Editorial 1
Editorial 2
Till Clinton come
Letters to the editor
Dream library/Book review
People power in south Asia/Book review
The brightest star of them all/Book review
Ragas to riches/Book review
Stage of the world/Editor’s choice


Silken route

As its bitter negotiations with the United States showed, China has few priorities higher than joining the World Trade Organisation. Like most countries, India waited to see what concessions the US extracted from China before starting talks with Beijing. This was sensible: Washington was best placed to pry open the Chinese market. China must get the approval of every WTO member before it can get a seat at the multilateral body. This week an Indian delegation under the Union commerce minister, Murasoli Maran, inked such an agreement with China. While the two billion dollar trade between India and China is small potatoes, it is important to realise New Delhi wields near veto power over China’s accession to the WTO. Under the circumstances, it is hard not to feel India underplayed its hand. New Delhi failed to take a long term view of the Chinese market and its potential for Indian exporters.

The Sino-American WTO agreement forced down most tariffs by China. India will similarly see the average tariff for its exports fall by half from its present 20 per cent over the next three years. China also made agricultural import concessions. India has asked for lower tariffs in 180 such commodities. As the Chinese get richer, their changing food habits have made the country a net importer of farm products. As India’s agriculture generates surpluses it needs to find places to sell them. The US made China agree to open up telecommunications, finance and other services to foreign players. It is here Maran can be faulted.

Since 1991 India has discovered a competitiveness in services, most notably in software. No serious attempt was made to ensure China kept its doors open to India’s information technology workers. While there is little bilateral business in this area at present, India’s infotech industry will have to look beyond the West. Beijing missed the hardware and software booms. It is determined to be a major player in the coming revolution in infotech services like electronic commerce. India should have ensured its firms can get a slice of this pie. New Delhi was obsessed with using the agreement to get petty, short term prizes. It was juvenile to use WTO membership to get China to agree to send a technical team to the ailing Indian Iron and Steel Corporation. It would have been more useful to get China to cut the export subsidies that allow its chemical industries to eat into the markets of their Indian counterparts.

Having China inside the WTO is generally in India’s interests. One, China’s absence undermines the legitimacy of the multilateral trading system in which India has a major stake. Two, bilateral sources of trade friction, notably over antidumping duties, have been difficult to resolve because China is outside WTO disciplines. Finally, China is not unlike India, an industrialising third world country, and tends to share India’s point of view on various WTO issues. However, Maran goes too far when he says China is not a rival. China is one of India’s main competitors in nearly every major export sector including tea, textiles, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Also, because its industries are less shackled by socialist shibboleths, China is more competitive than India in most goods. New Delhi held all the trumps when it allowed China to join the WTO. Unfortunately, in keeping with Indian trade diplomacy, it failed to play for higher and more long term stakes.    


Burying the past

There is something ridiculous about the project of trying to preserve history in a time capsule. There might be some technological achievement involved in the effort to create a vault which will withstand the ravages of climate and bacteria. But even that, when measured against the new grounds technology is breaking, appears to be rather juvenile. What is risible is that a body flaunting the name “Third Millennium Committee for Social Transition’’ should be behind the idea of putting a capsule containing a selection of documents about the past under the ground for posterity. The assumption seems to be that there can be only one given version of the past which the present can hand down to the future. This treats the past as something fixed and inert.

Most historians with a semblance of familiarity with historiography and the philosophy of history will treat such a notion with contempt. Each generation rediscovers and reinterprets the past in its own fashion. It is this continuous refashioning which makes history an alive and a constantly changing subject. To deny this by making one particular version of history sacrosanct is to impose a closure on history. What is ironic is that the concerned committee is trying to focus on social transition. Transition, by definition, is a process, and therefore, fluid. It cannot be contained in a capsule.

There is also an anomaly inherent in the attempt to preserve the past beneath the ground. There are scores of historical buildings and archaeological sites in West Bengal which are not properly looked after and are thus in various stages of decay and neglect. The past is all around, there is no need to bury it to preserve it. One suspects this is one more gimmick of the Left Front government. It sees in this another opportunity to earn a few cheap claps from its claque of applauders. Nobody turns to look at the terracota temples of Vishnupur or the ruins of Gauda. But suddenly there is a flurry of activity to spend some money on a completely useless exercise.

