Editorial 1/Left out
Editorial 2/Quiet fund
Local body language
Letters tothe Editor
Beyond infinity/Book review
News, views and tongue lashing/Book review
A military affair/Book review
Stepping into intimate spaces/Book review
How to write the success story/Bookwise

Electoral defeat could not have been more dramatically indicative of fundamental change. The Left Front’s humiliating loss — by a margin of more than 41,000 votes — of the Panskura Lok Sabha constituency to the Trinamool Congress is not just the outcome of an insignificant byelection. Panskura, in West Bengal’s Midnapore district, has become a political metonym for what could well emerge as a comprehensive trend in the state. Although the losing candidate, Mr Gurudas Dasgupta, is a member of the Communist Party of India, the byelection was quite obviously stage-managed throughout by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The contest was starkly bipolar, the Congress’s presence having been reduced to being farcically symbolic. Mr Bikram Sarkar, although officially the Trinamool Congress candidate, was only nominally the representative of his party. It was made stridently clear that he was only shadowing his party’s chief, Ms Mamata Banerjee, whose rousing physical presence in Panskura reinforced her principal campaigning strategy. The electorate had to perceive this as the decisive displacement of a long Left Front hegemony by the catastrophic emergence of Ms Banerjee’s rule. Geeta Mukherjee, whose death had necessitated this byelection, had been winning Panskura since 1977. She had defeated her Congress rival in 1989 by a margin of more than 1,20,000 votes. Yet, this margin had been drastically reduced to a little more than 46,000 votes in her 1999 victory over the Trinamool Congress candidate. The steady erosion of the Left Front base in Panskura since 1998 has been paralleled by the corresponding emergence of the Trinamool Congress, upsetting, quite alarmingly, the social and political configurations in the area. That this change would turn out to be nothing short of a major upheaval has been borne out by the scale of the violence that has marked the run-up to these polls.

The Left Front’s defeat, in this case, is doubly humiliating. First, it had pulled out all stops to mount an extremely high profile campaigning strategy, involving major leaders, parliamentarians and legislators. Second, considering this was just a byelection, the entire machinery and resources of the coalition, deployed on a single constituency, failed to ensure the retainment of a traditional stronghold. This is ominous indeed, for the forthcoming Calcutta Municipal Corporation elections, and more crucially, for next year’s assembly elections. Moreover, although the elections themselves have been relatively peaceful — largely as a result of unprecedentedly massive security arrangements — the fear of post-poll violence cannot but be in the air. Devastated by pre-poll mayhem, it is perhaps natural to fear the effect on law and order of such a dramatic change in the political structure of this constituency.    

Though his visit to India was more in the way of a familiarization tour, the new managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Mr Horst Kohler, could not resist saying India was still falling short of its potential. India’s economy could be growing eight to 10 per cent a year, he said, if it pushed ahead with economic liberalization. The Union finance minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, may have found this embarrassing. His ministry is claiming India will achieve exactly these figures. The IMF predicts a moderate 6.5 per cent growth for the economy this year. Mr Kohler has warned the fiscal deficit could drag down the economy. He said the Atal Behari Vajpayee government had to move ahead on so called second generation economic reforms. Mr Sinha showcased his government’s efforts in the fields Mr Kohler was talking about. These include privatization, reforming the financial sector, further reducing tariffs and draining the red ink ocean threatening the economy. It is doubtful Mr Kohler was all that impressed. The Vajpayee government, like its predecessors in power, grandstands a lot more than it actually does in the field of reforms. The IMF knows this all too well. Which is why its economic growth prognostications for India are so many notches below New Delhi’s.

Mr Kohler’s visit was otherwise low key and unremarkable. There were no demonstrations from either the extreme right or the extreme left. When Mr Kohler’s predecessor, Mr Michel Camdessus, came to India in 1991 to initial the standby loan that marked the start of economic liberalization, he was provided heavy security. Indian governments used to try and keep loan negotiations and conditionalities under wraps. The IMF did not even have an office in India until eight years ago, preferring to operate anonymously out of a New Delhi hotel. Today India talks with and takes money from the IMF openly. This reflects two developments. First, there is a broad acceptance of economic liberalization in India, even if various interest groups quibble about the specifics. The IMF conditionalities were “imperialist” and “colonialist” in 1991. Today, when India’s reforms have moved far beyond what the IMF required, most people can barely remember what the conditionalities were. Second, the IMF and the World Bank are no longer a major source of foreign capital in the country. These days India tailors its policies with the much more important foreign direct investor, not the IMF, in mind. Mr Kohler may have found it of interest that Mr Sinha boasted of the memoranda of understanding the Centre was signing with Indian states in an attempt to enforce fiscal discipline. Without a trace of irony, New Delhi is essentially and rightly acting like the IMF — offering credit to profligate governments in return for their enacting policies of fiscal austerity.    

