Editorial 1\Line drawing
Editorial 2\Jungle bonds
Rightful pessimism
Letters to the Editor
Taste of power/Book review
New Labour and all that froth/Book review
Fighters by nature or nurture/Book review
Progressive storytelling/Book review
Get tangled in the net/Bookwise

 
 
EDITORIAL 1\LINE DRAWING 
 
 
 
 
In the runup to the visit of the United States president, Mr Bill Clinton, his administration is spelling out Washington’s post-Cold War approach to south Asia. A facet of this policy’s attitude to Kashmir was revealed recently by the US secretary of state, Ms Madeleine Albright. She said the Kashmir conflict had been “fundamentally transformed” by the overt nuclearization of India and Pakistan. Washington’s overriding concern is that Kashmir be at peace. In a reference to Kargil, Ms Albright said there must be no “attempt to change borders or zones of occupation through armed force”. It seems likely Mr Clinton may ask the Pakistani dictator, Mr Pervez Musharraf, to support last year’s July 4 promise by his predecessor, Mr Nawaz Sharif, to respect the line of control’s sanctity. Ms Albright spoke of the need for “tangible steps” to respect the LoC. Washington has made policy what it practised during Kargil. Namely, to view the waging of conventional warfare in a nuclearized environment as an unacceptable threat to international stability. Supported by a recent Central Intelligence Agency estimate that south Asia came close to a nuclear exchange during Kargil, Washington has decided any attempt to alter the status quo in Kashmir by violence is too dangerous to be tolerated.

The US continues to believe Kashmir is the main cause for bad blood between India and Pakistan. India insists the subcontinent is not a nuclear flashpoint and Kashmir not a disputed territory. But the continuing insurgency, Kargil and India’s own limited war rhetoric undermine this claim. The world believes, Mr Clinton recently said, that south Asia is the most likely place for a nuclear war. But Pakistan’s attachment to risky tactics has changed US views on how the dispute should be managed. This is actually the product of an evolving US stance on Kashmir. The US gave up on diplomatic initiatives to stitch together Kashmir solutions in the Sixties. After the 1972 Shimla accord, Washington also adopted India’s stance that Kashmir was best left to bilateralism. When the US dispatched its deputy national security advisor, Mr Robert Gates, to defuse a perceived nuclear scare in 1990, he told India that the US no longer supported calls for a plebiscite. However, Pakistan clung to the belief internationalization would automatically mean its getting control of the vale. This underpinned the entire Kargil operation. But the US made it clear to Islamabad that no aggression could be rewarded in a nuclear atmosphere. If the world intervened in Kargil, the US warned, it would not be to Pakistan’s advantage. Violating the LoC was no more acceptable than Mr Saddam Hussein’s crossing the Iraq-Kuwait border. This view has been made public by Ms Albright.

But India is also caught in a time warp over Kashmir. Its fervent refusal to accept any third party mediation or even facilitation regarding Kashmir is partially driven by obsolete policy concerns. Mr Clinton’s own offers to act as an intermediary have been angrily spurned by New Delhi. There is no evidence the US president, despite his role in Northern Ireland and west Asia, has much to offer when it comes to Kashmir. But India must recognize words alone will not convince the world Kashmir is not a tinderbox. The US has changed its stance on Kashmir to reflect new realities. And its shift has endorsed many of India’s positions. New Delhi must also recognize that its own dogma needs adjustments following Pokhran and the Chagai hills.    


 
 
EDITORIAL 2\JUNGLE BONDS 
 
 
 
 
The first phase of a tumultuous, entertaining and violent saga comes to an end. The week-old ministry in Bihar, headed by Ms Rabri Devi, has sailed through yesterday’s trust vote. This is, more than anything else, a numerical triumph. The winning numbers for the Rashtriya Janata Dal-led alliance have been marshalled and precariously sustained with spectacular deftness by the party chief, Mr Laloo Prasad Yadav. The game of numbers will now give way to the formation of a coalition ministry, the configuration of which will be determined to a significant extent by the RJD’s largest ally, the Congress.

