Congrats! You have been immortalised. The unsolicited message on Twitter from a stranger had a mere mortal such as me stumped. I was clueless, but my curiosity was whetted as subsequent queries revealed that the compliment coming my way was from a gentleman who had just watched the movie The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story.
To cut a long story short, the film that released in India last week narrates the story of Staines, an Australian missionary who had made Baripada in Odisha’s interior Mayurbhanj district his home. He ran a hospital and a shelter for leprosy patients and was generally regarded highly by the local community. But Staines also faced accusations of covertly proselytising tribals and attracted the ire of Hindu fundamentalists. In January 1999, a mob led by a self-proclaimed zealot, Ravindra Kumar Pal, who took the name Dara Singh to portray a he-man image, attacked Staines and his two children, Philip, 10, and Timothy, 6, as they slept out in the open in a van. The three died a gruesome death as the mob set their vehicle ablaze.
I haven’t watched the film, but what I gather is that it narrates the Staines story through the eyes of a reporter named Manav Banerjee, essayed by actor Sharman Joshi of 3 Idiots (2009) fame. I can’t vouch for who inspired the character. But the choice of a Bengali with Banerjee as the surname for a reporter in Odisha is curious indeed. I can’t remember any other journalist by the name Banerjee besides me, based in Bhubaneswar and covering the Staines murder back then.
With the filmmakers not forthcoming, the lack of clarity has evidently caused some confusion. My fawning daughter, however, is convinced that Manav is me. Having Google searched all my Staines reports and after having watched the film trailer, she has even found a similarity in appearance between me and Joshi. Now, that surely is a compliment.
Twenty years have gone by since the killings, and the movie—that has already received some positive media reviews—hopefully serves as a grim reminder to the fanaticism that afflicts us even today. Having murdered Staines and his children, Dara went on to kill some more in the name of religion, pitchforking an otherwise peaceful Odisha to the frontlines of a fight over faith. That the same unwanted battle is still being fought across much of the nation is beside the point.
The havoc wrought by Dara made for international headlines then. Fortunately though, the hospital that Staines founded in Baripada is continuing to function and remains a beacon of hope for the poor requiring medical treatment. In my own way, I too have tried to keep myself updated with whatever has happened to the other principal characters of one of the biggest stories of my professional career. Staines’s widow Gladys moved back to Australia some years later where Esther, the couple’s only surviving child, is now married. R. Balakrishnan, the then Mayurbhanj collector, retired last year while the district police superintendent, Pradeep Kapur, who was tasked with tracking down Dara, is still in service and posted in Delhi. Dara, meanwhile, is rotting in jail.
Given Odisha’s forested terrain, getting hold of Dara proved a lot tougher than it was expected. Platoons of police armed to the teeth and equipped with high-tech camera sensors scoured the region, but Dara remained elusive for months. He had some close calls though, including when a police patrol found a drunk man sprawled across the road one hot afternoon. The cops lifted him to the side of the road, only to be told by informants later that the inebriated man was no other than Dara. The cops rushed back, but Dara had regained his senses by then and bolted.
Getting an interview with Dara—the country’s best-known fugitive then—was something that I tried but miserably failed. My chance finally came when he was arrested and sent to Baripada jail. I applied to meet him, but was refused by the jail authorities first and then by the state home department.
I then moved the court which acquiesced, and a precedent was set for the media to interview undertrials. Armed with the court order, I marched into Baripada jail and sat down for a face-to-face chat with the man whose name had spelt terror. I am not sure what impression I left on him. But some years later when he was sentenced to life—I had left the country by then—he called out to journalists asking where I was. He apparently wanted to give me another interview.
I may not be sure about Manav Banerjee, but I certainly turned into Barun Banerjee for a few moments this winter. Outlook had organised an event in Patna where film star Shatrughan Sinha was the chief guest. Bihari Babu was at his charming best and when his turn came to address the audience, he heaped praises on me. “Mera param mitra (my good friend) Outlook editor Barun Banerjee….” he repeated several times as I sat silently squirming in the front row. I stayed ‘khamosh’ in embarrassment.(The writer is editor, Outlook)