, failing which he should resign. Sarna is a veteran of Sikh politics and was extremely close to former SGPC Chief Gurcharan Singh Tohra. Manjit Singh is the son of late DSGPC president Jathedar Santokh Singh, who, till his assassination in 1981, enjoyed cordial relations with Indira Gandhi. In fact, after Operation Blue Star, senior Congress leader Buta Singh had taken Manjit to meet Rajiv Gandhi who wanted him to help in the reconstruction of the Akal Takht. Only 26 years old at that time, Manjit had declined, stating that the Sikhs would never endorse this action.

The Sarnas are very influential in Sikh circles and this attack on Amitabh has found a lot of support at every level. The Sikhs have resolved that the Rs 12 crores given by Amitabh through donation to an individual was unacceptable and would be returned and “the tainted money’’ cannot be used for any gurdwara projects. Sirsa finds himself on the wrong foot and would be looking for support from the Badals, who themselves are in the eye of a political storm concerning the sacrilege incidents of 2015. It is evident that Amitabh’s effort to warm his way into Sikh hearts by charity has boomeranged. It is evident that the Sikhs would not settle for this kind of appeasement.  

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In the wake of the deadly second wave of Covid-19, some questions need to be asked about the biosafety lab in China’s Wuhan. Why did the PLA take over the lab, why were the lab’s French collaborators silent on the issue, and did the WHO investigation hide any truths?

Claude Arpi



China has mastered the art of disinformation warfare. Nearly one and half years after the dreaded Covid-19 emerged in Wuhan and while the virus is still raging all over the world, having infected some 153 million on the planet (20 million in India alone), Beijing has managed to fully cover the tracks leading to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

A team from the World Health Organization (WHO) was supposed to shed some light on the origin of the virus, but at the end of their inspection tour in January 2021, the members slipped the vital issues under the carpet and conveniently stated that initial findings suggested the most likely pathway the virus followed was from a bat to another animal and then to humans. They dismissed outright the possibility of the virus originating from the lab.

But l’Affaire Wuhan is not closed.

On March 4, a “Call for a Full and Unrestricted International Forensic Investigation into the Origins of Covid-19”, was issued by some 28 senior world scientists. Speaking of the WHO’s China tour, they asserted, “We have reached the conclusion that the joint team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses – whether natural spillover or laboratory/research-related incident.”

The eminent scientists further observed, “With more than two million deaths, more than a hundred million infected by Covid-19 worldwide, and a massive global disruption impacting some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, we cannot afford an investigation into the origins of the pandemic that is anything less than absolutely thorough and credible. If we fail to fully and courageously examine the origins of this pandemic, we risk being unprepared for a potentially worse pandemic in the future.”

Beijing is slowly, but surely losing its credibility worldwide. Further the role played by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is being speculated upon. Whether China manages or not to change the narrative and blame it on ‘foreign’ hands, the tragedy is bound to have deeper implications for the future of the Middle Kingdom.

Apart from the scientific recommendations of the Group of 30, an issue which needs to be immediately enquired is the role of an enigmatic personage: Chen Wei, a fifty-three-year-old PLA major general and a leading epidemiologist at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, who was said to have developed the world’s first gene-based vaccine on ebola in 2014. She was sent to take over the Wuhan Institute of Virology on January 26, 2020, immediately after Beijing admitted the existence of the virus.

The Chinese press reported, “After arriving in Wuhan, Chen’s team started building a portable testing lab, which was in operation on January 30.” The State-run CCTV noted that Chen and her colleagues worked in shifts around the clock to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. The Global Times wrote, “People familiar with Chen Wei, all know one thing very well — she is fast. Chen walks fast, speaks fast, and works at a fast pace. Chen is now working to speed up the development of the vaccine of Covid-19 in China.”

But there is more to Gen Chen. Two months later, in March 2020, the Chinese media announced, “A Chinese doctor has stunned people around the world by injecting an untested vaccine for the coronavirus.” A commentator added, “Scientists in the country have been busily trying to find a way to beat Covid-19, however vaccines can usually take many months to go through testing and animal trials.