The essence of decentralization in India is that panchayats and municipalities should serve as units of self government. That objective is lost if these units merely handle programmes sanctioned by the states and the Centre. Panchayats and municipalities were supposed to be more than a mere administrative rearrangement with a presiding layer of elected representatives.

“Power to the people” is decentralization’s goal. Therefore, executive authority has to be vested in elected representatives. The responsibility for the functioning of local bodies, exercise of executive authority for that purpose and accountability to the public — all go together. Unfortunately, confusion and inaction still cloud the picture.

There are four issues. First is the interrelationship between elected representatives and officials. For example, whether authority should be vested in a single person. Second, how day to day executive authority is allocated to officials and staff appointed by local bodies. Third, how much control should a state government exercise over a municipality. Finally, accountability to the public, as opposed to accountability to higher levels of political power.

The constitutional amendment left it to the states to determine whether heads of municipalities or city corporations should be directly or indirectly elected. However, the intention was not to concentrate all power in the sarpanch or municipal president. In medium towns and large cities, a strong mayor approach is unworkable. A mayor’s strength should depend on the support he can mobilize and how executive authority is shared among elected representatives.

In Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, mayors are elected directly by voters for five year tenures. Removing them is more difficult than removing a chief minister. But mayors have few executive responsibilities. In most cities, power is shared between standing committees and a state appointed chief executive. Mayors or municipal chiefs in most states are ceremonial entities, busy “cutting ribbons and kissing babies.”

During the 74th constitutional amendment debate, the need for an appropriate structure within the corporation and municipalities was discussed. The Centre said this should be left to the states rather than the Constitution. Unfortunately, the states have made little progress on this front.

The “distribution of powers” between deliberative and executive wings may be a good principle, but when running a city on a day to day basis the distinction between deliberation and execution, debate and decision, is unclear. Elected representatives find legislation or policymaking politically unrewarding. For a municipal councillor to content himself with policy and leave administration to others is folly.

Under the British the municipal commissioner was selected and appointed by the state government. He was answerable to the state and not the city. This conflict of jurisdiction and loyalties remains an item of debate.

The all India council of mayors, the central council of local self government, sundry state panels and expert bodies have agreed on the need for better distribution of powers and responsibilities between appointed commissioners and elected municipal heads or mayors.

The conformity laws that followed the 74th constitutional amendment failed to address these issues.. The provisions of the past remain. In some cases, the situation has become worse. The 1996 amended Delhi Municipal Corporation Act says all the executive power for carrying out the provisions of the act shall vest in the commissioner.

Much of this flows from a fear of the large city emerging as a focus of power parallel to the state. Curtailing the executive domain of the city, placing it under state control, is seen as a way to counter this threat by state and Central legislators.

Only in Kerala and West Bengal was a conscious attempt made to vest elected mayors and the municipal chairperson with executive powers so authority and accountability go together. The mayor in council of Calcutta and other West Bengal municipalities is the result.

Calcutta’s mayor in council is like a cabinet. The mayor is voted by elected corporation councillors. The mayor then appoints up to 11 other elected councillors and assigns them subjects. Together they form the mayor in council, the executive authority in the corporation and answerable to the corporation council. The commissioner is state appointed but answerable to the mayor and acts as principal executive officer.

Madhya Pradesh has legislated a modified mayor in council. Gujarat’s mayors are drafting such a law. The Delhi corporation has requested the Centre to introduce it in the capital.