The parenthesis of time between the governor’s inviting Mr Nitish Kumar and Ms Rabri Devi’s winning a majority in the vote of confidence is, in a sense, the result of Congress action — or inaction. The enigmatic delay in submitting its letter of confidence to the governor provided the latter with an excuse for acting on what can only be described, with hindsight, as his own bias. This tendency to prevaricate — suspended ineffectually between indecisiveness and deliberation — has now become an almost comfortingly familiar part of the Congress’s working culture. What gives this modus inoperandi an unsavoury dimension are the aggressive demands for ministerial portfolios which the Congress is now bullying the RJD with. Admittedly, the spectacle of a harried Mr Yadav muttering “God protect me from my friends” will be relished by most spectators of this Aristophanic drama. But the posture of principled toughness and highminded pressurizing that the Congress is trying to pull off now is hardly more credible than the projection of this alliance as a marriage of true minds. The identity the Congress is trying to forge and project as the opposition party at the Centre through a desperate, and random, grabbing of every opportunity for negative self-assertion cannot be the basis on which to stabilize a relationship with the RJD “ethic”, if such a thing can be imagined. The jungle demands a set of skills and instincts that the Congress will have to master in order to survive this new phase in its tottering attempts at recovering political agency, if not dignity.    


 
 
RIGHTFUL PESSIMISM 
 
 
BY ACHIN VANAIK
 
 
There is the old saw about how it is always better to be a pessimist rather than an optimist. If a pessimist is wrong he can always retain the aura of wisdom and say “wait and see”. When the optimist is proved wrong he simply looks foolish. Be that as it may, there are very good reasons to be pessimistic rather than optimistic about the future of the global order.

Since most pessimists are leftists they are less likely, in these days of socialist decline and disarray, to be given a patient hearing. Their central message — that the failure of historical socialism doesn’t mean existing capitalism is performing well — is for the most part ignored. What is much needed, therefore, against the Fukuyamas of the world or the derivative “wisdoms” of Indian pro-liberalizers, is a strong and sensible pessimism of the right. This is only likely to take place if the right stops congratulating itself in the aftermath of communist collapse and takes a long, hard and honest look at the mess we are in.

One major figure of the intellectual right in Britain, John Gray, in a recent book, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, has tried to do just that and, unsurprisingly, has evoked the fury of many a liberal and conservative alike. He first rubbed rightwingers the wrong way when he launched a furious attack on Thatcherism, decrying it for its absurd faith in an untrammelled market system. He now extends the assault by excoriating the United States for making neo-liberalism the expression of its own national identity and championing this form of economic globalization as the only way forward for the world order. This is nothing less than a recipe for global disaster and if it persists will exact its revenge in terms of wars, social breakdown and impoverishment on a scale that will rival in its own way the tragedies of the 20th century.

His own basic argument owes a great deal to the views of two former pessimists about the future of capitalism, one on the left and the other on the right — namely Karl Polanyi and Joseph Schumpeter. The former always insisted that far from being “natural”, the dominant and pervasive “market economy” of capitalism is both new and extremely unnatural.

Throughout human history, market relations were always embedded and subordinated to a wider structure of social relations which were not governed by market or commercial or profit or exchange principles. It was only capitalism that had an ineluctable tendency to expand market relations indefinitely so as to weaken, destroy and then replace other non-market social relations by its own principles and values of organization. So disruptive was this tendency that there was no way society as a whole could cope without strong countervailing forces to control and contain market forces. Indeed the positive successes of capitalism was only made possible by the fact of this control and ability to prevent this dynamic from getting out of hand, that is, the market economy is prevented from establishing a market society. Since this was ultimately a losing battle, socialism was the only hope and answer.

For Schumpeter, the basic power of capitalism came from being a “gale of creative destruction”, except that as the 20th century proceeded apace Schumpeter believed the destructive dimension was increasingly outweighing the creative one. Socialism was neither the hope nor the answer, but probably unavoidable given this capitalist dynamic. Gray has jettisoned their beliefs either in the need for — or in the eventual triumph of — socialism, but strongly endorses their respective understandings of the nature of capitalism, if left uncontrolled.

His hostility to the untrammelled market and its associated ideology of neo-liberalism is unequivocal and uncompromising. If the American economy is the forerunner of the shape of things to come globally, then just look at the disaster that is the US today. There is, behind the facade of middle and upper class prosperity (the much touted boom), economic and social polarization at levels unprecedented in its history as an advanced industrial democracy; accumulating ecological tensions; atrocious levels of crime and anomie; the breakdown of collective human support systems; and so on.