Speaking to China’s state-run TV network, Chen said, “We are doing all we can to put the recombinant vaccine that we are developing into clinical application. We must strive to bring the vaccine we are working on to clinical trial and application, providing strong technical support for winning this battle.”

This raises serious questions: why did the Chinese Army need to take over the P4 lab? How did Chen manage to produce a vaccine less than two months after the virus was officially found? Did she know beforehand about the virus?

One has to know that the P4 Institute of Virology in Wuhan is a high-tech facility partially funded and built by France. China had then a strong lobby in Paris led by former French Prime Ministers. When he had launched the research facilities in February 2017, Bernard Cazeneuve, the then French Prime Minister had declared, “France is proud and happy to have contributed to the construction of the first P4 high biosafety laboratory in China. …This cutting-edge tool constitutes a central element in the achievement of the 2004 intergovernmental agreement on Franco-Chinese cooperation in the prevention and fight against emerging infectious diseases.”

According to China.org.cn, “In January 2018, on the occasion of the state visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to China, the heads of state of the two countries signed agreements on bilateral cooperation and issued a joint statement stating: ‘China and France will conduct joint cutting-edge research on infectious and emerging diseases, relying on the P4 laboratory in Wuhan’. The medical and health field constitutes a very important part of the bilateral cooperation between the two countries.”

France then trusted China. But soon after, the French disappeared from the scene. The 50 researchers supposed to work on the project never reached Wuhan. Why was nothing made public? Was the PLA behind this? Could Gen Chen have used the P4 lab as a military facility in contradiction with the civilian agreement with France?

There are many questions that the unprofessional WHO team forgot to ask.

Xi Jinping had given the PLA’s medical teams the responsibility to win the ‘War’. When on March 10, 2020, Xi visited Wuhan to announce ‘victory’, the Chinese president took the opportunity to reaffirm the PLA’s leading role in fighting the virus.

Many more questions need to be asked today, especially after the second deadly wave in India. Why was the P4 lab, a civilian collaboration between France and China, handed over to the PLA, with Paris remaining silent? Was Gen Chen sent to clean up all the compromising evidence in January 2020? Were the French asked to leave Wuhan or did they leave on their own?

Macron’s government recently donated generously for India’s medical equipment needs, including a large number of high capacity oxygen generators. This was appreciated a lot. But he would now do a great service to humanity if he would tell the world about the cause of the end of the Sino-French collaboration in Wuhan and what happened in the P4 Lab between the beginning of 2018 and the end of 2019. L’Affaire Wuhan should not be closed.

The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.

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Bangladesh has sent Covid medicines to its trusted friend India as a sign of friendship during this tormenting situation. The nation stands by its close neighbour with sympathy and is ready to extend all possible assistance to save lives.

Indian Army Chief General Mukund Naravane had brought one lakh doses of the Covid-19 vaccine as a gift during a visit to Bangladesh last month. Earlier in March, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave 1.2 million doses of the vaccine to its neighbour. 20 lakh doses of the vaccine also came as a gift from India in the first shipment. In addition to the 33 lakh doses sent as gifts, India has sent 8 million doses of the vaccine commercially to Bangladesh.

Now, before it could send the next consignment under the agreement, India is seeing a major crisis due to Covid. Every day there are new records of deaths and infections. In such a situation, like other countries in the world, Bangladesh also stands by its nearest neighbour and friend, India.

A week ago, Bangladesh gifted 10,000 vials of the remdesivir injection needed for Covid treatment to India. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, this is the first shipment of medicines and healthcare products sent by Bangladesh to help the people of India in the current situation. Bangladesh’s Deputy High Commissioner in Kolkata, Tawfiq Hasan, handed over 10,000 vials of the antiviral medicine to a representative of the Government of India at Petrapole on the Indian border. These injections are made by Beximco, a leading Bangladeshi pharmaceutical company. The injections have been sent by the people of Bangladesh on the instructions of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as medical aid to people suffering from Covid in India.