Most politicians think the mayor in council system will increase their tenure and give them more authority. Calcutta’s elected councillors prefer it because their own colleagues are in charge of various subjects and it is easier to approach them than appointed officials. The interaction between the member in charge and an elected councillor is politically more responsive and similar to that between a minister and a legislator. In the process, the councillors’ self importance is enhanced and they expect a quicker solution to their constituencies’ problems. The bureaucracy also seems to prefer the wider and easier access.

States try different models to staff city governments. In Maharashtra and Gujarat the chief executive officers of municipalities belong to a state cadre and are transferred from city to city. Since these officers belong to the state and not the city, they do not obey elected executives. Even in larger corporations the commissioner and top officials are often appointed by the state. A conflict of loyalties becomes inevitable.

Elected councillors consider their active participation in decisionmaking at the committee or the management of the corporation more significant than their legislative role. They always try to influence the municipal bureaucracy regarding development expenditure, contracts, property taxes and personnel. The process often leads to major confrontations. An example was the political drama surrounding the transfer of Arun Bhatia, the Pune corporation commissioner.

Relations between elected representatives and staff are fraught with problems. Decentralization theory dictates local bodies have full control over staff. But given the potential for confrontation with elected representatives, can local bodies attract and hold good personnel?

One answer is to have the rights and responsibilities of municipal officials and staff laid down as clearly and as elaborately as possible. The Calcutta Act identifies the powers of the commissioner for 170 items out of 300.

State control over municipalities is hotly contested. Local self-government was heralded as democracy’s cradle. But it was rocked frequently by the rough hand of the state, in the name of efficiency, propriety and fiscal discipline.

Restrictions on municipal budgets are too many to enumerate. The bypassing of local authorities and the diminution of their responsibilities is common. Suppressing city corporations is frequent in India. It was expected the 74th amendment would at least confer on the corporations the right to live. But cases like Hyderabad, without a city government for 22 years, continue.

In India, the hierarchy in the political and administrative arenas places rural and urban local bodies at the bottom. Constitutional clauses and a gamut of rules exist to keep lower administrative levels in check. Protests against such command and control have been met by appointing committees like the 1954 panel on state government and local body relations. Like others of its ilk, this committee hoisted numerous flags of caution in exercising that autonomy.

Authority and accountability have to go together. The question is: accountability to whom? In a hierarchical setup accountability to higher level government is prominent. In a democratic setup accountability to the people is more important. What is common to most cities is that the existing organization precludes any effective participation of the people themselves and, therefore, the means for securing public accountability.

The author is a research professor, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, and has recently authored a book, Power to the People?    


Smart way to freedom

Sir — Three swallows do not make a summer. Much as Rasheed Kidwai might want to convince us, Reshma, Irena and Ameena — Muslims girls who have dared to divorce their husbands — are still actually “isolated” cases occurring in downtown Bhopal, Delhi and Hyderabad (“Talaaq begins to run both ways”, June 6). As Kidwai himself points out, the phenomenon is strictly confined to the upper classes where girls are educated and presumably allowed to have a lifestyle of their own. Both Reshma and Ameena opted for divorce because they found themselves “socially” constricted. Apparently the problem is the education gap between the genders. In this context it would mean educated women in the upper classes outnumber educated men. This is true for the middle classes as well, but divorces are unlikely to become as common in this class. The crucial factor is upperclass Muslim women’s newfound social mobility. No wonder religious leaders see “improvement” of women “within the ambit of Muslim law” as the solution.

Yours faithfully,
Rachna Sachdeva, Calcutta

Crown of thorns

Sir — The editorial, “Reform speak” (May 18), points to the confusion within the Congress over economic reforms. While Sonia Gandhi was protesting against withdrawal of subsidies, Manmohan Singh was saying in the Rajya Sabha that non-merit subsidies needed to be phased out because they hurt the poor. The Congress’s confusions are the result of contradictory advice from the coterie of advisors espousing various economic ideologies who surround Sonia Gandhi. This is perhaps the reason she did not choose Parliament — the natural forum for protest — but took to the streets.

Economic liberalization originated with the Congress, and the party must keep to its pro-reform and pro-poor platform. Sonia Gandhi’s indecision regarding reforms, colourless performance in Parliament and lack of a coherent national vision might lead her to desperate acts which get her newspaper headlines. But this will not enhance her image or that of her party. Its existence as a responsible opposition is necessary for Indian democracy.

