Editorial 1/Darkness at noon
Editorial 2/Writing on the wall
Fisc out of water
Letters to the Editor
Dragons fly/Book review
Signals across time and space/Book review
Tea, Exploitation and Dullness/Book review
Tales that the rivers tell/Book review
Beyond the fair’s fiddle/Bookwise

The Hindu taliban has come to town. There is no other way to describe the unmitigated frenzy of repression that has overtaken Kanpur after the frightening success of the rightwing rampage on St Valentine’s Day. All the typical equations are there, between culture and a specific religion, between cultural purity and the clothes of women, between cultural identity and the social forms of sexual behaviour. All the equations add up to the old total: the real or threatened inflicting of general humiliation, physical punishment, public shaming and a fever of terror and destruction on perfectly law abiding citizens trying to lead a normal life. Cultural repression has a general thrust and an acutely honed particular one. The general one has an equally ugly face, of course. It works through the changing of school syllabi and policing the matter of history texts, deciding on the content of entertainment whether on the stage or the television screen, constantly threatening to disrupt the cultural and religious activities of other religious communities and limiting or illegally stopping these — the list can go on. The sharper thrust targets women. And it can begin by dictating what schoolgirls should wear and exactly which space is reserved for women to interact with men. Ironically, the perpetrators of this frenzy do not merely lay bare their sick minds through their actions, but also their bottomless ignorance about what they pretend to defend. If the salwar kameez is “approved” because it symbolizes “Bharat” in some mysterious way, Islam should symbolize Bharat too. Both apparel and faith have come in and become part of the life of this landmass at early periods of its history. And the day girls are “being given” to mix with boys other than their brothers, Rakshabandhan day, traditionally happens to be the day for brothers and sisters.

What is happening in Kanpur today is horrendous but not completely unexpected. This is the immediate outcome of the triumph of repression and ignorance which resulted in the departure of the Water crew from Varanasi. That incident exposed without a shadow of doubt the unspoken connivance of Bharatiya Janata Party state powers with the extreme wings of the sangh parivar. In the case of Water, the clearance of the script by the Centre proved to be eyewash. What is happening now is simply not the Centre’s concern. The state supports this particular kind of mob violence in the name of “popular protest” or student unrest. The police catches a rough or two once in a while and lets them go by the evening. The taliban family is cosily gathering its forces.

It is time the prime minister faced and answered some questions. The forces unleashed now had shown regular signs of eruption earlier. That beauty contests were destroyed and artists humiliated were the least of the problems. There was tremendous harassment of Christians and a multiple murder which should shame India for all the future. December 6, 1992 was just the beginning. Ideology and law and order are not mutually exclusive. Yet the activists of the sangh parivar have always been allowed to get away. It is therefore possible today for district authorities to force a demolition order on a convent school in Ambala, because it could not, for reasons of age specifications, admit the granddaughter of the governor of Uttar Pradesh, Mr Suraj Bhan. May be the prime minister should think of telling the nation what comes next.    

Breaking law is becoming the rule in Calcutta rather than the exception. From political parties to individual firms — nobody seems to have any regard for the laws which govern civic life in the city. If political parties nonchalantly block roads to hold rallies, there are business firms who, equally nonchalantly, deface walls to advertise their products. Painting walls to sell wares is a simple ruse to get free advertising. More importantly, it is a clear violation of an existing law which forbids the defacement of city walls. Business firms and advertising agencies who are merrily drawing on walls and writing graffiti on them should know that ignorance of law is not a valid excuse for breaking them. Graffiti on the walls of public buildings and on walls owned by individuals is something that was begun, like most unpleasant aspects of life in Calcutta, by political parties. It was then taken on by business firms. The situation reached such a pass that no wall in the city was free of or safe from defacement. This only served to make the city uglier than what it already was. There was laxity, of course, on the part of those who are responsible for enforcing the law. This arose because the principal violators were the political parties, including the most powerful one, the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The coming together of all these factors has perpetrated this particular violation of the law. This has been nurtured by an ambience of cynicism about the law of the land.