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi wrote in a tweet after the medicines were received: “By air, by sea and now by water. A consignment of emergency medicines has entered West Bengal through the land border at Petrapole. Thank you to our neighbor and close friend Bangladesh for this courtesy and cooperation. It will take our unique relationship further.”

In Dhaka, the foreign ministry had said in a statement on April 29 that Bangladesh offered to send emergency medicine and medical supplies to India to fight the epidemic. These included about 10,000 vials of antiviral injections, oral antivirals, 30,000 PPE kits and 7,000 tablets of zinc, calcium, vitamin C and other essential medicines.

Speaking at a press conference in New Delhi on the same day, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Sringla said, “Bangladesh is saying that we are producing remdesivir. Take it from us. Why they are saying, because they feel that this is the time for cooperation. India is cooperating with us and we have to cooperate with them.”

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Government of Bangladesh has expressed deep sorrow and grief over the loss of lives in India due to the spread of Covid-19. The people of Bangladesh are praying for the relief of the people of India. If necessary, Bangladesh is interested in cooperating further with India.

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The episode of how Satyajit Ray walked away from a promising career in Hollywood, inspiring in its wake multiple American films based on his story about a benevolent extraterrestrial, is yet another instance of how the legendary auteur left his mark on cinema.

Bhuvan Lall



On Thursday, 1 June 1967, an unusually tall and handsome Indian presented his passport in the arrivals area at Los Angeles International Airport. The immigration official questioned the well-dressed man who had an intellectual bearing and was carrying a still camera. The forty-six-year-old responded in a sophisticated British accent, stating his name was Satyajit Ray and he was a filmmaker. Ray entered America and as per the law was termed an Alien (foreign national). The Lincoln convertible transporting him navigated Los Angeles’ hectic traffic and turned into the luxurious Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard. Ray was checked into a stylish fully-equipped two-storied cottage. The Hollywood sign glowed at a distance in the hills. Ray had arrived in the dream factory of the world. And like countless filmmakers before him, he too had a Hollywood movie brewing in his mind.

Ray with his honorary Oscar.

This was not Ray’s first brush with Hollywood. Early on, as a film enthusiast during the 1940s, he had watched the movies of Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, and John Huston in Calcutta (Kolkata now). In 1949 he encountered Jean Renoir who was scouting for locations for his Hollywood film, The River. Renoir’s film was partly funded by Ken McEldowney, a famous florist who owned Los Angeles’ first drive-through flower shop. Ray later recalled, “I went there one day and saw him and introduced myself. I got to know him quite well, because I knew the countryside quite well and he wanted someone to guide him, so he took me along on Sundays and weekends.” Ray, the completely self-taught filmmaker, was inspired by Renoir and produced his first film Pather Panchali with music by Ravi Shankar. Travelling through India, John Huston viewed an excerpt and commented, “A fine, sincere piece of film-making”. The lyricism, compassion, and insight of Ray’s path-breaking film won unprecedented international acclaim including the Best Human Document at Cannes in 1956. The film established Ray as one of the world’s great filmmakers much as Rashomon had done for Akira Kurosawa. In 1958, the United States Information Service arranged for Ray’s month-long trip to the east and west coast of America. He admitted, “This was an opportunity I’d hate to miss because it meant staying in Hollywood and showing my film there”. On Monday 22 September 1958, on his first outing in America, Ray stood in the foyer of the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York. Distributor Edward Harrison had placed an advertisement on the twenty-sixth page of The New York Times publicising Pather Panchali’s American premiere. According to Ray, “I watched the audience surge out of the theatre bleary-eyed and visibly shaken.” The film eventually ran for eight months in New York. Later after the screening at the Writers’ Guild auditorium in Los Angeles, George Stevens cordially felicitated him for his passion for the cultural heritage of India and fixed his appointment with Billy Wilder. Ray arrived at the Samuel Goldwyn Studio in West Hollywood where Wilder was shooting Some Like It Hot. On seeing the celebrated Indian filmmaker, Wilder exclaimed, “You won a prize at Cannes? Well, I guess you’re an artist. But I’m not. I’m just a commercial man, and I like it that way.” In America, Ray, though reserved by nature, had long conversations with Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, and Stanley Kubrick. On his return to Calcutta, he recorded his impressions, “The East is still as far away from the West as it has ever been…”