Yours faithfully,
B.C. Dutta, Calcutta

Congress leaders have now realized that a Gandhi is no passport to power. Sonia Gandhi’s poor leadership qualities were evident when she threw out Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar for questioning her right to be leader because of her foreign birth. Later, she had no qualms in aligning with the Nationalist Congress Party to form the government in Maharashtra. Her reading from notes in public meetings also shows her up as a poor leader. No wonder Congress legislators in West Bengal voted against the official party candidate in the recent Rajya Sabha elections. The party should throw out Sonia Gandhi and bring in Madhavrao Scindia or Rajesh Pilot as its leader. This will enthuse the grassroot workers of the party.

Yours faithfully,
Manoranjan Das, Jamshedpur

Sir — Despite the Congress’s unexpectedly good performance in the recent municipal elections in the state, Jairam Ramesh’s remarks against Sonia Gandhi should be heeded, especially by A.B.A. Ghani Khan Chowdhury. For Khan Chowdhury, two issues are in conflict, his own political existence and the whims of all India Congress Committee members. The latter made Khan Chowdhury abandon his plans for the mahajot to ensure a direct contest in the state civic polls. Khan Chowdhury’s political future lies in an understanding with Mamata Banerjee. Listening to the Congress’s central leadership would be suicidal in the context of West Bengal.

Yours faithfully,
O.P. Mehta, Calcutta

Sir — The old guard in the Congress is realizing its mistake in dragging a reluctant Sonia Gandhi into politics. Initially Congress leaders had confined their regret to themselves. A few dared to air their feelings to the media. Rajesh Pilot and Jitendra Prasada even organized rallies to raise the issue of inner party democracy. Dissent is fast growing in the Congress. Sonia Gandhi has to struggle to mobilize people for her rallies. Even her protest march in New Delhi against the price rise did not attract too many people. Are Sonia Gandhi’s days in politics numbered?

Yours faithfully,
V.A. Gopala, Bangalore

Wrong cue

Sir — Arnab Bhattacharya’s review of Shanta Gokhale’s Playwright at the Centre (“It’s curtains for the old song and dance routine”, June 2) is ill-informed. Ramnarayan Tarkaratna’s Kulin Kulasarbasva was not written “in the 1840s”, but in 1854. To state that only Bengali and Marathi drama “defined the course of Indian theatre” is highly simplistic. If anything, the touring Hindusthani-language Parsi theatre proved the most influential form nationally. His demand for attention to folk theatre is absurd since the author’s subject is published scripts, which folk theatre obviously does not have. Describing dasavatar as a ritualistic cult belittles this traditional Vaishnava genre. Sangeetnatak declined not because of “a university-educated audience” but owing to the rise of cinema: both catered to popular tastes, whereas the new realistic social drama appealed to the Westernized modernists. The astonishing comment that “Marathi theatre of the Eighties and Nineties is comparatively lacklustre” reveals that Bhattacharya knows little about it. No wonder he calls contemporary dramatists like Premanand Gajvi (not Gajri) “modern”.

Yours faithfully,
Ananda Lal, Calcutta

Sir — A few points may be added to Arnab Bhattacharya’s review. Proscenium theatre in Bengal began with Gerasim Lebedeff’s production of Kalponik Sangbadol at Bengali Theatre on 25, Domtolla Street, on November 25, 1795. Besides, it is not true that Ramnarayan Tarkaratna “came up with the landmark production, Kulin-kul-sarvashwa” in the 1840s. The play was written in the early 1850s and first performed in March 1858 at Jayram Bysack’s house in Churruckdanga Street. Ramnarayan was a playwright, not a producer. How could he “come up” with the said production? Bhattacharya’s use of the word “landmark” requires clarification. Kulinkulsarbashwa was neither the first play nor the first Bengali play staged in Calcutta. History rates Kulinkulsarbashwa as the first original Bengali play written for the proscenium theatre. Abhignan Shakuntala written by Nandakumar Roy is the first performed Bengali play written by a Bengali (January, 1857). Since it was a translation of Kalidasa’s original, Ramnarayan’s Kulinkulsarbashwa, a critique of Koulinyapratha, is acknowledged as the first original Bengali play.

