Editorial 1/Kargil fund
Editorial 2/walled in
More rhetoric than numbers
Letters to the Editor
Curry and chips/Book review
Back to a world of tedium/Book review
Hear their master’s voice/Book review
Cause without effect/Book review
Solving the text case/Bookwise

 
 
EDITORIAL 1/KARGIL FUND 
 
 
 
 
Few eyebrows were raised by one of the largest peacetime defence hikes in India. In the aftermath of the Kargil war, it was expected the Centre would increase defence expenditure. It is ironic that the hefty 28.2 per cent increase in outlays — 21 per cent over last year’s revised budget figures — has sparked an angry response from Pakistan. Pakistan’s Kargil misadventure is providing the political camouflage that will get the additional Rs 130 billion expenditure passed. Most of the money is going into weapons or pensions that have nothing to do with securing India’s borders. Kargil cost the country roughly Rs 20 billion, most of it paid for in a supplementary grant. There will be much buying of surveillance equipment, winter uniforms and satellite imagery. Permanent border patrols in the mountains alone costs Rs 100 million a day. But Kargil related expenditure is still only a fraction of the new money being spent. The bulk of the funds will go into big ticket weapons systems that the services have long eyed but lacked the political support to buy. The navy’s aircraft carrier, thearmy’s T-90 tanks and the air force’s advanced jet trainer are riding on Kargil’s coattails.

Advocates of increased defence expenditure will argue the military is right to take advantage of a temporary political opening to ram through defence systems that have been long overdue. It is true the jet trainer will pay for itself if it reduces the high rate of military aircrashes. However, it is impossible to know if these weapons are required for the nation’s defence or not. The Indian military lacks even a rudimentary strategic framework. As defence goals are not defined or prioritized, weapons buying is completely ad hoc. Throw in the enormous corruption that goes with arms sales and the final picture is a defence budget determined by chance, greed and only nominally by military need. Consider the large weapon systems the government has announced it plans to buy. This indicates nothing is being done about a key fault in Indian defence expenditure — too much outlay on weapons platforms and not enough on small arms, bullets, fuel and so on. It was the lack of shoes and goggles that cost India so heavily at Kargil. With the money being thrown at questionable purchases like damaged aircraft carriers, it can be asked whether spending on the individual soldier’s guns and helmets would not have been better. After all, the Indian soldier is most likely to be fighting against insurgents and border guards, the stuff of small arms fighting. However, there is no means to make this argument as long as New Delhi’s bureaucrats, politicians and generals avoid putting together a defence strategy. When it comes to defence, the issue is less money than the manner the funds are spent.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2/WALLED IN 
 
 
 
 
Awareness is not a necessary corollary of knowledge. If asked, few people would disagree that incarceration brings with it an almost automatic stripping of all kinds of freedoms, not necessarily of movement alone. Yet it takes one more step to recognize that penal imprisonment does not mean that a person should be shorn of his other fundamental rights. In this case, particularly, what operates is a psychological block. Society is not too interested in how a proven criminal exists from day to day to within the walls of a prison. Thus, the workshop on “Human rights in prison administration”, organized by the national human rights commission, was one step in an awareness raising exercise. Its chairman, Mr J.S. Verma, emphasized that certain rights inhere in human existence and no prisoner’s misery should be exacerbated by depriving him of them. The focus of his speech was on efforts of reform: treating prisoners as human beings would help in bringing out the positive traits in each individual and change them into useful members of society. Quite rightly, the prison administration was the object of his address.

It is fitting that the NHRC should organize the workshop since it is empowered to inspect and monitor human rights violations in prisons as elsewhere. At the same time, such a workshop can only be valuable as the first step in a continuous process of change. While the chairman’s emphasis is both right and desirable, it does not touch upon the deeprooted problems in the society which throws up both the criminals and their guardians. There is, for example, a frightening level of brutalization among prison employees, a phenomenon which is common among police personnel as well. Quite often, corruption and criminality are attributes shared by the prisoners and their keepers. Rigorous training in administration and courses in sensitization are essential education for prison employees. Honesty, of course, cannot be taught. But a tightening of the administrative system together with enforced accountability would help in ensuring that prisoners get their due amount of food and are cared for when ill. It is most important to break down the cosy circles of criminality within the prisons, by which certain prisoners not only enjoy undue privileges but also conduct criminal activities from within with the help of fellow inmates and their keepers. Reform is a noble goal, but there has to be enough support from the immediate environment and larger society in order to achieve it. Rehabilitation is almost impossible, and criminals inevitably find crime far more lucrative than normal jobs. Mr Verma has talked of a change in mindset. This must be accompanied by concrete moves in changing the system. The goal of human rights for prisoners is attainable, but the way to it has to be planned in detail.    