In the middle of 1966, on Kubrick’s invitation Ray entered the massive sets of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the MGM studios in Borehamwood, England. Here he discussed an idea for a science fiction film with writer Arthur C Clarke. Then a New Zealander, Michael Wilson, working as a filmmaker in Sri Lanka, arrived at Ray’s home with a glowing reference from Clarke. Ray’s wife Bijoya recalled the visit, “One day a young man called Mike Wilson came to our house from Sri Lanka with an unusual proposal. He asked Manik (Ray) to make a film in English for Hollywood.” Ray was amiable and began working on a Hollywood screenplay based on his original story “Bonkubabur Bondhu” (Bonkubabu’s Friend) that appeared in the Bengali children’s magazine Sandesh in 1962. Set in an Indian village it portrayed the friendship between a small boy and a benevolent extraterrestrial with superhuman powers. It was titled “The Alien”. Canadian documentary filmmaker James Beveridge captured Ray undertaking location scouting for the film. Normally Ray’s films were produced with minuscule resources, but The Alien needed a large canvas and world-class visual effects. That’s where Hollywood came in. Ray had his reservations about the creative control mechanism of Hollywood. Previously, Oscar winner David O. Selznick had offered Ray a film with Jennifer Jones but he felt alienated amongst the overflowing studios and temperamental stars. so he declined. Nevertheless, copies of Ray’s The Alien reached the desks of studio executives in Los Angeles. On the other end of the planet, Columbia Pictures was struggling and needed a breakthrough movie. Ray’s script for The Alien indicated box office potential. In the summer of 1967, a cable was transmitted to Calcutta, summoning the cinematic poet from India.

On a sun-drenched morning in June 1967, Ray, driven by his associate Wilson, entered the Columbia Pictures Studios on Sunset Boulevard. In the meeting with the top echelons at Columbia, Ray visualized The Alien with Marlon Brando or Steve McQueen as the American engineer and Peter Sellers as the Indian businessman. The meeting with Sellers at Ravi Shankar’s home in Los Angeles had gone well and both Brando and McQueen were enthused. Designer Saul Bass was to create the wordless alien creature from outer space. In an unprecedented decision, Columbia straightaway offered to greenlight the multi-million-dollar movie titled “The Alien” in English and “Avatar” in Bengali, with Ray retaining the final cut. Ray was photographed across from the Dolores Restaurant for a publicity still and American newspaper headlines announced ‘Famous Director Of India Accepts Hollywood Challenge’. Shortly thereafter Ray shockingly discovered copies of his script on the desk of Wilson’s Chateau Marmont room with the credit: “Copyright: Mike Wilson and Satyajit Ray.” Equally disconcerted Columbia executives subtly hinted that they preferred an exclusive contract with Ray excluding the middleman Wilson. With profound uneasiness, Ray called Bijoya on 18 June to say that he would have to stay for a while longer and would be back by the end of the month. She too had her apprehensions about Wilson. On one occasion in Calcutta, Wilson, fretting that Ray never touched alcohol, had told her, “He has managed to reach such heights without drugs; just imagine what he could have done had he taken some…”. On 28 June 1967, Ray returned from Hollywood to his flat in downtown Calcutta and shared his premonition with Bijoya, “I have great doubts of the film ever being made”. He explained, “They’ve enthusiastically approved my story. Yet I have a feeling that the whole project will come to naught.” Subsequently, Ray discovered in a meeting with Columbia in London that Wilson had unethically appropriated the $10,000 advance. Surprisingly, even Sellers pulled out, and in the film The Party, named his pet monkey ‘Apu’. The thoroughly distasteful experience that continued till late 1968 compelled Ray to gracefully shelve The Alien. Even though Columbia Pictures stayed committed, he walked away from a promising career in Hollywood and also relinquished the opportunity of reaching a global audience with Columbia’s distribution.