Intelligent people are known to learn from other people’s mistakes. The attempt to bury a time capsule under the aegis of Indira Gandhi came a cropper. Obviously, there are people in West Bengal who are not willing to learn from that experience.    


If New Delhi thinks the United States president, Bill Clinton, is not going to visit Pakistan during his forthcoming trip to south Asia, then it is almost certainly going to be seriously mistaken. Already, the gears are moving and behind the scenes negotiations to pave the way for a Clinton stopover in Islamabad are very much in operation. It is not just General Pervez Musharraf but even his main secular opponent, Benazir Bhutto, who realises the crucial importance of a Washington visit.

The taking into “protective custody” of one of the alleged hijackers in the Kandahar drama is obviously some kind of quid pro quo or part of a deal which can clear the way for Washington announcing a presidential visit. Similarly, Madeleine Albright’s publicly expressed fears of what the Kashmir imbroglio can lead to and therefore the need for US mediation to defuse the south Asian situation is another message that “political responsibility” demands a Clinton appearance in Pakistan.

What is significant, however, is that a number of the more extreme fundamentalist Islamic groups in Pakistan have opposed the proposed Clinton visit. Indeed, the most disturbing development in the last decade and more has been the steady Islamisation of the armed forces in Pakistan. Musharraf, in fact, represents the more secular wing within the army which would resist this fundamentalist thrust.

Recognition of this reality does not mean that his dictatorship should be preferred to civilian, democratic rule, no matter how bad. Or that his authoritarian practices such as the recent dismissal of supreme court judges should not be criticised severely. But there are fundamentalist forces allied to the taliban waiting in the wings and connected to senior military personnel who would see in his fall a chance to come to power and push their own more religiously and politically extreme agenda.

The US recognises this. It is one major reason why it moved with such alacrity to recognise his coup and endorse his accession. Indeed, the general Western line for public consumption is that Musharraf is to be preferred over more religiously extremist alternatives. Of course, US opposition to Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan today is not of a principled character and has little to do with consistency in opposing such forces. But the taliban-like Frankenstein’s monster which Washington (and Islamabad) once did so much to nurture has now come back to haunt it.

The likelihood that Clinton would undermine the Musharraf regime politically by snubbing it is thus very remote. What Clinton would want to say to India and Pakistan then is also connected to the US’s general concerns in the region. On the economic front it would like both countries to pursue neo-liberal forms of economic liberalisation. Here the main concern is not India where the Atal Behari Vajpayee regime is going out of its way to please foreign capital and Indian big business by accelerating neo-liberal inspired reforms.

In Pakistan, where the earlier neo-liberal reforms have proved disastrous, the US has to prevent a reversal of this economic path and also somehow limit the extent to which the fundamentalist forces can capitalise on the Pakistan economic crisis. This is a difficult enough task. But it is in the area of conventional foreign policy strategic concerns that things seem even trickier for the US.

Even though the US is prepared to accept as a reality the nuclearisation of the region, it is concerned about the fact that Kashmir is a nuclear flashpoint. It is also concerned that India entertains ambitions of developing a nuclear arsenal on a scale that, if realised, would greatly complicate the US’s extra-regional strategic concerns and planning.

So the general line it wishes to press is that nuclearisation of south Asia is a reality that it must accept in practice as it cannot soon be undone. Nonetheless both India and Pakistan must exercise great political moderation so as not to let nuclear tensions get out of hand. Also India should not try and develop an arsenal that so disturbs China or is so large as to destabilise the existing pattern of US relations (nuclear and strategic) with Russia and China.

There is a further US concern. Washington would like New Delhi to recognise the necessity of not making life more difficult for Musharraf. What the Clinton administration may not realise however, because it still does not understand the precise nature of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is that a drift in Pakistan towards greater rightwing authoritarianism and religious extremism also helps justify a similar lurch in India.

This then raises rather important questions about what the current Vajpayee regime may be up to when it deliberately ups the ante with regard to Pakistan. The Indian government has, ever since Kargil (reinforced by the hijacking incident) gone out of its way to demonise Pakistan. This is much more than a simple reaction to Pakistan’s culpabilities in regard to the two events.

This is a calculated policy to cover up Indian failures and stupidities which themselves played a great role in creating the post-Pokhran II mess and also a way of pushing more strongly the Hindutva domestic and general political agenda by making use of a deliberate whipping up of anti-Pakistan hysteria.