 
 
MORE RHETORIC THAN NUMBERS 
 
 
BY ANUP SINHA
 
 
The Union budget for 2000-2001 has obviously not lived up to the expectations it had generated regarding the opportunity and ability of the finance minister to make tough decisions. There had been the usual media hype along with signals from the finance ministry that a harsh budget was being prepared. There was talk about a second generation of reforms that would be initiated. However, the budget was neither earthshaking, nor significantly different from previous ones witnessed in the last decade.

The budgetary model that has been finetuned over the years is more impressive in rhetoric than in terms of numbers. Targets are very seldom attained, and the deviations of the revised estimates from the budgeted numbers are often quite startling. The minister and the ruling coalition are immaterial. Everybody in political opposition describes a budget as being anywhere between ridiculous to sinister. Those in power always defend a budget for displaying concern for the rural poor and the deprived.

There are more serious political lessons that can be drawn from the experience of tinkering with economic reforms. First of all, the unfinished agenda of reforms is unlikely to be carried out further. The perceived political fallout is too hot for any government to handle. It is easier to introduce changes in response to international commitments like those implied by the general agreement on tariffs and trade accord. Such commitments are also made without much hard bargaining or sound preparation.

The second lesson is obvious too. Downsizing government, reducing wasteful expenditures, and tightening the efficiency of the large public sector (with or without privatization) is politically impossible in any significant way. The third lesson is that any social or economic problem is deemed to have a budgetary solution through the augmentation of financial provisions. It reflects a profound philosophical position that money cures all ills.

It is in the light of these lessons that one ought to evaluate any budgetary exercise, remembering that the primary objective is to please all and hurt none, with a bit of political largesse dropped in for variety. Thus it would be incorrect to expect any serious reduction of expenditure, particularly on the revenue account.

There has been, however, a couple of interesting developments in revenue expenditure. Defence allocations have witnessed the largest ever annual hike in the aftermath of Kargil. Defence expenditure as a proportion of gross domestic product is still lower than what it was in the later Eighties, and significantly lower than what it currently is in Pakistan. Does this imply a reversal of recent trends to allow for a systematic increase in the next few years? The dividends of peace may not be for us to enjoy.

The second development is perhaps the toughest decision Yashwant Sinha had to take, namely the rolling back of subsidies in food and fertilizers. Eliminating income tax payers from the public distribution system (for sugar to begin with) is certainly laudable as a beginning to what could be a more comprehensive restructuring of the PDS. Having differential issue prices for those below and above the poverty line is, however, going to severely add to administrative problems. The full implications of revamping the fertilizer subsidy system is not immediately clear. It may have been a wiser decision to have made the announcement only after fully working out an alternative scheme with all its implications.

On the tax front the changes pertain to expansion of the tax base and procedural simplifications. Increasing the tax on dividends, bringing export profits into the tax net (albeit in a calibrated manner) and expanding the one-by-six scheme to cover all cities above a certain population are efforts that are necessary and worthy of support. However, the movement to a single rate “Cenvat” coupled with a three-tier special excise and a host of exemptions is not exactly what an efficient indirect tax system would require. Despite this complication, any procedural simplification is always welcome for facilitating compliance and reducing the wastage associated with disputes and litigations.

The restructuring of commercial banks and granting greater autonomy to the Reserve Bank of India, especially with regard to the determination of interest rate structure is long overdue. The purpose of dilution of the government’s stakes in banks without disinvestment is, however, not clear at all. It does not grant full autonomy to the bank’s boards. The finance minister’s assertion that in no circumstance will a public sector bank be shut down helps retain the moral problem in the decisionmaking process of banks.