In February 1972, Ray revealed to The New York Times, “I have no desire to work outside of India. I have had offers to go to California, but I’m not used to working in a studio setup. I fear I’ll lose my freedom…” Essentially, Ray concluded, “the West took the slightest interest in India… A vast subcontinent with one of the oldest and richest traditions of art, music and literature existed only to be ignored.” Nevertheless, Ray’s films continued to be released in arthouse cinemas in America acquiring a rare cult following. And in Hollywood Meryl Streep. appreciating Ray’s pictures, maintained, “His handling of actress Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulata shows how much respect and dignity Ray gave to his actresses. That itself is the hallmark of a true director. I have not an iota of doubt that if Ray worked in Hollywood, he would have proved a tough competition for the likes of Sir David Lean, Francis Ford Coppola and Sir Alan Parker.” Afterwards, Hollywood movies outwardly inspired by Ray’s The Alien kept surfacing. The erudite filmmaker insisted that such imitations “would not have been possible without my script of The Alien being available throughout America in mimeographed copies”. In the end, Ray had no interest in pursuing the issue. Tragically, The Alien perished in Hollywood and remained a great might-have-been by a master filmmaker.

Years later in November 1991, the governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Hollywood debated the names for a possible Honorary Oscar. Honorary awards were not annual, could not be conferred posthumously and a two-thirds vote was required by the board of governors. Martin Scorsese, who as a teenager had admired Ray’s signature work, the Apu Trilogy, at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York, proposed his name and swiftly got the backing of Hollywood luminaries and legendary filmmakers. Significantly, Elia Kazan asserted, “It can truly be said in his case that when we honour him, we are honouring ourselves.” Then on a December day in 1991, an Indian post and telegraph employee rushed up the flights of stairs in an old building at Bishop Lefroy Road to the doorstep of Satyajit Ray’s flat in Calcutta. A telegram from Karl Malden, President of the Academy declared that Ray was to be the recipient of Hollywood’s highest accolade, the Honorary Oscar for his career in the moving pictures as a cinematic auteur. On receiving the news, Ray, both surprised and elated, remarked, “For a film-maker, an Oscar is like a Nobel Prize.” An ailing Ray scheduled a trip to Hollywood for the Oscar ceremony, combined with a visit to his cardiologists in Texas. But a health relapse forced him into seclusion at the Belle Vue Clinic in Calcutta. Around early March 1992, the Academy dispatched a three-member delegation from California to Calcutta. Professor Dilip Basu, representing the Oscar committee, disembarked at Dum Dum airport after the long intercontinental flight, tightly clasping his briefcase that transported the Honorary Oscar. And on 16 March 1992, after obtaining the cardiologist’s permission, the delegation filmed Ray’s acceptance speech in the intensive care unit. For the first time in its history, an Oscar was presented outside the ceremony.

Finally, on the night of 30 March 1992, one of the grandest days of Ray’s life, at the 64th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Audrey Hepburn walked on to the stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. She had earlier requested Ray for the correct pronunciation of his name (pronounced ‘rye’) and now she announced, “The Academy Board of Governors has voted to award an Honorary Oscar to the great Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Academy recognizes Mr Ray’s rare mastery of the arts of motion pictures and his profound humanism which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world…”. Amid tremendous applause and a short montage of his works, Ray appeared in a videotaped speech, holding the Oscar statuette on his hospital bed. With his characteristic restrained humour, he graciously accepted the honour, stating, “Well, it is an extraordinary experience for me to be here tonight to receive this magnificent award, certainly the best achievement of my movie-making career. When I was a schoolboy, I was terribly interested in the cinema. I became a film fan, wrote to Deanna Durbin, got a reply, was delighted…wrote to Ginger Rogers, didn’t get a reply. Then of course I got interested in cinema as an art form and I wrote a twelve-page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing Double Indemnity. He didn’t reply either. Well, there you are…. Everything I have learned about the craft of cinema is from the making of American films. I have been watching American films very carefully over the years and I loved them for how they entertained and later loved them for what they taught. So, I express my gratitude to the American Cinema, to the Motion Picture Association, for giving me this award and for making me feel so proud. Thank you very, very much.”