Take the first. Incredible as it may now seem, hardly any pro-nuclear “strategist” who welcomed Pokhran II anticipated the obvious: that the nuclearisation of the Kashmir issue would guarantee its decisive and permanent internationalisation. At a time when there is the most irresponsible screeching on both sides about the willingness to use nuclear weapons if provoked to do so by the other side, it is absurd to imagine that the world will allow the Kashmir issue to be put on a purely bilateral backburner.

Furthermore, an India which so desperately beseeches the US to declare Pakistan a terrorist state, can hardly expect to be taken seriously when it also tells the same US and the rest of the world that Kashmir should be a matter left solely to the two countries. Equally embarrassing is how Kargil utterly belied all earlier claims that nuclearisation of the region following Pokhran II would lead to greater regional security and reduction of tensions, even a great reduction in the likelihood of conventional wars between the two countries. The intelligence failure regarding that conflict is yet another black mark.

Secondly, with the RSS and the most strongly committed Hindutvawadis burning with anger at the perceived humiliation that the Kandahar episode is supposed to have meted out, they are demanding some form of retribution, or at least display of “toughness”, from the government to compensate for the earlier show of weakness. The more calculating among the leadership of the Hindutva brigade are not just irrationally baying for blood. They are also fully aware that demonising Pakistan means strengthening those who are demonising India in that country. Communal and militarist forces in both countries also feed on each other’s strengths.

This is, of course, a very dangerous perspective and exceedingly shortsighted. Strengthening suspicions and hatreds between the Indian and Pakistani elite is probably the most dangerous “game” in the world today. Bad as the situation currently is, if secular forces in Pakistan are fully undermined, the dynamic that will be unleashed in the region as a whole will be disastrous, even for the sangh’s distorted understanding of how to make India strong and great.

The author has recently co-authored the book, South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament    


Moral of the game

Sir — Sachin Tendulkar’s stepping down as captain of the Indian team has stunned cricket fans all over the country, except, perhaps, the “genuine” wellwishers from his school, Sharda Ashram Vidya Mandir — who went around distributing sweets in order to celebrate it (“School cheers Sachin shackle-free run”, Feb 23). Although the nation kept censuring the team for their defeats during the Australian tour, Tendulkar was rather unfair to himself in holding himself “morally responsible” for the team’s failure.

He should have given himself more time to make a comeback in the current series against South Africa. Given India’s record, winning a series on home turf would have been no great task. This would have been the best opportunity for Tendulkar to prove his mettle in leading from the front. Instead he gave up the job. For the administrative manager of his school, “it is better to be a good player than a captain playing under pressure” is the moral of the story. Sadly, a failure on Tendulkar’s part is being greeted as a merit.

Yours faithfully,
Bibhash Ghosh, Calcutta

Mixed up code

Sir — The report, “School changes uniform after Sangh dress code” (Feb 17), was shocking because it focusses on the discrimination faced by women in India. Instead of condemning social evils like the dowry system which victimise women, the sangh parivar is bent upon snatching away the vestiges of freedom that Indian women have been able to gain after their long struggle. The principal of St Mary’s convent should have held her ground instead of giving in to the unreasonable demands of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad.

Yours faithfully,
Joyeeta Banerjee, Calcutta

Sir — Even before the furore over Deepa Mehta’s film project, Water, could die down, the sangh parivar created another fuss, this time over the issue of Valentine’s Day and the dress code for girl students. All these vehement attempts to “safeguard” what appears to be a rather fragile Hindu culture are confusing. Are we then to understand that the present crop of Bollywood films and Michael Jackson concerts are the epitome of this Hindu culture?

The country has yet not been able to enforce a law to debar persons with criminal records from contesting elections. Poverty, illiteracy and corruption have become salient features in society. The population problem demands more than the lip service it gets. It is unfortunate that instead of addressing these problems, the likes of the parivar are more interested in spending time and energy on non-issues.

Yours faithfully,
S. Sen, Calcutta

Sir — The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other members of the saffron family have received huge administrative support in the last few years. “Culture curfew in Kanpur” (Feb 15) is proof of that. This is a moral invasion by a group which is not qualified to pose as the moral guardian of the country.

Was it necessary for the ABVP to display its intolerance and ignorance by damaging private property and blackening the faces of young people? Why not strike at discotheques and pubs first? These people must realise the difference between the concepts of “Westernisation” and “modernisation”. With this trend continuing, the day is not far when the freedom of speech and expression granted by the Constitution will be snatched away by these self-styled culture militia.