Like in the past, there is no urgency reflected in the tackling of the issue of capacity creation and fresh investments in areas of infrastructure. Statements are frequently made about the importance of power, telecommunications, roadways, ports and airports. The regulatory framework remains without much teeth, and the lack of a concerted and coordinated effort in seeking large investment projects in these areas continues to restrict new activity. Except for a very few so called sunrise industries, the destinations of new investments remain hazy and uncertain.

Agricultural growth has been erratic and hard to predict, but agricultural prices have declined causing a concern about demand from this sector. A fall in the savings rate, excess capacity in some sectors, falling agricultural incomes, and bottlenecks in infrastructure together do not augur well for a sustained period of recovery and growth.

All governments swear by the need to promote human development and capabilities. All governments take much pride in increasing the budgetary allocations for the social sector of primary education, basic health and sanitation. The problem is much more than the availability of funds. It is more structural in nature with deep roots in the political economy of caste, class and social organization. The budgetary response cannot be in terms of finance alone. If anything, the budgetary response requires a change in allocations of an order of magnitude which cannot be ever achieved without a thoroughgoing reform in the pattern of government spending and in the delivery system of social projects.

Overall economic growth in the last five or six years has been impressive when compared to the decades of the past. This has been despite the impotency of policy on many crucial issues. It is likely that the Indian economy, thanks to some initial doses of liberalization, has moved to a sustainable six per cent growth path.

There are two fallouts of this situation which Indian society cannot ignore for long. The first is the rising aspirations of modern industry, of the rich and middle classes, and the growing desire to be global in lifestyles, culture and creed. The other is the growing distance between the rich and the poor, not merely in terms of wealth and incomes, but in terms of opportunities, freedoms, visions and awareness. The fracture is growing and the full impact of that pain is yet to be fully sensed. It will determine, sooner than later, where we go as a nation, and how.

The author is faculty member of the economics group, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta    


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Intelligence in danger

Sir — It is good to know that the Indian armed forces and intelligence agencies possessed two officers competent and perceptive enough to predict way back in 1989 — 10 years before Kargil — the long term strategy Pakistan would employ to try and annex Kashmir (“Topac secret out after 11 years”, Feb 12). The rest of the government departments, on the other hand, come across in an extremely poor light for believing and continuing to believe in the fiction that operation Topac was a nefarious design that Zia ul-Haq had cooked up. And it seems especially incredible that the army with officers of the calibre of lieutenants general Afsir Karim and Matthew Thomas could in a few years have degenerated so far as not to realize that infiltrations were taking place in the Kargil sector until the intruders were almost upon them. What has gone wrong in these few years? And will the huge hike in defence allocation in the budget be enough to offset the rot that has already set in?

Yours faithfully,
Ramen Mukherjee, Calcutta

Visited by confusion

Sir — The imminent visit of the United States president, Bill Clinton, to India presents a wonderful opportunity to examine the “free trade” practices and human rights record of the US. The US does not hesitate to lecture others on free trade. Yet its own trade practices are anything but free. Take the US auto industry. In the Seventies, there were three principal car makers in the US — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — who produced gas guzzlers which needed to be replaced every three years. Japanese car manufacturers entered the US market in a big way, with their fuel efficient and longer lasting cars and cornered a large share of it. Soon US automakers were whining that the Japanese were dumping their cars on the US, that unemployment was rising in Detroit, and jobs were going to the “Japs”.

US politicians, especially the Democrats, swung into action and imposed restrictions on the number of cars Japanese car manufacturers could export to the US. To offset the loss in trade, the Japanese hiked prices. US automakers were happy since they too could increase prices now. US consumers were the only ones unhappy with this situation. They were, in a way, paying close to six billion dollars as subsidies so people didn’t lose jobs in Detroit.

Amidst all this talk about “free trade”, the world was going through a financial upheaval, characterized by currency fluctuations and manipulations. This hurt Japanese car makers and they decided to start manufacturing in the US itself. Meanwhile, Chrysler, which was bailed out of financial difficulties with billions of taxpayers’ money, was taken over by the German company, Benz. Still, “the US car makers” continue to be General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

Free trade is indeed a necessity. Barriers to export of computers and telecommunication equipment to developing countries should be removed. And is it free trade to impose restrictions on textile exports from India to the US and Western nations? Especially when Coke and Pepsi have expanded their operations worldwide, thereby increasing the influence of the world’s only remaining superpower.