Fortunately, the US will not succeed in imposing its neo-liberal model on the rest of the world because the very process of trying to do so will unleash unacceptable levels of social and political turmoil. However, that does not mean things will not be bad. They will be, unless the neo-liberal form of globalization is consciously and successfully opposed at the level of ideas and ideology as well as on the level of policies. Only then will we be able to salvage what is desirable — “national or regional varieties of capitalism”. Admittedly, this is very difficult because financial globalization has rendered all forms of Keynesian-style national-level macro-management untenable. So, from whence will the resistance come? Since Gray writes off the socialist project and doesn’t have much faith in the power of resistance from below, he has to hope for a change of mind and heart from above, by those who today are the votaries of neo-liberalism or at least passive accomplices in its predominance.

Thus Gray pins his hopes — or more correctly, his fears — on some kind of catastrophic denouement or crisis of the global economic system comparable to the Great Depression of the Thirties, which will shock dominant elites in the advanced countries, pushing them to institute mechanisms of global governance particularly in regard to finance and capital movements. Along with this there must be a sustained ideological assault on all Enlightenment-inspired utopias of some rationally organized global civilization, be this the utopia of socialism or of the wondrous powers of a worldwide free market system.

The strength of Gray’s critique is his welcome insistence that neo-liberalism and genuine democratic existence are not allies but enemies and incompatibles. This runs counter to all those arguments which try to make out that human freedom can only be strengthened by enhancing the “freedom” of the market. Gray recognizes the importance of what the left has always said — that the true nature of the market can only be grasped if the metaphor of the “free market” is balanced against that other revealing metaphor of “market forces”, that is, the compulsive and therefore “unfree” nature of the market is also acknowledged and given due weight. The weakness in Gray’s argument is that he connects the emergence of neo-liberalism more to modernity than to the nature of capitalism, more to the Enlightenment-inspired arrogance of reason than to capitalist practices and the realities of the social distribution of power between classes.

Horrified as he is, he still believes a moderated form of various indigenous capitalisms is the answer even though neither socialism nor social democracy is according to him any longer possible. The latter, he rules out because of the collapse of the strongest examples of social democracy, the Swedish and New Zealand experiments. In the name of promoting international competitiveness, the Labour party government in New Zealand, after 1984 carried out such far-reaching deregulation and privatization that the country was transformed from being a remarkable model of high welfare, low inequality, full employment society into the very opposite.

But Gray does not face up to the possibility that however bad the situation might become, a rough approximation of the crisis period of the Thirties may never take place. What then would trigger the change from above? And if capitalism itself rather than neo-liberalism or excessive Enlightenment rationalism is the main culprit, how do we progress without some kind of revival of the socialist project? Nevertheless, whatever its weaknesses, Gray’s critique possesses the inestimable virtue of shattering the all too widespread delusions of the political and ideological right itself.

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


 
 
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR 
 
 
 
 

Politics of the possible

Sir — What can be the logic behind calling the group of former ministers, formed at the initiative of V.P. Singh, a “lonely hearts club”, (“Lonely hearts’ club of former PMs”, March 3)? Are they all so desperate to find “new jobs that they chose to form a “front”? If this is so, then it is odd since all of them have different ideologies and don’t act or think alike. Besides, during their respective tenures, they did not always act in the best interests of the nation. If they are so concerned about the “various dimensions of national life” that require “urgent attention”, what prevented them from addressing these when they were in office? But, one cannot ignore the novelty of the idea of forming a front, all of whose members are former prime ministers. Yet, at the risk of sounding sceptical, it must be said that they cannot stick together for long. They have become virtual non-entities even to their own partymen. So, to start with, they should try and establish the seriousness of their endeavour. And this might be a Herculean task.

Yours faithfully,
Arta Mishra, Cuttack

Modernity’s darkest face

Sir — Kalahandi is situated in a rain-shed area and drought is a common occurrence here even when rain is aplenty in other parts of the country. During the last 40 years, the situation of the people living there has been highlighted by the media, and prime ministers have also visited the area. There is no dearth of funds to ameliorate the condition of the people. But no suitable action has been taken to ensure a permanent solution to the problems. Hence conditions here have constantly deteriorated. Bonita Podho is a case in point.