There is an urgent need, if Calcutta is to recover some of its past aesthetic appeal, to reverse this trend. If the city is to be a centre of civilized life then the maintenance and respect of civic laws must have priority. This has all but disappeared in Calcutta. Political parties, irrespective of their ideological colour, are responsible for this state of affairs. They have failed to provide leadership in the realm of civic values and culture; they have, in fact, worked to erode them. The time has now come to break out of the mental habit which expects political parties to provide leadership in all spheres. Leadership in civic life has to be reappropriated by those who actually make the city, the people who live there.    

The Indian government needs to take some hard decisions in the upcoming Union budget for 2000-01. It is important for it to do so right now. The polity is more than ever in consensus about the basic direction of reforms. The current government enjoys a strong electoral mandate and the first year in office is the most suitable time to undertake harsh measures. A decade of opening of the economy has produced new dynamism, and not only in the information technology sector. Gross domestic product growth rates can be sustained beyond six to 6.5 per cent, should critical reforms be implemented.

As the fiscal deficit remains high, fiscal consolidation needs to be pursued vigorously. Considering the excessive preemption of savings by the government, potential for crowding out the enterprise sector’s requirements, pressure on interest rates and rising interest payments on government debt, it is essential to reduce the fiscal deficit, mainly by lowering the revenue deficit.

Correcting these deficits would, inter alia, require refocussing and reducing large hidden subsidies associated with underpricing in areas like power, irrigation and so on. Food and fertilizer subsidies are other major areas of expenditure control. Be that as it may, the process of fiscal consolidation needs to be accelerated through more qualitative adjustments to reduce government dissavings.

India’s overall government spending, currently around 33 per cent of GDP, needs to be brought down substantially as a proportion of national product in order that India can achieve its reform goals of macroeconomic stability and long term rapid growth. Large and persistent fiscal deficits in India are a serious concern.

High fiscal deficits are risky. First, budget deficits could again spill over into macroeconomic instability if the government resorts to inflationary finance. For example, if the government meets increasingly onerous terms in financing the increasing stock of public debt on the open market and turns to the Reserve Bank of India for increased financing.

Second, budget deficits imperil national saving rates, thereby reducing overall aggregate investment and jeopardizing sustainability of high growth. The effects of low investment rates on overall GDP growth are not hard to see. Most directly, low levels of public investment have rendered India’s physical infrastructure incompatible with large increases in national product. Without an increase in the scale and rate of growth of infrastructure investment, growth rates in India are bound to remain moderate.

Third, the continuing large budget deficits, even if they do not lead to macroeconomic instability in the short run, will require higher taxes in the long term to cover the heavy burden of internal debt. High tax rates will place India at a significant disadvantage relative to other fast growing countries.

Expenditure reform is critical. India’s government dissaving and overall levels of government spending remain high. There is little room to cut capital expenditures. They have already been squeezed to a mere 3.3 per cent of GDP in 1998-99. Of course, in future, the private sector rather than the government should meet most of the enormous infrastructure needs of a growing economy. It is hard to imagine rapid growth can be accomplished with public investment spending by government of less than the current rate relative to GDP.

Governmental action is needed to reduce expenditure under four major heads. With respect to internal public debt, one important mechanism could substantially ameliorate the fiscal situation.

First, privatization of public enterprises could raise significant funds which could buy down the public debt. Not only would the stock of debt be reduced, but also the interest costs of servicing the debt would surely decline as the debt stock itself is brought under control. The cash value of these enterprises vastly exceeds the present value of profit flows the state now collects on these assets.

Public sector profits are dissipated by poor productivity, overmanning, excessive payrolls, soft budget constraints and poor management. For this reason, sales of the enterprises to private sector buyers, if used to buy down the public debt, would yield annual saving in interest costs far exceeding the revenues gotten by state ownership of the assets. This is especially true given that many enterprises with significant positive market value are actually loss makers in current cash flow, under state management.

The Centre has equity holdings in 240 enterprises, 27 banks and two insurance companies. Further spending cuts could come from liquidating loss making enterprises that have no positive net market value. Liquidation would raise domestic savings. Of course, saving would be higher if there is some salvage value in these enterprises. But to capture these savings would require an exit policy.