Yours faithfully,
D. Bhadury, North 24 Parganas

Sir — It is absurd that the ABVP should ask St Mary’s convent in Kanpur to adopt salwar kameez as the uniform when skirts and shirts are universally accepted as school uniforms (“School changes uniform after Sangh dress code”, Feb 17). Next, perhaps, they will order convents and English medium schools to abolish English as medium of instruction and switch to Hindi.

The question is: can the sangh parivar attain its goal by targeting schoolgirls, filmmakers like Deepa Mehta and occasions like St Valentine’s Day? The perpetrators of such violence fail to realise that the greatest influence on Indian youth comes from within, from the Bollywood brand of movies. The parivar can take this up and try, in a constructive manner, to improve the quality of films produced in the country.

Yours faithfully,
Urmila Guha, Burnpur

Sir — The protests over Deepa Mehta’s Water, the burning of Valentine’s Day cards, and the dictating of the dress code for a girls’ school in Kanpur are enough to make the country’s head hang in shame. To make matters worse, the state government in all these cases remained mute spectator. The complicity of political leaders with such vigilantes can only augur ill for the largest democracy in the world.

Yours faithfully,
Sachin Chandak, Calcutta

Sir — The rampage organized by the ABVP on Valentine’s Day in Kanpur puts to question the functioning of democratic principles in the country. Is India heading towards fascist rule? It is ironical that with the dismal education scenario in India, so called students’ organisations like the ABVP should be concerned only with prescribing dress codes for girls without sparing a thought for the real issues at stake.

Yours faithfully,
Partha Dutta, Calcutta

Sir — The fanatical behaviour of the members of the ABVP on February 14 is highly objectionable. But their dictating the dress code for the St Mary’s convent school in Kanpur is not merely an illustration of their desire to play the role of moral guardians, but also an exercise in patriarchy. Why does the ABVP have to prescribe dresses for girls alone? Isn’t it unfair, since boys are not asked to wear dhoti-kurta at the same time?

Yours faithfully,
Jyoti Prakash Mantri, Calcutta

Clueless in Bihar

Sir — The news report, “Revolt brews in Singhbhum’s tribal heartland” (Feb 11), is a bundle of half-truths. Wilkinson’s laws are nothing but a set of rules to facilitate civil administration among the tribal inhabitants of Kolhan in West Singhbhum district. The Manki-Munda system was not the creation of Wilkinson, but an institution that has been prevalent among tribals since time immemorial.

The British merely conceded to this system of self-rule. Even after independence, this system continued. It was officially affirmed by the fifth schedule of the Constitution which promised scheduled tribes protection for their lifestyle until their living conditions improved. Under the recently enacted Panchayat Provisions (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, the Manki-Munda system of administration has already moved towards democratisation. I can assure the reporter that neither revolt nor anything brews here, other than the local beverage, Handiya.

Yours faithfully,
Chandra Bhushan Deogam, Chaibasa

Sir — During the November 1999 Lok Sabha elections in Bihar, nearly 50 persons were killed in poll related violence. The entire administration was found inadequate, inefficient and without foresight. For the assembly elections which started on February 12, the media had reported on extensive security arrangements.

However, there was the same violence, the same mine blasts and in the same regions of south Bihar. Those on election duty have reported that provisions were not made for drinking water or sanitation, leave alone security, in many polling booths. Why is the same situation being repeated in Bihar? Who is responsible, the Election Commission or the state administration?

Yours faithfully,
T.K. Sarkar, Bokaro Steel City

Letters to the editor should be sent to:
The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: the_telegraph_india @newscom.com

Collected Fictions
By Jorge Luis Borges,
Allen Lane, £ 20

Talking about the emergence of Billy the Kid from the “shifty” Bill Harrigan, Jorge Luis Borges says in “The Disinterested Killer, Bill Harrigan”: “He...learnt to sit a horse straight, the way they did in Texas or Wyoming, not leaning back as they did in Oregon and California.” This is the sweeping vision of an omniscient narrator, homing in to focus on the single detail of a man’s posture on a horse. The details, dramatic, precise, lucent, body forth a world of gauchos and knife fighters, of a house amid unidentifiable plains in which a man has lived through four hundred years into the future, of a man who comes into a strange town and waits in a hotel room till his killers come for him, half conjured out of his dreams, a man who tries to see the universe in a glowing aleph on a cellar step — a heaving, almost tangible, world of people, historical figures, strangers, intimately familiar in their alienness.