Yours truly,
Anshuman Bhowmick, Calcutta

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

Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics
By George Johnson, Knopf, $ 30

Science has hardly ever been in short supply of heroes. And physics in particular has had more than its share of icons. This has played a role in shaping up its image in the public mind. If it is a great entertainer, that is as much for its intellectual triumphs, as it is for its unfolding as a multi-starrer movie, replete with exciting sub-plots.

Murray Gell-Mann is a star of 20th century physics, having saved it from one of its worst quandaries, a feat which demanded nothing less than a revolution in human understanding of nature’s tricks.

Looking at the variety of things all around, humanity has always wondered what they are made of. Long ago, Aristotle, himself a star of physics, argued that everything on earth was made up of only four constituents: air, water, soil and fire. The proposal, probably the best-ever example of a wrong idea but a right beginning, is still revered for its zeal to make the apparent complexity of nature simple. The same yearning still drives those of Aristotle’s intellectual descendants who now call themselves physicists.

Following Aristotle’s example, Democritus said everything was made of atoms, the so-called indestructible units. It was the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev who elevated this concept to its pinnacle of glory by showing the order of some one hundred different atoms in a neatly arranged table. With the advent of 20th century, scientists knew that atoms no longer were the fundamental constituents of matter; they were made of even finer units. Instead of making things complicated, this realization revealed an even more elegant order: the variety of atoms found on the earth and the sky were the result of only different numerical combinations of particles called protons, neutrons and electrons.

Alas, this simplicity, too, was short-lived. As physicists smashed these elementary particles into each other or detected particles showered on the earth from space they were left with fragments of fragments. The yearning for simplicity gave way to a despair.

Entered Gell-Mann and a few others and physics was saved from this deep crisis. By postulating quarks as the ultimate constituent of matter and devising a new scheme of classification of particles, Gell-Mann led the crusade to restore order amidst chaos, an achievement for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969. His current passion is in a bit reverse gear: to understand the widespread complexity in nature. As the title of his book, The Quark and the Jaguar, suggests, he wants to figure out how a jaguar, made as it is of simple quarks, become so complex a creature.

George Johnson, the gifted science writer for the New York Times known for his lucid prose and perceptive coverage of physics, has churned out a fascinating story of this scientist who dominated particle physics from the Fifties to the Seventies.

Gell-Mann was a child prodigy always struggling to live up to his father’s higher and higher expectations. Born in a family of strong intellectual standards, but impoverished by the Great Depression of the Thirties, he was admitted to Yale University at 14, went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at 18 and, via the celebrated Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and Chicago University, became a full professor at Caltech at 25. The Nobel Prize came when he was only 40.

Yet, as Johnson depicts, for all his accomplishments, Gell-Mann did not become that humble and easygoing a person. His passion for knowledge goes far beyond physics — classical history, archaeology, linguistics, wildlife ecology, ornithology, numismatics, French and Chinese cuisine — and, asked to name the things he did not know, his son can only think of soccer and baseball. It is difficult to imagine how such an eclectic mind indulges in an almost childish show-off of knowledge. Gell-Mann is good at surprising strangers by telling them the entire history of their surnames and then offending them by showing how they mispronounce those words. He is equally smart in cutting short — even with abrasive remarks — those physicists whose ideas he does not like. Richard Feynman, Gell-Mann’s Caltech colleague and a Nobel Prize winner, had been his sparring partner for a long time, so much that, Johnson writes, Gell-Mann became unhappy when Feynman got the award four years earlier than him.

To make the tale of such a complicated genius livelier, Johnson has even included some behind-the-scene anecdotes, especially how he got around to writing this biography despite some initial hurdles set by none other than Gell-Mann himself. The celebrity physicist had been in touch with John Brockman, the author-turned-agent who has made many a scientist millionaire through book contracts. He had been Gell-Mann’s agent for The Quark and the Jaguar and persuaded him to write his autobiography for a huge sum.

Gell-Mann, who is no fan of journalists and once described someone he did not like as “a man of impenetrable stupidity, unmatched even by science writers today”, was alarmed when Johnson approached him with his own project. Not only did he refuse to be interviewed by Johnson, but, probably at Brockman’s bidding, also called his friends to tell them not to share with Johnson any “funny stories” about him as that might render them unusable in the memoir he was going to write. While Gell-Mann was doing this, Brockman invited Johnson to New York, only to take him to dinner and propose that he give up his own project and become Gell-Mann’s co-author in his biography. Johnson did not relent.