For instance, if no big hydroelectric power project can be executed owing to the geographical location, what about small lift irrigation? Digging bore wells and getting water for agriculture could also have been tried. The collector could have posted a few technicians in each panchayat to see that no sahukar or mahajan takes away the land of the small farmer. With the vast army of government employees, like the block development officer, tehsildar, agricultural extension officer, panchayat officer, village level worker, revenue supervisor, revenue inspector, amin and patwari and with plenty of money available, what are the much educated bureaucrats doing if they fail to so much as alleviate the pains of the common men and women? It appears that there is a high-level plan to not do any work that will provide a permanent solution to the problems in the area. If water is available, it is easy to imagine that few will starve, mothers will no longer have to sell their children at the village hats and the general subhuman condition of the people can be reversed.

It is also difficult to understand why Bonita Podho walked 10 kilometres a day to attend to her duties as an anganwadi worker? If she got the job of an anganwadi worker because of the sympathy of the prime minister, she could have stayed near the place of work. Kalahandi is not so thickly populated that she could not get a place to live. Besides it is also not credible that she underwent the operation of tubectomy only for a dole of Rs 120 in order to buy rice to feed her five children and husband. All propaganda, medicine and facilities available for birth control and family planning which have entered every house in the country have not been able to influence Bonita Podho, who has given birth to as many as five children within a period of 15 years. Grinding poverty, squalor and suffering are matters of great humiliation and shame for the country and the society. It is time we realized this and stopped politicizing these issues and citing them as problems that defy solutions.

Yours faithfully,
S. Rana, Ishapore

Sir — The story of Bonita Podho unmasks once more the “modern” face of India. It is sheer barbarism to gloat over the country’s nuclear and space programmes when innumerable Bonita Podhos are engaged in a gruesome battle for survival.

The yearning for technological advancement has long suppressed the desire to rescue the masses from the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy. Thanks to the guardians of the country, India is slated to become the most diverse country of the world where the United States will be easily accessible to the enlightened few while the rest continue to live in the darkness of remotest Africa.

Yours faithfully,
Kajal Chatterjee, Dhanbad

Harassed and harrowed

Sir — It would be worthwhile for others if I recounted my harrowing experience with the government railway police force. I was travelling from Durgapur to Howrah on the Agniveena Express on the morning of February 14 to send in a few applications by speedpost. With the train packed as usual, I was forced to stand near the toilet at one end of the compartment. It so happened the next one was reserved for ladies. At Bardhaman, two elderly ladies boarded the train and started shouting at a few men standing near the doors.

Suddenly a few GRP personnel got into the train. Finding no one nearby, they turned towards the vestibule where I was standing and without another word caught hold of me and shoved me onto the platform. When I asked what was my fault, they laughingly informed me that the ladies had complained against me. Despite trying to reason with them, I was locked up inside the station thana. There were two more people in the lockup, arrested under similar charges. They were labourers from Uttar Pradesh and spent the time crying.

After the constables had left, a man appeared, claiming to be the jamindar of Bardhaman court. He promised to get me out for Rs 520. I declined the offer, but soon realized this was part of a meticulous arrangement I could not escape. At 8.30 am, some constables entered the lockup and mercilessly beat up the two other persons. I had to part with the amount demanded by the bailiff without any receipt for my release.

I take the opportunity to make some other observations. First, the number of trains on the route are inadequate given the increasing number of passengers. Second, travel is made unbearable by people who claim to be “daily passengers” and occupy all seats. Any effort to resist leads to heckling. Finally, for the past few years coolies in Howrah have started occupying seats in all trains along this line with the tacit support of the GRP. They sell these off for five rupees to passengers. Any effort to stop this leads to fisticuffs and that too in the full presence of the GRP.

Yours faithfully,
Bodhisattwa Maity, Durgapur

Sir — We had some guests due to arrive by the Poorva Express from Agra on March 5. Because of the bandh called in Bihar we were anxious to know about the fate of the train. Our guests were foreigners and totally new to Calcutta. Throughout the day we tried calling, every five minutes, the Howrah enquiry on several registered lines. But we failed to get through. In the end someone had to be deputed to Howrah to keep us informed. The train ultimately came in three and a half hours late.

Mamata Banerjee could think of sending a special train to rescue a stranded chief minister. Could not the railways minister anticipate the plight of the common traveller and ensure better facilities?

