Editorial 1/Duo decided
Editorial 2/Creeping future
The party’s always on
Letters to the Editor
Inspired by visions of the unequal/Book review
Relations across the border/Book review
Hurricane tour through time/Book review
Food not just for thought/Editor’s choice

Winning the Democratic and Republican party nominations in the United States used to take more out of the contestants than the actual battle for the White House. The favoured sons of their party establishments, Mr Al Gore and Mr George W. Bush, tried to avoid these debilitating battles by frontloading the primaries. This year, over 60 per cent of the combined party delegates will be chosen by mid-March. In 1976 this mark was passed only in June. The frontloading paid off in the just concluded March 7 primaries. On “super Tuesday’’ Democrats went to the polls in 15 states and the Republicans in 11. Three of the biggest states voted. The results: the mainstream candidates have all but won the nominations and the underdogs are out of the race. Mr Gore’s rival, Mr Bill Bradley, resigned from the race. After March 7, Mr Gore’s 1,424 delegates were three times more than Mr Bradley’s and just 750 delegates short of victory. Mr Bush did as well on Tuesday. With 617 delegates compared to the 231 of his main rival, Mr John McCain, Mr Bush can expect his challenger to also withdraw.

The US presidential campaign, which in the past has not begun until after summer, will now begin in spring. Mr Gore and Mr Bush have already begun sniping at each other. The polls indicate that besides shaking off the underdogs, the main fallout of the primary battles has been to put Mr Gore on top of the polls. The reason is simple. The US electorate is roughly one third Democrat and one third Republican. In the middle lie independent voters who do not see themselves attached to either party and choose candidates on the basis of issues. Dominating the political centre — taking most independents and holding onto the party faithful — is the winning formula for any US president. Mr Bush, with his “compassionate conservatism’’ agenda, held that position when the primaries began. Then he was ambushed by a strong attack by the even more moderate Mr McCain. To defend himself, Mr Bush moved rightward on issues like abortion, gun control and tax cuts. He rallied the conservative voters to his flag but lost the independents. Mr Gore shifted as well, but further right. Mr Bradley wooed minorities and workers by promising a national health service and more welfare spending. Mr Gore responded by preaching fiscal rectitude and winning the independent vote. Mr Gore is now the candidate of the centre. Opinion polls show he has wiped out Mr Bush’s once hefty poll lead. If Mr Gore holds on to the centre, pundits believe the White House will be his for the taking.

Given the many months that lie between now and November, it is not too late for Mr Bush to try and refashion himself as a compassionate conservative again. Right after the Tuesday primaries he began preaching education reform and racial harmony. He also has by far the deeper pockets of the two candidates. But it will be an uphill task. By moving right and commanding the middle of the road, Mr Gore has mimicked exactly what Mr Bill Clinton did in his 1992 and 1996 presidential victories. Mr Gore is more than ever a continuation of the presidency of his predecessor. Which may not be a bad thing given that Mr Clinton still commands record high approval ratings with Americans.    

A parasite is enough to eat into a blooming tree. The Left Front which enjoys power in West Bengal might discover the truth of this with the threats being uttered by the Communist Party of India. The CPI is miffed that it is not being offered a Rajya Sabha seat which it believes rightfully belongs to the party. In what it thinks is retaliation, the CPI initially threatened to withdraw completely from the Left Front but later modified its position to giving up the two ministries it holds in West Bengal. The CPI’s position, not to put too fine a point on it, is a trifle untenable. It is time the CPI stopped living in a world of illusion. It has no independent political clout. It rides piggyback on the Left Front and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Its claim that the Rajya Sabha seat held by Mr Gurudas Dasgupta should remain with the CPI because Mr Dasgupta is a competent and effective legislator is hollow. Mr Dasgupta, or any other candidate of the CPI, will find it impossible to win an election in West Bengal without the support of the CPI(M) and the Left Front. Without the Left Front, the CPI faces oblivion. It is good that the Left Front has decided to call the CPI’s bluff and has not succumbed to what can only be described as blackmailing tactics.

