Editorial 1
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Believe in yesterday
This above all
Letters to the editor


One step forward

Mr Yashwant Sinha has certainly received more brickbats than bouquets for his recent budget. The budget has been condemned for its many sins of omission and commission. Perhaps the only feature which has been welcomed by most economists is the attempt to reduce the vast outflow of government resources on account of subsidies. Mr Sinha made an extremely courageous move by announcing steps to reduce the fertilizer subsidy by increasing the price of urea. He also announced an increase in the issue price of foodgrains sold through the public distribution system. Consumers above the poverty line would now have to pay the economic cost incurred by the government in supplying the grains. Vested interests were bound to protest against these economically sensible decisions. Quite predictably, the opposition parties were first off the block, labelling these decisions “anti-people”. Somewhat more surprisingly, even the regional allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party have mounted tremendous pressure on the prime minister and the finance minister to announce a reversal of these decisions. The Telugu Desam Party has been at the forefront of this movement, although its chief has now acquired a reputation of being a farsighted, sagacious and “pro-reform” leader.

Even the simplest calculations must convince everyone that there is no hope of restoring any semblance of health to the government’s fiscal position unless subsidies on account of food and fertilizer are slashed. Interest payments, defence, food and fertilizer subsidies account for over 80 per cent of the government’s recurring expenditure. There is no scope for reducing interest payments in the short run since these are contractual payments. In the medium term, the government can try to reduce interest payments by using the proceeds from disinvestment to retire debt. Unfortunately, disinvestment has also become a dirty word among the sets of people ranged against the cuts against subsidies. It is debatable whether the government will be able to make any headway in its disinvestment exercise if it loses the present battle. In the post-Kargil scenario, any reduction in defence expenditure has also become politically unpopular. So, there is really no alternative other than to reduce food and fertilizer subsidies. But parties which are dependent on farmers’ support find it politically expedient to protest against the increase in urea prices, while all parties find it convenient to cater to the urban middle class. Of course, all these protests are ostensibly to protect the interests of poor farmers and equally poor households. This completely ignores the fact that the major beneficiaries of the fertilizer subsidies are the richer farmers who consume the overwhelming bulk of fertilizers.

Similarly, barring a couple of states, the PDS is essentially an urban phenomenon. Even in urban areas, it is clear that the really poor do not get any subsidized food. Hence a vast majority of the poor does not have access to the PDS. People who claim to represent the interests of the poor will be serving their interests much better if they demand greater budgetary allocation for services which are actually consumed by the poor. Health care and primary education are but two examples which spring to mind. Unfortunately, the setting up of primary schools or rural health care centres does not seem a very efficient means of purchasing votes.    


more than chattel

It is always fascinating to discover the various ways in which the state quietly deprives women of their rights. There is a general idea that Hindu women have property rights comparable to those of men, the law says so but society often demurs in the act. The law does say so, in fact. Hindu women’s right to property was ensured by the Hindu Succession Act 45 years ago. To make sure that this did not actually become possible to implement, a little blip was put into the system. Jawaharlal Nehru passed the amendment and Parliament of the time saw to it that it was put on the concurrent list. This immediately meant a whole set of procedures which would begin with the Centre directing the states to have it passed in their respective legislatures. And the matter was of such inconsequence that everybody everywhere could be trusted to forget it. For years. So it is quite correct to say, too, that society demurs in the act. Only there is no need to violate the law. It is much simpler when the state itself, as the representative of the wishes of the dominant section of society, provides, in all solemnity and righteousness, the desired escape hatch.

Not that every region has used the escape hatch. It is a sad commentary on the awareness about women’s basic rights in most of northern, central and eastern India that Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra are the states which have actually incorporated the amendment in their respective succession acts. The inequality in the status of Indian women of different states this implies is hardly a sign of health. Today it is pressure from the national commission for women to which the law ministry is being compelled to respond. All states have been asked to incorporate the 45 year old amendment. This is one sphere in which the women’s movement in India has been successful. The deconstruction of laws, revival of silently buried women-friendly provisions, suggestions for amendments and the evolution of a new approach through ongoing discussion have made the legal arena a vital site for the restoration of gender balance. Although legal provisions cannot cause a revolution in social attitudes, the inclusion of women’s property rights in the state codes would at least offer the promise of legal redress.    

