Editorial 1\Slash and burn
Editoial 2\Out for the kill
Fiscal irresponsibility
Letters to the Editor
Quick cut to end/Book review
From the temple to the market/Book review
Favoured Children of Nature/Book review
Nation in the making/Book review
Berlin symphony/Editor’s choice

The normal squalls of protest have started blowing in the wake of the government’s decision to reduce subsidies on kerosene and liquid petroleum gas cylinders. The Atal Behari Vajpayee government had no choice about the matter. World oil prices have been rising for months. Kerosene and LPG subsidies would have totalled Rs 180 billion during 2000-01 going by the present world trend. This would have further eroded the government’s already fragile finances. As it is, even with the present price increases, the government would still have enormous bills to pay. The subsidy on a litre of kerosene has dropped to Rs 5.33. The subsidy on an LPG cylinder is also substantial at Rs 132 per cylinder. If anything, New Delhi can be faulted for faintheartedness. Having decided to bite the subsidy bullet, the government should have clamped its teeth hard rather than just nibble at the problem. The failure to increase diesel prices was unfortunate, for example, given the government’s commitment last year to no longer subsidize its price. Despite all this, the oil pool deficit is still expected to reach Rs 136 billion, double what it stood at five years ago.

The left parties and even the Telugu Desam Party have taken up the cry the rise in kerosene prices in particular is “anti-poor”. This claim does not stand scrutiny. First, government finances are a zero sum game. If the Centre has to pay a huge subsidy bill, it then has less money for education and healthcare which help the poor more. The story of government expenditure is one of mounting subsidies and falling social expenditure. There is an additional cost if the government borrows to pay the subsidies. A rising fiscal deficit helps push up the inflation rate. In other words, trying to suppress kerosene prices helps push up the prices of all other goods and services. Second, studies have repeatedly shown that the bulk of subsidy payments never reach the poor. The kerosene subsidy is no different. The poorest Indians live in the villages, but 93 per cent of the kerosene is consumed in urban centres. And of the kerosene consumed in the cities and towns only half is actually used by households. The rest is diverted to the black market, used to adulterate petrol and diesel, or smuggled to Nepal and Bangladesh where kerosene prices are double India’s. In other words, the biggest beneficiaries of kerosene subsidies are black marketeers and smugglers.

The political drama surrounding the oil prices is never ending play with an unchanging plot. Every few months whoever rules in New Delhi agonizes as the subsidy bill starts to spin out of control. The Centre has no control over oil prices. Those are determined by global supply and demand. Domestic prices should therefore be simply allowed to float, going up and down to the dictations of the market. This will save politicians much needless anguish, plug a huge hole in the fiscal deficit and eradicate a criminal empire that lives off India’s oil sector. It would also eradicate the various distortions produced by the present subsidy system — like the gross overuse of diesel and the pollution this has generated. The Vajpayee government should dismantle the present system of administered oil prices once and for all. The political heartburn will be great. But it cannot be more than the cumulative pain that endless short term price decisions inflict on the government.    

Those who sponsor terrorism, or even encourage it, walk into one unavoidable trap. They cannot, in the long run, control their minions. For these minions are, after all, armed killers, fired with extreme ideals and brainwashed into dedicating their lives for these — usually in the service of larger interests. It is quite clear that the killing of the 36 Sikhs in Kashmir during Mr Bill Clinton’s visit to India has been more than a little embarrassing for Pakistan. It dramatizes rather than undermines India’s claims regarding cross-border terrorism and damages Pakistan’s claims about India’s human rights violations in Kashmir. What was striking about the most recent carnage in Kashmir was that the targets were Sikhs. The refugee status of Hindu Pandits from Kashmir has long been an unresolved and painful issue. Now it would seem that the militants are as eager to begin threatening Sikh residents. At one level, it is a sign of their refusal to let Kashmir even think about normalcy. More important, obviously, is the militants’ desire to let the world register their existence by a massacre during the American president’s visit.