Yours faithfully,
Arabinda Ray, Calcutta
   

 
 
TASTE OF POWER/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY RUDRANGSHU MUKHERJEE
 
 
Towards Freedom: Documents on the Movement for Independence in India, 1938
Edited by Basudev Chatterji, Oxford, Rs 8,500

The Towards Freedom project of the Indian Council for Historical Research is now the eye of a stormy controversy. Much of the debate is completely misplaced and stands in the way of a proper evaluation of what has been achieved in this project. One of the red herrings should be dispensed with straight away. The allegation, voiced by the self-styled expert on Indian history, Arun Shourie, that these volumes are the products of a Marxist conspiracy is risible. Nobody who knows anything about history writing can consider S.Gopal, Ravinder Kumar, Partha Sarathi Gupta, Mushirul Hasan or the editor of the volume under review to be Marxists. Sumit Sarkar, another editor, is a Marxist though not of the dogmatic variety.

It is perhaps impossible for men like Shourie to appreciate that it is possible for a historian to find aspects of historical materialism to be useful as an analytical tool without becoming a Marxist or a card-carrying member of a communist party. Reds under the beds is a slogan, one thought, had disappeared after a particular era in the history of the United States.

The other charge that this project has been too long in the pipeline is nominally correct. But in reality work began in earnest only in the late Eighties. As to why this happened is best answered by the general editor, S.Gopal, and successive chairpersons of the ICHR rather than individual editors of the volumes. The delay is rooted in the fact that accountability is a foreign word in all institutions of India and not just in academic ones. To single out the ICHR assumes that it is the only body which is guilty of delay and procrastination.

To evaluate these volumes it is necessary to sketch their background. In the Sixties, the British government put together 12 volumes (under the general editorship of Nicholas Mansergh) of documents relating to Britain and India for the period 1942-47. These were called The Transfer of Power. The title itself indicated the analytical thrust: India had not won independence, power had been transferred. The emphasis was on negotiations rather than on the struggle to attain freedom. In the early Seventies, the ICHR decided that these volumes demanded an Indian counter-blast. Thus was born Towards Freedom. One state-sponsored history decided to do battle with another.

This volume covers the year 1938 and is in three parts. Each of the parts is a tome. Chatterji and his team have obviously been hard at work. The year this volume covers is somewhat significant since the Congress accepted ministries this year under the constitutional experiment of provincial autonomy. Many would argue with the advantage of hindsight that 1938 was the year the Congress began slithering down the slope of greed and corruption and broke with Gandhian ethics. In a tour de horizon of Indian politics from the time of the Non-Cooperation Movement, the editor sets the scene for the events of 1938.

Chatterji’s summing up of the situation in 1938 is sharp and short of brilliant: “the decision to accept office in the provinces threw up new imperatives for the Congress as an organization and as a movement for independence. From now on increasingly it had to deal with a complex, interlocking set of problems : to keep alive its opposition to British rule and combine it with the demands of governance; to evolve appropriate modes of relating to British institutions and protocols of power; to tailor their programme to constraints on implementation which as an opposition they did not have to heed; to manage tensions in the relationship of the centre with provincial leaders and with other political associations; to contain factionalism and maintain discipline and rectitude among Congressmen at all levels so as not to squander its moral capital; above all, to deal with left-right divergences over policies and political strategies without breaking the unity of the party.”

All these themes are well covered and the material is arranged subjectwise.This has made the volume user-friendly but it has lead to the exclusion of material that covered a number of subjects. Any student of history who has set foot inside an archive will appreciate the work involved in the sorting and arranging of the storehouse of documents present in this volume. At the risk of being niggardly, I will raise two points which might appear minor but are perhaps significant in the context of the present controversy.

Chatterji, in his wisdom, includes an interview between Subhas Bose and R.P. Dutt. Who is R.P. Dutt and how does he merit a mention in this volume? He was a full time apparatchik in the Communist Party of Great Britain. On the strength of an Indian ancestry, he claimed to be knowledgeable about India. In fact, he had little or no grasp of Indian realities and was not even a minor actor in India’s struggle for freedom. By mentioning him, Chatterji lends credence to the allegation that Towards Freedom has a bias in favour of communists.

At the end of his introduction, Chatterji writes, “This work is meant to be taken to the private study of historians, where it can be judged by the special protocols and standards internal to the craft of history and not to a public platform of some desultory public debate. It would not have been necessary to state this but for the darkness of our times.” The dig is obvious. But it is possible that by writing the last line, Chatterji has opened up precisely the kind of debate he wanted to avoid. He may even have put the project in jeopardy.    