Having said that, it should be noted that the Left Front needs to read the signs with some care. The secret of the left’s success in West Bengal since 1977 is unity. The Left Front does not allow the left votes to be split. This ensures its electoral success. A splinter from the front, however small, can be dangerous. The CPI has been the first to pose such a danger. A crack has appeared and has, for the time being, been papered over. But the Left Front cannot afford to ignore it and has to take steps to stop more such cracks. Leaders of the Left Front cannot be unaware of the emergence of Ms Mamata Banerjee as a pretender to the chief ministership and of the uncertainties inherent in a post-Mr Jyoti Basu situation. If the allies need the Left Front, the latter needs the allies as well. Communists might ponder the dialectics of this relationship.    

What a diverting little game was being played out over the Gujarat government’s decision to lift the ban on government employees joining the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Rallies, protests, outrage, clumsy attempts to appear politically adept by trying to get a debate in the Lok Sabha under Rule 184 — and all for something that every party which has been in power in the Centre and in the states has vigorously promoted, covertly or overtly.

The Congress may not have openly advocated that government employees join its front organizations, but it did not really need to. Many employees were de facto Congress supporters, some openly and others as a matter of course; some of them held the highest positions in the government and were suitably rewarded with various sinecures after they retired.

But those were the times when it seemed the Congress would remain in power forever, and the line between being a patriotic, if passive, supporter of the freedom struggle and of the Congress appeared to many bureaucrats to be either very thin or non-existent. If, in later years, the line became much clearer, the enterprising bureaucrat chose not to see it, keeping his eyes fixed steadfastly on the loaves and fishes of office after retirement, as on life after death.

Then, with the passage of time, there was the advent of our revolutionary comrades of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who, in West Bengal and Kerala, established associations of government employees which were brought under the umbrella of an organization now known as the co-ordination committee. It was, and is, blatantly, openly political; with office bearers who were and, in all likelihood, still are fulltime members of the CPI(M).

The thousands of babus in the state governments were not just encouraged to join these organizations, they were persuaded to do so by a variety of methods which included threats and, on occasion, physical violence. Quick to learn from this, the Congress also set up their associations, and used similar persuasive methods to get some of the wretched clerks and peons to join; but like most Congress organizations these associations rapidly took to squabbling among themselves and, even if they did not actually fall apart, gave every semblance of having done so.

All this is, apparently, acceptable. But when a Bharatiya Janata Party government takes a leaf out of a book so shamelessly put together by the self-styled “progressive” lot, there is a rending of garments and gnashing of teeth. Neither need one take too seriously the defence of the Gujarat government’s action by the prime minister declaring the RSS a cultural organization. Hypocrisy has all but drowned the deed itself, and one can leave Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi to cover themselves in glory as they accuse each other of selling the country out.

Party ideologues will, no doubt, trot out some elaborate casuistry to explain all this. It is, of course, the stuff of politics; seek out an issue, then drum up a campaign if your wise advisers counsel you that the time is ripe for it, and then let yourself go. Later, there will be other issues, and other campaigns, and many shrewd calculations on political gains and losses will be made. Fortunately, one need not waste any time or energy on this for the moment.

What one does need to consider is why a government employee has necessarily to be apolitical. While there is no instant answer, as there was in colonial times, there is one, one that needs a little formulation. There are some matters which are considered sensitive, matters relating to defence, for example, or to delicate investigations of drug rackets or of the wealth amassed by the dishonest. These have to be handled by officials whose primary commitment is to the task in hand, not to their political gurus. Even with other matters, not sensitive in these terms, one needs to be even handed, and seen to be so. A politically committed official would not inspire confidence in people in matters relating, say, to some clearance, or a licence, or whatever, and, in any case, there is then good fodder available for agitation should one be dissatisfied by a decision, no matter how valid it is.