But the embarrassment of a neighbouring country is not really the only issue here. The breakdown of law and order and the repeated failure of security forces are issues that cannot be glossed over. Else militants could not have laid siege on a camp of the security forces so easily. It cannot be denied that a certain amount of apathy, of inertia bred out of a feeling that one is in an insoluble situation, have vitiated the atmosphere in the suffering state. There is, sadly though inevitably, an enormous amount of corruption too, which concerns the passage of arms as well as of money. All this leads to a tragic and self-defeating alienation, between the state and the people, with the security forces poised somewhere midway. The illusion of occasional peace is based on a confusion of values and beliefs: it is difficult to say, in Kashmir as in other terrorism-torn states, whether villagers shelter extremists out of sympathy or out of fear. It also lulls the killers into a sense of false confidence, leading them into acts which are likely to affect them negatively. The world might have registered the Sikh killings, but probably for reasons undesired by the militants themselves.    

Yashwant Sinha’s third budget was, indeed, noteworthy for the recognition of the problem posed by the high level of subsidies. The panel discussions that followed the budget revealed much more than the budget. N.K. Singh, the secretary in the prime minister’s office, was his brilliant self in explaining some of the intricacies of the process behind the budget. He revealed that the problem faced by the finance minister was even more serious than what the budget figures present. We seem to be drowning under the weight of subsidies in the budget as well as outside it.

In an interesting sidelight, Singh pointed out the landmines ahead. Subsidy on kerosene looms large. Although it is not part of the expenditure budget, it is already as high as Rs 14,000 crores. Kerosene sells in India at Rs 2 to Rs 3 per litre as against Rs 10 or nearabouts in Bangladesh or Pakistan. Indeed, the kerosene subsidy borne by the oil coordination committee thus benefits not only the people of India, but also those across our borders. All in the spirit of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation?

The other subsidy about which N.K. Singh enlightened the audience is fertilizers. He pointed out that the total amount of subsidy on fertilizers would be even higher than Rs 10,000 crores, but for Sinha’s decisions. The large size of the fertilizer subsidy has been a sensitive issue since the late Sixties. The fertilizer subsidy and the retention price scheme are the outcome of the government of India’s desire to supply inputs for farmers at prices lower than the cost of production. It results in a complicated system of government interference with production, marketing and distribution of fertilizers.

Under this system, the government now tells fertilizer factories not only at what price they can sell but where exactly they can distribute their product — allegedly with a view to minimizing transport costs. It also caps the subsidy payable, if the producers go beyond 100 per cent of capacity. Perversely enough, the government of India discourages factories from stretching their capacities to the maximum.

The argument advanced is that some factories had “gold-plated” their capital costs and were deriving too much undeserved benefits from capital-related costs in the subsidy. So, factories which produce more than 100 per cent of their rated capacity, are penalized. Any system, which discourages the maximum productivity in a capital-starved country, stands self-condemned. This may help only factories abroad, which have a surplus. In the long run, dependence for a vital input, like fertilizers, on imports may be risky.

An alternative system is often advanced that considers it far better to give fertilizer subsidy directly to farmers. Considering the large number of farmers in the country, such a scheme of direct distribution of subsidy to farmers will be difficult to administer. A market-oriented solution is what we should go for.

In a recent seminar held at Chennai, the renowned economist, C.T. Kurien, pointed out how it was paradoxical that India has 29 million tonnes of food grains as buffer stock. Still, many people below poverty line go hungry every night. The high level of nearly Rs 8,000 crores on food subsidy is not so much a result of cheaper food, as a partial reflection of the inefficiency of the Food Corporation of India and the wastage of food grains in storage. It is time Sinha looked into this whole question, so that the food subsidy bill does not get increased merely because of the corruption and inefficiency of the buffer stock operations themselves.

As N.K. Singh had hinted in his exposition, the subsidy now implied in the continued lower prices of kerosene and liquid petroleum gas is an admittedly heavy burden. Oil prices are still kept under an administrative price mechanism, in spite of the I.K. Gujral government’s decision to terminate it. The fiscal significance of the oil pool will once again haunt North Block. Earlier, the government of India had to issue special bonds of Rs 18,000 crores — that is, to borrow Rs 18,000 crores — to adjust the deficit in the oil pool account. Once again, we are going in the same direction. Governmental lethargy in adjusting product prices in the world scene is leading to a repeat of the oil pool crisis of a few years ago. Here again, we have a repeat of the subsidy syndrome. One is unable to explain why government and the fisc should take upon itself to supply oil products at subsidized prices.