For Bengalis of a certain generation, nothing is perhaps more beautiful than that body of music known as adhunik gaan. Other musical genres may be complex and rich, but their value is linked to the social and cultural reality that they express. Kirtan, Shyamasangeet and Ramprasadi have strong religious overtones; baul< songs and palligeeti evoke memories of rural Bengal; while Nazrulgeeti speaks the rhythms of a now obsolete nationalism. Adhunik seems to stand alone, unconnected to the world at large, analysable only into a list of exquisite songs and a rollcall of magical names: Hemanta, Manna, Shyamal, Lata, Sandhya, Arati.

Music, like any other art form, requires a ground to spring from. The most popular musical form of the last half century — rock n’ roll — emerges from a set of very specific material and cultural conditions. It had an economic determination: the immense power of the American economy after World War II created a new class of consumers, “the teenager”, which had both a disposable income and the leisure time to enjoy it. It had a technological determination: the development of the transistor radio and the 45 RPM record meant that music could now be enjoyed outside the confines and restrictions of one’s home.

Finally, and most importantly, it had a cultural determination: in trying to define themselves as radically oppositional to their parents, white teenagers turned to “race” music as the ultimate source of rebellion. Elvis Presley was no accident: Sam Philips, the man who first recorded the King on the famous Sun label, was actively looking for a white artist who could sing like a black man.

That rock n’ roll would subsequently become global is not at all surprising, for it was a music that already contained the globe — the acceleration of urban America, the bluesy grit of the Mississippi delta, the syncopated rhythms of west Africa, the sinuous and stretched out riffs of Arab and other oriental cultures.

The most prestigious Bengali musical genre — Rabindrasangeet — can, like rock n’ roll, be shown to be intimately connected to the social and cultural processes of its time. Musicological elements apart, the most outstanding feature of Rabindrasangeet is the fact that it is one of the crucial constitutive tools of Bengali bhadralok culture. It operates much as classical music and the opera do in the west, by defining and separating the elite from common folk.

Rabindrasangeet embodies three crucial characteristics which underlie bhadralok subjectivity — individualistic Western romanticism, pietistic religiosity and secular nationalism. It expresses the restrained and orderly pleasures of the middle classes, and encapsulates the very essence of that Brahmo sensibility which came to dominate Bengali culture as a whole.

In establishing this hegemony, Rabindrik ways effectively marginalized the excesses of both chhotolok (jatras, khemta dancing, sawner gan) and feudal cultures (jalshaghars, baijis). By independence, this process of hegemony was complete. The zamindars were all gone, and chhotoloks had become the proletariat. Bauls were becoming an exportable item (a sure sign that they were irrelevant in their native milieu) and whatever energy remained in rural music had been sanitized into the banalities of a modernized palligeeti.

A partial challenge to this dominant culture came from the theatrical and musical productions that were centred around Indian People’s Theatre Association. Tendentious art, however, necessarily fails to sustain itself, and by the late Fifties this movement was a spent force. The true opposition to Rabindrik culture came from without, from the ubiquitous and overwhelming presence of Hindi film music.

With the establishment of Vividh Bharati in the late Sixties (Radio Ceylon was the main forum for popular song before that), the vulgar found a voice once again. Hindi film music articulated the rhythms and beats of modernity and challenged the propriety of Rabindrik culture, much as Elvis “The Pelvis”. His “Hound Dog” and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” shook up the world represented by Pat Boone and Connie Francis. By the Seventies, this music had conquered the Bengali masses.

Adhunik music was never oppositional to mainstream Rabindrik culture, nor was it ever implicated in the cultural politics of “high” versus “low”. Instead it remained in an adjunct and somewhat passive position in cultural politics. Though there were very few artists who recorded both Rabindrasangeet and adhunik songs (Hemanta Mukherjee was a notable exception), the ideologies and practices underlying production and consumption were the same — performers and consumers of both genres shared the same class and cultural backgrounds. This explains why many Bengali parents exhorted their children not to listen to “vulgar” Hindi music, but passed no such admonition against the songs played on Anurodher Ashar.

Another reason for this acceptance was more formal. Unlike Hindi film music, the rhythmic structures of adhunik music were restrained, sedate and bhadra (civilized). Nor were its lyrics likely to give offence. Adhunik differentiated itself from its preceding forms by eschewing all religious and nationalistic themes. Indeed its lyrics focussed exclusively on one topic — romantic love.

The paradox was that in spite of being burdened with conventional, and even banal, rhythmic structures and lyrical content, adhunik music managed to produce a body of melodic masterpieces which will forever endure in the minds of Bengalis. Songs like “Hoito tomari jonno”, “Nijhumo sandhaye”, “Shediner shonajhara sandhya”, “Aro koto din” can rank with the best in Hindi music — the songs from Pakeezah, say — or the greatest examples of Western pop. They comprise art of the highest order.