 
 
NEW LABOUR AND ALL THAT FROTH/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY KAUSTUV BASU
 
 
Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years
By Sue Townsend, Michael Joseph, £.99

Sometime in the early Nineties, Sue Townsend had announced that she was not going to write another Adrian Mole book for the next 10 years. The arrival of Tony Blair and New Labour changed all that. Townsend, aged 53 and battling failing eyesight, got down to writing another sequel. She thought it was important that the Blair phenomenon be observed through the eyes of Adrian Mole.

The result is Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years. Our hero, who first saw life in the shape of a radioplay character and then quickly moved on to a life in books and the best-selling charts, is thirty-and-a-half years old now. Leaving behind his colourful, but difficult, childhood, he has moved on to the suitably Nineties profession of a chef in a restaurant called Hoi Polloi which dishes out working class food.

Peter Savage, the foul-mouthed owner of the place, firmly believes in a “Traditional English, No Choice” menu. Early in the book, the food critic of the Sunday Times, A.A. Gill, comes down to Hoi Polloi and is suitably underwhelmed by the food. He suggests in the review that follows that the sausages at the restaurant look and smell like turds. But it cannot prevent Mole from being signed up for television cookery shows such as Offally Good and The Fry Up. As a celebrity chef, he stirs further trouble when he introduces a dish called Belgian Faggots in his TV show and is then hit by an avalanche of complaints by Belgian gay organizations.

With age, Mole — who is named after a fantastic schoolteacher that Townsend once had — has become sour and cynical. The general tone of the book might also have something to do with Townsend’s dislike for New Labour. “I drink cappuccino and like it,” she said in a recent interview, “but it is the perfect metaphor for New Labour: three-quarters froth.”

Single-parent Mole still keeps a diligent diary. In it he records the growth of his bald spot, the quality of his bowels, and the response of his penis to stimuli. Other minor entries include cigarettes, booze and Opal fruits. Pandora, who caught the fancy of our hero many books ago when he glimpsed her wobbly chest on a netball court, has become a Blair babe, a Labour member of parliament. Though Mole has taken a vow of celibacy, he cannot help reminiscing about the time in 1981 when he became the first person to insert his hand into her white cotton training bra.

Wife Jo Jo has moved out of his life and to Nigeria, leaving Mole to rear their son, William. Junior Mole is much taken with the TeleTubbies, the group of toons which took the United Kingdom by storm in 1998. He makes TeleTubby-like sounds all the time. Mole is disgusted to find that Jeremy Clarkson, the motor critic, of the BBC is another favourite of the kid.

You cannot help feeling sorry for Adrian Mole. While he was growing up, the promiscuous behaviour of his elders left him disgusted. They are still at it — Mole finds his mother closeted with Pandora’s father in a toilet cubicle.

But the young have begun disgusting him also. Rosie Mole, his sister, who is described as a “15 year old vamp” and her friend, Aaron Michelwaite, stun him with their profanities. In a moment of uncharacteristic aggression, he tells his sister’s boyfriend, “Rosie may look like Baby Spice, but she’s an innocent, do you understand, Aaron?” “Innocent.” He snorts. “I’ve had more than cider with Rosie, mate.”

Mole belatedly realizes that the kids are having a full-blown sexual affair. For fans who have grown up with Mole, this book will be a treat. There is much to delight readers here — from a cat called Humfri to gay ex-husbands. And even in these times of political correctness, Adrian Mole remains delightfully politically incorrect. (Since this is a secret dairy.) Cool Britannia has never looked so vulnerable as it does through the eyes of Adrian Mole.    


 
 
FIGHTERS BY NATURE OR NURTURE/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
 
 
By Kaushik Roy
The Gurkhas: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Feared Soldiers
By John Parker, Headline, Rs 730

Terai, 1815. The British-Indian army advancing towards Kathmandu confronted the fearsome, short and stocky Kukris. It was the British who coined the term “Gurkhas” and this label continues to be in vogue even today. Impressed by the skirmishing capacity of the Gurkhas, the British have been recruiting them since the colonial period.

Fascinated by the fighting potential of the Gurkhas, the British produced a vast corpus of literature on them. This body of military literature on the Gurkhas could be classified into two categories — regimental histories and anthropological studies.

British officers in charge of Gurkha recruitment, such as Captain E.D. Vansittart, were influenced by colonial anthropologists like H.H. Risley. Vansittart tried to link up the “martial” ethos of the Gurkhas with their radical characteristics.

He published a series of ethnological studies on the Gurkhas between 1890 and 1910. And the recent practitioner of this trend is Lionel Caplan who, in Warrior Gentlemen, portrays the imperial belief which emphasized the fact that “martial” characteristics were inherited.