On top of this looming fiscal crisis, not fully accounted for by Sinha in the budget, we have the burden of subsidies in the state budgets. When states subsidize power for farmers for domestic uses, it is not as though the damage is confined to the states concerned. State electricity boards are unable to pay their dues to Central coal and petroleum undertakings as well as to National Thermal Power Corporation. This means, the government of India’s fiscal situation bears the burden of the subsidies given by the states. In addition, state fiscal deficits translate into failure to repay loans in time.

As at present implemented, subsidies are a canker in the economy. They not only create fiscal deficits, but also cause the government to intervene in processes of industrial and agricultural production and distribution, leading to loss of productivity and incentives to growth. History records how Soviet Russia’s addiction to cheap bread led to compulsory levies at low prices from its wheat farmers.

Over the years, Soviet agriculture languished and the Soviet Union had to enter the world wheat market not to export but to import. I do hope the ruling elite in Delhi realizes the dangers of their policies. Subsidies are insidious in their effects on the whole economy. It is time that a national consensus is evolved on the question.

In this context, it is unfortunate that while the finance minister has emphasized the theme of fiscal responsibility, he has not been able to spell out the full implications of fiscal irresponsibility. If he had placed before the nation an analysis and a forecast of the nation’s fiscal situation over the next five years, he would have realized and forced the rest of his colleagues to realize what a grave crisis we face. The entire fiscal deficit — our borrowings — goes to pay out interest. Can we continue for long on this wrong track? A national campaign has to be launched about the grave dangers of our fiscal situation. A debt crisis looms ahead as more and more money is being borrowed to pay earlier debt and interest.

If there had been a ceiling on national debt, as in the United States, the Reserve Bank of India would have stopped the working of the government of India long ago. Perhaps, we need such a traumatic event to become aware of the domestic fiscal dilemma, even as the crisis of 1991 made the nation face issues of similar gravity on the external front.

It is clear that we cannot continue to live in a state of unalloyed bliss, where the government provides cheap food, power, diesel, kerosene and LPG, and the fiscal crisis becomes worse day by day. This culture of entitlement has to go. Citizens have a duty not only to pay taxes, but also to pay for the goods and services they get. The government has to confine itself to the business of governance, not to intervene in agriculture and industry to make citizens get products and services below cost.

This culture of entitlement has to give way to one in which citizens pay taxes and user charges and do not expect to be entitled to subsidized services and goods. A poor society will become even poorer if the current attitudes continue. Higher fiscal deficits will cripple the state apparatus and disable it from doing its legitimate job of governance. Subsidies, which are apparently intended to alleviate poverty, seem to have a totally adverse impact on the quality of governance and life itself.

Meanwhile, if the finance minister wants to convince the country about the seriousness of the crisis, it behoves him to make a forecast for the next five years, assuming the fiscal numbers continue on the same pattern as now. He will be able to present a forecast, which shows definite signs of a total breakdown of Central governance if the Centre continues to borrow as it does, and pays out such a large percentage of its revenues on interest and subsidies.

Generalities do not convince people. The least the finance minister can do is to bring out a frank analysis of what lies ahead over the next five years. Without this, he cannot convince his colleagues at the Centre and the states about the need for a drastic action on the fiscal front. Awareness has to be spread nationwide that a culture of entitlement cannot continue in which citizens of India clamour for free power, cheap food, cheap kerosene, LPG and all that. That is not the function of a state in a poor society. Something will have to give in such a culture. The failure of the state will affect the core of governance and society itself.

The author is former governor, Reserve Bank of India    


Committed to evade

Sir — “Bhujbal loads Srikrishna gun to fire at Thackeray” (March 19), was a reminder what a sham commissions of inquiry are in India. At best, they serve as sticks with which political rivals beat one another — witness how conveniently the Bofors investigations have gone into or come out of hibernation. At worst, such reports serve as reference points for hacks when talking of other commissions which have not worked. Unlike other reports which have often bypassed issues by only hinting at a “politician-criminal nexus”, what was special about the Srikrishna commission report was its pointed reference to the wrongdoers. This, one presumes, makes its implementation much less complicated. Action on the report, besides bringing solace to the victims of the 1993 Mumbai carnage, can go a long way in restoring some faith in Indian democracy. This might be the last thing on Chhagan Bhujbal’s mind. But couldn’t our leaders, even while giving vent to their vindictiveness, pay democracy this lip service?

