Soutik Biswas, Delhi correspondent

Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

This is where to come for my take on life and times in the world’s largest democracy

RK Laxman: Chronicler of Indian life

  • 26 January 2015
  • From the section India
RK Laxman Voter cartoon
RK Laxman's Common Man cartoon ran in the Times of India for decades

As a young boy growing up in Mysore in southern India, RK Laxman did not remember wanting to do anything else except draw.

"My passion was sketching: street scenes, people and landscapes. I do not remember a day when I have not sketched." He was the youngest of six sons of a "strict" school headmaster.

When Laxman applied to the prestigious JJ School of Arts in what was then Bombay (now Mumbai), the school rejected him saying that his "drawings lacked the kind of talent to qualify for enrolment in our institution as a student". He eventually graduated with an arts degree from a university in southern India.

In school, he discovered black and while illustrations in Strand Magazine, where all the stories "were generously illustrated". After working in a number of newspapers as a cartoonist, he joined the Times of India. He began drawing cartoons three times a week, with a panel of three cartoons on Sunday, a practice he struck to for nearly 50 years.

Laxman's signature Common Man - "bald and bespectacled, his bulbous nose propped over a bristly moustache …with a permanently bewildered look and dressed in a dhoti and a checked-out coat" - was the most famous character in Indian cartooning.

Read full article RK Laxman: Chronicler of Indian life

Will the India-US nuclear deal work?

  • 26 January 2015
  • From the section India
Kudankulam nuclear plant in India's Tamil Nadu
The Kudankulam nuclear plant in India's Tamil Nadu state began producing electricity in 2013

"It's a joyous, happy moment," chimed Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a senior functionary of India's main opposition Congress party, after the US and India announced a breakthrough on a pact that will allow American companies to supply India with civilian nuclear technology.

It was a rare moment of bipartisan support for a deal which came during a heady opening day of President Barack Obama's landmark three-day visit to India.

It was also ironical that the BJP which had steadfastly argued against the nuclear deal in its entirety when in opposition in 2007, had actually managed to pull this off now it is in power. Much of it has been put down to the personal chemistry between Mr Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It also helps that - unlike his predecessor Manmohan Singh, who was hobbled by difficult allies and reservations about the deal within his own Congress party - Mr Modi suffers from no such constraints.

So how significant is Monday's announcement?

The historic 2006 India-US nuclear deal had been held up for eight years amid US concerns over who would be liable for any nuclear accident. Mr Singh, the deal's architect, had told the parliament that it marked the "end of India's decades-long isolation from the nuclear mainstream".

Read full article Will the India-US nuclear deal work?

Why India should not get complacent over its tiger population

  • 21 January 2015
  • From the section India
Indian tiger
India says it now has almost a third more tigers than it did four years ago

How good is the news that India has almost a third more tigers than it did four years ago?

Experts say tiger numbers are the most reliable indicators of the health of the population. But they also warn that it is more important to monitor individual tiger populations every year to really get a handle on their health. "Once-in-four-years country-wide estimates do not have much practical use. But everyone, including politicians and conservationists, seems to set much in store by these numbers," says Dr K Ulhas Karanth, one of India's top conservation experts.

According to the latest tiger census, the tiger population rose from 1,706 in 2011 to 2,226 in 2014. The latest tiger estimation identified 1,540 tigers through images collected from 9,735 camera trap locations in 18 states. "Because of the extensive survey effort and camera trap results, which identified nearly 70% of the estimated tiger number; these figures are most accurate ever," claims WWF India, one of the country's top conservation organisations.

Sure, tiger numbers have definitely increased since 2006 when India upped investments under pressure from global and international conservationists in hiring more guards, protecting reserves and promoting voluntary village relocation. All this helped, say experts, in many parts of India, although over large swathes, tigers have been wiped out or are in low numbers.

But many questions remain. What is the state of availability of prey in India's tiger reserves? Every tiger requires a breeding prey population of 500 animals in its territory to ensure a "food bank". Tiger populations thrive on abundant prey - a breeding female tiger produces a litter of three cubs every third year. Mortality rates can be high: Dr Karanth's studies show 20% or more higher mortality rates in a thriving tiger habitat in Nagarhole in southern India.

Read full article Why India should not get complacent over its tiger population

Why Indian author Perumal Murugan quit writing

  • 15 January 2015
  • From the section India
Perumal Murugan
Perumal Murugan is one of the finest writers in the Tamil language

"Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He has no faith in rebirth. As an ordinary teacher, he will live as P Murugan. Leave him alone."

With these dramatic words on his Facebook page, the well-known writer in the Tamil language announced his decision to give up writing forever. The provocation: wrathful protests against his novel Madhorubhagan by local Hindu and caste-based groups.

Murugan also asked his publishers not to print and sell his work and promised to compensate them for the unsold books. He implored his readers to burn his books, and said he would stop attending literary festivals.

Madhorubhagan, first published in 2010, is set a century ago, It's a gripping fictional account of a poor, childless couple, and how the wife, who wants to conceive, takes part in an ancient Hindu chariot festival where, on one night, consensual sex between any man and woman is allowed. Murugan explores the tyranny of caste and pathologies of a community in tearing the couple apart and destroying their marriage.