Second, there is reducing Central subsidies. According to the finance ministry’s 1997 discussion paper on subsidies, total subsidies given by Centre and states was Rs 1,372 billion during 1994-95. This constituted 14.4 per cent of GDP, comprising Rs 430 billion of Central subsidies and Rs 942 billion of state subsidies. Centre and state subsidies on nonmerit goods and services (such as agriculture and allied activities, irrigation, power, industries, transport and so on) amounted to 10.7 per cent of GDP. The average national current recovery rate for non-merit goods and services was placed at 10.3 per cent in 1994-95, with the recovery rate for Centre being 12.1 percent, slightly higher than the states’ 9.3 per cent.

Subsidy reforms should be undertaken with the objective of reducing the overall scale of subsidies. Moreover, the reforms should make the subsidies transparent and use them for well defined economic objectives. Subsidies should focus on final goods and services so as to maximize their impact on the target population at minimum cost. The key to subsidy reduction lies in phased increase in user charges in sectors such as power, transport, irrigation, agriculture and education.

Third, there is reducing the size of the public administration. One way to achieve a reasonable degree of success in this direction might be a freeze on new employment, matched by normal attrition through retirement and death. Existing functions could easily be met by modest improvements in computerization and information systems.

Obviously, bolder — if less politically palatable — solutions could result in even larger savings.

Finally, the tax structure in India still remains very complicated with high rates of both direct and indirect taxes. In the area of direct taxation, while rates of personal income tax are pretty much in line with those outside India, corporate tax rates are high.

In excise duties, there has not been much progress in moving from the modified value added tax to a full VAT. Under the Modvat scheme, credit of duty is allowed on inputs that are used either for producing excisable finished products or intermediate products. Over time, the ambit of Modvat has been extended to include more commodities and sectors. However, the transformation of Modvat into a fullfledged Central VAT up to the manufacturing stage is incomplete.

Import duties are still high and need to be brought down considerably. While the country has come a long way from being a closed economy to a relatively open one, India still is a highly protected economy by current international standards.

Jeffrey D. Sachs is director and Nirupam Bajpai is research fellow, Centre for International Development, Harvard University, US    


Widows’ pique

Sir — While Rudrangshu Mukherjee rightly censures militant Hindus for disrupting the shooting of Water there is one aspect to the criticism of Deepa Mehta’s film that he ignores (“Evil in the city of god”, Feb 13). Water is about the hapless Hindu widows who used to be dumped in Varanasi some decades ago. The condition of widows has improved since: they are not forced to shave their heads, wear white saris, or live on a strict vegetarian diet. Remarriage is not punished with social ostracism, except in a small section of the extremely orthodox. Thus, Mehta’s harking back to the repressions of the past seems motivated by the desire for cheap publicity among Western audiences who still think of India as the land of snakes and maharajas. This is not to deny that many widows eke out an existence as unwelcome appendages to some relative’s family. The reason for this is economic and not social. Mehta would have done better to address the problems of the widows of her time rather than drag out dirty linen from the past.

Yours faithfully,
H.P. Mitra, Calcutta

Young at heart

Sir — Bhaskar Ghose must be credited with at least trying to understand modern Indian youth (“Two faces of the youth”, Feb 8). Youth is impulsive — it is true. With the dauntless desire to conquer the world, youth may as well be called impatient. But — and this “but” has been well delineated by Ghose. However, he overlooks one thing.

While distinguishing between two kinds of young people: one that furthers the interests of local politicians and the other, educated and well off, he forgets that the society both sets of youngsters inhabit is at every step discriminatory. A young man does not have to belong to a wealthy family or a poor family to covet wealth or even to despise it. One does not have to resort to these extremes to explain the phenomenon. Youth is at all times inspired by the desire to prove itself, to take the short cut to success even when there is the risk of disaster. Not that there is any fundamental difference in capability between the young people who have allied themselves to political interests and those who speak fluently about the internet, it is just that the former realize they can become powerful much faster by the means they have chosen. Making the situation worse are pressures from parents and teachers to excel, to get ahead in the rat race.

Therefore it is ridiculous to expect that these young people will one fine day leave off working for politicians and singlemindedly pursue their careers. Instead of calling them dadas or mastans, efforts must be made to integrate them into society. Ghose is right that these two sets of young people have lived side by side for ages, but that is no way to let them be. Today’s young are the old of tomorrow and it is important to change their outlook.