But then there is the second question that has to be answered. How does one ensure that an official is not politically swayed in his work? Only the most guileless will believe that our bureaucrats become supporters of one or the other political party because they join a particular association which has political affiliations. And it may very well be better if one knows that a government employee is a member of a political organization than to assume he is not when he is actually, covertly a politically committed man. If one knows who the political ones are, the more sensitive issues that a government has to face can then be entrusted to the apolitical ones.

This, of course, assumes that there is a divide between what are considered matters of state and the interests of political bodies. A divide that may be noisily contested, for where are there greater patriots than in our political parties? Where, indeed. There is, nonetheless, a divide, one which exists in democracies far older and sturdier than our own, and a clear distinction between matters which concern the state as against those which concern the party or parties in power.

Consequently, if matters of state are to be handled with competence and due care, the people doing so must have no other commitments, no other loyalties, which take precedence over his commitments to the public issues he is handling, at whatever level.

It is here that the real and near insoluble problem arises. The strictly apolitical attitudes and commitments must come from those political men and women who are entrusted with the affairs of the state. It is they who must make the distinction, and enforce them. No law and no rule can do this. Only ministers in the state and central governments, who take their oath of office seriously, and not only make it very clear that they expect those working in their ministries and departments to put state considerations first, but actually do so themselves. It is, firstly and finally, a matter of precept and example.

It becomes an insoluble problem because this is not wholly in the hands of ministers, who are, after all, members of their various parties. Pressures on them can, and do, prove impossible to withstand, because increasingly, life after being a minister is now not merely possible but very probable. The responsibility must, then, widen and be accepted by the parties themselves.

And that is why the problem is virtually impossible to overcome. When a man like Nitish Kumar, erstwhile leader of the Samata Party, who has been known and respected for so long as a man of principles, solicits the support of criminals because he cannot resist the lure of chief ministership, there is little chance of anything changing. A seasoned, cynical bureaucrat, who had seen all manner of political leaders, once said in Bengali, “Remember, all these brothers-in-law are the same.” All one can do is keep hoping he was wrong.

The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting    


Exercise in futility

Sir — Yashwant Sinha’s budget is about as visionary as A.B. Vajpayee’s mask — both leaders get their unpalatable agenda fulfilled under wraps. In last year’s budget, Sinha had said that the surcharge on direct and indirect taxes was only for a year. He would turn the tide of the economy overnight: bring down the fiscal deficit to comfortable levels and raise the gross domestic product to phenomenal ones because he was the able finance minister under an able prime minister. A bagful of excuses was all the rationale he came up with for his failure to make good his tall claims. The worst hit by Sinha’s pottering around with the economy is the salaried middle class. On the one hand, the income tax exemption limit remains fixed at Rs 50,000; on the other, savings are less lucrative because of lower interest rates. What does the salaried class, which does not have undisclosed incomes like big businessmen, do? Sinha can find poetry in the unmanageable fiscal deficit, but what about those who have to live within their incomes?

Yours faithfully,
Hrita Ganguly, Howrah

Guardian angel

Sir — Those up in arms against the chief vigilance commissioner for doing his job are oblivious of the fact their action is going to have a negative impact on society. A few months ago, when the commissioner demanded the publication of the list of corporate defaulters, the press presented a wrong picture of the matter. The commissioner seemed more concerned about insignificant issues than trying to work out ways to tackle the problem of non-profitable assets that were draining public sector banks.

The unconventional step of publishing the list would have shown that the government meant business. But the Reserve Bank of India, which was in two minds about the move, finally backed out. The commissioner’s recommendations were thus unceremoniously buried, much to the joy of the corporate defaulters.

At present, the display on the website of the names of officials against whom action is pending seems to have raised another storm. The commissioner’s pursuit of decades old corruption has created a dangerous coalition of affected politicians and bureaucrats who are running the campaign against him. Errors on the site are being bandied about to distract attention from the main issue. Completely illogical statements are also being made to somehow influence public opinion against the commissioner. For example, it is being said the summoning of heads of public sector undertakings by the Central vigilance commission would affect the decisionmaking process in PSUs. The truth is that if the commission allowed inquiries to linger, the interests of PSUs would suffer more.