Where does this sublime beauty come from? The majority of works in question were composed in the years between independence and the late Seventies, a period of nation-building. The persona of Jawaharlal Nehru, the wars with Pakistan and China, the establishment of various state enterprises from steel mills to the Indian institutes of technology, the booming presence of All India Radio and then Doordarshan, the prestige of Delhi and the Indian Administrative Service — all these signified the pomp and circumstance of a desi raj where the state was larger than life. All cultural production was affected by this statist ideology. While the production of popular art was never controlled from above — thus sparing us songs about Bhakra dam — popular music participated quite enthusiastically in the project of nation-building.

This is clearly exemplified by Hindi film music. Though most Hindi songs explored the travails of romantic love (thus highlighting their affiliation to the rich tradition of ghazals), Hindi films promoted songs which expressed patriotism and a nationalistic religiosity. But adhunik negated the project of nation-building and stayed within the parameters of romantic art.

The two musics diverged even more radically in the late Sixties when the sounds, beats, and rhythms of modernity were incorporated into Hindi film through films like those of Shammi Kapoor and most notably through the singing of India’s greatest modern artist — Kishore Kumar. Kishore clearly was the Indian Elvis — his voice encapsulated the staccato acceleration of modernity, the brazen yearning of a liberated sexuality, and the insistent urgency of a desire which demands its object right now.

The new paradigm of voice and soul that Kishore brought into our culture was far removed from the timeless wistfulness of adhunik songs. Kishore may have been born Bengali, but he grew into a non-Bengali artist.

Utterly beautiful, but frozen in time - that’s how one can best describe the enchanting world of Adhunik songs. Whether its “Keno tumi phire ele” by Shyamal or “Ogo moner duare dariye theko na” by Arati, the songs seem to issuing from no particular subjectivity, to be grounded in no specific historical process, pointing to no recognizable end.

These are the songs of swans that have no wings to fly, their very perfection a signalling of imminent demise. Whose death? That of the culture as a whole. Once Bengal’s symbiotic relationship with the British ended, it had no real place in the project of postcolonial modernity. Its industry destroyed by a fractious class struggle and a consequent flight of capital, its politics rendered impotent by a parochial and idealistic devotion to outmoded social theories; its brainpower drained by a steady emigration to lands far away; its autonomy compromised by the virtual takeover of all wealth by a minority community — Bengal at the beginning of the millennium stands emaciated and empty. Bengali literature has ground to a halt, Bengali film and television are maudlin and impoverished, and there has been no development in Bengali cuisine or fashion.

The French thinker, Jacques Atali, wrote that music is prophecy, that it makes the future audible. If adhunik songs are so memorable today, it is because they foretold in the most exquisite manner a stalled and barren future that now has come to pass. As the song by Hemanta so lyrically put it “Tar aar por nei, nei kono thikana” — no future, no address.    


The great Indian littering class

Pavan K. Verma is a senior member of the Indian Foreign Service. He is also the author of several books including a biography of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Delhi’s Havelis, and many more. But the most provocative of his books, published two years ago, was The Great Indian Middle Class. In this he analysed the vast and increasing disparities between the haves and havenots.

Those who have the means to live well form a bare five per cent of the population; the rest either manage to eke out a living or die in abysmal ignorance and poverty. Yet the two have to live cheek by jowl much to the irritation of the well to do and the envy and growing resentment of the poor.

No matter how high the rich raise the walls of their houses, how many armed sentinels and watchdogs they have, the poor who live in slums around them hate their guts and when opportunities come their way, rob their homes, kidnap their children, steal their cars and molest their womenfolk.

The rich would wish the poor eliminated from the country by some act of providence. The poor would like to dispossess the rich of their wealth by any means, mostly foul. With this sharp division in our society we have to admit we are sitting on top of a volcano which can erupt at any time.

After prophesying doomsday, Verma owed it to himself and his countrymen to suggest ways and means of dealing with the hatred the Indian poor are building up against their better off countrymen. So we now have an action plan for the middle class in a slender volume of 145 pages entitled, Maximize Your Life. The first half is a synposis of what Verma had written in The Great India Middle Class.