Yours faithfully,
Amrita Mukherjee, Calcutta

Sir — Television has hardly proved to be an unmixed blessing for people. Many programmes have often had calamitous effects on the lives of children and their families. In trying to emulate their action heroes, Shaktiman and Superman, from the TV, many children have faced dire consequences. Many children have actually lost their lives under the delusion that they might be successfully able to imitate these TV heroes. For parents, allowing children to have a bit of such unalloyed fun has amounted to playing with fire. The government must impose restrictions on TV channels to relieve parents of such worries.

Yours faithfully,
K.C. Karmakar, Burdwan

The other demon

Sir — Over the past few years, multinational companies are creating a lot of hype over St Valentine’s Day. This bears dangerous portents for the future of children. It is particularly worrisome for the Hindus, who simply have nothing whatsoever to do with St Valentine’s Day. This is essentially a Western phenomenon. People going gaga over love on this particular day simply shows how blatantly the West has encroached upon the Indians’ culture, ethos and sensibilities.

It is shameful that the national television channel, Doordarshan, joined the bandwagon in “promoting” Valentine’s Day. The channel should devote more time to project India’s rich cultural heritage and values, so that society benefits in the long run. All responsible Indian citizens should go out of the way to resist the onslaught of the Western “phenomenon” on the Indian mind, and beware of the ill effects of this culture in corrupting the Indian youth.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Sarkar, Calcutta

Sir — St Valentine’s Day was celebrated with much fanfare recently: the exchange of gifts between young people of both sexes being the norm. This is the age of hype and promiscuity, very different from the silent and selfless love of yesteryear. Expensive geegaws are flaunted instead of genuine feelings being expressed. Love of the kind Pyramus and Thisbe had, or Dido and Aeneas, or Hero and Leander means little now. This world is very different from the one in which Charles Lamb had commended “all faithful lovers who are content to rank themselves humble diocesans of old Bishop Valentine and his true Church”.

Yours faithfully,
Debal Kumar Chakravarti, Calcutta

Artless crowd

Sir — Calcutta has always been known as the cultural capital of the country. However, if the attitude of the audience in the city at present is anything to go by, the city crowd will soon lose its reputation of having a feeling for the arts.

Throughout the year, and specially during the winter, plays, musical soirees and other cultural programmes are held in the city. Almost all these cultural programmes — specially those involving nationally and internationally reputed artistes — run to full houses. Tickets are sold out days in advance even when they are priced very high. Unfortunately however, there appears a marked change in the attitude of the audience of late. It is not uncommon to find hordes of people pouring into the auditorium well after the scheduled time of a particular show — sometimes late even by an hour or more. What is most disturbing are the habits of a section of the audience which walks in and out of the auditorium throughout the show, and even has a meal inside the auditorium, thereby distracting the “genuine” audience.

The recent concert by the reputed ghazal singer, Jagjit Singh, at the Science City auditorium, is a case in point.The show organized by Child Relief and You was disastrous from the start. Scheduled to start at 6.00 pm, its audience was requested to take their seats by 5.45 pm. The show actually started half-hour late. Representatives of CRY caused further delay by unnecessary speech making, even though the audience had started expressing their impatience. Jagjit Singh further angered the audience by requesting that the auditorium lights be turned on while the stage lights be dimmed.

Also, people — mostly youngsters — kept moving in and out of the auditorium constantly. Some of them chatted inside the auditorium. The scene could have been equated to that of a picnic or a fashion show. All this caused immense inconvenience to the genuine music lovers who had paid a high price for the tickets. Surprisingly, although there were a few representatives of the organizers within the auditorium, they stood there watching the fun, completely oblivious to the distraction caused to those inside. Although many were heard to complain, nothing really was done in effect.

This is not the only instance of the falling standards of behaviour of the city audience. Organizers should take note of how well managed the Dover Lane Music Conference is. Unless proper steps are taken, it will not be long before reputed artistes from other cities refuse to perform here.

Yours faithfully,
Ranjan Guha Majumder, Calcutta

Mao, a Life
By Philip Short, Hodder and Stoughton, £ 25

It is a tribute to the memory of Mao Zedong that books on him continue to be written in China and outside. These have ranged from hagiographic tomes to books on his personal life and his peccadilloes. There can be no doubt that more than any other leader of the 20th century, Mao’s legacy continues to fascinate scholars despite the sea changes in the post-Mao era.