It is surprising that even a senior Bharatiya Janata Party functionary has gone to the extent of charging the commissioner of irresponsible behaviour. It is ironical the media too should have joined in the shouting down of N. Vittal.

The Central vigilance commission and the comptroller and auditor general of India are two high ranking authorities enjoined to ensure efficient administration in the country. The chief vigilance commissioner should be allowed to function unhindered.

Yours faithfully,
S. Subramanyan, Mumbai

Sir — The chief vigilance commissioner has adopted an unwholesome stance regarding the matter of corruption in general and corrupt officials in particular. His internet website with the list of the corrupt might be welcome to the general public. However, he appears to have ignored the possibility that it might be found offensive by the men being named. The commissioner should realize that they shun publicity at all costs. Haven’t they been seen shielding themselves from the camera as they move in and out of courts of law?

The CVC would be well advised to let his professional zeal give way to common sense, and thus avert the possibility of inviting the collective displeasure of this brood. The corrupt in government possess unimaginable power and clout — two things that could ruin the career of the commissioner.

Yours faithfully,
Bhalchandrarao C. Patwardhan, via e-mail

Sir — N. Vittal has added the names of Indian Forest Service officers to the earlier list of Indian Administrative Service and Indian Police Service officers on the website. One should recall that in his former post as secretary, department of electronics, Vittal had cultivated the media assiduously. His current efforts to stay in the limelight are therefore not surprising. The office of the chief vigilance commissioner needs a person with a judicial background and not a publicity hungry bureaucrat. Instead of projecting a holier than thou image and posting hundreds of names of allegedly corrupt officers on the internet, let Vittal bring to book a single corrupt official. His office has already been responsible for several blunders. He should stop misusing the information highway.

Yours faithfully,
D. Basu, Calcutta

Sir — N.Vittal has adopted the modern management practice of transparency by going on the net with the names of those bureaucrats against whom cases are pending. This might not be successful in embarrassing the persons named. They may become the laughing stocks in their own fraternity for not being clever enough to escape inquiry.

People who abuse their office do not fear governmental machinery or public opinion. But one fallout of publicity is that these names will be noticed by another cancerous element in the body politic — the extortionist.

Yours faithfully,
M.R. Pai, Mumbai

Ancient rights

Sir — Tezpur is probably the most ancient of all towns in Assam. Incidentally, railway facilities in this town remain as ancient. Things have improved very little since a small gauge on a 21 mile track was introduced in 1873 connecting Tezpur and Balipara. Lal Bahadur Shastri extended this connection. On the medium gauge from Rangapara north to Tezpur, the Indian Railways runs a one coach shuttle. This travels between the two stations every day with a small load of travellers and some cargo. A diesel engine moves at a snail’s pace stopping at four wayside stations.

Contrast this with the fact that on an average 200 passengers, mostly army personnel, seek reservation from Guwahati to different destinations on broad gauge trains 200 kilometres away by travelling in buses and trucks. Plans for conversion to broad gauge lines have been delayed by 15 years.

It is a pity Indian Railways has laid the foundation for a road-cum-rail bridge across the Brahmaputra at Bogibeel for a circuitous rail network via Tinsukia four year ago. Let us hope work gets started on it before this year runs out. The railways minister, Mamata Banerjee, should remember that with a proper railway connection, this 4,000 year old northeastern town with its rich heritage could attract a lot of pilgrims and tourists and thereby earn revenue for the railways.

Yours faithfully,
Purnanarayan Sinha, Tezpur

Sir — The Indian government time and again needs to be reminded of the miseries faced by the people of the Northeast. People in remote areas in the region still have to carry their products over long distances to sell them in the market and buy food from faraway places for survival. Patients have to be carried from the suburbs to hospitals. The means of communication, the state of education and health care are appalling.