Yet the details are a trick, an integral part of a game. The omniscient voice derives its authority from an unimaginably wide reading, hints of which are not only to be found in the austerely pertinent notes the translator, Andrew Hurley, has provided at the end of Collected Fictions, but also in Borges’s own forewords and afterwords, and in the deliberately emphasised descriptions of books and libraries in his stories.

But the details are tricky not just because they dramatise the role of the artist as sublime ventriloquist. In Borges, they provide the vibrant foreground for an infinitely receding horizon of metaphysical themes. The sense of infiniteness is evoked by the themes themselves, not by their number. In 1970, Borges wrote: “A mere handful of arguments have haunted me all these years; I am decidedly monotonous.” Typical of Borges’s self-deprecatory style, the comment underlines the startling mysteriousness of each story, the disturbing potential that makes reading the author as gripping an experience as it was in the heyday of high modernism.

Born in 1899, the Argentine writer came to prose fiction late, having become a poet and essay writer first. He started writing prose fiction by pretending that the book he wanted to write had already been written, and then writing a review of it. “The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim” is thus the retelling of a plot in which an unnamed law student in Bombay begins a journey by scraping the bottom of fear and despair and travelling gradually closer to an elusive source of wisdom and grace. The signposts along his picaresque course are the beauty and wisdom in the words of people he meets, which grow richer the closer he comes to their source.

This unique beginning holds a clue to the complicated relationship Borges had with stories, books, even words. “A Universal History of Iniquity”, which precedes the collection containing “The Approach”, is both a rewriting and a recreation of the careers of unusual villains. But Borges’s grand and simple themes are discernible even from this point. Love, death, violence inflicted or suffered, a moral choice, the shifting grounds of courage and cowardice, the search for truth, are all themes worked out in the moment of the told story. Yet behind that moment, informing it and changing its meaning as it occurs, is the world of dreams and memory, of history, often Argentine history, of the classics and of Shakespeare, theology and myth, the already written and remembered word. Inevitably, the mode is often that of a thriller, as in the “The Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”.

But the themes of search and waiting are also a means to play havoc with the reality principle. In “The Congress”, the narrator says: “I am not a believer in the methods of realism, an artificial genre if ever there was one; I prefer to reveal from the very beginning, and once and for all, what I only gradually came to know.” He immediately goes on to relate the “facts”, in order of their occurrence. This constant counterpointing of a recognisable “reality” with what might lie behind, beyond and around it has its base in the twin doors into fiction that Borges forged. In 1972, he says of his stories: “I dream them, shape them, and set them down.” In the same breath, he says, “I am not a thinker. I am merely a man who has tried to explore the literary possibilities of metaphysics and of religion.”

Predictably, both comments are slightly misleading, although they do illustrate the double approach. It is Borges’s cerebral and immensely learned engagement with philosophy and religion that makes his fantastic world of colour, fear, action and adventure so extraordinary. This engagement matches his capacity to dream his stories. “Literature is naught but guided dreaming,” he says in the foreword to “Brodie’s Report”. The oneiric is fundamental to Borges, in the creative act itself as well as in the experience of reading the story. Anything can come out of dreams: stories, the past, or even another human being, as in “The Circular Tower”.”

The game with planes of reality is further complicated by the forking paths of time: “an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times. That fabric...contains all possibilities.” Just as it is never quite possible to determine who is dreaming whom, so it is almost impossible to anticipate at which particular confluence of time two men will turn into killer and victim and not friends, as happens in “The Garden of Forking Paths” — or on which park bench or hotel room the Borges of one time will meet the Borges of another.

Thus in this world of vivid detail, identity itself is fluid. In “Shakespeare’s Memory”, translated into English for the first time in this volume, the dramatist’s own memory is passed on from person to person, and the receiver is aware of holding two parallel memories within himself. The concrete images and metaphysical ideas unleashed by Borges’s terse, allusive, playful style spill out of his unique world to unsettle the old experiences of reading. Collected Fictions arranges his stories chronologically, so it is easy to travel with Borges from his earlier “baroque” to his later “plain” style. This is essential in a centenary volume, because the style is as much the story as the fable.

For ultimately, what is unmistakably “real” in Borges is the word. In “The Night of the Gifts”, a man experiences firsthand “those two central things”, love and death, between sundown and sunup. Yet, he says, “I’m not sure anymore whether I actually remember it or whether I just remember the words I tell it with.”    