Yours faithfully,
Rajen Malhotra, Calcutta

Community woes

Sir — The author of fiction has the right to create a character as despicable as his plot requires. Even when his characters are devoid of any redeeming qualities, it is his prerogative to divorce his story from the realities of life. However, the sweeping statements made in Cotton Mary denigrate the Anglo-Indian community and are unacceptable and unfair. Anglo-Indians are hardworking and honest. They have proved themselves to be dedicated and efficient.

Right upto the Sixties, they have shown their competence in all the nerve centres of national administration, including the railways, posts and telegraph, police, customs, army, navy and air force, contributing to the smooth functioning of these departments. Many Anglo-Indians have left the country, and have done well for themselves in those countries they have moved onto. The small community, whose mother tongue, English, is not even listed as a national language, has done remarkably well. It is a well known fact that “foreigners” have a lowly and biased opinion of Asians. So James Ivory could be ignored. But what excuse could Ismail Merchant have about the film?

Yours faithfully,
Del Rodrigues, Calcutta

Sir — We need to decide what is responsible for the trouble over community-based films. Given the controversies taking place, it is clear that directors, producers, screenplay writers, and the fraternity of those involved in film production in this nation need to micromanage the scripts they purchase — especially those with unscrubbed community themes.

What one needs to ponder is how issues such as those in Deepa Mehta’s Water, Nitin Keni’s Gaddar, and Ismail Merchant’s Cotton Mary receive state approval, and what censors think of as their true duty. There are important questions involved here, and people’s differing opinions are at the centre of them. It appears that the soul of a community now matters the least, and that minorities are expendable.

A few days ago Anglo-Indians were screaming at the top of their voices to stop the screening of Cotton Mary at Nandan in Calcutta. Anglo-Indians in Cochin had the film withdrawn in three days. In West Bengal, Anglo-Indians had to become more vociferous, all because the powers that be at Nandan had proved to be insensitive to community sentiments.

The Indian attitude to mutual community respect will take long to change. It might be recalled here that five Muslim religious institutions in Hyderabad agreed on a fatwa that all Muslim actors engaging in roles demanding symbols of other faiths should renew their own faith. This was after Shabana Azmi tonsured her head as a Hindu widow. Maybe there is the need of a mantra: films on communities must respect values of the people they portray.

Yours faithfully,
Melvyn Brown, Calcutta

All’s in a name

Sir — I persuaded my nine year old daughter, Nibedita, a student of class IV, La Martiniere, to participate in a sit and write competition organized by Macmillan India Limited in the bookshop in Charnock City, Salt Lake, on December 24,1999. She wrote a story called “The Little Maid” on the subject set by the organizers and won a consolation prize. It was also announced that two of the best entries would be published in “Telekids”. On January 20 my daughter rang me up in office and told me, amidst tears, that while her story had been prominently printed on page seven of “Telekids” of that day, the name of the author was given as Nibedita Das instead of Nibedita Sen. The organizers, when contacted, said that all original manuscripts had been sent to “Telekids”. After several calls, they disowned responsibility completely for the error. After an official of “Telekids” was contacted, a line acknowledging the error was published on February 3, in the section called “Talk Back”.

This should technically solve the matter to the complete satisfaction of all concerned. But how does one deal with the disappointment of a child, who finds the wrong name has been assigned to a story she had written and through no fault of her own? In fact, her disappointment was so severe that she would not take the story to school to show her friends and teachers. While I realize that to err is human, may I request the organizers and people in the media to ensure that such incidents do not mar events which are supposed to foster creativity amongst children?

Yours faithfully,
Sumita Sen, Calcutta

Sir — From my experience as the reader of newspapers, I have noticed that most publications tend to disregard the importance of readers’ participation. This damages the interest of the paper. But it is good to see that ample space is provided in both The Telegraph and the supplement ,“Metro”, for readers’ responses. These columns allow readers to share their opinions with others and are in keeping with the democratic spirit of freedom of expression.