That he has not excused Brockman for his stupidity is evident from the revelations he has made about him in Strange Beauty. Brockman, it turns out, has been a failed author. He had been caught earlier in plagiarizing from the works of well-known science writers!

If you are curious to know how Johnson overcame the hurdles and Gell-Mann himself turned around to allow him, eventually, unrestricted access to all his personal files, read Strange Beauty. The title is taken from one of Gell-Mann’s favourite quotes—Francis Bacon’s assertion that “excellent beauty” is impossible without “some strangeness in the proportion”. What is most interesting is that while trying to catch the life of a genius, Johnson has ended up with a marvellous description of the evolution of particle physics—the competition and cooperation among scientists, their egos and insecurities, and disappointments and triumphs.

I am left with only one query after reading Strange Beauty. Has Gell-Mann, assuming he has gone through it, changed his opinion about science writers?    

My Own Witness
By Mrinal Pande, Viking, Rs 295

Mrinal Pande is angry and bitter. A lifetime of dedication to the cause of the Hindi vernacular media, has left her feeling “Like a stubborn bullock,/ That’s had enough/ Of whipping/ And twisting of the tail/ While pulling a hard plough”. And the result of all this frustration and ire is My Own Witness. Pande herself calls it a “novel”, but a more fitting description of the book would be thinly veiled autobiography, coupled with a tirade against the English media’s suppression of the vernacular.

Of course there is reason for anger. Pande has been a close observer and a victim of the way Hindi newspapers — despite their far larger reach than English newspapers and regularly breaking momentous stories — continue to be sidelined by the journalistic establishment and even by readers. She also writes of how vernacular journalists are treated as second class citizens and given less pay and perks than their counterparts who deal in the language that remains, for them, a colonial legacy. The seeming craze at present for Hindi among the private channels too is, for Pande, a sham. By forcing the vernaculars out of “regional ghettos”, these channels have made the vernaculars “uncouth, xenophobic and mean”, by forever “holding TV kangaroo courts in the name of the public, or creating grotesque masks for the young”.

So closely does the novel parallel Pande’s own life that she could scarcely have meant it as a work of fiction. The novel’s protagonist, Krishna — like Pande — taught English in a college before she became a journalist, rose to become one of the first female editors of a national Hindi daily and then switched to television where she became a regular anchor of news and current affairs programmes. Indeed, one can devise quite a merry game of matching characters in the book with well known media personalities — a game that is all the more enjoyable because easy.

Unfortunately, it is this aspect of the book that will give it notoriety. Pande, as a senior woman journalist, was uniquely placed to turn an introspective eye on the media — on the way it is run and its relations with society. But Pande has a disappointingly narrow focus: to show how Hindi has been marginalized by English. And this not merely in the media — for the media only reflects the larger concerns of society — but by politicians, policymakers, academics and the middle class.

Sadly, she illustrates this in terms of cliches like politicians who espouse the cause of Hindi but send their own children to English medium schools, of committees set up to promote Hindi so that a few mediocre scholars and poetasters can go on all-paid-for trips abroad, of children in English medium schools rapped on the knuckles for speaking in their mother tongue.

One can’t help feeling that both language and art fail Pande in her indignation and bitterness. This is disappointing because this book is about the decline of language, of how a language which is inextricably linked with the romanticism of the national freedom struggle has fallen prey to the chicanery of our current breed of politicians and capitalists.

But so many dialects of Hindi are spoken throughout the country, that the chaste Hindi Pande is so passionate about cannot be called entirely “native”, for it too must be learnt. For instance, the emphasis on Hindi has led to the dialect of Pande’s native Kumaoni hills being forgotten. It is this dialectic that Pande overlooks.

Pande is especially good at capturing the quotidian world of a newspaper office. Her literary sympathies are specially reserved for the small-time hack and the mean little newsdesk sub. The best parts of My Own Witness are the delightful little pen sketches of the various oddballs that fill journalism — JP the small town boy who made it good or the hen-pecked “Hamlet” Ranade.

My Own Witness would have gained immensely if Pande had dispensed with the thin veil of fiction shrouding her anger for an unabashed polemic against the inequities within a multilingual media.    