Electoral Politics in South Asia
Edited by Subho Basu and Suranjan Das,
K.P. Bagchi, Rs 400

This is a volume on elections in south Asia in the Eighties and Nineties. The elections and the faith in elected governments they displayed have surprised many analysts who thought that most countries in the region had all but succumbed to dictatorship. The pessimists, however, have had the last laugh as Pakistan is back under a military dictatorship (the coup took place after this book was published). In general, though, it can said that democracy as a form of governance has been accepted by the people of this region.

S. Kaviraj writes about general elections in India, in the context of the history of the Congress. The article presents the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime as something of a puzzle for, “How could the weakest government in history carry out some of the most radically unpopular measures about the economy?” The emergence of four political fronts before the 11th general elections is analysed in detail, as also the role played by T.N. Seshan.

James Chiriyakandath writes about coalition politics in India, with special reference to Kerala. He delineates the nature and composition of coalition and minority governments in India. Given the recent assertion of backward castes and regional political parties, it seems coalition politics is here to stay. And the present coalition government, even though it is an unwieldy one, seems to be doing fairly well, managing to tide over many a crisis. However, an analysis of regionalism in West Bengal and Tripura would have given a more complete picture of the situation.

Subho Basu and Surajit Mukhopadhyay explore regionalisation and the diversity of the polity. The authors argue that the radical changes of the Nineties can be traced back to the Eighties — a decade which saw the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the rise and fall of Rajiv Gandhi, the emergence of V.P. Singh and the beginning of Hindu resurgence. The authors contend that these changes are symptomatic of a crisis.

Amit Prakash’s article on the electoral politics of the Jharkhand region also gives a development profile of that area. He points out that though Jharkhandi political formations have found varying degrees of electoral support, the establishment of a separate Jharkhand state still remains in doubt.

There are two articles on Bangladesh which veered back to democracy after years of authoritarian rule and military dictatorships. Mohmud Ali writes about the difficulties Bangladeshis faced in getting an elected form of government under way. Mushtaq Husain Khan’s essay raises interesting questions about religion and secularism in Bangladesh which might be of interest to political scientists and general readers.

Then there is Mohammad Waseem’s essay on Pakistan, entitled, “Dynamics of Electoral Politics in Pakistan”. Since Pakistan has experienced more than 20 years of military or quasi-military rule in its short history, an article on electoral politics may come as a surprise. Nevertheless, Pakistan has experimented with democracy off and on and just when it seemed that it would last longer this time, it fell. Waseem handles the intricacies of Pakistani politics with remarkable lucidity.

The inclusion of Nepal is welcome since that country is strategically placed between India and China and delicately treads a middle path between the two giants. Andrew Russell presents an account of the “panchayat” system and also analyses the events leading upto and surrounding the pro-democracy “revolution” and its after effects. This article is also the most easy to read, interspersed as it is with anecdotes and personal touches, which however do not detract from the seriousness of the topic.

This book will be of great use to anyone interested in democratic processes, especially in India. The introduction by Basu and Das is a must read. Above all, the studies reaffirm faith in democracy no matter how fragile it may seem.    

Amitabh Bachchan: The Legend
By Bhawana Somaaya,
Macmillan, Rs 895

The publication of a book on the original superstar of Hindi cinema proves once again that it would be wrong, even now, to consider Amitabh Bachchan a spent force. So what if the big screen treats him like a cast-away, the tall man now stages a comeback through the printed word.

Bachchan came to Mumbai with his driving licence as his only worldly possession and slept on a bench at Marine Drive. He went on to become a superstar too great for the Hindi screen to forget easily. Six feet two and gifted with an inimitable voice, Bachchan quickly captured the imagination of the Seventies with his angry young man persona. His larger-than-life image continued to cast a tall shadow long after his films had stopped being big hits.

Bachchan’s popularity extended far beyond India. He was mobbed once by hysterical crowds at Piccadilly Circus. People would wait all night in South Africa to catch a glimpse of this actor from India. The authorities had to airlift him when the crowd went berserk in Afghanistan. But probably the greatest compliment was his being voted “star of the millennium” by a BBC online poll.

