Political Thriller: ‘The Tashkent Files’ explore death of India’s second Prime Minister

Letter from New Delhi

By Kul Bhushan

It’s an exciting face off between Somebodies and Nobodies. And it fills the vacuum in India’s post-independence history of how the second Prime Minister was murdered.

A gripping political thriller, The Tashkent Files, entrapped me totally as it unraveled its mystery on screen. Near to my heart as it is the struggle of a young journalist chasing a scoop that blows into a full-blown controversy.

Trying to unearth the truth can be dangerous, very dangerous, indeed fatal. The journalist played by Shweta Basu Prasad starts digging the gory details of the murder of India’s second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri when he went to Tashkent to sign an agreement with Pakistan in January 1966 after winning the war against Pakistan a year earlier.

After six days, an agreement was signed but during that night, Shastri died. How did he die? Was his death due to a heart attack or was it a murder? This movie produced, directed and written by Vivek Agnihotri explores the answers in a nail-biting thriller. A cast of seasoned actors like Mithun Chakraborty, Naseeruddin Shah, Pallavi Joshi, Mandira Bedi, Pankaj Tripathi down to the anyone with a miniscule role keep the high momentum till the very end.

The line-up is a seasoned politician, a historian, a retired judge, a former intelligence officer, an NGO activist, a scientist, an industrialist and another politician. The young journalist is in the dock because she broke the story. This committee, muddled between fact and fiction, rumours and reports has to discover the truth. Its acidic comments on the political and social systems are shocking.

This movie has been dubbed as the sleeper hit because it has survived for six weeks at the screens despite major Bollywood and Hollywood released in this period. The President of India invited the director for a showing at his official residence recently and all MPs watched it in a show organized by New Delhi MP, M. Lekhi.

The Cold War with Russia and USA, KGB and CIA pitied against each other comes out loud and clear in the script. Some dialogues are as topical as the news of 2019 general elections just ending in India when they refer to the Lutyens Delhi crowd that rules India versus the common people, the Somebodies versus the Nobodies. Who wins?

Go find the answer.

* * *

With His Heart in the Right Place

The First Heart Transplant Surgeon’s Visit to Kenya

The surgeon who performed the world’s first heart transplant, Christiaan Barnard, in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1967, visited Kenya in 1978 and made big news.

As a world celebrity, he addressed many meetings and gave press interviews in Nairobi. I was fortunate to cover his visit and meet him. My special interest in his visit was due to my late father, Mr VP Sharma, who suffered a massive heart attack and died in 1966, a year before Barnard performed the first heart transplant.

In those days, the patients afflicted with heart attacks were given medicines to enlarge their arteries and injected with pain killers to alleviate their agony. On reading the news about the heart transplant, it was natural for me to wonder if my father could have survived with a similar operation.

But this operation was very risky at that time. On 3 December 1967, Barnard transplanted the heart of accident-victim Denise Darvall into the chest of 54-year-old Louis Washkansky, with Washkansky regaining full consciousness and being able to easily talk with his wife. Barnard had informed Mr and Mrs Washkansky that the operation had an 80 per cent chance of success.

Instantly, Bernard and Washkansky became global celebrities as journalists from around the world descended on Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital. While Washkansky was photographed by a few journalists, Bernard was photographed and interviewed extensively. Unfortunately, Washkansky died 18 days later due to pneumonia.

Barnard’s second transplant patient, Philip Blaiberg, whose operation was performed on 2 January 1968, was able to go home from the hospital and lived for a year and a half. Blaiberg’s heart was donated by Clive Haupt, a 24-year-old African, who suffered a stroke, triggering a controversy in South African during apartheid. Dirk van Zyl, who received a new heart in 1971, was the longest-lived recipient, surviving over 23 years.

Thus, when the cardiac surgeon visited Kenya, he was hailed for his pioneering achievements. In addition to public engagements, he paid a courtesy call on the then President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta.

It was after his visit to the State House in Nairobi, that I caught up with him in Intercontinental Hotel where he was staying and requested him to autograph his book, ‘Heart Attack You Don’t Have to Die’. Opening my heart, during those few minutes, I told him about my father’s death after a cardiac arrest.

Shortly before his visit to Kenya in 1978, the following statement was published about his views on race relations in South Africa; “While he believes in the participation of Africans in the political process of South Africa, he is opposed to a one-man-one-vote system in South Africa”.

In answering a hypothetical question on how he would solve the race problem were he a “benevolent dictator in South Africa”, Barnard said in a long interview at The Weekly Review: “While I would abolish social discrimination, political discrimination would continue.”

A famous quote by Bernard: “I don’t believe medical discoveries are doing much to advance human life. As fast as we create ways to extend it, we are inventing ways to shorten it”.

But the most famous was – “It is infinitely better to transplant a heart than to bury it to be devoured by worms.”

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi

* Published in print edition on 14 June 2019

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