After the awards function, Hepburn traced Billy Wilder who mailed Ray an invite to discuss Double Indemnity in Hollywood. Sadly that was not to be, as less than a month later, on 23 April 1992, death came to India’s national treasure Satyajit Ray. Subsequently, at the suggestion of Hepburn, the Academy along with Professor Basu’s Satyajit Ray Film and Study Center at UC Santa Cruz launched a project to restore over a dozen of Ray’s films. On 21 April 1995, Sony Pictures Classics through the ministrations of Merchant Ivory Productions, re-released nine of Ray’s restored masterworks across America. And in Hollywood, Los Angeles Times’ reviewer noted, “There are so many masterpieces in Ray’s filmography that his output is more than astonishing – it’s almost superhuman. And yet Ray was a supremely human artist.”

Bhuvan Lall is the author of “The Man India Missed The Most: Subhas Chandra Bose” and “The Great Indian Genius: Har Dayal”. He can be reached at writerlall@gmail.com.

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Joyeeta Basu



The doomsayers have spoken. Three weeks of India going through one of its worst health crises ever, faced with a once-in-a-century pandemic and they have started writing the end of the India story. Many see India losing its global standing, its regional standing, with its image dented and the back of its economy broken as it fails to counter the growing influence of China in the neighbourhood. The rest of the predictions go like—the focus on Indo-Pacific will be a non-starter, as US and European Union will continue to have their trade relations with China; and since India has been badly battered, it may not even have the resources to be at the core of the Quad’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Needless to say, much of this commentary is emanating from China, which—according to media reports—while claiming to be by India’s side, has been gloating over India’s troubles. And as it happens with India and Indians, for every such narrative being spun from either China or internationally, it is being amplified by interests who would like to see India fail if that means a failure of the present political dispensation.

It’s a different matter that India is too big and too resilient for it to cease to matter globally. The world will be at peril if India with its 1.3 billion population fails. But the pictures of doom and gloom that are being transmitted across the globe have the definite purpose of showing India in a poor light as an investment destination and as a strategic partner of the western world. But then, if India was a spent power and the Quad a non-starter, why are Chinese diplomats going around arm-twisting a small country like Bangladesh warning it against “joining” the Quad? Why is China nervous if it was so secure in the knowledge that with the fulcrum of Quad—India—melting away, its competition for an alternative supply chain has dissolved? The reality is, no one knows it better than China that India may be going through a terrible crisis, and China may be cutting deals with the West, but that is not stopping world powers from converging on the Indo-Pacific. This is happening because they recognize the malign nature of China, a manifestation of which is the pandemic coursing its way through the globe. India may be bearing the brunt of the second wave, but now other countries—including Taiwan, which was believed to have managed the pandemic—too are witnessing a rise in cases. But nothing seems t be happening in China. Serious questions are being raised about the nature of the virus, including the reference to the documents with the US State Department that say that Chinese military scientists allegedly were talking in 2015 about militarising the SARS coronaviruses.

Several questions exist about the exact nature of the virus, and how it was allowed to spread across the globe by sending out people internationally from China, even though domestic travel was banned. But until now no serious attempt has been made to hold China accountable for what it has done to the world. Amidst this, the World Health Organization has been whitewashing China’s role as the originator and spreader of the virus. But if that has not stopped the powers that matter from converging on the Indo-Pacific, it’s because the civilized world realizes that China, if left unchecked, can be a serious threat to them. Of course, only time will tell if economic ties with China can be decoupled from security interests. Amidst this, the mistake that the Chinese have made is underestimating India, which may be down, but is anything but out. Even in the middle of the pandemic India sent out a strong message to China by not allowing any Chinese companies to participate in the 5G trials. Losing India’s billion-plus market and India’s meta-data would have dealt a body blow to China. India needs to get its act together in many areas, but it has the capacity to make China pay. And that is what worries China.

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