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An epitaph for Madhubala

June 20, 2013

MANY years ago, I had climbed to the top of the Qutub Minar by sweet-talking the gardener who also officiated as the underpaid watchman at Delhi’s 13th-century landmark.

This was when the government had shut the city’s tallest minaret to visitors following a spate of suicides and a tragic stampede.

I have a great desire now to climb to the helipad atop the 27-storey high Antilla in Mumbai knowing of course it will never be possible. The building’s owner is India’s richest tycoon who cannot be bribed by a mere scribe to allow a peep into his private world.

But I don’t wish to look inside Mukesh Ambani’s multi-billion-dollar home, its exotic ballrooms, its powder rooms and private chambers. I just want to go up to the top and see how far the building is from the Muslim graveyard near the Juhu seafront of Mumbai.

From the top of Antilla I should be able to fathom, if not directly see, the approximate spot where India’s most popular screen goddess Madhubala was buried in the 1960s after a tragedy-filled life. The legendary leftist poet Sahir Ludhianavi, evergreen music composer Naushad, the magical singer Mohammed Rafi — they were all buried at the Juhu Muslim cemetery.

Three or perhaps four years ago, their bodies were exhumed and shifted to goodness knows where. The graves were levelled, the plaques thrown away, the fans simply stunned with disbelief.

In their interviews, which I recently read on the web, representatives of the Muslim body that looks after the graveyard proclaimed it un-Islamic for people to build tombs for the dead. This sounded so much like Salafist extremists of yore.

It was also reported that a shortage of burial grounds for Muslims prompted the Juhu graveyard’s keepers to cleanse the place to make room to receive fresh bodies.

Standing on top of Antilla, my mind would have panned to another story. It was about the sale of priceless waqf land to Mukesh Ambani for a pittance so that he could build his dream home there. Apparently there is, or there was, a litigation pending over the sordid affair.

How could anyone sell prime land and exhume the remains of beloved icons by claiming there was no land available to bury so many people, and that it was un-Islamic to do so anyway? Global corporations should form an alliance with Salafist Islam. I wouldn’t blame Mukesh Ambani for the sorry pass yesteryear’s celebrities had met with, but I would marvel at the irony of it all nevertheless.

Peering over the ledge from Antilla’s terrace I would want to watch all the celebrities — politicians, cricketers, movie stars, senior editors of newspapers and anchors of major TV channels, trooping in for their convivial rendezvous with the nation’s leading mover and shaker. I am almost certain I will see Narendra Modi there. Isn’t the controversial Gujarat chief minister racing ahead to be India’s main opposition candidate for the prime minister’s job? He staked his claim with the complete support of Mukesh Ambani followed by several other leading businessmen from Mumbai.

Wait a moment though. Isn’t Mr Ambani also supporting Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s much-touted sway over the state? And Nitish and Modi don’t see eye to eye.

I would have thought, assuming that the clandestinely recorded “Radia tapes” were heard right, that Nitish Kumar’s chief economic advisor – a former civil services star who had a key room in prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s office, was a lobbyist for Ambani’s Reliance group of companies.

If that were the case, and if Mr Nitish Kumar is bracing to eject from his alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party because he will lose Muslim votes by being seen with Mr Modi, doesn’t that make two Ambani horses in the electoral fray for next year? True to form that is one nexus that has been studiously avoided in the news headlines.

It’s a dizzying thought to imagine all this from Mumbai’s tallest residential structure. Beyond Mr Modi and Nitish Kumar, who is trying to raise the banner of a third secular alternative to the BJP and the Congress, is the motley group of socialists and communists generically called the left.

A Times of India report from Washington in May 2004, the day Dr Manmohan Singh was anointed prime minister, was an eye-opener. Mukesh Ambani, the report said, “used the example of American dealings with China to calm the initial dread that accompanied the return of India’s leftist parties to position of influence”.

The Times quoted Mr Ambani as telling an elite gathering in Washington where he received a leadership award from Senator Hillary Clinton: “International financial markets and analysts need not panic because they have dealt with Chinese communists successfully. I can assure you that the communists in India will put them to shame.”

On cue, the communists in West Bengal hurried to spend so much political capital defending the right of industrialists to make cars on land allegedly cornered from poor peasants that they faithfully endorsed every expectation Mr Ambani had voiced for them.

From my vantage point atop Antilla, can I see anyone from the ruling Congress party alighting at the Ambani doorsteps?

My memory pans to the pirated copy of Hamish MacDonald’s proscribed book Polyester Prince, an exposé of the rise of Reliance Industries. Its dramatis personae are the existing and former members of the Congress party. Is there anyone left in next year’s electoral fray who remains untouched by Antilla’s generous grace? I must quickly find a way to get down from my dizzying reverie.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.