To chart the “heroic” activities of the Gurkhas, the “regimental history” format was introduced by the British officers of colonial India’s Gurkha regiments. Colonel L.W. Shakespear introduced the regimental history paradigm in 1912. An example of this form of writing is Brigadier E.D. Smith’s Valour: A History of the Gurkhas. Smith highlights the leadership qualities of British officers to explain the daredevil performance of the Gurkha brigade.

Though the book under review falls within the ambit of “regimental history”, its attempt to analyze the sahib-Gurkha relationship is somewhat different from that of Smith. The author, John Parker, a journalist by profession, mainly relies on the interviews of the retired British officers with Gurkha pensioners.

The dominant view that the Gurkhas accepted the leadership of the white officers just because they were British has been challenged by Parker. The author also disagrees with Tony Gould’s view, as propounded in Imperial Warriors, that economic incentives offered to the Gurkhas by the army, allowed the British officers to build an authoritarian structure over the hillmen from Nepal.

Rather, assures Parker, it was the white officers who had to acquire the trust and loyalty of the Gurkhas. And one way of acquiring the confidence of the Gurkhas was to learn Gurkhali. Such attempts by the white officers convinced the Gurkhas that British officers were interested in them.

What then was the nature of interaction between the British officers and their Gurkhas? Was it a father-son relationship as portrayed by scholars such as Philip Mason in A Matter of Honour?

Parker challenges this view and argues that the memoirs of the British officers point to the existence of homosexual relationships between the British commandants and the Gurkha privates. Such sexual bonding, comments Parker, established cohesion between the sahibs and the Gurkhas in the battlefields.

Parker’s book presents a valuable narrative that illuminates hitherto neglected socio-cultural and organizational aspects of British military history. His attempt to locate the functions of the Gurkha officers in the army is praiseworthy. Finally, Parker explores a new research agenda for the military performances and homosexuality.    


 
 
PROGRESSIVE STORYTELLING/BOOK REVIEW 
 
 
BY ARNAB BHATTACHARYA
 
 
The Best of ThakaZhi Sivasankara
Edited by K.M. George, Roli, Rs 295

The period between 1930-and 1950 is known as the “pink decades” in Malayalam literature. This was the time when Marxism was rapidly gaining ground in Kerala. Like some other states of India, Kerala became the hotbed of “progressive” writing, informed by a kind of social realism portraying the class struggle and the plight of the downtrodden.

One practitioner of this school of writing was Balakrishna Pillai, the editor of the periodical, Kesari. With the degree of influence that he then exerted on the “Trivandrum intelligentsia” and on the up-and-coming writers in Malayalam literature, Pillai remains one of the prime movers of socialist realism in Kerala.

Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, popularly referred to as “Thakazhi”, was one of his disciples. Born in 1912 in a Nayar family in the Alleppey district of Kerala, Thakazhi was drawn to Pragati Sahitya or the Progressive Literature Movement at a very early age.

Being a farmer’s son, Thakazhi’s was no studied sympathy for the toiling masses who live below the poverty line. The short stories that he wrote mostly before the publication of his novel, Chemmeen (“The Shrimps”), represent a curious blend of orthodoxy and rebelliousness.

The stories are generally located in Kuttanadu, an area around Thakazhi’s village. For Thakazhi, Kuttanadu was much more than a geographical backdrop for his stories. The observation of the chequered and dynamic modus vivendi of Kuttanadu with its conflicting values did in fact breathe life into Thakazhi’s literature.

The present volume incorporates 14 short stories of Thakazhi, collated from different collections. According to K.M. George’s introduction, the stories are arranged in chronological order so that they may “indicate the stages of his (Thakazhi’s) growth.” George provides analytical summaries of the stories, useful for the reader encountering Thakazhi’s world for the first time.

Thakazhi usually works with a thin storyline and only a handful of characters. The narrative technique is also simple and straightforward, in keeping with the realistic mode of narration.

But Thakazhi’s forte lies in the subtle intermingling of narrative voices and in quiet shifts of focus that bring out the inner tension of the story with telling effect. For example, in the first story of the collection, “In the Flood”, a strain of lighthearted humour is played against the melancholy of a lonely dog to the point where the death of the dog makes a sudden and powerful impact on the reader’s mind.