A well-known journalist, who served as foreign correspondent of the BBC for 30 years in major capitals such as Washington, Paris, Moscow, Tokyo and Beijing, Philip Short has written an authoritative work in an attractive and balanced style. Short’s objective biography presents Mao’s great achievements in the period from the Twenties to the mid-Fifties, as well as his tragic failures from that period to the end of his life in 1976. The Chinese have made an official assessment that the mistakes of the last decades of Mao formed a less significant part of his life, than his contributions in the earlier decades of his pre- and post-1949 leadership.

That this assessment has been widely accepted in China, despite the enormous havoc caused by the great proletarian cultural revolution, carried out by Mao from 1966 to 1976, speaks volumes for the weak state in which China found itself after the collapse of the Empire and the failed Republican experiments in the first half of the 20th century. More than half of Short’s book is devoted to this period, its influence on Mao and how, in turn, he influenced the course of events from the late Twenties.

He begins by racing through Mao’s childhood, his difficult relations with his bourgeois father, his mother’s attempt to raise him as a Buddhist in which she failed and his education in the Chinese classics, including the works of Confucius and Mencius. Mao drew from Confucianism three key ideas which were to prove fundamental to the whole of his later thought. There was the notion that every human being and every society must have a moral compass, if not Confucianism, then something else which fulfils that role. Second was the primacy of right thinking, which Confucius called virtue. Third was the importance of self-cultivation. Mao’s speeches and writings are packed with more allusions to the classics and Chinese philosophers, far outnumbering those to Lenin and Marx.

Mao’s upbringing was in his native Hunan, which was very conservative and virulently hostile to outsiders. The sense of independence and aloofness which were characteristics of the Hunanese were part of Mao’s essential make-up. However, till the age of 17, Mao, according to Short, was a supporter of the imperial system, believing that the reforms suggested to improve the system could work in strengthening China against the depredations of foreign powers. All this changed by 1912 when the Emperor was overthrown by the Sun Yatsen revolution.

The development of Mao, the man, and Mao, the early social organizer, after the famous May Fourth Movement, a national protest against the Western power’s concessions to Japan at the expense of China, are extensively covered by Short. The difficult social context in China of the Twenties and its political fragmentation led Mao to the conclusion that to change China, it was first necessary to change society and for that one must first change the system. To change the system one must begin by changing those in power. By the age of 24, says Short, Mao was convinced of the need of a guiding ideology for China, which would result in its complete transformation, but in his own mind there was a ferment of various “isms” without a clear focus on socialism. That came three years later when Mao was introduced to the underground journal produced in Shanghai by the founders of the Communist Party of China.

Short’s work takes us through the various twists and turns of the factional politics of the party. We learn from Short about the devious means used by Zhou Enlai and by the Comintern to sideline Mao in the decade and a half before the Long March. The military strategies proposed by Mao for withdrawing the bulk of the Red Army forces to Western China (Yenan), paid off in spite of the enormous losses suffered by it. Thereafter, Mao’s leadership was established and Zhou Enlai became a faithful ally.

The Yenan interlude before the Communist victory in the civil war in 1949, is covered in gripping detail by Short. This period marked the unchallenged rise of Mao in the leadership ranks of the party, but it also showed that like Stalin, Mao would brook no rival source of authority. This was achieved through a series of “rectification” campaigns, where his closest colleagues, including Zhou Enlai, confessed to their earlier mistaken policies and admitted the correctness of Mao’s line in military affairs, in mobilizing the peasants for the coming struggles against the KMT and the Japanese and for establishing Mao-style socialism.

The lessons learnt at Yenan were sought to be applied in post-Liberation China after 1949. Short devotes a third of the book to post-1949 Mao. Complete dominance of the Communist Party during the initial difficult years of the People’s Republic in order to engineer the souls of the Chinese to accept Mao-style socialism was his major aim. Short deals with his major political campaigns from the early Fifties to his last one, the cultural revolution, to illuminate the single-minded determination with which Mao pursued his goals.

While Short draws heavily from the work of other scholars, both Chinese and foreign, his journalistic background has helped in illuminating several less well-known features of Mao’s relationship with other leaders and the guerrilla tactics used by him to advance when unopposed and to retreat when his experiments resulted in chaos and famine. His uncomfortable relationship with Stalin, but his comprehensive disapproval of Khrushchev, the depth of the Sino-Soviet dispute leading to the Richard Nixon visit are retold by Short, but with useful additions of hitherto unknown factors.