A History of the Pakistan Army
By Brian Cloughley, Lancer, Rs 595

This book in its second edition contains a new chapter on the Kargil conflict. The author served the British and Australian armies in Germany, west Asia, the subcontinent, and east Asia — and also saw active service in Borneo and Vietnam. He writes regularly on military matters and, as his credentials go, seems eminently suited to write the book. However, a treatise of this nature cannot be written without the blessings of the government concerned. This is borne out by the “foreword” by Abdul Waheed, Pakistan’s former chief of army staff, who compliments the author. Naturally, for someone on the other side of the border, it becomes difficult to review such a book dispassionately.

To be fair, the book offers an in-depth study of the Pakistani army. Its appeal to the Indian public lies in that it discusses matters which have otherwise remained unknown. Nowhere is this more evident than in the description of operations in the eastern sector during the Bangladesh war of 1971. Obviously, Indian accounts glorified Indian achievements. So it comes somewhat as a surprise to learn that the Pakistanis, though ravaged, at times held on to their positions till the very end. The author also quotes Indian sources to point out the poor performance of a number of Indian commanders. It appears that in the end the Pakistani army surrendered as they were largely outnumbered and had lost command of the skies.

In retracing its history, the Pakistani army’s role in cowing down the civilian population in what is now Bangladesh through mass murders, rapes and other atrocities should have been discussed more fully. However, this has not been done. The volume nevertheless provides a valuable insight into the handling of the political situation in Pakistan by experienced field marshals and generals.

Brian Cloughley excels where he writes about the various regiments, their commanders and traditions. This is no mean feat given the fact confusion can easily creep in discussions of the armies of both India and Pakistan. The following may be taken as an example. According to one description: “Partition allotted Hodson’s Horse to India. The Guides Cavalry, bound, logically, for Pakistan, handed over its Dogra Squadron in exchange for Hodson’s Punjabi Mussalmans. This left Hodson’s with two Dogra Squadrons so they passed on the Guides’ Dogras to the Scinde Horse in exchange for the Sikh Squadron which the Scinde Horse had received from Probyn’s Horse.” The author fortunately avoids such military jargon.

Cloughley brings home the fact that Pakistan and India have fought on four occasions since Partition in 1947. That includes Kargil. Both countries have acquired nuclear capabilities over the years. This has changed the military situation in the subcontinent beyond recognition. The author reiterates that Kashmir is the bone of contention between the two countries and shows how the development of the Pakistani army is directly related to developments in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s relationship with both the United States and China is also centred around Kashmir. But during the Bangladesh crisis Pakistan seriously believed these two countries would come to its help. Though the US did move its Seventh Fleet, it remains a mystery as to why China did not move even a single aircraft in the Askai Chin area. The move would have been enough to strike panic in the Indian military establishment.

The author’s military background serves him well as he goes into the details and causes of the major conflicts between Pakistan and India. He backs up his narrative with maps, and delves into the war diaries of divisions. This helps in clearing our understanding on several issues, the situation in 1965 for one.

It is a treat for readers that Kargil has been included, albeit briefly. Even the Lahore declaration has been dealt with. The author declares unequivocally that Pakistan’s incursion into “India-administered Kashmir” was illegal and expresses his doubt if the aim will ever be revealed.

The book, in which Cloughley tries to be impartial, is certainly a soldier’s point of view, which is why the depiction of the regimes of Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto are refreshingly different. The author allows Indians a peep into areas of operation which were hitherto closed to them.    

Negotiating Intimacies: Sexualities, Birth Control and Poor Households
By Arna Seal, Stree, Rs 290

Studies critical of family planning policies that have women as the main target are not uncommon. Arna Seal’s work is particularly useful as critique, because its research reveals certain sociological and economic determinants in the lives of poor women which must be assimilated into any serious thinking about population control. The data has been obtained from discussions with 100 women in 15 slums in the northern, central, eastern and southern parts of Calcutta.