In my review I had described the book as brilliant. I would use the same word for the synposis. What follows is a list of dos and don’ts for responsible citizens of the country. Don’t throw litter on public places, don’t defecate or urinate outside lavatories, don’t burst loud crackers on Diwali, don’t use loudspeakers, don’t give or accept bribes, report law-breakers to the police; if it takes no action, report to a senior officer; give correct figures of your income and pay taxes on them, and so on. Verma gives instances of men, women and organizations engaged in these laudable pursuits, all very exemplary and heart warming.

I can add a few instances of conscientious citizens doing their duty. One was the late Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa. Once on his way from Gwalior airport to the hotel where he was due to speak, he spied a man urinating by the roadside. The crusty old general ordered the chauffeur to stop, went and stood behind the urinator. After he had finished and was adjusting his dhoti, Cariappa told him in his best Hindi, “Aap bahut bura kaam karta — what you are doing is very bad — gandgee phailta — it spreads dirt — beemaaree phailta — it spreads disease.”

The man, who recognized the field marshal, was annoyed and exploded: “You may have been a field marshal but I am no aira-gaira (a nobody); I am a municipal commissioner, you have no right to talk to me like this.” I have no doubt the worthy city father continues to assert his right to pee wherever he likes; the incident added yet another joke to the Cariappa anthology of humour.

Ruth Prawer Jhabwala’s mother-in-law was a formidable dowager who always pulled up people throwing litter, spitting or urinating in public places causing much embarrassment to her son and his family.

I too was witness to an incident at Pune airport some years ago. Suresh Kalmadi happened to be sitting by me when a lady stormed up to us and insisted that we, as members of parliament, should see the filthy state of the women’s lavatory and do something about it. I left it to Kalmadi to attend to the complaint.

They returned with the lady still in high dudgeon and Kalmadi crestfallen. The airport manager got his share of tongue-lashing. Passengers waiting for their flights found the incident very amusing and began to giggle. The lady’s two grandchildren were acutely embarrassed and pleaded with their granny to stop. She sat down and broke into sobs. I felt ashamed of myself.

I agree with Verma that we middleclass citizens should be made aware of our responsibilities to society and the country. But there is nothing very new in what he has to say. And it sounds somewhat adolescent and boy-scoutish. However, I have decided that when I go to Lodhi Park next I will carry a large bag to collect the plastic water bottles, cups and saucers left strewn on the lawns by picnickers and dump it into litter boxes. I will undoubtedly be taken for a kabaariwala. So what!

Encounters in the park

I make an annual pilgrimage to Buddha Jayanti Park on the Ridge, the northernmost point of the Aravalli range. I usually do so in the last week of February and early March. New Delhi’s roundabout gardens and parks are full of flowers. Buddha Jayanti has a more dazzling display than any other park in the city. It is also the largest, stretching over a mile of rocky terrain, out of which sprouts a variety of keekar, semal (silk cotton), mesquite (kabuli keekar) and palas or dhatt (flame of the forest).

By early March, the palas tree sheds its leaves; shortly before Holi it bursts into fiery red, parrot beak shaped flowers. They have no fragrance and last barely a fortnight. When in full bloom they are the kings of jungle trees. The park also has waterways, which are usually dry, except for an island which has a massive golden statue of the Buddha. In this small patch floats a dozen pet ducks.

The park has two entrances. The bigger and better access is on its south side. The southern entrance is smaller and leads you past a stinking latrine down to a very pleasant cafeteria, loud with filmi music, which provides chairs and tables for those who wish to sit away from the noise under shades of trees. You get a good view of a stretch of undulating lawns and trees planted by visiting foreign dignitaries.

For good reason I prefer the southern entrance: it is where all the flowers are. What distinguishes Buddha Jayanti from all other parks is that flowers are laid out in masses: 50 yards of salvia, another 50 of pansies, calendulas and other varieties. The spread of the same variety makes for a very pleasant scene; also different kinds of fragrance as you go past one long flower bed to another. Compared to other parks, Buddha Jayanti is free of litter.

This time I went to the park on the afternoon of the last Saturday of February. There were no flowers. It was not the prolonged winter which had delayed them, none had been planted. I was deeply disappointed. I sat on a bench watching the courtship of ducks: males chasing females across a dusty path, catching up and mounting them. Ducks waddling along speedily made a very amusing sight. It reminded me of my stroll in Lodhi Gardens, the day before.

There was a large party of fat, old behenjis, many of whom had brought collapsible garden chairs because they could not sit on the grass, or having sat down, found it hard to get up. There they were hogging parathas, followed by cakes. When they had finished their alfresco feast they picked up their chairs and moved en masse towards their cars belching and farting as they went.