As for the US’s favourite hobby horse, human rights, 40 Indian information technology professionals were handcuffed and paraded as a bunch of criminals. Low paid infotech professionals from Asia, especially China and India, have greatly helped the US sustain its status as a leader in the infotech industry. Will the US government ever take such action against citizens of European nations? Why are only minorities such as Hispanics, Caribbeans and Asians targeted for inhuman treatment by immigration and naturalization officials? Why are millions of Iraqis being starved by the United Nations sponsored oil embargo? Petroleum prices have skyrocketed and the only beneficiaries of the oil embargo and price rigging have been a few oil companies. If this is not human rights abuse, what is?

Clinton could not get the comprehensive test ban treaty passed in the US senate. And yet he is pressuring India to sign it. He has also has removed the Pressler amendment and refuses to declare Pakistan a terrorist state.

Yours faithfully,
R.K. Mani, Mangalore

Sir — The US president, Bill Clinton, is reported to be worried about Islamic fundamentalist forces in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan (“Till Clinton come”, Feb 25, and “Delhi grapples with Clinton dilemma”, Feb 22). Despite the steady Islamization of the Pakistani armed forces, General Pervez Musharraf represents the more secular wing of the army; so, if Clinton skipped and ignored Pakistan on his south Asia visit, the fundamentalist forces allied to the taliban would intensify the existing religious fanaticism.

Now Iran’s reformists under the president, Mohammed Khatami, have done exceptionally well in the national assembly, so the rule of Islamic fundamentalists is perhaps going to end in Iran. So, if the US president is serious about fighting religious fanaticism, then a better option for him would be Iran, not Pakistan.

China has reportedly advised the US to include Pakistan in his south Asia tour. It fears that a visit to India excluding Pakistan will increase India’s importance unduly and undermine the importance of China. The dilemma is clear. Clinton’s visit is likely to undermine the US administration’s priorities of curbing terrorism and mitigating military tensions in the region. But his avoiding Pakistan would mean forfeiting an opportunity to encourage the moderate elements in the country.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta

Fear is the key

Sir — The article, “Where the mind is full of fears” (Feb 16), has prompted me to write about a new education system I am indirectly involved in, called, “Where the mind is without fear”. It is interesting to note the association Kulwinder Sandhu makes between fear and education. It is unclear whether Rabindranath Tagore too saw the connection, but one suspects his magnificent poem which begins with the line, “Where the mind is without fear”, shows his awareness that our society is ruled by fear more than any other emotion. What a disgrace that fear has also become the governing force in the lives of youngsters. While agreeing with the points Sandhu makes, I would also suggest the there may be valid arguments on the other side. For example, a student’s evaluation of his teacher ought not to be considered as a matter for action by authorities, but only as an item in a more comprehensive assessment.

Still, it cannot be denied that a lot of things are terribly wrong with what passes for education in West Bengal, and indeed, throughout India. That so many children are reduced to zombies by fear come examination time and even resort to suicide is itself bad enough and an issue that should have been addressed long ago. It is not only the students, but also their parents who are traumatized. Apart from the occasional non-governmental organization, not much has been done to change this murder machine masquerading as a child’s road from darkness to light.

Yours faithfully,
Brendan MacCarthaigh, Calcutta

Sir — Kulwinder Sandhu is right in thinking that using feedback from students for assessing the performance of teachers will be an exercise in futility. It can only benefit popular teachers, not necessarily sound ones. Besides, teachers at higher levels also have the additional responsibilities of administration and research. However, teachers can be assessed through question papers set by them, their research papers and also through the total percentage of classes taken out of the allotted number.

Much damage has already been done by allowing the students to participate in college and university affairs. Now is the time to undo the damage, not to compound it.