In the epilogue to the book, Short lists the human costs of Maoist rule in the epic struggle to transform China. This included the brutal manner in which Mao eliminated all those who opposed him from Marshal Peng Dehuai, to Liu Shaochi, his chosen successor and a host of other veterans of the Long March. Zhou Enlai’s enigmatic behaviour in acquiescing to Mao’s whims is referred to, as also Mao’s contempt for his consort Jing Qing, the leader of the infamous “Gang of Four”.

If one had to find a deficiency in the book, it is that Short does not find an answer to the question on why Mao is held in such reverence in China even today. Probably the answer lies in the fact that while Maoist social experiments did not result in an improvement of the living standards of the Chinese people as a whole, the sound political basis he laid for rule by the Communist Party did just that after this death, under the reforms of Deng Xiaoping. On the whole, Philip Short’s book is a very useful addition to the huge corpus of Mao biographies.    

Jagadis Chandra Bose and The Indian Response to Western Science
By Subrata Dasgupta, Oxford, Rs 525

Human civilization changed forever on December 12, 1901, when Guglielmo Marconi, a 27-year-old Italian, sent one signal — the Morse code letter S — across the Atlantic. It travelled through thin air a distance of 3,300 kilometres from Poldhu, in Cornwall, England, to St John’s in Newfoundland, in a fraction of a second, heralding the birth of the communications industry.

That epoch-making experiment is, however, a scar in Indian memory. Indians grow up grudging that a great son of their soil — Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose — was denied glory, and, of course, the Nobel prize that Marconi bagged in 1909. For, it was Bose who had invented wireless communication.

This popular belief gathered steam in 1997 when some Indian scientists working in the United States came up with ‘proofs’ of Marconi stealing ideas from one of Bose’s inventions. Their accusations absolved Bose of that tinge of blame ascribed to him for missing the honour: The saintly scientist didn’t patent his invention, while Marconi did his.

Is the story really so simple? Subrata Dasgupta, historian and eminent computer scientist at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, seems eminently suited to find an answer. Author of several books on technological creativity, he takes special interest in the realm of invention, design and scientific discovery. Bose became his inevitable attraction; here was a wayward genius, a quixotic researcher, and, therefore, an enigma.

Dasgupta draws heavily on primary scientific literature, the published correspondence between Bose and his contemporaries — including admirer Rabindranath Tagore — and unpublished material from the Royal Society, British Library and several other sources and pieces together an interesting tale.

According to him, artefacts very seldom arise de novo. That William Crookes imagined the possibility of wireless telegraphy, and that his article may have influenced others who came later, simply means that Crookes’ ideas were part of the phylogeny of some later invention. It does not mean that he invented the radio. Nor did Eduard Branly. He only invented a receiver of electric waves, not a system for wireless communication.

Bose too “invented transmitters of electric waves and several detector receivers of such waves.” However, his goal was not wireless communication; his artefacts exhibited some of the characteristics of a wireless telegraphy system. “It is conceivable that had Bose pursued the improvement of these characteristics, he may well have ‘invented the radio’ or some version of it,” writes Dasgupta, “but that was not the path he followed. It was not a path he was even remotely interested in.”

Marconi too was working on the generation and reception of electric waves, but for a purpose different from Bose’s; his goal was a hardware for signalling across space, while Bose was keen to develop instruments to study the optical properties of radio waves. Marconi’s goal was technology, Bose’s science.

Dasgupta’s painstaking analyses of the progresses made by Bose and Marconi, however, has one flaw. His presumption of the reader’s knowledge of radiophysics has made him either overlook or altogether omit explanatory details. The absence of sketches or diagrams of apparatuses is also noticed.

Perhaps Dasgupta’s wide-angle view of the genius prevents him from focussing on a single aspect of Bose’s life and times. Projecting him as the “Indian response to western science”, he has dealt with several issues: What is Bose’s place in the history of world science? What were the sources of his creativity? Did his Indianness shape his scientific life? What was the impact of the raj on his scientific career? How and why did he turn from physics to, of all things, plants?