They left all their paper plates and remains of their food on the lawns. They had not learnt of the Rs 50 fine for littering. The only difference between the behenjis of Lodhi Garden and the randy ducks of the Buddha Jayanti Park was that the fat-bottomed ducks did not produce any sounds from their rear: they just went quack, quack with their beaks.

Diabetic ant

A line of ants ran into a heap of granulated sugar. Each one took a granule and proceeded along its way to the ant hole. However, one ant refused to take any. Others asked, “Why aren’t you taking a granule of sugar?” The ant patted its belly, “You see my doctor has forbidden me to do so. I have a sugar problem.” (Contributed by Sham Sunder, Gurgaon)

Valentine’s Day blues

You know how intensely I love you (Though I can’t proclaim it through a noisy band) My love is pure yet I hate to profess For I live in a loveless land. You greet me on Holi or Diwali Or any day that suits you well. For god’s sake, don’t meet me on V-Day Lest the goons let loose a hell! (Contributed by G.C. Bhandari, Meerut)    


New screenplay

Sir — Taslima Nasreen appears to be hogging the limelight in this country, what with her “own” country, Bangladesh, turning against her. Nasreen, of course, is only too happy with epar bangla. The rejection from opar bangla has not stood in the way in her becoming the Indian media’s darling of late. Her work, Amar Meyebela, has recently been translated into Marathi, and will even be filmed in Hindi (“Heat and words”, March 17). With names like Mahesh Bhatt and Tanuja Chandra involved in making a film on the book, Nasreen’s new “achievement” will far outreach her former claims to fame. After all, it does not pay well to remain out of the public eye for too long. Sooner or later, writers realize this, and Nasreen has proved to be no exception. All of Chandra’s films so far have been great box office draws. The Bhatt-Chandra combination is a great way for Nasreen to start off her association with Bollywood. It is good the writer realized that it is better to spread her wings beyond the epar bangla circle, and reach out to a wider Indian popular culture market.

Yours faithfully,
Subhojeet Hazra.,

That RSS bug

Sir — The reason the likes of Mukul Kesavan don’t cut much ice with the majority of readers is that they tend to stray towards extremes (“Hindu calisthenics”, March 12). Comparing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh with the Ku Klux Klan is one such extreme.

The Congress is tainted with the Emergency, imposed by the mother-in-law of the present Congress chief. The Emergency was, without mincing words, nothing but an act of political obscenity. Can Kesavan extricate the Congress from this accusation by claiming that “secular people” cannot be accused of obscenity?

Kesavan’s argument is completely off the mark. Ban or no ban, government officials might still try to curry favour with their saffron boss by joining the RSS, and the boss will not penalize his underlings for joining it despite the ban. Hence, a ban is no deterrent against the saffronization of Gujarat’s bureaucracy. So the lifting of the ban must be seen symbolically, as signifying the arrival of the saffron brotherhood at centrestage and the hungama in Parliament being also a display of political oneupmanship by the opposition. One only need look at West Bengal to see how a “committed” bureaucracy has become completely Marxist, and perfectly “secular” — but then, what’s the point? For those who give themselves such politically correct labels as “secular” are allergic to cold, hard logic.

Yours faithfully,

Sir — The government employees’ involvement with the RSS in Gujarat has been a matter of great debate over the last few months. The RSS’s contention is that it is not a political, but a socio-cultural organization. But it is evident that there are double standards even among those who are vociferous against the RSS. The Left Front government in West Bengal allows a policeman to be a member of the unions affiliated to political parties. Policemen, who are involved in maintaining law and order, can, by no logic, be part of a political party. Another contradiction of the state government has also remained uncontested. An employee of the Central government, and that of many states, is not permitted to be a member of a union. Yet, employees of government-owned banks are members of unions affiliated to political parties. Most of the banks are departmental undertakings of the ministry of finance. What is the difference between the two types of employees to justify their coming under different sets of rules?

Yours faithfully,
Praful Goradia,
New Delhi

Sir — The editorial, “Politics of confusion” (March 4), painfully tries to equate the state coordination committee of the West Bengal Government Employees Association’s link with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) with that of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s relationship with the RSS. It plays down the potential danger that the RSS poses for the nation. But members of the coordination committee do not care about their leaders’ political preferences, and vote for anyone they feel like during the general elections. The committee cares only for the benefit of government employees. But the RSS has no “slogan” related to government employees. If the danger of the RSS is not measured, then the likes of Jamaat-e-Islami would pose an even greater threat to the nation.

Yours faithfully,
Jyoti Hazra,

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