Yours faithfully,
C.T. Bhunia, Haldia

Letters to the Editor should be sent to:
The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email:
[email protected]
   

 
 
CURRY AND CHIPS/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY RUDRANI SARKAR
 
 
White Teeth
By Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton, £ 12.99

It’s something of an annual event in the publishing world. The books maybe all different but their story is the same. A first novel (usually) becomes embroiled in a hotly contested auction, and is excitedly hailed by the media as soon as it’s published. Zadie Smith has this year’s 15 minutes. She is the envy of every aspiring writer, a 23 years old Cambridge graduate whose first novel was bought for a staggering sum of money on the basis of some sample chapters while she was still at university. The book has been completed since and has arrived in bookstores flourishing a generous quote from the godfather, Salman Rushdie, and accompanied by a flurry of front-page reviews and articles. It is, let us admit it, tempting to attack the book on these facts alone. But Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, remains a disappointment, even without the excuse of hype.

White Teeth tries to be a novel about multi-cultural Britain. This is Britain as it stands at the turn of the century where curry is served with chips, and Bangladeshis live next door to Barbadians. A nation whose imperial history has opened it up to an often bewildering, yet always exciting, mix of races and cultures. Britain has not been white England for, at least, the last 20 years and everyone is talking, singing, writing and making movies about it. A recent documentary called White Tribes, to give an example, made headlines when it looked at how the Caucasian British felt like a minority in their own country. The change from one nation to many tribes has been commented on increasingly over the years but White Teeth is the first popular novel to deal comprehensively with the subject. It is, in this sense, a terribly relevant book and there is boldness and an epic quality in its scope and ambition. The disappointment lies in the superficiality of its execution.

White Teeth is the story of an unlikely friendship. Archibald Jones and Samad Iqbal meet during World War II and renew their ties when Samad moves to London during the immigration wave of the Seventies. Samad is typical of the first generation immigrant. Removed from his homeland, he becomes militant about retaining his own culture. For the paradox of immigration means that Samad is a more vigilant Bangladeshi in London than he has possibly ever been in Dhaka. This of course has its impact on his twin sons Magid and Millat — the second generationers. Desperate for his sons to grow up as good Muslim boys and in continual fear of their corruption in the West, Samad smuggles Magid back to Bangladesh without informing his family. Ironically, Magid returns as an Anglophile intellectual many years later much to his father’s disgust. Millat on the other hand grows up to be the sexiest bad boy on the block, joining an extremist black organization and seducing all the girls in the neighbourhood. Magid, Millat and Irie, Archie’s daughter, represent the cultural hothouse that has sprouted in Britain. This is a world where identity is a mixed-up affair, where Bangladeshis can act like black Americans and talk in a mixture of Jamaican, English and Bengali slang. When Millat is asked by an Englishwoman where he is from, he answers, “Willesden” (north west London): “Yes, yes, of course, but where from originally?” “Oh,” said Millat, putting on what he called a bud-bud-ding-ding accent. “You are meaning where I am from originally?...Whitechapel,” said Millat, pulling out a fag, “via the Royal London Hospital and the 207 bus.”

Zadie Smith is skilled at producing these little vignettes with their sharp, often ironic and poignant, observations. In fact, it is the actual writing that is her great strength and weakness. White Teeth is a slick affair. Zadie Smith’s sentences are taut, winding things, filled with cleverness. But it’s an exaggerated style that reads stunningly for the first chapter and becomes annoying every page thereafter. The constant need to be witty is shortchanged for thoughtfulness. And vital though it maybe, there is a heartlessness about the linguistic virtuosity and wordplay. For all its magic, the prose is hacky and it seems to prevent Zadie Smith from telling her story.

Language — strutting and sniggering just a little — is all that remains in this book. The actual story stops mattering as do the characters. For Zadie Smith seems much more interested in portraying fixed social types — the embittered, paranoid immigrant, his confused children, the young girl without a father figure. There is nothing particularly untrue about these clichés, but like all clichés, they need to be handled with care. Zadie Smith never manages to enter her characters and they emerge from the book hollow and difficult to sympathize with. This superficiality extends to her handling of the multi-cultural reality Britain is faced with. There is no attempt to probe the many-tentacled phenomenon — its frequent dilemmas, its many delights. The jacket blurb announces it as an epic novel of ideas but this is precisely what it is not. There is a flirtation with eugenics but it remains an abstract theme, as unworked as the rest of the book.