All this while our representatives to the government lead a luxurious life in big cities. Yet we have a Constitution which guarantees equal rights to all. We, the backward people living in the remote corners of the republic, need to be assured of our rights to a better life.

Yours faithfully,
Dimgonglung Rougmei, Tamenglong, Manipur

Letters to the Editor should be sent to:
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Institutions and Inequalities: essays in honour of andre beteille
Edited by Ramachandra Guha and Jonathan Parry, Oxford, Rs 595

By its very nature, a festschrift is a disarming genre of writing. Essays written as homage to a venerable scholar combine elements of intellectual and emotional tribute. To be critical of them would somehow seem to be in bad taste, an affront to the scholar thus honoured and to the sentiments of those doing the honouring.

Happily, this dilemma does not haunt in the case of the volume of essays published in honour of Professor Andre Beteille, who retired recently after 40 years at the department of sociology, University of Delhi. Beteille’s career as a teacher and writer inspired and provoked two generations of sociologists, eleven of whom have contributed substantial essays that engage with the enduring themes of Beteille’s work.

Beteille’s abiding interest in the grand sociological theme of inequality is attributed in part to his personal history. As the child of a Bengali mother and French father in Chandannagore, Beteille grew up amidst mixed cultural traditions. The intersecting worlds of the “dislocated French colonial” and the “modernizing Indian”, with their different value systems, made him conscious of the contingent nature of social rankings. Inequality may be explicitly justified and practised as in the case of casteist Hindu society.

Inequality may be denied as an ideology yet manifested in practice, as in American racism. Beteille’s liminal position provided him with a vantage point from which to analyse both. It also enabled him to take on the sociologist Louis Dumont who had argued that modern Europe represents homo equalis and timeless India homo hierarchicus. Beteille argued that no society is completely marked by equality or inequality. It is the interplay of the two within each society that is of interest to the sociologist.

Despite his sensitivity to the various manifestations of social inequality, Beteille has maintained an abiding scepticism towards most programmes for its removal. His opinions on this issue, which had earlier fallen foul of prevailing norms of political correctness, are now part of the reigning consensus. The shifts in dominant ideology have, however, failed to engage with the substance of Beteille’s argument. According to him, there is a tension between “the meritarian principle” which emphasizes the rights of individuals to rewards for their abilities and achievements, and “the compensatory principle” which asserts that the state must redress imbalances in the incomes or opportunities of social groups. Beteille believes that all modern societies must seek a balance between these two principles; the danger in Indian society is that the compensatory principle has prevailed at the expense of the meritarian. Beteille’s opposition to reservation policies must be seen in this context.

Beteille’s views strive to keep sight of the individual in Indian society, an entity all too often perceived only as a member of a collectivity. If group identity is the only determinant of a person’s rights and entitlements, if merit is measured only in terms of the status of the group to which one belongs, then the pursuit of equality becomes even harder. Caste and community continue to prevail over the individual. The way out, for Beteille, lies in strengthening “intermediate institutions” or those secular spaces such as the judiciary, universities, corporations, and other voluntary associations which are based on principles other than ascription. Membership to these institutions is not meant to be determined by the circumstances of one’s birth; by increasing their autonomy one can guarantee the future of the rights of the individual.

In his concise and lucid summary of Beteille’s oeuvre, Guha highlights important facets of this scholar’s perspective, including his commitment to intellectual clarity. The scholar’s vocation is dear to Beteille, more precious by far than partisanship, which he calls “an adventure of a special kind”. It is thus a fitting tribute to Beteille’s tolerance of difference and plurality that several essays in this volume employ his methods and his approach to reach conclusions which differ from his.

A healthy note of dispute is evident in Jonathan Parry’s essay on Satnami (scheduled caste) workers employed by the public sector Bhilai steel plant in Madhya Pradesh. Through a detailed account of the effect of reservations on the work and domestic lives of workers, Parry points to the gradual erasing of caste stigma. Contrary to Beteille’s apprehensions, reservations do not seem to have impaired the efficiency of the factory either. Parry’s minutely observed ethnography makes a persuasive case for positive discrimination.