Yours faithfully,
K.R. Venkatasubramanian, Calcutta

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

The Cinema of Satyajit Ray: Between Tradition and Modernity
By Darius Cooper, Cambridge, Rs 495

Writing on the fastidious masters could be a fearful affair. In Satyajit Ray or, say, Marcel Proust, the commentator is faced, not just with a formidable intelligence and its achievements, but also with a social personality that, one suspects, did not suffer fools gladly. While reading Darius Cooper’s recent “comprehensive treatment of Ray’s work”, I found myself asking repeatedly, with a sort of vicarious embarrassment, what if Ray himself had read this book? Cooper has to be congratulated on remaining blissfully free of such nervousness throughout this prolix and self-confident study. The result is a series of deeply unintelligent analyses of the greater part of Ray’s cinematic oeuvre, in tactless and inelegant prose. For readers familiar with Ray’s own impeccably stylish film writing, Cooper’s work can only bring disappointment, followed by irritation and dismay.

The aim of his study is to “situate and evaluate” Ray’s cinema “from an Indian aesthetic as well as an Indian social and historical perspective”. Liberating the films from the “convenient labels arbitrarily imposed by Western theoreticians”, Cooper wants to “single out” the “Western and Indian influences” in the films, “laying bare a truly indigenous style and vision”. Singling out and laying bare are presumptuous critical operations that can be seldom performed upon masterpieces without exposing the critic’s own wrong-headed parochialisms.

Cooper’s “valorizing [of] the Indianness” of Ray’s cinema in order to give back to it “an Indian dignity” is founded on a profound failure to understand Ray’s cosmopolitanism as an artist. From Pather Panchali to Agantuk, the subject matter of Ray’s cinema has been consistently Indian. But the cinematic language, narrative structure and indeed the shaping intellect and sensibility that inform his films and produce his celebrated “classicism” are equally consistently European. This is a paradoxical phenomenon, for this cosmopolitanism works through constitutive elements that are quintessentially Indian. The music of Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, the faces of Chhabi Biswas, Soumitra Chatterjee, Karuna Banerjee and Sharmila Tagore, pigeons and weightlifters on the ghats of Benares, a Tagore novella, the golden stone of Jaisalmer fort and the culturally inflected conversations of the Calcuttan upper middle class are effortlessly of the same essence, in his films, as the spirit of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, of Jean Renoir and Vittorio De Sica.

As a result, Jalsaghar and Visconti’s The Leopard, Aranyer Din Ratri and Antonioni’s L’Avventura belong to the same cultural universe and demand the same sort of free-ranging sophistication from their diverse audiences. This is not a question of “influence”, as Cooper would like us to think. Perhaps “confluence” would be a better word. Ray comes at the end of a liberal intellectual tradition of elite cosmopolitanism that goes back, in India, to such figures as Rammohan Roy, and would include someone like Jawaharlal Nehru, for whom the discovery of India was inseparable from an engagement with Europe, a Europe that is continually reconsidered, privately and publicly.

Cooper Indianizes this richness by reading the Apu trilogy and Jalsaghar in terms of the classical Sanskrit theory of the rasas, presenting each film as an elaboration of “a dominant state of emotion”. As a result, its delicate counterpointing of emotive identification with aesthetic distance becomes a “resolution into a single tone”. This is a sentimental and often rather melodramatic “tone”, inimical to the native restraint of Ray’s artistic temper which was, in his own words, “truthful, unobtrusive and modern”. Moreover, the rasa discourse, in Cooper’s hands, does not remain just a theoretical framework, but assumes the status of an essential context to Ray’s early creativity. He claims its formative influence on Ray’s aesthetics without being able to provide a shred of historical evidence for this.

The classic necklace-stealing or train-watching sequences in Pather Panchali are reduced, by this affective vocabulary, to such monstrosities of critical prose as: “For Apu, the train’s soul, its whatness, leaps at him from the way its appearance totally engulfs him. Its radiance (claritas) lies in its whatness (quidditas).” Such a combination of mush and jargon regularly alternates with long and tedious descriptions of sequences, generously peppered with terms from Sanskrit poetics, creating a bilingualism that reads like a highbrow version of MTV-speak. The book’s best bits are long quotations from other critics, most notably Geeta Kapur and Ashis Nandy, that stand out from the surrounding verbiage and provide welcome relief. The charting out of historical contexts is entirely derivative, with the late Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Sudhir Kakar as authorities on “the Indian man” and “the Indian woman” respectively. Chaudhuri’s objectivity on such matters is, of course, legendary.