Bachchan dominated the Hindi screen for 30 years during which time he acted in 112 films. The 20-odd chapters in Bhawana Somaaya’s book try to assess the actor as well as portray the man hidden behind the superstar. The book may not be a good biography but it succeeds in generating interest in the subject. In keeping with the dramatic life of the man and his profession, Somaaya tries to sustain a lively style.

The book is the outcome of a series of interviews with the actor. It also incorporates the impressions of others who worked with Bachchan in the Bombay film world. The strength of the book lies in the way it portrays Bachchan through the reminiscences of the actors, directors and producers he worked with, rather than by direct statement.

The personality of the man is filtered through three sources — Bachchan himself, the author and all those who have worked with him over the years. If Bachchan is reticent and Somaaya worshipping, the others are objective in their assessments. People who reminisce about Bachchan include Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Rakhee, Yash Chopra, Hema Malini, Prakash Mehra, Zeenat Aman, Rakesh Sippy, Rekha, Tinu Anand, Neetu Singh and S. Ramanathan.

They not only throw light on Bachchan but also give an insiders’ glimpse of the celluloid world. Through the technique of question and answers, Somaaya succeeds in eliciting a lot of information from Bachchan that he would normally never have divulged.

The book is a journey into the heart of an individual who also happens to be an incredibly successful actor. It also carries hundreds of photographs of Bachchan from childhood onwards, which his fans, in particular, will find invaluable.    

Raga Mala: The Autobiography of Ravi Shankar
Element, £ 20

Towards the beginning of his autobiography, Ravi Shankar describes a childhood of penury in Benaras in the Twenties, in an archetypal scene that could belong to the literature or cinema depicting that period. “When we were getting poorer she [his mother] would open one of the trunks and take out a golden bangle or earring, or an expensive sari, and in the evening when the streets were emptier she would cover herself with a shawl, so people wouldn’t recognise her....pawn one of the articles and get maybe twenty or twenty-five rupees. For those few years this was how she brought us up.”

Ravi Shankar’s life, however, did not then follow the contours of the Indian rags to riches tale. His father and brother, absent from Benaras, now came into his life to play their part in his departure, at the age of 10, to Paris in 1930. Pandit Shyama Shankar (the family name was originally Chatterjee), of East Bengali land-owning stock, was an unusual man. That unusualness lay not only in his amorous energy (two Indian wives, an English wife, two Dutch live-in companions), or in his intellectual life (Sanskritist, author and doctorate in political science from Geneva). It lay more in his spirit of enterprise and eclecticism, in his advice to his son, unimaginable to most Bengalis since, “What is the use of studying? You should try something adventurous.” So Sejda (Bhupendra) gave up his second year in college and began to run a bus service between Ghazipur and Mhow.

Uday Shankar was in London at this time, where in 1923, Anna Pavlova saw him choreographing, and performing in, an Indian ballet at Covent Garden. What followed was a momentous historical occasion for millions of Indians. They teamed up and toured the world together for nine months, he choreographing the two ballets and dancing as Krishna, she as Radha. In 1929, Uday Shankar came to India to realise his dream of forming his own dance troupe. This was the first time Ravi Shankar saw his eldest brother. In 1930, the entire family left for Paris, two other brothers abandoning their masters’ and bachelors’ degrees in the process. “Paris was like a dream,” Ravi Shankar writes, but in fact the rest of his life too seemed to progress like a fable. As in all instructive parables, success was achieved only after immense discipline and austerities had been practised.

Ravi Shankar’s training began under Ustad Allauddin Khan, whom he first met in Calcutta in 1934, and then again in 1935 when Allauddin joined Uday Shankar’s troupe on a trip to Europe. At this time, in a manner once more suited to eventful black and white films, his father was murdered in London on a foggy morning in 1935, on his way to a court case involving the inheritance of two rich zamindar brothers from Bengal. It was after the tour ended in 1938, with World War II looming over Europe, that Ravi Shankar went into self-imposed exile at Maihar with Allauddin, whom he called Baba. Seven years of “fanatical dedication and discipline” followed. Shankar wore coarse khadi and slept on a hard “khatia” with a mosquito net; all this after a precocious adolescence spent in four and five star European hotels. He also married his guru’s daughter, Annapurna, and became a father a year later.