The basis of Seal’s arguments is statistical, and the different tables in its five well-arranged chapters provide the steps to the conclusion. But the book is also a very good example of the relevant use of oral history. The conditions in which the women live and work, their actual conjugal space, whether within the family or within the physical confines of rooms which use two-tier and sometimes three-tier systems to maximize sleeping space, the constraints under which the subjects were forced to give their interviews, are all functional in understanding the psyche and social mores of the women. Without this matrix, no fruitful insight into sexual negotiations among slum-dwellers would be meaningful. One of Seal’s conclusion is: “What is perceived to be at odds with women’s interests in feminist theory is not necessarily so for poor working class women.”

The book consists of a carefully graded categorization through tables which establishes how economic relationships within the family affect sexual relationships, decisionmaking powers and ultimately, the right to decide on birth control and its methods. With variations — and some variations occur because of age or religion — the general picture shows that households in which earnings of the couple are equitable there is less coercion and greater equality in the matter of taking decisions. In most of these households, women earn close to 40 per cent of the total income and pour it entirely into the family pool, although the husband decides how much he will keep for himself.

There is also less coercion in the households in which the woman is fully or almost fully dependent on the husband. She tends to give in, and the apparent peace is a result of the woman’s secret decision for economic reasons. Displeasing the husband may lead to him deserting the family. The most conflictual sexual relationship exists in households in which the women are earning more or all of the income. There husbands tend to be violent in their sexual demands while women, often resentful, take decisions about birth control privately.

The other significant feature that emerges from the study is the failure of the notional “cafeteria approach” to birth control methods. Options are meaningless for poor women. As a general rule, men are unwilling to go in for either vasectomy or non-terminal methods. For women, sterilization is often the only option, and even among non-terminal methods their choice is limited by lack of information, time and money.

This point has been made by many studies. Yet nothing substantial has been done. Women are the target of population control policies simply because they offer the line of least resistance. This is especially insensitive and unjust towards poor women. Seal reiterates the irony: “While...programmes related to food production, income generation and education lost sight of them, policies for population control easily identified them as the target group.” Till this changes, and Seal has some suggestions, no humane approach to family planning is possible.    

“We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any work of lower standard. And it is unthinkable that in the next thousand years we shall see its equal...” — rejection slip from a Chinese economics journal, quoted in The Financial Times.

Rejection is a way of life in the publishing world. It is inevitable in a business that deals with such an overwhelming number of applicants for such a limited number of positions. Anyone who has published has lived through many rejections. The key to surviving rejections is to remember that it is not a personal attack — it is merely a judgment about the relevance of your work for a particular market at a particular time. Writers who let rejections dissuade them from further writing do not publish. So resign yourself to facing rejections.

But this kind of pep talk of taking it on the chin and carrying on regardless doesn’t help because quite often writers have gone about doing things the wrong way round. Take fiction, poetry, screen writing, for instance. Most writers often think of a story, complete the manuscript and then begin the search for a publisher. This is alright for writers who have “arrived”, but for first-timers this is a fatal mistake because it reduces their chances of being finally accepted. What writers need to do is explore the potential market for an idea by taking the initiative with a number of publishers who would be interested in a work of that kind. In cold professional terms, it means somewhat as follows.

One, send a query letter that should be limited to one page, single-spaced and addressed to the editor, preferably by name. The letter should aim to get the editor interested enough to ask you to send in either a full proposal or the entire manuscript. Many beginners are hesitant to query, thinking an editor can more fairly judge an idea by seeing the entire manuscript. Of course this is true because an idea needs to be fleshed out; but it is important to know whether the editor was interested in such-and-such idea in the first place.

Two, the letter should spell out how you propose to develop the theme, which means you should give some idea of its structure and contents. It is necessary to give some indication of its length — the number of words — the possible delivery date and whether you will deliver the “ manuscript” in a floppy or as typescript. Most publishers prefer floppies because it saves them composing and proof reading costs and makes production much faster.

Three, mention any expertise or training that you have that qualifies you to write the book. If you have published before, mention it; if you haven’t, don’t. Remember you need to sell yourself and therefore mention the positive qualifications you have.

Four, end the letter with a direct request whether the editor would like a full proposal, specimen chapter(s), or the complete manuscript.

Every potential writer must bear in mind that there are three factors that decide whether a book should be published or not: good writing, knowledge of the market and how to approach it professionally, and persistence. If you can combine at least two of these factors you stand a good chance of selling your work quite apart from enjoying a long and successful writing career.    


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