In his dourly “contextual” readings of Aranyer Din Ratri and Kanchenjungha, Cooper fails to capture the spirit of Ray’s highest, and most challenging, sophistication. Ray described Aranyer Din Ratri as “one of my most satisfying films — subtle, complex (but not bewilderingly so) and superbly acted by the entire ensemble”. Its elegant lightness and Mozartian charm, in the face of every human actuality waiting in the wings, are memorably embodied in the enigmatic chic of Sharmila Tagore’s Aparna.

This is the “Sharmila magic” Cooper sanctimoniously disapproves of in a long and central section, entitled “From Gazes to Threat: the Odyssean Yatra (Journey) of the Ray Woman”. He points at “Sharmila’s elaborately made-up face...and excessively mannered walk in a provocatively draped sari or tight pants...token ‘displays’ gleaned from her unfortunate immersion in Bombay’s Hollywood”. Cooper’s unsavoury prejudices regarding “the liberated Indian woman” lie exposed here. The coup de grâce follows soon after: “In Ray’s films the women do give in the spirit of the Gita, that is, without a thought for the fruits or returns (Cooper’s italics)”.

Life is short, and High Cinema long and slow. Cooper’s referees for Cambridge University Press seem to have had, incredibly, all the time for these inanities of film criticism. Most filmgoers will prefer the more exquisite longueur of The Music Room.    

The Madras Quartet Women in Karnatak Music
By Indira Menon, Roli, Rs 250

The title is misleading. The book is not about women in Karnatak music but about four celebrated women performers whose career spans happened to converge at a time Indian classical music was going through a period of profound transformation. It attempts to locate women artists in the classical tradition of Karnatak music, arguing that a combination of circumstances enabled women performers from diverse backgrounds to create a space for themselves in what had remained an essentially male domain.

The proposition is, in a broad sense, acceptable but it ignores the more subtle elements that marked the process of transformation as classical music moved from the salon and temple to the market from about the later decades of the 19th century. The strength of the book lies in the anecdotal detail the author has been able to access and present on behalf of her protagonists, their personal backgrounds and the unique trajectory of their professional careers.

The failure to historicize is balanced by the author’s intuitive affinity with the performing tradition. It is also a shot in the arm for those who wish to make a case for an understanding of music as a performing tradition rather than a textual one, a depiction that both orientalists and nationalist historians tend to reify.

The emergence and spectacular success of the Madras quartet — M.S. Subbalakshmi (1916- ), T. Brinda (1912-96), D.K. Pattamal (1919- ) and M.L. Vasanthakumati (1928-90) — from about the first quarter of the 20th century was an offshoot of the larger transformation of Indian society in the wake of colonial rule mediated through Western education and the new colonial bureaucracy. The dismantling of older political systems like Tanjore, Ramnad, Mysore and Travancore and their reduced status and strength in the second half of the 19th century undermined the traditional social fabric of patronage and protection, dispossessing a variety of groups whose livelihoods had been predicated upon an older moral economy.

One such group was the community of devadasis who were proficient in certain musical genres that were later arbitrarily categorized as “light classical” music. The musical profession in south India was organized on the basis of caste and gender and while the segregation restricted women’s access to certain genres, the boundaries were by no means closed. Recent research shows that there was considerable overlapping in terms of transmission of knowledge and that male musicians often learnt from and taught women artists.

The decay of the older centres led the community to seek fresh pastures in Madras, where the local commercial magnates for a while patronized senior performers until the reforming zeal of the educated elite turned its attention to the moral aspects of the devadasi system and to the importance of retrieving their artistic and cultural tradition as part of the grand nationalist project.

Indira Menon does not identify the making or the complex contours of this nationalist project which disenfranchized further the shrinking community of traditional performers. Among those engaged in the project were Subbalakshmi and Pattamal who represented the reclaimed traditionalist and the new middle class woman singer for whom it was no longer disrespectable to sing in public. Brinda, on the other hand, represented the autonomous traditionalist who refused to record or compromise with the new project claimed to preserve classical music in its authentic and pristine form.

