A Selection of Long Reads from 2017

27 December, 2017

To round up our year in long-form journalism, here are some of our stories from 2017, selected by The Caravan’s editors.


The cockeyed vision of RK Laxman

Nakul Krishna in January

RK Laxman died on the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Indian republic. He was 94 years old, and ailing after a series of strokes. A social critic with a vastly larger daily audience at his height than that of any contemporary columnist or academic, he has been lionised, even by the institutions and people he spent his life satirising. Even at the peak of his fame, Indians always regarded Laxman as eminently ordinary, as one of their own, perhaps conflating the Common Man and his creator. But this does Laxman the injustice of being reduced from the complex, acerbic, dark figure he was to a sentimental caricature. Two years after his death, it is time to go beyond the treatment of Laxman as everyone’s favourite grandfather, pronouncing amusing verdicts on the foibles of politicians over morning tea. It is time to ask some hard questions about him, about the vision behind the drawings and the sensibility behind the humour. Where did he come from? How did he do it? And what did he do, exactly?

Crisis of Faith

The nightmarish struggle to bring Asaram to justice

Priyanka Dubey in April

The arrest of the self-proclaimed godman Asaram in 2013 should have brought some relief to the victims of his alleged sexual assaults. Asaram, who oversaw a devotional empire vaulted at many thousands of crores of rupees and commanded immense political influence, stands accused of rape in two cases- one in Jodhpur and the other is Ahmedabad. But to the horror of his accusers, and of the witnesses who supported them, as the trials of the cases were on, Asaram’s followers began to execute brutal, sometimes fatal, attacks on those who dared stand up to their guru.

Fuel for the Imagination

How Prabhakar Pachpute brought coal into Indian art galleries

Alison Saldanha in April

Pachpute hails from Sasti, a village in eastern Maharashtra’s Chandrapur district, deep in the heart of India’s coal-mining belt. Most men in the community, including Pachpute’s brother, work in the Sasti coal mine, run by a subsidiary company of the publicly owned Coal India Limited. While members of his family remain employed in the mines of Chandrapur, Pachpute has managed an incredible journey. Having had numerous exhibitions of his work at prestigious institutions both in India and abroad, Pachpute is counted among India’s most promising young artists today. The large theme running throughout his work is the exploitation of labourers, especially of those employed in various kinds of mining. Over the past few years, he has been engaged not only in drawing attention to the plight of workers, but also in seeking interventions and documenting their overlooked cultures. For this purpose, he has brought coal into Indian art galleries, disturbing the archetype of calm and pristine art spaces with drawings in charcoal and soot.

Down the Drain

How the Swachh Bharat mission is heading for failure

Sagar in May

Narendra Modi has trumpeted the Swachh Bharat Mission, the most ambitious cleanliness campaign in Indian history, more loudly than perhaps any other initiative of his administration. Halfway to the campaign’s 2019 deadline, the country is on a latrine-building spree, and the government has declared impressive results in eradicating open defecation. But the situation on the ground is dispiriting, and does not reflect many of the government’s claims. Entrenched insanitary habits persist, and many promises, like that of ending manual scavenging, are being betrayed. The government is disbursing massive sums of money, but has no credible proof of how it is being spent. Like all of India’s cleanliness campaigns in the past, this one too is set to fail- only at vastly more expense than any of its predecessors.

Balancing Act

Chief Justice Khehar and the tussle between the executive and the judiciary

Atul Dev in June

For most of the independent India’s history, the question of appointments to the higher judiciary has been a contentious one. The debate over the issue reached the flashpoint in October 2015, when the Supreme Court struck down the NJAC act, which gave the executive primacy in making the appointments. Though the judgment set off vociferous arguments between the executive and the judiciary, the relationship between the two has been less publicly combative after Jagdish Singh Khehar, the judge who led the bench that scrutinised the NJAC Act, took office as the forty-fourth Chief Justice of India.

Open Books

Why India needs a library movement

Mridula Koshy in June

In this essay, Mridula Koshy, an author and a community organiser, discusses her experience of running a public library in Sheikh Sarai, and why open access to books can make for an essential and formative learning experience for young children. Koshy laments the lack of such access to children from poor families in India. “I became a writer by first becoming a reader, and I became a reader for the simple reason that I found my way to a library and the books within,” Koshy writes. “The child who never enters a library or who has limited access to a library is one for whom books and reading will forever be associated with the most odious version of learning—that which is imposed on her.” She also argues that hardly any writers can form or exist without access to other writing: “For a literature to exist, we need thousands of books that stand not as lone objects but in relation to one another, much like they do in a library.”

The Man Who Wrote (Almost) Nothing

Ashok Shahane’s deep imprint on Indian modernist literature

Kushnava Choudhary and Anjali Nerlekar in July

For the last 50 years, Ashok Shahane and his companions have been meeting every Thursday afternoon, in one cafe or another, for their weekly katta—the Marathi version of an adda.

It was in these kattas that the type of young men (for they were mostly men) who formed the Sathottaris—literally “post-1960”—poets and writers thrived, and here that, over hours of seemingly pointless conversation, their modernist literature was born. Shahane was at the core of this scene—the Sathottaris began meeting on Thursday because that was the day Shahane had off from his day job at a printing press. Shahane published the work of several of the writers and poets, under the imprint of Pras Prakashan, which he founded. Besides publishing nearly all the titles by the poet Arun Kolatkar, Pras Prakashan has published Bhalchandra Nemade, Namdeo Dhasal, Dilip Chitre, Vilas Sarang and Vrindavan Dandavate, among others. Shahane has also done numerous translations, and edited little magazines such as Atharva and Aso. In short, he has spent his life producing spaces where literature can dwell.

Yet Shahane is not widely known, especially outside Marathi literary circles. Even in Marathi, his imprint is barely visible in the actual written word per se, since he has written very little himself. But behind the words, it is there, and it is deep.

Match Point

PV Sindhu within reach of the top

Ajachi Chakrabarti in August

At just 22, PV Sindhu is already India’s best hope for gold at the 2030 Tokyo Olympics, and a top contender for the world-number-one ranking in badminton. But while Sindhu often beats top players in the sport, she has also lost repeatedly to less able adversaries. Her inconsistency might be the final hurdle in her way.

Under Cover

Ajit Doval in theory and practice

Praveen Donthi in September

Ajit Doval is the most high-profile National Security Advisor in India’s history. His designation grants him sweeping powers over the Indian security and intelligence apparatuses, and a say in foreign relations that he has exercised vigorously, particularly when it comes to the country’s neighbours. His outlook combines strident Hindu nationalism with habits learnt over his decades in the Intelligence Bureau. The results have been far from extraordinary­- yet large sections of the media continue to laud him. Doval’s public persona as a super-spy and statesman may be too good to be true.

Being Salman

The dangerous innocence of Bollywood’s most controversial superstar

Anna MM Vetticad in November

Salman Khan has appeared in some of the biggest blockbusters in Hindi film history. But his career has been blighted by allegations of involvement in crimes of poaching, domestic violence and culpable homicide. In the last decade, the star has tried to reform his image. Is he had succeeded to some extent, it has been not just through his own efforts, but also the willingness of his fans and many around him to accept or justify even his most disturbing behaviour.