Zadie Smith just doesn’t seem to go deep enough. This has partly to do with her style. One can’t help feeling that this has remained the real focus of the novel. As a result, White Teeth has turned into a novel of surfaces, anchored by nothing substantial, but not really made buoyant by anything. For the tragic thing about Zadie Smith is that her indifference to substance and story has dulled her sparky sentences. This could have been a promising novel. Zadie Smith is in the perfect position to record her subject, being a bright young thing and of mixed birth herself. She has a sharp, wry eye and one could see all of the 500 pages of this novel being turned into a punchy article of 500 words. Perhaps it is the hype, after all, which makes this such a let down. Without the ecstatic reviews and articles, the hefty price at which it was obtained, White Teeth would have not have been such a disappointing debut. But it would have come up short no matter what.    


 
 
BACK TO A WORLD OF TEDIUM/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY GARGI BHATTACHARJEE
 
 
A New World
By Amit Chaudhuri, Picador, £ 12.99

Wandering through a bookshop, Jayojit, the protagonist of Amit Chaudhuri’s A New World, glances at the mandatory collection of Indian writers in English, picks up a copy of A Suitable Boy and disparages it with a, “They not only look light, they feel lightweight as well” (author’s italics). (There can be few doubts about the weight of Vikram Seth’s book, at least.) One wonders, is Chaudhuri being facetious, or merely ingenuous? For if anyone can be accused of not being weighty — both literally and literarily — it is Chaudhuri.

A New Worldis the fourth book to have flowed from Chaudhuri’s pen (Or is it computer? For there is a certain facile glibness and a conscious artistry that only comes when composing on the keyboard.) which has belied the literary promise of his first work of fiction, A Strange and Sublime Address. That it is steadily climbing up the best-seller lists is no surprise since it belongs to the currently fashionable genre of writings of and by the great Indian diaspora and is located in Calcutta, the present favourite of all those novelists whose manuscripts fetch fat advances from publishers. But whether it will be remembered even by the next year is open to question.

And yet, there is much dramatic potential in Chaudhuri’s novel, if it isn’t too sacrilegious to apply Aristotle’s criteria for drama to it. For one, it captures its protagonist in what could have been an anagnoristic moment of his life. Jayojit’s divorce has just come through and he is still coming to terms with the fact that his wife has left him — a professor of economics in a US university — for a balding American gynaecologist with bad breath. He and his seven-year-old son have come on a visit to his parents in Calcutta as part of the process of recuperation. Then, it has a very short focus: its time frame is two months, starting from the taxi-ride from Calcutta airport to his parents’ home in south Calcutta, and ending with the Biman Bangladesh flight back to the US.

However, all the drama in Chaudhuri’s novel is battered out by the barrage of quotidian details. What makes Chaudhuri’s narrative style so tedious is the fact that while he has a fine eye for detail, he is completely non-discriminatory in his choice of focus. So, everything from the taxi’s rusting window- edges to the shiny plastic of its seat cover, and the way Jayojit’s father ate fish (with a fork) to the editorials Jayojit read are invested with the same air of punctiliousness. If this dreary style is indeed meant to mirror the physical torpor and intellectual stupor of a Calcutta summer, then one must say Chaudhuri is successful.

Where Chaudhuri is on surer ground is in the characterization of Jayojit and his relationship with his parents. His evocation of the inward states of a recent divorcee, by a random juxtaposition of life in Calcutta with that in America with his wife, Amala, is at the same time touching and completely unsentimental. There is also the feeling of having been left bereft, exacerbating the loneliness in a foreign land.

Loneliness in marriage is an area Chaudhuri explores rather well, by counterpointing the relationship between Jayojit’s parents with his own conjugal life. So too his depiction of the parent-child relationship in a certain kind of middle-class Bengali household. A strange formality informs the bond Jayojit shares with his father, characterized by their talking among themselves in English. Interestingly, Jayojit’s interaction with his mother is very different, conducted primarily through the medium of food, so that her indifferent cooking comes to be a symbol of her indifferent parenting.