Dipankar Gupta also engages with Beteille’s analysis of institutions to offer a divergent perspective on the rights of the individual. He points out that the emphasis on intermediate institutions puts Beteille in the company of scholars who have jettisoned the state as an agent of social change and put all their faith behind civil society. Gupta traces the roots of the idea of civil society and shows how the idea of the citizen is inseparable from the notion of a state that upholds the rights and aspirations of all individuals.

A fear that state power is used, only too often, to pander to the worst forms of discrimination forms the core of Nandini Sundar’s essay on identity and inequality in the Indian census. State attempts to erase inequality form the subject of Caroline Humphrey’s absorbing comparison between communist regimes in Russia and China. The juxtaposition of this study with others in the volume that deal primarily with India, offers an unusual perspective for the comparative sociology that Beteille believes in.

Beteille’s concern for the symbolic and ideological aspects of power and inequality is reflected in the essay by C.J. Fuller on the dispersal of Brahminical values in Tamil society and in Vinay Srivastava’s account of renunciation among the Raika, a caste of camel-pastoralists in Rajasthan. Both the studies, together with Jan Breman’s diary of Ahmedabad during communal riots, serve to highlight the complexity of social shifts. Their refutation of easy categorizations and simplistic analyses is true to the tradition that Beteille has upheld.    

A Diplomat’s Diary (1947-1999)
By T.N. Kaul, Macmillan, Rs 345

This book explores relations between India, China and the United States during the last 50 years. Though the title refers to it as a diary, A Diplomat’s Diary is more akin to random jottings. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and the consequent increase in the importance of south Asia demands better understanding between India and China in which, the author feels, the US can play a significant role.

Kaul has served as Indian ambassador in important world capitals, besides being instrumental in several negotiations. As a result, A Diplomat’s Diary emerges out of his experiences in the US, former Soviet Union and China. But the book is more about China and India — China has the lion’s share —with the US looming large over the relationship.

Kaul does not write like a diplomat. His sincerity is evident in his wish to see China and India come closer in spite of past inhibitions and hurdles. The critical and the humanitarian selves of Kaul somehow balance each other. He witnessed the worst side of the state machinery in Nikita Kruschev’s Russia and Mao Zedong’s China, which can perhaps explain why he seems to be more at home writing about people than about countries.

A Diplomat’s Diary is not for the expert. Kaul has no intentions of exploring the intricacies of international relationships. From the beginning he adopts a clear approach and writes for the unenlightened. The historical overview and simple analyses of the complex art of diplomacy especially during the Cold War era enhances the book’s readability. Kaul’s term in China equipped him to understand the Chinese mentality. Thus his advice to the Indians on dealing with an important neighbour carries weight.

He also reminisces about India during the last three decades. As far as Sino-Indian relations are concerned, Kaul’s message is clear: the two countries must strive for a common base. However, his denial of importance to Russia denies readers the opportunity to know the country from a person with a direct knowledge of it. Besides candid and clear assessments, the book gives readers a glimpse into the mind of an Indian diplomat who witnessed the makings of history from close quarters.    

Time and Tide: 1000 Great Events That Shaped the World,
By Tanmoy Bhattacharyea, Calcutta Creative Printers, Rs 500

The contributors of Time and Tide list 1000 of the most significant events from 1500 BC to 1999 AD. The editor claims that the book, rather than being analytical or focussed on the subaltern quest, studies a milestones in the human progress into civilization and tries to “make transparent both the processes and agents of social construction”.

The earliest civilization began in 4000 BC. By 3500 BC, human beings had discovered copper and bronze. In 3100 BC the Egyptian civilization emerged, followed by the Minoan and the Indus Valley civilizations.

Even before the signs of decline of the Egyptians, the Aryans ushered in a new civilization in India and the Greeks in Greece. The 500 years from 1000 to 500 BC witnessed the rise of some of the world’s great poets and thinkers.