The answer to each of these questions is a fascinating foray into our past. Subrata Dasgupta’s is a worthwhile attempt in writing the history of science.    

In the Forest, the Songs and Shackles
By Umakanta Sarma, Spectrum, Rs 330

Even after ignoring the innumerable proof errors, there still remain the book’s major lapses. First, poor translation. It severely affects the development of the book’s matter: two generations of working class people of the Rupahijan tea estate in Assam from the late 19th century until independence.

In retrospect, it leaves a sad impression, considering the recent spate of English translations of regional writing — a short cut to an international readership for a subaltern writer or cultural historian. While there is nothing morally unacceptable about such endeavours, a majority of them — like In the forest, the songs and shackles — are shoddily executed, raising doubts about the quality of regional writing in English. It befuddles the critical imagination to see the author-translator, Umakanta Sarma, losing all control over his fictional material. He simply fails to narrate cogently the story of the exclusive struggle of the poor in a tea estate to gain a voice in the darkness of exploitation — social, economic, physical and spiritual.

The story meanders, and worse, profusely sentimentalizes the theme of workers’ exploitation as well as their later resistance to authority. This, without any attempt at reconstructing the meanings of the discourse of exploitation and marginalization, so common to the social and economic structures of the colonial state. The construction of social discourse in fiction requires a continual interplay of ironic detachment and subjective presence. This is a completely different game, far more convincing than Sarma’s ill-executed naturalist mode of writing with its omniscient narration of the plight of the workers. One wonders whether the Assamese original (Ejak Manuh Ekhan Aranya) too is as dull and lifeless as its English counterpart.

Here we have the story of Tulsi, Banha’s son, his mother and two sisters, as part of the migratory labouring masses ferried across the river Meghna and Padma, to the Rupahijan tea estate, run by the Englishman, Mr Frederick, with his manager, Mr Finlay, who is later drowned in the river Chadini. By this time, Frederick is dead and Finlay saved by Bhola, Dugga’s father. This is supposed to have given the tale a dramatic twist, complete with the arrests of the boatman Dehjur, Ramu (the sensuous Bishni’s father) and Bhola. A further development is the arrest of Tulsi, the upcoming labour leader, who succeeds in organizing the workers against Babu Cheniram, who molests his wife in the name of Tantric fertility rituals. Later, Mr Mackenzie, the new assistant manager, shoots himself to escape being lynched for molesting the tea-plucking girl, Bishni.

The workers unite for the first time after more than half of the narrative has shown them as vulnerable, not so much to the English, but first to the the head coolies at Golanda station and later, the clerks of the estate. This is perhaps the only notable development in the narrative. There is also the gradual improvement in the state of health, sanitation, education and indeed, an upliftment in the dignity of the workers with the introduction of the trappings of modernity.

The book will fail to sustain any interest in a reader exposed to a variety of Indo-Anglian writing. Readers of regional fiction in English are also exposed now to translations informed by a theoretically sophisticated historical consciousness. In ignoring this advancement in the art of translation, Sarma’s novel becomes a profoundly unfulfilling literary experience.    

Oral Traditions and Folk Heritage of Northeast India
By Lalit Kumar Barua, Spectrum, Rs 280

In the heyday of Marxism, the study of folk tradition and culture was hailed as the most efficient means to examine the complex symbiotic relationship between the “base” and the “superstructure”. But things have changed since then. The intervention of technology has aggressively challenge our perception of reality. Even so, the socio-anthropological analyses of a culture still accept myths and legends as an authentic codification of reality simply because they evolve spontaneously out of the rhythm of life.

The book is a competent survey of the folk tradition of the Northeast, that had a strong bearing on religion and ecology. The most interesting aspect of the author’s approach is its essential “empiricism” which seeks to understand the changes in folkloric modes in terms of time and space.

On the one hand, Lalit Kumar Barua highlights subtle narratological variations of the same motifs — the stepmother motif, for example — of tribal oral folk tradition, and on the other hand, he shows how some of the mainstream ritualistic traditions, like the Assamese Bihu Git, came to be appropriated by these tribal cultures. The author probes deep into the dynamic correlation between life and art that the folk tradition embodies; how some motifs come to dominate others as a community migrates from a riverine land to hilly areas; how the fertility cult alters as the same community moves on from the food-gathering stage to the agricultural one, and progresses further to adopt plough-cultivation. All these discussions, which draw upon earlier as well as more recent studies, indicate the principles operative within the system of folklore, but stop short of working out a theoretical formulation.