In the stories where Thakazhi’s purpose is to cause moral outrage, like a master raconteur, he blurs and shifts his points of focus repeatedly, until the last moment when the main focus zooms towards the object with a vengeance.

This is the reason why stories such as “A Faithful Wife” or “The Story of Kettuthali” read almost like thrillers. The issue of communal hatred between Hindus and Muslims comes to the forefront in “From Karachi” and “Death of Gandhiji”.

While the first tale is strongly reminiscent of Samaresh Bose’s “Aadab”, the latter presents an intricate network of themes which goes on to show how the tendentious apotheosis of a national hero can often obfuscate his broad perspective of humanism, leading to the horrid distortion of his moral philosophy.

A careful reading of Thakazhi’s stories reveal that he is particularly intent on upholding some of the old moral values of the agricultural community (as in “The Farmer”) which pertains are rooted in a feudal ethos.

However, he is conspicuously critical, to the point of being sarcastic, about the morality traditionally imposed on women in general and widows in particular — a tendency demonstrated in stories like “A Faithful Wife” or “The Story of Kalyani”, which the “progressive” peddlers of realism often look at askance.

But the editor is silent about the different moral stances that Thakazhi has adopted at different points of time. Besides, there is no mention of the year of composition at the end of the stories in the collection. This makes the task of tracing out the developmental stages of Thakazhi’s career as a story-writer somewhat difficult.

While the first translations are comprised of some racy stories, some of the others are rather stilted. Unfortunately, these are not always free from solecisms.    


 
 
GET TANGLED IN THE NET/BOOKWISE 
 
 
BY RAVI VYAS
 
 
Wired, an avant-garde computer journal, believes that we live in an apocalyptic era whose future does not look too good. In fact, it goes further and implies that it is time to rephrase Marshall McLuhan’s famous utterance and argue that the medium is now the mentality. With the advances in computer technology, the predictions don’t seem that far out.

But the conflict between the computer and the book has divided the publishing world into “for” and “against” camps: those who want to extend the computer into CD-ROMs and the bibliophiles who regard the book to be inherently superior and judge whatever appears on computer screens as a priori decadent. Hence the question, how far will screen reading go and is it necessarily superior to the printed word?

The contours of the coming conflict can be seen in the CD-ROMs of massive reference works like Encyclopedia Britannica, Oxford English Dictionary, McGraw Hill Dictionary of Science and Technology and others. Bibliophiles who have questioned the need for CDs in the first place can be given two simple, irrefutable answers.

First, sales of multi-volume reference works had dropped drastically in the last decade. For instance, Encyclopedia Britannica had over 2,000 sales representatives in North America alone. Middle class families turned their backs on the “grand brand name” that had been marketed by foot-in-the-door salesmen backed by magazine advertisements and television shows. But old marketing strategies no longer worked in the Nineties.

And the reasons were simple: the middle class felt the shortage of space and time. Urban housing was cramped and there wasn’t room to house multi-volume books that were consulted just once in a while. Moreover, miniaturization that could store large amounts of information was required. So, the CD-ROMs arrived along with the internet. It was these demands of the market that compelled publishers to put their legendary reference books on CDs.

But the question here is how good or user-friendly are these CDs? Specifically, how simple is the search-and-retrieval function, the cross-referencing or the hyper-text jumps to related articles? In this context, some basic points need to be clarified.

First, simply because it is “ there” does not mean that you can go ahead and use it. Users must have some minimal training despite the user-manuals that come along with the CDs. For instance, Encyclopedia Britannica comes with a 32-page user-manual that isn’t easy to follow. And if you keep the manual aside and click “Help” in the CD, all you get is a repeat of what is written in the manual!

Second, CDs of multi-volume works come with a “ dongle” which is an electronic device that must be attached to the computer to unlock the wealth of the text that is copyright material. The “dongle” would have to be fixed by a technician unless you are one yourself.

Third, there are no standard formats for the databases stored inside the CDs. You can search for the information alphabetically or you can have programmes called “Idea Search”. For instance, you could ask a question like “why is the sky blue?” But when you do this, you can come up with over 100 different entries A clear case of information overkill.

And if you narrow down the question and make it more specific, it still does not help much because the computer does not understand the question per se but simply reacts to the words “ blue” and “ sky.” You could get the same answers by asking “what sky blue”. But whatever the deficiencies, CDs have come to stay. They will not be able to replace the book, but they will do so insofar as reference works are concerned. Very simply, because even libraries do not have room to house them any more.    

 

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