By the time Ravi Shankar left Maihar for Bombay in 1944, he had already started performing across the country; from 1949 onward there was a seven-year stint as director of music at the All India Radio at Delhi, during which he consolidated his position as a musician and composer of eminence in India. Several achievements are recorded: he composed the melody of “Sare Jehan Se Accha” in the form that we have heard it ever since; gave the music for Ray’s “Apu Trilogy” and Tapan Sinha’s Kabuliwallah, toured the Soviet Union with the first cultural delegation sent by Nehru, and met Yehudi Menuhin in Delhi. In 1956, after the break-up of his marriage, he left for his first tour of the West.

He never looked back. He was already an international figure — mixing time in India with frequent trips abroad for concerts, recordings and festivals — when he met George Harrison in 1966. (“Norwegian Wood”, he thought “was a strange sound that had been produced on the sitar”.) As a result, Harrison, followed by thousands of Beatles fans, wanted to learn to play this relatively unknown instrument. He became a pop and rock-star figure; then, stung by accusations of traditionalists that he had sold out, he reinvented himself once more in the Eighties purely as a classical musician.

The inevitable weakness of an autobiography such as this is the endless list in it of celebrities met and of awards conferred, while the luminous portions are the early memories of Benaras and Europe. Through all these years, he admits to “torrid affairs” at every port of call, in spite of his partner Kamala and until his marriage to Sukanya in 1989. His son, Shubho, of whom he says, “I wish he had more drive in him”, died of bronchial pneumonia in 1992. Meanwhile, with his marriage, he gained a daughter, Anoushka, born many years before, but not acknowledged until then. He has taught her the sitar, and many of us watched the televised event when they played together in Delhi in 1995. This book reveals that he thought she was not ready for a concert performance; but he gave way to his wife’s insistence that she accompany him. Thus are the immortal made mortal.    

Twentieth Century: A History of the World, 1901 to the Present
By J.M. Roberts,
Allen Lane, £ 15

The Italian philosopher, Bernadotte Croce, once famously said that “all history is contemporary history”. He meant that any representation of the past had to be anchored in the present. It was the contemporary which made history relevant. Writings of historians, their views and evaluations, always reflect present concerns. Croce’s epigram hides the difficulties an historian faces when he writes on contemporary events even though the bible to which all historians always hark back — The History of the Peloponessian War by Thucydides — is a recounting of events that took place during the author’s life time.

J.M. Roberts, in what can only be described as a stupendous achievement, underlines some of the difficulties involved in the exercise he undertook. He writes, “It will always remain true that the closer we get to our own times, the harder it is to see what is the history that really matters. There is such a torrent of events...that it is difficult to judge what is really important and what will seem trivial in 100 year’s time. We lack perspective; we are not far enough away from the things we are looking at to see them in proportion to one another...Often evidence about why things happened is not available until many years after the event...The hardest task of the contemporary historian is, therefore, to discriminate.” Contemporary historians, of all the inhabitants of Clio’s mansion, have the toughest time. Writing on history, Walter Raleigh noted in the early 17th century that, “There is no mistress or guide that hath led her followers and servants into greater miseries”. The warning is more true for practitioners of contemporary history than for any other branch of history.

Discrimination, by definition, is somewhat subjective or is driven by the kind of focus the historian wants to give to the story or stories that he is attempting to tell. Roberts does not claim an encyclopedic status for his book. This is emphatically not a hold-all in which the names of every single sovereign state that has existed in the 20th century will be found. The choice of subjects for Roberts grew from the belief that “some of the greatest historical themes of our century emerge because decisive historical action has in this century moved from the stage of European history to a wider stage, to indeed, world history in the true sense.” Roberts’s aim and achievement are to trace that world history, to look at the general rather than the particular.

The historical process which began three or four centuries ago saw an European revolution which put that continent in a dominant position across the globe. Europe achieved this “not only through political, military and economic power, but the superior cultural energy of a civilisation”. One consequence of this was the interlinking of the world for the overwhelming benefit of Europe. The 20th century saw the breakdown of this domination and a shifting of the axis of power, economic and political, across the globe. This was something which nobody could have predicted at the beginning of the century. Roberts warns against facile generalisations about the future and even about fixed evaluations of the events of the 20th century. There is nothing fixed in history and no irreversible trends. No group can claim that time is on its side.

The strength of this book lies in its sweep and sobriety. It also lies in the clear prose in which it is written. Roberts writes gracefully and without any hint of jargon. His book is a fortiori for the intelligent layman. History, to be significant, Roberts believes, should reach a wider audience. There is no point in historians talking only to each other. History is far too important to be left to historians.    


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