There is "no historical evidence", says the writer, that such a mating ritual ever existed and only stories about it were passed on orally. The temple has 11 festivals every year and the chariot festival seems to be still continuing, going by the temple website pictures.

Read full article Why Indian author Perumal Murugan quit writing

Is Kashmir headed for direct rule?

  • 9 January 2015
  • From the section India
Kashmir election
The PDP's success has been attributed to widespread public discontent over the National Conference party's handling of devastating September floods that killed scores of people

Politics is the art of the possible, but more than a fortnight after elections results in Indian-administered Kashmir, no government is in sight.

To be sure, the split verdict hasn't made things easier.

The regional People's Democratic Party (PDP) won most seats, but not enough to form a government.

The party won 28 seats, three more than Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP party, which had made an audacious bid to win power in the region. The ruling National Conference won 15 seats, while the enfeebled Congress party surprisingly managed to pick up 12 seats.

With no party winning the 44 seats needed to form a government in the 87-member state assembly, only a coalition can rule Kashmir.

Read full article Is Kashmir headed for direct rule?

Atul Gawande: What ails India's public health system

  • 16 December 2014
  • From the section India
Atul Gawande
Atul Gawande is an expert on medical error and performance

What do you make of India's under-performing, poorly-funded, leaky public health system, smothered by high population and appalling sanitation?

It is the same health system, by the way, which has helped raise life expectancy from 32 years a few decades ago, to more than 65 today.

What do you make of a health system which pulls off the remarkable feat of eradicating polio - India was home to four-fifths of the world's polio cases in 2002 - in a decade, but where women continue to die delivering babies and during simple sterilisation surgeries?

So does India's health system - like many other things in the country - do the big things well and fare badly in executing the relatively smaller ones?

Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, who loves grappling with such gruelling questions, believes India's public health system is one of the "most complex things" in the world.

Read full article Atul Gawande: What ails India's public health system

Why segregated housing is thriving in India

  • 10 December 2014
  • From the section India
Rizwan Kadri
Rizwan Kadri moved into a Muslim apartment building from a mixed neighbourhood

Rizwan Kadri runs an architecture firm with three partners, all Hindus, in India's western city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat state.

Son of a revenue official, he grew up in mixed neighbourhoods. In 2002, massive anti-Muslim riots sparked by the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, left more than 1,000 people dead in Gujarat.

A few months before the riots, Mr Kadri moved out with his wife and son from a mixed neighbourhood where he had lived for 24 years to a Muslim apartment building in Juhapura, one of India's largest Muslim ghettos, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad.

A year later, his ageing parents joined them. "The move was prompted by concerns over safety more than anything else," says Mr Kadri.

Ahmedabad, the main city of Gujarat, which was ruled by the new PM Narendra Modi for more than a decade, is among the many Indian cities where segregated housing is alive and well.

Read full article Why segregated housing is thriving in India

Why so many Indians flock to gurus

  • 19 November 2014
  • From the section India
Devotee of Sai Baba
Sai Baba's influence endures after his death

I don't think many people were aware of the controversial Hindu guru Rampal before Tuesday's violent clashes between his supporters and the police.

But then India is a country of more than a billion people and tens of thousands of gurus.

There are gurus for rich and poor. Many of them command huge followings at home and overseas counting politicians, film and cricket stars, bureaucrats and ordinary people among their devotees. The world's best known cricketer, Sachin Tendulkar, is a follower of Sai Baba, whose mystique and influence lasted long after his death in 2011.

Gurus also peddle influence as politicians run to them for advice. Proximity to a guru legitimises a politician and adds to his power, says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. India's most powerful prime minister, the late Indira Gandhi, would often turn to her yoga guru Dhirendra Brahmachari for advice.

Many of the gurus are also successful entrepreneurs and run massive business empires, selling traditional medicines, health products, yoga classes and spiritual therapies. They run schools, colleges and hospitals. Some of the gurus, according to Dr Vishvanathan, can make India's best-known companies "sound like management amateurs". A guru from Punjab, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, who heads a popular religious sect, even performs at rock concerts and acts in films. Some gurus are adept at yoga, others are better known for their discourses, while somebody like India's most famous woman guru, Mata Amritanandamayi, has made a name for herself by hugging people as a blessing and therapy.

Read full article Why so many Indians flock to gurus

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About Soutik

Before joining the BBC, Soutik worked with Indian newspapers and magazines and an international newspaper as a correspondent and an editor.

He was a Reuters Fellow at the University of Oxford.

Soutik has covered elections in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, the tsunami in India and Sri Lanka in 2005, and militancy in Kashmir, working mostly on a series of stories on the state of youth and women in the disputed region.

In 2005, he used a laptop link to connect BBC News readers from around the world to a people living in a Pashtun village in Afghanistan. He revisited the village two years later to do a similar project and to see how life had changed.

He loves blues and jazz, and believes Derek Trucks is the best and most innovative slide guitarist alive.

He is a big movie buff, with Michael Haneke, Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, Woody Allen and Satyajit Ray among his favourite directors.

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