Readers would have benefited had the author, with her access to Brinda and her lineage, deployed more information to document the story of the muse as it was appropriated by a group of self-important musicologists and publicists. One is reminded of Rangaramanuja Iyengar’s Musings of the Musician, which was severely critical of the so called reformist project that deliberately silenced many talented musicians like Dhanam, whose personal contributions and interaction with male musicians remained unacknowledged.    

The Dangs: Journeys into the Heartland
By Randhir Khare, HarperCollins, Rs 295

The title of the book might give rise to the suspicion that it is about the author’s journey into the jungles of the Dangs district in south Gujarat. However, the narrative of the author’s responses to the life of the tribals in the Dangs is only a part, though a substantial one, of the book. For the book is, first and foremost, a rather elaborate description of the author’s experience of tribal life in different parts of the country. It also includes memories of his eventful childhood and his passion for hunting and angling.

But these peripheral musings are no distractions because they have been skilfully integrated into the story of the Dangs. The earlier part of the book may even be considered an introduction to the main theme. The author first came to the Dangs as a government consultant to understand the condition and perceptions of the people involved in the literacy movement of the region.

The author, Ranjit Khare, notes, along with his own reflections, the changes in the tribals’ attitudes, their scepticism about the value of literacy and its value in the tribal setup. He also notes how their poverty and the fact that for centuries they had been denied opportunities for development had isolated them so that their very survival as a racial group was threatened by the gropings of a developing nation.

During his journeys into the various tribal societies, Khare tried to understand their social mores and their manner of living. He was thus in a better position than most academic social anthropologists to see the tribals’ instinctive understanding of the environment around them and how nature helped and guided in their everyday life.

The most striking quality of the book is the sensitive prose. His delineation of nature in all its aspects and in every seasons is spellbinding and even lyrical. The other distinguishing feature is the author’s ability to sketch characters with deft touches.

In the midst of the many thoughtful peregrinations, one encounters the mystical Janubhai who has a secret communion with the forces of nature; Janakiben, the rebel who refuses to take things lying down; Bhagat, the herb doctor of the Dangs; Bhoona baba, the village priest, painter, doctor and story-teller of Jhinjini village; and Bhumia, who taught Khare the ways of the tribe.

Among the outsiders Khare meets an Indian Administrative Services officer, a “Che” (Guevera) figure who claims to have brought about a revolution with his literacy programme, and the sophisticated director of a documentary on the tribals. The Jeep driver, Ananthbhai; the education officer, Sharma; and the photographer — all come to life with their peculiarities.

Not only is this book good reading, it also furthers a better understanding of tribal life in India.    

Pakistan: a Modern History
By Ian Talbot, Oxford, Rs 625

Students of history and politics will have many expectations from Pakistan: A Modern History, the latest book by Ian Talbot, eminent scholar and Pakistan hand. From Pakistan’s troubled history to its conducting nuclear tests in reply to India’s Pokhran tests, Talbot’s is a remarkably lucid investigation of the tortuous politics of that country. Pakistan remains a bugbear to many Indians who know little of its internal pressures, its diverse cultural forces, law and order problems, the fractious relationship between various regions and the all-pervasive presence of the military.

It is easy to dismiss Pakistan as a failed state. However, such a view ignores the fact that Pakistan was formed as a result of a popular movement which was by no means monolithic. Many religious leaders opposed the Muslim League’s call for a state along religious lines. As Talbot says, the historical realities “are messy and suit neither the rantings of Islamic ideologues, nor the precision of political science theorizing about an ideal category of the post-colonial state”.

Pakistan is strategically placed to the east of the Persian Gulf and close to both China and Russia. Its geographical location accorded it immense importance during the Cold War and the Afghan conflict. After flirting with the United States during the Cold War, the country has now edged closer to China — in the light of what it sees as the Indian threat. Needless to say, much of Pakistan’s foreign relations, military preparedness and domestic priorities are based on this perceived threat from India.

For the first 11 years of its life — from 1947 to 1958 — Pakistan was a democracy. Its subsequent failure was the result of a number of causes. According to Talbot, the simplest reason was the one offered by Ayub Khan to justify his 1958 coup: that the politicians had brought the country to its knees “through their misuse of power, corruption and factional intrigue”.