An indifferent offering at best, A New Worldcontains an unforgivable gaffe. Talking about his career in the navy, Jayojit’s father says that he met Jawaharlal Nehru and “saluted him in ’sixty-six”. Is it too much to expect that the man whose writing has been praised by Margaret Drabble as “the best portrait of India today I’ve read”, should know that the country’s first prime minister died in 1964?    


 
 
HEAR THEIR MASTER’S VOICE/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY AMARESH DATTA
 
 
God Lived With Them
By Swami Chetanananda, Advaitya Ashram, Rs 100

This is an Indian edition of a well-produced and low-priced book, originally published in 1997 by the Vedanta Society of St. Louis. God Lived With Themdelineates the life-sketches of 16 direct disciples of Ramkrishna Paramhansa. The guru initiated them into the monastic life of what later came to be known as the Ramkrishna order.

The author, himself a monk of the order, had earlier scripted the lives of 28 householder devotees of Ramkrishna in They Lived With God. The book sought to preserve and re-live the memories of inspiration drawn in close proximity with Ramkrishna.

God Lived With Them, a sequel to this book, aims at bringing to light the stoicism and struggle of a group of youth in search of inspiration. These men subsequently went on to lay the foundation of a new religious movement.

Though only a couple of them had graduated formally, they were so well trained by the master that they could move freely in the world of the learned seekers of spiritual truth. Five of the disciples even went on to spread the message of Ramkrishna to the West. All of them had devoted their lives to religion, and the story of their lives is an expression of religion in practice.

Ramkrishna was so inextricable a part of their everyday existence that the book envisions the guru through his followers. The gospels of the apostles reflect all along the benediction of their earthly god.

The book begins with a brief biographical introduction to Ramkrishna, but his presence is all-pervading throughout the narrative.

Yet in recounting the lives of these first proselytes, the author portrays each one of them in vivid detail, punctuated with relevant events and activities of their early and later lives. The author also brings out the various stages of their spiritual growth.

Swami Viveka-nanda, the brightest star of this galaxy, naturally heads the list. The story of his life has been told by many in extensive and diverse ways. But the lives of his friends and fellow seekers have been long neglected. The attention the author pays to them is thus well deserved. The master, after all, bestowed his blessings on all of them with equal grace.

The book, based on meticulous and detailed research, is written in an engaging style. Even the lay reader will find it of engrossing biographical interest. It will certainly be considered a valuable contribution to the Ramkrishna lore.    


 
 
CAUSE WITHOUT EFFECT/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYYA
 
 
This Land is Ours
By Romen Basu, Abhinav, Rs 225

The traditional metaphoric association of time with the tide of a river is nowhere so palpable as in riverine India. Rivers have breathed life into the scattered details of the history of the Indian civilization. The Narmada, flowing down an open meadow in Gujarat has been the source of subsistence for many, nourished their culture, leaving behind an indelible imprint on their memory.

The spirit of the “Narmada Bachao Andolan” may be understood from this perspective. Just after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru masterminded the plan of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the river for industrial growth and power generation. But he had scarcely envisaged the human cost of its implementation, nor had he surmised the politicking and bureaucratic high-handedness that would later come into play.

The andolan, which took off in the Eighties and gathered momentum in the early Nineties, started with the demand of lowering the height of the dam and for proper rehabilitation of those displaced. Gradually, the agitators became more battle-hardened and ecologically conscious. They now raised the question of why they should be forced to make such a sacrifice and became sceptical about its tangible benefits. To get their cause across to the high officials, they took out protest marches in streets and encountered police atrocities. More recently, the movement has come to encompass a broader spectrum of issues like presentation of fundamental rights of tribal communities or the uplift of the poorer sections of the rural population. What distinguishes this movement from other tribal agitations like the Jharkhand agitation in Bihar or the Bodo movement in Assam is its steadfast adherence to the Gandhian principle of non-violence.

The present novel shows how Lata, a Mumbai-bred woman of Brahmin descent, leads the movement from the front with tremendous moral courage and fortitude. A true bellwether to a group of firebrand rebels like Mahesh and his wife Indu, Lata is never baffled by the enormity of her task in organizing a mass movement with people from the grassroots level. With rare sangfroid and grace she mobilizes people, delivers public addresses, holds parleys with bureaucrats, briefs the press, carries her cause abroad. Most important, she teaches her comrades how to keep up their spirit even when the chips are down. When Indu and Shakuntala come back after their not too successful visit to the northeastern tribal belts, Lata instills fresh confidence in Indu. She uses her understanding of female psychology to magical effect.