Nearly each of the 10 chapters of this compendious volume has larger potential. Though information and insights are compressed in impressive proportions, there is definitely room for more detailed analysis. In chapter nine, Barua’s view that “one always finds the difference between two folklore traditions — that of the Barak and the Brahmaputra valleys and the tribal folklores of northeastern India in general,” — is not sufficiently substantiated.

There is hardly any sustained sociological analysis of the intercultural exchange of motifs as a phenomenon related to the shifting positions of the communities in the social power structure. In chapter six, “Religion and folklore”, the author discusses such cult rituals as ojapali songs and deodhani dance, connected with the worship of the snake-deity, Manasa. Barua suggests that the invading influence of Vaisnavism had led to a kind of “modification” of these cults, though primitive myths still “have a strong regional presence”. Questions — though unanswered — arise regarding the exact nature of the modification and how and why it was resisted in regions. Was it because of regional parochialism, or some innate strength, cocooned in the ancient symbolism?

Barua has put in a lot of effort into collating folktales and ballads of diverse origin, highlighting their salient features. “Selected folktales”, incorporated in chapter eight and a brief documentation of folklore studies in the Northeast in chapter nine lend the book a different dimension. Unfortunately, the editing of Barua’s book leaves much to be desired.    

The just-concluded 14th World Book Fair in Delhi was a colossal farce for the discerning book-buyer. The sponsors, National Book Trust, after 28 years of existence and numerous visits of its top brass to Frankfurt and London, seem to have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. The question remains: what could be done for improvement in 2002?

First, the criteria of how a book fair ought to be organized like the Frankfurt and London Fairs. Like all fairs, it ought to exhibit what is new and forthcoming; not the old and decrepit. Or, to borrow Ezra Pound’s dictum on literature: “make it news; literature is news that stays news.” The WBF had nothing new to offer, and if it had, it did not make news.

What was offered was mostly dregs dug out from the bowels of the warehouses in the hope that perhaps some buyers could be taken down the sucker’s road and seduced into buying. Sadly, Indian publishers still have not learnt that there is no “impulse buying” by Indians; they buy to fulfil a need, not for entertainment or leisure.

But more importantly, with almost 200,000 titles on display, a visitor cramped for space and time, should be able to wend his way through the jungle of books — requiring a simple task of delineating authors and the broad areas of the interest. Where was the ‘road map’ to the sprawling Fair? In its absence, the WBF became a lazy afternoon’s outing, not so much to browse and perhaps buy, but generally to have a good time and then go home.

Of course, the organizational problems are many and complex. Worse, Indian publishers are haphazardly organized. How do you define an Indian publisher? Can a bookseller-turned-part-time publisher be described as a publisher? Can distributors of British and American books be described as pure publishers? What is the mix between their own originals and foreign titles, and why do the British and American predominate in their stalls? Above all, should small booksellers from small towns be allowed participation when they can only offer someone else’s wares?

The come-one-come-all liberalism does not enhance the image of Indian publishing, least of all the paying participant’s. This merely exposes the poverty of Indian publishing, and drives foreign participation away.

These questions have been raised time and again in the Federation of Indian Publishers and the Federation of Indian Publishers and Booksellers since 1972 when the fairs began. But no hard decisions could be taken because the bodies were at loggerheads. But once you accept equal participation for all, you would invariably lose out on quality. But this has not been accepted by either the FIP or the FIPBA. Indian publishers should wake up to the fact that equality of status and function cannot coexist.

Many Indian publishers have argued that the WBF is the only forum where Indian regional language publishers can exhibit their books. But the flip side is that Indian regional language publishers cater to a narrow regional market, evident from the sparse attendance in the regional language halls.

Fairs such as the WBF and the Calcutta Book Fair succeed when there is mass participation of browsers and buyers. But book-buying is a continuous year-round activity, not just a one-off deal. And this brings the much bigger question of a book culture into focus, reflected in regular visits to bookshops and libraries. Perhaps, the fairs will start us off in this direction in course of time. Right now, it seems a forlorn hope.    


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