Ayub Khan, who took over as chief martial law administrator on October 8, 1958, felt that Pakistan’s salvation lay in a “new constitutional order”. He demonized politicians and expressed concern for the “real people” — the rural masses. Early into his martial law regime he brought in a few constructive measures. During his presidency, per capita income as well as the growth rate increased. As an soldier, Ayub Khan understood Pakistan’s vulnerability and sought close defence ties with the US. He also helped Z.A. Bhutto rise to power. Ayub Khan’s decline started after the 1965 war with India when he accepted the terms of the ceasefire.

The next few years of turmoil, the Bangladesh war, the Yahya Khan years and the holding of Pakistan’s first elections in 1970 based on universal suffrage, are brilliantly discussed. So are the Bhutto regime and the activities of the Pakistan People’s Party. Talbot paints Bhutto as an arrogant and ruthless man, much despised by his foes. Nevertheless, there is no doubting that he had immense influence on Pakistan’s politics.

Politics in Pakistan has now become more intricate than ever before. The military is in power again and Sharif faces possible execution. To make sense of this bewildering jumble seems well nigh impossible. To Talbot’s credit, he manages very well. Talbot feels that for Pakistan, the way ahead lies in the “genuine political participation of previously marginalized groups such as women, minorities and rural and urban poor”.

Finally, Talbot should be thanked for a very useful glossary and appendices, especially the list of Pakistan’s heads of state, prime ministers, biographical notes and notes on political parties.    

The Power of Ideas
By Isaiah Berlin, Chatto, £ 11
The Roots of Romanticism
By Isaiah Berlin, Chatto, £ 11

No other don won for himself the kind of acclaim and celebrity status that was heaped upon Isaiah Berlin. He was a major power player in the Oxford cloisters and set up by himself an Oxford college. He was influential in Whitehall and also in some quarters of Tel Aviv. He was the cynosure of dinner parties in New York, Washington and London. His conversation held his listeners rapt in the common rooms of Oxford. All this was based on Berlin’s profound erudition, his enviable gift of communication and his capacity for making wide generalizations over a wide range of philosophy and intellectual history.

In terms of intellectual output, Berlin was the master of the essay. He never really wrote a book except for his first book on Karl Marx. These two volumes published after his death bring together essays that have not appeared in any previous collection. Berlin in his youth trained as a philosopher, and with J.L. Austin, Stuart Hampshire and A.J. Ayer was part of an Oxford group which discussed issues of analytical philosophy. But Berlin moved on to make the history of ideas his major field of work. Berlin’s approach to the history of ideas is far removed from the one associated with the name of Quentin Skinner. He does not concentrate on detailed textual analysis of a body of work and its setting in an intellectual and material context. Berlin was fascinated by individuals — Alexander Herzen, Giambattista Vico, Leo Tolstoy, Hamann and so on — whose ideas he dissected in memorable essays. He also traced, through swoops across time, the pedigree of certain concepts — freedom, monism, romanticism, Zionism and so on.

Typically, Berlin claimed no originality. “I talk about other people. I examine their views. But what about me?” In the first essay of the book, The Power of Ideas, Berlin talks about his own philosophical development. Here, after locating the major signposts of his philosophical path, Berlin stated his credo: “I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and temperaments. I am not a relativist... But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ [and] there is not an infinity of them...the difference this makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding.” The essays in this volume bear testimony to Berlin’s abilities of understanding the ideas of thinkers whose views differed from his own.

The Roots of Romanticism presents for the first time, in printed form, Berlin’s most famous lecture series, the Mellon lectures, delivered in Washington in 1965. Berlin believed that the importance of romanticism is that “it is the largest recent movement to transform the lives and thoughts of the Western world. It seems to me to be the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred, and all other shifts which have occurred in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries appear to me in comparison less important, and at any rate deeply influenced by it.”

These two volumes show Berlin at his best: his learning, his capacity to move with ease across historical epochs and his ability to draw out connections. There is also his inimitable style, the irrepressibly long sentences, one following upon another but never losing the sequence of thought and logic. This is also how he spoke, in imitation of his mentor Maurice Bowra. Those familiar with Berlin will be delighted with these volumes. The newcomer might discover a new joy.    


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