Romen Basu’s novel ostensibly purports to be a down-to-earth chronicle of Lata’s undaunted journey until it comes to a temporary halt during the grand march towards the Gujarat border where Lata and her fellow fighters are severely assaulted by a gang of miscreants. Even in her trance at the hospital bed in Gomti, Lata dreams of the success of her crusade against colossal bureaucratic injustice.

The blurb on the book informs that “cause is everything” for Basu. No one is complaining about that. But a novel cannot pass off successfully simply on account of the cause harnessed to it. That would be putting the cart before the horse. The author is the least concerned about portraying interpersonal relationships in a tribal community.

The only pièce de résistance is the episode in a makeshift hut in the forest between Mahesh and Indu that provides glimpses of their conjugal love. The various shades of a riparian culture, replete with myths and legends, taboos and superstitions, hardly receive adequate attention from the author.    


 
 
SOLVING THE TEXT CASE/BOOKWISE 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 
Two hard facts. Academic books are famously boring and higher scholarship notoriously pointless. In the fine old tradition of academic studies, subjects are either boring or incomprehensible or both. Plots of plays and novels are recounted, philosophies are watered down or thickened, histories are re-written from this or that point of view to persuade us of the need for professional expertise. Such volumes, especially from Indian publishers, appear every week and remind us of Sartre’s telling phrase, “the passionate pride of the mediocre.”

Because academic books cater to a niche market that is both small and widely scattered (the scattering makes marketing costs prohibitively expensive), the print runs are small compared to, say, broad spectrum studies that would cater to a wider audience. Even gross profit tends to remain small because the usual cost:price formula of the unit cost of production multiplied four times would price the book out of the market. Even our libraries can’t possibly buy anything and everything that comes down the publishing pike.

Put both these facts together and you would understand why many academic books are subsidized. But even that is becoming increasingly difficult to come by as funding organizations like the Indian Council of Social Science Research, Indian Council of Historical Research, University Grants Commission, National Book Trust are themselves strapped for cash. So publishers have to fall back on their own lists that have been established over the years. (Real profits always come from reprints, where the initiation and plant costs have been covered in the first printing.)

For instance, the real profit centres of Oxford University Press’s mammoth list are its reference and school textbooks’ division. Its academic division can possibly sustain itself, but not much besides. OUP’s dictionaries, its school atlas, its English language texts and supplementaries account for a substantial percentage of its annual turnover and profit. Without this backlist, its academic division would be down-sized as also its operating costs. The same could be said for the others where 1:5 success rate is considered to be very good.

But with increasing business pressures, higher operating and manufacturing costs, the 1:5 formula has come under severe strain. The argument of the accountants and marketing divisions is simple: if a section of the list isn’t profitable, or if the volume of business it generates is small, is it worth continuing with it?

For instance, if a scholarly work like Lay Concepts of Illness: Some Case Studies has a printing of 750 copies, sells 500 copies over two years at a discounted price of Rs 500 and therefore brings in Rs 25,000, is it worth all the time and effort, when the same could have been expended on a sure-shot seller, somewhat lower down the academic pecking order? The counter-argument that 100 such titles sold on the same basis would bring in Rs 2500,000 would still not cut much ice when the alternative prospects are so much better. You could rail against the current managerial diction, the sheer gutlessness of contemporary intellectual publishing, but it gets you nowhere at a time when subsidies is a dirty word.

What, then, is the future of academic publishing? It will be increasingly difficult unless academic publishers can find an export market for at least half its projected print run. The home market, which has more than a symbiotic relationship with a moribund university system, simply isn’t enough to carry it through. In real terms this means that not only have subjects to be relevant but the quality of writing must have the sting and flair, the cheerfulness and honest rage of good journalism. Also, academic divisions have to trim their sails because only then can their costs be covered. If you look around, all this is already happening because the market is all; “who comes, who goes” doesn’t really matter.    

 

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