The authors present the events between one and 500 AD as belonging primarily to the Roman empire and the birth and spread of Christianity. In the intellectual and creative spheres, Gandhara art flourished under Kanishka in India and Ptolemy of Alexandria displayed his brilliance in astronomy, music and geography. While the Han dynasty collapsed in China, the golden age of India began with the Gupta empire.

After Christianity came Islam. Soon the Islamic empire was stretching from Afghanistan to central Europe and Arabia. The Christian world also expanded in the west, successfully resisting the advance of Islam.

With the advance in technology, human daring and inquisitiveness led to exploration by land and sea. At the same time the Christian and the Muslim worlds clashed in one crusade after another in Europe.

The compilers feel that the 200 years from 1500 to 1700 effected the emergence of what we now call modernity. 1700 to 1999 was the era of colonial expansion and imperialism in both the hemispheres.

The contributors rightly observe that the second millennium has been remarkable in that it witnessed astounding advances in science and technology as well as unprecedented devastation in the two World Wars. Time and Tide is a useful reference book for students and for those interested in wide sweeps of history.    

The Oxford Companion to Food
By Alan Davidson, Oxford, Rs 1,695

Food is inextricably linked to human life. This is not because it is essential for human survival but because it has become embedded in culture and the enjoyment of life in general. Food is part of daily life and of celebration; part of ritual and mythology. Varieties of food and attitudes towards it are infinite. This companion, the result of 20 years of hard work by an acknowledged authority who received help and advice from a body of experts, is the food lover’s ultimate delight since it allows gourmets to savour global delicacies without venturing out from the study or without even getting out of bed.

First the nitty-gritties. This tome has 2,650 alphabetically arranged entries. To these are added 40 feature articles highlighting staple foods of the world. There is an extensive bibliography and many of the entries have suggestions for further reading at the end. There is everything here from soup to nuts or to Bengalify the statement, from achar to rossogolla. The approach adopted is historical. Davidson tells readers how a particular food item originated and moved. He dwells on ancient and medieval dietary habits and foodstuffs as well.

This approach can be exemplified by summarizing (and this is a random choice) what the companion has to say on Stilton cheese. The full cream milk from which this blue cheese is made comes from English dairy herds in the district of Melton Mowbray and surrounding areas falling within the counties of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. The Bell Inn on the Great North Road in the village of Stilton was, in the first quarter of the 18th century, the main outlet for this cheese which was locally called Quenby cheese. Quenby was 30 miles away, but as travellers were accustomed to buying the cheese at the Bell Inn, it took on the name of Stilton. In the 18th and 19th centuries very few farmhouses maintained the tradition of making Stilton cheese and there have not been many producers in the 20th.

Yet in 1980, 8,000 tons were produced. Davidson disparages the practice of pouring port into a Stilton and quotes Mrs Beeton with approval: “that cheese is the finest which is ripened without any artificial aid’’. There is also valuable advice here on cutting Stilton. There exists also a white Stilton, an unblued variety which apparently has “pleasant characteristics’’.

The strength of the historical approach is most evident in the section on India where the Oxford Companion scores over its own rival in the market, Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Cookery Encyclopaedia. For one thing, the Companion devotes greater space and points to the diversity of cuisines It records how the history of food in India is related to the intermingling of cultures. Very perceptively, it notes that in India there exists “the conception of a meal’’. There are separate entries on Kashmiri and Parsi and on various items of Indian food (including one on panch phoron). Plus there are entries on Hinduism and food and on the dietary aspects of Jainism.

There are two aspects on which the Companion is different from the Larousse Gastronomique. One is, there are no recipes and the other is the absence of wine as accompaniment. Davidson is a non-drinker. But the sense of discovery which overtakes the reader of this book will make him forget these small absences. Do you know what is “Sonofabitch stew’’ and a “Snickerdoodle’’? Dip into the Companion to find out.    


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